Letting the Oddity Live On: A Salute to Diana Wynne Jones

I’ve had those times when I’ve actively mourned “celebrities”artists, let’s call them because it isn’t the fame that made them important to me, and I think the “celebrity” label cheapens that importance.

But the experience I had five years ago at the end of this month was just a little different. Yes, I was mourning one of my favorite authors. But I also couldn’t shake the feeling that now I had to–was being called to–carry on her legacy.

And in at least one way–the forcing-other-people-to-listen-to-me-rave-about-her way–I’ve had help with that. During March 2012, a year after her death, her publishers held a blog tour/on-line celebration of the life and works of Diana Wynne Jones. So many bloggers wanted to participate that “#DWJMarch” managed to take over April and May as well. Each year since, Kristen M. at the book blog We Be Reading has continued to host #DWJMarch, and a smaller-but-dedicated group of fans continues to pitch in.

Since last March took Terry Pratchett away from us, too, she’s added him into the mix this year as well, renaming the celebration “March Magics.”

It’s a combination that makes a lot of sense. They’re both English fantasy writers who wrote books that not only skewered the conventions of fantasy, but also offered biting observations of any other topic (especially real life). They created characters both hilarious and heartbreaking. The Venn Diagram for Terry Pratchett and Diana Wynne Jones fans ought to be nearly a circle, but somehow she is less well-known in the mainstream.

Why don’t more everyday, not-in-the-industry people know about her? Why aren’t her Chronicles of Chrestomanci at the very top of every Harry Potter read-alike list (where they very much should be)? Why do so many Miyazaki fans (and far too many people working on the movie itself, going by the special features I watched) not realize that Howl’s Moving Castle was based on a twenty-year-old (then) book by a prolific Englishwoman?

(I do not wish to alienate all the Miyazaki fans reading this, so I’ll try to limit my very strong feelings on this movie to this link.  Short version: THAT ISN’T HOWL. Howl is a way more interesting character than that generic leading man in the movie, and now you must go read the book to meet him. GO! READ IT! NOW!)

witch's business first edition Diana Wynne Jones
First U.S. Edition of DWJ’s first children’s book, Witch’s Business (Wilkin’s Tooth in the U.K.) I weeded it from the library on account of the horrible ancient cover and that I was the only person who’d checked it out in ten years, then added it to my own personal collection. Image: a picture I took of a book cover originally copyright E.P. Dutton Publishers

Maybe she’s too good. Maybe people don’t want to read stories that subvert their expectations, force them to see tropes and people and concepts in all new ways. Maybe that’s why she appeals to people who spend more time than usual with books. I saw someone refer to her once as an “author’s author,” because only people who’d really worked at their own writing could appreciate the magic with which she weaved stories. It may have been her friend Neil Gaiman–yet another thing she and Pratchett have in common. Gaiman makes the same point in other words in his own tribute post. In bookish circles– the ones participating in memorial blog tours– she is adored.

I have my own personal sob story about the little-known occupational hazards of librarianship: ever since I took over collection development duties, I got burned out on books. There are too many of them! I don’t have the time or patience to get through a novel anymore unless there’s something really special about it.

But in December 2008, I knew I’d found a winner. It was so late at night both the husband and son were already asleep, and every part of my rational mind told me I should be there myself: I was five months pregnant, had a toddler, two part-time jobs, and a contracted activity book writing project due in a week, on top of the usual getting-ready-for-holidays stuff. But I was halfway through Howl’s Moving Castle for the first time, and sleep seemed like a perfectly decent sacrifice.

“This just feels… so… fresh,” I decided in a near-futile effort to pinpoint why I was having so much fun. It had been around for decades and still felt like nothing else I’d ever read. Sure, there are plenty of humorous fairy-tale-kingdom stories. There are so many stories that subvert classic fairy tale tropes that even the subversions feel like tropes. This was more than subversion. It was less self-conscious than that. It was a whole new universe I was seeing, through some crazy magic window like the eponymous one in Enchanted Glass, one that made everything different.

For each next book of hers I read, it was the same feeling. They were each so unique– unique from each other, unique from everything else, and all so alive. She managed to pick the exact right details that make you really see these places and things and people as original and fully-formed. You believe they must be real somewhere, that there’s much more to them than just what you’re getting right here on the page. On rereads you discover you believe things about characters that she never actually said–and yet you’re certain they’re true.

Since so many of her books involve people who can travel between alternate universes and parallel dimensions, I developed a new theory. Every one of these worlds and characters she supposedly created is real, somewhere, in another universe. She happened to have the power to peek on through and transcribe what she sees there!

That’s the awestruck reader talking. The writer in me figures there’s less supernatural involvement than that, but I’m no less awestruck. She had this brilliant vision, this ability to see story possibilities in everything. She’s not afraid to run with a crazy idea, and she’s never content with obvious ideasthe obvious must be taken one step further, so even the predictable isn’t quite so predictable after all (me reading Dogsbody, a dog book for people like me who hate dog books: “I have no clue where this is going, and I love it!”).

Archer's Goon, one of my personal favorites. Image: HarperCollins
Archer’s Goon, one of my personal favorites. Image: HarperCollins

See, most people will sit around a living room and maybe notice a unique piece of artwork, the brand name of the TV, whatever. An observant person might look at a pile of cushions on a chair and say, “Hey, that chair looks like it has a face.” An imaginative person might say, “and it looks exceedingly bad-tempered and grouchy for a chair.” But Diana Wynne Jones would look at that chair and say “I AM SO WRITING A STORY ABOUT HOW THAT BAD-TEMPERED CHAIR PERSON COMES TO LIFE AND WREAKS HAVOC!” and we end up with the first story in her Stopping for a Spell collection.

I think about how the dad in Archer’s Goon–a novelist–was required to write 2000 words of complete nonsense every month, and realize that she might have been struggling with her own writing when she came up with that little twist. The woman could even turn WRITER’S BLOCK into a story!

But what I love best about her is that she’s contagious. Most of the time when I read a brilliant book, it makes me think, “What an amazing book, I will never be able to write anything that good, I should just give up now.” But when I read Diana Wynne Jones, it doesn’t matter how my abilities compare, because I’m too busy trying to keep up with my own imagination. It’s like my own magic window to the Related Worlds defogs, and I am suddenly seeing stories everywhere I look and hearing characters come to life in my head. I feel, suddenly, that I DO have a whole alternate universe of my own that needs transcribing.

It’s a tremendous gift,when I’m bogged down in grown-up life to the point that I forget who I am anymore, to be given my imagination back.

I feel I should make a note about audience here. Strictly speaking, the majority of DWJ’s books fall in the upper-middle-grade/younger-YA range. She has a few chapter books for younger readers (her last completed book, Earwig and the Witch, being one), and a few titles specifically for adults (more than a few of you might identify with Deep Secret, which takes place at a scifi convention). These ranges are more general guidelines on when each book might be appropriate to share with your own kids: all the books are complex and slightly mind-boggling, no matter what your age. To be fair, she herself admits her books for children tend to be more difficult than her books for adults because children are better at following complex plots: “Once when I was doing a signing, a mother came in with her nine-year-old son and berated me for making The Homeward Bounders so difficult. So I turned to the boy to ask him what he didn’t understand. “Oh, don’t listen to her,” he said. “I understood everything. It was just her that didn’t.””–“Two Kinds of Writing?” Reflections: On the Magic of Writing, p.35)

I mention this partly to clear up any bias of my own. That December night with Howl and Sophie and my Christmas tree was actually my third encounter with Diana Wynne Jones. I’d apparently read The Lives of Christopher Chant as a child and didn’t realize it until I picked it up again as an adult. It was one of those eerie experiences where you realize you’re reading the same words you did before, but now they mean things to you that they hadn’t meant the first time, and you wonder what you were thinking then because it has to be something completely different from now. These are books that can handle multiple rereads at various ages.

My second DWJ encounter was The Tough Guide to Fantasyland, a must for anyone who writes Tolkienesque swords-and-sorcery fantasy, or even just loves–or hates–to read it. It rounds up all the cliches and other tropes you might find in the genre and highlights the absurdity, but in a loving way. You can use it as a guide both of what to do and what not to do in your stories! She definitely knows her fantasy. Writing this inspired one of my favorites of her novels, The Dark Lord of Derkholm, in which tourists from our world invade a fantasy kingdom every so often to have stereotypical adventures there while the inhabitants would rather just get on with their lives in peace.

Reflections: On the Magic of Writing, is a collection of essays she gathered together before her death in the “hope that some of these items will be of use to people.” (p.xxx) It’s a more straightforward and inspirational must-have reference for fantasy writers than the Tough Guide is, but still both thought-provoking and utterly entertaining.

To be honest, I’ve taken to talking to her when I’m struggling with my own writing. She’s become my muse, my Patron Saint of Creativity. Five years after I promised to carry on her legacy of bringing the odd and unexpected to life through story, my writing still hasn’t gotten very far. But when I look at her wry smile that reminds me of my own late grandmother, I can hear her (granted, in my grandmother’s Pittsburghese accent, not Diana’s English one) offering just the right sort of encouragement: neither cynical nor too bright and optimistic. Just real, determined, with just enough push. Someday I hope it’ll click.

Image: Greenwillow Books
Image: Greenwillow Books

Here are a few important references to finish things off:

DWJ’s autobiography, originally written for the Something About the Author encyclopedia series in 1988, is a laugh-out-loud, scarcely-believable trip. Go read it right now! I guarantee it’s a better read than your Twitter feed!

Here’s a nice list of suggestions Tor.com came up with last fall on where to start reading.

Okay, this is extremely important. In A Tale of Time City, DWJ describes a kind of ice cream treat from the forty-second century called a “butter pie” which is so delectably brought to life that everyone I know who’s read the book has been craving one ever since, even though we can’t even agree on exactly what it is. But this fan has worked out a possible recipe that can be accomplished in this century. It’s complicated, too complicated for me to have braved attempting yet, but if you’re handy in the kitchen, yum, go for it. And bring me one, too.

That’s just one of the cool things fans have come up with during what was formerly known as #DWJMarch. Make sure to follow We Be Reading’s March Magics tags for more!

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