What Happens After You Save the World?

By Jo Walton

Among Others is a book about what happens after you’ve saved the world. What happens when you’re fifteen, and you thought you were going to die, and your sister did die, and the world is safe but nobody knows you did it. It’s about going on from there, day after day, and going to school.

It’s also a book about loving books, how reading can shape your mind and the way you approach the world. It’s about someone who obsessively reads science fiction, but who has fantasy problems and real world problems. It’s about the loneliness of being a bright kid with nobody to talk to about the things you care about and it’s about using magic to try to do something about that. And it’s set in a very specific place and time—South Wales and the Marches, between September 1979 and February 1980.

I come from the South Wales Valleys, a coal mining area where the coal has run out, a post-industrial society. People set fantasy novels in Britain all the time, but not in the part of it where I come from. I had the idea for Among Others when I was trying to explain the landscape of my childhood. I said that I saw it as The Lord of the Rings when I should have seen it as The Chrysalids. This book results from the insight that both of these things can be true, within the story. The character is a lot more like me than most of my characters, because I wanted her to be somebody who could have that insight, and frame it that way. I wanted to write about the way landscape and places shape people, at the same time as people are shaped by internal influences—their families, their reading, their education.

The book’s written in first person, and when you do that you can get away without giving your protagonist a name, like Daphne Du Maurier in Rebecca. My protagonist certainly does have a name, but it’s problematic. It’s a name with lots of different forms. She and her twin sister were given cute Welsh twin names, Morwenna and Morganna. They were both known as Mori, or Mor, or Mo. (“Wasn’t that confusing?” her father asks. “Oh yes,” she reples.) She’s grown up with her mother’s surname Phelps, but now her father’s sending her to school under his surname, Markova. In school she’s called Taffy or Commie, or Hopalong—because she’s been crippled in saving the world and limps along with a cane. It’s been very interesting to me seeing the reviews take a position on what to call her, taking something out of this fluidity and making it seem solid.

A.S. Byatt says in Possession that books can’t describe the jou of reading, because it’s too recursive. I immediately thought that Samuel Delany has done it perfectly in Stars in My Pocket like Grains of Sand. It’s interesting to write about a protagonist who loves to read, because Byatt’s right, people in books generally don’t read very much. I’m with Jane Austen, “if the heroine of one novel be not patronized by the heroine of another, from whom can she expect protection and regard?”

Among Others is about a world where if you love books enough, books will love you back.

Among Others (978-0-7653-2153-4; $24.99) by Jo Walton will be available from Tor on January 18, 2011.

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