Read Reflections Online

Authors: Diana Wynne Jones

Reflections (7 page)

BOOK: Reflections
6.49Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

This kind of thing cuts down the freedom one ought to have when writing for adults to a point which I find claustrophobic. It gets worse when I realize that there were certain sorts of story which I didn't even consider. To take two examples, I knew I couldn't write anything like Vivien Alcock's
The Monster Garden
or Philippa Pearce's
Tom's Midnight Garden
.
The Monster Garden
is simply a rewrite of
Frankenstein
, in which a modern girl called Frankie (!) accidentally grows some protoplasm from her father's lab into a
creature
. As in all children's books, nothing turns out as you'd expect (which is part of the beautiful freedom of this branch of writing), but this plot is unavailable for adults because everyone knows it's been done before. Adults are supposed to be sophisticated about this. In that case, would someone tell me why people keep writing the one about the female warrior with the map in the front? Or why
Frankenstein
is a no-no, while everyone is free to reuse
The Lord of the Rings
? The rationale of these assumptions escapes me.

Tom's Midnight Garden
is a branch of time-travel writing (loosely related to that of Dickens in
A Christmas Carol
) in which a ghost from the past takes a lonely small boy to explore the house and countryside as it was in his grandmother's day. It is most elegantly and exactly done and rightly a children's classic, but what adult would accept a plot like that outside Dickens? This really raises the whole large question of time travel, which I will reserve for a later date, only pointing out here what seems to be the hidden assumption: adults can only accept time travel on a fairly gross scale. Time travel up or down a generation or so is only allowed for breeding purposes (either with one's mother or one's niece). Otherwise one has to go back to, say, Roman times or
way
back to our origins—and then only when provided with plenty of anxious archaeological explanations. Personally, since I like more modest time trips better, I think this is a pity.

In fact, it is all a pity. Every hidden assumption I discovered seems to be felt as a law, or a rule, or an absolute difference between two branches of writing, and I cannot see they are any such thing. They shackle the speculative fiction written for adults and reflect badly on that written for children—since the final hidden assumption has to be that as fiction written for adults is so puerile, how much more so must fiction written for children be? This, I know, is not the case. But let no one argue that these hidden assumptions about writing for adults are not there. I assure you they are. I felt every one of them like a ball and chain when I tried to do it. I think it is high time people started examining them in order to free the wealth of good stories cramped under this load of old iron. For, when all is said and done, it is telling a good story, and telling it well, that is the point of both kinds of writing.

When I Won the
Guardian
Award

 

Diana Wynne Jones won the prestigious
Guardian
Children's Fiction Prize (then known simply as the
Guardian
Award) in 1978 for
Charmed Life
. Since 1967, the
Guardian
has given an annual award for the best children's book written by a British or British Commonwealth author and published in the UK during the preceding year. A panel of authors, along with the reviews editor of the
Guardian'
s children's books section, judges the award.

 

 

W
hen I won the
Guardian
Award for
Charmed Life
(in 1978 I think it was), I was exceedingly astonished—and also very, very pleased. The reason for both these feelings was that the judges were all writers themselves. There is nothing more flattering than having your book liked by people who do the same thing as you do—because, surely, they must be the hardest to fool
and
the hardest to please. They know how to do it: if
they
think you've done it right, then you have.

It turns out that I was right to feel that way. If I'd known then what I know now, I'd have been even more surprised and flattered, because people who have won this award were always asked to be one of the judges for next year. I have been doing that. As soon as I got home from a book fair in Rochdale, books began to arrive, stacks of them, two nearly every day. It was better than Christmas. The rest of my family began to get rather envious. Until, that is, they saw the books. Then they said things like, “I wouldn't read that lot if you paid me!” and turned away.

I thought they were being a little unreasonable. After all, as I well knew, it takes a lot of time and a vast amount of effort to write a book. You ought to do people the courtesy of deciding you don't like a book
after
you've read it at least. So I read diligently—luckily I read fast—three or more books a day. And it did impress me what a lot of time and what a vast amount of effort these writers had put into their books. I felt I couldn't be so unkind as to dislike
any
of them. I wrote long, long notes on each book, pointing out to myself all the good things these authors had done.

Well. Armed with this heavy stack of kind remarks, I went to London to meet the other writers on the panel. The judging began.

“Now what about this book?” said the chairperson. “
Fairies at the Bottom of the Garden
, by Selina Slime?”

And all hell broke loose.

“Disgusting! Horrible!
Terrible!
” shouted the writers. “Are people still writing such things?
No marks!

“Then how about this beautiful historical romance?” asked the chairperson. “
In the Hands of Crusoe's Cannibals
?”

“Dreadful!” yelled the authors. “Nobody gets to eat anybody.”

“Then,” said the chairperson desperately, “how about this lovely description of how it feels to be a child at a bad school—
Hero of the Slum
, by Sylvester Glum?”

By this time I had realized that my kind notes were just hiding my true feelings, and I began yelling with the rest. “Revolting! Who's this Glum trying to fool?!”

“Terrible do-gooding book!” bawled all the rest.

“Then what about this charmingly poetic—” began the chairperson.

“NO!” we screamed. “Tear it up!”

In short, we were utterly ruthless, terribly noisy, and quite right. There did finally come a book at which we all screamed “YES!” even louder. And started reading bits out and howling with laughter and interrupting one another to say what the best bits were. And it was a terribly good book.

But when I was on the train, going back home, I did think, “Good heavens! I wonder what they all screamed about
my
book?”

Reading C. S. Lewis's Narnia

 

This commentary on
The Chronicles of Narnia
was originally delivered at a conference on C. S. Lewis. The article has also been published on www.amazon.com as “The Magic of Narnia.”

 

 

B
efore my student days I knew C. S. Lewis merely as the author of
The Screwtape Letters
. These were read out at morning assembly in my school, and very whimsical and condescending I found them, feeding you Christianity by pretending to speak as a devil—though I had to admit this was very good as an idea.

Judge my surprise when I went up to Oxford and discovered that this devil's advocate was a small, pear-shaped man with a mighty, rolling voice and quite formidable learning. His lectures were called “Mediaeval Prolegomena”—a title, you might think, to put anyone off. In fact, he filled the largest lecture hall to overflowing every week, discoursing from memory about the underlying beliefs of the Middle Ages with such vision, humor, and total clarity that his audience became excited enough almost to cheer.

Quite soon after, I had the splendid experience of discovering Lewis's Narnia books when my own children did. The excitement I remembered from his lectures was there, and the learning, and the clarity. There was also a measure of the whimsy I knew from
The Screwtape Letters
, but here it pulled its weight, since it was coupled with an outflowing of the imagination which gripped me and my children alike. The books are all surprisingly short. But an immense amount happens in each, apparently leisurely, yet with all the crowding action you are never in doubt what is going on. You can
see
everything that happens, so that surprisingly young children—one of mine was only two—can understand every incident. This is despite the fact that Lewis mines material from his own huge learning, drawing on theology, Renaissance geography, myth, folktales, medieval writings, and even earlier children's books, and through this he contrives to talk of the obscurer movements of the human mind in the face of faith. I marveled and learned from it.

The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe
, Lewis said, started with his vision of a faun walking in the snow beside an old-fashioned streetlight. It begins a little stiffly (and this stiffness never leaves his child protagonists) because he is feeling his way, and does not really take off until the advent of the lion, Aslan, with whom Lewis discovered he could tap in to deeper tragedy and triumph. For me, this was his major discovery: that you can invoke the whole range of human thought and feeling by beginning from one simple, clear scene. But Lewis himself asserted that it was the talking animals that truly fascinated him. He has a field day with these in
Prince Caspian
.
1
By this book he is totally assured, and the pace and scope of the story are breathtaking—myths mingle, alternate worlds clash, and you get a profound sense of the changes history brings.

That was
almost
my children's favorite, but the one they put top was
The Voyage of the Dawn Treader
,
2
where Lewis plunders medieval and Renaissance travel tales to give a limpid, episodic account of Caspian's journey to the ends of eternity. My children's best-loved episode was where Eustace gets turned into a dragon. They liked it that he got what he deserved.

This is a major theme in the Narnia books: you get what you earn. If your misfortune is undeserved, then you can overcome it with help from Beyond.
The Silver Chair
is all about this. The only thing my children liked about this one was gloomy old Puddleglum. They were uncomfortable with the almost overt expression of sexual seduction and they did not get the other point Lewis is trying to make: that moral and physical dangers you have been warned about are not always easy to recognize when you actually meet them.

My favorite is
The Magician's Nephew
. This is how to write a prequel. I admire the way Lewis contrives an explanation of that solitary street lamp in Narnia by shamelessly borrowing from E. Nesbit—and improving on her—to do it. I am utterly overwhelmed by the Wood Between the Worlds, including the way the kids nearly forget to mark their home pool; and the sheer, magical invention of things like the toffee tree, which arises purely from logically following through a magical premise, taught me a great deal about how magic should work. And
The Horse and His Boy
is a lesson in how to slot a sequel in at right angles, as it were. This happens during the time of
The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe
, but it starts from another country (Calormen) and works back into Narnia. I never could get on with
The Last Battle
, though. Reading it as an adult, I recognized Antichrist and the Apocalypse and too readily knew everyone was dead. But this was my nephew's favorite because—as he told me at length—it is so exciting and, when you think everyone is dead, they all come alive again. No, not in heaven, he insisted. For real. Well, this is the magic of the Narnia books for you.

Creating the Experience

 

This article about writing for children was published in
The Times Literary Supplement
on July 11, 1975. Diana originally titled it simply “Experience.”

 

 

B
efore writing a book for children, I tell myself this: you are trying to give children an experience they can accept and enjoy. You may also offer help, advice and information, but this is no use without mutual understanding. What you are primarily offering is your book as an experience.

Then I can start producing the experience. It is always something of an experiment. The field is so vast that I never want to do the same thing twice. But look at the possibilities. An experience is an action
combined with
the thoughts or sensations of the person performing it. Now, since the experience in question is a book, this gives me at least three sets of thoughts (or sensations) involved with the action: first I have what the characters in the book think of the action; second, what I as the writer think of it; and third, what the reader makes of it all. It is open to me to combine any of these with the action in all manner of interesting ways. I could, for instance, do as W. E. Johns does with splendid success and cut out my own thoughts entirely. If you read a Biggles book you, as the reader, are in the closest possible relationship with the characters, grown men as they are, and Johns works skillfully at keeping you that way by presenting you with an action hectic with spies and airplanes. You get a very vivid experience.

But if I want to write about ordinary children doing ordinary things, as I did in
Wilkins' Tooth
, it would be a mistake to do it the Biggles way. I might enjoy a loving re-creation of childhood—though I doubt it—merely because I am not a child. But to children it would not be an experience at all. “We
know
all about that,” they would say. “Nothing
happens
.” This cry is never a simple demand for an adventurous plot, but a criticism of the method. If I am going to produce action which is ordinary, then I must stop in myself and combine my thoughts with the action to complete the experience.

The situation I tried stepping into in
Wilkins' Tooth
is a normal one—children out on their own, as they are in the playground or in the holidays. Their only safeguard is a constant cry of “It isn't fair!” Their world is within but beyond that of adults, remote and lonely and echoing as the magic void where they find themselves after breaking Biddy's spell. From it, you appeal to adults in vain. “Help!” says Jess on one occasion. “I beg your pardon?” says the adult. These adults who impinge do so because they are too eccentric to be part of their own world.

Now, push the reader directly against this situation and it is appalling. And it is all too familiar to most children. Yet I am wanting to remove their major prop by suggesting that this cry of “It isn't fair!” is just not adequate. So I tried to make the situation acceptable in the way children make it acceptable to themselves—by finding it funny. Children are always laughing, jeering, and joking. For them, laughter is not a way of dismissing things. They learn by it. Laughter staves off the fear, horror, or bewilderment they might feel so that they can come to grips with the facts. Treat the facts that way in
Wilkins' Tooth
and you can make a fantasia on the notion of justice—“It isn't fair!” leads to a tooth for a tooth, which in turn leads to the secretive nastiness of witchcraft—and might even suggest the halting operation of mercy.

Further possibilities open up. If you treat a thing as funny the way children do, you have a ready-made bridge to fantasy. Kids tell dreadful punning jokes, every one a pocket fantasy:
Q. What lies on the seabed and shivers? A. A nervous wreck
. Poor thing. And if I am combining my own humorous thoughts with the action, why should I not, through this kind of fantasy, use the thoughts of the characters in the book in the same way?

I really enjoyed doing just this in
The Ogre Downstairs
. Thoughts figure as magic, and magic is a metaphor for thoughts. The basic idea is a kind of pun: what possible alchemy can make a set of people only yoked together by a remarriage start liking one another? Take alchemy to be magic chemistry, and there it is. The magic does all the usual things, like making people able to fly, or small, or invisible, because these things have the sort of dream-symbol quality I needed. The book is meant to function like a dream. You participate in a violent action full of hate and fury, but you are naturally horrified when Johnny pours blood about and tries to land the Ogre one with the vacuum cleaner. Books, like dreams, let you have your experience and reject it too. If I cast a fantastical-comical light over the action, you can accept it that more readily. But I was handling a situation basically more appalling than the one in
Wilkins' Tooth
, one that needs serious things said, and the magic metaphors proved wonderfully useful here. Metaphors can be distant from their referent, as the toffee bars and the dust balls are distant from the children's thoughts, but they can also be so close as to surface into the real thing. I surfaced twice, when what I was saying seemed too important to be left to chance: once when Caspar literally puts himself in Malcolm's place; and again in the “cloak of darkness” section
1
to make it clear that invisibility stands for thought. Johnny becomes all thoughts—violent ones. Thought is something no one can see, but it initiates most action.

The beauty of writing for children is that they admit to violent thoughts and accept that one violent emotion leads readily to another. Anyone knows this who has looked at a group of hilarious children and predicted, “There'll be tears in a minute.” Hilarity is on the way to tragedy, and tragedy is close and frequent among children. Now tragedy entails awe. Children's books deal much and splendidly in the awesome, and children love it. Possibly what they love is the nubbin of tragedy, modified by fantasy and its sting removed by laughter. For adults, this usually leads to sentimentality, but children are largely impervious to sentimentality. They acknowledge emotion simply.

In
Eight Days of Luke
I was experimenting in pushing the reader close to a tragic experience by laughing at it. David is in a situation I think most appalling of all—living with relatives who are not interested in him, but who justify their neglect by demanding his gratitude. I have made them funny, but the situation itself is not funny. David has to work out his loveless salvation for himself. His reaction summons up Luke. Luke is Loki,
2
a magic metaphor used this time not solely to represent David's thoughts but as a vehicle for awe. On a mundane level, he is amoral violence. If you accept him for what he is, as David does, you are willy-nilly hunted out by more awesome things. You are open to learn. The dreadful relatives mistake Luke's nature and are not open to learn anything but anger. They get Mr. Chew.
3
David moves among the entire pantheon, to Valhalla, and thence to discover real sympathy.

Because you cannot rely on children having read anything, my notion was to let the Norse legends I used make their own impact. I dissolved the action into a series of images in the latter part of the book to set the reader face to face with the awesome. At the World-tree David cheats his fate by learning from it. Stupid little girls help. At Wallsey, Cousin Ronald sees a bunch of yobbos and one-armed bandits. His is the comic view diminished. You no longer need that much, since David is dimly aware of the hall of the great dead opening onto a mundane fairground. I wanted to show how the awesome leads both to and from everyday life. The gods themselves are the big thoughts that stalk through ordinary actions, as much a part of experience as the days of the week—which of course these gods literally are.

After this I could go on to remove the action from ordinary life and see what happens then. As I said, the possibilities are boundless.

BOOK: Reflections
6.49Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

Other books

Winter Wheat by Mildred Walker
Love Obsessed by Veronica Short
Choker by Elizabeth Woods
Offline: In The Flesh by Kealan Patrick Burke
I Found My Friends by Nick Soulsby
Guinea Pigs Don't Talk by Laurie Myers