I talk a lot about how much I love Diana Wynne Jones’s books, and how much she’s influenced me as an author – so much that I was invited to the Diana Wynne Jones Conference in Bristol in August to give a keynote speech about her!
Below is the text of that speech, as I read it out in August – I hope you enjoy it.
I’m thrilled to be giving this keynote in praise of an author who means so much to me. I’m Robin Stevens, the author of the Murder Most Unladylike Mysteries and the Guggenheim Mystery, and I’ve been a Diana Wynne Jones fan since I was a child. Born in America, I moved to England when I was three so my father could take up the job of Master of Pembroke College, Oxford. My childhood was a lot like Lyra’s, only less magical and more lonely, and I was always hungry to discover friends in the books I read.
So picking up my first Diana Wynne Jones – Dogsbody – was a momentous day for me. Ever since then, Diana Wynne Jones’s books have had the most enormous effect on my life. Diana taught me that there’s power in words, that the universe is full of fascinating places and people, that children can be the heroes of their stories and that you should never, ever bend the spine of a book. She made me fall in love with her characters and worlds, she made me dream of writing my own books, and she even – and I think this says it all – made me a thief. In general, stealing makes me feel physically ill, but when I was twelve I stole Fire and Hemlock from my school library because I knew that no one in the world could love that book more than I did. I still have that copy, and I do have to admit that I secretly still think that it was worth it.
I want to talk to you today about why Diana Wynne Jones’s books are so special to me, and in the process explore how an author’s work – especially a children’s author – can come to take up so much space in a reader’s head. To become a fan of something or someone is to reshape not only the way you see the world but the way you imagine yourself. It quietly changes your life. There must be other universes, with other Robin Stevenses who never picked up a Diana Wynne Jones book – but I know I’m only standing here today because in this universe, I did.
My first memory of Diana Wynne Jones was sitting at my kitchen table aged seven and howling with grief at the end of Dogsbody. I’d been a voracious reader for about a year by then, which was a nice change – I was actually one of the last people in my class to click with reading. At one point my teacher pulled my mother aside after school one day to tell her that she thought she’d worked out the root of my problem: my American accent. Of course, my mother pointed out that plenty of Americans do manage to read, and happily I got there in the end: one day something just dropped into place in my head, and that was that. I read road signs, the sides of packets of cereal and any book in my house. But the reading voice in my head has always had American hard Rs, which has caused a lot of confusion over the years – including one that I only solved when I was re-reading Diana Wynne Jones’s books to prepare for this conference: why on earth ‘ker-at-er’ was supposed to sound like ‘cat’ when Tonino was learning to read in The Magicians of Caprona. (The problem, it turned out, was that I’ve spent twenty-five years saying the two r sounds in my head – to a reader with a British English accent, ‘ker-at-er’ sounds like ‘kuh-ah-tuh’, ‘cat’).
So I’d read a lot by the time I discovered Diana Wynne Jones – but all the same, Dogsbody was a revelation to me. It was the moment I discovered how strongly a book could make you feel – as I read the scene where Sirius is begging Sol to put him back in his dog body, I shared his panic and powerlessness, and when he realises that there is nothing more he can do, I felt as though a part of me had died along with his dog’s body Leo. Here’s the passage – and it still has the same power to move me to tears:
‘Put me back,’ said Sirius. ‘What are you doing?’
‘I’m trying,’ said Sol. ‘I see how to use it. But I’m sorry. I don’t think I can put you back.’
‘Why can’t you? You must!’ Sirius shouted at him. Sol simply shrugged. Sirius raised his wings and blazed with such rage that several policemen looked up and remarked on the queer green light there was this morning. ‘Put me back!’
‘I can’t,’ said Sol.
… ‘What can I do?’ [asked Sirius.]
‘Nothing,’ said Earth.
‘Come away,’ Sol suggested, and held down a hand to help him into the empyrean.
That evening I behaved as though someone I knew had died (which must have been confusing for my mother), and from then on, Diana Wynne Jones’s books became part of my life.
And I do really mean that. Just like Polly in Fire and Hemlock with her ‘double set of memories’, when I think back to my childhood I remember Diana Wynne Jones’s books in the same way I remember school friends and holidays. Fire and Hemlock (the funeral, the horse, getting lost in Bristol and Mr Lynn’s muscly back) is part of what happened to me when I was thirteen. When I was fourteen I was given the Dalemark Quartet at the beginning of the Easter holidays. I read them repeatedly for two weeks in the hopes that the last page of The Crown of Dalemark would alter to show me what happened when Maewen went to Dropwater, and when I went back to school I genuinely struggled to remember that I did not have a boyfriend called Mitt.
A huge part of the lure of Diana’s writing for me has always been her characters. Yes, she creates gorgeous universes and she delights in showing them to readers – but she never for a moment loses track of the fact that the centre of her story is the person it’s happening to. Her main characters are not always nice, but they are utterly, completely real. In The Lives of Christopher Chant, Christopher can pick out Tacroy’s soul from thousands of others, and the reader believes in that magic because they’re quite sure that if they were asked to, they could do the same. I’d know Tacroy – and Christopher, and Millie, and Gwendolen and Cat, Sophie and Calcifer, Kit, Callette and Lydda, and so many others, anywhere.
Diana Wynne Jones thinks of her characters (even when they’re griffins) as real, defined people with unique flaws. She isn’t sentimental, and she can issue delicious and painfully real putdowns – Gwendolen sitting in Mr Baslam’s shop ‘looking like a picture of a perfect little girl’, Nick Mallory’s introduction in Deep Secret as ‘sweetly and kindly and totally selfish’ – but that only serves to make the people in her books recognisable and charming. Wizard Howl – one of Diana Wynne Jones’s many extraordinarily attractive male characters – is so attractive partly because we see more than he wants us to. He’s rude, thoughtless, infuriating and lazy – but we know why he is, we understand him as a whole person and that allows us to fall in love with him along with Sophie Hatter. Wynne Jones showed me that invention can feel emotionally real, and she taught me what’s possible when writing a book: if you do it right, your characters can step off the page and live in the reader’s head. That’s what I’ve always aimed for when I write my own stories.
Just as Diana Wynne Jones sees her invented people as real, she imagines her child heroes as sensible, capable and complex. I was struck on rereading Fire and Hemlock and Crown of Dalemark last month by how adult Polly’s and Maewen’s voices feel to me now. The grown-up and prudish side of me that exists now I’m 31 wondered how Diana got away with writing some of the things she wrote – but at the same time I remember so strongly being 13 and knowing utterly that these books were both about and for people my age. It’s a hard skill, to capture the way a person talks and behaves – but it’s even harder to understand the way someone really thinks, and Diana Wynne Jones had that rarer talent. She understood what children and teenagers want to sound like, and she allows her young characters to speak articulately, to make plans, to order the world as they want to and to take power over it.
In Diana Wynne Jones’s books, adults (the good kind of adults) really listen to children and allow them to fulfil their potential. In Fire and Hemlock, Polly is always the instigator – she decides to play pretend, she leads the creation of their stories and she finally decides to go save Mr Lynn. There’s a glorious sense of of course in these stories: of course a little boy can be the strongest enchanter in the world! Of course three children, one of whom can’t tie his shoelaces and is mostly obsessed with butter pies, can save all of time! Of course a teenager can be crowned king! Diana’s not interested in keeping her child characters safe, either: she puts Christopher and Cat Chant to death repeatedly in the most inventively gruesome ways, and even her single-lifed heroes get stabbed, shot at and even almost blown up. Her no-nonsense attitude made me grow up determined to create children’s stories full of complexity and darkness, where the heroes are allowed to blaze their own trails and triumph over dastardly adults and considerable peril to save the day.
And I really do believe that this is crucial. Children’s books help prepare kids for adult life. They show children how to behave in particular circumstances, how to cope with loss and grief, how to deal with anger and how to make friends. I’ve always been someone who mostly learns through reading – my teachers at primary school were exasperated by the fact that every time they’d introduce a new topic (Russia, the Amazon Rainforest, cross-country skiing) I’d stick my hand up into the air and tell them that I had a book about that – and Diana Wynne Jones was one of the authors who taught me the most, often about things that didn’t occur to anyone else to write about. From Dogsbody, of course, I learned that sometimes your dog is a supernatural being from another plane – but also about cruelty to animals, the Wild Hunt and exactly where the Dog Star is. Howl’s Moving Castle taught me to recite John Donne (I still can) and also that it pays to be kind to anything you may meet during a quest. I was delighted, when I arrived at university, to discover that it really was exactly like The Year of the Griffin (but with fewer assassins), and instantly comfortable at my first convention – after all, I’d already been to one in Deep Secret.
But one of the most important things that Diana Wynne Jones taught me was the joy of playing with words. I grew up surrounded by a lot of very serious adults (my grandfather was the academic Wayne Booth) who had a lot of strong feelings about What Words Meant, and which particular texts were Important, and so it was a wild revelation to see the games Diana Wynne Jones plays with even the most erudite subjects. In her novels, words and poems and stories mean whatever she wants them to – John Donne’s ‘Song’ (Go and Catch a Falling Star) becomes a spell in Howl’s Moving Castle, in Fire and Hemlock classic books are used as clues to Mr Lynn’s plight, and in Deep Secret nursery rhymes aren’t silly and babyish, but important hints to unravel the mysteries of the universe. The enormous fun that Diana Wynne Jones has in constructing the worlds of her books leaps off the page, and she’s always asking the questions that no one else has even thought of, including: what if the characters from Dungeons and Dragons were real people who didn’t much care for being invaded by annoying Earth tourists? And what if the whole universe were a roleplaying game?
Often, of course, Diana Wynne Jones hides the most important clues to the denouements of her books inside seemingly ordinary words. She’s a confident misdirector, able to make truly important moments seem ordinary until she decides to reveal the truth. For years it surprised me that I ended up as an author of real-world crime fiction, and not books about wizards and other worlds – but when I reread The Crown of Dalemark I realised that it’s actually set up as a very deft murder mystery. Hidden beneath its elements of time travel, wicked magic and a quest to determine the next king of Dalemark are two elegant mysteries: which of five possible suspects killed the real Noreth, and which of five possible candidates will become King Amil. The fact that most of the truth is hidden in two simple facts that Diana Wynne Jones has repeated again and again in the rest of the Dalemark Quartet: that Alhammitt is a name with many nicknames, and tan– is a prefix that means younger is a trick worthy of any mystery writer – and the more I think about it, the more I can trace a direct line from Diana’s books to Murder Most Unladylike. Her young heroes, like mine, are usually on secret missions to unravel mysteries, and these missions often lead them to discover extremely grown-up secrets that force them to reassess the apparently benign adults around them. For all that Diana Wynne Jones’s characterisation is wonderful, she’s also an excellent plotter, intricately weaving chaos that builds to incredible denouements. She loves piling problems on her characters: think of poor Cat, who has to face Will Suggins on Sunday, do magic he doesn’t think he has on Monday and pay Mr Baslam £20 he can’t raise on Wednesday. But at the end of the story every thread pf plot is tied up and every character given their just deserts – in exactly the kind of neat, contained manner as a murder mystery.
I can’t overestimate how many times I read and reread Diana Wynne Jones’s books as a child. I loved Harry Potter, of course I did. But it was Diana Wynne Jones’s worlds that I chose to spend most time in, her texts that I subjected to the kind of intense study only managed by children and the highest-level academics. I pored over their pages, studying paragraphs and sentences for hidden meanings. I sought out books and poems she mentioned, following the literary treasure hunts she left me. The sayings and superstitions of her characters became mine: in times of trial I would do the Witchy Dance for Luck, before exams I comforted myself by saying ‘luck ship to shore’ and I absolutely never ever dog-eared the pages of my books. And when I was fifteen, I met my hero.
Diana Wynne Jones came to the Cheltenham Lit Fest when I was a student at Cheltenham Ladies’ College, and I managed to beg out of lessons to see her. I now remember absolutely nothing about her talk apart from the very end, when I queued to meet her. I was clutching my extremely well-read copy of Dark Lord of Derkholm, which for some reason I had chosen as the book I wanted her to sign, and I had prepared a question about whether there would be another Homeward Bounders book (for years, I assumed this was quite a stupid question. Now, though, I know the blessed relief Diana must have felt not to have been asked where she got her inspiration from). I was pretty far back in the line, but when I arrived in front of her she treated me as though I was the first person there. She told me how thrilled she was to see a book that had clearly been loved so much, she answered my question as though it was one she’d never been asked before and I left floating on air. Of course, to Diana I was just one in a queue of indistinguishable children stretching an entire lifetime, but for me, it was one of the defining moments of my life.
Although there’s plenty of charmingly wry jokes in Diana Wynne Jones’s books about what it’s like to be an author – including my very favourite commentary on author visits, from Deep Secret: ‘Uncle Ted … was invited to a conference of some kind – last year, he says, when it didn’t seem real and, for all he knew, the world would end before a year as improbable as 1996 ever occurred – and now it’s only a week or so away and he doesn’t want to go’, that day I saw an author who truly cared about her fans, and wanted to share in their excitement at her stories. That moment has influenced every part of how I go about being a children’s author myself. I know so deeply how a favourite author can become part of the fabric of a child’s being, and how desperately children want to look at the person who’s written the books they love and see someone they could grow up to become – so at my own author events I try as hard as I can to give every child I meet the feeling I had when I was a child in front of Diana Wynne Jones.
One of the most wonderful things about Diana Wynne Jones’ books is the way the magic in them isn’t confined to just part of the story. It bursts out, following the characters into every part of their lives. Diana Wynne Jones adventures aren’t ones you walk away from as a reader, either – her characters and stories stay in your head, bright and alive, for much longer than the time it takes to read them. How are Mr Lynn and Polly? Is Vivian enjoying life in Time City? Did poor Jamie ever stop being so lonely? How are things going at Derkholm?
Diana Wynne Jones showed me the truth that that there’s no literature higher and more important than children’s fiction. Nothing reaches into its readers and changes them like a children’s book, and Diana Wynne Jones filled her books, and therefore her readers, with magic and romance and light. It’s a light that she’s passed on to me, and it’s my privilege to give it to this generation of children. I can’t wait to see what they do with it.