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Wrestling with an angel

by Caron Parsons
The Dalemark series of books THIS STORY LAST UPDATED:
27 March 2003 1822 GMT

Diana Wynne Jones is in the middle of writing a new book, "it's like wrestling with an angel," she said.
The popular Dalemark Quartet has been re-issued
:: This story

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And she should know.

Over the past 20 years the Bristol-based author has written more than 20 novels, and become something of a star herself.

She has fans all over the world and is recognised as one of the most outstanding writers of children's fantasy.

And all this started from quite humble beginnings, when Diana began writing adventure stories to entertain her young sisters at the end of World War II.

Her father, who Diana freely admits was a bit of a "Scrooge", had been a teacher and knew the importance of his three daughters reading.

Diana Wynne Jones
As a youngster Diana found out that authors Beatrix Potter and Arthur Ransome were not child-friendly.
Not wanting to spend too much money though, he bought the complete works of Arthur Ransome and locked them away, giving them out one by one each year as Christmas presents to share between the girls.

Desperate to have something to read during the austerity after the war, Diana began writing stories for her younger siblings.

"Though I'm still not in the least bit grateful to my father for the push," she says.

Ransome encounter

But even before she began to read his works, Ransome, author of Swallows and Amazons, had figured in the young Diana's life.

She and her family had been evacuated to the Lake District during the war, and ended up in the house previously inhabited by the children Ransome had based his Swallows and Amazons series upon.

She even met Ransome "a small man with lots of beard", very briefly, while she was there.

He rushed by the shocked five-year-old in her home to berate the women of her household for allowing their children to be so noisy!

And this was not young Diana's only brush with famous authors while she was living near the lakes.

Her young sister and a friend were smacked by Beatrix Potter for swinging on her garden gate!

Not a pleasant introduction to writers then?

"At least they were both real, physical people," said Diana.

"Up until then I thought books were made by machines in Woolworths - this made them very real."

Destined to write

By the age of eight Diana knew she was going to be a writer.

"It was as if my future self suddenly tapped my eight-year-old self on the shoulder and said this is what you are going to be," said Diana.

JRR Tolkien Oxford 1968
'Tolkien lectured with his face pressed against the chalk board'
"My parents just roared with laughter."

At university in Oxford Diana met up with more literary figures.

She attended lectures given by both JRR Tolkien and CS Lewis; "well Lewis lectured and Tolkien tried not to," said Diana.

"He was totally inaudible and spoke with his face pressed against the chalk board.

"He was in the middle of writing the Lord of the Rings and wanted to get back to it, but he was being paid to lecture no matter how many students attended.

"Because we kept turning up he had to carry on, and what we did hear was very interesting."

Lewis 'superb'

Lewis though was a different kettle of fish.

"He was a superb lecturer, the hall was crammed and he held everybody spellbound, even if he was talking about things that others would have made quite dull."

Despite meeting the famous authors, Diana hadn't read any of their works. In fact, apart from Ransome's books she didn't read children's books until she had youngsters of her own.

"I was seeing books for the first time with my children," said Diana.

"And I wanted to write books like this myself."

She started to write and her three sons became her biggest fans - and critics - reading everything she wrote.

"One son was a very critical reader and rarely said anything. If he did say something it was usually an adverse comment and I would immediately alter it," said Diana.

'Life of their own'

Diana admits her works, which include the Christopher Chant novels and the Chronicles of Chrestomanci, have "a life of their own," a fact which became apparent as soon as she started writing.

"Some books just seem to happen without much warning or apparent thought, while others slowly accumulate bit by bit" she said.

"Nearly all seem to spring from characters."

One series of books, the Dalemark Quartet, took an extremely long time to finish.

"The fourth one I couldn't write for 10 years because I knew it too well and it started doing its own thing," said Diana.

"The nice people turned out to be nasty in the end and I kept putting it off, which had my agent jumping up and down."

Fans' feedback

Some of Diana's fans were also unhappy with the end of the series and were not shy about telling her so.

"It is nice to hear from fans though, especially if they have had some sort of problem and reading my books has helped, even if it has just taken their minds off things," said Diana.

She hears from fans all over the world, ranging from young children to grandmothers, and quite often from students re-reading her books when they start university; "quite often a lonely time for some."

With a new book, Merlin Conspiracy, out in April and work continuing on her next novel, Diana is not worried that she may simply run out of ideas.

"I have long barren stretches away from writing when I say I will never write again," said Diana.

"But there are masses of stories left to tell, I'm just sorry I won't live long enough to write them all."

"Tolkien was in the middle of writing the Lord of the Rings and wanted to get back to it, but he was being paid to lecture no matter how many students attended."
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