Where were you born, and where do you call home? What do you love most about your hometown?
Me I was born in the UK and raised in South Africa, but I’ve lived in the UK for years – the Hillfoots in Scotland then Cambridge then London, and right now home is Edinburgh.
What do I love about Edinburgh? There’s a great literary scene – J.K. Rowling, me, as well as that crime guy. Plus it’s quite a small city and you’re always bumping into people you know. I also admire that statue of a loyal dog we have hereabouts.
As a child, what did you want to be when you grew up? How has that childhood dream affected your career?
I wanted to be a scientist and invent stuff. Hopefully I still will.
Tell us about something that has just happened or is about to happen in your life that you would like to share.
My girlfriend just found this cool photograph of this stuffed red dinosaur and a few other stuffed dinosaurs she used to livery, and logged into my Facebook and made it my background.
Let’s hear about your latest book.
It’s called Invocation. It’s out now on the Kindle – more formats coming soon. Maybe even mashed trees, who knows!
How did you come up with the title?
With any luck it’s the first of a trilogy, so “invocation” is an obvious beginning-type word. It’s like calling your book “START HERE!” or indeed “MUSE, HIT ME UP!”
Why did you write it?
Partly to try and write an urban fantasy where the fantasy elements all spring elegantly from one fantastical premise, instead of legends seeping into the cityscape from all angles. You can still get, like, a lycanthrope fey / manga half-angel / rope golem Love Triangle giving you surprised glares of hurt reproof round every corner! – only the idea is to get them there parsimoniously, via gentle tugs; the idea is to sink to your imaginative non plus ultra in the legit gravity of your slightly spurious logic. I guess it’s a constraint more often associated with science fiction. Can you get hard urban fantasy?
I also wanted to do the “urban-ness” of UF my own way – how does the messy influence of a concentrated population radiate into the countryside? How does the city exist beyond its literal limits? For instance, how does the memory, the proximity and/or accessibility of a city influence the way a character experiences a beach landscape, or a blade of grass, or whatever? Or what if you live in a city, but you’re just constantly staring at this one tree, or whatever?
And what about this idea of “being a Londoner” – does it mean you carry a fragment of that city inside you wherever you go? Or is it more just about giving people really, really, really specific directions, which those people haven’t actually asked for, to places they only said they might want to go to? Or, like, what? #WHENINLONDON probably knows the answer.
Also I thought about taking fewer cues from hardboiled fiction and more from the so-called “cozies” – my partner-in-crime Sam Walton has just completed a PhD on golden age crime fiction (Agatha Christie, Dorothy Sayers, Gladys Mitchell, those guys), and I’ve been learning via osmosis that the rep of the Interwar Whodunit as mild, comfortable diversions – indifferently supportive of the social status quo – is frequently undeserved, and actually some of those novels are savage, subtle, and nang.
As with most big projects, curiosities were turned up in the course of the writing Invocation, and I kind of let them take over. But those were some of the early impulses, and they’re still available as traces.
How did you choose the urban fantasy genre?
Um, partly it goes back to what I was just talking about, about sensing the capacity of a genre to be folded in slightly different ways. In many a paranormal romance the most paranormal part is what she would ever see in him: “Luke stared at me sexistly. A semi-orgasmic shiver of fear and disgust ran down my spine. ‘There’s something I gotta tell ya, stupid head,’ he wolfed. Goddd. Yesss. ‘I’m a tooth fairy.’”
So I dealt with that.
Choosing genre sounds like a simple question, but it’s kind of tricky for me. Can I come back to it?
Do you have plans for a new book? Is this book part of a series?
In my head, it’s part of a thematic series. The working titles of the next two novels are Integration and Interpellation. Integration is a space opera. It’s going to be full of blood and sex and incredibly long-winded philosophical dialogues in incredibly green forests. Right now I’m brushing up on some basic maths and economics which should help me write it. Glory be to Khan Academy. Interpellation is so far indescribable. It’s about someone called Arthur House and his friend Tamburlaine and what they get up to.
It would also be good for it to be part of a different series, a series exploring the world and the characters. I tried to give it a sort of pilot feel. But I don’t know if I’m ever really going to do that.
I’m pretty bad for not finishing stuff, BTW . . .
What inspired you to be a writer?
Somebody brushed up against me and did something to me. I haven’t been the same since. I don’t know what that was.
So who is your favorite character in Invocation? Why?
Haduken Blake – I think his spark first flew up years ago, when I was studying Shakespeare. So, this teacher of mine surprised me by sticking up for Polonius. I wasn’t actually thinking of Polonius when I wrote Haduken — I was probably thinking more of a new Doctor Who, really — but I recognised later the parallels and resonances.
I had him down as this totally legit figure of fun, a chatty, prying, cliché-prone buffoon, as thin and easily-penetrated as the arras he hides behind, and only vicariously interesting because of the variousness of the annoyance into which he provokes all the proper characters. But my sensei caught my cheap scorn in his chopsticks and threw it down the mountain face like thunder, pointing out the peril and conflict of Polonius’s position at the periphery of kingly power. Polonius is more-or-less impotent apart from his counsel, and haunted by responsibilities disproportionate to his influence. He’s meant to be the custodian of all this virtue implicit in classical learning, and yeah, he tries to be that, but he also has a nagging sense the idea of the specific relationship between virtue and erudition on which his legitimacy is based is not quite right. He’s a complex clownish counterpart to Hamlet, Shakespeare’s most clownish tragic hero. Perhaps there are even certain circumstances in which a copious flood of unhinged prolix Polonial pretentiousness is not merely understandable and forgivable – it’s actually the best possible act?
In Invocation Haduken Blake is more than a chief counselor, he’s da baws. But possibly not very good at it. He’s this harried, flowery Hellenophile, full of dreams and schemes, sometimes too sly for his own good, and a danger to those around him. The agency he’s in charge of, Chancelhouse, seems clumsy and archaic in comparison to its rivals. Chancelhouse used to be a quango – a quasi-governmental organisation – but now they’re a charity. Basically their program got cut, and you can’t help but wonder, was partly because of Haduken’s bookish ineptitude?
By the way, I sometimes wonder if the terms in which we typically understand character – the poetics of character – are systematically false. There’s this moment in Steve Aylett’s film Lint in which the ink of a printed word is pried apart, and a sort of wee “word bone” is tweezed out. I think we often semi-consciously (and often helpfully) assume that characters work in a similar way: that they’re little scaled-down human models, manifest in a slightly different medium from us, homunculi of pixels or ink you could dip your tweezers into and tease out a ganglial hank, or some tight textual correlate of coursing neurological matter. But when we talk about a character having attitudes and feelings, or indeed having “depth” or “coming to life” or “leaping off the page,” clearly these are metaphors, and what they are metaphors for is something profoundly complex and elusive.
I think until I wrote Invocation I was a character skeptic. What is it that authors do when they create characters? How does characterisation function? I used to think, perhaps all authors are doing is curating proper nouns like Jacques and Melinda, whilst tickling our innate faculty to personify. Where such proper nouns are cocooned by deft diction and thick anthropology, where they are interspersed to tag nuanced code-switching discourse, where they are vaguely in the vicinity of various emotionally salient references – basically, when the reader feels that they are in safe hands – it is really very difficult to imagine how any author could go wrong, how their characters could be foci of any uncharacteristic actions whatsoever! That is, so long as a reader’s faculty of personification is solicited, via any mechanism of trust, any warm happy feeling or affect bribe, then character depth and enrichment supervene on any disharmonious (i.e. never finally, truly disharmonious) activity, whilst on harmonious (i.e. never finally, truly harmonious) activity there supervenes a sense of how well-observed the character is, how finely detailed. At worst there is neutrality, no accrual of, um, characterness: it’s a rainmaking set-up.
That may be a bit dense and obscure, and anyway, I’m much less of a character skeptic nowadays. Not that the characterisation in Invocation is great or anything, it just woke me up in some way. And I still obviously suspect that the folk/marketing poetics of characterisation – all that believability, depth, coming to life, care affordance – is systemically false, but I’m not quite so smug re knowing what to put in its place.
I wonder, BTW, if some authors think of themselves as trying to write believable relationships, rather than believable characters? If some authors, in summoning up the network of social life, focus on the links, not the nodes?
Have you ever used contemporary events or stories “ripped from the headlines” in your work?
I think you can draw a distinction between (a) using news and current and events “for inspiration” – a dubious custom which smacks of performative reconciliations and unscrupulous escapism, and (b) really being painfully open to the world we’re living in, and trying to grapple with all its confusing and contradictory ingredients, even if the world you’re writing about is full of nice griffins or goop golems or hamster and gerbil corsairs or whatever.
No way am I opposed to escapism, but I think it’s good to know exactly who or what is escaping, and from what, and what gets left behind, and whether there will ever be any return, and what could happen in the interim, and how things may be just a little different if there is a return.
Maybe everyone should be going around writing books in which the prison commissioner stares a tad wildly around the vacant cell, his moustaches beating like wings, then settles his gaze on a sexy pin-up, tears it down to reveal a painstakingly chiseled tunnel many miles deep and howls. Meanwhile, behind him, one of the prison screws glances down to hide his smile. Maybe that’s the kind of escapist literature we need now. Or maybe, instead of just tying your readers’ bed sheets together for them, you should be de-weaving and re-weaving them into a beautiful white rope, of an almost luminous pitch, to loop around the bed leg, and leave for the tower’s master to indicate the route taken.
Basically, I’m not sure.
Is there anything you find particularly challenging about writing?
When a wasp or spider or moth gets in and you have to go catch them in a jar. That can get tense. Also time, money, a room of one’s own.
Also, uh, Math Envy, or Positivism Envy, or something – sometimes it’s that want of arithmetic precision, especially when setting out to transform some minute, sensuous circumstance into words. For instance, strolling along the sidewalk, sweeping your gaze along the different forms of stone, and the flecks of impurities or whatever embedded there, and patina of bits of green glass, like to extraterrestrial punctuation via chance grinding and lathing, all laced with miscellaneous microscopic sidewalk jetsam, and all crisscrossed by shadows – how do you convey what you’re seeing? Okay, you can say, “Hrun moseyed along the pedestrian walkway, mesmerised by the pavement’s hundreds of native constellations, till he bonked into a lamp-post, and fell into a swoon,” or whatever, but sometimes I want to record the specific layout, the exact distances and contours of every little emblem – whilst simultaneously remaining faithful to the fact that none of it is a big deal for the character through whose consciousness it gets filtered (there I go again!).
Also sometimes the subtle system of prejudice and persecution built into language and genre conventions. You feel you are building this wonderful castle, but all your Lego bricks are blood-soaked. It sometimes has weird advantages though that hypothetically innocent discourse would lack. It means you can connect things in weird ways – like you’re stacking your bricks side-long, using their stickiness instead of their structure.
What advice would you give to writers just starting out?
Read a huge amount. Write quite a bit too. Drink a lot of coffee. Own two cats of different temperaments.
Have interests outside of your writing and your cats.
Keep your writing in perspective. We are not only writers. We are also, and in the main, indie knights errant, born into this world to redress wrongs.
Do you ever suffer from writer's block? If so, what do you do about it?
If you can’t write, read! One of the fine things about reading is that the writing has already been done in advance.
If you mean that scenario where you type “CHAPTER ONE” and stare at the blank page for half a day and then type the letter “I” and then scrunch up the page – I guess nowadays you scrunch up your laptop and throw it over your shoulder into a pile of scrunched-up laptops – no, that’s not a problem for me.
I think if that ever did happen, I’d just assume I was just no longer a writer – maybe permanently, maybe just for now – and go do something else. I mean, I sometimes find I can’t invent glorious machines, or waltz beautifully in time, or checkmate my friend Jonathan, but I don’t exalt it as evidence of Inventor’s Block, or Waltzer’s Block, or Grandmaster’s Block.
“His prawn ate my horse, I must have Grandmaster’s Block!”
However, writer’s block could be a problem in two circumstances. The first is if there’s some kind of deadline looming, and you feel you might let someone down (or let yourself go begging, if you’re one of the few folks who makes a living through writing). The second is if you’ve already devoted a lot of time and effort and you’re like 75% or 99% through with something, but you can’t work out how to tie it all together, or you suddenly lose interest and just long to play with a Frisbee. Those two circumstances, yeah, those can be really frustrating. I haven’t worked out how to deal with them. Probably the answer is for everyone to get together and develop some kind of rioters’ bloc.
What about the Jo Walton who is the author of Among Others, Tooth and Claw, Ha’penny and so on? Have you read her books, and what did you make of them?
I don’t know Jo Walton’s work terribly well, but I did enjoy Among Others very much. I’d recommend it, and not just for F&SF fans. There’s typically sprawling and wayward review of it slowly spreading on my blog (Lorraine Concern). I’ve also liked some of Walton’s Tor.com articles – such as the one where she buys fifteen Trollope novels and Iain Banks’s The Crow Road, and the one where she spreads the word about David Graeber’s fantastic Debt: The First Five Thousand Years.
If guess if I do the next book, Integration, through a legacy publisher they may want me to adopt “Jo Lindsay Walton.” Or Jo Luna Walton, or whatever – obviously their focus is in fashioning a recognisable brand with strong reputational point of difference. Anyway, that may never happen! Part of the “Iain Banks / Iain M. Banks” story involves a publisher who believed Iain M. Banks might be confused with Rosie M. Banks, and so confiscated his M. I guess the rule was he could have it back when he’d reinvented space opera, or something.
Who is your favorite author and why? What books have most influenced your life?
So tricky! Just now I mentioned Steve Aylett, who has been quite important to me. He’s a brilliant writer who deserves many more readers. You can check him out on Twitter – @SteveAylett – or wherever.
There are many other writers who are also my friends – so the person and their work can seem blended, in the way they’ve shaped your life. They’re mostly poets. Look out for some of the band names in Invocation – they’re mostly poetry chapbook Easter eggs!
Prose I have been reading recently and really enjoying include Stevie Smith’s Over the Frontier, Steve Aylett’s Rebel at the End of Time, Iain M. Banks’s The Hydrogen Sonata, John le Carré’s A Most Wanted Man, and Samuel Beckett’s Collected Shorter Prose. Any of Beckett’s plays or fiction can be resolved by positing a final scene, on the cutting room floor perhaps, or unlockable with the correct codes, exposing the whole thing as an experiment conducted by a malign futuristic Mega-Corp. “FailBetter Cola is . . . people!” etc. I believe this to be pertinent in some way.
How did you deal with rejection letters?
Nobody would ever reject anything that I’ve written.
What tools do you feel are must-haves for writers?
The pussycats that I’ve mentioned. They imply quite a lot of secondary gear.
It would be good to have a sort of space blaster you could point at events and things and textualise them. Take that, sidewalk! ZAP. There would be a snailshell-esque dial on the side where you could set genre parameters. ZAP ZAP ZOP.
Which takes us neatly back to genre, which I said I’d come back to. I said it was a tricky question, so the following is going to be even more fragmentary and bewildered than usual.
Obviously genre isn’t the same thing as the marketing categories dreamed up by publishers, although the two things are dialectically linked. I think maybe a dose of negative capability is required: we have to try to be comfortable in genre’s presence without knowing exactly what it is, without constantly trying to catch it in an empty honey jar.
Part of what appeals about indie publishing is that you hope you can free your writing from rigid commercial categories, but it’s not always that easy. Readers rely heavily on genre labels to navigate (like “I ONLY am interested in Paranormal Romance (NO Vampires Over Six Foot Tall! Xena must have cameo) and Middle Grade Historical (Regency Period ONLY) Erotica (Gay is Fine for Snarky Anchorites; Heartfelt Ingénues Must Be Straight / Bi / heteroromantic asexual)” or whatever), so choosing your genre is kind of like guessing who you want to talk to. It’s kind of like your first day at a new school guessing who you can have lunch with.
I’ve heard it said that the internet is influencing contemporary fiction – slightly confusingly – by creating both (a) more flurried cross-pollination and finer-grained mixing of genres, and (b) a greater reliance on genre conventions and genre literacy to carry meaning. I wonder if this is true, and if so, what it means for the prospects of solidarity, commonality, publicness? Particularly considering the approximate continuity of “genre” vis-à-vis fiction and “genre” vis-à-vis, you know, media, current affairs, political debate, water-cooler chat, breeze-shooting, cud-chewing.
I’m kind of fascinated – probably trivially fascinated, but anyway – by the idea of very gently resettling genre tropes, so that while they are completely separated from their genre of origin, they never go native within the target genre, and instead they seem – or really become – something new. For instance, imagine listening to an R&B song as though it were a death metal song – obviously, a kind of exotic and experimental death metal song, but that’s why it might be so great – or a Cannibal Corpse track as if it really were Robert Johnson or Joanna Newsome doing that, or whatever. My friend Ian Heames simulates ants’ egg caviar by taking a small, low-sided porcelain cup or bowl, tipping in some olive oil and mixing with a little anchovy paste; he then adds pine nuts and tosses the concoction with a small spoon. I don’t know; is this the kind of thing that is sometimes achieved in fiction? What do you think?
These kinds of remediations and mutabilities seem pretty zeitgeisty. I dunno if we’re due a backlash or about to splay into even more intense territory of the same zeitgeist.
What's the weirdest thing you've ever done in the name of research?
I don’t think I’ve ever done any research.
Any pets that you would like to tell us about, share a pic?
Fishy. You can see his profile pic on his author page. Right now he is staring at me from the very centre of his tank, like a long golden pit in a large transluscent cuboid plum.
White wine or red?
Coffee or tea?
Vanilla or chocolate ice-cream?
What do you normally eat for breakfast, or do you skip it and get straight to work?
Two different types of cereal mixed together. I have three types to choose from.
Is your book in print, ebook or both?
Just Kindle so far – print coming soon!
Where can your readers stalk you?
Goodreads author page: www.goodreads.com/author/show/6539733.Jo_L_Walton
Critical Documents, publisher of Invocation.
- Lorik Belnx, “Cowards Are Great!” at Amazon.com
- Lorik Belxn, “Cowards Are Great!” at Amazon.co.uk
- Lorki Blexn, The Owl, the Pussycat and the Jetpack: Three SF&F Stories at Amazon.com
- Lorqi Blenx, The Owl, the Pussycat and the Jetpack: Three SF&F Stories at Amazon.co.uk
- Interview as Jeremy Beardmore for The Other Room
- Jo Crot, “Poetsplain” excerpt in Dear World & Everyone In It, ed. Nathan Hamilton (Bloodaxe, 2013)
- Harvey Joseph and Lindsay James, Sea Adventures, or, Pond Life (RunAmok Press , 2012) – co-authored with James Harvey
- Francis Crot, Hax (Punch Press , 2011)
- Francis Crot and Nrou Mrobaak, The Seven Curses (Critical Documents , 2008/2012) – co-authored with Nour Mobarak
- Francis Crot, Pressure in Cheshire (Veer Books , 2009)
- Colleen Hind and Pocahontas Mildew, We Are Real (Critical Documents , 2012) – co-authored with Pocahontas Mildew