DWJ in Israeli newspaper

Gili Bar-Hillel gbhillel at netvision.net.il
Wed Feb 11 08:03:00 EST 2004

An interesting and respectably long piece on Diana Wynne Jones was published
today in "Ha'aretz" daily newspaper. This was published in the section
called "Galeria" (equivalent to Arts and Life sections in other papers),
following a review of "Charmed Life" that was published in the Books
supplement of the paper and a letter to the editor that I wrote in reply to
the review. I bring you the piece, please keep in mind that this is a just a
quick and rough translation for your perusal only. I'm retranslating some
bits into English because I don't have time to go look the originals up.


There Once was an Author Who Wrote about Wizards

Diana Wynne Jones published her first fantasy books when J.K.Rowling was
just a girl, but now, thanks to "Harry Potter", they have become
bestsellers - And Jones has finally won the fame that evaded her

by Ronit Rokas

For 30 years Diana Wynne Jones has been writing  about Witches and Wizards
who reside in dark castles, about he whose name must not be mentioned, and
about children who learn to do magic and are unwittingly drawn into magical
adventures full of fire and blood. She has written approximately 40 fantasy
books, most of them for children, gained critical acclaim and won literary
prizes, but the wide readership has evaded her. Only about four years ago,
when the success of "Harry Potter" reached a peak and publishing houses were
scrambling to find similar fantasy books for children, did "HarperCollins"
decide to reissue all her books.

Ever since, Jones has enjoyed a resurgence of interest, particularly in
Great Britain and the U.S.A. By mid-2003 approximately 700 thousand copies
of her reissued books had been sold in Great Britain - not the Millions of
Harry Potter, but by all means bestsellers. In about a year a cinematic
version of her book "Howl's Moving Castle" is scheduled for release,
directed by Hayako Miyazaki, who the Oscar for best animated movie for his
film "Spirited Away". Last April Jones was even invited to meet the Blairs
at number 10 Downing Street in London, and "The Guardian" wrote that a
Cinderella Story had reached its happy end.

In Israel, two of her early books were published only last year, "Charmed
Life" (1977) and "The Lives of Christopher Chant" (1988), translated by
Netta Yedid (Keter Publishing House). An additional novel, "Witch Week",
perhaps the most popular of her books, is scheduled for publication in late
2004. [[This was news to me, see my comments at the end - G.B.H.]] Despite
the cover illustrations that were inspired by the Harry Potter series - and
moreover, despite the the fact that critics agree that they are no less
worthy, and perhaps more worthy of attention that those books about the
young wizard with the scar - none of them has so far reached the bestseller

Gili Bar-Hillel, translator of the Harry Potter books into Hebrew and editor
of one of Jones' books at Keter [[both, actually :-P]] said: "Diana Wynne
Jones books have been favorites of mine since I was 7 years old. The problem
is that nobody else in Israel seemed to be interested in them. I approached
several publishers with suggestions to translate her books, but they all
said, 'What, not another Harry Potter ripoff. Not interested.' I made a
sneaky move to get them published at Keter. I was working as Editor of
Children's books there att he time, and rather than bringing them to the
Editorial Board [[by the usual procedure]] I went directly to the
editor-in-chief, Zvika Meir, and he gave his approval."

Jones finds it difficult to understand how after 30 years of highly
acclaimed writing, anyone dares refer to her books as ripoffs. When her
books were reissued, she hadn't even heard of J. K. Rowling. At the time she
must have missed the irony: HarperCollins, the publishing house that
redeemed her books, was one of those who turned down "Harry Potter and the
Philosopher's Stone", the first book in the millions-making series.

Nowadays Rowling's name follows her everywhere. "I'm quite fed-up with the
scandalmongers who ask me how I feel about this," she wrote on her fansite,
"I usually give them a slippery answer, how good it is for the genre, and
I'm always quite pleased when they say, 'you're no fun'."

At the same fansite (http://www.leemac.freeserve.co.uk) she once forsook the
slippery answer and wrote on this issue: "I don't think I'm the only fantasy
author who gets annoyed that most adults think Rowling invented the genre.
It makes you wonder what all these ignorant people must have read when they
were young." To one fan, she replied: 'I was a bit upset at the number of
things that she [Rowling] had borrowed from me. It ought to have been
acknowledged in some way. I just don't know how conscious and deliberate
this literary theft was."

Sean, 22 years old, dared to ask which she would prefer to read, her own
books or the Harry Potter books. Jones, with the slightly bitter snappiness
that marks her writing as well, replied: "In fact, I always prefer to read
somebody else's books. I know too well what's about to happen in my own.
Unfortunately, this problem also exists in the 'Harry Potter' books. I hope
I'm never left on a desert Island with only the two options that you've
given me."

Many of Jones' books were written a good 20 years before the Harry Potter
books, and the author blieves that "J. K. Rowling probably read them when
she was about 14. I think she must have liked them." However Rowling herself
has claimed in an interview to the "Times" a year ago that she has never
read Jones' books.

Yehiam Padan, editor and translator of Children's books, who wrote an
educated review of the Hebrew translation of Jones' "Charmed Life"
("Ha'aretz", 10/22/03), claims that Jones' bitterness is justified. "She
writes books that are better than the Harry Potter books, and yet for years
she did not manage to reach a wide audience. Overall there are similarities
between the books, but it doesn't really matter. The Harry Potter series is
reminiscent of many other books, perhaps even more than it is of Jones'
books. In my opinion, what happened with Rowling was a very healthy
process - she read other books, and wrote a piece completely of her own,
which adds another layer to everything that preceeded it. It's part of the
progress of literature, not plagiarism."

Jones herself, in a more sober reply, wrote to her readers: "I feel that
Rowling must have received her ideas subconcsiously when she was young. Did
you know that Beatrix Potter lived in her childhood nearby to a large London
Cemetary, where there are headstones bearing the names 'Peter Rabbit' and
'Jeremiah Fisher' - who both died before [[Beatrix]] Potter was born. What I
mean is that things stick in your head when you're young, and you don't
always know where you got them."
[[B.T.W., there is a headstone for "Harry Potter" who died in WWI, in a
cemetary in Hebron, Israel]]

Jones' books contain all the elements that made Harry Potter such great
success: magic, tyrannical and threatening adults, plucky youngsters and a
good douse of humour. Unlike Rowling, Jones does not write serially even
though HarperCollins have attempted to create an impression that she does,
building around one character in particular, usually minor but powerful and
striking, who appears in some of her most popular books. This character
appeared first in "Charmed Life", and quite a few pages go by before it
turns out that Chrestomanci is not his name but rather his title.

Jones writes in her books of parallel worlds, quite similar to each other
but different nonetheless. The world of "Charmed Life" and "The Lives of
Christopher Chant", for instance, is much like England of the past, with one
huge difference: magic is an integral part of it. In such a world, being a
magician is natural and ordinary, and to ensure that people do not turn
their magical powers to evil use - which they of course do right and left -
one of them is appointed to the position of Chrestomancy, the most important
and elegant man in the kingdom.

There is something dark, even oppressive, about Jones' books. The children,
those plucky protagonists, usually undergo difficult childhoods: in "Charmed
Life" the parents die in a freak accident and the brother and sister who
survive on their own are at first sent to live with a neighbor; in "The
Lives of Christopher Chant" the child is raised by governesses who are
switched once a fortnight, and his parents communicate with each other by
means of notes that are handed back and forth through the servants.

Jones herself, who was born in 1935, has lived for the past 27 years in
Bristol, with her husband, Professor John E. Burrow, and they have three
adult sons. Despite the distance of years, she still speaks of her childhood
with bitterness and pain that have not been dulled. In the autobiography she
published on her fansite she describes her father's miserliness, her
parents' mockery, her mother's coldness and the confusion and terror during
the Blitz in London.

In Jones' eyes, those distant years explain why she chose to write fantasy
books. "Her childhood was so peculiar," claims a site on the B.B.C. network,
"that she is incapable of writing about normal lives." In her autobiography,
she wrote: "I think I write the kind of books I do because the world
suddenly went mad one August in 1939, when I was five... John and my
children have taught me much more about ordinary human nature than I had
ever known up to then. Before then, I hadn't any idea what normal was."

(with a portrait of Diana, and images of the covers of "Charmed Life" and
"The Lives of Christopher Chant").


After reading this, I rang up Keter and asked about "Witch Week". Though I
used to work there, and though when I was dismissed I was promised that I
would still be offered work translating books for Keter, the truth is that
they never approach me and I am completely in the dark about what goes on at
Keter. The current editor there, Hillit Rinnon-Hemo, seems quite fond of
DWJ's books, though she only discovered them recently through the books that
I had introduced to Keter. She did acknowledge that "Witch Week" was being
translated, but they have not gone back to Netta Yedid as translator,
despite the fact that I think she did an excellent job. The translator they
hired is another good translator, Yael Inbar, with more experience under her
belt: I once hired her to translate "Gathering Blue" by Lois Lowry, and I
know she has also translated Roald Dahl's "Matilda" and Natalie Babbit's
"Tuck Everlasting", among others. I mentioned something about "Howl's Moving
Castle" and Hillit said something along the lines of, "of course we'll
translate that too, someday". I can't even begin to say how much I want to
translate that book, and I have absolutely no confidence that they'll even
remember to approach me, when the times come. Or else I'll be busy doing the
next Potter or the next Jaqueline Wilson, or else they'll only offer me an
embarassingly small fee like they did for "His Dark Materials", which maybe
I should have taken anyway but I didn't because it was equivalent to paying
them for the privilege to work. Aargh. I hate having so little control over
what projects I can take on. Moan moan moan whine whine whine.

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