Where do stories come from? Joan Aiken explains…

Argosy webpage

Joan Aiken studied her craft while working for the short story magazine Argosy in the 1950’s, and always said it was the best training she could have had. As well as reading hundreds of submissions, interviewing and gleaning advice from the top authors of the day, such as Paul Gallico or H.E.Bates, and submitting her own stories to fierce editorial scrutiny, she was tasked with filling odd corners of pages, searching out entertaining news items, and writing a humorous Log Book to introduce the magazine each month.

While many of Joan Aiken’s Argosy stories were later included in her own supernatural or fantasy collections, she was so prolific that many had fallen out of print until fellow fantasy enthusiasts, Gavin Grant and writer partner Kelly Link of independent American publishers Small Beer Press offered to bring out a collection of these early works,  even including some previously unpublished finds, and they are certainly some of her wildest and most memorable stories.

Also in the collection is a short introduction Joan Aiken wrote for the title story, full of her own generous and hard earned writing wisdom, useful advice for other writers just starting out perhaps?

Here it is:

“Writing short stories has always been my favourite occupation ever since I was small, when I used to tell stories to my younger brother on walks we took through the Sussex woods and fields. At first I told him stories out of books we had in the house and then, running low on these, I began to invent, using the standard ingredients, witches, dragons, castles.

  Then doors began to open in my mind, I realised that the stories could be enriched and improved by mixing in everyday situations, people catching trains, mending punctures in bicycle tyres, winning raffles, getting medicine from the doctor. Then I began mixing in dreams. I have always had wonderful dreams – not as good as those of my father Conrad Aiken, who was the best dreamer I ever met, but very striking and full of mystery and excitement.

   The first story I ever finished, written at age 6 or 7 was taken straight from a dream. It was called Her Husband was a Demon. And one of my full-length books, Midnight is a Place was triggered off by a formidable dream about a carpet factory. Most of my short stories have some connection with a dream. When I wake I jot down the important element of the dream in a small notebook. Then weeks, months, even years may go by before I use it, but in the end a connection will be made with something that is happening now, and that sets off a story. It is rather like mixing flour and yeast and warm water. All three ingredients, on their own, will stay unchanged, but put them together and fermentation begins.

    A short story is not planned, in the way that a full-length novel is planned, episode by episode, with the end in sight; a short story is given, straight out of nowhere: suddenly two elements combine and the whole pattern is there, in the same way as, I imagine, painters get a vision of their pictures, before work starts. A short story, to me, always has a mysterious component, something that appears inexplicably from nowhere. Inexplicably, but inevitably; for if you check back through the pattern of the story you can see that the groundwork has already been laid for it. 

   The story of The Monkey’s Wedding for example, was set in motion by a dream about an acerbic old lady hunting about her house for lost things and buried memories, combined with a news story about a valuable painting found abandoned in a barn; only after I had begun the story did I realise that the last ingredient was going to be a grandson she didn’t even know she had lost.”

As a taster you can read one of the stories in a post from Tor.com here – this one is called Reading in Bed and is perhaps a warning to choose your late night reading matter carefully for fear of falling prey to nightmares – or alternatively, to help provide useful story material as Joan Aiken also said when she recommended eating cheese before bed in order to encourage fertile and fantastic dreams…

Monkey's Wedding 3

Find the collection at Small Beer Press

All You’ve Ever Wanted – a Joan Aiken wish comes true!

Pat painted AYEW“May all your way be strewn with flowers…”

Joan Aiken’s modern fairy tale, All You’ve Ever Wanted  is the title story of her first book published in 1953, and imagines an unfortunate orphan called Matilda, who is showered with magical wishes that will keep coming true.  Think of the joys of spring  –  lovely at first when the garden is busting out all over, but what if it can’t be stopped…?

Every year Matilda receives a birthday greeting in a pink and silver envelope from an absent Aunt (unfortunately also a witch) invariably couched in the usual poetic and flowery terms:

‘Each morning make another friend,

Who’ll be with you till light doth end…’

Written in the 1950’s this seems like an alarming premonition of the then unheard of joys of social media where announcements of a possible 365 new friends’ birthdays could be signalled to your phone every morning… But it is the most flowery tribute of all that brings Matilda’s otherwise burgeoning career to an abrupt end. No stranger to London office life in wartime Joan Aiken conjures a wickedly vivid picture:

That is, until her next birthday arrives bringing her own post:

Forced to resign from her job, Matilda attempts to send a telegram to Aunt Gertrude, ‘causing a good deal of confusion by the number of forget-me-nots she left lying around in the Post Office’ and soon realises that even her  journey home is going to be a nightmare:

    Aunt Gertrude is finally run to ground, when she spots a ten month old advertisement in The International Sorcerer’s Bulletin and rushes back from abroad, to find her desperate niece forced to isolate in a summerhouse at the end of the garden, armed with an axe to keep the worst of the foliage at bay… But there is one more unstoppable wish still to come for the poor girl’s twenty-first birthday:

‘Matilda now you’re twenty-one

May you have every sort of fun;

May you have All you’ve Ever Wanted,

And every future wish be granted.’

Happily the by now all too experienced Matilda makes the most sensible wish of all: “I wish Aunt Gertie would lose her power of wishing”. But Aunt Gertie with her usual thoughtlessness has already granted her ‘All You’ve Ever Wanted’ so she has ‘quite a lot of rather inconvenient things to dispose of, including a lion cub and a baby hippopotamus…’

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This and many other delights is now available in Virago’s latest collection of Joan Aiken’s favourite stories

The Gift Giving

Gift Giving &amp; back

Read Joan Aiken’s own introduction to her Stories

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Illustration by Pat Marriott, Joan Aiken’s long term colleague,

cheekily coloured in!

Reading Aloud – Joan Aiken’s lifelong campaign to share a love of stories

Colouring page

How does a Joan Aiken heroine tame a dragon in a desert? She reads aloud to him of course! In a story called Cooks and Prophecies, where due to various enchantments the pair find themselves living together at an oasis, they discover a shared love of stories:

Reading to Dragon

Joan Aiken was passionate about the power of reading aloud, the shared experience of communication through stories, and often talked about memories of her own childhood and the many books that were read to her and her siblings. In one of her talks to writers and teachers she became quite fierce, saying if parents couldn’t spare an hour a day to read to their children, they didn’t deserve to have any!

Often this shared process plays a powerful part in her own stories, together with the idea of a voice that remains through a book that has now become a bond with someone long after childhood, or even after they themselves are gone.

In The Boy Who Read Aloud Seb escapes from his cruel step-family, taking with him his last possession, the book of stories that his dying mother had left him:

Boy who read

Early one morning Seb runs away, and sees an advertisement on the village noticeboard:

ELDERLY BLIND RETIRED SEA

WOULD LIKE BOY TO READ

ALOUD DAILY

Not knowing that it was a very old notice that had been worn away by the weather, and which had originally asked for a boy to read the newspaper to an old sea captain, Seb sets off to see the sea with his book, and on his journey shares stories with a rusty abandoned car, an empty house and an old tree, all of whom listen with delight and respond in true fairy tale fashion by offering magical gifts in return for the stories that have whiled away their loneliness.

Finally,  he comes to the sea:

Boy who read 2

As she would sometimes say at the end of her stories:

‘There is no moral to this story I’m afraid.’

And nor need there be, what matters is  the voice.

 

Boy who read pic

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Read more about Joan Aiken’s own early memories of books shared in her family

and find these stories in the wonderful Virago collection of Joan’s own favourites

The Gift Giving

illustrated by Peter Bailey

 

gift giving

…or visit the dragon on the Joan Aiken website and colour him yourself!

Pat Marriott’s dragon illustration  from Joan Aiken’s first story collection

All You’ve ever Wanted

 

More Than You Bargained For? My favourite Joan Aiken story.

MTYBF cOVER

The perfect story for a hot dusty Summer day, this is one which even suits the strange state of lockdown in which we are currently living. Joan Aiken said that favourite stories are like places you can re-visit, going back to somewhere you have known since childhood; this one has a special magic for me, because it always goes back to that same special place, carrying its heroine and us, out of our own constricting four walls and away to the most beautiful garden imaginable.

This was the title story of only the second book she published, written, as she says in a time of great uncertainty, but in a tremendous burst of creativity. Replying to a letter from a fan she also mentions her father Conrad Aiken’s short stories, and describes the background to their mutual creative process, and how that very need for escape can be the spur to a writer’s inspiration:

MTYBF 1 WEEK

The story starts in a hot dusty city, the 1950’s London which she knew well, in the area around Bloomsbury and the British Museum, (near the offices of her new publisher in Bedford Square) where a mother and daughter (with whom I always identified!) lived, as in the best fairy tales, poor, but not unhappy with their lot.

Here is the first page of her original copy:

MTYBF page 1

This story has all the perfect ingredients, lovely details of place and mood, and appreciation of all the small joys of life – cats, music, a fig tree, and that lovely cool blue bowl of radishes. We know that something good will come to Ermine and her mother, because they treasure the right things in their life. When misfortune strikes, they are rescued in best fairy tale tradition, because of their care for others, and because they are open in their imaginations to the particular magic of the everyday.

Ermine does someone a favour and in return is given a record of a piece of music by a certain Mr.Handel, which turns out to be much more than she bargained for. As in other Joan Aiken stories it is music that opens a door to another world:

MTYBF garden

In a publisher’s brief Joan wrote that she was trying to convey ‘what happens in the everyday world if you go round the wrong corner, open an unfamiliar door, get off your bus at a different stop’ so that events sometimes do turn out to be More Than You Bargained For.

MTYBF JA BLURB

Joan Aiken’s own magic is in imagining how quite wonderful things could happen if you are on the look out for the odd and unexpected, and as a short story writer you will certainly recognise these moments as your own good fortune.

I’m not going to tell you how the story goes on, or how it ends, it has such charm I think everyone should discover it for themselves, and I hope it carries you all away to a special magical place of your own.

A review in the Times Literary Supplement when the book first came out said:

MTYBF T.L.S 2 png

– an inspired and equally cooling image, coming directly from my hot, dusty, London day, to wherever you may be. Have a lovely cooling dream.

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The story can be found in The Gift Giving from Virago Modern Classics

along with many more favourite stories

also available as an EBook so you needn’t wait too long…

Gift Giving

Read more about it on the Joan Aiken website

Cover illustration at the top from the US edition by long time friend and collaborator

Pat Marriott