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Publisher: Bluejack

March, 2008 : Interview:

Subversive Pixel-Stained Technopeasant: An Interview with Jo Walton

It's a great misfortune that author Jo Walton is perhaps best known as the instigator of the International Pixel-Stained Peasant's Day, which was a response to a post by Dr. Howard V. Hendrix, then vice-president of the Science Fiction Writers' of America. However, as an author, Walton is even far more interesting and subversive than her internet persona.

A Welsh native currently living in Quebec, Walton is the Campbell Award winner for Best New Writer for 2002 and has won the World Fantasy award for her novel Tooth and Claw (Tor 2004). In her latest series which begins with Farthing (Tor 2006), she subtly takes on issues of living in world where personal freedoms are being eroded in the name of security, while telling a compelling, personal story that's at once a manor house mystery and alternate history novel. In many ways, Farthing could be said to be making a parallel between Hitler's rise to power in Germany and George W. Bush's post 9/11 America.

It is, in my opinion, Walton's soft touch and sense of humor that make Farthing a success. She's also known for a "youthful indiscretion" involving a Coke and David Brin at a Boskone and an often un-credited, humorous Usenet poem, "The Lurkers Support Me in E-Mail."

Morehouse: Farthing, the first book in your alternate history series, has gotten a lot of attention. It was nominated for a Nebula, a Quill, a Campbell, and a Sidewise Award, and is, in my opinion, an excellent book that deals with, among other things, personal responses to fascism. What inspired you to write it (and its sequels, Ha'Penny and Half a Crown)?

Walton: I was reading Josephine Tey's Brat Farrar, a mystery published in 1952 which requires for plot reasons various things to have happened ten years before, including British people going on holiday to France. I'd read it before, but for some reason this time I stopped and thought, hang on, 1942, I think not—but when is it supposed to be set? Thinking about when it was supposed to be set, I worked out the whole background for the Farthing universe. I also thought of the whole Farthing thing, the Auden quote I use at the beginning, the idea of the country house with that name, the murder. I made a note of this and got on with whatever I was supposed to be working on.

Then in May of 2004 I got Lucy's voice in my head very clearly, the beginning of the book, and I just started to write it. Stories are always about characters for me, not worlds or ideas, though sometimes I have the worlds and ideas first and they have to wait until some characters wander along before I have anything to write. After I'd written the first Lucy chapter, I realised I'd have to contrast that voice with a third person detective voice. I wrote the first paragraph of the first Carmichael chapter, and immediately I realised that this is a very slashy situation. I'd fairly recently read Micole Sudberg's review of Peter Dickinson's Some Deaths Before Dying which talked about how these days the revelation of homosexuality isn't actually a dark unguessable secret, and I thought what fun it would be to make Carmichael gay, and have it a secret from the world but not from the text.

The whole time I was writing Farthing I was re-reading Orwell's essays, letters and journalism, which really helped more than I can say. I wrote the whole first draft in three weeks.

But also, it was May of 2004. Your country and mine had just invaded Iraq, while I was sitting in Canada surrounded by people whose countries hadn't done that. I was brought up by my grandparents, and the formative event of their lives was WWII. They married in 1938, they had that one year, and then the separation, the war, and life after the war. I'd grown up with WWII in the background, and I'd read quite a lot about it later as well.

In many ways it's the defining twentieth century event. In any case, watching the US and the UK defy the UN and invade Iraq on a trumped up excuse was just too much like Hitler's invasion of Czechoslovakia and Poland for me. I'd been furious, and there hadn't been anything I could directly do about it. Then there had been all the other things, the civil liberties things, in Britain especially. I started writing Farthing just after the Abu Ghraib revelations. I didn't set out to write something to draw explicit parallels. But it would be disingenuous to say I wasn't thoroughly aware of the implicit ones. At the same time, it was its own story, the characters were what was important. I couldn't have written it any other way.

Years ago, a friend of mine said about Marge Piercy's Gone to Soldiers that he was disappointed because in talking about WWII it didn't try to deal with the nature of evil. As I was writing Farthing I was afraid the characters were too black and white. Then I saw how to end it and deal with that problem. You say it's about personal responses to fascism. I say it's about how good people do bad things.

Farthing ends where I wanted it to end. I didn't intend to write a trilogy. Then some time later, when I was doing what I was thinking of as "post-research" for it, I had the idea for Ha'Penny and Half a Crown at the same time, that I could do one focused on the theatre and another ten years later focused on the debutante season and "Coming Out" and with Carmichael's trajectory through the three books. Those two books were much harder to write.

Morehouse: It's funny you should mention that one of the inspirations for the Farthing universe was the US/UK invasion of Iraq. I was going to ask you about that next. As I read the first book, I had a very chilling sense of a post 9/11 world wherein freedom is sacrificed in the name of security. I agree with you that this book is very much a character-driven story, but the backdrop is particularly fascinating for me because of its resonance with today's political climate.

Walton: Resonance is a good word. Resonance is fine, making people feel they've been hit over the head with a political point is terrible.

Morehouse: Personally, I think that this kind of, dare I call it, subversive writing works particularly well in science fiction, where readers can "distance" themselves from the now by going to another world, or in the case of Farthing and its sequels, an alternate past. This new series is categorized as science fiction. Previously, you wrote World Fantasy Award winning fantasy. Did you find the shift in sub-genres difficult in any way? What do you find is different about writing SF, if anything?

Walton: The way I write, there isn't any difference. All my novels start from history. These ones then go in an alternate history direction, and my others go in a fantastic direction. But history is the bedrock I'm building on in all of them. I think writing real SF, set in the future, is very much more difficult, because you don't have that foundation, everything is extrapolation. I don't do it very much, even though SF is what I like best to read, because it slows me down so much. Say you have a character want to send a message. In a novel in a setting based on history you know if that means a messenger on horseback, or a postal service, or a telephone, or email. In a future world you have to work out what they have, and then you have to integrate that and the effects of it into everything else. Then that goes for absolutely everything. It takes me forever. But that didn't apply to this.

Morehouse: Earlier, you mentioned Carmichael's sexuality and I have a lot of questions regarding that specifically and the gay characters in the novel in general. First of all, however, I absolutely adore Lucy's terminology regarding various gay male relationships: Macedonian (for basically straight men who have the odd gay/queer relationship) and Athenian (men who are gay). I also loved Lucy's other terms for things like adultery, etc. For me, those linguistic touches made Lucy seem very much a product of her time and social-economic class. In fact, they rang so true for me I wondered if you'd invented those terms or come across them in your research?

Walton: I made up those specific terms. But in Margaret Forster's biography of Daphne Du Maurier she talks about Du Maurier's personal sexual terms, which included "Venice" for lesbian sex and therefore Venetian for lesbian, and "Cairo" for male-female penetrative sex, and some third term which I've forgotten for non-penetrative sex, which was her preference. And I was as impressed as anything with how this allowed Du Maurier to be as sexually explicit as anything in her letters and journal without saying a word that could be censored, or even understood by the wartime censors, in the twenties and thirties and during the war. I also adored the way they were simultaneously totally explicit and weirdly coy. Du Maurier was, of course, from broadly the same kind of class as Lucy. When I started writing Lucy's running-on point of view, using something like that just seemed like a good idea.

When I start writing a book I often put things in because they seem like fun things to be playing with, and by the time I get to the end they seem like laws of the universe graven in stone, and with the weight of stone. Lucy's voice, which includes these terms, and Carmichael's sexuality would both fall into this category.

Morehouse: As a lesbian, I have to admit that when you early on revealed Carmichael was gay, my first thought was that, given his job and the situation, it would be used to compromise him. You suggested earlier that you thought it would be fun to make him gay, and so it seems to me he was not intended as a "plot coupon" from the start. And obviously, his story continues in the follow-up books. You also included a large number of gay/queer relationships in Farthing, to the point that I started to feel like everyone was gay but poor Lucy. What was your rationale behind those choices?

Walton: As far as Carmichael's concerned, as I said, at first I thought it would be neat, and then it became part of who he was in my mind, and then as the story developed and I saw what was going to happen it became a lever that could be used against him because it was part of who he was—like Alan Turing, and a lot of other people as well.

I think there are very few exclusively homosexual people in Farthing, only three—or four if you count Jack who doesn't appear, though he does in the later books.

That is, there are three "Athenians". There are a lot of "Macedonians", bi people. I'm straight myself, but I've been aware since reading Delany's Triton at an early age that I'm actually way off at the end of a bell curve in which most people fall somewhere in the middle in bisexuality.

This question, the "Why are there so many gay people?" completely threw me when people started asking it. My first response was "If you think there are a lot of queer people in Farthing you should see my livejournal friendslist." Then someone said my friendslist wasn't randomly selected. Well, no, they're the friends that a middle-aged straight woman happens to have. The people in Farthing aren't randomly selected either. They know each other, they come from the same social class. We don't see any gay or bi working class people, except for Jack again.

I've always written characters with the sexuality that seemed appropriate for who they were, and nobody has ever cared before. (For instance, one of my point of view characters in The Prize in the Game is gay, and the man he loves is cheerfully and promiscuously bi, which causes him much angst. Nobody has ever said a word about it.)

In Farthing, because of the time and place and background and class, you have a lot of characters who have been to public school, where homosexual acts are, face it, happening frequently and are expected and normal. If you read the journals and letters of this kind of people from this period, being exclusively straight starts to feel like an actual perversion.

Also, when they got a little older, straight sex was available only in marriage or in fairly grotty prostitution. Gay sex was very available. Christopher Isherwood, who is famously homosexual, talks (in Christopher and His Kind) about having sex with a woman and enjoying it but being repelled by the conventions and expectations. Evelyn Waugh was in his late twenties before he started thinking that maybe he wasn't queer. (He wasn't. Read his letters!) Heterosexual experimentation was taboo, but homosexual experimentation in youth was totally normal, and then of course, you got the people who really were gay and kept on with it.

And of course you have these passionate same sex friendships, some of which were, or had been, sexual at some point.

So when I was writing against this background, and from my knowledge of it, of course this affected the kind of characters I was writing.

At first I thought that the "too many gay people" thing was weird homophobia. Then people started saying it who I knew weren't homophobic and I wondered if there really were too many gay people. I don't think there are for the time and place, but then I wouldn't.

I'm tempted to go through and make a list of everyone in the book and their sexuality—and I'm positive it would be a strong majority of "Romans". But heterosexuality is so much the assumed default in fiction that when you have quite a few non-straight people they stand out. There have been studies done that show that lots of men percieve a room with 30% women in as majority female, and I wonder if it's that kind of thing that makes it noticeable.

To come back to Carmichael, I wouldn't want you to think that I think homosexuality is his tragic flaw. I think in the later books I make it clear that his relationship with Jack is the thing that makes his life worth living. What I wanted to do with it being used against him was to suggest that everyone is vulnerable. There's always something, some normal human thing, they can find on anyone, to use against you if they want to, and the more things are tolerated quietly but used to make an example when necessary, the more there's hypocrisy about this kind of thing, the more people stay in line and do what's wanted. We have these laws that are made out of fear, and which can be used to make people more afraid, and that's wrong. At the end of Farthing Carmichael quite explicitly gives up essential liberty for a little temporary safety. But it's because he's been doing that all along by staying closeted that he's able to be forced into it.

In so far as Farthing is about responses to fascism, as you said before, it raises the question of whether you're going to be brave or not. Being brave might not work, but the alternative is going along with it.

Morehouse: Yeah, though I think this last bit touches on my problem with the situation with Carmichael. At least as recently as a decade ago, being gay still excluded someone from a job in the U.S. intelligence service because we're seen as easily compromised. I know this from personal experience. I myself didn't lose a job, but a friend of mine asked me not to mention, or shall I say "not volunteer any information on," his orientation if someone from the CIA should call me for a reference. This frustrates me because, as you say, we all have secrets. Granted both Carmichael and James could die for this particular secret in the universe of Farthing, so it wasn't just Carmichael's own willingness he had to consider but his lover's as well. This kind of cowardliness is very human, realistic, and in many ways deeply sympathetic, but, honestly, I guess I just wished they'd had something else on him, you know? I struggled with my feelings about this because at first I thought you set him up as gay only to make him fall, but there are moments in the narrative when Carmichael needs to be gay to figure out pieces of the puzzle. So, what I'm saying is that you handled it well, but in the end I still left feeling strangely cheated. I was able to love Lucy and David, despite the fact that I knew they were doomed to certain compromises, but somehow theirs felt cleaner. Perhaps because you show Lucy and David so very much in love and the reader experiences their love on a visceral level, but Carmichael's lover is someone to go home to, whom we never see and only hear about very distantly. So when Carmichael has to choose love over honor, the sacrifice feels more selfish, more dare I say it sexual, rather than emotional. Because gay people are often seen as more concerned with sex than love, this difference in the way you portrayed Carmichael really stood out for me. Care to comment?

Walton: You're probably right. I was going to write a scene where Carmichael went home to Jack, but I didn't because it felt intrusive. I had difficulty writing the bits with Jack in Ha'Penny and Half a Crown for the same reason, and I'm not sure he ever gets a fair deal. Probably I should have written it, because the way Carmichael's enemies frame the relationship is so sexual, and because of all the stuff you're talking about.

My intention was to show Carmichael as a very private person, but just as much married to Jack as Lucy is to David. I was very surprised when Farthing won the Romantic Times Reviewer's Choice Award for Best SF novel, because one of the things I'd thought was how nice it was to have a novel without a romance, where all the main characters are married at the beginning and still married at the end. (Though a friend suggested that that is in itself romantic, so there you go.)

In the later books, they like it that Carmichael is gay, because it gives them a simple easy hold over him.

On this bit, while he is choosing love, he's also choosing his job. He likes his job, he likes being an inspector, but also, he's got no economic independence, nothing to fall back on, he's living like a middle class person with a servant but if he quits he's got no cushion and he has no experience of anything else—straight from school to the army and then the police, and if he's notorious, nobody's going to hire him for anything at all. So it's an economic choice too. That's a bind a lot of people are in—whistle blowing can lose you your career, and with it your house, everything, if you did the right thing you'd be on the streets.

Lucy and David are rich, and used to being rich so that even if they lost all their money and couldn't sell their jewellry or get money from David's family they'd still have the expectations of rich people. Carmichael's used to having barely enough money to keep up appearances. I think that's significant too.

Morehouse: Absolutely. Class is a huge issue for this book.

But, I think, too, Americans in particular (even people with a history degree like myself) still tend to think of gayness as a modern phenomenon, so Lucy's relaxed sensibility about it seems anachronistic, even though quite clearly it isn't, you know? Your publisher is American, so do you ever find yourself having to defend real historical fact over the "perception of history" to your publisher or your audiences? Are there things you've uncovered in your research that are stranger than fiction and that a modern audience would find too difficult to believe?

Walton: The first bit, no, my publisher and editor have never had the slightest hesitation over anything, never asked me to change anything like that. Patrick Nielsen Hayden, my editor, has been behind these books all the way.

On the other hand, I can't get them published in Britain whatever I do.

As far as my readers go, and things you find in research, yes, all the time, and I call that the Tiffany Problem.

Tiffany is a real attested medieval name, it's a variant of Theophania, it appears in twelfth century documents from Britain and France, and you cannot give it as a name to a character in a historical or fantasy setting because it looks too horribly modern.

One review of Farthing said that as part of the changes in the alternate world, homosexuality was made illegal, and you can't respond to a review saying "1969! Homosexuality between adults wasn't legalized until in Britain until 1969!"

In Half a Crown, a number of my test readers had problems with things in the British constitution that are, I'm sorry, in the British constitution to this very day. I've tried to explain them more.

I'm very aware of this problem.

Morehouse: Speaking of historical research, I understand Ha'Penny features a group of wildly divergent sisters—one of whom is a fascist, another who's a Communist, etc.—are these characters loosely based on the Mitford sisters whose letters have recently been collected in a book by Mary S. Lovell?

Walton: Finally, an easy question! Yes, the Larkin family in Ha'Penny is inspired by the concept of the Mitford family. There aren't meant to be exact one to one correspondences between people, but yes. It's odd, since I finished Ha'Penny there have been a whole pile of new Mitford stuff published, Jessica Mitford's letters last year, and now those collected letters. Obviously I'm not the only person who finds them fascinating.

And speaking of improbable, I had to tone them down a lot for fiction.

Morehouse: Yeah, actually you've inspired me to do a little non-fiction reading about them while I wait for Half a Crown to come out. One last hard one: you're one of those writers whose name I heard long before I read anything by you. First, there was an incident involving a Coke and David Brin at a Worldcon that received a lot of attention in the SF community, and then, of course, there was International Pixel-Stained Technopeasant's Day. How do you think this notoriety affected your career, if at all?

Walton: I don't think any of it has made any difference. It's very odd to think of myself as notorious, too.

The Brin thing—it was a Boskone actually, not that it makes any difference. I'd like to say it was a youthful indiscretion. It was stupid and childish of me to give way to an impulse like that, and I've apologized. I was quite amazed at the kind of attention it got. There might be some people who wouldn't buy a book by someone who does idiotic things like that, I don't know.

International Pixel-Stained Technopeasant Day I did deliberately, though actually I wasn't expecting the overwhelming chord that struck in the community. My immediate and instinctive response to Dr Hendrix's rant was a desire to put something online for free —and it suddenly occurred to me that, as a Nebula nominee but not a SFWA member, I had standing to do that and make Dr Hendrix be aware of it. So I decided that not only would I do it, I'd encourage other people to do it as well. I was expecting maybe a dozen of my friends to join in, not thousands of people. I mean Mercedes Lackey posted something! The response was absolutely overwhelming. It's amazing sometimes what's going to make a difference.

Clearly, I was not the only person who felt that way.

But I don't think it's done anything for my career one way or the other. The only thing that does that is writing the books, isn't it?

I think, generally, there are people who go around doing things to advance their career, and they're always positioning themselves for it, and thinking about this kind of thing, and I'm not one of them. I am slightly better than I used to be about doing things first and considering whether they're a good idea later, at least I hope I am.

Morehouse: Even though I'm a throw-back, hidebound Neanderthal and can kind of see Dr. Hendrix's point (despite his objectionable and poor word choice—"webscabs"? Oy vey), I ended up posting something with you, too. Free content is a weird issue for me, however, and one I'm of two minds about. The Hendrix half of my brain agrees that as a professional writer I should have every expectation that what I do (i.e. provide content) is worth something to someone or I wouldn't be in business, right? But, the business model has changed quite drastically in the past several years as you, John Scalzi, and Cory Doctorow have clearly shown.

I'm a former member of NWU (the National Writer's Union), which won a seminal Supreme Court case against the New York Times over what is, in many ways, this same issue, i.e., that writers should get paid for what goes on the web (and in the case of the NYTimes, even if that content is a reprint of work already paid for.) I understand Hendrix's rant was off on a somewhat different tack, but, if you don't mind repeating what I'm sure feels to you like old news, what was the thrust of your argument with what he said?

Walton: I'm not Cory Doctorow, and I'm not an "information wants to be free" fanatic or anything like that. I just strongly resented being told I was a scab because I post poetry on my livejournal. Previous to IPSTD, I hadn't put up any work for free longer than the first couple of chapters of a novel. But I post poetry online all the time and this works for me.

On the one hand, if I can sell it I get maybe $10, and instant gratification of seeing people's reactions is worth more than $10. And on the other, I've found out since I started doing it that if I can sell it, I can sell it even after it has been on my journal. I have sold poetry that's been on my journal to Asimov's, Goblin Fruit, Mythic, Lone Star Stories— and it gives me a great sense of getting money for old rope too. This is a win/win situation for me, and I can't see how it's hurting anyone else.

I argued with Eric Flint when he was first suggesting what became the Baen model. But the Baen model has demonstrably worked. They're giving away free books and it is increasing sales. Cory Doctorow has said the problem for a writer isn't piracy, it's obscurity. If putting your first novel online for free means people will find you, and will buy your third, which might otherwise be your last chance the way publishing is today, how does it benefit anyone to stop you? How is that being a scab? A scab!

My position on copyright is that the writer should control it. Not anyone else, not the publisher, not pirates, certainly not SFWA, the writer.

Morehouse: Thank you so much for your thoughtful responses to my questions, Jo. This has been a great deal of fun. So, tell us: what can fans of Jo Walton look for from you in the next year or so? I know Half a Crown will be out soon. What's the next series/stand-alone percolating in your mind?

Walton: Half a Crown will be out in September 2008 from Tor.

I'm just starting a new thing called "Our Sea" which is a nice cheerful fantasy with no fascists at all. The idea is that there was a hole blowing about the ancient Mediterranean from about the fall of Troy to the fall of Rome, and ships from our world went through it into this other sea, and couldn't find their way back. They founded cities and civilizations there.

The original inhabitants there were bronze age hermaphroditic lizardmen. "Our Sea" is set in a Greek city-state that's holding the balance of power between the Romans and the Phoenicians. So far, I'm having a lot of fun with it. That'll probably come out sometime in 2009.

After that, I don't know. I always have a lot of ideas, and it's difficult to tell which of them are going to come alive and have enough to them to become actual novels. At this time of year I always start thinking about the fantasy world where they have one sun made of fire and one made of ice, and what happens if the ice sun doesn't retreat after midwinter. Then there's the Tooth and Claw sequel, there's the Douglas MacArthur in Elfland story, there's the version of Mansfield Park set on Mars—I would like to write something that's proper SF. But what'll happen is that I'll get some character talking in my head and I'll have to deduce her entire universe from the evidence of who she is and how she could have got to be like that, and there you go. That's how it usually works for me.


Copyright © 2008, Lyda Morehouse. All Rights Reserved.

About Lyda Morehouse

Lyda Morehouse writes about what gets most people in trouble: religion and politics. Her first novel Archangel Protocol, a cyberpunk hard-boiled detective novel with a romantic twist, won the 2001 Shamus for best paperback original (a mystery award given by the Private Eye Writers of America), the Barnes & Noble Maiden Voyage Award for best debut science fiction, and was nominated for the Romantic Times Critic's Choice Award. She followed up Archangel Protocol with three more books in the AngeLINK universe: Fallen Host (Roc, 2002), Messiah Node (Roc, 2003), and Apocalypse Array (Roc, 2004). Fallen Host made the preliminary Nebula ballot, and Apocalypse Array was awarded the Special Citation of Excellence (aka 2nd place) for the Philip K. Dick award. Lyda also writes a chick lit vampire novel series as Tate Hallaway. The first book Tall, Dark & Dead (Berkley, 2006) made several bestseller lists and the second, Dead Sexy is due out in May 2007. Lyda is a member of Wyrdsmiths and lives in Saint Paul, Minnesota with her partner of twenty years and their amazingly adorable son, Mason.

You can catch up with all of Lyda's various personas at Tate Hallway's Blog Lyda's Blog and/or Wyrdsmiths' Group blog.

COMMENTS!

Mar 19, 03:13 by IROSF
Have a comment on this interview? Does it raise any interesting ideas?

The article can be found here.
Apr 20, 15:38 by Janine Stinson
I got hooked on Jo Walton's fiction with _Tooth and Claw_, so it was a pleasure to read such a well-done interview with her at IROSF. Thanks!

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