This weekend, one of my favourite authors of all time, Diana Wynne Jones, died. I knew that she had been badly ill but it still came as a bit of a shock, after all she was still very much, actively, writing (there’s a new book coming out in June).
My feelings can be captured perfectly in a beautiful obituary by my friend Jane, and so I shall copy it here:
Yesterday morning brought the very sad news that Diana Wynne Jones, my absolute favourite author in all the world, had died. She was 76, and had been battling lung cancer for almost two years, plus Neil Gaiman had dropped a fairly hefty hint that it wouldn’t be long when he tweeted about going to say goodbye to a dying friend on Friday, so there was no surprise, but with the confirmation of the news came a deep and genuine sadness. There are certain people in the world that, even though they have no idea who you are, have still touched and shaped your life, and for me, there are few people that have had the impact on me that Diana Wynne Jones has had. Her words and stories have resonated with me from childhood through to adulthood, and she has transported me to so many worlds, introduced me to so many characters, entertained, amused and enlightened me, made me laugh and cry and above all, think. She was the author of THE BOOK for me, the one that for me is everything a book should be, that sits in my heart in the way that no other does, the incomparable Fire & Hemlock. So, in grateful tribute to the greatest, most underrated author of the past forty years, and a wise and witty woman, here is a blog about what her words have meant to me over the years.
I must have been about 10 when I first picked up a DWJ novel, and I’m fairly sure it was The Lives of Christopher Chant, though it could have been Charmed Life or The Magicians of Caprona. I have to admit to not being able to say with certainty that that was the first one I read, but it’s the first one I have a clear memory of. I found it, as I found almost all my books back then, in the children’s section of the Tilehurst Library, kneeling on the scratchy carpet, searching for new worlds to visit. I always loved fantasy, and was always searching for the next Narnia (I was, naturally, one of those children who pushed on the backs of wardrobes just in case), and so it’s no surprise that DWJ appealed to me, and equally no surprise that I loved the tale of the boy travelling between the worlds, his lives being counted out in matchsticks. I have equally strong early memories of The Magicians of Caprona, and the children being turned into the puppets in the Punch & Judy show. It’s one of DWJ’s signature gifts that she was always able to create such terrifying situations, and yet you always knew that things would turn out right in the end. Her books are whirlwind rides, ripping the protagonist(s) out of their mundane lives, building up the threat and hovering on the precipice of complete chaos and things tipping out of control, only to be yanked back to safety at the last minute – hugely appealing to a child with an over-active imagination and a pefectly normal and comfortable life, as was her blending of fantasy and reality, or showing you the familiar, distorted or twisted (such as when Sophie visits Wales in Howl’s Moving Castle). And yet each one is distinct – picking up a new DWJ to read is like clambering into your nice comfortable car but having no idea where it’s going to take you.
But I digress. The two books of hers that left the strongest impression on me when I was young were Archer’s Goon and A Tale of Time City. I read the former after it was dramatised by the BBC (Wikipedia tells me it was in 1992), and remember being blown away by the twist about Howard as well as Quentin writing the ending – the writer as hero indeed. As for the latter, I simply adored it. I loved everything about Time City, which was as real to me as any fictional world has any right to be – I could feel the breeze on my face as they drifted down the River Time, I could see the bustle of the citizens rushing about their business, I could smell the wood panelled walls in Faber John’s study, I could taste the butter pie. And the time travel blew my mind – “if all time is eternally present, all time is unredeemable”, as another writer that DWJ led me to put it – it was my first exposure to that kind of concept, which has enthralled me ever since. I remember being utterly astounded by the scenes of 53rd century London, all grown over with only tumbledown bits of masonry remaining to show where Buckingham Palace and Nelson’s Column once were. More than any writer I read as a child, DWJ’s books expanded my concept of what the universe could be (and I speak as the child who had an existential crisis aged five). The past and the future were suddenly real places, what you saw in your mind could have a real impact on the world around you, another world is always just around the corner, if you know where to look, and it might be scary, but good always triumphs in the end.
I fell away from DWJ during my teenage sword-and-sorcery years, until one day, oh-so-aptly, when packing to return to university, I came across my old copy of Fire & Hemlock, a book I had read many years before, but which hadn’t left an enormously strong impression on me at the time. Procrastinating, I opened it and started to read. And read and read right through. Whereas aged 12 or 13 I had enjoyed the story but not really fully understood it, aged 21 I fell in love with it. I’ve tried to explain before what this book means to me, how it satisfies me both emotionally and intellectually, how I can read it over and over and never tire of it, how I’ve puzzled over it and teased out meanings, but I never really feel I do it justice. I’ve given it to other people to read, after raving about it, but more often than not they haven’t ‘got it’, and in the end I’ve realised this is just something very personal with me. I have found other people who do understand, at various points and in various places, and that’s wonderful, but to be honest it’s almost so personal a bond that I have with this book that I almost don’t want it tarnished by sharing it. It is, quite simply, the one book that I’d choose to keep if I could only ever have one book to read for ever more, and for someone like me who can’t get enough of stories, that says quite how much this one is special.
In the wake of my rediscovery of Fire & Hemlock, I went on a massive DWJ spree, reading everything of hers I could get my hands on. I was fortunate that this was just at the same time as HarperCollins were republishing her entire oeuvre in the post-Harry Potter children’s fantasy boom, and so they were all easily available. I discovered I’d read more of them before than I thought I had, but was equally delighted to discover so many that I hadn’t ever come across. And they were all varying degrees of wonderful. She was wildly prolific – I think she wrote some forty books, along with numerous further short stories. I think I’ve read everything (I even managed to track down her very first book, Changeover, which is almost impossible to find anywhere), but such is the volume of her output that I can’t be sure (and how wonderful would it be to find something I hadn’t read!). It’s almost impossible to choose favourites, but last summer, when Jenny’s Books hosted a Diana Wynne Jones week, I blogged about the seven that I think are mine: Fire & Hemlock, Deep Secret, Hexwood, Howl’s Moving Castle, A Tale of Time City, Archer’s Goon and The Tough Guide to Fantasyland. However, even the stories of hers I like the least are still heads and shoulders above almost anything else in the genre in their inventiveness, humour, wisdom and charm.
At the same time as I was rediscovering DWJ in earnest, I was also in the middle of a mythology kick, springing from my studies in medieval literature. I became fascinated by the way stories were retold, reinvented, and repurposed, and DWJ’s output, being so rooted in myth and legend, impressed me hugely on this level too. I started reading a lot of her non-fiction writings, essays, articles, interviews, and was struck time and time again by how wise she was. She really understood stories, understood how they work and the effect they have on readers of all ages, but particularly children. She never made concessions for the age of her audience, pointing out that actually children often understand perfectly things that adults don’t expect them to be able to get to grips with, and the challenging nature of the concepts she wove into her tales is exactly why I loved her both as a child and still love her as an adult – she pushes you to think and to imagine beyond the usual parameters of your world. And she always did so with both a glorious sense of mischief and a finely honed sense of the absurd – I never met her and only saw a couple of bits of video footage of her in person, but always imagined her with a real twinkle in her eye.
The other gift that Diana Wynne Jones gave me, beyond her books and her words, was to introduce me to other books and other writers that she talked about or referenced, and most notably Neil Gaiman, from whose twitter I learnt of her death. I had never heard of Neil Gaiman until I saw that Hexwood was dedicated to him and read his delightful poem of gratitude. I then heard something about how his book American Gods was loosely inspired by her Eight Days of Luke (well, they share a concept), and decided I really must check him out. He has become my other all-time favourite writer, and is the only other author whose works and words fill me with anything approaching the same sense of awe and wonder and delight. She also led to my adult discovery of T.S. Eliot, another writer whose words have expanded my view of the universe, fired my imagination, and made me wonder.
So farewell, Diana, and may you rest in peace. Thank you for everything that you have given me, without ever knowing that you had. Thank you for your words, your ideas, your imagination, your wisdom, your humour, your erudition, your characters, your worlds, and above all, for your stories. They have become part of the fabric of me, and though I am sad that there will be no more, I am forever grateful to have them.
I think I was both cursed and blessed in equal measure to have discovered Diana Wynne Jones with Fire & Hemlock, in I think, 1986. My friend Simon told me about her during a GCSE Geography lesson, and recommended this book. I still have the Methuen Teens edition with the pastel cover, and treasure it fondly. It’s a book that immediately gripped and intrigued me although I can’t pretend to have understood all of it at first (particularly that ending), and still longer – many years – before I got all the references. My current novel is more than a little inspired by Fire & to the point of even having some carefully constructed nods to the text.
To begin one’s discovery of Diana’s books with such a great one fires you with enthusiasm to read more, but can any of them *quite* equal the greatness? I love Charmed Life and The Lives of Christopher Chant along with some of the earlier of her famous Chrestomanci novels, but for me she was at her strongest when she was writing standalone novels, and in particular one’s that exist, if in part in our world, in the here and now (dare I say nowhere?).
A great writer who will be much missed, but to whom, and to whose imagination, we owe a great deal.