Dorian's DWJ in Dublin post

Charles Butler hannibal at
Wed Feb 18 17:16:27 EST 2004

Try the archives?  Or are they Out Of Order
> again?

The god of displacement activities sent me on a quest to find that post, and
I have just emerged from the archives with it clenched between my teeth...


Dorian wrote:

Well, here it is.  Summary of last night's speech.  Despite Hallie's
confidence in me, I doubt it's brilliant; I kept getting so interested
in the speech I forgot to write things down!

She started by apologising for her tardiness and explaining the travel
jinx (much nudging of each other by the four of us!) and then went
into the speech proper, entitled "A Daring Attempt at the Truth".

Diana said that writers are often asked, especially in radio
interviews, how they write books.  And she thinks that both she and
other writers don't tell the truth in such interviews; they say what
the interviewer wants to hear.  (She also thinks that most
interviewers have managed to leave both fantasy and reality behind,
which makes it hard to communicate with them!)  In this talk she
wanted to try to tell what writing a book is *really* like.

She used this issue in her short story "Carol Oneir's 100th Dream";
she cited the scene where Carol is trying to tell Chrestomanci how she
actually dreams, and Chrestomanci points out the contradictions in
what she says - a dream is a "voyage of discovery", yet she "controls
every detail of it", for instance.  Writing, Diana says, is very like
Carol's dreaming.  And what Chrestomanci, and many others, don't
grasp, is that in this case, two contradictory things *can*
simultaneously be true.

She described how she'd been asked to talk about how she wrote "Fire
and Hemlock", and she wrote this lovely talk all full of T. S. Eliot's
"Four Quartets" and cello music and all these things that she put in,
and she gave the talk.  (I'm not sure if it's the one that was later
published as "The Heroic Ideal - A Personal Odyssey", but it certainly
seems to have contained a lot of the same ideas.)  Then her New York
publisher read the talk and looked at her and said "that's not true!"
And she said "you're right, it's not".  And yet it was, as well.

A great deal of what she talked about on that occasion, how she put
references in carefully and built things together cleverly, actually
happened in the second draft - but some of it happened,
subconsciously, in the first draft.  So that earlier talk was true and
not true, both at once.

She went on to say that it was important to her that the supernatural
in "Fire and Hemlock" be *almost* explainable by normal means.  And
she summed up this section by saying that it is simultaneously true
that her writing is carefully controlled and happens to an extent
independently of the writer.

Then she moved on to say that it's very important to her to get
physically into a book and feel everything that's happening in it.
This makes her very absent-minded when she's writing, and she walks
about muttering to herself in the street or trying to cook her
husband's shoes for dinner.

She returned to Carol Oneir to point out that Carol has only five main
characters in her dreams, which she reuses over and over again.  This
is something that writers are not allowed to admit to doing (even
though painters can paint the same haystack over and over again!), but
she says that many writers, including herself, do do it.  She said
that when you have a character in your head for a long time, that
character becomes very real, and develops quirks and personality
traits and acts like a real person.  But you don't necessarily have to
use *all* of a character in a given book, so she will use part of one
of her "stock people" in one book, and another part in another book.
She gave some examples - Tom Lynn and the Goon are two halves of the
one character, as are Howl and the Silver Keeper, or Torquil and
Tacroy.  She also does this with real people, splitting them up and
putting bits here and bits there.  Douglas and Caspar are both her
eldest son, for instance.

Another of Carol Oneir's problems with her dreams is that she tends to
ignore everyone except her main characters, and this has led to
boredom.  Diana said that it's important to have *some* reaction to
every character, even the minor ones.  There also has to be room in
the story for characters to behave in unexpected ways, or for
unexpected characters to walk in.  She cited the Aunt in "Wilkins'
Tooth" as one example.  She also said that when she was planning
"Charmed Life", she knew it contained a Great Enchanter, but didn't
know what that character was like until Chrestomanci walked into the
kitchen.  She then spent the rest of the writing of that book finding
out what Chrestomanci was like.

Another thing she feels is important - and another trap that Carol
Oneir fell into - is to resist the pressure to do the same thing over
and over again.  She also noted that characters can run off with the
story, and also that stories can run off with themselves!  Both of
these situations may be bad or good.  A story also has a shape,
generally a drawable, geometrical shape, within which you have to make
sure it stays, otherwise it will fail.

Diana told about how once she went to a holistic healer type about her
back, and this woman told her that the reason she has back problems is
that she keeps looking back to the past, and she should look forward
to the future.  She considered this very silly advice; you can't look
at the future because it isn't there yet!  Also, all stories need
hooks that you can hang them off, and the hooks that her stories hang
off are her childhood.  She talked about some of the incidents from
her childhood, including the Germans=germs confusion and the
almost-hanging of her sister - nothing that those of us who have read
her autobiographical essay on the website didn't know!

She mentioned that all of her books have a particular season or
seasons; she feels the changing of the seasons is very important,
which is a feeling she acquired in childhood.  She said she translated
parts of her childhood into her books, and she needs something like
that in each book, but she always asks herself if the experience she's
translating will be valuable to others besides herself.  It can't go
in unless it's going to be valuable.

She talked about the three different gardens she had access to as a
child, and says that each of them goes into a book too.  First is the
"yard of life and death", the gravelled yard where the children played
boisterous games and the clothes-lines were a danger to life and limb.
This, she said, is the place where things start in books.  Then there
was a formal garden where they had quiet fun, playing make-up games
(which sound much like Polly and Tom's make-ups).  This is the place
where the central parts of the book are made, and the source of its
formal patterns.  And then there was the walled garden with the roses
and the apple-trees and the homicidal bees, and this is the home of
the mystery and beauty at the heart of the book.

All of these things go into every book Diana writes, but the final
ingredient - the thing that tells her that *this* is the book she has
to write now - is something she could only describe as "a particular
taste in my head".

That's all I seem to have noted down; I know I've missed bits, but I'm
not sure *what* bits!  As Hallie said, the whole thing was wonderful -
the speech was very funny as well as interesting, and meeting her, if
only for a few minutes, was great...she was really nice, and seemed
pleased to meet some people who read her books for fun.  Roll on next
April, with the promise of a new book from her *and* a possibility of
seeing her here again!

Until the sky falls on our heads...

Dorian E. Gray
israfel at

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