My Summary (Long)

Kyra Jucovy klj at
Sat Mar 16 12:43:06 EST 2002

I should point out that I wrote this intending to send it out to anyone I
knew who might care - so some of the things in here are things that people
on the list would already know.

My Summary of Diana Wynne Jones' Cambridge Speech and Signing of March
By Kyra Jucovy

	I went to the event from Edinburgh by train with Lizzie (of the
Diana Wynne Jones mailing list - a Mount Holyoke student who's currently
studying at St. Andrews).  She was very fatherly.  Once we arrived in
Cambridge successfully, even though our first train (we changed trains
once together, at Petersborough) stopped for a while along the way, we
met Lizzie's friend Olivia (who has never read any DWJ) and went to the
bookstore.  They were selling the new edition of Wilkins' Tooth there!  I
bought it, naturally.
	Eventually the talk started.  It started with the sound system
not working - DWJ said that these sorts of things never worked for
her.  But she managed to successfully get it to work.  She explained that
she was going to  talk about the way that writing a book worked for
her.  She had spent much of the day talking with another author who wrote
books in a completely different way, so she wanted to emphasize that this
was only her personal method of writing.
	In general, before I begin, I should say that the talk was
wonderful, interesting, and very funny.  Even Olivia quite enjoyed it.
	She always needs an idea to start.  These ideas can come from all 
different places.  She still has no idea where Archer's Goon came from -
it sort of came out of nowhere.  In fact, the whole writing of the book
was strange because she had no idea what was going to happen from page to
        Many of her books come from pictures.  Thus, Fire and Hemlock
actually comes from a real photograph (which she and her husband bought
in Edinburgh!  I was excited!) called Fire and Hemlock, which is exactly
the one in the book.  Evidently the name of the artist was on it, on a
tag, but it fell off, so she doesn't know who did it, and it really could
be Tom Lynn (although she didn't say that herself).  Everyone who looked
at the picture always thought that it was not merely of fire and hemlock,
but that there were also four people in it - hence the four heroes.  
However, once she wrote the book, the people all disappeared.  It wasn't
just her who thought so - people would come to her house and say, "Oh,
the people in that picture are gone now!"  Strangely enough, however,
they seem to be coming back now.  I was sort of tempted to ask if she
thought this meant she would have to write a sequel, but I figured that  
it probably didn't, so I didn't ask.  Hexwood also started out with a
picture, of woods of course, woods which seemed to stretch on into
         Others of her books come from actual places that she's been
to.  Cart and Cwidder came from two places - a long road she was on, I
don't remember where, that seemed to stretch on forever, which put the
travelling into the book, and  a trip to Normandy where she saw some
wonderfully speckled cows, whom she knew would for some reason have to go
into the book.  Many of her books come from Bristol, in one way or
another.  She mentioned The Homeward Bounders in this context, because
there are many castles in Bristol, including a four-cornered one, and a
police station that looks like a castle.  Despite the niceness of  
Bristol, it is not paradise, because it rains too much ;-).  And she also 
pointed out that Deep Secret, which she described as having been meant to
be an adult book but then turning out to be for everyone, had a lot of  
Bristol in it by name ;-).  Most of the time, however, she doesn't call
places by their real names.
         At this point, she started talking about people by saying that
you don't call people by their real names, either ;-).  She explained
about how she needs to  put in a real person in order to keep the other
people in the book real.  At  this point, she basically explained that she
soulbonds (although naturally she didn't use the word).  I was rather
surprised, even though soulbonders do keep on saying that most authors
soulbond.  For those of you unfamiliar with the term, it comes from a
certain section of Internet anime fandom - soulbonders talk about having
various characters moving around and living in their head.  These
characters can be either someone else's or made up by the people whose
heads they live in.  Most soulbonders are willing to admit that this is 
actually an intellectual exercise and not something real (although some
of them don't admit this), but they still take it very seriously.  
Actually, it is a rather interesting intellectual exercise - I don't think
I did it before I read about it, but I did start trying after reading
about it (it's supposed to be a thing for writers), and I do like it,
although I don't take it nearly as seriously as most of the people who
talk about it do.  Anyway, the way that DWJ described it was by saying
that she tends to think that her characters who aren't based on real
people seem very real to her.  They also don't come with the book - they
tend to wander around in her head waiting for the right book to come
along.  She said that if you cut her head open, multitudinous people
would pour out.  Sometimes she ends up putting them in the wrong book,
they're so eager to come out, but she generally realizes her mistake when
this happens and takes them out again.  Unfortunately, she didn't give
any examples.  Nonetheless, despite their apparent reality, she does need 
to put the real people in so as to make sure that the made-up people
behave like real people as well.  She said that she was disturbed by the
fact that the times when a real person seemed to pull the whole story
around them were times when she was putting the person in for revenge,
like in Angus Flint.  However, she did point out that it made sense that
it was a good idea to keep your villain real.
         Many of the things that start off books can be very little
things that end up only playing a small role in the book itself.  This
was the case with Power of Three.  For some reason, as soon as she said
this, I thought that she meant the radio bit, and I was quite right
;-).  Evidently, her children were having some sort of fight, and the
radio got involved.  One of them tossed it on the ground.  Her husband
ended up interjecting himself and pulling them apart.  He was quite
mad.  He picked up the radio and said, "See, now you've broken the 
radio," and turned it on.  And the radio said, in a squeaky little 
voice, "Stop, please.  I can't take any more."  This story cracked
everyone up.
         She said that very few of her books came from dreams - however,
many times, when she's stuck in the middle of a book, a dream helps her
see where to go next.  However, her newest unpublished book (The Merlin
Conspiracy) did in fact come from a dream, although she says that the
dream is only a small part of it.  The dream sounded sort of like a weird
platform video game to me.  It was of a lot of bubbles, which were
actually universes, floating in the midst of nothingness.  DWJ knew that
she had to go to one of these universes, and so she started hopping from
universe to universe, and just like in a platform game, they sort of
moved away under her.  However, what eventually happened was that she
found herself totally lost, and unable to find her way back to the 
universe that she came from.  She described the dream as completely
beautiful, but rather frightening.
         And she also pointed out that many of her books came from
getting ideas from other people.  As soon as she said this, someone in
the audience interrupted and mentioned Howl's Moving Castle.  This is
true - as it explains in the book's dedication, she was giving a talk at a
school, and a boy asked her to write a book about a moving castle.  She
took down his name so that she could thank him for the idea in the book,
but then she lost it.  She says that she has never found the boy's
name.  She also mentioned at this point that she had gotten a letter from
someone, which she found very strange, which merely said, "Have you ever
written or do you intend to write a book called The Castle That Wasn't?"
Or something like that - I don't remember the title, but it was a book
about a castle that doesn't exist.  She said that she found the idea  
fascinating, and if she could ever think of why the castle that didn't
exist was important enough to name a book after, she probably would write
such a book.  She also talked about The Crown of Dalemark.  She had a deal
of trouble writing it, and it took her 10 years.  Evidently, the key idea
came from the guy who was the model for Chair Person!  He said, in a
typically Chair Person-ish bossy way, "The thing you need to do with
these books is to put the modern world in."  And naturally, given the way
he had said it, she discounted the idea totally.  It took her another
five years to realize that he actually had said something useful, once in
his life.
         She then went into a long description of her childhood, familiar
to me because  of my reading of her autobiography (which is available on
the web).  It was lovely to hear her tell it, though, and she added a lot
of details and stories.  She described how the reason why she writes such
strange books is because of her strange childhood (and mentioned another
children's book author, who got evacuated to the same house in the Lake
District as she did).  When  World War II broke out, she got evacuated to
the Lake District, which was strange.  There, she met her first real
authors - up to that point, she had thought that books were just sort of
mechanically produced in the back room at Woolworth's.  First she met
Arthur Ransome, who had been deeply upset by her sister and the other 
author's sister playing out in the water where he had his boat.  She met
him because she was being punished.  Since there was no way the children
in the house could go to a school, they were being home educated  
there.  Someone had told her to make a buttonhole, and she protested that
she was five and too young to make a buttonhole.  The person asked her if
she wanted to be a lady when she grew up, and she said, "No!" 
emphatically.  For this she was punished by being made to stand in the
hallway, so she saw Ransome coming in to complain.  Then there was
Beatrix Potter.  The children and mothers were going on a walk, and her
sister and the other sister went to swing on a gate, which happened to be
Beatrix Potter's gate, and Beatrix Potter chased them away and made them
cry.  These incidents made authors seem very real to DWJ, and let her
think that "anyone could write a book."
          The war made all of the adults seem to behave like rather crazy
children.  For example, a German pilot got shot down in the region, and
was trying to make it to the coast.  He happened to steal some food from
the house.  All of the mothers began to panic that they would be raped
and murdered, by this single, hungry, pathetic 19-year-old pilot.  DWJ
thought that this was rather absurd.
          After the war, things were equally crazy, because her parents
moved to the small village where they ran a conference center and ignored
her and her sisters.  She explained that she rarely puts things directly
from her childhood into her books, since no one would believe her, and
gave the stories that she did put into Time of the Ghost (about her
youngest sister Ursula wearing her hair in knots for six months and about
how she and Ursula nearly hung her middle sister when the latter was
trying to be a pantomime fairy) as examples.
          Everyone in the entire village was crazy.  There was the man on
the church porch who thought he was a werewolf and howled at the full
moon.  There was the Neanderthal woman with nine children.  There were
two women, from the same family, who were witches.  One was a good witch,
and the other a bad witch.  You went to the one you needed.
         There was one woman who opened up cafes like a tic.  She
couldn't stop herself.  All of the cafes had beautiful cakes that tasted
horrible.  Then there was the guy who made "human-sized working 
elephants."  At first, he put them on wheels, but eventually he got the
legs to work.  He took them around to various fetes throughout the area
and made his living this way.
          The people who came to the conference center were equally
strange.  Once an amateur opera society came in.  All of the men were
grotesquely thin and the women were equally grotesquely fat.  DWJ was not
supposed to come to the performance, but it ended up getting rained out
and had to move to a covered area.  She managed to sneak in and sit at
the back, where she could feel the rain on her back.  When the curtain
rose, the village was so horrified that they all jerked back.  She got
pushed off her bench.
          Then there was the performance of A Midsummer's Night Dream
which featured an Oberon who refused to learn his lines.  Instead, he
carried a mirror throughout the performance with his lines written on
it.  One of the people working with this production always wanted
everything to go his own way, but everyone else always wanted a
say.  When he started losing an argument, he faked a heart attack.  It
was very clear that he had faked it - as soon as they got him to a 
bed and left, he got up and went to the pub.  However, as soon as he got
into an argument again the next time, he faked a heart attack
again.  Clearly, he never learned.
        The conference center house had various things around it.  One was
a large yard.  This yard had an invisible clothesline stretched through
it, at about neck level, which people would invariably walk into.  It
also had a chicken hut, which was strange, because no one ever kept
chickens.  The center also had a large, pleasant, but extremely boring
	But it also had the second, secret garden.  This garden was kept 
mysteriously locked, and when DWJ wanted to go to it, she would have to
beg her father for the key, for he kept it hidden.  This garden was
beautiful and perfect, full of fruits which never were eaten.  It also
had a gardener.  The gardener loved to tell DWJ about how he had seen an
angel.  He had once gone to both church and chapel, one in the morning
and one at knight.  But one day, in the middle of the road, he saw an
angel, who told him that he should always go to chapel and never join a
trades union.  He told DWJ this story over and over again.
	The beautiful garden also had bees.  These bees were famous for
being truly evil and vicious.  Many times, when DWJ had managed to get
the key from her father and was going to the garden, she would enter it
to find the mystic gardener running away in fear from the bees.  However,
oddly enough, the bees never stung anyone in the family, and DWJ could go
right up to them without fear.  Both Lizzie and I independently thought
that the garden was the one from Charmed Life and the bees are the ones
from Power of Three.
	DWJ's goal in writing books is always to get all of this into one 
book.  She wants to put in the craziness of the outside world in wartime,
the bizarre nature of her village, the yard (which represents the weird
things that happen in the everyday), the first garden (the funny things
that happen in the everyday), and the secret garden (the mystical).  
However, she feels that she has never yet managed to quite do this in one
book.  However, those ideas which  work for her are the ones that seem to
touch on all of it.
        Once she has the idea, which is frequently something from the
middle of the book, she sits and writes it - in a comfortable chair -
never at a computer.  This can take varying amounts of time.  Charmed
Life was absolutely the quickest.  The idea that sparked it was the scene
where Cat goes to see Gwendolyn, she turns out to be Janet, and she asks
who he is, and he says, "I'm Cat," and she says, "No, you're not, you're a
boy."  The book seemed to spread out very quickly in both directions from
this scene.  However, she gets totally in a daze when she writes a book.  
Her sons used to come home from school and tell her about their day and
challenge her, because they could see she wasn't paying any attention.  
She got very skilled at repeating back things without actually listening.
Her sons knew she was doing it, of course, but there was nothing they
could do about it.  However, her absent-mindedness could be a real 
problem.  As she was writing Charmed Life, she had to make dinner, and she  
calmly put the manuscript on top of the refrigerator and started to make 
dinner.  Then, after she had turned on the oven, suddenly she realized
she had done something wrong.  She opened up the oven and saw her   
husband's boots in there, where she had calmly put them to be cooked.
         The end is frequently the most difficult and most enjoyable
part.  She says that frequently, at night, she'll get up to the climax of
the book, the point about 2/3rds in where everything from then on is
totally inevitable, but is still really fun and interesting.  Then she
won't go to sleep and will just stay up all night finishing up the draft.
Of course, even after she finishes the draft, she has to then make a
second draft.  This she does at her computer.  Her computer is called the
Bannus, which I find deeply satisfying.  Frequently it's the end that
needs to be cleaned up the most.  The end of The Merlin Conspiracy was
particularly hard to do and complex.
         The next stage is sending to the publisher.  It is at this time
that the books start coming true on her (she used the same phrase of "you
wouldn't know to ask" that she used in Deborah's letter on the
Internet!).  Sometimes this can be extremely painful.  Directly after
turning in Howl's Moving Castle, she got into a car accident and had to
use a walking stick like Sophie's.  And after writing The Lives of
Christopher Chant, she twice found that she was walking around with a
broken neck and hadn’t even noticed.  However, sometimes it's less bad.
         She told a story about a woman who writes her every once in a
while.  This woman has nine children, to whom she and her husband read
DWJ novels to at bedtime, so she always writes to explain how each new
batch is getting on with them.  The husband is a businessman who has to
do a lot of travelling.  At one point, the woman wrote in one of her
letters, he was in a lounge in an airport, where they have all sorts of
nice things for the business passengers, but they aren't allowed to take
any of the things out.  There was a bottle of some sort of alcohol - I
forget what - on a table, and the husband noticed a large man in a neat
business-suit sort of sneaking out of the lounge with the bottle.  Under 
his breath, the husband muttered to himself, "I belong to Chrestomanci 
Castle."  To his shock, the large man turned around, said, "Yes, but under
this suit I'm wearing an elaborately brocaded dressing-gown," and walked
out with the bottle.  This story made everyone laugh hysterically.  I
fear it may have almost killed me, but fortunately I survived.
         This was basically the end of the talk, and at this point there
were questions.  God knows I can't remember all of the questions, and
some of them were things that she's already answered on the website and
so on, so I'll merely say what I remember.
         Naturally, I remember my own question.  I asked about her use of
1st-person narrative, and how she had gotten the idea of using it the way
she did.  She said that it came from 18th-century epistolary fiction,
where the heroine was always writing secret letters that then were
discovered by the villains and actually became part of the plot (just
like "The True State of Affairs" and Aunt Maria!).  I shall have to read
these at some point.  She also repeated the old saw about the problem
with 1st-person narrative being the lack of suspense, because you know
the main character will survive (although personally I've never seen the
question of the protagonist's survival as being the main point of
suspense in fiction anyway. . . .).  And she also said that the other  
problem was that it could get sickeningly introspective, which I thought
was an interesting perspective ;-).
         Let's see.  She doesn't know where Chrestomanci's title or
Throgmorten's name come from.  Rather like me, actually, she tends to
make up stories without knowing the characters' names, but having a sort
of idea, and then having to pull that idea through.  She does know the cat
who became Throgmorten, though - he lived in Bristol, outside a pub.  He
would scratch everyone who came by and run through the street back and
forth in order to stop traffic.  She also said that she wasn't sure where
the idea of getting to the Place Beyond in dreams came from - she knew
Christopher had to do it somehow, but she wasn't sure how and then
eventually decided it would happen in dreams.  The Place Beyond is a real
place however, which strikes me as worrisome ;-).
         She described The Merlin Conspiracy a little more.  There are two
protagonists with 1st-person narratives, one of whom is a boy.  The boy
goes to a city in a canyon, with shopping centers built on top of each
other throughout the canyon.  She also was going to complain about
publishers, when someone asked her to talk about the book, but then her
publisher (or someone) interrupted her saying that the book wasn't going
to be published until 2004.  We all, including DWJ, were shocked and
groaned and thought this was ridiculous.
         One of DWJ's sons swears that the Goon was based on another one
of her sons, but DWJ herself thinks that he was an entirely made-up
character ;-).  Although she was coy when a little kid asked her about
her favorite of her own characters, she did mention the Goon as a
possibility.  This confirms my long-standing suspicion that DWJ likes
Erskine more than I do.  Hmmph.  She also said that she was quite happy
with the TV adaptation, except she sees Robert Westall's point when he
refused to watch it because it was too childish.  The BBC gave her family
the tapes, which is how come it's one of her granddaughter's favorite
tapes.  Her granddaughter was very surprised that she had written it and
that her grandmother "knows things like that."  If we want the tapes, _we_
should petition the BBC about releasing them, because they won't listen to
her.  However, she's always felt that if one of her books should be
filmed, it should be Charmed Life.  She has no idea why no one's ever
        She doesn't know what's going on with the Howl's Moving Castle
film and hasn't heard anything about it in months.  She thinks that
something may have gone wrong, just as it always does when someone tries
to film her books.  She thinks that the Black Maria adaptation would be
good, if someone does it, but it won't necessarily come through. . . .
        Someone did in fact give her an idea (a fairly young girl).  She
suggested a story featuring a set of houses, covered in mist.  DWJ
actually liked the idea - she said that she had a concept of a large, 
angry, somewhat smelly woman who was also a bard running somewhere
looking for someone, and that maybe this was where she was running.  The
use of the word bard made me think that maybe this would be a Derkholm
         She talked a bit about Sirius.  She had a dog who was the model
for Sirius, since he was so intelligent, but the model for Sirius' looks
was a clearly well-taken-care-of dog who seemed to want to come to live
with her.  It took her all day to convince him that he already had a home
         She has many ideas for books that don't work out.  She keeps all
the half-finished manuscripts in her drawers in case she can ever take
them up again, but most of the time, she finds that she has no idea what
she was thinking of when she looks at them.  The one with Cat as an adult
is one of those.  Cat is very hard to do as an adult, since he's such a
childish boy with a lot of growing up to do, thanks to his dependence on
          Cambridge questions: Dr. Pawson did not have a real model, but
according to the questioner, many Cambridge dons do in fact resemble
him.  Also, DWJ was not thinking of the Cambridge finals when she named a
demon in Dark Lord of Derkholm Tripos, but evidently this is the name of
the Cambridge finals, which had disturbed the girl who asked the question
when she was procrastinating for studying by reading the book ;-).
          When someone asked her if she read children's books and which
ones she recommended, she said that she tended to do so on and off, and
now was a more off time.  The only name she mentioned was Robin McKinley,
which only makes me _more_ certain that there's something deeply wrong
with me for not particularly liking her. . . .
          That seems to be what I remember offhand, I'm afraid.
          Anyway, after that was the signing - I chatted on the line with
a little girl named Clare who had evidently only just discovered DWJ.  I
told her which books were in the Chrestomanci series, and she told me
about a talk by Philip Pullman that she had gone to, which was evidently
nice, only he got rather mad and peremptory when people asked him
questions about what he was thinking of when putting certain things in
his books ;-).  I can understand that, but according to Clare, he said,
"That's none of your business!", which seems like an odd thing to say.
          DWJ was very nice to me and signed all my books in the right
way.  I had to explain how to spell Kyla's name and my name, and she was
unsurprisingly bemused at the similarity of our names, so I mentioned
that we knew a Kira, too.  She managed to spell our names correctly even
so.  When I said that my brother's name was Ethan, she said, "Oh, I know
how to spell that, at least!"  She also commented on the well-worn nature
of my books.  I told her she was lucky I hadn't brought my Chrestomanci
ones (which are totally falling apart), and she said she understood how a
copy of a book could become a sentimental object, which was kind of her
          She also signed Lizzie's books - Lizzie gave her a present, too
(a little box of goodies), which she seemed to appreciate.  She said she
had just given a bonsai kit (one of the goodies) away as a present
herself and had wanted one.  She also liked the glowing pen that was
there and called it a wand.  At this point she found that Lizzie and I
had come down all the way from Scotland and was impressed - she was also
impressed that I was going back during the night.  And that's it - but I
really enjoyed it, it was great, and I'm very glad I went!


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