Reflections on the Magic of Writing by Diana Wynne Jones

reflections on the magic of writing

One thing I’ll always regret not getting to do, despite the fact that it never would have happened anyway, is have a conversation with Diana Wynne Jones.  When in England, my friends and I joked about going to wander around Bristol.  We could see some of the sights mentioned in Fire and Hemlock, and in our headiest daydreams, we’d somehow run into Diana Wynne Jones and strike up a conversation.  We knew how silly it was, but hey, bringing our imagination into reality was a theme of Fire and Hemlock anyway.

Diana Wynne Jones just seemed like one of those people you’d love to have a cup of tea (or something stronger) with, a great conversationalist with a sharp wit.  I never knew Diana Wynne Jones so I can’t make any assertions about her personality, but I felt a lot of her voice from faithful readings of her books.

reflections on the magic of writingNow fans can feel that voice even closer, thanks to Reflections on the Magic of Writing.  It’s Diana’s last book, one that was published posthumously, but most of the contents of which she helped gather.  It’s a collection of essays and thoughts: of literary criticism, book reviews, transcriptions of interviews and talks she gave at conferences and schools, autobiography, explorations of the influences/thought processes behind many of her novels, and near anything else you can imagine.  It’s Diana.

Due to the nature of the book, it’s hard to pin down one predominate theme.  If there’s any, however, it’s on the power and necessity of fantasy and the imagination.  Most of the included transcriptions of Diana’s talks are on that theme, defending not just her decision to write fantasy books for children, but her idea of what that entailed.

It’s fascinating to read so many stories from someone who was around before the genre really became popular.  Diana, who famously heard both of them lecture when she was a student at Oxford, was predated by Tolkien and Lewis.  She points out, however, that whenever society at large discussed their work, it was always careful to preface it by saying what talented scholars they were, and how they ought to stick to their more respectable work.

For Diana, writing what she wanted to write was an uphill battle.  First, she had to deal with the fact that she was never allowed to read the type of books she wanted to growing up.  Then in getting published, she had to contend with the fact that neither writing fantasy nor for children was considered respectable.  She committed such sins as allowing parents/adults to have an awareness of the fantastical happenings in the story, or to want to make girls her main characters.

Diana’s recounting of her struggles with the early days of modern fantasy publishing lead to some of the best parts on the book: her later befuddlement after the explosion of the genre.  She’s not surprised that fantasy’s so popular.  She’s just disappointed that so much popular fantasy is, in her mind, so rigid to a certain style.  I’m a big fan of any of her musings similar to the sort that birthed The Tough Guide to Fantasyland and The Dark Lord of Derkholm, and her bemusement and annoyance at the prominence of formulaic fantasy results in some of my favorite sections in Reflections.

fire and hemlock

Fire and Hemlock, one of Diana’s trickiest, richest books.

Don’t take that to mean that Diana disdains Lewis or Tolkien.  The two primary pieces of literary criticism in the book are about The Lord of the Rings and The Chronicles of Narnia.  She has nothing but praise for them both.  The Lord of the Rings section in particular is one of the longest pieces in the book, at almost 30 pages, examining the structure of the entire series’ narrative.  I loved this dose of Diana’s academic side.

Anyone who reads her books knows how fantastically intelligent she was, but we rarely get to see her in pure scholarly form, and it’s a delight.  Her section exploring the myriad, staggering influences behind Fire and Hemlock is similarly intimidating in its brilliance, both in how she managed to cram so many myths into one narrative, and how I don’t think I’d ever be able to puzzle them all out, no matter how many times I’d read the book (if I’d even read all her source myths, which I haven’t).

If the book has any weakness, and I almost hate myself for thinking I should try to find one or point one out, is that it can become a bit repetitive if read straight through at once.  Particularly in the talk transcriptions Diana recounts many of the same stories — as any of us would, if speaking to different audiences at different times.  Her childhood also comes up again and again, for its powerful impact on Diana as a person and a writer, and thus because it leaked into her writing.  Any reader of Diana’s will note the prevalence of poor or even terrible parents in her stories, and we get details of the experiences Diana sublimated that showed up in her work (The Time of the Ghost, for example, is the most autobiographical of her fiction).

I’ll admit to only the brief, slightest boredom when I encountered another retelling of a story I’d already read a few times.  That can’t be helped, however, and I was welcome for any insight Diana wanted to offer about her writing.  And as all of her stories were wonderfully told, it wasn’t a bother.

Diana Wynne JonesJust like Earwig and the Witch, Reflections made me joyous and sorrowful at the same time.  It was wonderful to receive one last new experience with Diana, especially to encounter elements and aspects to her writing that I hadn’t before.  Because the book by nature was in many places so conversational in tone, it felt more intimate, more relaxed, and closer than her novels, which is saying something, because for me reading Howl’s Moving Castle is like being wrapped in familiar arms.

That made it all the more difficult to say goodbye at the end.  I almost feel ashamed feeling so sad, because I never knew her, especially when the last two sections at the end were written by her sons after her passing.  Yet I can’t help but mourn, and be glad all at the same time, for Reflections.  Although it might be the last new thing I’ll read by her, it leaves me with yet another perfect last parting gift: a new lens with which to look through at her works.

Do you have any fond memories of reading and experiencing Diana Wynne Jones’ work?  Share them below.


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