Hope, Joan Aiken’s greatest gift to us?

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What Joan Aiken brought to her stories was her own voice, with the assurance that the stories are written for you. By reading them, and so taking part in them – not unlike the  beleaguered protagonists she portrays as her heroes – struggling doctors, impatient teachers or lonely children – she shows that 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 release 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 a recent collection – and hope, Aiken believed was the most transforming force – is Watkyn, Comma.  She takes the idea of a comma – in itself almost a metaphor for a short story – to express: “a pause, a break between two thoughts, when you take breath, reconsider…” and encourages you, her reader, to seize something hitherto unimaginable.

In the course of this 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. Our heroine is trapped in quite frightening, unpromising circumstances, but she refuses to be cast down, and Joan Aiken offers her, through the power of her own imagination, a wonderful release. 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, and finally our real will to learn to communicate – she leaves us feeling like the characters in the story “brought forward.”Watkyn2

Joan Aiken draws us in – gives an example of how a story works its magic – an invitation to join in the process of creative sharing, making us ask:

“Could I do this?”

And hearing her answer:

“Oh never doubt it.”

> > > > * < < < <

 

Read this story  In The People in The Castle

out now from Small Beer Press

People paperback

 

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Take a Book Wherever you Go…

book sea

 Once upon a time, Joan Aiken was asked to write a letter to children for International Children’s Book Day. Here it is. I’m sure she’d say much the same thing today:

If you were going to sail round the world alone in a small boat, and could take only one of these things to amuse you, which would you choose?  A big iced cake, a beautiful picture, a book, a pack of cards, a paint box (and paper!) a pair of knitting needles and wool, a musical box, or a mouth organ…?

It would be a hard choice. Myself, I wouldn’t want the cake. I’d eat it too fast. Nor the cards, they might blow away. Nor the wool, it might just get wet. The mouth organ would be better than the musical box, as you could make up your own tunes. I wouldn’t take the picture – I could look at the sea. Nor the paint box, because in the end I’d use up all the paper. So the last choice would be between the mouth organ and the book. And I’m pretty sure I’d choose the book.

One book! I can hear someone say. But if you were sailing round the world, you’d have read it hundred times before the trip was over. You’d know it by heart.

And I’d answer yes, I might read it a hundred times, yes, I might know it by heart. That wouldn’t matter. You don’t refuse to see your friend, or your mother, or your brother, because you have met them before.

A book you love is like a friend. It is like home. You meet your friend a hundred times. On the hundred-and-first meeting you can still say, “Well, I never realized you knew that!’ ”

There is always something new to find in a book, however often you read it.

When you read a story you do something that only man can do – you step out of your mind into someone else’s. You are listening to the thoughts of another person and making your own mind work – the most interesting thing there is to do!

So I’d sit in my boat and read my book over and over. First I’d think about the people in the story, why they acted the way they did. Then I’d think about the words the writer used, why he chose them.  Then I’d wonder why he wrote the story and how I’d have done it, if I’d written it. Then I might carry on the story in my mind, after the end of the book. Then I’d go back and read all my favourite bits and wonder why I liked them best. Then I’d read all the other bits and look for things that I hadn’t noticed before. Then I might make a list of the things I’d learned from the book. Then I’d try to imagine what the writer was like, from the way he’d written his story…

It would be like having another person in the boat. A book you love is like a friend, something of your very own, for no two people read the same book in quite the same way.

If every single person in the world had a book – just one book  –  we’d have a lot less trouble. Just one book apiece. That shouldn’t be too hard to manage?

How shall we start?

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   Find a favourite book here – Joan Aiken wrote over one hundred!

What do you like?

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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,  in traditional style, ‘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 illustration above from Joan Aiken’s first story collection

All You’ve ever Wanted

 

Pastoral Elegy, Autobiography or Gothic Mystery..? It’s a Joan Aiken!

HGazebo crop.pngSo how far did she go in writing about her own life?  “This story is just too hard to swallow!” was the editor’s note on an early story by Joan Aiken. Years later she said:    “He was talking about the only story I ever wrote, flat, from real life, and it taught me a useful lesson about the risks of using unvarnished experience.”

Most writers have learned the wisdom of a little concealment in their work – no one wants to be sued, or be at the mercy of endless letters about the misrepresentation of a reader’s home town or village, or even heaven forbid, incur outrage from their own relatives… Does Joan Aiken’s most mysterious 1980’s novel, Foul Matter, tread a fine line?

It was accepted literary practice  in Milton’s day to give all your characters names from Greek mythology, not necessarily to conceal their identities, but to set them in a more idyllic or ‘pastoral’ landscape, and a clue to Joan Aiken’s intentions in this novel lies in the chapter headings she has chosen to take from Milton’s famous Pastoral Elegy, Lycidas and whose muses she invokes: ‘the sisters of the sacred well.’  Milton’s poem was written as a song of mourning for his friend and fellow student who died when his ship sank off the coast – as does Dan’s, the heroine’s husband in this novel. Joan’s first husband Ron took her out to sea when they were moving house from Kent to Sussex and sank the boat and all their possessions just off Whitstable, but happily that time nobody drowned –  they were rescued by some passing sea scouts, but who would believe that?

Clytie, or Aulis or Tuesday, our heroine in Foul Matter, also has plenty of names, and speaks in the first person, but is this her author’s voice? She has such an astonishing amount of unfortunate history and such numbers of lovers that reviewers of the novel said it had to be a lurid Gothic fantasy – surely even in the 1980’s people didn’t live like this? When Tuesday first appeared in an earlier Aiken thriller (The Ribs of Death – another quotation from Milton) she was introduced as the author of a spoof (and sexy!) shocker while still in in her teens:

“You wrote that novel, didn’t you—Mayhem in Miniature? Aren’t you Aulis Jones?”

Certainly that can’t have been autobiographical, as, when no publisher will touch Tuesday’s second literary attempt, she is forced to become a caterer instead, and although Joan Aiken was an excellent and inventive cook, and descriptions of recipes in Foul Matter give plenty of evidence for that, in real life she is better known as the author of over a hundred works of fiction.

Conrad Aiken, Joan’s father, wrote a fictionalised autobiography in which the characters all had other names, even his wives and children, although in the tradition of the Roman  à Clef an index of real names was provided in later editions. He also wrote an elegy, a poem called Another Lycidas, for an old friend who died. These forms and references were in the reading and writing blood of the family, so Joan Aiken had plenty of background both real and fictional to draw on; her family history, like this novel, was full of extraordinary deaths.

So how to consider it? We are given another clue in the novel’s title, Foul Matter and in the heroine’s conversation with her publisher about a completed, and nicely ironically titled recipe book:

“By the way,” he said, “do you want the foul matter from Unconsidered Trifles?”
Foul matter is a publishers’ term for corrected copy that has been dealt with and is no longer in use: worked-over typescript and proofs.

“Throw out the old copy,” I told George. “I don’t want it.”
Foul matter. Who needs it? You might as well keep all your old appointment books, mail order catalogues, nail clippings, laddered tights, broken eggshells, bits of lemon peel. Some people do, of course, and just as well, or history would never get put together. But I’m not one of those. History will have to get along without my help. Life, memory, is enough foul matter for me.

True or false? When I came to clear out her attic (‘Don’t call it the attic, it’s my study!) I was astonished to see how much she had kept – school reports, ration books, letters, letters, letters… all grist to the mill of her imagination, or background for other, fictional characters?  How much of Joan Aiken’s life did get filed away in her writing? There are plenty of descriptions of houses and towns she knew and loved, but which ones are they really, were they her own?  Is this novel set in Rye or Lewes or both? It has the castle mound of one and the salt marsh of the other:

Dear little ancient house. Watch Cottage. I always turn to look back at it with love. White, compact, weatherboarded, tiny, it stands in dignity below the brambly Castle Mound, at the head of a short, steep, cobbled cul-de-sac, Watch Hill, which leads down into Bastion Street… On down the steep hill; the town of Affton Wells displayed below my feet like a backdrop in flint, brick, and tiled gables. Tudor at the core, seventeenth and eighteenth century on the perimeter. Grey saltmarsh beyond, receding to the English Channel.

In her father Conrad’s version, Rye, his adopted English home town where Joan was born, became Saltinge, the forever yearned for little East Sussex town with weatherboarded houses and marsh views, so reminiscent of New England where he had grown up.

Perhaps Joan Aiken’s novel, written in her sixties at the height of her career, was an attempt to throw out the old memories, to move on to a new era, or to pay tribute to friends loved and lost; to store their memory forever in a fictional world where she could go back and visit whenever she wanted. Who is to say what is truth and what is fiction; all I know is that whenever I want to spend some time with her, this is the Joan Aiken I turn to.

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P.S. Looking back through some of those letters I found mention of an invitation to a private film-showing where she met: “a splendid British film tycoon called Sir J. A. who was just off to his château on the Loire, and very frosty at first, but finally thawed enough to buy me a whisky…”  The model for Foul Matter’s Sir Bert Wilder perhaps?

Foul Matter is now published as an EBook, and also available as a paperback

 Foul Matter PB.

All Joan Aiken’s modern novels now available as EBooks

– perfect for Summer reading?

Find early thrillers here and new Modern novels from Bello Macmillan here

Suspense Group 1