The One Historical Event Jo Walton Wishes She Could Change
Tooth and Claw author Jo Walton would love the change to change history. Her Small Change trilogy follows England through the lens of an alternate history—one where Churchill was overthrown, and Britain and Hitler came to a peace agreement. Walton’s latest release, My Real Children, explores the same themes on a much more personal level: Patricia Cowan is confused often. Most people dismiss the 89-year-old’s confusion as a symptom of age—but she swears that there are two separate sets of memories in her mind: two sets of children, two careers, two fully-lived lives… and two sets of modern history.
Walton guides her readers in visiting the fork where Patricia’s life split in two, and how her decision forever altered both her personal history and the world(s) around her. In this interview, Walton talks with Bookish about the aspects of history she’d love to change, the role of retirement in the history of WWII, and the real-life inspiration behind My Real Children.
Bookish: In My Real Children, Patricia recalls two worlds with different histories. In one, John F. Kennedy is killed by a bomb. In another, he chooses not to run for President after the Cuban Missile Crisis. You also play with history in your Small Change trilogy. If you could change one event in history, what would it be?
Jo Walton: The death of Hephaestus. Hephaestus died of a fever that would have been entirely curable with penicillin—if I could go and cure him, then Alexander the Great wouldn't have gone mad, and wouldn't have died without a properly designated heir, and the Hellenistic world would all be different.
The thing that would make this interesting and cool is that Alexander's empire stretched from Europe to India. It connected Europe with Asian civilizations. If it had stayed a solid thing, all the world would have been different.
Bookish: What draws you to writing stories that unwind and recreate the histories that are so ingrained in us?
JW: I think everyone wonders what it would be like if things had been different—both on a personal level and on a world level. If we'd taken a different job and moved to a different city, if Roosevelt hadn't been elected. It's interesting to think about what's inevitable and what's changeable.
I can't read a history book without wondering what would have happened if things had been nudged a different way—if the Persians had won at Salamis, if Churchill had accepted Hitler's peace offers. I keep asking "what if" and looking at the way things happen in history and the way people act to find plausible answers. For instance, if Pico della Mirandola had managed to have his 900 theses debated at a new church council in Rome in 1486, his reconciliation of Plato and Aristotle with Christianity, Judaism, and Islam would not, as he imagined, have brought an era of world peace. [Instead], as with the beginning of the similarly syncretic Sikh religion—[it would] have formed a new focus of dissension.
Bookish: The book, where Patricia’s life takes two very different paths (one political, one as a travel writer), reminds me vividly of Robert Frost’s poem “The Road Not Taken.” Did you take an inspiration from outside works when creating this novel?
JW: The inspiration for My Real Children came largely from friends of mine of Patricia's generation, and the events of their lives and how history had influenced them. The poetic inspiration came from the sonnet by John M. Ford which I have used as an epigraph and especially from the last two lines: "Regret, by definition, comes too late. Say what you mean. Bear witness. Iterate."
Bookish: Patricia is often confused, and sometimes “very confused,” by the events of her life. What was the planning process like when you sat down to outline these two unique journeys? Did it unfold organically, or did you need a more detail-oriented outline?
JW: Organically, always. I never outline; outlining makes me feel bored, as if I'm done with that now. I worked out the history in my head, and I had a rough idea of the balance of the book, but I didn't write any of it down. But I knew where I was going; the story wraps back to the beginning.
Bookish: There’s a single moment that changes Patricia’s life. Up until then, her decisions held no life-splitting consequences. Of all of the decisions she did or could have made, why did you pick that moment (of Mark’s marriage proposal) as the catalyst?
JW: That was the original idea of the book. My friend Gill was telling me about her husband's proposal—the “now or never” that I use in the book—and I suddenly saw how different her life would have been if she'd said no, and I had the idea for the story. I asked her if she'd mind me using that in fiction; fortunately, she was delighted at the idea, rather than horrified.
For a woman of her generation—Patricia is born in 1926—marriage was such a huge, life-changing thing. It's still pretty huge, but it isn't the center of everything. My grandmother had to give up teaching when she married—married women weren't allowed to teach. The choice in Sayers’ Gaudy Night between marriage and career was stark—there was no “having it all” in those days.
Bookish: Do you know of any real-life examples where a small decision changed the course of history?
JW: Decisions we make every day might change history. I stopped eating cod in 1987 because it was being overfished so much there was fear of extinction, and now Atlantic cod stocks are coming back. Look at the Florida votes in the 2000 election. In the book, I talk about teachers inspiring pupils, for instance, and how you can't tell what makes a difference, or who is going to be famous later.
It's not that everything we do changes history, or even our own personal history. Most things even out. But some things—and there's no way of telling which—can have a huge effect and change everything. If you want an example, Britain pretty much would have made a compromise peace with Hitler in WWII without Churchill. Churchill almost decided to retire in 1936. Deciding to retire is usually a thing that changes your life—sometimes, it changes the whole world.
Jo Walton won the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer in 2002, and the World Fantasy Award for her novel Tooth and Claw in 2004. Her several other novels include the acclaimed Small Change alt-history trilogy, comprising Farthing, Ha’Penny, and Half a Crown. Her last novel Among Others won the Hugo and Nebula Awards in 2012. A native of Wales, she lives in Montreal.