This is the full transcript of the interview I did with Diana Wynne Jones at the Wharf Theatre Restaurant in Sydney on Wednesday August 26 1992. At the time, I was working on a Master’s thesis on Diana’s books; I didn’t end up finishing the thesis, but I have left in some references to it because it brought up discussion about the writing process that is of interest, I feel. My comments and questions are in blue.
I’ll start with fantasy, the “big picture”, Janet and Rosa (from Diana’s Australian publisher) sent us a bundle of really wonderful articles by you and also about you, and in a lot of those you talked quite firmly about the importance of fantasy and your difficulty with “problem novels” and that sort of thing…
I have a lot of sympathy with a lot of what you’ve said, and fantasy was always my preferred reading as a child, but when I was teaching I actually found a huge resistance to fantasy…
A lot of kids think it’s sissy.
Mmm! and babyish and silly. I came to the conclusion on some occasions that some of the realist novels that they read and espoused as being “real” were in fact fantasies for them.
Well I think this may well be true, yes, rather as I was saying last night, you know that fantasy for me as a kid was real, and I had a fantasy about what life was, whether it was sort of wicked and dire, or wholly normal, or whatever.
I can remember reading books like Go Ask Alice and thinking that this was earthy gritty real-life stuff, and of course for me it was completely anything but. I mean, you know, drug- addicted American teenagers were completely out of my experience…
I know, you could imagine yourself in another world almost with that lot, yes, that’s true.
And yet they do perceive it as real.
Yes, what I suspect you wouldn’t have liked so much was something about the way your life was actually at that time, you would have just regarded it as boring.
Mmm, quite likely.
And that’s really the kind of point I was trying to make, that anything really close to home is not, it seems to me, what a good book should be about.
Do you read much realist fiction?
Not really, no, I just don’t get on with it. I mean, I gave another talk in Adelaide actually, in which I sort of went on about this bit, because I find you know, my childhood was so appalling really, one way or another, that realist fiction seems to me direly horrible. I find it just simply takes me right back to those times, and I really can’t take it, I don’t want to, I mean, why should I face up to it? What good does it do me?
I know it happened, and that’s it.
I just wondered if you’d come across that attitude in kids, and how you responded to it.
Oh, yes, I have, and I think really, it’s just in the (inaudible), I mean if you call whatever it is they’re about to read science fiction, they will read it quite happily. I mean, this is one of the many reasons I spread over genres, because, you know, so that people can cheerfully call it science fiction.
If it makes them happy!
If it makes them happy, they can be fed all the rest too!
We were talking in the car about the lack of respect for children’s writing from the adult literary community, and that sort of thing, and I’m going to waffle a bit I think, ’til we sort of work around to where I’m getting at! Last night also you touched on issues of censorship and so on, and it’s something I think about a lot, because generally I find that when children’s books are given any sort of discussion, it’s in this very censorial and protective tone from adults about what is…
Isn’t it just, yes, yes, I do agree. I really don’t know quite how to get ’round it, except to make them read the books. There was a dreadful woman called Mrs Finkelsteen…
Oh, great name!
Yes, wasn’t it. Naturally she was an American at a dreadful book fair in Philadelphia, where I was supposed to sit behind a little stall with Robin McKinley, we were supposed to alternate, and she was just like this. She arrived at the stall, and glared at me, and said “I do not read these kind of books.” And I said “why not?” and she glared at me again, and I thought “God damn it, you are going to!” And I don’t know what I did, I mean, the girls who were working on the stall with me said after she’d gone bearing two of my books, “what did you do?” And I said, I don’t know, I somehow, I mean, it was force of will, or something, I made her by two books and I said “go away and read these.” She certainly didn’t recur as a fan, or anything like that, but I think it probably did her good.
Do you… well, I find that, I mean, I said this earlier, it’s the ideology that’s often addressed, rather than the quality, and I find it really intriguing that adults will get very het up about books for kids and the ideology and what they think is appropriate, and yet they don’t apply those same sorts of criteria to the films children watch, the videos they hire, and the television they watch.
Absolutely not, no, it is very strange, isn’t it. Well, I think one of the things is, and they’re right in this in a way, that books can be much more immediate, because they can show you, I mean, television or comic shows you sort of two-dimensionally, out-there what happens, whereas a book is inward-looking, so in a way it’s more insidious, and I think this is why, and they’re probably right, I mean books are worthy of more respect in this way.
I suppose that’s what it is, it’s just a sort of perverted way of showing the respect.
Well, it would be nice to think so, but I don’t think that it is. If they’re right at all, that’s where they’re right.
We had a case here earlier this year, there was a children’s television show called Fat Cat, and Fat Cat was a costume character of a fat cat, there was a body which was part of the broadcasting… I’m not sure of the title… that was specifically, their specific job was to accredit programmes as suitable for children. They weren’t a censorship body in terms of they couldn’t say “this show can’t be shown”, all they did was give it a classification and say either this show is suitable for children or it’s not suitable for children. They stated that Fat Cat; they decided that Fat Cat was not suitable for children, and it had been on television for some years, when it came up for review they said, “look, no, this programme is not suitable for children, we will not classify it as suitable for children”, and the grounds were, not that he’s racist, or he’s violent, or he’s any of those perhaps unpleasant sorts of things that people tend to want to protect children from, but the grounds of their not classifying it as suitable for children was that the character of the cat which was the main focus of the programme was ill-defined, very vague and hard for children to respond to as a real creature of any kind, and so basically what they were assessing it on was the quality of the writing of the scripts and performances and the overall presentation as being appropriate for the age of children it was aimed for. And the stink that was kicked up in the press was phenomenal, and it struck me as really bizarre that for the first time where a group of people had sat down and intelligently thought through quality, standards of quality for children, and had based a judgement, not on politics or ideology or whatever, but on quality, all hell broke loose, and the body was disbanded.
Really, good heavens.
They no longer have a body that has the power to classify those programs.
Oh, that really is rather tragic, isn’t it? I reckon that maybe they made a mistake there, because to sneak a whole lot of stuff past the crass adults by it being “only fantasy”, so that they don’t take any notice. I reckon I’ve got away with, well probably literally murder on one or two occasions. Certainly, quality on the whole isn’t questioned as a rule, is it. No, that is pretty extraordinary. And I believe very strongly in quality, actually, I mean, this is one of the things where it seems to me where children’s books excel, precisely because there are so many adults concerned in the producing of them. Well, you can get away with lousy stuff…
Oh, happens all the time.
Yes, but if you’re at all responsive to most of the adults, the right-thinking adults in the business, you don’t, you know, it keeps you up to the mark, like anything.
That leads on to, I think the expectations on authors for children are different in that people believe that you have certain responsibilities because you write for children. I wonder if you feel that you have certain responsibilities because you write for children, and whether or not they are more important than your creative responsibilities as a writer.
I reckon they’re about equal actually, because one of the things that’s been slowly born into me over the years is that people might read one of my books at the point where they’re truly impressionable, and it might actually influence them all their lives. I was shaken completely to my socks about 5 years ago now, I went to a fantasy convention, a big one, a world one, and I was suddenly accosted by this very interesting Canadian writer whom things I’d admired, I’d been sent them, you know, for comment on the back. His name’s Charles de Lint, and although he was at the convention, I never saw him you know, to speak to again after that, partly my fault because I was so staggered, and he said he wanted to tell me that he wouldn’t be writing now as he does had he not read my books when he was a teenager. He said they completely revolutionised his way of thinking. And indeed, I could see why I liked his things so much, because, probably, it was the sorts of things he’d got from me.
What did he get from you?
This blending of the fantasy very closely with sort of normal everyday life, he’s very good on that, he being Canadian sets it in Ontario, somewhere like that, so you have this sense of a city, and then you know sort of things get weirder and weirder and you move out to another world. Since then, I realised, “My God, you can actually influence people really rather profoundly”, and of course, this feeds back into your duty to the book, and if you’re not careful it completely hamstrings you, because you get sort of backwards and forwards between these two things, and worry, so I don’t worry, but I mean, this does make me very very careful, particularly in the second draft, you know, to get it right, because you do feel that actually somebody maybe, somebody in the future who may be extremely important, you know, for everybody, is going to have me behind them, and this is…
Yes, daunting, it’s a responsibility, a huge one.
Because it seems to me that children’s writers are frequently told what they should be writing, and what they shouldn’t have written in a way that adult writers would find…
Absolutely insulting, and completely insulting on a creative level, to be told what you should write.
Oh yes, that’s right, I mean, the review that prescribes what the book should have been is really maddening, and I’ve actually had to stand and have somebody tell me too, and at this point I wasn’t confident enough to hit the woman in the eye, actually. The fact that she was rather a sinister creature and said she was a witch didn’t help either!
What, didn’t she think you’d got it right or something?”
I don’t know, she tore strips off Dogsbody, she said I shouldn’t have done it with a dog. In fact, she didn’t approve of using animals…
There wouldn’t quite have been a story if there hadn’t been a dog…
Yeah, well, quite. No, she was terrible, and she went on for about twenty minutes, and I couldn’t see any way not just to stand there if I wasn’t going to sock her in the eye, so I stood there and said “thank you” and then left.
You’ve talked also about that adults see your work as complex and too difficult for children, and I love that little anecdote in one thing you wrote where the mother berated you for making—I forget which one, Howl’s Moving Castle, was it?—too hard.
It was The Homeward Bounders. Yes, that’s right, that was really funny. This confident small boy in glasses naturally, with that sort of keen intellectual look, “Ow, don’t take any notice of her!”
Understood every word.
Understood every word, you could see he did, I mean no doubt when he got older, he was only nine I think, he was a phenomenal intellect, that child, I think, actually, because it was full young to understand the book, but when he got older he would have probably got a lot more out of it.
I really do like to make sure there are layers so that people can…
But that doesn’t mean that it’s inaccessible, it doesn’t necessarily mean that.
I work very hard to make things accessible, you know, to make it very clear what is going on at every stage. Well, the trouble is, all I , what I can say about his mum is that I didn’t tell her over and over again what was going on, I only told her once, you know.
I have actually read in one of those, you know those twenty volume “Meet the author” things… I think it was in one of those volumes that somebody who was writing an over-view of your work and so on, claimed that you had created a limited audience for yourself because of the complexity of your ideas and…
Someone whose brains hurt, I think.
Well, I wondered if you’d found that, or if in your experience of meeting children in schools and so on, you’d found that a breadth of children, in terms of their cultural backgrounds and their reading ages and all of that sort of stuff, whether you’d found that to be true.
Not at all, I don’t think. No, not in the least. No, I think that’s pure nonsense. I think it must be an adult whose brain hurts. No, I really, that does surprise me, but…
Well, she doesn’t sat where she bases this assertion on, what she bases this assertion on.
One or two adults have told me this, I mean, there was a spectacular occasion when Gillian Rubinstein and I were supposed to be being interviewed together, this was when she was in England, and this man came, and half way through the day, I should have smelt a rat actually, he took me aside and said he’d read Charmed Life and he couldn’t understand it, and he thought it was far too difficult for children, and then when it came to the actual interviewing he turned himself towards Gillian, to her enormous embarrassment simply interviewed her, and the publicity lady who was with us said “Now look, hey, you were supposed to do an interview with both of them” and he said, “But I’m not going to, because children can’t understand her books.” It was quite extraordinary.
People are constantly making assertions about what children can do, children can read this book, children can’t read this book, as well as “shoulds.”
This is ridiculous, I mean, wholly ridiculous. It never did any child any harm to have something that was a tiny bit above them anyway, and I claim that anyone who can follow Doctor Who can follow absolutely anything. And children are so good at doing this now, and children are used to using their brains.
Do we underestimate kids?
Yes, I think so, every time. I really do. I think it was absolutely typical, I remember once, I mean, kids can do anything, get anywhere, understand anything provided they’ve got sufficient curiosity, and the motives. It was absolutely typical once, the British Television programme Blue Peter, which does all sorts of things… well, every so often they take and do something rather out of the ordinary, and on this occasion they photographed the Severn Bore, which is this gigantic wave that comes up the river at high tide, and they rather underestimated the height of the Severn Bore that particular time, with the result that the camera and the camera-man and everything was completely overwhelmed, and the film and the camera was lost, I mean, it just rolled over in the wave and was gone, and they pulled the camera-man out and gave him mouth-to-mouth resuscitation and felt that they’d got away lightly, and they said, “the camera’s gone for good”, and they did a programme on this, making the best of a bad job. Then about three weeks later a child found the camera, and it would be a child, you know, and knew what it was he’d found straight away, and took it into the police or something and they showed the film after all.
Oh goodness! That’s wonderful!
And I feel only a child would have done this, I mean, an adult would have stolen the camera or simply not known what they’d got.
Well, I think a lot of that comes through in your child characters, and this brings me to Colin. Now, I’ll find my quote! It was in Something About the Author, which is one of those twenty volume…
I know, yes.
…and you wrote this georgeous piece about visiting your house, and falling over the dog, and falling over your son’s guitarist’s cousin’s girlfriend’s something or other…
That’s right, and the rest of them playing table-tennis.
It was one of the earliest things I came across when I was researching articles on you, and I came across this comment you made in it about your son Colin, which I have highlighted… you said about Colin, “Colin is going to be a genius when he finds out what to be a genius at.”
That’s right, yes.
And it seems to me that there are a lot of Colins in your books, that there are many many of your characters, either consciously or unconsciously finding out what they’re going to be a genius at.
That’s true, but I think this is the human condition, really, you know, you’ve got to find out what your particular personality and gifts are aimed at, people have to find themselves. And, I mean, it’s a lucky child that knows, I mean, it’s a lucky child that even knows that they’re a genius, unaimed and all that, and I do feel very strongly that this is one of the things which people need encouragement to sort out, because I have this very strong feeling that everybody is probably a genius at something, it’s just a question of finding this.
I thought you must think that, because…
And indeed if you think you’re a genius at something, you know, what you achieve is very much according to your expectations; if you think you’re no good, you’re not going to get anywhere…
What you achieve is according…
If you think you’re moderate, you know, you’re only going to get halfway to moderate, because, you know, you get half-way to where you’re aiming every time, really.
Is it also part of that condition that the children who frequently don’t feel themselves to have abilities, who frequently perceive themselves to be untalented and quite different are also in some way… I’ve been calling it in my writing and my thinking “orphaned”. Now they’re not always technically orphaned…
No, I know what you mean, though, it’s a good word for it, yes. What about them?
Is that part of… let me get it out…
Well, it’s very much a part of it, yes, yes.
I’m feeling a connection between that sense of alienation and aloneness, and that sense of, or that lack of sense of self, of this uncertainty.
Yes, yes, that’s right, I mean one of the things about being alone is that you’ve no people to define yourself off, I mean, people are like all-round mirrors, because I mean, let’s face it, we don’t often see ourselves all round in a mirror anyway, do we. Actually, in the wild, we’d be the only person that we wouldn’t recognize, if you think about it.
Yes, yes, that’s true.
And I feel that, you know, it’s terribly important to build up to children this notion that it’s O.K., you know, that you are a person, and you will find it, you know, just remember that it can be done. Because I think… well one of the things is, you know, that all fantasy it seems to me works like the way your brain basically works, this is perhaps a startling concept, but I think it’s true. Your brain, when it’s working on a problem says “what if, what if, what if?” Fantasy is just an extension of “what if?” And if you sort of think about it, your brain is aimed to come out with a satisfactory solution jubilantly, and you want really to point children in that direction and say “there is a solution”, and you should be happy, and you should be hopeful. And it may be a bit overstated, but I think this is, you know, in the right direction, because it’s pointing people in the right way, and trying for sanity. Because there are so many things, all these things that crib and cab in your brain, in your imagination, are in fact things that might well in later life drive you insane, you know, you want to sort of provide little openings, so that people can say… “yeah!” you know. This is why I like happy endings, incidentally.
Yes, so does Mig!! The phrase that seems to be popular at the moment is “empowering” people, empowering the child.
It’s a very… buzz word, isn’t it.
It’s a real buzz word, but it seems to be very much what you’re doing, and it’s not always in obvious ways, and in fact frequently the children don’t turn out to be… don’t turn out to have the talents that maybe they thought that they wanted and don’t end up in the place that they thought that they wanted to be in.
No, that’s true, like in Witch Week, Nan, who’s made a complete mistake about what she really wants to do.
Yes, well I think one can do this and I wanted to say, “well, it doesn’t matter, there is something that you’re really good at, and you go and do that, and actually it’s more satisfying.”
Yes, and like, Tonino at the end of Magicians of Caprona isn’t quite convinced yet. Everyone’s telling him, “We’ve discovered this wonderful new talent”, because his family, while he doesn’t always recognize it, are reasonably, I mean, they do love him, and they are supportive, they’re just too frantic to perhaps let him know all the time, and I feel that he’s not quite convinced at the end of the novel, but you know he’ll get there.
That’s right, he’s not convinced, he’s rather stunned, because he’s been so used… I mean, this is the trouble, you do get in the habit of thinking yourself … I suppose there should have been a tiny bit extra to that…
Oh, no, I don’t think that’s necessary.
And I suppose Cat is the same at the end of Charmed Life, too, I mean, you do get into the habit of thinking yourself as a no-hoper in a certain direction, and if somebody turns you around and says “this is the direction you should be going, and there’s lots of hope”, I mean, you can’t take it straight away. And I suppose in a way, at some point anyway, I must remedy this and make sure that it’s clear.
Oh, don’t think that’s… I don’t actually think that’s necessarily a problem, because I think it’s clear that he’ll get there.
If you think that’s right, yes, because it does worry me, particularly, not so much Tonino, who is probably, yes, Tonino is sturdy enough, so he’ll get there, but Cat for instance, who is more or less in tears right at the end.
Yes, yes. But then he’s in tears in the centre of a family, and that’s OK, it’s alright to perhaps be in tears in…
Yes, I suppose that’s true, I mean, they’re tears of relief to some extent.
Oh, and it’s mingled, it’s bittersweet, but your resolutions, while yes, they are happy and positive, aren’t necessarily saying that everything’s going to work out exactly perfectly, and exactly the way you want, there might be things that you’d rather differently. I personally don’t think that’s a problem, I actually think it adds interest and so on. Also leading on from that is the unconventionality of the talents that the children invariably find themselves to have, and ultimately it appears that the adult world that they have been in is going to have to modify itself in some way or another to accept those new talents.
That’s right, yes, and I think that’s a very important thing, not that in reality the adult world modifies itself very much, but they’re going to have to as soon as that child is older, and yes, what I really often seem to want to say is that, OK, maybe there isn’t the sort of job description yet made which fits you…
But that’s not your fault…
But that’s not your fault, it’s just means your going to have to go out there and do the job, and then they’ll describe it, and this is the way change, and change for the better, that it really happens, after all. People suddenly get this idea which is aside from where everything seems to be going, and in fact it takes everything on a new stage.
Well, obviously, they’re a lot of the things I’ve been looking at, I think a lot of my work is going to focus very much on that central child character, and the processes. I actually started, because, I just loved all the things you did with time and history, because that was what I loved to read as a child. The book I read and read and re-read so many times when I was a child was A Traveller in Time, Alison Uttley, because it was my fascination with the possibility of, a. going back into all those romantic periods in history where everything was much nicer and more interesting than now…
Which is a bit of a, actually, a bit of a sham…
It was one of the things I was talking about in Cart and Cwidder, there is this boy in the middle of the biggest, the most epoch making, most romantic adventure that his particular history has had for many hundreds of years, and he doesn’t recognize it, because it’s just normal life to him, and you do have to watch that a bit.
But the other thing about that book was the question she raised about “can you change the past?”, can you alter things.
Ah, yes, that’s a difficult one, isn’t it.
And so the convolutions you come up with on those points just really intrigue me.
I love convolutions, I really do, I can’t resist them, that’s the trouble.
I also see that, I mean, with your related worlds and, I think, that concept of the alternatives in history and they actually happened and created something new, is just really fascinating, and again I do think that that- and I don’t know if this was conscious on your part, or if it was just that all your various interests just mesh together, but it seems that all those possibilities are very pertinent to that child who is in some ways exploring possibilities in their own life.
Yes, if you think about anybody growing up, I mean, at a certain stage everything is open to him or her, there are all these avenues, and unfortunately you have to narrow it down by going in, I mean, you just can’t do all of it.
But I mean, there is this lovely bit, you know, when you were just adolescent, as it were, or even just pre-adolescent, when the whole world is your oyster, the whole universe, you know, you can go and do anything there, and it’s a lovely moment, and of course, you’re usually too mixed up to notice it. Unfortunately! And then it gets depressing as it narrows down inevitably, because it has to, but I do hope, and this is where we go back to the sense of responsibility, that I might once or twice pointed out to some children, “look, you really can do anything at this stage”, and I think this is a very good thing if it can be got over.
It’s interesting, because I did some reading, some sort of educational development stuff that I’d done when I was doing education at uni, and I dragged it all out, and I found that… and I don’t know if you have any background in that yourself, but in fact the age of the children in your characters who are basically all just pre-pubescent, they’re just sort of 11, 12…
Yes, on the whole they are.
…at least in the ones I’m looking at, I’m sorry, I’m generalizing here about the books I’m specifically looking at.
Yes, younger and older I do do, but basically that’s what it centres on, because that’s the point where everything is possible.
That’s right. And having had a look at this educational development, Piaget and all those people who had these theories of development, in fact at that point in time, children’s understanding of time is not set in stone.
No, it isn’t, no that’s right.
And that’s an actual sort of… fact! if you like.
To go back to Colin again, at exactly this age he came and announced to us after having thought profoundly for a whole evening that he didn’t think that time actually existed, that it probably was a human construct, and we said, “Yes, Colin!”
It just fascinated me, and I didn’t know whether or not you’d had that background, or whatever, but that in fact developmentally, as well as emotionally and psychologically the children of that age are still very much, I mean, intellectually open to lots of things, because their intellect and their abilities are still firming up and so on, and so it seemed a really appropriate age for you to choose, those 11, 12 year olds that are “on the verge”…
That’s right, yes, because I think actually at that stage the intellect is at it’s sharpest, really, your intellect is really up to adult standard, and you don’t have all the emotional mess of puberty actually mucking you up, and so in a way it’s a very good point to choose, from every point of view.
In the book Innocence and Experience there is a chapter that is a transcription of a colloquy with people like Susan Cooper, Natalie Babbitt I think was involved, and Lloyd Alexander, and he commented that he believes that the characters in the realist novel are confronted with much more complex choices than the characters in fantasy novels, because fantasies deal with absolutes.
Yes, they do, but there’s no reason why it shouldn’t be equally complex, I mean, I think Lloyd Alexander’s approach is somewhat simplistic, actually, I’ve always thought so.
I wondered, because I don’t actually see that that applies to your books at all, in fact…
No… I really feel a sort of strenuous struggle when I read Lloyd Alexander, I think, Goddammit man, do you have to be that simple?! And he seems to deliberately exclude all sorts of things which I feel should be in there. And, no, I mean, fantasy does have this quality which isn’t simplicity, but appears to be, and I’m at a loss to define it, usually. I tried when I was writing these talks to come here, to try and define it, and I just damn well can’t, because in a way, one of the things about it is it’s all things to all men…
Which confirms what you’ve said, that the children’s books that last are fantasies.
Yes, yes, I suppose that is why. But I can’t get any further than that at the moment, it’s very frustrating.
I feel that the absolutes are in your books, but they’re very blurred, and whether or not that’s deliberate, or whether or not it’s just because that’s the way things usually actually are, I mean, if you take Gwendolen…
I was just thinking if you take myth and folklore, and these things that speak in symbols, they can be interpreted in so many ways that although the actual image is clear enough, the interpretation is infinitely blurred, a sort of enormous rainbow of every possible colour you could imagine.
When I read that, I thought specifically of Gwendolen, because… I mean, if you put Gwendolen and her relationship with Cat into a realist novel, all hell would break loose.
Oh, it would indeed!
Because here’s the sister that murders her brother not once, but two or three times!
I know, and this is what I was imagining Del Del (by Victor Kelleher) was going to be about, and it most disappointingly wasn’t!
Gwendolen is about as horrible as any of your characters get, and about as evil and unpleasant, and yet she’s gorgeous! She’s funny and she’s clever and that scene in the church when she brings the stained-glass windows to life, I mean, it’s just wonderful, and I think we all secretly think “gee, I wish I could have done that when I had to sit in church!”
Exactly, I used to sit in church wishing I could do just that, you know, so it was lovely to be able to do it in a book!
And furthermore you let her get away with it. She trips off quite merrily to be queen.
Yes, I think so, I think so. I mean, it’s a terribly limited existence, that’s the trouble, I mean, O.K., she’s happy, but I think this is a temporary state, as soon as she realizes her queendom is purely notional she’s going to be so frustrated. I was trying to sort of indicate this is how people build up frustrations in the future, but not sort of lean on it, I mean, the story was about Cat really.
I think, getting back to the absolutes business, in a sense she is the side of the absolutes on the dark or the evil side, and Cat is obviously… and yet there is that blurring, We know that we don’t particularly, we don’t approve of her choice, we know that it’s not ultimately even make her happy, and yet there are things about her that are attractive and entertaining.
So the absolutes are there, but they’re not set in stone—I’ve used that phrase more than once! Yes, I wondered what you’d think about that, because it just didn’t seem to work for me with what you were doing; Lloyd Alexander’s comment…
Yes, I think he’s talking nonsense there, I really do. Particularly as he’s dealing with all this amazing Celtic stuff, which is about as blurred as you can get, even though it has these wonderful clear dream-like images to it, it’s actual significance is around the spectrum. It isn’t necessarily the whole way across, but it’s a good section of the spectrum each time. Yes, I want to shake the man, I really do!
Fire and Hemlock is not a book that I have been particularly familiar with, but I was very interested in what you wrote about it in “The Heroic Ideal”, mainly because you were talking about the very conscious decisions you made there about structure, about forming, I mean about the overall form of the novel as well as the content and the progression of the plot, and I wondered if that was typical.
Absolutely not typical, although not untypical, I mean, the conscious decisions are made in a sort of very swift, white heat kind of way usually, just as the book is arriving at the point where it needs to be written. I was very cast down, actually, when I’d written that and I’d actually had to flee from Boston to New York because I was beleaguered by a terrible fan.
Well, it’s all right, I had my revenge, he’s Chair Person. Anyway, I fled him to New York, he pursued, alas, and I had to scream abuse at him in a book shop. I arrived, sort of panting and desolate and rather at a loose end, at my publishers in New York to find the second in command lady, who is wonderfully wise, she’s a beautiful lady called Libby, just finishing reading that thing, because I’d sent them a copy just in case I lost mine, in case my baggage went astray, and they were terribly worried about that, and she looked up from it rather majestically as I tottered into the office, I mean, it really was timing like nothing, laid her hand on it, and said, “This is very nice, Diana, but writers don’t write books this way.” She was obviously one of these people who believe that it was all at a very low level of sub-conscious if not unconscious, which is not actually true, and I do think about these things, and what I was doing, and what I think probably deceived her was laying it out very clearly in that one so that everyone could see the process I’d been through, which was probably a process that lasted half an hour. I mean, it sounds as if I’d meditated for half a century on this, and it wasn’t.
Yes, that’s probably what I was wondering about. Well, leading on from that, your work draws on many sources, in that case the two ballads, and in other books many other things, first of all, do you consciously choose to use them, or do they sort of naturally fall into the text…
No, once you get what you’re writing about, which, I mean, I can’t at all describe why it is, you get this kind of nucleus, it immediately attracts all the right things, as it were, that it needs, sometimes from outside, sometimes from inside, it comes from both ways. It’s a fascinating process, really, over the years I’ve sat and watched so many books doing this, just waiting. It’s like a sort of gelatinous ball, and sucking in all the things that they actually need, and it’s very queer, and they’re very serendipitous, too, they find things which up till then I’ve not considered, or haven’t even known about, and I’ll suddenly find out it’s the one thing I need, and that makes it go, or somebody will say something. My very latest book was sitting there, and it’s been sitting there for five years as a sort of indigestible gelatinous ball, it’s collected no end of stuff to the point where I was really bewildered by it, and I needed the thing that would bring them all together, the thread that went through the whole narrative, and it so happened that I was in America, in Minneapolis, and we had one of those rather curious conversations, you know, the British side versus the American side, and then there was suddenly a point where we all agreed, and we looked at one another in bewilderment, and then, again, this friend that writes horror stories, and for this reason I’ve dedicated the book to him, suddenly said, “Oh yes, this is what it is.” What we were actually talking about was the primordial forest, and one of the queer things which we’d all been talking about was how when you get to England, and you go into just the tiniest piece of left-over woodland where-ever, with main roads on either side, the last little nub of Sherwood Forest, somehow you get lost, even if it’s only about half the width of this across, and Neil said “Yes, because it’s being the primordial forest when you get into it.” and this was just what I needed, it was the one uniting fact.
And does drawing those things together often happen like that, it just clicks, or do you have to work hard at it.
Yes. Well, I work hard at it, I mean I had been working with this one, very hard at it, for about five years, sometimes even writing drafts, on this occasion I had written many drafts, sometimes just simply thinking and agonising. It’s like having a tongue in a sore tooth niggling away, and then quite suddenly it will come to me, or somebody, as in this case, will say something, and I think, “That’s it, now I can write it.”
Relief! Oh, it’s a wonderful feeling.
Well, if those sources that appear in your work are largely instinctive and so on, do you however, think it’s important to pass on some of those traditional tales and mythologies and so on.
Yeah, and the best of British literature, you know, in the English language. I think it’s very important, because you always have to bear in mind; this is the responsibility thing again, that when you do it, it’s possibly the first time a certain person will have come across this, and so you have to not only present it like dishes in a feast, but present it well, so that it becomes like Japanese food, you know, beautifully presented.
I guess in terms of creating tomorrow’s readers, I mean, contributing to the person who is going to continue to be a reader, and therefore a thinker and all the rest of it, then you’re rolling things over by drawing on some of those… does that make sense?
I think so, it does make sense, I mean, the “rolling things over” does seem to… there’s a tremendous knock-on effect, I suspect, there’s nothing actually so important as thought and ideas, when you think about it, because everything new was at some point an idea in somebody’s brain.
From a vege peeler to the Concorde!
Yes, exactly. The wheel, for God’s sake.
On to characters. Am I correct in thinking that I have read somewhere that Chrestomanci is your favourite character?
He’s certainly one of my favourite characters, yes. At the point when I said that, I probably hadn’t written Howl’s Moving Castle, nor possibly even Archer’s Goon. At this point, yes, he was my very favourite character, and then Howl came along.
Yes, he’s pretty gorgeous, isn’t he!
Yes, and indeed, somebody once, a sweet girl in Yorkshire who writes to me, I call her “Our Cath”, because she writes me these long chatty letters she said, “I’m terribly sorry, I’ve got a message from our Audrey in the office. She’s fallen in love with Howl. Is he a real person, because she wants to meet him!”
I can really understand that, he is… yeah! It doesn’t surprise me!
She was really passionate about it, poor Audrey, and I had to say, “No, I’m sorry, I did make this one up.”
I was interested to hear you say today that Charmed Life began with the scene where Cat meets Janet, and I wondered therefore was Chrestomanci originally a device to help Cat move on, who took off from there, or, how did he begin?
I wish I knew! I know the name “Chrestomanci” began in, I do, not so much now, but I used to write a lot of what I called “Five Finger Exercises”, where I knew I had a lot of ideas in my head, but there was no book going at the moment, so I would just write and see where it lead me, and in fact out of this came an awful lot of names, the name Chrestomanci and indeed some characters. That book that I was so amazed to see, the adult book (reference to earlier conversation) one of the main characters in that came out of a five finger exercise, and oddly enough he was called Chrestomanci, that was his family name. Then I thought this is an extremely exciting name…
It’s a great name.
It’s a name of power. It seemed I needed a very distant, powerful person who slowly came near, in the way these powerful people do, very equivocal and possibly appeared not as powerful as he was. It was all necessary from that central scene, and yes, then he sort of came along. I didn’t even say “I need the name”, it was that bit where they were all sitting down at the kitchen table and they find the letters with his signature, and what was it signed? Chrestomanci. It was one of those things that came around without my having really thought about it at all. The Dark Stranger himself. He wasn’t really a deliberate invention. He was just necessary.
And did he take over, and did you expect him to develop into four books?
No, I didn’t, I really didn’t, no, I was really rather surprised when in fact he kept recurring.
In fact, I responded to Jonathan’s father in A Tale of Time City in very similar ways as I do to Chrestomanci, I find…
Now that’s very interesting, because in fact Jonathan’s father, as far as I thought about him, is in fact an image of my father, and as you know my father was very far from being like Chrestomanci, or perfect in any way.
Probably the scene that clinches it is that gorgeous scene where he’s looking for his slippers and Vivien suddenly realises that he’s bunging it all on and falls about laughing, and you suddenly discover that this man isn’t as vague and as stern and all the rest of it as perhaps Jonathan has perceived him to be up until now, and possibly that’s because Cat perceives Chrestomanci to be all those things.
That’s right, I mean, Cat is under a misapprehension, he’s in awe the whole time, it’s quite difficult to render and the only way I could do it is that bit at the end where Chrestomanci tells his story about his own childhood, which later led of course to The Lives of Christopher Chant. But I suppose he is in some curious way a father figure, and this is where he gets his power from, actually.
The Lives of Christopher Chant, in terms of the four books, if you consider them as a whole, because he is that figure that can help either guide or direct or whatever, I mean, he’s there behind the children’s development and discoveries, and then when you read those three books and go through that process with Nan and Cat and so on, and then come to The Lives of Christopher Chant and find he went through that too, it’s enormously satisfying.
It is, isn’t it.
And it really enriches the other books, to think that, oh well, he had a right to be there and to do all that because he knew what it was like, he’d been there.
That’s exactly what I was after, and it took me a really long time to get the shape of The Lives of Christopher Chant so that it did that, and I really had to work at it, and that’s one I had about six shots at actually, I couldn’t decide what kind of material it was that would illustrate this best.
Was there a danger of repetition in that one?
Well, there was a tremendous danger, yes, and in fact it is repetition, it has almost exactly the same plot as Charmed Life, you can’t really avoid that.
And yet, putting them side by side, they really only enrich each other, I think.
They’re extremely different, yes, I hope that’s so, because they really are very, very different, and they were written almost sort of deliberately in a different spirit, as you say, to show that Chrestomanci had a right to say what he said because he’d been through it and he knew it from the inside out, which is very important.
Which is different from the adult imposing things on the child simply because of the power, the ability to do so.
That’s right, yes. In the earlier books it does appear that way and I did wish at some point to make it clear that it isn’t that way.
I think there’s enough action on the children’s part not to make that completely his control and his decision making, and I think the children making decisions is very important, that they do have a great deal of control.
Yes, that’s true, and I did rather hope that in Witch Week it would sort of help to make my point for them to find that Chrestomanci was having so much fun pretending to be the Inquisitor, because I think one of the things which struck me enormously right from the beginning was that the man had tremendous job satisfaction, it was a lovely job to have to do, if you were equal to it.
Even though he didn’t want to do it initially, and nor does Cat particularly.
No, I mean, you get thrust into it, because this is what your abilities make you eligible for, and this is a difficult situation, and it really worries me, you know, I mean, so many people do find this about their lives, their abilities thrust them certain ways, and this is not the same as being thrust in a certain way by your parents, which is another thing again. Of course, Christopher had both those.
You talked a lot about how the stories, the actual stories you read influenced you, the heroic stories, and the journeys of the heroes, and that story is still important to you as a writer. The Magicians of Caprona is also largely about language…
I suppose it is, yes.
There’s so much in that that’s talking about the importance, the power of language, and that comes up in Nan’s ability to describe as well…
Yes, I think that the whole origin of The Magicians of Caprona was really rather significant that way, because this was one… it was my husband who acquired a new record, and it was one that I’d only heard a little of before and that was “Ma Vlast”, was it Janaçek? It means “My Country”, and he was Czech. Anyway, it’s a beautiful, beautiful suite, each movement is about certain aspects of his country, and one is about… this is why I called the river that, actually, in Caprona… is about the river Voltava. It’s a beautiful, beautiful piece of river music, and when the river swells and becomes itself a river, and therefore itself, it has this wonderful tune, and it’s a tune, I thought, “My God, why has nobody put words to it?” This was the origin, the need for words. That’s how the book came about.
And that’s how the book begins, “Everybody knows, a spell is the right words…” and so on.
Yes, and the whole thing fell into my head then. That was one of those, I simply had to go away and write it.
Was the language of those stories that you read, the Odyssey and Morte d’Arthur and so on, was the language significant to you at the time, or did that come later? I don’t remember as a child being conscious of language, I remember being conscious of concepts and plot.
Yes, I think I was too, although at an extraordinarily early stage I began to feel that if a thing was worth saying, it was worth saying in the most plain, straightforward, clear kind of language, and I suppose it was possibly my natural style, because I remember my mother in her snotty way, when I’d written the first chapter of one of these books that I wrote as a twelve year old, she picked it up and looked at it and cast it aside on the bed, “Well”, she said, “at least you’ve got…” I forget her exact words, at least I don’t, but I must have suppressed them at the instant I was about to say them, because they really were rather painful, except that they were very descriptive. What she meant to say was that I’d got a very brief but sort of fairly vivid style, but she said it in a derogatory way. This has always been the way with me, I do find it very hard to write long.
And you avoid long descriptions, which you’ve commented on.
Yes, very much so, but then you don’t need them, I find, if you’ve seen it yourself, you can get other people to see it. I don’t know why it comes through, I mean, you can get people to draw a sketch of the room where an action happens, and they’ll put the window in the right place even.
Somebody in these discussions on fantasy in the book I was telling you about, the Innocence and Experience book, I don’t remember who it was (NOTE: it was Zilpha Keatley Snyder), or which book she was referring to, but she had created a fantasy kingdom, or land of some sort, and she said, and I’m still not sure whether she meant it literally, but she said she knew it so well that she knew what the plumbing was like, even though it never appeared in the book.
Oh yeah. That’s right. Exactly. I mean, this is absolutely true. In the same sort of way, I’m accustomed to tell children that before I start writing a book, I have to know the people in it so well that I know the shape their toes are, and the way the hair sprouts out of their head, and only then can I get the way they actually speak like themselves. It’s absolutely true, you have to know these amazingly silly things, the small and very mundane details, and they never get into what you write, but they somehow they make it real for the person who’s reading it, in the most extraordinary way.
And I suppose when the reader then fills in the gaps, while they may not be the same fillings, they’re compatible in some way.
They are compatible, they work all the way through, right back to the plumbing! I never thought of plumbing, I suppose because I don’t have a very good relationship with plumbing! I mean, that’s one of the things that I would have going grotesquely wrong!
Why humour? Is it just entertainment, or does it do more than that?
No, it does infinitely more than that. It seems to me that humour is everybody’s way of keeping sane and standing off from the situations so that they can see it intellectually, as well as emotionally, and I don’t know whether you’ve noticed, but if somebody tells a joke, it’s nearly always a mini fantasy. When children first learn the joke is a marvellous moment for them and they bore you stiff with these, and I heard them so many times that I started to think of them as quite as themselves; “What lies on the ocean bottom and shivers? A nervous wreck”! This is a pocket fantasy! And the really boring people, the only time they fantasize is telling jokes, if you notice, when people tell jokes they are, for the one time in their lives, open to the grotesque maybe, but it’s fantasy.
It sounds from the things you’ve said that you have made decisions about the sorts of things that you would like to communicate to kids.
Yes I have, but in a sort of large and nebulous way. Mainly as sort of blueprints for dealing with most of the adults in their lives, to some extent with their fellows; this is difficult, with your peers, and this notion of aiming high and there’s always hope, aim low and you might as well stop now.
The garden in Charmed Life. That to me has the most incredible religious overtones, Christian overtones; there’s the thorn tree…
Oh, yes, so there is…
There’s the sacrifice of Cat…
Yes! so there has! Oh God, I’ve only just this moment realised that! I know that in the garden at the end of that book I slipped into a sort of deeper mode, I was very conscious of that, and it worried me in case it didn’t marry with the slightly less deep mode of the rest of the book, but yes you’re dead right. Damn it! I’m turning into C.S. Lewis!
That’s exactly it! It’s like Aslan on the stone, Cat’s tied down like Aslan.
I never thought of that! I didn’t intend that, but I suppose again the religious upbringing…
My grandfather, yes, the preacher. Do you know he preached entirely in Welsh and I never understood a word, but on the other hand I used to have dreams in which I was deeply sinful and a panel would slide aside in the wall, and there would my Grandfather be, and he’d look like a prophet, and say “you’re all damned!” as it were, or more than that, authority and guidance, all that’s most austere about religion, and I suppose it runs very deep. I think what one would call a religious experience is probably the most valuable anyone in the human race can have.
Whatever the religion happens to be.
Whatever the religion happens to be.
Is Time City heaven, keeping on the religious line?
No, Time City is Oxford.
Is it?! Is Oxford your idea of heaven?
No, no. If you notice, that although Time City is nice, it doesn’t do anything. All it does is have ceremonies! It’s a sort of enormous long set period in which nothing particularly happens.
That’s interesting, because… you don’t have a right to live in Time City, it’s not an automatic thing to live in Time City, like heaven, you have to earn the position.
This is where I’m quite clear that the religious thing doesn’t totally apply. It really is the slightly arid and uncaring life of the intellect. After all, they don’t care. They go out and they push other people about in this uncaring sort of way, and it takes Vivien to point out to them that this wrong, that they need to do otherwise.
It was that sort of separateness and dispassionate control…
Oh God, you have a dreadful view of heaven, you do, you do!!
I don’t know, but there is that… outside, heaven is outside and presumably has some sort, the authority has some sort of control. Oh, maybe I do!!
Then you get back to Faber John, he was intended to be a sort of, at least a demi-god.
But at the same time he’s an everyman, too.
Yes, he’s an everyman, this is true. But raised to the demi-god status. I was meaning to suggest Wayland Smith and those kind of artisan gods, people of strength and artifice, and a creator.
Something else that really intrigues me, and maybe it’s an observation and nothing else, but I’ve noticed a few times, and maybe it comes back to your blurring of the absolutes, how it’s the baddy who points out something really good, really important and something to aim for. Mrs Sharp says “If a person has a gift they deserve to have it developed.” And she’s quite right.
Only about the wrong person!
Yes, and she wants the money… but you can’t argue with the statement itself.
No, you can’t, this seems to me to be one of the things baddies do, you’ve met these people who produce these really truely convincing arguments, this seems to be an absolute constant about baddies, whether in my books or people you meet. And they produce these wonderfully convincing arguments, and they are absolutely dead right, except you know it’s all for their own ends, and they’re dead wrong too. I think I’ve probably done that more than once, actually.
The other one is Mr Nostrum, who talks about opening the ways to other worlds, that’s wonderful, that’s what you’re doing, you’re opening the way to those other worlds, those possibilities and so on.
I know, but he’s a crook! This is what the baddies do, watch out for somebody who produces this ultimate truth, because they must have something they feel they can gain by it! There’s a quote from, is it Virgil or something; I fear the Greeks, particularly when they are bringing gifts! That’s the kind of thing I was meaning to say; watch it kids, watch it!
It intrigued me, because these people that I was deeply suspicious of kept saying these really good things, and interesting things.
It doesn’t mean that you should be suspicious of the thing, but of the person saying it.
Frequently I think there are little details that seem to suggest “don’t take things at face value”; that happens to Christopher all the time, “don’t take things at face value.” Even down to that innocent comment about one of his mother’s visitor’s; “Is she a Witch?” It’s all about appearances and so on, and probably she is!
I think she is, actually. Particularly with her chicken legs. I meant really to imply that she probably was very much a witch. She comes from this very powerful family of enchanters, I think, she has to be.
Christopher and the question of superficiality; Mama is a “Beauty”, and that’s about all Mama is. He learns so much in those alternate worlds that no-one teaches him in his own world.
This is very important. I just hope that enough children pick up on this, because you do learn taking things away to your own imagination and chewing on them. Even if you don’t know you are, even if you are just as it were fantasizing, you are telling yourself things.
So fantasy to you is important then because it overs that opportunity… Last question. Doubles. I adore them!
Yes, so do I actually!
I haven’t worked them all out.
I’ve got a lot one way or another, haven’t I.
I wonder if I’ve found more than you realised!
I bet you have!!
I sometimes think, “Oh, I’m making that up, that’s not really what’s going on there.”
But to me, again, it’s the possibilities and the choices. If you look at Janet and Gwendolen, they’re so similar, there’s so much those girls have in common, but they’ve made different choices about how they’re going to use their vitality, their determination, and all the rest of it.
That’s right. Janet comes out, at this stage in her life anyway, with a lot of slightly silly talk, but this is vitality.
That’s right, you’re dead right, yes.
Thank you for all of that!
Well, thank you! This is very interesting, it’s very rarely I get to talk this deeply about what I do, people telling me things I’ve done, which… you’re so right about that garden, My God! And I never saw it!
I felt a bit uncomfortable asking, because I know authors are asked so often, and I think a lot of children’s authors are asked so often particularly. I see that with my work, that there are constantly demands on people’s time and energy. Victor Kelleher, actually, I rang him earlier on this year to ask him if he’d speak at one of our functions, and he said “Quite frankly Judy, I am fed up to the back teeth with talking about my own work, I just want to go and write.”
Well, this is one of the funny things, it’s much nicer if somebody asks me questions, I find, and you’d probably find that he’d find the same. But if I have to develop something, spin it out of my own entrails, I find myself getting terribly self-conscious about what I’m doing. I don’t mind at all you asking me this, because it’s discoveries. I do mind doing too much of telling people what I do, because it makes me A. self-conscious and B. feel very dishonest, because if I say it, I’m very often approximating, just in order to be clear, and then because I say it, it then becomes absolute, and then I feel, Oh My God, this is not true, I’m living a lie, I do not actually write books in this way that I’ve been telling people. Which is not at all actually true, it’s just a feeling I get, so I do find that I also have to be careful to do it not very often.
Well, thank you for doing it tonight.
Well, I haven’t done it for a long time, and it’s about time I did.
Do you like going back over your work and re-thinking it through?
Mmmmm! Because it fascinates me to find all the things that I’ve actually said that I haven’t during the first writing picked up on. And you can say, “yes, I did mean that absolutely and entirely, though at the time I didn’t notice I was saying it.”
I wondered, because I loathe re-reading anything I’ve written.
Oh, this is a shame, I quite like doing it actually.
This is part of my problem; this is why it’s taken me 18 months to… and I still haven’t finished the thesis!
18 months is not long, actually, as theses go, you’re being quite quick.
I find that I’ll work on something and I won’t want to go back to re-write and re-think and edit, because I just don’t want to read it again. Partly it’s embarrassing.
Yes, it is you squirm, I know what you mean. You don’t have to keep doing that, why don’t you adopt my way of doing things, which is one grand revision when you’ve finished, do the lot together.
I think my problem has also been that because I’ve had to work part-time and sometimes full-time, I’ve been doing it in bits, and then to leave something and then go back to it…
It gets very messy, yes. It’s not a good way to work, that. I hate working in bits, I must say. One of the things I always require is swatches of time, and I do get quite unscrupulous about acquiring swatches of time, and pretend I’m busy, and things like this, so that I do have this time, in which I can go right the way through. I think it is important, continuity, I really do.