"If you love books enough, books will love you back."
JO WALTON is something of a literary chameleon. The award-winning, Welsh-Canadian author of more than a dozen books, she blurs genres as she hopscotches from science fiction to fantasy, historical fiction, alternate history, crime, and poetry. In her Hugo and Nebula ward-winning Among Others (2012), set in 1970s England, a young daughter must confront her mother's dark magic, which leaves her crippled and her twin dead; in the alternate history mystery Farthing (2006), England appeased Hitler, and World War II was simply "the Jewish War." Her newest novel, My Real Children (reviewed on page 17), takes place in 2015, when an elderly woman recalls a life and a history--or lives and histories--that don't quite add up.
"I think everybody sees points in their lives where, if they'd made a different choice, their life would have taken a different path," Walton explained to Bookmarks. "Some people see those points with regret, and others with relief. I've always been fascinated by stories about people's lives being reshaped by their decisions--as in George R. R. Martins brilliant Unsound Variation and Ken Grimwood's Replay." Despite the fantastical nature of her stories, Walton often mythologizes her own life experiences, particularly when delving into the joys of reading, the isolation of adolescence, and the historical periods and places she and her family have experienced.
Because of their identifiable protagonists, Walton's genre-bending novels appeal to even those readers who don't readily embrace fantasy or science fiction. "I think the characters are the important thing," Walton told Bookmarks, "and if readers can relate to the characters then they can step a little bit outside their comfort zone. My novels are all in different genres, and yes, people who like Victorian novels enjoy Tooth and Claw [a novel of manners featuring cannibalistic dragons], and people who like mysteries enjoy Farthing. With My Real Children I find that all kinds of people can relate to the characters and they don't mind a bit of alternate history. I like working with fantasy and science fiction premises because they allow me to write about universal themes from a different angle. You can say interesting things about human nature when you're showing a character developing in two different sets of circumstances."
Born in 1964 in Aberdare, South Wales, and now a resident of Montreal, Walton embraced all things literary as a child. "I read everything that was lying around, regardless of whether it was intended for children, how old it was, what genre it was, and whether I understood it. As a writer it's not so much that I was influenced by Tolkien or Little Women or Agatha Christie as that I'm never surprised to find them sitting on the same shelf. I suppose I kept some of that lack of discrimination, and so the walls between genres are lower for me than they seem to be for many people. Writing an alternate history mystery seems like a reasonable thing to me, and so does writing a sentimental Victorian novel where all the characters are dragons who eat each other." So, we might add, does a novel set in Arthurian Britain and the Ireland of Tain, an old, legendary Irish tale--The King's Peace, her first fantasy novel, published in 2000.
No matter the era or landscape, Walton's world-building skills are extraordinary, built on imagination, experience, and research (she did, after all, receive her degree in Classics and Ancient History). "A lot of my research," Walton said, "just looks like random reading which is only post-facto revealed to be research when I decide to write something. I'm interested in history, so I read a lot of history, and also a lot of older novels which are good for period feel and details. Once I've decided to write something I do more intensive research, but it tends to be filling things in. With My Real Children I needed a lot of details about when Italian railways started running again after the war and the weight of 1970s wheelchairs and details of NASA's plans for space stations, and I could find a surprising amount of it online. For Among Others, of course, it was a historical period I'd lived through."
And so, with the novels below, we enter...