‘Estelle leaned over, looked and goggled. “Do you know what I think?” she whispered. “When you grow up to be an author and write books, you’ll think you’re making the books up, but they’ll all really be true somewhere.” She sighed. “My poem’s going to be about a great enchanter.”’
Diana Wynne Jones had just finished the sequence in her forthcoming novel, A Tale of Time City, where the place is cracking up and collapsing. She left her tiny study, high up at the back of the house in the quiet. leafy Bristol terrace where she lives, repaired to the lounge for a well-earned breather, and the entire study ceiling caved in!! As she justly claims – ‘The world is like my fantasies. I used to spend a lot of time as a child wishing things were otherwise and it seems to me that in books you can have them otherwise. Now I find, in a creepy way, each time I write a book it comes true, or part of it, in a way which is quite scaryfying.’
As children Diana and her two sisters were deprived of a good, steady supply of books by a father ‘who would beat Scrooge in a meanness contest’. So, to make ‘things otherwise’, Diana began to create stories to read to her sisters. One particular epic ran to 15 exercise books, which could explain the length of the majority of her books now. It also taught her, at an early age, how to finish a book. ‘An important thing about learning to be a writer is that you can actually bring a narrative to an end.’
Sisterly storytelling sessions were not, however, all sweetness and light; the three girls were fiercely, intellectually competitive. A friend quelled a hair-pulling cat fight one day, announcing that, as usual, the trio were arguing not about things but about ideas. Diana was enraged that a sister had stolen one of her notions! Even so, she wasn’t always as confident: ‘at the age of ten I thought there was something wrong with my imagination because I couldn’t conceive of scenes.’
No-one who has read her 20-plus books, beginning with Wilkins’ Tooth, would fault her imagination now. She is constantly surprising us with new and witty works that transport us into utterly fantastic and original realms. Her fan mail is as much from adults as from children; she has become a celebrity with the fantasy game clubs, nominated for the international World Fantasy Award; and she receives an increasing number of requests to speak at such gatherings as The Tolkien Society. Her books are published in West Germany, the Scandinavian countries and America, where a multiple coven of some 150 witches and warlocks paid her the dubious compliment of inviting her to be guest of honour at one of their conventions. She went and was horrified! Who Got Rid of Angus Flint? has become required reading for the Japanese equivalent of English O-level, printed in English with Japanese footnotes.
In recent books, particularly A Tale of Time City, the imaginative fantasy is blurring into equally imaginative Sci-Fi. The spur for this move came from reading recommendations by one of her sons. Diana rates the boundaries between the two genres as purely notional. ‘I like having the two mixed. We can be too rigid in our pigeon-holing.’ Whatever the mixture it is utterly necessary for her to believe in the worlds she is creating. ‘Sometimes I think I’m probably mad believing in all these extraordinary things. When I am writing books like Witch Week, The Spellcoats or A Charmed Life, that world is as real to me as the world I’m living in. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if I went through a door to find myself in these places.’
Before she begins a story Diana needs to find her point of view and then works herself ‘like a puppet’ to realise that point of view through a character. Often it is an odd viewpoint as in Dogsbody where the story is presented through the eyes, ears and nose of a dog; in the story collection, Warlock at the Wheel, No One, a robot, has his say and in Howl’s Moving Castle it’s a young girl magicked into a 90-year-old crone.
Stories do not always come right first time and there are periods of despair when she wonders whether she’ll ever write again. Her complex plots can cause mammoth problems but Diana does not keep notes and eschews most research ‘because then I get stuck in a certain way and there’s no freedom for unexpected things to happen and I love unexpected things to happen.’ When she began Archer’s Goon, which won the Boston Globe Horn Book Award, she had no idea which of the megalomaniac wizards were male and which female. She does usually have a beginning and end in mind and some bits in the middle. The locales are not generally specific, ‘because it used to worry me as a child that I didn’t know, and I felt ignorant and stupid if I didn’t know, say, the Lake District in the Ransome books all that well.’ The characters, however, are often based on real people although many seem to appear from nowhere, like the enchanter Chrestomanci who features often and is one of Diana’s personal favourites. Keeping track of them all is a trial, especially when the stories are at their typically frantic, chaotic best. But then Diana loves ‘the bits where it goes more and more chaotic and in a perfectly logical way enormously mad things happen and it gets madder and madder and then ties up at the end.’
In the centre of all this wild humour and chaos there is often a character wrestling with a problem. ‘It’s a terrible thing to be a child, particularly if you’re one down for personal reasons. I set out to provide comfort for those… One of the things I can do is put a problem in a way that they can walk all around it without pain and with a certain amount of joy, making it funny on purpose. Children use jokes in order to make things bearable.’ Diana speaks from personal experience. She dismisses stories about gay parents or how to cope with rape as ‘merely a higher form of journalism’. She is inserting magic deliberately to speak to more than just the limited audience who share a specific ‘problem’. Her notional reader is a child of about 11, although she writes what wants to come out at the time and sometimes it comes out to the younger and sometimes the older end. If she begins by being too specific about her audience, ‘it stops me dead because I spend the whole time thinking in too much detail.’
Diana brushes aside the charge that her plots might be too complex, the notions too hard to comprehend easily or the language too demanding for some readers. ‘Most adults have given up using their brains when they read. Children are used to not knowing things and using their brains. Children read slower and you don’t have to keep telling them things and explaining things, so you can, paradoxically, make things harder and not waste time in boring details… If a story is going well enough readers will accept all sorts of words, which they normally wouldn’t, because they’re interested in the story and the context is clear.’
On being a writer of books for children and not adults she is equally emphatic. She hates people who say ‘I haven’t read any of your books for children, of course.’ It’s the last two words that enrage her. She is offended by the assumption that because what she writes is fantastic and funny it is in the realms of the unreal, written for children, who aren’t, after all, real people. ‘They can’t see that I might be doing something very serious indeed. I do find that there is a tremendous responsibility. It’s always on the cards that you’ll write a children’s book which will shape them as an adult… Really what a book can give is experience in all meanings of the word, not just being exciting or entertaining but experience in the world with people. I lend my own experience to children.’
Whilst a book is in the making Diana goes ‘vague and absent-minded’. When her three sons were at home they grew to recognise and dread the warning signs. Even the dog seemed to sense the change! During the two to six weeks that it takes to complete the first draft she not only forgets to take meals herself but also omits to feed the rest of the household. On one never-to-be-forgotten occasion her sons returned home from school, ravenous, to find that their mother had shoved a pair of muddy shoes in the oven for their tea. Once a book is going it becomes all-absorbing. She practises no delaying tactics or rituals, she can write anywhere in any circumstances. She confesses that she can often be writing it in the head on such things as school visits – ‘A kind of serendipity occurs and things happen that can be put in even if you have to go off and do other things.’
The first drafts are a model of inventive spellings; Diana is dyslexic. She writes orally, which makes her stories easy to read aloud, but she does tend to spell words as they are said and does amazing things with a few letters. She claims that she is totally unliterary – ’when I hear the word “literature” I go for my gun.’ Yet she read English at Oxford and her husband is a professor of English. There are often many literary or classical references in her stories, as with the Loki legends in Eight Days of Luke. These are included deliberately, because the author herself thinks that there is a lot of good stuff around from which she’s learnt much – ’with children you can rely on them not knowing all sorts of things and probably they never will, so I put them in.’ For her own part she loves long books and is never happier than when she discovers another new trilogy!
Her popularity in schools has brought a flood of requests for visits. With her mane of dark curly hair, her liking for large striking rings and dressed in her darkest clothes, pupils might wonder whether she’s one of her own wizardly creations, but it is never long before her wide smile and throaty chuckle dispels the apprehension and gives way to an appreciation of her warm good humour. She loves to laugh and often spends solitary afternoons laughing non-stop to herself as she creates the chaotic passages in her stories. And when the story is finally completed, all of the family shoes are safe from a roasting and this highly inventive, amazingly humorous lady returns to practising to get better grades in her cello exam. She explains with a twinkle in her eye that she’s awful at it, but she took up the cello as a challenge in middle age, much to everyone’s amusement because she can’t even sing in tune. Somehow you never know quite whether you should believe someone who makes up books about great enchanters!
Archer’s Goon, Methuen, 0 416 49260 6, £7.95; Magnet, 0 416 62280 1, £1.75 pbk
A Charmed Life, Puffin, 0 14 03.1075 4, £1.95 pbk
Drowned Ammet, Macmillan, 0 333 22620 8, £4.95
Eight Days of Luke, Puffin, 0 14 03.0969 1, £1.50 pbk
Fire and Hemlock, Methuen, 0 416 50960 6, £8.95; Methuen Teens, 0 416 04022 5, £1.95 pbk (Oct 87)
The Homeward Bounders, Macmillan, 0 333 30979 0, £6.95; Magnet, 0 416 22940 9, £1.50 pbk
Howl’s Moving Castle, Methuen, 0 416 61590 2, £7.95; Methuen Teens, 0 416 07442 1, £1.95 pbk (April 88)
The Magicians of Caprona, Macmillan, 0 333 278917, £6.95; Beaver, 0 09 954280 3, £1.95 pbk (Reissue Dec 87)
The Skiver’s Guide, Knight, 0 340 33985 3, £1.25 pbk
A Tale of Time City, Methuen, 0 416 02362 2, £8.95 (Oct 87)
Time of the Ghost, Beaver, 0 09 935950 2, £1.95 pbk (Reissue Dec 87)
Warlock at the Wheel, Macmillan, 0 333 37613 7, £6.95
Who Got Rid of Angus Flint?, Magnet, 0 416 88480 6, £1.25 pbk
Witch Week, Macmillan, 0 333 33189 3, £6.95; Magnet, 0 416 52870 8, £1.95 pbk
Photograph courtesy of Methuen.