26 March 2011

Diana Wynne Jones

I was going to write about Frankenstein or Terminator tonight, but I've been saddened by some bad news.

Diana Wynne Jones - a woman I've described as my favourite author for about 10 years- died during the night.

She was diagnosed with lung cancer in 2009 and in summer 2010 ago announced that she had decided to stop treatment, so in some respects I knew this day was coming, that doesn't make it less sad.
I don't think I've felt like this about the death of someone I've never met before. 

Neil Gaiman's sentiments on Twitter are lovely. They had been friends for years and it always kind of amazed me that two such brilliant and talented people were friends. I think that was the first time I realised that writers and creators had a whole community. Forget people who sleep with sportsmen and performers who fill themselves with booze and drugs, it's the writers I have always been interested in.
It turns out she somehow attracted these writery links. At university she was lectured by Tolkien and Lewis, and as a child she encounter both Arthur Ransome and Beatrix Potter. The former shouted about her being noisy and the latter smacked her for swinging on her garden gate. On her fan website I read an account she had written about going to 10 Downing Street and ending up having a conversation with Terry Pratchett, this is the sort of thing that sounds too good to be part of reality, yet somehow is!

I first read Charmed Lives, it was a paperback copy I bought second hand from Hay-on-Wye. I think I found it interesting, but it wasn't an immediate favourite. Then I read Castle in the Air which I got from the library, not realising it was a sequel. I really enjoyed that and soon Diana Wynne Jones books turned up on all my Christmas and Birthday lists.

What I loved was the other worlds ideas in Chrestomanci. As a child who loved to read and make up stories, and who tended towards the fantastic even before I understood the idea of genres, the other worlds idea was very powerful. I remember being a child and vaguely thinking you had to set stories in the past or, if you wanted something impossible but not necessary magical, the future. The idea of other worlds where one could have magic and technology and stuff that was entirely different (not alternate, or mirrored, or what-if, as you got on TV) was amazing.

I think that my growing interest in the work of Diana Wynne Jones was very important in my developing ideas about what I liked to read. I soon realised I was a fantasy fan - even if I didn't have the words, the concepts or the company to indulge my geeky side for a few years after that.
The imagination that can be displayed in fantasy is what I have always loved about the genre, and Diana Wynne Jones is a brilliant example of imagination. She didn't stick to a well-known or well-used formula as many in the genre do (although she does have her own patterns, but what writer doesn't?).

Reading Darklord of Derkholm was my introduction to traditional quest-based fantasy, and as the book so wonderfully and sensibly satirises it this may explain why I've never been that patient with sword and sorcery and Tolkienesque works.

Her books were not always easy, which impressive considering she wrote mostly for children and young adults. Characters wouldn't always be likable (but people aren't), things weren't what they seemed (which they sometimes aren't), and identity could be very fluid, if not downright baffling (which isn't unrealistic).
I remember finding Hexwood baffling the first time I read it, but my interest must have been piqued as I read it again and loved it. I remember not getting on with Witch Week that much, although that may have been partly caused by carsickness, but I never put it down and thinking back it was probably my introduction to the idea of alternative histories.

 Diana Wynne Jones 1934 - 2011

She will be sorely missed.

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