‘I can remember sitting at a table peeling potatoes with one hand and writing a story with the other. I had an agent who said you could always elbow yourself out a pocket of time if you had to, and I do believe the more time you have the less you do with it.’
Joan Aiken was remembering – amazingly with pleasure – that period in her life when she was running a guest house in Cornwall, caring for two small children and a desperately ill husband, and writing to augment a precarious income. So her present lifestyle is not so surprising: she spends autumn to spring in New York, where her second husband is a professor of art at the City University, nipping back for Christmas, and the summer in their renovated 18th-century house, tucked into the edge of the ancient little town (familiar to Dido Twite) of Petworth in Sussex. It’s not every grandmother’s idea of gracefully easing up, but Joan Aiken, as long as she has an Adler typewriter waiting for her on either side of the Atlantic, is both stimulated and content.
And in many senses she has not moved far from her roots, neither literary nor geographical. Her father, the Pulitzer-winning poet and writer, Conrad Aiken, came to England in 1920 with her elder brother and sister, and Joan was born in Rye four years later, ‘six houses down from where Henry James had lived ten years before’. Her parents divorced when she was about three, and her mother married the English writer Martin Armstrong; Aiken, who married twice more, was himself always crossing the Atlantic while Joan grew up in Armstrong’s cottage in Sutton, a village close to Petworth. He was, she says, a nice stepfather and a civilised man, who never tried to supplant the children’s real father – and who gave her a literary start by allowing her to draw on the backs of his royalty statements. It is also significant that both Armstrong and Aiken not only collected ghost stories but themselves wrote several classics that have been repeatedly anthologised throughout Joan’s life.
Her Canadian mother had lost her money in the slump, so while Joan’s brother and sister were at school and university, she, an MA graduate of McGill and Radcliffe, herself taught Joan until she was 12, when she went away to school in Oxford.
‘My sister chose the school when she was at Somerville – she had been wretched at hers, sneered at for her American accent, and she resolved I shouldn’t suffer – but of course I had never learnt to mix and it was a shock suddenly to go to boarding school. Indeed, I stopped growing, probably from the trauma of it.’ (She is certainly today a tiny soul, with the friendly, comfortable look of a slightly slimmer Mrs Pepperpot.) ‘But Wychwood was a small quiet school, “self-governing” with a lot of committee meetings – very progressive for those days, except that the three things not covered by self-government were health, curriculum and deportment, which pretty well spanned the whole of life!’
Then, at 17, ‘I disgraced my family by not going to university, more or less deliberately failing my Oxford entrance.’ World War Two had started, she had friends who had jobs in London, and university seemed threateningly like an extension of school. Ironically, her first job, with an evacuated branch of the BBC housed in a mansion in Goring Heath, outside Reading, ‘built by the man who’d made HP sauce, very bizarre and weird, with a minstrel’s gallery’, was indeed just like boarding school all over again, and consisted of going to the post on a bicycle and ruling lines on the back of index cards.
She clearly needed more skills, so went to a secretarial college (also evacuated) in Bucks, and on to a job with the United Nations, at that time setting up a London Information Office. ‘It began as an offshoot of the Ministry of Information, but branched out on its own in a little house on the corner of Russell Square, about a dozen of us in a small office. It was a lovely job, great fun, dealing with all the exiled governments in London – de Gaulle, the Greeks, the Poles – and their press releases.’
Of course it was fun – she met and married the press officer. He was ‘a very nice guy’, 14 years older, but, looking back, she thinks not going to university and plunging into marriage at 20 made her ‘miss having a little longer to grow up, time to look about’. Ten years later she was a young widow with a boy of three and a girl of five.
‘My husband had been a journalist: with Reuters and then Associated Press, so, thanks to the hard work of the NUJ, after he first fell ill he got severance pay, and we started running a guest house in Cornwall. He was thought to have had TB, and to be recovering, but after a couple of years his condition got, worse and it was plain he had lung cancer.’ He died in his mid 40s.
The magazine Argosy had taken some adult short stories she had written in Cornwall ‘to get a bit of cash’, so she wrote asking if they had a vacancy. They didn’t but ‘sort of made one’, and she moved back to London and a full-time job. ‘Luckily my brother’s’ wife was running a little school for the children of divorced parents or whatever, so my children lived with her during the week and I had them at weekends, but of course I missed them horribly and we had a miserable time for about three years. The Argosy pay was low, but I wrote stories for magazines like Everywoman and John Bull – the short story market was stronger in those days – and so made some sort of living.’
When relatives offered rent-free accommodation in Sussex, Argosy generously agreed to her working a three-day week, but this also meant that when the relatives later wanted to move she and her family were out on a limb. It was then she found White Hart House, an old pub in Petworth’s High Street, and an incredible bargain at £1800.
With a £300 loan from her mother as a deposit, and a £50 job lot of furniture, ‘we were in clover, because the children could go to a lovely school in Midhurst just by getting on a bus, while I continued to go to London.’ By this time, beginning to think that the short story was uneconomic, she was writing five-part serial thrillers for Argosy’s sister magazine, Suspense, and for Everywoman.
She left Argosy to write advertising copy for Campbell’s soups at J Walter Thompson. ‘Almost everyone I’ve met has worked there at some time! The girl I shared a room with invented “When a mother cares, it shows” and Brillo Soap Pads, which must have made a fortune for someone.’ But though the money was better it meant a daily 13 hours away from home, ‘and my daughter was beginning to show signs of deprivation – they had had a tough childhood.’
So the breath-holding decision was taken to write full-time. ‘The Wolves of Willoughby Chase was the first book to make money for me. I’d actually done two chapters just before my husband was ill but had put it away. Abelard Schuman, who’d published some short stories in America, accepted it (called “Bonnie Green” then) but said it was too scary – could I prune it, take out the wolves? I said Never! My agent literally forgot it for a year, then apologised and sent it to Cape. It did quite well here, but after a lovely, whole-page review in Time it sold like mad in America, and so confirmed me in my mad resolution to freelance.
‘Doubleday, who published Wolves, asked me (amazingly conveniently) about crime novels, so I interspersed children’s books with thrillers. My adult books have never done fantastically well, but they make a nice alternative, an opportunity to change gear.’ Even while she says this, that famous little head of the Mystery Writers’ Association Award, with its black hair and floppy bow-tie, is sitting in the next room.
Her unflagging creative energy has not only made her prolific but communicates a boundless sense of pleasure. She starts to say that it’s different now it’s a serious profession, but then remembers how important it has always been that she sold. ‘When writing for Argosy I eyed their requirements with the utmost intensity, producing exactly what I thought they would take – good training!
‘Margery Allingham spoke of left- and right-hand writing, what you do for yourself and what you do to satisfy others: I suppose Wolves was for myself, and the Dido books – in fact, they’re probably too self-indulgent, full of dialect and adult word-play. But children’s books should be written on different levels, or there will be nothing for them if they read it again at a later age’
Her Dido books, with their blackly farcical Hanoverian plots and exuberantly invented language, are a headache for translators – ‘I have a lovely Japanese translator who writes immense letters seeking exact meanings of, for instance, the Nantucket whaling terms’ – and this time her German publishers have turned down Dido and Pa perhaps for being just a little too anti-German? But she brushes aside the current pressures other writers feel – to provide teenage novels, or a positive female image (Dido’s simply a-natural), or tough social realism-maintaining that such demands would drive her to react perversely.
Her own favourites are her ghost stories and ‘frivolous fantasies’, and her fairy tales with a twist. Her new collection, Past Eight O’Clock, illustrated with Jan Pienkowski’s silhouettes, this time chunkier cut-outs, is based on lullabies and dedicated to her baby grand-daughter, Arabel (yes, after the Jackanory stories). Arabel is the child of the little girl who had Black Hearts in Battersea read to her every day after school, and whose criticisms were taken most seriously.
Seven years ago, after 20 years in White Hart House, she moved to a then-dilapidated, dark old house, several hundred yards and a whole world away – so secluded she had never realised it was there. Like Julius Goldstein, whom she married ten years ago and whom she had met through a chain of inter-connections that stretched back to Cornwall, it had been waiting for her, unknown. Julius found it, but it was she who knew they had to have it.
Now it’s bright with white paint and polished wood, the walls covered in Julius’s water-colours and the first steps in Joan’s career in pastels. The lawn, bounded by an ancient, overgrown, low wall, hangs on the very edge of a steep little valley, and her attic study looks out on three sides to a green southern landscape that stretches to the far distant Hog’s Back. This is her world. New York, with its old friends, its fine libraries and all its excitement, is only the place she goes to: Petworth is where she comes home.
Photograph by Susan Witney.
Some of Joan Aiken’s many books
(published by Cape in hardback and by Puffin in paperback)
Past Eight O’Clock, 0 224 02856 1, £7.50 (September 1986)
Black Hearts in Battersea, 0 224 60705 7, £4.95; 014 03.0345 9, £1.75 pbk
The Cuckoo Tree, 0 224 00514 6, £4.95; 0 14 03.0616 1, £2.25 pbk
Dido and Pa, 0 224 02364 0, £7.95
Night Birds on Nantucket, 0 224 60687 5, £5.95; 014 03.0346 4, £1.95 pbk
The Whispering Mountain, 0 224 61574 2, £5.95; 014 03.0460 6, £1.75 pbk
The Wolves of Willoughby Chase, 0 224 60004 4, £4.95; 0 14 03.0310 3, £1.75 pbk
Bridle the Wind, 0 224 02137 0, £6.95; 014 03.1896 8, £2.50 pbk (paperback reissued September 1986)
Go Saddle the Sea, 0 224 01546 X, £6.95; 014 03.1155 6, £1.50 pbk
Midnight is a Place, 0 224 00968 0, £6.95; 0 14 03.0836 9, 2.25 pbk
The Shadow Guests, 0 224 01797 7, £5.95; 0 14 03.1388 5, £1.95 pbk
The Kingdom Under the Sea, 0 224 61882 2, £6.95; 0 14 03.0641 2, £1.95 pbk
A Necklace of Raindrops, 0 224 61462 2, £6.95; 0 14 03.0754 0, £1.95 pbk
Tale of a One-way Street, 0 224 01158 8, £6.95; 014 03.1700 7, £1.95 pbk
Arabel and Mortimer, 0 224 01765 9, £5.95
Tales of Arabel’s Raven, 0 224 01059 X, £5.95