Late on Saturday night, I saw the news that Diana Wynne Jones had died. She had been diagnosed with cancer some time ago, and her official website said that she had stopped chemotherapy, so I think all her readers knew this day would come. Over the past two weeks I’d had a nagging thought about one of her stories. Which one was it? There was a fete and a girl and a mean wizard and possibly a pig. I’d kept meaning to look it up but hadn’t. I looked it up today and it’s ‘The Fat Wizard’. Her stories have a habit of doing that, popping up and nudging you, for whatever reason. And I had reread Archer’s Goon just a couple of weeks’ ago. I was thinking of Howard bounding up those steps and becoming seven feet tall and realising himself.
Diana taught me a number of things about writing and about life.
The thing that lingers most in my mind is Polly and Laurel in Fire and Hemlock; Polly needing to ignore her own embarrassment over her feelings for Tom in order to not forget the situation and stop being a hero. In fact, at a pivotal moment in the book, she succumbs to a perceived embarrassment over her actions. I hadn’t thought before then that a hero must overcome their own preoccupations or sense of what is decorous. After all, most of us sit and squirm through difficult situations rather than risking standing up and speaking out, because what if we’re wrong? A true hero, a New Hero, must let the adrenalin flow and forget about going red in the face and assume they are doing the right thing as they leap into the fray. And perhaps train by lifting up their bed every day, at least three legs off the floor.
One of the most wonderful and endearing things in Diana’s writing is that she writes the everyday and familiar but with a twist. In Archer’s Goon the Sykes family’s most pressing frustrations are the lack of electricity, lack of sleep because of noise, lack of food. The fact that megalomaniac wizardy types may be running their town takes a backseat to their everyday needs. A lot of the story circles around getting the basic necessities so they can live. And Howard, again, has moments of cringing and shame that he has to fight against to get things sorted out. Diana notes all those idiosyncrasies that make up a family, whether it’s Quentin stealing Howard’s boots or Awful salting the tea. In Castle in the Air Abdullah finds his elaborate daydreams are not so wonderful when they interfere with his everyday life, thanks to the great djinn, but he’s more annoyed by the fact that everyone seems to be getting the better of him. In Dogsbody, Sirius realises that Kathleen loved his ordinary dog-self, the creature with boundless enthusiasm and a clumsy tail, not this towering, powerful celestial being. Diana made me realise that fantasy and magic wrap around the everyday and that the everyday likewise wraps itself around magic. You can find both things everywhere.
Diana’s writing brought magic into thousands of people’s lives, and you can see this in the outpouring of emotion that has come with the news of her death, as well as the many discussions boards and websites where readers discuss the threads running through her amazing books and characters. Thank you, Diana, for the magic that continues to live on in your writing.
I’d love to hear about how Diana has been a part of your life, please share any comments you’d like.