A wonderful writer died at the end of March, and I’ve been trying to figure out how to write about her death ever since.
Her name was Diana Wynne Jones, and she was (mostly) a young adult and children’s author, though she did write some adult novels as well. She was fairly famous and successful, with a certain devoted audience, much more so in the U.K.–though not nearly as famous as she should have been given the far greater fame and success of certain writers-who-must-n0t-be-named, who could never match her brilliance. In fact, most of her books were out of print and it wasn’t until the success of the Harry Potter series that they were reissued, recommended for children and young adults suddenly hungry for more fantasy. People in America may only know her as the author of the novel that Miyazaki adapted into an animated film—Howl’s Moving Castle—a visually stunning film in its own right, by the way. Most people in America probably don’t know who she is at all.
But I owe her everything, and that’s not much of an exaggeration. I owe her my writing “career,” if you can call it that, I owe her for many years of happiness and healthy self-esteem, I owe her my sense of humor, I owe her my love of myth and legend, of time travel and parallel worlds–and I owe her for building those worlds, for their existence when I most desperately needed escape. I never met Wynne Jones, but I had been recently thinking a good deal about her. I had been thinking I needed to write her a letter, that although I knew she probably got dozens, maybe even hundreds of those letters every day, I needed to write and tell her how much her writing had meant to me over the years.
And then she died. And I’m sorry beyond all words that I never wrote that letter when I had the chance. I’m sorry beyond all words that my procrastination cost me the chance to say thank you. I’m sorry that I didn’t know she was ill, that I didn’t know she was dying, that I didn’t know that she would never write another book again. I’m sorrier than I can say.
I suppose that’s what this is now: a sort of a letter in the literary ether, winging its way through the digital world. Hopefully the echoes will fly off and stick somewhere, like a signal. Something like the mementos left where tragedy strikes–a desperate attempt to show the shape of my gratitude along with all the others who’ve already done so.
I was a lonely, odd child. I had (still have) wonderful parents, a brother I was close with, a younger sister I adored–but that was my home life, which was lovely. School was a different matter. I was a quiet, awkward, shy child, extremely nearsighted from age five on, creative and not much interested in sports though I wasn’t terrible at them and did play a little. We moved several times when I was a kid, and beyond that I was smart enough but a bit melancholic and a little bit weird, I think—it was hard to make friends. I was one of those kids that–while far from the nerdiest kid in school–made a perfect target for bullies: I didn’t fight back, I didn’t cry or tell, I just sat and absorbed the pinches and punches and mean notes and nasty words into my skin like a slow and savage poison. I grew more and more sure that the world was a hard, horrible place, and I decide to spend as little time there as possible. I read all of the time, mostly devoured my books, lived in my books and in their characters’ worlds instead of my own. I read almost entirely fantasy and science fiction. I didn’t have any interest in reading about kids whose stories ended happily, who were popular or had boyfriends or went to other people’s birthday parties. I figured I would never fall in love or go to parties or have a good friend. I didn’t think my story would ever end happily here in this world. Instead I wanted other worlds, other ways of being redeemed. I wanted books where misfit kids like me found secret places and ways their classmates knew nothing of. Books where kids like me learned magic and traveled through time and sometimes even saved our own sorry world in the process. I read Tolkien, The Phantom Tollbooth, The Dark is Rising books, The Neverending Story, all of E. Nesbit’s classics for children–and I read and read and read and reread and dog-eared and then read again the wonderful books of Diana Wynne Jones.
Wynne Jones’ main characters are always children, and they are always children who cannot depend on adults. Very often they are misfits in some way or another. They are funny and questioning and self-sufficient, but never in a manufactured sitcom, smart-ass way. They are often either only children or lonely children, and do not have friends they can rely on reasonably. (I found out years later that Wynne Jones’ childhood was an unhappy one, lived with cold and somewhat selfish parents. This made a great deal of sense given her usual subject matter.) Her Chrestomanci books were my favorites, and I must have read The Lives of Christopher Chant every month for three or four years of my life. Witch Week was another favorite, especially since the bullied kids turn the tables on the bullies. As I grew older I read her books for young adults, and then her books for adults, and reread my favorites over and over again. Jones’ books are not “easy.” They respect the intelligence of young people. They have complicated plots often involving parallel universes, time travel, and wizards, witches, and lots and lots of magic. (But not the Harry Potter kind—magic in Wynne Jones’ books is far more unexpected, unusual, and unpredictable. It is not neatly worked with a nothing but a wand and a spell.) They are extremely acerbic, witty books, written in a voice that is wry and knowing but never deliberately cruel. Jones’ child protagonists are often in real, deadly danger, and she spares them nothing in sending them on real adventures with the highest stakes possible. She wrote children, cats, and marriages better than any other writer I’ve ever read–and I still think that today.
In short, I read Wynne Jones over and over and she provided the worlds I desperately needed to escape into while still staying very much myself. And in the process, I learned much of what I know about writing and reading from her books. I learned about humor, about storytelling, about characterization, about how people really talk to one another and what they don’t say as well as what they do. I learned about how a book about time travel, robots or dogs-that-were-once-celestial-bodies can move us and make us learn something more about humanity. I learned that sci-fi and fantasy can be sprinkled in rather than hammered in, and that no matter how fantastical the world we still need to recognize ourselves in it, too.
Later, like it usually does, life got much better. We moved from a very conservative city to a very liberal city, where the arts were appreciated, non-sports talent was encouraged, and it was okay, even kind of cool, if you were a little odd. I still read often, but not as much because I was busy with theatre, friends, my band, the usual high school thing. When I went off to college, I took all of my Wynne Jones books with me, of course. But it wasn’t until I moved to Minneapolis my junior year of college that I started stopping by a local comics and sci-fi/fantasy bookstore and one day, came across a bunch of books by Wynne Jones that I had never seen, never read, never even heard of. They were imports from the U.K., never printed here in the States. I bought them all, little by little, since I was dirt poor back then, and I started reading Diana Wynne Jones again. I discovered amazing books like Hexwood, Fire and Hemlock, Homeward Bounders, and many, many more. Hexwood and Homeward Bounders were great because they were all about a bunch of gamers controlling the world. Fire and Hemlock was a gorgeous love story dealing with Welsh legends of Faerie, and I’d been reading classics in my early Brit lit classes that made this the perfect time for that book. And I was able to grab almost all of her books (when the internet was in its infancy and not much good yet for such things) which were currently out of print. When Harry Potter became popular, I tried (mostly in vain) to get my friends to read Wynne Jones instead of or in addition to Rowling. I reread Jones’ books again and thought about how much of my writing style probably comes from reading her. How fantastic it is when I meet another writer who loves her work as much as I do. How grand it was to read references to Wynne Jones in Kelly Link’s stories, since Link, along with maybe Neil Gaiman, seems to share more of a true kindred spirit with Wynne Jones than any other writer I can think of today.
As I think about having children, I’m awfully glad that I have all of Wynne Jones’s books to read to them someday. And while it’s terribly sad to me that I never got to write that thank you letter, I feel that writing this post and continuing to encourage others to read her books is probably the best thing I could do to say thank you, even now. Even when it’s too late for her to hear my thanks, it’s not too late for others to open her books and experience the sheer joy of reading them for the first time. That seems not such a distant second after all.
5 thoughts on “Thank You, Diana Wynne Jones”
I want to check her out now. Great post.
Thanks, Paula! You would love her, I think.
Amber, she was a lovely person. I met her a few times, and she was every bit as nice as her stories would lead you to believe.
As to the reference to Neil Gaiman: you know that Neil appears as a character in at least one of her books?
Paul, that’s really neat that you’ve met her and that she was great in person. That’s what I expected and of course, keep hearing. I didn’t know that Gaiman was in a book–do you know which one or what character? I’ll have to Google that–I’m sure the internets will tell me. :)