Or What You Will by Jo Walton belongs to the tradition of beautiful cozy books about books. A love letter to Shakespeare, fantasy, and alternate histories, the story follows Sylvia, an author, from the perspective of a nameless narrator who has appeared throughout Sylvia’s novels as a collection of different characters. With meta layers of storytelling that take us through Sylvia’s life, the history of Florence, the fictionalized world of Shakespeare’s Italy, and the imagined version of Sylvia’s Illyria, the novel explores art’s power to create change. I was very grateful for the opportunity to speak with Jo Walton about her experience writing in Florence, her thoughts on the relationship between history and fantasy, and her desire to imagine new endings to old stories.
Much of this book is spent with Sylvia, an author working on her next book about an alternate Florence while she spends the summer there. I know that you yourself wrote some of this book while spending a summer in Florence. Can you tell me more about the experience of writing this book in the city where it takes place? What did you most enjoy about writing there?
The two summers before I wrote Or What You Will I spent several weeks in Florence while researching and writing Lent, my fantasy novel about Savonarola. I really enjoyed going to the places I was writing about and spending time there—I sat in the courtyard of San Marco reading Savonarola’s books where he would have written them. So with Or What You Will I decided to do the same thing, to spend some time there writing it, and to incorporate some of the modern city as well as the history of the city into the book. So everywhere in this world in Or What You Will is real and specific, and then everywhere in Thalia, the imaginary Florence, is a shadow-echo.
There is a lot of true history about Renaissance Florence in this book, almost as much as the imagined alternate history of your fantastical Florence where magic exists and nobody dies. What was your process of researching for this book? Have you always been drawn to Florence and the Renaissance? What does the intersection of history and fantasy mean to you?
I’ve always been interested in history, and all my books are informed by history. I could never write a straight up historical novel because I always want to change the end. I became interested in the Renaissance in 2011 when my friend Ada Palmer (professor of history at U Chicago and author of the Terra Ignora books) spent a year in Florence researching a non-fiction academic book, and she invited me to go and stay with her. And she’s very well informed about the history—she has a popular blog about it, Ex Urbe, and she’s writing a popular history of the Renaissance at the moment. And she welcomed me to the city, she had an apartment right in the centre, by Perche No…! and she opened it all up to me, and she told me about it right there, in the places where it happened, and we looked at a lot of art and ate a lot of great food, and I just fell in love with it. My own historical period is Late Antiquity, and I’ve always been a classicist, and the Renaissance was very interesting from that point of view, the do over of Antiquity but all different, and all that gorgeous art. So I started reading about it, and reading more about it, not for anything, just because I was interested, and eventually all of the reading coalesced into influences on the Thessaly books, and then into Lent, and then into this. So I’ve only been obsessed with the Renaissance for…nine years now.
Sylvia’s Illyria is very much connected to Shakespeare’s Illyria, and the plays Twelfth Night and The Tempest in particular. Can you tell me more about the influence of Shakespeare in this story, and what drew you to include characters from those plays in your own work?
Well, Shakespeare has an imagined Italy, that isn’t real Renaissance Italy but it’s a very real imaginary place, and I thought it would be fun to take that and do something with it. Lent is a very solid reconstruction of real history, alternate history, but all very grounded. I thought it would be fun to play this time. And I had my character, my narrator, and he made me think about real imaginary people and places, and I wanted to use The Tempest. The Tempest and Twelfth Night are the two plays where the end doesn’t really feel resolved, where I’ve always wanted a sequel. And the idea of the Renaissance going on and on came to me at a production of Twelfth Night years ago. So this isn’t real Italy, it’s Shakespeare’s imagined Italy, the Italy of Renaissance dreams. And then there’s another layer, because it’s Sylvia’s imagination of Shakespeare’s Italy.
I love Shakespeare and see productions whenever I can.
Although this book is largely about Sylvia, who is an author, Sylvia isn’t the narrator. What do you think about the difference between an author and a narrator? How do you think about your relationship with the narrator in your own writing?
The author and the narrator are very different people. In my 2003 World Fantasy Award winning novel Tooth and Claw, the author is me and the narrator is a dragon. Nobody confuses me with the dragon, although of course the dragon is also me. Stories are told from a point of view, a different point of view for every story.
Where this came from was that I was once on a panel at a science fiction convention with Jim Macdonald, author with Debra Doyle of the Mageworlds books, in which he described himself as having a repertory cast in his head that he uses in all his books, and the way he described them I started seeing them as a Commedia del’Arte troupe. And then I started wondering what they did between gigs, you know, when he wasn’t writing a book? So I started thinking about the point of view of being a point of view character—which is very meta! And I thought it would be interesting to do something that was meta but that wasn’t cold and ironic and distanced, the way meta usually is, to do something that was meta but warm.
Especially in her childhood, the relationship between Sylvia and the unnamed character in her head feels like the relationship one has with an imaginary friend. Have you had an imaginary friend? Are imaginary friends connected to your own journey as a writer?
Yes, I had an imaginary friend, I think lots of people do.
He starts off as her imaginary friend, he becomes a character in her books, and the question of how real he is, whether she made him up or found him, is deliberately left open.
I do not have a repertory cast in my head or an imaginary friend like the narrator of Or What You Will. When I am into writing a novel the characters will be very close to me, and I’ll think about them all the time, and they’ll be very solid in my imagination—and then when the book is done they’ll recede and I’ll almost forget about them, so that if I’m re-reading my own work after a decade or more I’ll think “Oh, right. Ohtar, cool.”
My journey as a writer is that I write books that are quite different from each other, because I like challenges, and I get bored doing the same thing over and over, so my journey doesn’t look like a straight rail track but a meandering mountain path. But that’s fine. I’m always interested to find out where I’m going next.
Or What You Will
By Jo Walton
Published July 7, 2020
Megan Otto is a freelance arts and environmental writer specializing in content related to ethical storytelling, underrepresented voices, climate justice, and the arts. Based in Portland, Oregon, she loves visiting both the mountains and the ocean in her free time. Learn more about her writing at megotto.com or find her @megsotto on Twitter.