Joan Aiken produced some beautiful pastel drawings while mulling over her plots, you can see some of them on the website, but this little doodle on the back of an envelope suggests a rather different, very un-fertile state of mind, brought about by the distractions and pressures of daily life (Gas in barn? applesauce) and the dreadful to-do list that accumulates when you have something you would really like to be getting on with, but can’t let the ‘shoulds’ go – or in Joan’s case ‘oughts’. Here’s a very personal expression of her state of mind, and this is by no means the whole list, emerging furiously from her typewriter!
And she goes on: “Somehow one’s crazy conscience always relegates the really important job – the getting on with one’s book – to the last, as if it were a piece of self-indulgence.” Although she produced a wonderful range of different work, plays, short stories, articles and introductions, poems and talks, there would always be – seething somewhere at the back of her mind – the current repository of all the hopes and dreams that called itself ‘The Book.’
In her adult books you can hear Joan’s introspective voice quite clearly, she put a good deal of herself into some of her heroines, as for example the heroine of The Ribs of Death. Aulis, or Tuesday as she is also known, is described by one reviewer as ‘a feckless sophisticated, cheerful, courageous little tramp of a girl’ but she is also the victim of a major case of writer’s block, having had an unprecedented success with a risque experimental novel she wrote at the age of seventeen and been unable to produce anything since that her publishers would even consider. Not only does she regret that now there is the expectation that she will happily continue with more in the same vein, but she is forced to deal with the snide comments of people who assume that tossing off a novel is something any fool can do in their spare time – and in this case it is the ice cold – or in Tuesday’s mind cool as aspic – Doctor Eleanor who needles her mercilessly on one of their first meetings:
This clearly comes from her own experience, but despite the cold fear it expresses, Joan Aiken was also familiar enough with her craft to have learned how to avoid coming to a total standstill, by having more than one string to her bow, and as the list up above suggests, she always managed to keep several projects in hand in case one of them stalled. Having, like her heroine. also been published at the early age of seventeen, and managed for most of her life to earn a living from her work, she obviously learned how to strike a balance between the dreaded ‘to do’ list and the project that was really close to her heart, writing the book.
A series of Joan’s adult novels will be coming out again this year, fifty years after the first one was published thanks to Orion’s The Murder Room
More news soon!