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publishers Small Beer Press offered to bring out a collection of these early works,  even including some previously unpublished finds, and they are certainly some of her wildest and most memorable stories.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

Free Gift from Joan Aiken – Added Magic!

Gift Giving & back

The Gift Giving ~ Favourite stories by Joan Aiken

‘Storytelling is far, far older than the printed word, and it is still the basis of fiction for children – probably, though much neglected, the basic art of all fiction. 

Surprisingly though, the storyteller’s gift is by no means universal among children’s writers – their work may be thoughtful, evocative and beautifully written, but they don’t always make readers want to know what happens next…’ 

So wrote John Rowe Townsend, himself a much loved children’s writer who chronicled the Golden Age of children’s literature in the second half of the twentieth century, promoting the now widely accepted wisdom that children’s literature deserves to be taken more seriously by readers of all ages.

But what is the storyteller’s gift? Perhaps it is the gentle authority of  a voice which slips easily between the world of everyday and the world of fantasy, addressed not to child or adult, but to the memory of that fantasy world we all knew – a voice which allows the suspension of disbelief by taking us away on a magical ride before we even know it is happening.  More importantly, it is part of the current development in which the division between writing for children and writing for adults is starting to disappear, and where the standard of children’s writing, like the storytelling of the past that necessarily appealed to groups of all ages, is being more seriously regarded. Reading aloud, like storytelling, is increasingly being recognised as an important part of family life, and if books for children are to flourish, they must appeal to the older readers too!

Joan Aiken wrote both for adults and children, but increasingly recognised the pleasure of writing for an audience of all ages:

Universal storiesjpeg

Perhaps for a story to be really universal, it has to draw on the accepted references and rules of the folk or fairy tale, the patterns and forms of the stories that have been told through the generations; then with the addition of modern ingredients, and new or humorous twists that confound the expectation, it can take the listeners or readers into new and current territory.  Joan Aiken was certainly able to do this,as Townsend wrote:

‘ Her imagination was so endlessly fertile that she could afford to pour her ideas recklessly into her stories at a rate that would bankrupt other writers in a matter of weeks.’

Joan Aiken would take the conventions of the classic story – boy sets out to seek his fortune, girl helps wounded creature and is granted three wishes –  and turn the  pattern on its head.  Her characters seem to  have heard the stories too, they certainly know better than to push the ugly old crone out of their path – worst mistake ever! Or to neglect a squeaking gate, fail to share a last crust with an unpromising looking stranger, or to keep a secret – every child understands these rules. These modern heroes can tell their own story, add their own magic – by refusing the third wish, or deciding to take their fortune into their own hands, leave their parents’ kingdoms or cottages and become a cook, a train driver, a scientist – or even a reader of stories, like the boy who decides to spend his days reading to the sea.

Joan Aiken’s stories have that mysterious added ingredient that makes you return to them again and again at any age – as she said:

     ‘They come from nowhere, and they are aimed at nobody’s ear; or rather they are aimed at the ear of anybody who happens to pass by just at that moment’ 

…and they have a lasting flavour, just like those classic tales that came before.

Favourite storiesjpeg

One of my favourites, from Joan Aiken’s very first collection,  illustrated here by her early collaborator Pat Marriott, is called Cooks and Prophecies. It tells the story of a rather plain Princess, cursed at her christening of course, who decides to become a cook, but thanks to the scheming and jealousy of all the other cooks in the Kingdom, ends up in a desert with a mournful dragon.  Luckily she has her cookbook, so she can read aloud to him, and also a radish, which cheers him up instantly – because of course he isn’t really a dragon, and is merely the subject of another unfortunate prophecy!

ja2-copy

‘When the dragon feels saddish, Feed him on radish.’

But of course Joan Aiken tells it so much better…

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You can colour a dragon picture yourself on the Fun page of the Joan Aiken Website

 Read that story and others in a new collection

~ The Gift Giving ~ now at

Virago Modern Classics

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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

 

Joan Aiken’s Best Advice? Read aloud to your child!

Reading Aloud

Arabel loves reading aloud to Mortimer, as here in one of Joan Aiken’s own stories – illustrated by Quentin Blake.  In fact Mortimer is busy throwing cherry pips at the horse pulling their holiday caravan, but he does find some facts from her Children’s Encyclopaedia quite amazing – and very useful later on in their adventure…!

Joan Aiken famously (and rather fiercely!) said:

Reading Aloud quote

But she had the luck to have an absolutely wonderful and devoted reader-aloud in her own mother Jessie, and wrote about this happy relationship:

“She started from the moment one was able to understand any words at all, and if one was ill she was prepared to go on reading almost all day – having diphtheria at the age of three was a highwater mark of literary experience for me.”

Sadly in those days, after this infectious illness, many of her books had to be burned, but most were replaced as they had become such favourites. Joan remembers  that those first stories read aloud to her had great potency, because of the element of mystery – of only partly being able to understand the language – and in this case as she was ill, and possibly slightly delirious, they remained particularly special for her.

One book, the original Collodi version of Pinocchio was completely hair raising, especially for a two year old,  but she said her favourite scene was when the fox and the cat dressed as assassins jump out on the poor puppet in the forest.

The illustrations were also pretty scary, but I loved them too, and we treasured that book.

5 - Pinocchio

As she wrote about another later memory, a particular highlight was Charles Reade’s Gothic historical romance The Cloister and The Hearth – even here you will notice that she is still barely four years old:

Corpse painting

(…and she became a terrific reader aloud herself, as mother to myself and my brother – we loved this of course, but I can see my tastes – and my nerves – were not quite as steely as hers…)

Corpse painting 2

Joan Aiken was absolutely right about the relationship that reading aloud builds up in a family.  All those shared stories – especially the slightly hair raising experiences – become markers of family history; familiar quotations which are landmarks in their own right, and then live on in the family memory.

It is one of the great pleasures of having a family, and one of the most enjoyable shared experiences, even when, as with some special favourites, it is the same story you have to read over and over again…

Reading Aloud 2

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Read some excerpts from Joan Aiken stories about the power of reading aloud –

A Boy who read to the Sea, and a Girl who read to a Dragon

from the Virago collection The Gift Giving

 

 Joan Aiken bedtime stories that won’t give them nightmares!

A Necklace of Raindrops or Past Eight 0’Clock

Or of course Arabel and Mortimer, now out in TWO wonderful NEW Puffin Compendiums

Two New Mortimers

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