Interview with Diana Wynne Jones by Judith Ridge
At the time of this interview, I was working on a Masters Thesis on several of Diana Wynne Jones' novels, particularly her Chrestomanci novels. Although I didn't finish the thesis (I am now working on a different thesis topic), my interest in and admiration for Diana's work remains. This interview was published in SCAN in March 1993 Volume 12 Nš 1. It was my first published interview. The full transcript of the interview—which took place over several hours over dinner at Sydney's Wharf Theatre Restaurant—can be read here (6 pages).

Diana Wynne Jones writes challenging and wildly entertaining fantasies for children, drawing on references as wide as ancient Celtic mythology, mediaeval theology, and Steven Hawkings' theories of time. She presents intriguing possibilities about time and history, most notably in her creation of "related worlds", where new worlds split off from the one we know at significant points in history. Humour is a vital ingredient of her work, and the child is firmly at the centre of every one of her books. She is a great champion of fantasy, and of the right of every child to discover and have nurtured their special abilities. She is without doubt one of the most significant authors writing for young people at the moment. Judith Ridge was privileged to meet with and chat to Diana when she was in Sydney about writing for children, the importance of fantasy, and what she believes she offers the child reader.

In 1976 you wrote a piece for Something About the Author where you made the comment about your youngest son "Colin is going to be a genius when he finds out what to be a genius at." It seems to me that there are a lot of Colins in your books, that there are many of your characters either consciously or unconsciously finding out what they're going to be a genius at.

That's true, but I think this is the human condition, really, you've got to find out what your particular personality and gifts are aimed at, people have to find themselves. And it's a lucky child that knows that they're a genius, unaimed and all that. I do feel very strongly that this is one of the things which people need encouragement to sort out, because I have this very strong feeling that everybody is probably a genius at something, it's just a question of finding this. And indeed if you think you're a genius at something, what you achieve is very much according to your expectations; if you think you're no good, you're not going to get anywhere. If you think you're moderate, you're only going to get halfway to moderate, because you get half-way to where you're aiming every time, really.

The children in your books frequently perceive themselves to be untalented, and they lack a sense of self. Frequently the child also sees themselves, rightly or wrongly, to be isolated or "orphaned" from friends and family.

Yes, yes, that's right, I mean one of the things about being alone is that you've no people to define yourself off, I mean, people are like all-round mirrors, because let's face it, we don't often see ourselves all round in a mirror anyway, do we. Actually, in the wild, we'd be the only person that we wouldn't recognize, if you think about it. And I feel that, you know, it's terribly important to build up to children this notion that it's O.K., that you are a person, and you will find (yourself). Because I think... well one of things is that all fantasy it seems to me works the way your brain basically works. This is perhaps a startling concept, but I think it's true. Your brain, when it's working on a problem, says "what if, what if, what if?" Fantasy is just an extension of "what if?" And if you think about it, your brain is aimed to come out with a satisfactory solution jubilantly, and you want really to point children in that direction and say "there is a solution", and you should be happy, and you should be hopeful. It's pointing people in the right way, and trying for sanity. Because all these things that crib and cab in your brain, in your imagination, are in fact things that might well in later life drive you insane. You want to sort of provide little openings, so that people can say... "yes!" This is why I like happy endings, incidentally.

The phrase that seems to be popular at the moment is "empowering" people, empowering the child.

It's a very... buzz word, isn't it.

It's a real buzz word, but it seems to be very much what you're doing, and it's not always in obvious ways, and in fact frequently the children in your books don't turn out to have the talents that maybe they thought that they wanted and don't end up in the place that they thought that they wanted to be.

I wanted to say, "well, it doesn't matter, there is something that you're really good at, and you go and do that, and actually it's more satisfying." An example is Nan in Witch Week, who's made a complete mistake about what she really wants to do.

Yes, and Tonino at the end of The Magicians of Caprona isn't quite sure yet about his newly discovered abilities.

And I suppose Cat is the same at the end of Charmed Life, too. You do get into the habit of thinking yourself as a no-hoper in a certain direction, and if somebody turns you around and says "this is the direction you should be going, and there's lots of hope", you can't take it straight away.

A frequent feature of your work is the unconventional nature of the talents that the children invariably find themselves to have, and ultimately it appears that the adult world is going to have to modify itself in some way or another to accept those new talents.

That's right, yes, and I think that's a very important thing, not that in reality the adult world modifies itself very much, but they're going to have to as soon as that child is older, and yes, what I really often seem to want to say is that, O.K. , maybe there isn't the sort of job description yet made which fits you, it just means you're going to have to go out there and do the job, and then they'll describe it, and this is the way change, and change for the better, really happens, after all. People suddenly get this idea which is aside from where everything seems to be going, and in fact it takes everything on a new stage.

Very specific expectations are placed on authors for children, in that people believe that you have certain responsibilities because of your audience. I wonder if you feel that you have certain responsibilities because you write for children, and whether or not they are more important than your creative responsibilities as a writer.

I reckon they're about equal actually, because one of the things that's been slowly born into me over the years is that people might read one of my books at the point where they're truely impressionable, and it might actually influence them all their lives. I was shaken completely to my socks about 5 years ago now; I went to a fantasy convention and I was suddenly accosted by this very interesting Canadian writer whose things I'd admired. His name's Charles de Lint, and he said he wanted to tell me that he wouldn't be writing now as he does had he not read my books when he was a teenager. He said they completely revolutionised his way of thinking. And indeed, I could see why I liked his things so much, because, probably, it was the sorts of things he'd got from me.

What did he get from you?

This blending of the fantasy very closely with normal everyday life, he's very good on that, he being Canadian sets it in Ontario, so you have this sense of a city, and then things get weirder and weirder and you move out to another world. Since then, I realised, My God, you can actually influence people really rather profoundly, and of course, this feeds back into your duty to the book, and if you're not careful it completely hamstrings you, because you go backwards and forwards between these two things. This does make me very very careful, particularly in the second draft, to get it right, because you do feel that somebody in the future who may be extremely important for everybody, is going to have me behind them, and this is a responsibility, a huge one.

It seems to me that children's writers are frequently told what they should be writing, and what they shouldn't have written in a way that adult writers would find...


…absolutely insulting, and completely insulting on a creative level, to be told what you should write.

Oh yes, that's right, the review that prescribes what the book should have been is really maddening.

A criticism of your work has been that you have created a limited audience for yourself because of the complexity of your ideas and because you assume your reader has had certain cultural and literary experiences before coming to your books. How do you respond to this?

This is ridiculous, I mean, wholly ridiculous. It never did any child any harm to have something that was a tiny bit above them anyway, and I claim that anyone who can follow Doctor Who can follow absolutely anything. And children are so good at doing this now, and children are used to using their brains.

Do we underestimate kids?

Yes, I think so, every time. I really do. Kids can do anything, get anywhere, understand anything provided they've got sufficient curiosity, and the motives.

You have spoken quite firmly about the importance of fantasy and your difficulty with "problem novels" for children and teenagers. I have a lot of sympathy with a lot of what you've said, and fantasy was always my preferred reading as a child, but when I was teaching I actually found a huge resistance to fantasy....

A lot of kids think it's sissy.

I just wondered if you'd come across that attitude, and how you respond to it.

Oh, yes, I have, and if you call whatever it is they're about to read "science fiction", they will read it quite happily. I mean, this is one of the many reasons I spread over genres, so that people can cheerfully call it science fiction, if it pleases them. Fantasy for me as a kid was real, and I had a fantasy about what life was, whether it was sort of wicked and dire, or wholly normal, or whatever. Anything really close to home is not, it seems to me, what a good book should be about.

Do you read much realistic fiction?

Not really, no, I just don't get on with it. My childhood was so appalling really, one way or another, that realist fiction seems to me direly horrible. I find it just simply takes me right back to those times, and I really can't take it, I don't want to, I mean, why should I face up to it? What good does it do me? I know it happened, and that's it.

The essay anthology Innocence and Experience contains a discussion in which Lloyd Alexander and American author-academic Betty Levin comment that the characters in the realist novel are confronted with much more complex choices than the characters in fantasy novels, because fantasy deals with absolutes.

Yes, it does, but there's no reason why it shouldn't be equally complex. Fantasy does have this quality which isn't simplicity, but appears to be, and I'm at a loss to define it, usually. If you take myth and folklore, and these things that speak in symbols, they can be interpreted in so many ways that although the actual image is clear enough, the interpretation is infinitely blurred, a sort of enormous rainbow of every possible colour you could imagine. I have tried to define it, and I just damn well can't, because in a way, one of the things about it is it's all things to all men...

Which confirms what you've said in the past, that the children's books that last are fantasies.

Yes, yes, I suppose that is why.

Many of the child protagonists in your books are just pre-adolescent, and your exploration of alternatives and possibilities in time and history would seem to be particularly pertinent for this age group, for whom so many possibilities exist.

Yes, younger and older I do do, but basically that's (the age my work) centers on, because that's the point where everything is possible. If you think about anybody growing up, at a certain stage everything is open to him or her, there are all these avenues, and unfortunately you have to narrow it down, you just can't do all of it, but there is this lovely bit when you are just adolescent, as it were, or even just pre-adolescent, when the whole world is your oyster, the whole universe. You can go and do anything there, and it's a lovely moment, and of course, you're usually too mixed up to notice it! Unfortunately! And then it gets depressing as it narrows down inevitably, because it has to, but I do hope, and this is where we go back to the sense of responsibility, that I might once or twice pointed out to some children, "look, you really can do anything at this stage", and I think this is a very good thing if it can be got over. I think actually at that stage (pre-adolescence) the intellect is at it's sharpest, really, your intellect is really up to adult standard, and you don't have all the emotional mess of puberty actually mucking you up, and so in a way it's a very good point to choose, from every point of view.

Your work draws on many sources; for example, Fire and Hemlock relies heavily on the ballads "Tam Lin" and "Thomas the Rhymer", The Magicians of Caprona draws on Romeo and Juliet. Do you consciously select these references, or do they sort of naturally fall into the text?

No, once you get what you're writing about, which I can't at all describe why it is, you get this kind of nucleus, it immediately attracts all the right things, as it were, that it needs, sometimes from outside, sometimes from inside, it comes from both ways. It's a fascinating process, really, over the years I've sat and watched so many books doing this, just waiting. It's like a sort of gelatinous ball, and sucking in all the things that they actually need, and it's very queer, and they're very serendipitous, too, they find things which up till then I've not considered, or havn't even known about, and I'll suddenly find out it's the one thing I need, and that makes it go.

Is it important to continue to pass on the mythologies and cultural references in your work to a new generation?

Yes, and the best of British literature, you know, in the English language. I think it's very important, because you always have to bear in mind; this is the responsibility thing again, that when you do it, it's possibly the first time a certain person will have come across this, and so you have to not only present it like dishes in a feast, but present it well, so that it becomes like Japanese food, you know, beautifully presented.

In terms of creating tomorrow's readers, contributing to the person who is going to continue to be a reader, and therefore a thinker and all the rest of it, then you're rolling things over by drawing on some of those sources...

I think so, there's a tremendous knock-on effect, I suspect, there's nothing actually so important as thought and ideas, when you think about it, because everything new was at some point an idea in somebody's brain.

You have spoken a lot about how the stories, the actual stories you read as a child influenced you, specifically heroic tales and mythology, and that story is still important to you as a writer. The Magicians of Caprona, however, is also largely about language; some of the opening words are, "...a spell is the right words delivered in the right way." Was the language of those stories that you read, the Odyssey and Morte d'Arthur and so on, significant to you at the time, or did that come later? I don't remember as a child being conscious of language, I remember being conscious of concepts and plot.

Yes, I think I was too, although at an extraordinarily early stage I began to feel that if a thing was worth saying, it was worth saying in the most plain, straightforward, clear kind of language, and this has always been the way with me, I do find it very hard to write long.

And you avoid long descriptions.

Yes, very much so, but then you don't need them, I find, if you've seen it yourself, you can get other people to see it. I don't know why it comes through, I mean, you can get people to draw a sketch of the room where an action happens, and they'll put the window in the right place even.

Why humour? Is it just entertainment, or does it do more than that?

No, it does infinitely more than that. It seems to me that humour is everybody's way of keeping sane and standing off from the situations so that they can see it intellectually, as well as emotionally, and I don't know whether you've noticed, but if somebody tells a joke, it's nearly always a mini fantasy. When children first learn a joke is a marvellous moment for them and they bore you stiff with it! "What lies on the ocean bottom and shivers? A nervous wreck"! This is a pocket fantasy! And the really boring people, the only time they fantasize is telling jokes, if you notice, when people tell jokes they are, for the one time in their lives, open to the grotesque maybe, but it's fantasy.

It sounds as if you have made some quite conscious decisions about the sorts of things that you would like to communicate to your readers.

Yes I have, but in a sort of large and nebulous way. Mainly as sort of blueprints for dealing with most of the adults in their lives, to some extent with their fellows. It is this notion of aiming high and there's always hope, aim low and you might as well stop now.

Charmed Life 1977
The Magicians of Caprona 1980
Witch Week 1982
Fire and Hemlock 1985

Innocence and Experience: Essays and Conversations on Children's Literature
Barbara Harrison & Gregory Maguire. (eds.) Lothrop, Lee & Shepard Books. New York. 1987.

Something About the Author Anne Commire. Gale Research, Detroit, Michigan.
Volume 9, 1976.