for fans of
Diana Wynne Jones

INTERVIEW – Part 1 (go to Part 2

Diana Wynne Jones interviewed by Maureen Kincaid Speller, at a London British Science Fiction Association meeting (in a pub, where else?) June 1997.

Maureen: I remember at some point you said that the one thing you couldn't stand was "appeals to children of all ages". Given that there are a large number of people in this room who are over 18 who are devotees of your work, I wonder how you feel about the fact that most of your material is pegged as being work for children, when it quite clearly appeals to such a broad age range?


In some ways it is a real nuisance in that it is, as Neil Gaiman is always telling me, a ghetto. Things never get out of there. But on the other hand, it is terribly gratifying as well. When I started writing the only way you could go if you wanted to write fantasy was to write for children. Well, I had two things I wanted: to write fantasy, and to write things that my children would like. They are extremely exacting people to this day (no doubt "children of all ages"), and the books that were available at that time were absolutely dire for the most part. There was, just as I started, a sort of renaissance, and all sorts of good people were moving in and writing good things, but they hadn't percolated through.

What would happen was that, being hard-pressed, as with three young children one tends to be, I would ask my husband to read them a bedtime story, and after ten minutes there would be a wail and a scream, and I'd go rushing up and find my husband going "ZZZZZ ...ZZZZZ ....ZZZZZ" on the end of the bed, and an extremely frustrated child.

I looked at these books, and I thought these are dire and terrible, and I could certainly do better than that, and when I did, I would put things in that people of all ages could like and appreciate. The way to do that is to make the thing as thick as possible. I don't mean a thick book, but I mean layers and layers and layers, and you can go down there. Sometimes I myself didn't even know how many layers there were, but I set out from the start to do something with lots and lots of layers, and it's very good because it worked, clearly!

Maureen: Alan Garner has expressed the opinion that the golden age of children's writing came from those people who grew up during the war.

DWJ: Yes, I grew up during the war and in a way he's right. By the way, Alan Garner is a very funny person. I once had an historic argument with him in a cinema in Birmingham, in which he said his books were like his babies. I said "Nonsense! Having done both, they were completely different!" And he said, "But I want to have a baby", whereupon I said "You're welcome, mate!" and somehow this brought the house down.

But yes, he's right because during the war one grew up without even realising at the time, that things were not right, not as they should be. Adults were behaving totally irrationally the whole time, and indeed it was like living in a fantasy, when I think about it.

(Maureen: He described it as being in a constant present, and there was going to be no future.)

I did believe in the future, in a funny way. When you're a kid - and this is a very important thing about being a kid which everybody should remember - you devoutly know that you're going to grow up and become an adult and do better. I really knew that I was going to grow up and that there was a future, and that it was obviously going to be completely different from this absolutely lunatic present in which he and I grew up. We just did not know things. One didn't know that all those bizarre, and horrible, and mad things were going on, except there was a feeling all the time that something WAS bizarre, and horrible, and mad.

It affects you very deeply indeed in different ways, and I grew up thinking that anything was possible, really.

(Maureen: Is this what prompted you to turn to writing as a career?)

No, that was something quite different: a very strange thing. I always think that I actually went back in time and tapped myself on the shoulder. I was eight, and I'd been sent away because my parents didn't like children, basically, and got rid of us whenever possible. I'd been sent away to rest in the afternoon, and I was just lying there. I had been leafing through one of the few books that I had, and it's almost as if someone said to me: "It's alright. You're going to be a writer. Don't worry. It'll all be alright."

So I went downstairs and announced this fact to my parents, who laughed like drains, because actually I'm terribly dyslexic, and at that time I couldn't write a sentence straight.

So, it wasn't really a matter of inspiration: it was that I knew. But the awful thing was that I had to learn how. And this took bloody years, I can tell you.

(Maureen: You had siblings. Did you tell stories to them?)

I wrote stories for them. That's another thing. You see, my parents were as mad as the rest of the universe, and I think actually they would have been mad at whatever time they happened to be living. My father was so mean that looking back on it, I think he could have scrooged for the Earth against Mars and won. So he didn't buy any books. He was a school teacher, so he knew children should have books. There was no telly, so their infant intelligences needed fostering in some way. So, he bought the entire works of Arthur Ransome. There are quite a number of them, and these he locked on a high shelf. We had a special long thin cupboard that was actually a bookcase which had a door and locked, and he put them up there.

I had two sisters, and he gave us one of these Arthur Ransomes every Christmas between the three of us. I was literally off to university the year that we got the last one. Otherwise, we really did not have books, and we hungered and thirsted after them.

We got them by begging and thieving and going and raiding cupboards in the Barnardo home, and saving up, and all sorts of ways. There were difficulties with the local library because they had twenty-two children's books, and of course we read them all in months.

So I started to write books, and I did actually finish two, which I read out to my sisters in instalments on a nightly basis, because they were just as starved as I was.

I discovered thereby two things. One was that I could finish a book, which is a thing that you do need to know at some stage in your career as a writer. You do need to know that you can build it up to a climax, and then a denouement, and finish it. And you also need to know that you can really do it. And I learned these two things.

What I didn't learn, of course, was exactly how rotten those things were that I wrote. They are shrink-making! I took them to a place in Nottingham which my mother once bought, which was a haunted house, and they have, to my great relief, now disappeared. But I did do two of them at the time.

Yes. That I had to tone down actually, because my early life was so b(Maureen: I think a certain amount of your early life turned up in The Time of the Ghost?)

izarre, and my parents were so mad - not to speak of their children - that people would not credit it in a book, even in a fantasy. So first of all I had to turn where we lived into something different, because in the days when the place where I lived - a sort of conference centre - was started, people didn't have conference centres. They are a thing of now, really, and they don't usually have children living in the margins of them. A friend of mine once said that whenever he came there he felt he was living in the margin of a dirty postcard. It was a very weird place indeed. So I turned it into a school. I also had to tone down some of the queernesses that happened there. I mean I put my father into that book fairly intact, although he has some extra bits which I must one day get round to putting in a book, because he was pretty strange! But I couldn't put the total neglect that we suffered in. I'm very neurotic about food. I buy too much food the whole time and it goes bad because I've bought too much, because, they used to forget to feed us. It was an institution, and it just happened that our school hours, particularly Saturday morning school, didn't consort with the institution hours, so they used to forget us. We used to come home about half past one on a Saturday after a morning at school, and find nobody had remembered to save any food for lunch. This bit I put in.

But the various kinds of protests, which I suppose they were, looking back on them, that we went in for, I had to tone down because they were pretty weird.

One of my sisters had wild curly hair, because my mother said: "Oh, she's got such beautiful curls!" She then didn't have to worry about either brushing them or having them cut, and just left her, so that they were beautiful rattails with twiddles in. But eventually, they fell down over my sister's eyes, so she tied two knots in them. Which was fair enough.

So I put that in the book. But I didn't put in the book that they went unnoticed for six months! It seems quite unbelievable that somebody should not notice that a child had tied two knots in her hair for six months, but I assure you it was the case. And when it was noticed, I got the blame for letting her! This is the trouble with being the eldest.

(Maureen: I was pretty horrified to hear that the bathroom from Howl's Moving Castle was a real bathroom.)

Yes. We eventually got a bathroom in this conference centre. For six years, we lived in a one-up, one-down cottage which didn't have anything. You had to go outside and walk on the mud to the loo. But eventually, the powers that be built a kind of bathroom. By that time, we had no clue as to how bathrooms or anything else should be organised, so the bathroom in Howl's Castle was the one we had. We had no idea that baths didn't clean themselves, and you needed to put something down the loo to stop it getting smelly and stained. So, yes, I'm afraid the bathroom was another of those things.

But, aren't you going to ask me about the way things come true when they haven't happened?

(Maureen: Shall I ask you about the way things come true when they haven't happened?)

This is the really weird thing. After a while I began defensively to put things into books that had happened, in the hope that they wouldn't happen again. But, what seems to happen is that they sneak round, and other things happen.

For instance, Witch Week. I did put myself in that, to some extent. I had this rather gross habit, having the gift of description, of depriving other people of their school dinners by describing it to them, and when they didn't want it, I ate it. But sometimes I got inspired and carried away, like my Welsh grandfather, who apparently did this every Sunday. People came from miles to listen to him getting carried away. I was taken to listen but of course, it was all in Welsh and I didn't understand. I just saw that there was a moment when my grandfather just took off and soared.

I used to get like this over the food from time to time, and get really eloquent, and I thought I would put that in the book, since it was biographical. Indeed, the school in that book is my school, to some extent, and I thought: "OK, so it can't happen again!"

Witch Week all takes place at Halloween in a very old fashioned boarding school. Well, as soon as it was actually with the publisher, I discovered that I had to go and spend the next Halloween at an enormous public school in the middle of nowhere. It was one of those minor public schools, so it was all gothic buildings, and everybody had gone away for the half-term, so it was totally deserted except for me and various other people who were actually having a reunion for the conference centre. A lot of people went there who actually liked it, and to my amazement, wanted a reunion. And they wanted me there, so I went, and ended up on the high table in this incredibly draughty hall, and I'd put that in a book already!

I felt extremely resentful because in my school, the headmistress had this fiendish habit of getting people she decided were in need of help, or strange, or bolshy, or anyway all the things I was, to come and sit beside her and make polite conversation and use exactly the same implement for eating their school dinners as she did.

Now the fact was she always used a fork, even for runny rice pudding, which was one of the school specialities. Along with tinned tomatoes and that kind of cabbage that died a long time ago, like last year. And there you were trying to struggle with a fork and make polite, indeed intellectual, conversation with this dried up Quaker lady, and it really couldn't be done!

I had various bashes, but I always tended to shock or offend her.

Well, I'd gone through all that. I thought "Dammit, I've put it in a book. It's going to be all right", and there I was on the high table next to some dried up Quakerish characters!

One of the things about Witch Week is that some of the food that gets described was, shall we say, unique. Because they were on the high table, they got a starter which was supposed to be prawn cocktail but was obviously worms in custard. Well, I sat there with the draught playing around me in this empty gothic building, at the high table, and they came and put this thing in front of me. And I thought: "Oh, good. It's worms in custard!"

And it was! And it made me very, very ill in the night, with the result that I rushed around the place trying to find somewhere I could be sick, and there was nowhere! I ran through washrooms where they'd all left their little sponge bags hanging up, one on each tap, and I knew I couldn't be sick there, because I'd splash their little bags and they would get into trouble. So I ran on and I ran on, bursting through fire-doors that resisted every inch, and finally, I found this all black, wooden loo, and I staggered in there, and the door came back and hit me in the face!

I thrust it aside, and fell on my knees and started vomiting the worms in custard into the loo. And I swear, water rose up from nowhere until it was all around me and I was kneeling in this oblong of black water. And I thought: "Oh, god, this is the last time I write a book about things I know. Next time I shall make it thoroughly and totally distant." So I wrote Drowned Ammet, and that came true.

(Chris Bell [from Bristol]: Every time anybody re-prints Archer's Goon or puts in on the telly, they start digging up roads all over Bristol.)

Drowned Ammet didn't come true for quite a while, and the reason, I realised, was that between the time I wrote it and the time it came true, I had not been near the sea or a boat. But then I was asked to go down to the south coast, because someone had a catamaran, and they wanted me to christen it. They were going to call it Chrestomanci. I was so flattered. I thought this was a gorgeous, lovely thing. So I went down, and my travel jinx hit, and they closed the station where I should have got off!

But the people I was meeting circumvented the jinx and very cunningly went to both the stations, and they got me eventually.

So someone said there was water, and we could sail. I said: "Good. Wasn't there water before?" "Oh no," they said. "The tide was out. Now the tide's come in, we can sail." So we went down to the end of the wooden floating quay, and there were lots of boats all clonking like cattle bells with their masts. We were introduced to the one called Chrestomanci, and it was beautiful. It was a lovely, lovely catamaran.

They handed me two champagne bottles from airlines, one for each hull. I asked which one I should do first, and they said: "No, first what you must do is invoke the gods out of Drowned Ammet."

I became like a computer. I put up a dialogue box and I said, like a computer: "Do you really mean this?" And they all said yes. So I said "Right" (always an idiot), only they said not to break the bottles because they had to walk in the water with bare feet.

Afterwards, I consulted a boatbuilder, and he said this was terrible bad luck and a dreadful thing to do. You should always break the bottle.

Anyway, I was very obedient. I poured the champagne bottles over each hull, and I invoked the gods out of Drowned Ammet like anything. Then we all piled into the boat and somebody produced real champagne out of a proper-sized bottle, and we started sailing for ten fantastic minutes.

Or maybe it was only five! Quite early on, we realised we were actually sailing on the spot.

Now those of you who have read Drowned Ammet will know there are two elements in this book. One of them is that there are gods involved, and if you do the wrong thing an island rises up out of the sea and breaks the boat in half. (Thank god it was a catamaran, that's all I can say!) The other part of it involves terrorism and planting a bomb for political reasons.

So we had sailed for these five, or maybe ten glorious minutes, and they were looking at charts and saying "Maybe we shouldn't have passed that square yellow beacon", and things like that, when everybody realised that we hadn't actually been moving for most of the trip. Somebody looked over the side and said, "Hey, there's grass growing out of the water!" We all looked over, and there was! Moreover, the grass got longer and longer and longer, and was followed by mud, and the upshot of it was that the catamaran sat there like the Ark on Ararat, on top of this small glistening island - it was obviously very new - with grass growing like mad, and no way at all of getting off except a sort of fibre-glass coracle which only one person had the art of rowing.

We were miles and miles away from the shore - you could see it on the very horizon like a flat edge. Well, two people had to go to an office party, and the coracle could only take three at a time, so he took them and one more, and rowed and rowed and rowed into the distance, and meanwhile, the island got steeper and steeper, and the grass was longer and longer, and we were more and more thoroughly stranded!

Eventually he came rowing back to take three more, and I said that I had to catch the last train (it went at eight o'clock, and by then it was about six), so I really would have to be in the next load. So he took me and another person. He rowed and rowed and rowed, and the currents were contrary, and we shimmied and we whirled, and we went this way and that way, and we eventually fetched up on an incredibly muddy shore with green slime and things. By the time I got home, I'd still got mud boots to my knee, it was that muddy.

We sloshed ashore, whereupon we were stopped by three very, very superior soldiers. They were the kind of soldiers that were officers really, except they were privates, and they said, "Sorry, we've got to detain you until top brass can see you, you might be terrorists."

This is absolutely dead true, and it turned out we'd arrived at one of the places where they train the SAS!

So we had to stand there for ages and ages, until top brass came by in a landrover and an enormous pink sort of sash. He looked at us once, and drove off saying over his shoulder: "They're wallies." And then we were allowed to go, but even so we were escorted to the gates and I only just caught the last train by the skin of my teeth. And that was that one.

(At this point, Roger Robinson from the audience chipped in with his memories: 'I was on this sailing trip, and the last thing you missed is that we got off about fourteen hours later!')

We missed one high tide, and got the next one. We had, however, the best Chinese meal I've ever had! Roger rowed to shore on his third trip and got the Chinese meal and rowed it back, and we could smell this thing coming over the water, but then we had to haul the boat up this mudbank!)

Yes, every time I tell this story, someone in the audience stands up and says: "I was there." Fortunately there were lots of witness, because it's such an improbable story, but it's true.

These things wait, they bide their time until the time is right. The most frightening, frankly, is The Lives of Christopher Chant, where Christopher Chant breaks his neck, I think four times, in the course of the book. Well that came true on me when I discovered that I had in fact been walking around with a broken neck without realising it, for quite a long time. Four vertebrae were completely gone, and half of another, it turned out, and this was not comfortable. But you don't know which bit is going to come true. You couldn't cover everything, and it's always something, and you never know what it's going to be!