My favourite author is Diana Wynne Jones. She writes the most amazing fantasy fiction books - mostly for older children and young adults. She has an extraordinary imagination and is unafraid of the straight, right ending - no need for the comforting blanket of an artificially happy resolution in many of her works. Indeed, the ending to Fire and Hemlock is one that fans constantly puzzle over - it's not at all clear what it means.
I was introduced to Diana's work when I was 9. My godmother took me to the now defunct High Hill bookshop in Hampstead, and told me I could chose 9 books, because I was 9. Two of the books I randomly picked off the shelf were by Diana. One was Cart and Cwidder, which for a long time was my favourite of her works; the other was Power of Three.
I was quickly addicted, and acquired quite a library of her books. But they weren't always easy to find, so I went on throughout my teenage years, looking for any book by her. Through this period I found books such as Fire and Hemlock, Charmed Life, and Archer's Goon, not to mention Eight Days of Luke.
Then a strange thing started to happen. Three times in a row, someone I'd become close to turned out to also be a Diana fan. At Cambridge, I became very good friends with a girl who lived next door to me our first year, H. Towards the end of the second year I went to visit her in the Library, and immediately pounced on the copy of 'Castle in the Air' that was lying on her desk: "You read Diana Wynne Jones!" I exclaimed. "I didn't think anyone else had ever heard of her!" she replied. We explored further and H told me that Diana's books didn't sell that well, so that she was constantly changing publishers, which made the books hard to find. However, H's mother kept a small bookshop, and once she discovered how much H loved the books, she looked out for them and so H had a better stock than I did of the more obscure Diana books. It was through H., therefore, that I first got to read 'Homeward Bounders' which I still think is probably her best, and most troubling, book. H. and I are still very close, part of my circle of five women friends from my university days.
About two years later I was in an odd relationship with a guy from work. We seemed to spend all our time together, yet he never made a move on me. One night he came over for dinner and started browsing my bookshelves (doesn't everyone do that when they go to someone else's house? And how wierd is it when they don't have any books?!). Suddenly, he let out an exclamation and dived down to a low shelf, jumping up almost instantly, holding my somewhat battered copy of Charmed Life. "Oh my g-d I can't believe you read Diana Wynne Jones!" he exclaimed. We spent most of that night discussing her books. Two weeks later we had a row, discussed why we were arguing, and ended up hooking up. We lived together for three years, and even now we are very close (he turned out to be gay, long story for another time).
Four years after that I was living in Philadelphia. I'd moved there after my PhD. I was lonely. The people I worked with were nice, but they were all married and a bit dull socially. I went to the local Borders after one particularly early dinner ended with them all heading home at 2030. After browsing the Guardian, I wandered upstairs to the Young Adult literature section. They didn't have anything interesting but I noticed a cool-looking young woman standing at the information desk. We'd spoken once on an earlier visit, and I thought I might as well strike up a conversation. So I went over to ask her why they didn't stock Jane Gardam books. That conversation didn't last long, but suddenly she volunteered, "I saw you in the young adult books. I stock that section, were you looking for anything in particular?". "Yes," I replied, "I'm looking to see if Diana Wynne Jones has published anything new." "Let me look her up on the computer," she replied. As she scrolled through the screen she suddenly exclaimed: "Dogsbody! I loved that book!". It turned out she'd read just this one Diana book as a child, but read it over and over and over again. We chatted some more, and I got the courage up to give her my phone number, on the excuse that it was so that she could call me when the book came in. The following day I got home to find a slightly awkward message on my answerphone: "Hi, um, Thalia, this is A, from the bookstore. You might think this is a bit wierd, but I'm having a potluck at my house on Sunday, and there'll be some cool people there and I thought you might like to meet them. Please don't think this is wierd. Um. Here's my number if you want to come."
I cooked my (then) signature dish, a mushroom strudel from the Moosewood cookbook, and I went. On A's fridge was a note about a women's bookgroup. The slightly loud redheaded woman standing next to me at the fridge was also eyeing it up. "Hey, A.," she asked, "Can I come to this bookgroup?" "Me too!" I added before my natural reticence could stop me. I read the book on the list in three days flat - it was "House of the Spirits" - went to bookgroup and never looked back. A and the redheaded chick became my closest friends in Philadelphia.
Four years after that I was lucky enough to meet Diana. I was studying in Oxford. I found out she was reading at one of the colleges, along with Philip Pullman (who I also discovered early). I was at a meeting in London until 6, and then ran for the train, picking up my bike at the station and peddling madly through the dark Oxford streets. I pulled up at LMH, threw my bike into a rack and ran up to their library, arriving when just one seat, an armchair, was left, precisely in front of where Diana and Philip Pullman were sitting. They both read, briefly, then discussed their work. I asked what turned out to be a rather insightful question, and when the formal part of the evening was over, managed to pluck up my courage to approach Diana. "You'll never forgive yourself if you don't do this," I thought. I asked if I could get her a drink, then came back with her glass of red wine, and sat down on the floor next to her to start talking. She was just as wonderful as I needed her to be. She confirmed how traumatic it had been to write the ending to Homeward Bounders. At the end of the evening I asked her to sign a couple of books for me. One very battered Puffin copy of "Cart and Cwidder", dated 1976, and my hardback first edition of "The Lives of Christopher Chant." In the first, she wrote: "To Thalia, thank you for chosing this book to read all that time ago." I cried.
I bet you're wondering what the point is. Well, yesterday, Julia Hippogriffs commented on my blog. I've been reading her blog since shortly after I found the infertility blogosphere, via Grrl's blog. I think she writes beautifully, and in an amazingly funny, lighthearted way about some very difficult experiences, as well as the entertainment of everyday life. That's not that unusual around here, I hear you say. Well, maybe on top of enjoying her wrting and empathising with her story, her status as part of the blog royalty, otherwise known as the Vagina Posse, that includes Grrl, Tertia, and Julie, gives her an air of mystery, of being at a level somehow above the rest of us. I'd put Cecily in the same category. They've all been through so much, and were, as far as I can tell, the founders of a kind of this network of women going through their experiences together online. I've never been one of the cool kids, at any time of my life. I don't comment on Julie or Tertia's blog as I don't know what I'd say or why they'd be interested in it. But I do comment on Julia's. I guess she just seems that bit more accessible. (I hope I don't offend anyone by writing this. I am touched by each and every comment I get, and I feel a stronger personal relationship with some of you than I do with Julia, since we've been mutually supporting each other for longer. And there are other writers out there who write in a way that blows me away every time, more so than Julia (you know who you are!)). But...a comment from someone I thought I'd only ever look up to, well, it made me feel like I've arrived.
You still haven't told us the so what, I hear you say. Wait, it's coming. No, it's here. What connects these two sets of experiences? This silly feeling I had yesterday when I saw Julia's comment reminded me of a poem I read once that Neil Gaiman (another great author. And he blogs, too) wrote. It expresses what he felt when Diana dedicated one of her books to him. It's how I felt when I met Diana and she was so incredibly gracious. And it's akin to what I felt yesterday. Here's the poem. Thank you, Julia.
There's a kitten curled up in Kilkenny was given a perfect pot of cream,
And a princess asleep in a thornwrapped castle who's dreaming a perfect dream,
There's a dog in Alaska who danced with delight on a pile of mastodon bones,
But I got a copy of Hexwood (dedicated to me) by Diana Wynne Jones.
There's an actress who clutches her oscar (and sobs, with proper impromptu joy),
There's a machievellian villain who's hit on a wonderf'lly evil ploy,
There's wizards in crystal castles and kings on their golden thrones,
But I got a copy of Hexwood -- dedicated -- to me! -- by Diana Wynne Jones
There are fishermen out on the sea today who just caught the perfect fish,
There's a child in Luton who opened a genie-filled bottle, and got a wish,
There are people who live in glass houses have managed to outlaw stones --
But I've got a copy of Hexwood, dedicated to me by Diana Wynne Jones