April 4, 2011

La migliora fabbra: Diana Wynne Jones

Filed under: my favourite authors,news — Rhiannon Lassiter @ 7:38 pm

Diana Wynne Jones (16 August 1934 – 26 March 2011)

Shortly before I went to Bologna, Diana Wynne Jones lost her battle with cancer. She was 77 years old.

Diana had a very strange childhood, she and her sisters were neglected by her parents. Her autobiography can be found on her authorised website and the story of her childhood is essentially that of the four girls in The Time of the Ghost. Most peculiarly, her educated literate parents didn’t provide books!

Diana wrote:

…my father was inordinately mean about money. He solved the Christmas book-giving by buying an set of Arthur Ransome books, which he kept locked in a high cupboard and dispensed one between the three of us each year. Clarance House had books, he said. True: it had been stocked mostly from auctions and, from this stock, before I was fourteen, I had read all of Conrad, Freud’s Interpretation of Dreams, Bertrand Russell on relativity, besides a job lot of history and historic novels – and all thirty books from the public library in the guildhall. Isobel and I suffered from perpetual book starvation. We begged, saved, and cycled for miles to borrow books, but there were still never enough. When I was thirteen, I began writing narratives in old exercise books to fill this gap, and read them aloud to my sisters at night. I finished two, both of epic length and quite terrible. But in case someone is tempted to say my father me a favour, I must say this is not the case at all. I always would have been a writer. I still had this calm certainty. All these epics did for me was to prove that I could finish a story. My mother was always telling me that I was much too incompetent to finish anything. During her ugly, semi-delinquent litanies she frequently said, “When you do the Oxford exams, you’ll get a place, but you won’t do better than that. You haven’t got what it takes.”

Fortunately for Diana and for the world, she was never shaken from that calm conviction she was an author. Once she had escaped from the privations of childhood, she flourished. She married and had a family of her own and once her children were in school she set about the business of writing books.

Diana may be gone but those wonderful books remain. I remember howling with laughter over Howl’s Moving Castle at ten. (The scene where Sophie massacres Howl’s suits: “Give it here, all seven of it.”) I read Fire and Hemlock in the same year as I read Margaret Mahy’s The Changeover and those two books have influenced my writing ever since, making me a ‘magical realist’ author, inspired by both of those fine writers.

I’ve already posted about Diana’s work on my blog. She will always be one of my favourite authors. As I said earlier The Homeward Bounders and A Tale of Time City are two of my favourites. But other favourites include the Chrestomanci series (especially The Lives of Christopher Chant and Witch Week); the Howl series, particularly the first book, Hexwood, Fire and Hemlock and Archer’s Goom. There are just so many good novels, each brimming with originality, serious and humorous at once.

The title of ‘A Sudden Wild Magic’ expresses this quality of untamed imagination, which is why I’ve chosen it to illustrate this blog post. Diana will be much missed but she is also, rightly, much celebrated. Strange Horizons have posted a requiem in links to the various posts and obituaries of Diana. There’s so much to celebrate in an author who achieved so much and gave so much happiness to the world.

Diana said: Each book is an experiment, an attempt to write the ideal book, the book my children would like, the book I didn’t have as a child myself. I have still not, after twenty-odd books, written that book. That’s a feeling any writer will recognise. But it’s not the sense that a reader has when surveying shelves laden with so many fine novels.

June 2, 2010

My favourite authors: Diana Wynne Jones

Filed under: bloggery,growing up,my favourite authors,recommended reading — Tags: , — Rhiannon Lassiter @ 4:08 pm

Each book is an experiment, an attempt to write the ideal book, the book my children would like, the book I didn’t have as a child myself. I have still not, after twenty-odd books, written that book. – Diana Wynne Jones

I’ve been reading about Diana Wynne Jones on her official website, prompted by the sad news in Ansible that her oncologist fears she “has ‘months rather than years’”. I have loved Diana’s work for years. I still vividly remember reading Howl’s Moving Castle at age ten and laughing myself silly but even that wasn’t the first DWJ book I’d read. I’d found Witch Week a couple of years earlier but hadn’t made the connection. From age eleven I was following her work compulsively. My mother and I both loved Fire and Hemlock but I was particular found of her more sf titles: A Tale of Time City and The Homeward Bounders. I’ve recently been re-reading my collection of her books for the umpteenth time and noticed that the more I read it the better I like The Time of the Ghost and how clear it is to me as an adult and a writer myself how much of her own childhood experience she puts into her work.

There are so many of her books I love. For sheer hilarity and imagination I don’t think books come much better than Archer’s Goon. I think overall I prefer the novels where she uses her own vast store of creativity to imagine beings who are mysteriously magical to the ones in which she draws on mythic themes and resonances. (Eight Days of Luke employed the norse gods, Hexwood an assortment of mythic figures and Fire and Hemlock and  Enchanted Glass the seelie court.) I do appreciate a good mythic reimagining but Diana can create powerful characters and strong ideas of her own without relying on borrowed power.  In her Chrestomanci series she created a central character, a surrounding world and an expansive multiverse which is iconic in the fantasy genre and has doubtless influenced a number of other YA writers.

My own writing has definitely been influenced by Diana’s work. The relationships and dysfunctions of families is a strong theme in her work and has become so in mine. I’ve also endeavoured to emulate her smooth transitions between the magical and the mundane: in settings, plotting and the way my characters think.

Having read Diana’s words quoted above about her attempts to write the ideal book – the one she wanted as a child – I feel a strong empathy with that impulse. I also have not yet written my ideal book although I feel that I am getting closer to it. But my conception of what the ideal book is comes from Diana Wynne Jones’s work. She and Margaret Mahy have set the standard I aspire to and drawn the map of of the fictional landscape I inhabit.

I have never met Diana but I feel as though I know her through how much of herself she has given to her readers. My thoughts are with her and her family in this difficult time and I hope very much that she will surprise the medical profession. With all that she has given us, she still has more to give. Meanwhile I’m returning to reread the rest of my collection and to fill in the astounding gap. I think there are two whole novels of hers I inaccountably don’t possess.

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