[DWJ] Interview with DWJ's son

jstallcup jstallcup at juno.com
Sun Jul 10 21:17:55 EDT 2011

Wow!  Thanks for doing this!

I listened to the talk earlier today and it's funny--the first person I
thought of when I heard that line about writers was Jamie from Homeward
Bounders.  I think someone mentioned him earlier as a "kind of" writer,
but he's definitely a writer--he's the one writing (or at least speaking)
the whole story and he does have to go through despair to set someone
free.  Totally made sense to me.  

I also loved the bit about Seb:  "well, thanks mum!"  really cracked me

And I loved the ending--it's so interesting to think about the "dark
Arcadias" that writers from the past have created and how we will never
know exactly how those sprang not from their politics but from their own
real, lived lives.  Wow.

On Sun, 10 Jul 2011 22:49:59 +0300 "Deborah Meghnagi Bailey"
<deborah at brightweavings.com> writes:
> Well, it took me well over an hour to transcribe a fourteen minute 
> talk, but
> I did it! The recording did keep freezing every so often so I had to 
> refresh
> and restart.
> I copy it below, hoping that the formatting will be visible in the 
> email.
> Elizabeth if you'd like to check through it that would be great, 
> there may
> be small mistakes and there is a word I missed early on - I just put 
> xx
> there instead of it.
> Enjoy! I'll be intrigued if anyone has more to say on this, now that 
> it's
> easier to refer to. I still don't really see this, for example: 
> "Repeatedly,
> in the fiction of DWJ, a writer is a person who has to give up 
> everything
> and go through despair, in order to set other people free."  The 
> only person
> I can really see in that light is Nan in Witch Week, and I'd say 
> that while
> she goes through despair, she also achieves catharsis and grows into 
> her own
> person. 
>         My mother died earlier this year. She was the children's 
> author DWJ.
> She wrote more than 30 novels. Some of them are set in mythical 
> worlds which
> have their own completely convincing mythologies and histories, all 
> of which
> she made up. Others blend magic into our own world. Dogsbody, which 
> appeared
> in 1975, was perhaps the book in which she really worked out what 
> she wanted
> to do as a writer. In Dogsbody, the Dog Star Sirius is banished from 
> the
> heavens and is brought to earth as a puppy. He becomes an extremely 
> doggy
> dog, who can't resist either a bitch in heat or a dustbin. He is
> unmistakably modeled on our family dog at the time, who was a 
> serial
> Lothario and bin-raider. Sirius the dog, though, also happens to be 
> a
> celestial hero, on a quest to recover a tool for mending the stars. 
> That
> fusion of the completely ordinary and the completely magical was 
> entirely
> typical of my mother's way of writing. It was also how she looked at
> reality; normality could never just be normality, so if she got 
> caught in
> traffic on the M25 it wasn't because it's one of the busiest roads 
> in
> Europe, it was because she had her own particular travel jinx.
>         The obituaries all said nice things about her work, though 
> I'm not
> sure they got her quite right. Most of them said that DWJ was the 
> person who
> made Harry Potter possible; this is probably true, but she would 
> hate to be
> remembered like that-she had a very low view of J.K. Rowling. 
> Because my
> mother read English at Oxford while Tolkien and C.S. Lewis were 
> lecturing
> there, the obituaries also said that they were the main influences 
> on her
> writing. Lewis and Tolkien played their parts, but the biggest 
> literary
> influence on DWJ was, I think, a woman, E. Nesbit, the E stands for 
> Edith,
> whose books Mum read to us from a very early age. E. Nesbit was 
> described by
> George Bernard Shaw as "an audaciously unconventional lady." She 
> smoked
> cigarettes and cut her hair short, she was a Fabian and a socialist, 
> and had
> a very odd love life. Her children's books wove together sand 
> fairies and
> ginger beer, magic and experiences from her own life in a way that
> anticipates the mixture of magic and reality in a lot of 
> contemporary
> children's fiction. She was the main spirit behind DWJ's fiction. In 
> my
> mother's best novel, Fire and Hemlock, which re-tells the story of 
> Tam Lin,
> but which is also about her own love for my father, the heroine 
> Polly is
> sent a series of children's books which her admirer, Thomas Lynn, 
> says
> nobody should grow up without reading. They include E. Nesbit's 
> Five
> Children and It and The Treasure Seekers. When Thomas sends her 
> Tolkien's
> Lord of the Rings a bit later on, it's something of a disaster, 
> since Polly
> starts to imitate Tolkien in her own writings, and Thomas tells her 
> off for
> doing so.
>         Writing for children is often regarded as escapist, and 
> fantasy in
> general is often sneered at as the simplest kind of Utopian fiction; 
> you
> create a world in which everything works out as if by magic, and 
> that's the
> end of it-Arcadia without darkness, without death. Children's 
> writing and
> fantasy in the line descending from E. Nesbit is not at all like 
> that. E.
> Nesbit had an unhappy childhood, she often directly wrote about 
> people she
> knew in her fiction. Her most utopian writing, particularly her late 
> work,
> The Magic City, is not simply escapist; it imagines a new and better 
> world
> because of what's wrong with the present one. E. Nesbit created a 
> kind of
> children's fiction which was always aware of the bad things it was 
> trying to
> escape from-fathers in prison, parents who were absent, worlds that 
> are
> wrecked. As a result, her followers, including DWJ, created a kind 
> of
> fantasy which doesn't simply run away into ideal or magical worlds, 
> but
> which uses those ideal worlds to work out real problems from their 
> own
> lives. This can make the worlds they describe serious and dark. Dark 
> is
> perhaps an odd word to use about DWJ's writing since it's full of 
> fun -
> where else could you find a description of a griffin going to the 
> vet, or xx
> of a griffin cracking itself out of its egg, but her books are 
> profoundly
> serious despite all the humour. They are quite consistently driven 
> by rage
> against unfairness. Very often characters in her novels discover 
> that they
> are being manipulated or controlled by people who have no right to 
> do so and
> they cry out, as my mother did, rather often, and usually at high 
> volume,
> "that's not fair!"
>         DWJ repeatedly embodied evil in people who were unfair in 
> one
> particular way. She hated exploiters; people who tried to suck the 
> magic and
> vitality out of others. Her books repeatedly represent acts of 
> rebellion
> against anything or anyone that makes people ordinary and grey when 
> they
> could be imaginative and alive. Much of that comes from E. Nesbit; 
> some of
> it also comes from the poet Shelley, whom DWJ much admired. But her 
> fiction
> was also underpinned by a profound sadness which was all her own. 
> Many of
> DWJ's heroes and heroines are writers. Repeatedly, in the fiction of 
> DWJ, a
> writer is a person who has to give up everything and go through 
> despair, in
> order to set other people free. That's a profoundly strange idea, 
> and anyone
> who saw DWJ actually writing a book would be particularly amazed by 
> it. When
> she wrote, she was a picture of complete happiness. She'd sit, with 
> a fag in
> one hand and a pen in the other, a dog or a cat at her feet, and 
> coffee
> nearby. She regarded the people and worlds she created with real 
> love; when
> she signed away the film rights to Howl's Moving Castle, so that 
> Miyazaki
> could make it into a wonderful animation, she said that she felt 
> like she
> was selling her characters into slavery. And yet, clearly, she 
> regarded the
> process of imagining new and magical worlds as an exercise in 
> loneliness, so
> profound that it was almost a kind of sacrifice. 
>         Many of the obituaries of DWJ dwelt on her early life, or 
> rather,
> her early life as she described it in an autobiography she wrote for 
> her
> website. This tells how she was brought up in the village of 
> Thaxted, in
> Essex. Thaxted was, through the 1920s and beyond, a centre for 
> communism,
> Morris dancing, hand-thrown pots, and eccentric living of all kinds. 
> She
> always said how much she hated the village, but her particular brand 
> of
>  fiction is actually quite hard to imagine without that bizarre
> social and political background. Her autobiography also says that 
> DWJ and
> her sisters spent much of their childhood living on their own in an 
> annex
> with a concrete floor, where they were deprived of books and were 
> neglected
> by their parents. Her mother repeatedly called her a "clever but 
> ugly
> delinquent." Her sisters don't remember their childhood in quite the 
> same
> way. I obviously wasn't there, so I can only say that she needed to 
> remember
> her childhood in this way, even if that wasn't quite how it was. 
> There's no
> doubt that this gives her fiction its characteristic darkness. Old 
> women and
> failed mothers do not fare well in her stories. The central 
> character of
> Black Maria is an elderly suburban lady of high respectability. She 
> turns
> out to be a witch who uses magic to control a whole town full of 
> zombie-like
> conformist men. This particular witch is clearly based on my own
> grandmothers and they are represented so cruelly that one of DWJ's 
> own
> characters might well cry out, "it's not fair," if they read about 
> them. My
> mother's mother was herself a formidable woman. She grew up in a 
> very modest
> background in Sheffield, she became a scholarship girl, went to 
> Oxford, and
> transformed herself into a speaker of impeccably cultivated BBC 
> English. She
> probably did not much want to be a mother, she certainly could be 
> cruel, and
> very much liked to be admired by men. She runs through my mother's 
> novels
> like a dark base note; she's there in the wicked witch of the west 
> in Howl's
> Moving Castle, who turns the young Sophie into a crone and who 
> preserves her
> own beauty by magic. There's no doubt that my grandmother is the 
> principal
> reason why DWJ's arcadias are so dark, and why her fictions so 
> often
> associate imaginative children with lonely defiance, and with 
> sadness. 
> One of the most obvious but most profound truths about fiction is 
> that it
> does not paint things as they are. Fiction is often, as a result, 
> not fair.
> People who make up imaginative worlds; Arcadias, utopias, often do 
> so
> because they feel wronged, or because they feel that there is 
> something
> wrong with the world around them. Fiction allows them to create a 
> world with
> its own set of values in which punishments can be handed out 
> according to
> the rules of the imagination and emotion rather than the rule of 
> law. People
> who knew Dante and who saw him put people who he hated into his
> representation of hell probably had exactly the same response I do 
> to some
> of my mother's writing. DWJ wrote fiction partly to create worlds 
> which were
> happier or more equal than our own, but she also could use fiction 
> to take
> revenge on people she felt had injured or offended her. I liked my
> grandmother and I got punished for this in several of my mother's 
> books.
> When I was a teenager, I listened to The Doors and was fond of 
> photography.
> No doubt in my mother's eyes I was a chilly kind of thing. In Fire 
> and
> Hemlock, there is a chilly public schoolboy called Sebastian, who 
> likes The
> Doors and does a lot of photography. He also happens to be in league 
> with
> the glamorous and unageing Queen of the Fairies, with whom he tries 
> to erase
> the heroine's memories and perform a human sacrifice. Well, thanks 
> Mum. But
> fiction isn't meant to be fair; my mother needed to tap some of her 
> darkest
> experiences in order to write, and she gave moral values to 
> different
> characters according to a profoundly idiosyncratic emotional 
> language. Her
> fictional worlds were not straight transcriptions of the world she 
> saw, but
> of the world she felt, and she said what she felt about people, more 
> readily
> through fiction than she did in person. 
> I'm a literary critic by profession, and most of the people I write 
> books
> about-Milton, Spenser, Sidney and Shakespeare-lived around four 
> centuries
> ago. It's therefore particularly odd for me to read my mother's 
> novels and
> see at once where so much of the fiction comes from. My old dog, 
> Lily, is
> effectively the hero of The House of Many Ways, for example. This 
> gives me a
> quite different perspective on the poems and plays I think about on 
> my day
> job. Many of the writers I work on created dark Arcadias of one kind 
> or
> another; pastoral or fantastical worlds which are marred by some 
> problem.
> It's often said by literary critics that Shakespeare and Sidney and 
> Spenser
> and Milton created Arcadian and pastoral fictions in order to 
> reflect on
> their own worlds. If those Arcadias are dark, if kings are no good, 
> or if
> queens are evil, if life in the forest becomes violent, critics 
> usually end
> up saying that it's because Sir Philip Sidney, or whoever it might 
> be,
> didn't like the foreign policy of Elizabeth the First. We say that 
> because
> we know a fair bit about the foreign policy of Elizabeth the First 
> but we
> don't know much about the intimate lives and aversions of authors 
> from that
> period. I learnt many things from my mother and her books, but 
> perhaps the
> principal thing I learnt was that dark Arcadias, like all fictions, 
> almost
> certainly come from places in the imagination which are very 
> private.
> Fictions are so tightly tied up in the lives and emotions of their 
> creators
> that readers, even the author's own children, can only see by 
> glimpses where
> they really came from.   
> -----Original Message-----
> From: dwj-bounces at suberic.net [mailto:dwj-bounces at suberic.net] On 
> Behalf Of
> Elizabeth Bentley
> Sent: Sunday, July 10, 2011 10:28 PM
> To: Diana Wynne Jones discussion
> Subject: Re: [DWJ] Interview with DWJ's son
> If you need to check the wording after it has gone off-line, I have 
> been
> able to record it on my iPad!
> Elizabeth
> On 10 Jul 2011, at 18:59, Deborah Meghnagi Bailey wrote:
> > I just tried it and it's working ok for me. But you've inspired me 
> - if
> it's
> > going offline tomorrow, I will attempt to transcribe it now. If I 
> manage
> to
> > do it all, I'll post it here for everyone.
> ---------------------
> Elizabeth Bentley BA MCLIP
> Librarian
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