Authors: Diana Wynne Jones
On the Magic of Writing
DIANA WYNNE JONES
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Lecture One: Heroes
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Fantasies for Children
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Address at Diana's Funeral
t was easy, when you knew her, to forget what an astonishing intellect Diana Wynne Jones had, or how deeply and how well she understood her craft.
She would certainly strike you when you met her as being friendly and funny, easygoing and opinionated. She was a perceptive reader (I had the enormous pleasure of spending a week with her at the Milford Writers' Workshop, hearing her opinions on story after story) but she rarely talked about stories technically. She would tell you what she loved, and she would tell you how much she loved it. She would tell you what she didn't like, too, but rarely wasted breath or emotion on it. She was, in conversation about stories, like a winemaker who would taste wine, and discuss the taste of the wine and how it made her feel, but rarely even mention the winemaking process. That does not mean she did not understand it, though, and understand every nuance of it.
The joy for me of reading these essays and thoughts, these reflections on a life spent writing, was watching her discuss both her life and the (metaphorical) winemaking process.
She does not describe herself in this book, so I shall describe her for you: she had a shock of curly, dark hair and, much of the time, a smile, which ranged from easygoing and content to a broad whorl of delight, the smile of someone who was enjoying herself enormously. She laughed a lot, too, the easy laugh of someone who thought the world was funny and filled with interesting things, and she would laugh at her own anecdotes, in the way of someone who had simply not stopped finding what she was going to tell you funny. She smoked too much, but she smoked with enthusiasm and enjoyment until the end. She had a smoker's chuckle. She did not suffer fools of the self-important kind, but she loved and took pleasure in people, the foolish as well as the wise.
She was polite, unless she was being gloriously rude, and she was, I suppose, relatively normal, if you were able to ignore the swirls and eddies of improbability that bubbled and crashed around her. And believe me, they did: Diana would talk about her “travel jinx,” and I thought she was exaggerating until we had to fly to America on the same plane. The plane we were meant to fly on was taken out of commission after the door fell off, and it took many hours to get another plane. Diana accepted this as a normal part of the usual business of travel. Doors fell off planes. Sunken islands rose up beneath you if you were in boats. Cars simply and inexplicably ceased to function. Trains with Diana on them went to places they had never been before and technically could not have gone.
She was witchy, yes, and in charge of a cauldron roiling with ideas and stories, but she always gave the impression that the stories, the ones she wrote and wrote so very well and so wisely, had simply happened, and that all she had done was to hold the pen. My favorite essay in this book describes her writing process and shows the immense amount of craft and care that went into each book.
She made a family, and without her family she would not have written. She was well loved, and she was well worth loving.
This book shows us a master craftswoman reflecting on her life, her trade, and the building blocks she used to become a writer. We will meet, in these reflections, someone who has taken the elements of a most peculiar childhood (are there any non-peculiar childhoods? Perhaps not. They are all unique, all unlikely, but Diana's was unlikelier than most) and a formidable intellect, an understanding of language and of story, a keen grasp of politics (on so many levelsâpersonal, familial, organizational, and international), an education that was part autodidactic but in which, as you will learn here, C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien both lectured for her, even if she was never quite sure what Tolkien was actually saying, and then, armed with all these things, becomes quite simply the best writer for children of her generation.
I am baffled that Diana did not receive the awards and medals that should have been hers: no Carnegie Medal, for a start (although she was twice a runner-up for it). There was a decade during which she published some of the most important pieces of children's fiction to come out of the U.K.:
Fire and Hemlock
, the Chrestomanci books . . . these were books that should have been acknowledged as they came out as game changers, and simply weren't. The readers knew. But they were, for the most part, young.
I suspect that there were three things against Diana and the medals:
First, she made it look easy. Much too easy. Like the best jugglers or slack-rope walkers, it looked so natural that the reader couldn't see her working and assumed that the writing process really was that simple, that natural, and that Diana's works were written without thought or effort or were found objects, like beautiful rocks, uncrafted by human hand.
Second, she was unfashionable. You can learn from some of the essays in this volume just how unfashionable she was as she describes the prescriptive books that were fashionable, particularly with teachers and those who published and bought books for young readers, from the 1970s until the 1990s: books in which the circumstances of the protagonist were, as much as possible, the circumstances of the readers, in the kind of fiction that was considered Good For You. What the Victorians might have considered an “improving novel.”
Diana's fiction was never improving, or if it was, it was in a way that neither the Victorians nor the 1980s editors would have recognized. Her books took things from unfamiliar angles. The dragons and demons that her heroes and heroines battle may not be the demons her readers are literally battlingâbut her books are unfailingly realistic in their examinations of what it's like to be, or to fail to be, part of a family, the ways we fail to fit in or deal with uncaring carers.
The third thing that Diana had working against her was this: her books are difficult. Which does not mean that they are not pleasurable. But she makes you work as a reader. As an adult reader coming to a Diana Wynne Jones book I expected to reread great chunks of a book as I reached the end, all puzzled and filled with brow-crinkling “How did she do that?” and “Now wait a minute, I thought . . .” and I would put it together, and then see what she had done. I challenged her on this, and she told me that children read more carefully than adults did and rarely had that troubleâand indeed, when I came to read Diana's books aloud to Maddy, my daughter, I discovered that they weren't ever problematic or even hard. All the pieces were there for you. You just had to be paying attention to everything she wrote, and to understand that if there was a word on the paper, it was there for a reason.
I don't think she minded not having the medals. She knew how good she was, and she had generations of readers who had grown up reading and loving her work. She was read, and she was loved. As the years went on and the readers who had discovered her when young grew up and wrote about her, talked about her, wrote fiction influenced by her; as magical fiction for children became less unusual; as her books sold more with each year that passed, Diana knew that what she had written had worked, and found its readers, and that was all that, in the end, mattered.
I am a handful of years too old to have read Diana's books as a boy. I wish I hadâshe would have been one of those people who formed the way I saw the world, the way I thought about it and perceived it. Instead, reading her, it felt familiar, and when, in my twenties, I read all of Diana's books that I could find, it felt like I was coming home.
If, like me, you love Diana's fiction, and you wish to learn more about the person, who she was and how she thought, then this book will enlighten you. But it will give you more than that. Her writings assembled in one place tell us how she thought about literature and the reasons for literature, about the place of children's fiction in the world, about the circumstances that shaped her and her own understanding and vision of who she was and what she did. It is ferociously intelligent, astonishingly readable, and as with so much that Diana Wynne Jones did, she makes each thing she writes, each explanation for why the world is as it is, look so easy.
y the time I first read Diana Wynne Jones I was already an adultâbut that doesn't matter. Many of her readers encounter her later in life, and those who know her as children tend to stick with her into adulthood. That is one of her qualities: her books change and grow as you do.
It is a testimony to the impression Diana makes on her readers that so many have a “How I first came across Diana Wynne Jones” story. Mine is not especially dramatic, but in retrospect our accidental encounter feels providential. When I was a young lecturer, one of my jobs was to sit for an hour each week in a far-flung office in a far-flung corner of my university, ready to offer course advice to any students who might come seeking it. No students ever did come, and I would pass the time by reading. One week, finding myself accidentally bookless, I browsed through the room's many cupboards (it was a storeroom at heart, not an office at all) and found there a copy of
by a writer called Diana Wynne Jones. The name was familiar, but I knew nothing about her. And so, having almost an hour to fill, I sat down and began to read.
That was my first Diana Wynne Jones, and from the opening page, with its mysterious Edwardian-but-not-quite milieu and its paddleboat accident (as shocking and excitingly peremptory, in its way, as the angry rhinoceros in Dahl's
James and the Giant Peach
), I was hookedâby the twistiness, the wit, the superabundant imagination, and the emotional wisdom. These were among the qualities I came to associate with Diana long before I met her in person or began to write about her work. I soon learned to value others, too, and it may be worth enumerating them.
First, there is her range. Diana wrote books for young children, for older children, and for adults. She wrote picture books, chapter books, full-length novels, poetry, plays, and non-fiction. She wrote fantasy, science fiction, romance, farce, and satire; and she wrote books that looped the loop, refusing to be confined within any generic box. She could handle outrageous comedy, but also turn on a sixpence and evoke subtle shades of desire, grief, loneliness, bliss, and love, and do so in prose that never strove to draw attention to its own virtuosity. She could also, as this volume attests, turn out a pretty mean academic essay when she set her mind to it.
Her range is equaled by her stamina, shown not just in producing so many books over such a long period (more than forty books in forty-one years)âsomething other writers have done only by sticking to a winning formulaâbut by keeping her art so fresh. No book of hers is simply a rehash of a previous one. In some cases she has invented, or reinvented, entire genres. Edith Nesbit wrote urban fantasy, but not like
. C. S. Lewis wrote about alternative worlds, but not like the Chrestomanci books. And J. R. R. Tolkien, for all the depth and tenacity of his imagination, would never have come up with the strange loop that is
, or with
, or the Dalemark quartet.
Diana Wynne Jones was a prodigiously creative writer. This is true not only in terms of the number and range of books she produced, but also in her ability to load every rift with ore. Some of her stories involve mundane situations or everyday phrases, seen from new angles and stretched out to reveal their latent absurdity. Elsewhere you will find a rich idea lying apparently unregarded in a single line.
The Merlin Conspiracy
, for example, features a short conversation with an elf. Diana created elves in a wide variety of models and moral orientations, by the way, but this elf is relatively benign, even though he irritates Roddy Hyde (who has a herb that enables her to understand elfish), because he insists on practicing his broken English on her like an earnest foreign tourist: “I need learn!” This is funny enough, but perhaps the most memorable thing about the elf is the way he explains his appearance and disappearance into an earthen mound with the throwaway sentence, “Space is as a folding screen to the little people.” So much is suggested by that one phrase that many novelists would have been tempted to extrapolate a novel from it. But so little is made explicit that it remains in the mind like a grenade with the pin already pulledâa phrase whose potential is all the more powerful for being unrealized. What does it mean, for space to be “like a folding screen”? Diana was a writer abundant in ideas: realms and islands were as plates dropped from her pocket. But she also knew her craft and knew that sometimes being prolific is a matter of knowing when not to speak.
Then there is her magic. No one does magic like Diana Wynne Jones. In the course of her books she runs the gamut of magical styles, and demonstrates that she knows quite a frightening amount about the technicalities, too. She has a sure instinct for the way magic works: totem magic, social magic, transformation magic, and the rest. Some of her spells are grand, formal affairs, like the climax of
The Merlin Conspiracy
. Others are casual, like the way Sophie in
Howl's Moving Castle
unwittingly charms the hats she decorates, simply by talking to them: “You have mysterious allure.” Sometimes, as in
Fire and Hemlock
, she keeps you guessing as to whether any magic has taken place at all. At others she shocks you with something startlingly and undeniably magical, as when the eponymous villain of
, who until this point has primarily used the powers of suggestion and social manipulation, turns her nephew into a wolf.
Diana's humor is of course everywhere. Her books are full of verbal wit, but she rejoices too in physical comedy, and in the spectacle of people acting in absurd ways that appear to them to be the height of good senseâa tendency she laughed at but also recognized as an aspect of the human condition. Everyone will have favorite images from her books: Wizard Howl covered with self-indulgent green slime; the conga of alien magicians and witches in
A Sudden Wild Magic
; Chrestomanci giving the gods flu in “The Sage of Theare”; the giant sentient toffee bars that drape themselves over the radiators in
The Ogre Downstairs
Importance of Being Earnest
-style multiple revelations of identity and relationship that feature in several of her final chapters. Then there is her satireânowhere packaged more conveniently than in
The Tough Guide to Fantasyland
, a book that it is almost impossible not to quote from (and I resist the temptation here only because Diana quotes from it herself in two pieces in this book).
“The world is not enough,” Diana once said, and for her this was true. Her imagination shuffled universes like cards, or bent them into origami shapes. It was not enough for her to invent parallel worlds. She invented multiple multiverses: the worlds of Chrestomanci, of
The Homeward Bounders
The Merlin Conspiracy
, of Dalemark, of
A Sudden Wild Magic
The Dark Lord of Derkholm
Year of the Griffin
âeach has its own geography and ecology, its own politics and fashions, its own rules of physics, its own magic. Some are linked to our own world through having split off from it at earlier points in history; others are connected in different ways, or not at all. Diana never insists on surplus exposition, but her worlds have a conviction and a coherence that communicate themselves immediately. As she once put it:
You have to know enough about a world to be able to show things in the foreground that bring the background with them. You must have it firmly enough in your mind so that it all hangs together. You don't have to say that there are wild beasts in the wood, so long as you have got the right setup where there might be.
All her worlds have that thought-through,
quality. The same applies to her characters: she takes seriously the advice that she gives aspiring writers in an article in the present collection, that whatever appears on the page about a character, the author must know many times more againâabout his or her appearance, past, taste in clothes and music. Diana was adamant that such knowledge did not need to be set down explicitly but that, with people as with physical locations, if the writer knows what she is talking about, her knowledge will communicate itself. The description Virginia Woolf gave of her method in
is no less applicable to Diana:
I dig out beautiful caves behind my characters: I think that gives exactly what I want; humanity, humor, depth. The idea is that the caves shall connect and each comes to daylight at the present moment.
This is true; but one of the many ways in which reading Diana does not resemble reading Virginia Woolf is that Diana gives her readers waymarks by which to navigate her text, Homeric epithets that conjure a character in a minimal number of words. What reader of
Fire and Hemlock
will forget that Polly's granny's house smells of biscuits, for example, and the way that this comes to symbolize the homely, reliable, sweet but highly nutritious nature of Granny herself? How potent a symbol are Chrestomanci's flamboyant dressing gowns, denoting both wildness and yet a certain physical indolence? How irritatingly recognizable are helpful people who, like Joris in
The Homeward Bounders
, are always ready to reach into their jerkins and find some desired item with a “Why, as to
!” Yet none of these is a caricature or simply a collection of catchphrases. We never doubt that behind each surface lies a system of complex and beautiful caves.
Diana's books have many subjects and many distinctive themes: language, imagination, storytelling, the recognition of talent in oneself, the ability to look beyond the obvious. If there is one that sums up the rest, however, perhaps it is that of empowermentâalthough I doubt whether Diana would have cared for the word. It is true that she also has a kind of affection for put-upon officials and for adults swept along by the tide of daily responsibilities. Their desire for respect, or at least feeling that they are not being positively laughed at, is one she treats with sympathy: one thinks of the anguished Sempitern Walker in
A Tale of Time City
, the earnest Rupert Venables from
, or the harassed Wizard Corkoran in
Year of the Griffin
. But if there is a question of sides there can be no doubt that Diana is on the side of the powerless, the ones who have decisions taken and imposed upon them by others. And this, of course, usually means that she is on the side of children. As she has said, she aims to “provide a space where children can relax and walk round their problems and think âMum's a silly fusspot and I don't need to be quite so enslaved by her notions.'” In a Diana Wynne Jones book, no orthodoxy or authority is above question. She is no nihilistâindeed, she has strong views about the responsibilities of the children's authorâbut she is nevertheless one of the most thoroughly transgressive writers around.
All these qualitiesâher imaginative fertility, her range, her stamina, the breadth of her human sympathy and understanding, her command of plotting and of the other technicalities of the writer's craft, along with her unquenchable curiosity about life and peopleâhave given Diana a unique place, not just in literature for children or within speculative fiction, but in modern literature generally.
Diana did not write in a way that drew attention to her writing; she was more interested in the story that she wished to tell. However, anyone who met Diana or heard her speak will know that, for all the qualities evident
her work, she was also a keen thinker
Tough Guide to Fantasyland
is a piece of literary criticism disguised as a guidebook, and her fiction is shot through with insights into the power of words and the importance of their judicious deployment.
Fire and Hemlock
has important things to say about influence and originality, while “Carol Oneir's Hundredth Dream” and
make telling points about writer's block. Besides these oblique contributions, however, she produced numerous essays and articles, as well as giving talks at conventions, schools, and conferences. The current volume gathers together much of that material. The wife, mother, and sister of professional academics, Diana was nevertheless ambivalent about the technical language of literary criticism, but as this volume demonstrates, she was a talented critic with important insights into her own work, that of other writers, and the creative process.
Diana's essays and talks in this volume were written during the years from 1978 to 2008 and are arranged in a running order chosen by Diana. This is not strictly chronological but does reflect the development of her ideas. As she points out in her preface, in a collection such as this it is inevitable that certain anecdotes and experiences are mentioned more than once, since she recounted them to different audiences in various articles and talks. A recurrent topic is Diana's childhood, a time when she learned the strangeness of human behavior and the arbitrariness of power, and when (living a life of neglect and emotional abuse with her two younger sisters) she began to craft imaginative worlds for her own benefit and theirs. Here too we see her beginning to piece together her ideas about the nature and purpose of fantasy, as symbolized in the two gardens kept by her parentsâone dull and quotidian, the other magical, bee haunted, and securely locked. These symbols and experiences appear at various times throughout the volume, as does evidence of her early love of fantasy, epitomized in her preference for the “Piper at the Gates of Dawn” chapter in
The Wind in the Willows
, which was censored by her mother as being too fanciful. Given the occasional nature of the pieces in this volume, we have performed only a minimum of editing, leaving such reiteration of material as there is to speak naturally within its varying contexts. We hope that the result will be a cumulative appreciation of the role these ideas and experiences held in Diana's thought.