In my post on Sapolsky’s A Primate’s Memoir, Ursula asked:
Jo, how do you find these things?
Browsing a bookstore only goes so far. I’m curious as to what your book-choosing techniques are, as mine seem to be evolving into “what has Jo written about?”
My immediate answer was that I find things in exactly the same way Ursula does—my friends talk about them. In the case of this book that’s exactly what happened, a friend read it and discussed it, I checked if the library had it, they did, I read it. I love libraries. There’s literally no cost to trying things out. If somebody mentions an interesting book online, I immediately open a tab to the Grande Bibliotheque and check if they have it. But however I get hold of it, my number one way of finding out that books exist remains word of mouth — especially for weird books.
I’ve mentioned here before looking at awards lists for new writers. This is a good way of finding out who other people think are good—where somebody has weeded out the duds. I especially like doing this with awards from other cultures, like the Vogels, and with the Dicks, where you tend to see a lot of new writers. You can also do a lot worse than look at the Locus year results and use them as a reading list by year—you’ll read a lot of interesting stuff. I’m linking to last year’s because this year’s isn’t complete (and also because there’s a book of mine on it and that embarrasses me to recommend) but if you look at that and ignore categories you don’t like you’d have a great list that would hit a lot of what people were talking about.
However, you’d also miss a lot. There are great books that seem to pass under the radar, that don’t get talked about or nominated for awards. That’s actually the kind of book I’m most interested in talking about here—things like Black Wine and Lear’s Daughters. I found Black Wine by meeting Dorsay at a con and hearing her talk and wanting to read her books—that’s another method that really works for me. I borrowed the book from next door neighbour and fellow Tor.com blogger René Walling, as it’s impossible to find. (But it’s reassuring to know that even though I don’t own it, there’s a copy in our street.) Lear’s Daughters I found on a random library browse—and it wasn’t even my random library browse. I was stuck in bed and I sent my ex-husband out to find me something to read, and that’s what he found.
If I’m browsing in library or bookshop I’ll be trying to remember things people have recommended. I may have a list, or it may be in my head. I’ll pick up things I’ve never heard of that have interesting sounding titles. I’ll go for subgenres I know I like.
The only weird thing I do is when I am looking for older romance novels. I like gothics, as I think I’ve mentioned, and I don’t much like modern romance novels. (Except Jennifer Crusie. Love her. Starting reading her because friends recommended her, including men.) So there I am in the library romance section, and I don’t have any names and I want older romance novels—so I go for chunks of older books without coloured covers. The last time I tried this it got me one absolute hit of gothics and also the astonishingly, wonderfully weird Kathleen Norris.
I also read Dozois Year’s Best SF every year, and then read novels by all the people whose stories I like, if they’ve written novels. This was a better method when I’d read less, but I still do this. It fairly recently netted me David Marusek.
There’s also a thing I do when I’m doing research—I research a lot, all my books require a lot of research reading. If I find a good writer, someone who writes clear lucid prose about whatever I’m needing to read about, I’ll read everything else they’ve written. I may not know I’m interested in the other things, but that doesn’t really matter. If someone’s capable of being interesting about St. Germanus, they’ll be interesting with whatever they write about. I’ve never been proved wrong on this one.
There are always a pile of books I know are coming out and I am waiting for, so I check the bookshop for them, and while I’m there I often stumble across other things. And I check all the secondhand bookshops locally (in rotation, leaving them to lie fallow in between) and anywhere I visit and buy things I can’t resist.
Yet with all this I’m always aware there’s a lot I’m missing, that I’m not finding. But that’s okay. It’ll be there another day. There will come new things to read. Somebody will tell me about them. And if not, I can keep re-reading and telling you about things.
How about you?
Jo Walton is a science fiction and fantasy writer. She’s published eight novels, most recently Half a Crown and Lifelode, and two poetry collections. She reads a lot, and blogs about it here regularly. She comes from Wales but lives in Montreal where the food and books are more varied.