Why do we need stories…?

favourite-stories-lge

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?

Who knows?”

 ************

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

webpage

 

 

 

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Spoilers? Not a problem with Joan Aiken…

weeping-ash

Readers gave five star reviews to The Weeping Ash, but it’s impossible to spoil the plot!  There is so much action in this eighteenth century episode of the Paget Saga, set in Joan Aiken’s own home town – and house – but which also travels through Afghanistan and Persia and across the seas back to the little town of Petworth, where she introduces us to some of the inhabitants of the much grander Petworth House, seat of the Wyndham family, and frequented by the Prince of Wales…that you couldn’t possibly give it all away.

“Mystery, murder, mayhem, menace…set in the English countryside…oh, except for the chapters that are set in India, Afghanistan, Persia and surrounding areas (yes, all in the same book…but it’s almost like two books in one, since the chapters alternate between two sets of characters…until they finally meet near the end). What more do you need? Plenty, if you’re Joan Aiken, who is never satisfied with the simple where the complicated will do just as well, or better.

Let’s start with young Fanny, aged sixteen, who’s just married a man three times her age. Which might not be so bad, if he hadn’t turned out to be a despicable brute (and that’s putting it mildly). Talk about a series of unfortunate events…Lemony Snicket had nothing on Joan Aiken. Fanny’s life with her horrible husband is getting worse by the minute…and just when you think things can’t get any worse, they always do. (Three surly stepdaughters, two of them slightly older than Fanny, aren’t helping matters any either.) Obviously, Fanny would benefit greatly from some cheerful company, which is on its way, in the form of…

Scylla and Cal, seventeen-year-old twins, children of a cousin of Fanny’s husband. They were living happily enough near the palace of a maharajah — Cal gambling with the maharajah’s eldest son, Scylla instructing two of the maharajah’s younger sons — until suddenly — the maharajah met with a fatal “accident” — most of his children were murdered — no one was safe — and Cal and Scylla were forced to flee for their lives (Cal, the poet, taking his precious manuscripts with him, of course). Where do they flee to? Logically enough, to their Cousin Juliana’s house in England — only now it’s being occupied by their middle-aged cousin Thomas Paget, his very young wife Fanny, and his three not-so-pleasant daughters. (Sound familiar?) What will happen when these two branches of the family collide? Wait and see!

If you know a little about Joan Aiken herself, not just her writing, bits of this book may start to seem slightly autobiographical…for instance, the bits about what it’s really like to be closely related to a poet (Joan knew this from experience…her father was one, and a good one…he was the poet Conrad Aiken…and he probably wasn’t always easy to live with!). And if she seems to know the house in the book quite well…there’s a reason for that…it’s her house. Yes, her actual house, or at least, inspired by it. The real house known as The Hermitage, Petworth (same as the one in the book) was where Joan Aiken lived in her later years. One hopes that her actual life there was far more peaceful than the lives of the people in this book. Perhaps that was exactly the trouble, though…it was TOO peaceful and she got a bit bored. And started concocting this tale of mystery, murder, mayhem…you know the rest. (Watch out if you are a writer and you go to live in a large old house in the English countryside…you never know what strange ideas the house might decide to put into your head. They’ve got minds of their own, these old houses…)

If you already know and love some of Joan Aiken’s works, this book will probably make more sense to you. (Then again…who said books had to make sense?) With or without prior knowledge of the author’s works, laughter and tears will accompany you through this wild romp (through various parts of the world) until the adventure comes to its own peculiar but oddly satisfying close at the house of…The Weeping Ash.”

hermitage-crop

 Joan’s own haunted house on the website

And in case we have missed anything here are a few final words from another reader:
“Joan Aiken used her own house in Sussex as the main setting for the book, historical melodrama,  set in the late 18th century, and the two contrasting stories are a rather grim and frightening reminder of how harsh conditions often were in those times- and how cheap life was. You only have to look at old gravestones to see how many children people had- and how many died young. She also paints a nasty picture of the press-gangs which were operating then. Novelists of the time tended to see less of the whole picture, but Aiken, through hindsight, is able to show how great the contrasts were between rich and poor, and the injustice of the social system.

That said, this is still cracking entertainment, with a vengeful ghost, a haunted tree and lots of romance and thrills…”

********

Thanks to Kit and Mrs H.Aver for these splendid reviews: read more here

More of Joan Aiken’s Romantic Sagas now coming from Sourcebooks

 

 

“The Sleep of Reason Brings Forth Monsters”

The Sleep of Reason

     This haunting picture, and its resonant title, often taken as the manifesto of the Spanish painter Goya, was the inspiration for Joan Aiken’s science fiction fantasy The Cockatrice Boys.   Her magpie mind was constantly on the alert, moving between the news of the day, scientific discoveries that were changing the world, and the works of other artists and writers from the past and present, who influenced her own writing with their responses to the world in which they found themselves.

Goya’s picture shows the sleeping artist, unaware that he is surrounded by creatures of the dark, as a commentary on the corrupt state of his country before the Enlightenment of the Eighteenth century.  Joan Aiken took the idea, and the imagery of the picture, and used the theme to write about one of the disasters of her day – the sensational discovery of the hole in the ozone layer above earth,  nearly twenty-five years ago. 

In her fantasy novel the dereliction of human awareness that led to this threat to life on our planet, leads to an invasion of monsters – the cockatrices of her story – who are descending on earth through the ozone hole as the embodiment of evil, the personification of all our weakest impulses.

These days the popularity of the Dystopian novel shows that there is an ongoing  need to imagine and thereby possibly prevent the destructive forces of dissonant societies carelessly or even consciously depleting the riches of the earth and destroying the future for our children.   Joan Aiken, like Goya, and a new current breed of  writers, believed that the power of the imagination, used alongside reason and enlightenment, can save us from our own folly, or even the power of evil.

But she also believed that the opposite was true – that our failure to remain alert to dark forces,  in reality as much as in the imagination, falling into Goya’s Sleep of Reason – could be equally harmful.

Here Sauna, the young heroine of the novel, sent on the train with the Cockatrice Boys to fight the invaders because of her mind-reading abilities, asks the archbishop, Dr Wren, whether there has always been evil:

Cockatrice Sleep of Reason

It is up to all of us to maintain that delicate balance –

not lend our power to forces created by greed and wickedness

  all we have to do is stay awake….

*****

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The Power of Storytelling – Joan Aiken’s strange stories

People in the Castle

Joan Aiken once described a moment during a talk she was giving at a conference, when to illustrate a point she began to tell a story.  At that moment, she said, the quality of attention in the room subtly changed. The audience, as if hypnotised, seemed to fall under her control:

“Everyone was listening, to hear what was going to happen next.”

From her own experience – whether as an addictive reader from early childhood or as a story teller herself, learning to amuse a younger brother growing up in a remote village – by the time she was writing for a living to support her family, she had learned a great respect for the power of stories.

Like a sorcerer addressing her apprentice, in her heartfelt guide, The Way to Write for Children, she advises careful use of the storyteller’s power:

“From the beginning of the human race stories have been used—by priests, by bards, by medicine men—as magic instruments of healing, of teaching, as a means of helping people come to terms with the fact that they continually have to face insoluble problems and unbearable realities.”

Clearly this informed her desire to bring to her own stories as much richness, as many layers of meaning, and as much of herself, her extensive reading and her own experience of life as she possibly could. Stories, she said, give us a sense of our own inner existence and the archetypal links that connect us to the past…they show us patterns that extend beyond ordinary reality.

Although she repudiated the idea that her writing contained any overt moral, nevertheless many of Joan Aiken’s stories do convey a powerful sense of the fine line between good and evil.  She habitually made use of the traditional conventions of folk tales and myths, in which right is rewarded and any kind of inhumanity gets its just deserts.  Her particular gift though, was to transfer these myths into richly detailed everyday settings that we would recognise, and then add a dash of magic – a doctor holds his surgery in a haunted castle, and so a ghost comes to be healed.

What Aiken brings to her stories is her own voice – and the assurance that these stories are for you.  By reading them, taking part in them, not unlike the beleaguered protagonists she portrays as her heroes – struggling doctors, impatient teachers or lonely children – you too can learn to take charge of your own experience.  It is possible, she seems to say, that just around the corner is an alternative version of the day to day, and by choosing to unloose your imagination and share some of her leaps into fantasy you may find – as the titles of some of her early story collections put it – More than You Bargained For and almost certainly Not What You Expected…

One of the most poignant, hopeful and uplifting stories in this collection – and hope, Aiken believed was the most transforming force – is Watkyn, Comma.  Here she uses the idea of a comma – in itself almost a metaphor for a short story – to express a sudden opening up of experience: “a pause, a break between two thoughts, when you take breath, reconsider…” and can seize the opportunity to discover something hitherto unimaginable.

In the course of one short story our expectations are confounded by the surprising ability with which Aiken generously endows her central character – to see something we would not have expected.  By gently offering the possibility of previously unknown forces – our ability to develop new capacities, the will for empathy between the many creatures of our universe, our real will to learn to communicate – she leaves us feeling like the characters in the story – “brought forward.”

Aiken draws us into a moment of listening – gives an example of how a story works its magic – and invites us to join in the process of creative sharing, believing,asking:

“Could I do this?” 

…and hearing her answer:

“Oh never doubt it.”

Aiken is perfectly capable of showing the dark side of the coin, of sharing our dangerous propensity to give in to nightmares and conjure monsters from the deep, but at her best and most powerful she allows her protagonists to summon their deepest strengths to confront their devils.  In the story of this name, born from one of her own nightmares, even Old Nick is frustrated by a feline familiar called Hope.

This collection of stories, taken from her entire writing career, some of which I have known and been told since I was born, form a magical medicine chest of remedies for all kinds of human trials, and every form of unhappiness.  The remedies are hope, generosity, empathy, humour, imagination, love, memory, dreams… Yes, sometimes she shows that it takes courage to face down the more hair-raising fantasies, and conquer our unworthy instincts, but in the end the reward is in the possibility of transformation.

The Fairy Godmother is within us all.

*********

~ From The People in the Castle ~

 collected strange stories by Joan Aiken pub. April 2016

Includes this introduction by Lizza Aiken and another by Kelly Link

Read a story from the collection and a review from a newly devoted reader at Tor.com

Find Small Beer Press details here