The Whole Kitchen: Jo Walton’s Starlings

“For the longest time I didn’t know how to write short stories,” Jo Walton notes in the oddball introduction to her first full-length collection, Starlings. And indeed, while Starlings is a collection, calling it a short-story collection is something of a misnomer: the book is instead a jumble-sale assemblage of jokes, opening chapters to unwritten novels, poetry, point-of-view exercises, and speculative fictions interspersed with Walton’s commentaries on her own work—which are as likely to be complaints about permanently delayed payments as they are insights into her work.

As a result, Starlings is an inconsistent, eccentric little book, where luminous windows into other, startlingly beautiful alien worlds mingle with half-baked ideas and LiveJournal posts, punctuated by Walton’s charmingly crabby and acerbic assessments of each piece. (“You’ll notice that [this story is] very very short, contains one idea, and no plot,” she observes of a rather nasty anecdote that is very very short, contains one idea, and no plot.)

For every piece of absolute magic—the spooky, gorgeous triptych “Three Twilight Tales,” say, or the poignant and beautifully characterized “The Panda Coin”—there are somewhat more dubious offerings. The short play “Three Shouts on a Hill,” based on the Irish myth of the sons of Tuireann, starts innocuously enough as its main characters try to hoodwink a dragon with poetry, but takes a few perilous detours when our heroes visit the “King of the Africans,” the “King of the Incas” (a homicidal, tyrannical toddler), and a generic magical-feather-toting American Indian grandmother. (Happily, the Queen of Cats swoops in for a last-minute save.) Other pieces are too fleeting or half-baked to resolve into anything more than snippets of ideas and characters.

But if the merits of Starlings are not entirely literary, they are thoroughly instructive. Walton is one of the best speculative novelists working in the field today. She has demonstrated her considerable chops in books like the magnificent Among Others and the thoughtful and chilling Small Change trilogy, whose trenchant take on creeping fascism remains unfortunately relevant. And while I’d argue that Starlings doesn’t succeed as a short story collection, it’s an unexpected stunner of a how-to manual: here’s the whole pre-banquet kitchen, burnt pots and all, for readers to pick through at their leisure. I defy any writer to come away from Starlings without a dizzying array of ideas of her own, and the book’s greatest reward is its no-holds-barred look at Walton’s messy but generative process.

Reading a perfect novel by a superior writer is a schooling of its own, but (for me anyway) the most useful lessons in craft come from other people’s mishaps alongside their achievements. While plenty of fantastic writers have authored how-to guides, I’ve always found taking apart their books far more instructive. In her novels, Walton seamlessly integrates the moving parts, but in Starlings her clockwork is on full display. As the well-trodden writerly cliché goes, we are meant to show and not tell; rather than including didactic chapters on how she comes up with a really great story, Walton demonstrates the cheerful vigor with which she throws ideas at the wall in search of one that sticks. And when her starlings fly, boy do they.

Walton’s stories are inspiring not because of their perfection but instead her absolute lack of self-consciousness, her zest for invention, and her tireless willingness to slog through the muddy shallows in search of pannable gold.

Starlings is available from Tachyon Publications.

Sarah McCarry is the author of three novels: All Our Pretty Songs, a Tiptree Award honoree; the Norton award-nominated Dirty Wings; and the Lambda award-nominated About A Girl.

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