[DWJ] Interview with DWJ's son

Elizabeth Bentley ebentleysln at googlemail.com
Mon Jul 11 08:17:57 EDT 2011

Have found a few tiny errors (the missing word is indeed), but will check again before sending the amended version.

Just listening and checking was a difficult task, so I am full of admiration for Deborah.


On 10 Jul 2011, at 20:49, Deborah Meghnagi Bailey wrote:

> 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
> utopian 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
> CILIP's School Libraries Group national committee
> mailto:ebentleysln at googlemail.com
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Elizabeth Bentley BA MCLIP
CILIP's School Libraries Group national committee
mailto:ebentleysln at googlemail.com

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