This article was originally published in 'Foundation', the international review of science fiction, No 70, Summer 1997
Anyone who writes fantasy tends to be asked why they do it. Anyone who does it for children is liable to be asked all sorts of other things in addition, everything in fact from how much money you earn to When did you write your first book? I thought I would use this opportunity to answer some of the questions I am most commonly asked and, I hope, in the course of it, the question I have never been asked and which strikes me as the really important one. This is What do you think you’re trying to do? That is a question I ask myself quite often and find very hard to answer.
The most frequent question of all is almost as hard to answer: Where do you get your ideas? It is almost unfailingly asked by unfortunate people of ten to thirteen years old whose teacher has made them do a project. My very favourite form of it was asked by a twelve-year-old: Where do you get your ideas, or do you think of them for yourself?
Very shrewdly put, because some part of an idea, if it is going to start a book developing, has to relate to something outside me, even if I don’t exactly get it from this outside thing. It has to be a creative mix of interior and exterior notions. The best ideas conflate three or more things, rather in the way dreams do, or the minds of very small children. A very good example is a baroque muddle of my own when, at the age of five, I was evacuated to the Lake District early in World War II. I was told I was there because the Germans were about to invade. Almost in the same breath, I was warned not to drink the water from the washbasin because it came from the lake and was full of typhoid germs. I assumed that germs was short for Germans. Looking warily at the washbasin, I saw it was considerately labelled Twyford, clearly warning people against germ warfare. Night after night, I had a half-waking nightmare in which Germans (who had fair, floating hair and were clad in sort of cheesecloth Anglo-Saxon tunics) came racing across the surface of the lake to come up through the plughole of this washbasin and give us all Twyford.
This has all the elements of something needed to start a book off, the magical prohibition, the supernatural villains, the beleaguered good people and, for good measure, the quite incommunicable fears children have. I prefer my ideas to have this last element if possible. All children have these inexpressible fears and believe also that they are the only one who does. It is very hard for any other medium but a book to handle these fears, but a book can do it easily, since it is by its nature a private matter, like the fears are. And I suppose it is my good fortune that the world suddenly went mad when I was five years old and imprinted the memory of this (and other) muddles on my mind. When I consider how the ideas for most of my books came to me, I see they came as versions of this kind of conflation. All this one lacked was for me, as writer, to go on and say What if this were true? and then try to compose the story that conquers the fears in their own terms – which is something you have to be an adult to do. As a child, I knew it was true, but could do nothing about it.
Another common question which naturally follows on from here is Do you plan your book out before you start it? and my answer is always unequivocally, No that kills it dead. This always shocks teachers, who are accustomed to have told their pupils that you can’t write that way. But I am afraid I do, because I have to, for the sake of the book itself. A book, for me, is ready to write when all the conflated elements of the initial idea come together to produce three things. First, and most important, is the taste, quality, character – there are no words for it – nature of the book itself, a sort of flavour that has to start on the first page and will dictate the tone and style and the words used, as well as the sort of action to take place. This flavour, quality, is something I have painfully discovered you have to be utterly true to. Any attempt to coax it to be different, as planning in detail might, is a sort of taxidermy when what you need is the living animal.
The second factor acts as counterweight or control. I know how the story begins and how it ends, and I also know, in great detail, at least two scenes from somewhere in the middle. When I say great detail, I probably mean precise, total detail. Colours, speech, actions, and exactly where the furniture or outdoor scenery are and what they look like, are all with me vividly and ineradicably. Often I am quite mystified as to how you get from the beginning to one of these scenes, or from one of them to the end. Part of the joy of writing is finding out. And I deliberately do not ask more when I start to write, so that the book has room to keep its flavour and pursue its own logic. In fact, I suspect that some of the ideas people doing projects are asking about are things that have happened in a story because it is pursuing its own logic. I know I have many times been surprised – and frequently surprised into laughing out loud and, on one occasion, laughing so hard I fell off the sofa where I was writing.
The third factor is impossible to describe in any other way than that a book (often not the one I thought I was about to write) shouts to me that it is ready and needs to be written NOW. Then I have to find paper – and there are never any pens – and do it at once. I write longhand for the first draft, because I find that easiest to forget. I do not, at this stage, wish to be interrupted by self-conscious notions of myself writing a hook.
The planning stage, in a Looking Glass way, comes next. I do a very meticulous second draft that sometimes involves rearranging and recasting, in which I examine every word and its relation to other words, then every sentence and every paragraph, and then all of these in relation to the whole hook. I want a clear and harmonious whole. And I want people reading it to be in no doubt at what is happening. It is probably more important to be clearest if the things happening are funny. If this gives the idea that I am an inspirational writer, that is true. But inspiration is only about half the story. For a start it took me ten or more years to learn how to tap that inspirational level of mind. How to do this is certainly different for everyone. For me, it was when I began understanding that I had at least to start with a dreamlike conflation – like that of Germans giving you Twyford – and that I could trust some level of my brain to do this. I have to spend a lot of time sitting waiting for it to happen. Often I have the makings of a book sitting in my head maturing for eight or more years, and when I am considering that collection of notions I am aware of exercising a great deal of conscious control, trying the parts of it round in different ways, attempting to crunch another whole set of notions in with it to see if that makes it work, and so on. But I do not feel in total control, doing this. It is more as if I am moving the pieces of idea around until they reach a configuration from which I, personally, can learn. Practically every book I have written has been an experiment of some kind from which I have learnt. It does not seem to me that I have the right to foist a story on people, most of whom are children who should be learning all the time, unless I am learning from it too.
But why do you write for children? is the usual adult response to this – as if finding I have gone to all this trouble, they think I go on to waste it on people who are immature. That is a question requiring several layers of answer. Some of them I am going to postpone to the end. For now I will say that I was not at first aiming to write only for children and have never considered what I write exclusively for them. Indeed, one of the reasons for my doing things the way I do was the spectacle of my husband falling asleep whenever he attempted to read aloud from almost any children’s book available in the late sixties. It seemed to me that he and other adults deserved to have something to interest them if they were prepared to read a bedtime story, and that people of all ages were more likely to be interested in something I myself found vividly interesting. My eldest son was continually and wistfully asking for books that were funny. For myself, I was bored writing anything else but fantasy and there were simply no other openings for fantasy except with a children’s publisher, when I started to write in earnest. And there seemed to be something in the air, pushing people to write for children. When I was a student at Oxford, both C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien were lecturing there, Lewis magnificently and Tolkien badly and inaudibly, and the climate of opinion was such that people explained Lewis’s children’s books by saying ‘It’s his Christianity, you know,’ as if the books were the symptom of some disease, while of Tolkien they said he was wasting his time on hobbits when he should have been writing learned articles. Neither of them ever lectured on their secret hobbies. And yet somehow not only I but numerous others such as Penelope Lively, Jill Paton Walsh, and Penelope Farmer, to name just a few – and we none of us knew one another there – all went away and produced books for children. Strange of us really.
Then what made you want to be a writer? is the next question and much easier to answer. It was not a case of wanting. In the middle of one afternoon, at the age of eight, I knew I was going to be a writer – as if the future had tapped me on the shoulder and pointed out quite calmly what I was going to be doing for the next fifty years. Since I was wildly dyslexic, my parents roared with laughter, and even I realised that I needed training. At the age of ten I remember sitting sadly thinking that there was something wrong with my imagination. I just could not see the scenery and actions in the few books I had anything like as vividly as their writers obviously had. My mind’s eye was all blurred. But despite this, I wrote my first book about two years later and discovered that if you were writing a thing, it came clear. It had to. In order to write about any event, you had to make the event clear to yourself.
I wrote this first book because my sisters and I had barely any books. The obvious explanation was the War and the shortage of paper, but it was not the real reason. Mostly it was my father’s intense meanness with money. He had been a schoolteacher, so he did admit that children ought to have hooks, and he salved his conscience by buying the entire works of Arthur Ransome, which he kept locked in a high cupboard and dispensed to us one between the three of us every Christmas. I was at university by the time we got Great Northern!The third reason was censorship by my mother. She had been trained as a child to believe that fantasy was bad for you and that you should only read any book if it was Literature. Luckily for us, the Alice books, Winnie the Pooh, The Wind in the Willows and Puck of Pook’s Hill qualified, but nearly everything else did not (Puck of Pook’s Hill saddened me, much as I enjoyed it. There seemed no point in the children in it learning all these wonderful things if they were made to forget once they had). In addition, I was allowed Greek myths, Malory’s Mort D’Arthur in the original language and a massive book called Epics and Romances of the Middle Ages which my grandmother had won as a Sunday school prize. I also read most of Conrad, which I thought of as verbose adventure stories and conceived a hearty dislike of the narrator Marlow – the prig would keep describing things instead of getting on with the story. My sisters, who did not like Literature in this form so much, were much worse off. My first full length book was written to read out to them in their book-starvation. It was very bad, but they clamoured so for the next episode that I went on writing and thus found I could finish writing a whole ten-exercise-book-long narrative. I suppose I should be grateful to my parents both for causing me to get writing and for the fact that I came to most other children’s classics as a delighted adult, when my own children read them, but, obstinately, I am not. Not one whit.
Do you put much of your childhood in your books? No, very rarely, for two reasons. First because it would be what I always derisively call ‘a loving re-creation of childhood’ – an adult exercise in nostalgia – where children are entirely forward-looking. It does not interest most children in the least what their parents or grandparents did as children – most of them would be surprised to find that the adults they know ever were that young. They have no historical sense and can’t wait to grow up. I think it is this futurewards orientation that I find most congenial about children’s minds; but a lot of substandard didactic writers do nevertheless insist on writing books about ‘growing up’. When I meet these kind of books, or those of the ‘loving re-creation’ school, I must confess that I reach for my gun. This is absolutely not the right approach.
The second reason I do not put my own childhood into things I write is that it was mostly too bizarre to use directly. In addition to the general madness of wartime and the eccentricity of my parents (myfather’s meanness, for instance, caused him at one point to obtain me three lessons in Greek in exchange for my sisters’ much-loved dollshouse), there was the village where I spent the years from nine to adulthood. Everyone there was peculiar in some way, singly and interactively. Some people behaved like witches, other people frankly admitted that they were. A man sat in the church porch who said he went mad at full moon. The vicar preached Communism from the pulpit and people came in hobnailed boots from Great Dunmow specially to walk out in the sermon. There were passionate folklorists, hand-weavers, adherents of William Morris, persons who were hippies long before hippies existed, and the girls were always getting pregnant. Someone made life-size working models of elephants. Everyone danced in the streets. German prisoners of war mingled with Polish displaced persons and London evacuees to cause a prolusion of eccentricity, shortly augmented by the American airbase nearby. Also nearby was a colony of painters, one of whom did anti-vivisection naive art, and there were strange folk in outlying farmhouses either getting into debt or keeping boa constrictors and dragon-lizards in their attics. The as-it-were conference centre which my parents ran added to the general peculiarity, both by importing mad musicians and insane actors and causing myself and my sisters to have to live, as one of the guests described it, ‘in the margins of a dirty postcard’, and by employing a succession of local eccentrics. The gardener there had had a vision on the Sampford Road in which an angel descended to him and told him always to go to Chapel and never to join a Trade Union.
It was only as a student that I realised that these things were not normal. It has taken me all these years to realise that some of the episodes from this lunatic place make very good stories in their own right; but I shall write them primarily for adults, not for children.
But naturally a childhood like that has to be an influence somewhere. In a way, it lies behind everything I write, in that it has to expand your notions of what is credible and make you readier to believe that extremely odd things can happen. Enough of it was hilariously funny, too, to make me aware that humour is essential when things get wild. Oddly, the most insanely funny things were nearly always part of something intensely tragic (for instance, when my father lay dying to the sound of young men beating on our door shouting ‘We want women!’) and I came to the conclusion that the two states are, in fact, closely related and that fantasy – the times things go wild – is the connecting factor. For all this, the perpetual riot and mayhem in which we lived then was always like a brick wall cutting me off from anything truly imaginative. Life was too restless and pragmatic to give one a chance to think. I got glimpses of what was cut off from books. There was a volume of Arthur Mee’s encyclopedia among my few books with a picture in it of a girl learning to play the piano. The piano was up against a brick wall, beyond which was a wonderful garden to which the girl had access only through strenuous endeavour. I actually cried when I first saw it, not because my mother had forbidden music lessons on the grounds that I was not musical, but because it seemed exactly to describe my situation – and I could see no way to penetrate that wall.
The queer thing was that the conference centre did in fact possess just such a garden. It was known as the Other Garden. The garden that everyone saw was pleasant enough, though somewhat boringly laid out around a large square of grass. The Other Garden was quite different. It was like that garden in folktales where the king has counted all the apples. It was across a road, walled away from everyone, a blaze of manicured lawn leading to a tunnel of roses ending in an inlaid wood summer house, where espalier apple trees of types that are no longer grown surrounded like hedges plots of fruit, flowers and vegetables. The bees had a plot of their own because they did not get on with the visionary gardener. Something about this garden caused the visionary gardener to build little shrine-like places in the wall niches and ornament them with posies and old Venetian glass. My father would not let anyone go there. He kept the large old key to it in his pocket and it often took several days of pleading to get him to release it to me, grudgingly, for an hour or so. When I got there I simply wandered, in utter bliss. I talked to the bees, who never once stung me, although they pursued the visionary gardener once a week, in clouds, and occasionally turned on my father too; I ate apples; I watched things grow; and I never once connected it with the garden in the piano-playing picture, though that was more or less what it was. I remember I did try to connect it with The Secret Garden. I dragged a copy of that past the censor, with my mother saying, ‘Oh very well then, read it if you must, but remember it’s nothing but sentimental nonsense!’ and tried, in a puzzled way, to lay it alongside the Other Garden. But the Other Garden had nothing to do with sentimental nonsense. I couldn’t make it out.
I see now that the two gardens of the conference centre came to represent to me the activities of the two sides of the human brain, the first concerned with day-to-day living and the second with all creative needs. But I put it to myself more in terms of enchantment as opposed to the mundane.
Is this why you make use of myths and folktales so often? people will now ask. Only up to a point. One thing the existence of the Other Garden made plain to me is certainly that there are times when everyday life echoes or embodies traditional stories. These are more frequent than most people think. Anyone who does not believe this ought to ask themselves how often they have felt like Cinderella. And it was with this in mind that I wrote Eight Days of Luke very early on, using the days of the week, which have the names of deities hidden in them and yet presented to us on a daily basis, to try to express how the ancient and chthonic things are in fact nearly always present to everyone. But I do this kind of one/one correspondence fairly rarely. For one thing, the immense and meaningful weight of all myths and most folktales could drag a more fragile, modern story out of shape: for another, I do not find I use these things. They present themselves, either for inclusion or as underlay, when the need arises; so that you can have, at one end of the scale a book like Wilkins’ Tooth, where the solution is from Puss in Boots (or Rhinegold), or at the other, one like Fire and Hemlock, where, once I had conceived the idea of founding the story on that of Tam Lin, about ninety other myths and folktales proceeded to manifest, in and out all the time, like fish in dark water. The beauty of such tales is that the weight they carry is only to be grasped intuitively. They cause readers to grasp far more than the surface meaning, but they combine with that surface meaning more easily and successfully than anything else, even for those who do not know the story in question. (Fire and Hemlock goes down rather well in Japan, where myths are not the same).
The other wonderful thing about myth and folktale elements is that nearly every story is in segments, which can be taken apart and either recombined or included on their own. In this form they carry the same weight but their meaning often alters. I first grasped this at the age of about eleven, when I was allowed to read a scholarly book when I was ill (‘but don’t dare get it crumpled!’), which was mostly sixteen versions of the same Persian folktale – the one where the younger prince fetches the princess from the glass mountain – placed in such an order that, as the details of the story altered, you watched it changing from one sort of narrative (the trial of strength and valour) to another (the test of character), while the outline of the story itself never changed. This kind of thing fascinates me. When I was a student I imagine I caused Tolkien much grief by turning up to hear him lecture week after week, while he was trying to wrap his series up after a fortnight and get on with The Lord of the Rings (you could do that in those days, if you lacked an audience, and still get paid). I sat there obdurately despite all his mumbling and talking with his face pressed up to the blackboard, forcing him to go on expounding every week how you could start with a simple quest-narrative and, by gradually twitching elements as it went along, arrive at the complex and entirely different story of Chaucer’s Pardoner’s Tale – a story that still contains the excitement of the quest-narrative that seeded it. What little I heard of all this was wholly fascinating.
How do you think of the characters in your books? They come partly from life. A friend recently said that all the adult characters in my books struck her as completely mad, and I suppose this is because most of the adults I knew as a youngster behaved as if they were precisely that. Though I have never yet found a niche in a book for either Professor Tolkien or the visionary gardener, I have not despaired of finding one for both in the end. Those that I do draw from life, I use sparingly, one per book usually, to ensure that the other people, who come from my head, will behave as real people would. The majority are, you might say, made up, and these are of two kinds: those I have known for a long time and who have been kicking their heels in the corridors of my brain, waiting for the right narrative to go into, and the ones who suddenly present themselves, as entire people, because of the logic of the book. It is, I find, essential to know real and made-up both as well as you would know your own siblings. One reason for knowing them that well is that you then need not describe them in any detail: if you know them that well, they come over. But the main reason is that they are, alter all, the flesh and blood of the story, the ones the things happen to, or who make things happen. So they have to be capable of being changed by what goes on, as people would change. You have to know their tricks of speech and the way they stand or walk, the way their hair grows, as well as you know the inward minds of them – or better, because I find they often surprise me by acting autonomously out of inward impulses I have not learnt. The way different people behave in difficult conditions has always fascinated me. The second book I wrote (in twelve exercise books) was largely devoted to a group of people who got separated into smaller groups, and then to exploring these smaller groups, each of which surprised and fascinated me by developing a group dynamic I had not expected. The one I expected to make the decisions did not always do so. By the time I had written THE END in the twelfth exercise book, I knew all of them so well that I could draw pictures of them in characteristic attitudes.
Now we are nearer to answering the question I always get asked most irritably: Why did you choose to write Fantasy? Why magic? Aside from the fact that much of my early life was like fantasy, I suppose the answer has to be that I learned its value from not having it, or at least not having it in books very much. There were glimmerings, just enough to set up a craving of the kind you have when you are seriously deficient in some vitamin and, oddly enough, nothing I wrote in those exercise books was fantasy. I did not think it was allowed. Fantasy was ‘sentimental nonsense’. I was, for instance, forbidden to read the chapter in The Wind in the Willows called The Piper at the Gates of Dawn, but of course guiltily did so and discovered in it something consonant with the Other Garden. They were both that extra thing, something beyond the usual. It took me years to understand that all the matters dealt with in fairytales or myths (magic) and the deeper workings of the imagination are both functions of the right lobe of one’s brain, and therefore capable of overlaying and reinforcing one another. This seems to be true whether you are simply speculating about what happens if you stumble while wearing seven league boots, or conducting your protagonist on a journey of the spirit to the underworld. The magic leads to the exercise of the imagination and then the imagination supplies further meaning to the apparently magic events. At its simplest, magic can be considered as a metaphor, or as functioning in the same way as metaphor. In Witch Week, it begins as precisely that, with the burning of witches standing for the persecution of people who differ from the supposed norm, but I hope it then goes on to be more, because almost every character eventually turns out to be a witch. It should then become a way of saying ‘Think this through.’ This, it seems to me, is the best intellectual function of magic in fantasy. You start out by saying ‘What if this or that seemingly impossible thing were so ...’ and then following through the logic of it. The fact that it has been put in terms of magic (or impossibility) has distanced the problem (which may actually be one painfully near to most children, like secret fears or racial difference) so that it can be walked around, followed through and, if possible, solved in some way. To use magic by itself as a solution is merest cheating. The problem has to be restated in equivalent magical terms and then linked with the minds and actions of people in such a way that a solution can be worked out in human terms as well. Then, because magic is the matter of myths and folktales, the problem becomes exciting rather than painful or intractable and the imagination is available to come to grips with the problem.
The excitement generated by magic is incalculable and should never be underestimated. It is of the same order as creativity.
But what value has fantasy? Don’t you end up with people who do not know fantasy from reality? The short answer to that second question is another question: Why do lie-detectors work? The longer answer is twofold, part personal, part general. Recall my muddle over Germans giving us Twyford. I really did not know which part of this was fantasy and which reality. It was solved for me by an episode from Mary Poppins Comes Back (this book got past the censor by being a present from my godmother) in which Mary Poppins and her charges visit a circus that is the Milky Way, presided over by the Sun as Ringmaster, with Saturn as a melancholy clown (which puzzled me for the next five years until I learned of the rings of Saturn and saw that these were the ruff round the clown’s neck) and the signs of the zodiac as performing animals. The episode was rescued from whimsy first by the cast uniting to assert they were all of the same substance ‘child and serpent, star and stone’ and subsequently by the discovery that Mary Poppins had a sunburst burn on one cheek where the Sun had kissed her. None of Kipling’s learning-and-forgetting here. I almost instantly recognised that my muddle was the same order of thing as this episode, truths presented in a shape they did not really have, personifications, and similes acquiring the status of fact. The muddle dissolved, not only painlessly but in a gust of delight at the marvellous thing P. L. Travers had done. I am willing to bet that most good children’s stories have inadvertently performed the same sort of cure for many children, many times. They show you the way your mind works. And, as I hoped to point out when I gave an account of my muddle in the first place, when your mind works in this way, it is closely allied to all sorts of creativity.
Fantasy is a very important part of the way your mind works. People trot out as a truism that man is a tool-making animal, but nobody pauses to think that before a caveman could make a stone axe or an obsidian arrowhead, he had to imagine it first. What if I lashed this luckily-shaped hunk of stone to this sturdy stick? Would it help me divide this tree into usable bits? The caveman might actually laugh here at the idea of dividing a tree up at all. And the same sort of half-incredulous What if? applies to the most abstruse piece of engineering, except that here the laughter will be subsumed into a sort of keen enjoyment of the chase: Nobody has done this before, but I’m going to do it all the same. What if I ...? Man, before anything, is a problem-solver. We have evolved practically requiring to enjoy solving problems, and foremost among our means of doing so is the half-joking ‘What if ?’ of fantasy. One of the mythical Treasures of Britain was a thermos flask, conceived long before it was possible to make one. And of course it is fun, solving something. Look at Archimedes, rushing outside dripping and shouting. Naturally, we enjoy fantasy. There is an extension of this fun-function. We also enjoy day-dreaming – fantasising, as they call it. In some day dreams, our problems are simply miraculously solved. Here, we recognised the problem and lowered the level of pain from it. Nobody solved anything while worried and hurting. That is one part of fantasising. The other part is the actual practising of situations in our heads. Reading a book constructed on these lines is only an augmented form of this. Both prepare you for a version of the situation in actuality. Without either, you really do not find it easy to distinguish the credible from the unbelievable, the obscene from the silly joke. I always think it is significant that the generation that trained my mother to despise all fantasising produced Hitler and two world wars. People confronted with Hitler should have said ‘He’s just like that villain I imagined the other night,’ or ‘He’s as mad as something out of Batman,’ but they couldn’t, because it was not allowed.
Why do I write for children? There is one good reason. I would hope to encourage some part of one generation at least to use their minds as minds are supposed to be used. A book for children, like the myths and folktales that tend to slide into it, is really a blueprint for dealing with life. For that reason, it might have a happy ending, because nobody ever solved a problem while believing it was hopeless. It might put the aims and the solution unrealistically high – in the same way that folktales tend to be about kings and queens – but this is because it is better to aim for the moon and get halfway there than just to aim for the roof and get halfway upstairs. The blueprint should, I think, be an experience in all the meanings of that word, and the better to make it so, I would want it to draw on the deeper resonances we all ought to have in the other side of our minds. For me, those resonances will have something to do with the Other Garden, but I am willing to hope – or even to believe – that if I get the book right, I might actually provide these resonances for those who did not happen to have such a Garden. I have anyway always hoped to write a truly memorable book, the one that you go back to the beginning of and start rereading as soon as you get to the end, the one that you think of in subsequent years as the one that really pointed you in the way you wish to go. I still don’t think I have done it. That’s life. Halfway to the moon. But on what I have done, I would not really like to set an age-limit. I am always delighted when aunts and grandfathers write to me, saying their nephew/granddaughter has just introduced them to, say, Howl and they couldn’t put him down.
Copyright © Diana Wynne Jones