[DWJ] Interview with DWJ's son

Elizabeth Evans er.evans at auckland.ac.nz
Mon Jul 11 17:07:19 EDT 2011


I add my thanks to both Deborah and Elizabeth for the transcript and amendments. It is nice to have this to re-read once the podcast evaporates from the airways.
Regards
Elizabeth

-----Original Message-----
From: dwj-bounces at suberic.net [mailto:dwj-bounces at suberic.net] On Behalf Of Elizabeth Bentley
Sent: Tuesday, 12 July 2011 1:00 a.m.
To: Diana Wynne Jones discussion
Subject: Re: [DWJ] Interview with DWJ's son

My version:

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 born on 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 own 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
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, and 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, or parents who were absent, or 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 of DWJ's writing since it's full of fun -
where else could you find a description of a griffin going to the vet, or indeed
of a griffin cracking its way out of an 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 from 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 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 annexe
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 bass 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, as a result, often 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 whom he hated into his
representation of hell probably had exactly the same response I do to some
of my mother's writing. DWJ used 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 did a lot 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 in 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 closely tied up in the lives and the emotions of their creators
that readers, even the author's own children, can only see by glimpses where
they really came from.   
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.   
> 
> 


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

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