An Interview with Diana Wynne Jones
When did you decide to be a writer?
I decided to be a writer at the age of eight, but I did not receive any encouragement in this ambition until thirty years later. I think this ambition was fired - or perhaps exacerbated is a better word - by early marginal contacts with the Great, when we were evacuated to the English Lakes during the war. The house we were in had belonged to Ruskin's secretary and had also been the home of the children in the books of Arthur Ransome. One day, finding I had no paper to draw on, I stole from the attic a stack of exquisite flower-drawings, almost certainly by Ruskin himself, and proceeded to rub them out. I was punished for this.
Soon after, we children offended Arthur Ransome by making a noise on the shore beside his houseboat. He complained. So likewise did Beatrix Potter, who lived nearby. It struck me then that the Great were remarkably touchy and unpleasant (even if, in Ruskin's case, it was posthumous), and I thought I would like to be the same, without the unpleasantness.
When did you start writing?
I started writing children's books when we moved to a village in Essex where there were almost no books. The main activities there were hand-weaving, hand-making pottery, and singing madrigals, for none of which I had either taste or talent. So, in intervals between trying to haunt the church and sitting on roofs hoping to learn to fly, I wrote enormous epic adventure stories which I read to my sisters instead of the real books we did not have. This writing was stopped, though, when it was decided I must be coached to go to University. A local philosopher was engaged to teach me Greek and philosophy in exchange for a dollhouse (my family never did things normally), and I eventually got a place at Oxford.
At this stage, despite attending lectures by J. R. R. Tolkien and C. S. Lewis, I did not expect to be writing fantasy. But that was what I started to write when I was married and had children of my own.
You say you did not expect to write fantasy. What do you think was the motivation?
I started writing fantasy, rather to my surprise, when my children were old enough to start reading books for themselves. What they preferred was fantasy, but there wasn't much in those days that was any good. When they had read Kipling, Lewis, the Oz books, and Joan Aikin, they looked round for more, and my eldest son said wistfully that what he really liked was books that made him laugh. There were even fewer of those.
So I tried it myself. But as soon as I had got started, I realized that what I was writing were the kind of books that I was never allowed as a child. Here in my mind was a picture of the ideal book, which was magical and exciting, and humorous too. I have been trying to write that book ever since.
Where do you write?
I write in the living room in the most comfortable chair there. It is the only way I can concentrate on a story."
Which of your books is your favorite?
None of my books is my favorite. Each one was an individual joy to write. For instance, Charmed Life came into my head all at once and complete, and I couldn't write it down fast enough. That was amazing. Hexwood was truly difficult, and just doing it was its own reward. In Archer's Goon I had no idea what was going to happen next and I couldn't wait to find out. A Tale of Time City was so exciting that I was on the edge of my comfortable seat. And Fire and Hemlock was like a book I was reading and couldn't put down.
Where do your ideas come from?
My ideas come from all sorts of sources. Stories come to me in all possible ways - sometimes I know the story first, sometimes I just have a feeling in my head that says, 'Book. Now.'
One book started with my favorite road, chalky white and winding over blue distance. My dog gave me the idea for Dogsbody. Some just started from the characters in them, who were hanging around in my head demanding a book that fitted them, and still others from a tiny word or phrase, like 'Hope is an anchor' or 'Let's get weaving.'
One at least began because I was so fed up with the way other writers handled a subject; and one began because Susan, my editor at Greenwillow, wanted more, more, more about griffins. The Magicians of Caprona was odder than most, because I heard a piece of music and thought, 'That ought to have words,' and the story came into my head as I thought it.
You have written for both children and adults. Which do you prefer, and what do you see as the differences between the two styles?
Writing for adults, you have to keep reminding them of what is going on. The poor things have given up using their brains when they read. Children you only need to tell things to once.
What authors have influenced you? And how do you feel when you are cited as an influence on other writers?
What authors have influenced me? The very few fantasy writers I came across as a child: Kipling, Elizabeth Goudge, P.L. Travers. These were augmented by books in tiny print filched from my parents' shelves: Malory's Morte D'Arthur and one called Epics and Romances of the Middle Ages, together with a lot of fairy stories (the Brothers Grimm in a learned edition and other queer collections) and a book of stories from The Arabian Nights. I did not meet the usual books people read until my children were of an age to need them. It was like discovering treasure.
If I am cited as an influence on others, I am always very surprised and pleased - and just a bit exasperated, thinking, Why can't they think of things themselves, the way I had to?
If you weren't a writer, what would you be?
If I were not a writer, I would be a very miserable person.
Unless otherwise stated, this interview was conducted at the time the book was first published, and is reproduced with permission of the publisher. This interview may not be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the copyright holder.
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