Joan Aiken writes about her favourite stories, and the magic of storytelling…in a new collection out now!
“Stories are mysterious things; they have a life of their own. Animals don’t tell each other stories — so far as we know! Man is the only creature that has thought of telling stories, and, once a story has been written or told, it becomes independent of its creator and goes wandering off by itself. Think of Cinderella, or Beauty and the Beast —we don’t know where they came from, but they are known by people all over the world.
A story is very powerful. If I start to tell you a story, you are almost sure to stop and listen to it. It’s like hypnotism — or a small piece of magic. Indeed, stories often have been used for magic, by priests or medicine men. There used to be special stories kept secret and only used on rare special occasions: stories that would heal sickness, or give victory in battle. Storytellers, in primitive times, were treated with great respect, probably given extra large rations of mastodon steak, when the cavemen were all sitting round the tribal fire. In those days, before anything was written down, stories were the means by which important facts were stored and remembered. In a way it is still so. Think how much easier it is to remember that Alfred was the king who burned the cakes than what his dates were; I bet if I stopped anybody in the street and asked them what they knew about King Alfred, those cakes are what they would remember, not which year it happened!
People sometimes ask me: How do you write a story? How do you set about it? How do you get your ideas? And I always say, first you have to have ingredients. You couldn’t go into an empty kitchen and expect to be able to cook a dinner. A writer, like a good cook, is always on the lookout for ingredients that might come in handy. Sometimes they are the things you read in the newspaper — the woman who buys a raffle ticket with her last pound and wins a million, the violinist who leaves his Stradivarius in a taxi, the man who trains his dog to bark at Salvation Army bands. Sometimes they come from dreams. I keep a little notebook and write down all these things in it.
I don’t really believe there is such a thing as ‘a born storyteller’, especially when it is applied to me! Storytellers aren’t born, they have to learn. It is a craft; like oil painting or ballet dancing, you don’t just come to it naturally. A story needs to be carefully built up —like a house of cards — one thing balancing on top of another. And then the end, when you get to it, ought to be a little bit surprising, but satisfying, too, to make the reader think, ‘Yes, of course, that’s it! Why didn’t I think of that?’ I can remember exactly the moment when I realized the importance of that surprise, while telling my brother a story on a walk, and I rushed home, and wrote the story down. It was a story about a princess who turned into a parrot. That was when I was about sixteen, and I’ve never forgotten it. Stories are fun to write! They are, or should be, like a sleigh-ride, and once you get on course, then some terrific power, like the power of gravity, takes command and whizzes you off to an unknown destination.
A very important element in a story is the setting —where it all takes place. Some of the stories I’ve written have their settings and surroundings so firmly in my mind that I can call them back whenever I want to. ‘The Boy with a Wolf’s Foot’ was written when I travelled back and forth to London every day, along a railway line whose stations all seemed to begin with W. ‘The Rain Child’ came when I had a job picking apples in a huge series of orchards. ‘Moonshine in the Mustard Pot’ is a mixture of Paris and the beautiful city of York. My daughter lived for a time in both these cities and I visited her there, and the grandmother in the story is a mix of my daughter and myself. ‘A Harp of Fishbones’ is purely invention, but I know that mountainside and that ruined city as well as if I had lived there all my life. The stories that have the strongest settings are my favourites. I like to revisit them from time to time, and that is like going back to stay in a house, or piece of country, that one has known since childhood; it is a happy, refreshing thing to do.
Reading is and always will be one of my greatest pleasures, and I love to re-read books and stories that have been favourites for years, and I particularly like to re-visit some of my own short stories, as they too have now taken on that mysterious life of their own. Favourite stories, like unexpected presents, are things that you can keep and cherish all your life, carry with you in memory, in your mind’s ear, and bring out at any time, when you are feeling lonely or need cheering up, or, like friends, just because you are fond of them. That is the way I feel about some of these stories.
One of the nicest letters that I ever had from a reader said: ‘Your stories are such a gift, they make me feel as though I dimly remember them. I seem to know the characters and places from long ago, like a forgotten dream …’
Maybe they will feel like that for you too, and become some of your own favourites — after all, where do our stories really come from?
This is Joan Aiken’s introduction to The Gift Giving, Favourite Stories
which includes these stories and others from many of her collections
Published by Virago Modern Classics
With Illustrations by Peter Bailey