Diana Wynne Jones: The child in time

For three decades, the magical but moral tales of Diana Wynne Jones have set the standards for creative children's fiction. Nicholas Tucker meets the tough guide to fantasyland

Everyone born on planet Earth must know by now that J K Rowling is Britain's most famous fantasy writer. But when it comes to choosing the most consistently creative author writing fantasy stories for children during the past 30 years, the answer for most critics will almost certainly be Diana Wynne Jones. Already with 40 books to her name, her next work of fiction, The Merlin Conspiracy (Collins, £12.99), appears next week. Inventive and original as ever, it features parallel worlds, a country not unlike Britain in King Arthur's day, a famous science-fiction writer who is also a type of Time Lord, and two teenagers who have to sort out a national crisis which threatens social disaster.

All fantasy writing demands a certain initial investment from the audience, requiring readers to learn the new rules of an unfamiliar universe. But Diana Wynne Jones's books still manage to stay reader-friendly, however much her plots spiral into new and ingenious surprises. Her characters – human, animal or whatever else – are always approachable, talking in matter-of-fact tones with no hint of the windy rhetoric that can prove such a bane in a lot of fantasy writing.

The quarrels that arise between the factions in her novels stem from easily recognisable human faults, with villains more inclined to be pettily selfish than grandly wicked. Her young heroes and heroines tend to be stoic and sensible, simply wanting a quiet life rather than any dramatic adventures. The wizards who occasionally help them out have the distracted air of well-meaning adults who would rather be getting on with something else.

Although a constant prizewinner, Diana Wynne Jones is only now enjoying popular as well as critical success. Buoyed up by the new interest in fantasy roused by the Harry Potter series, all her former titles are being brought back into print in bright, new editions which have already sold over 700,000 copies since May 2000. It has taken her ten years to produce one more fantasy book aimed principally at children, but another is already on its way with the promise of others after that.

Meeting in the Bristol house she has lived in for the past 25 years, we sit not in her study but in the drawing room, which may be just as well. "I was just writing A Tale of Time City at the moment when its houses come crashing down when I heard a distinct noise of something else crashing down in my study. The entire roof had come thundering in, leaving a hole through to the sky."

Diana herself was elsewhere, but this is certainly an author whose fiction has an uncanny and often uncomfortable way of coming true in her own life. She is still recovering from the broken neck previously described in The Lives of Christopher Chant and, after helping launch a friend's newly acquired catamaran, she was then briefly marooned on a hidden island – a plot detail exactly similar to a scene in Drowned Ammet.

She knew she wanted to be a writer at the age of eight. Spending most of the day and every night banished to an unheated, two-room lean-to in rural Essex, she wrote a couple of epic novels between the ages of 12 and 14. These were then read aloud to her two appreciative younger sisters, fellow exiles in the cold lean-to with its rough, concrete floor.

Denied books herself, save for one Arthur Ransome novel every Christmas to be shared between all three children in the family, she had to pick up what she could from the adult library across the yard at the conference centre, presided over and lived in by her mean and selfish parents. Dipping into anthropology, folklore and mythology for any glimpses of the fantasy she yearned for but which her parents disapproved of as self-evidently "silly", she was not the first to take refuge in the imagination from a tough reality.

Details still rankle today. "We were always dressed in cast-off clothes from the local Dr Barnardo's home. My sister only realised years later that this was so Mother could spend the family clothing coupons on herself." Diana's most famous character, the wizard Chrestomanci, is famous throughout his many stories for the splendid opulence of his clothing. Describing his gorgeous silk and gold-embroidered dressing-gowns must have seemed very satisfying.

Finally getting to Oxford to be lectured by C S Lewis ("pear-shaped") and J R R Tolkien ("mumbling"), she had to wait until after marriage and her three children had begun school before starting to write. After that, the books poured out. Not one for pre-planning or making notes, she finds that each story grows in her mind of its own volition, bulging at the seams until threatening to run out of control.

By then around three quarters of the beginning, end and something in the middle will already be clear. While I was with her, she had a sudden image of a ghost bouncing a ball down an aisle of seats – a detail to be stored up for a future story.

After that, it is a matter of linking everything up into the tightly organised plots that are such a feature of her books. This process does not always work, and there are stacks of aborted stories: some lasting two pages, some much longer. But on those occasions when a complete story finally announces itself, the only problem is finding enough time to get it down.

All this could still sound somewhat fey, were it not for the physical and moral toughness of her books. If characters do the wrong thing, consequences can be grave.

There are moments of real horror: in Charmed Life, still one of her best stories: a child burns alive and there is an attempted blood sacrifice by characters who, up to that moment, have seemed more seedy than sinister. But on the whole, her stories have upbeat endings. "People have always said the world is going to the dogs, but we still haven't got there yet," she comments. "And the brain is an instrument for solving problems; taking away hope from the young is to deprive them of thinking for themselves as well."

She has also produced a couple of books for adults, but prefers writing for a younger audience, albeit one with plenty of grown-up fans as well.

"Children are used to making an effort to understand," she says. "They are asked for this effort every hour of every school day. I can make my plots for them as complex as I please, and yet I know I never have to explain them more than once (or twice at the very most.")

The children in her novels are also remarkably good at sorting things out. But her adult characters often tend to be more clueless, still reflecting Diana Wynne Jones's own feelings about her weird upbringing and the way that no one at the time ever suspected what was really going on.

This situation is most directly reflected in The Time of the Ghost, her most autobiographical novel. But such bitterness rarely surfaces; more often, she finds herself laughing aloud when writing. The humour is particularly evident in her one non-fiction book, The Tough Guide to Fantasyland. Written after a stay in hospital when she read hundreds of other fantasy stories to help pass the time, this spoof dictionary of all the worst clichés found in this genre is already a collector's item.

Diana Wynne Jones's books are free of such dross, each written in its own distinctive style. Those continuities that do exist are more to do with the way that her young characters repeatedly have to find their way out of general confusion largely unaided. In so doing they discover the powers of their new, adolescent selves. By finally taking charge of their own life stories, they also learn to take responsibility for all their actions.

This process of growing away from draining domestic complexities, together with the development of personal space and general self-awareness, are constant themes. First, her young characters have to overcome determined opposition from forces that have successfully inhibited them. So beyond all their imaginative pyrotechnics, these stories can also be read as compelling coming-of-age narratives, put over with all the understated cunning of a born storyteller who knows there can always be far more to a good tale than might at first appear.

Writers for children including Helen Dunmore, Dick King-Smith, Terry Jones, Beverley Naidoo and Nicky Singer will be appearing today and tomorrow in the 'Book It!' Strand of the Cheltenham Festival of Literature 'Spring Weekend', for which 'The Independent' is media sponsor. Information and bookings: 01242 227979

Biography

Diana Wynne Jones was born in August 1934. After a chaotic and unsettled wartime period, her family settled in Thaxted, Essex. Surviving an egocentric mother plus a Welsh father "who could beat Scrooge in a meanness contest," she went to Oxford in 1953 and married in 1956. Her first children's book, Wilkins' Tooth, appeared in 1972, and she won the Guardian Award for Children's Books with Charmed Life five years later. In 1976, she and her husband moved to Bristol, where they have lived ever since. The mother of three sons, she has now produced over 40 novels and collections of short stories, many featuring the wise wizard Chrestomanci. She has won many other awards both in Britain and America, twice beating J K Rowling to a top literary prize. Her new book, The Merlin Conspiracy, appears from Collins next week.

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