Saturday, June 11, 2011

Diana Wynne Jones

All right, this is late in coming, but I must:  the Homage to Diana Wynne Jones.

I cut my teeth on Diana Wynne Jones.  My mother read Jones to my brother and me as we sat by the Franklin stove cold wintered.  As I got older and learned more about writing I returned again and again to her earlier writing.  In books such as Charmed Life, what is so fascinating is that not only does Jones create complex characters that drive the book, but they drive a complicated book in a YA format.

When I look at Rowling, I do not see a visionary genius--as much as I might be hated for that remark.  I see someone standing on the shoulders of Jones.  Gaiman was in close with Jones.  In Britain, she is well known.  Here, she was out of print till the Rowling explosion brought her back to the fore (and for that I will thank Rowling as searching out Jones's novels on line and in used bookstores was an exhausting endeavor).

 When I first start describing Charmed Life:  orphaned Cat and Gwendolyn are taken in by their mysterious relative Chrestomancie--sounds really fucking simple, right?  And something you would put in a query letter, which I despise.  When I try to tell a friend who wants to read the book what it is about (don't worry, no spoilers)--with Howl's Moving Castle and Archer's Goon and Witch Week as well--what starts simple, I realize the plots are complex in a beautifully streamlined way.  She gets away with all of it because her characters have an inner complexity that puts me in mind of a snowflake, or Jenga.  If she had moved one piece of her characters out of line, the whole book would fail.  But because each character has the inner integrity of a tank, you never question one move that character makes or, because of her world building and other characters, why that choice lands the character where it does.

That is the key to a novel, in my opinion.  The characters must be complex, but that complexness cannot be loose.  You can't have facets of them hanging every which way that could easily be ripped off or fall off and not change the basic integrity of the character.  Each piece of the character must be vital, and stack together into an important vehicle that will take us seamlessly through the novel.  Everyone talks about the need for complex characters, but we rarely discuss the fact that every complexity has to be build in, to have grown in a tangled knot with every other complexity.  That character will determine the world we see.  That character will determine in what direction the we, as readers, move.  If we feel that viewpoint or movement is false, we will lose the book.

Not to say that absolutely every one of Jones's novels are epitome the of fabulous writing.  She has written, over her long, and now cut dead, career a swath of childrens', young adult, and adult fantasy.  She has explored Tam Lin in multiple books.  She, as far as I know, created the idea of a "multiverse"--that being more than one universe through dimensions.  We all know it has been around in speculative fiction forever, but I still find her classification charming.

Towards the end of her career, I have to admit my heart sank a bit.  She still used marvelously complex and original plots, but I felt as though sometimes they drove the character, rather than the other way around.  Her characters' strengths are what make me love her, and make me beholden to her for my own values in writing.

Her passing passed us by without much of a bump, but we will feel the reverberations of what she created in others work throughout the years.  If you have any wish to write--yes, especially speculative fiction, but really in any genre--go pick up the four books I listed above:  Charmed Life, Witch Week, Archer's Goon, and Howl's Moving Castle (which isn't anything like the movie, by the way).  Read them once and fall in love.  Read them again and understand what and how she created.


  1. What a great tribute. Diana Wynne Jones is one of my favorite author--for any age, any genre, and the novels you named are among my all time favorites.

    I'm so glad that her work is back in print.

  2. Me too. For a while I had to search used bookstores and the internet.

  3. Neil Gaimon has credited her for a lot of his development. . "Stardust" shimmers. In "NeverWhere" his use of myth, and characters, and a frightening, complex world with smack-on villains packs in nightmares and amazement and laughter. I hope sometime, someone makes a movie of that book. I've seen the British--was it an indie movie--and it got some things right, but I just don't think it had the budget/time on task to do anything more than sort of offer a "chip" carved off the book.