Riffle Backstory: Q&A with "My Real Children" author Jo Walton

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Jo Walton's latest novel, My Real Children, is out today and to celebrate we've got a Q&A with the author. See what she has to say about art, sci-fi, and Florence.

Describe your writing process—are you an outliner, or a pantser?

I hate outlining, outlining makes me feel as if I'm done with the story now. And yet, I know where I'm going with a story, I know the shape of it, and what I'm heading towards. But I like the details to surprise me.

Did the concept of the novel—Patricia’s story—come to you all at once, or slowly over time?

The concept is that Patricia's life splits in two when she answers a marriage proposal that's phrased as "Now or never!" In one life she marries and is known as Trish, and in the other she refuses, and is known as Pat. Her lives are completely different, but she remains essentially the same person. I had the idea all at once -- a friend was telling me about her husband's proposal, and I suddenly had the whole concept of the story in my mind. The details I worked out as I went along.

Patricia’s life divides into two separate realities with different sets of history. How did you decide which elements to change?

I evolved the two worlds in two different directions, starting from the 1949 proposal, so rather than deciding it was an organic historical process. With history, once you have little changes, everything spirals out from there. And of course, I was writing it in our world, and going out from here. So for instance in one world there's mini-Suez, and in the other hyper-Suez, and then going on logically from that.

During your writing, was there a particular scene or character that surprised you or turned out different than you expected it to?

In one thread of the novel there's a lesbian couple, Pat and Bee, who want to have children. I was going to have them use artificial insemination, which existed at the time, but only barely. When I did some research I found that it was too complicated, and so I came up with the character of Michael, who turned out to be one of my favourite people in the book.

*All your characters jump off the page. Is there one you’d think you’d get along with better than the others? Why? *

This is an impossible question! If my characters were real people, I'd get on quite well with most of them. But if I met them as myself, and they were my characters, they'd think I was God and want to kill me for what I did to them. When you think about it, who'd be a character in fiction, having things happen to them to make a good story? The best strategy if you find yourself in a book is to try to avoid attracting the attention of the author.

What’s the strangest thing you’ve learned while researching My Real Children?

1970s wheelchairs were incredibly heavy.

What authors inspire you?

I am more inspired by art in different media. My next book (The Just City) was inspired by Bernini's Apollo. I recently had a wonderful worldbuilding idea while reading one of Rilke's poems. This morning I wrote a poem when looking at one of Elise Matthesen's necklaces. In the last couple of years I've found the music of Sassafrass very inspiring.

People would be surprised to know that…

Everything I have written since the first time I went to Florence has Florence in it -- not just My Real Children, but stories set on generation starships and in Plato's Republic and in heaven.

What is that one book that has been on your "to-read" list for a long time but you still haven't gotten around to reading?

Love by Elizabeth Von Arnim. It's the last book of hers I haven't read, so I'm saving it.

What’s your favorite method of procrastination?

Writing. If I'm writing, I don't have to phone the accountant or go to the post office or do chores. This works remarkably well as motivation, because I like writing a lot better than I like doing those kinds of things.

What books do you still enjoy rereading/would you recommend to your readers?

If you like my books, you're really going to enjoy Ada Palmer's Dogs of Peace, a wonderful philosophical SF novel coming out from Tor next year. I'd also recommend Rosemary Kirstein's Steerswoman series, one of my all time favourites. Candas Jane Dorsey's Black Wine has recently been reprinted -- a brilliant disturbing novel. I also recommend the science fiction of Alison Sinclair, whose newest book is Breakpoint. And you might be interested in the collection Twenty-First Century Science Fiction edited by Patrick Nielsen Hayden and David Hartwell, which has a story of mine but also lots of topflight SF. I find short fiction is one of the best ways of finding writers I haven't run across before.

  • My Real Children

  • The Just City (Thessaly Book 1)

  • Bernini: The Sculptor of the Roman Baroque

  • The Selected Poetry of Rainer Maria Rilke: Bilingual Edition (English and German Edition)

  • Among Others (Hugo Award Winner - Best Novel)

  • Farthing (Small Change)

  • An Art Lover's Guide to Florence

  • LOVE

  • The Steerswoman

  • Black Wine

  • Breakpoint: Nereis (The Plague Confederacy Book 1)

  • Twenty-First Century Science Fiction: An Anthology