Lost words…

                      Joan Aiken: September 4th 1924 – January 4th 2004

Joan Aiken left over a hundred books, many more stories, and many, many more poems that still fall out of those books and stories. There is always more to discover.

This is from a story called The Feather and The Page, about a boy waiting to hear, or find some lost words after his mother’s death. His sister is trying to find a poem.

poem1

The boy hears the poem and passes it on, and he hears his own message too:

feather-in-libraries

 

 

 

Books of Delight: Joan Aiken & John Masefield

Box & Wolves

Childhood favourites and Christmas Classics are often inextricably linked in readers’ memories, and sometimes have more in common than we realise – and sometimes there are many more stories to discover behind them…this is the story of John Masefield and Joan Aiken.

The Wolves are running…” is the mysterious message the boy Kay Harker is given by the old Punch and Judy man in Masefield’s The Box of Delights; it was a potent image from Joan Aiken’s childhood reading, complete with snow… re-reading the book became one of the Christmas traditions that remained with her until she was able ‘to write the wolves out of her  subconscious’ and into her own story many years later.

The poet John Masefield with his wandering, seafaring life had been a powerful influence on Joan’s father, the poet Conrad Aiken, who started writing himself from the early 1900’s; the first Masefield novel Joan came across was lent to her in the 1920’s by an old sailor in the village where she lived.  As a small girl she was utterly gripped by this mysterious and terrifying tale, The Bird of Dawning, but Masefield’s books for children – The Midnight Folk and The Box of Delights – didn’t appear until some  years later, and she first discovered them in 1936 in her school library.

In a piece for the John Masefield Society about her love of his books Joan wrote:

Box ist readingBox ist reading 2

So although readers may associate these two ‘Wolves’ books, John Masefield’s and Joan Aiken’s, with their stories of heart-stopping chases across snowy wooded landscapes, it was the first of his Kay Harker books, The Midnight Folk, that was to have the most lasting influence on Joan Aiken.  And rather than her ‘Wolves’ title, it is another story of Joan’s that owes most to John Masefield – the one she made up at age 17, at the height of the Second World war, to comfort and distract her small brother. Aiken’s real first novel,  which was actually published two years before The Wolves of Willoughby Chase, was called The Kingdom and The Cave. It was a pure, pleasurable homage to the Masefield books she and her brother knew and loved, and Joan Aiken, fully recognising her debt, never imagined that one day it would actually be published.

But years later, at a time when when she desperately needed to support a sick husband and two small children, she took out the old exercise book where she had written it down, typed it out and found a publisher who agreed to take it after a complete revision and some very substantial cuts, which finally made the story  her own. As she said later:

      ‘All young writers learn by imitation…and certainly I could not have chosen a better model.’

It seemed absolutely fitting that Virago Modern Classics should agree to republish this book,  Joan Aiken’s real first novel – written many years before The Wolves of Willoughby Chase – and that it should get one of its best reviews from a young reader who found as much delight in her story as she and her young brother had found in Masefield’s, so many years before.

He wrote:

Young Guardian review

The ongoing influence of great writing on young readers, and future writers is discussed in a review by Piers Torday who adapted The Box of Delights for a Christmas production at Wilton’s Music Hall. He describes the influence that John Masefield has had on many other writers for children, including Susan Cooper and C.S.Lewis; and we can all share their enthusiasm for Masefield’s wild imagination and skill in crafting an enduring fantasy, and their wish to create books like the ones that so delighted them as children.

Here is Joan Aiken’s own tribute to the master:

KingdomAndCave_B_9780349005874

The Virago edition of The Kingdom and The Cave can be found here

and you can read more about it here

Excerpts above are taken from an article Joan Aiken originally wrote for

The Journal of the John Masefield Society

 

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Joan Aiken for Grown Ups…!

Herondale small

“It was dusk, winter dusk – snow lay white and shining over the pleated hills…”  Does this sound familiar? The opening lines of The Wolves of Willoughby Chase could almost describe a scene from Joan Aiken’s first adult novel, The Silence of Herondale,  published just two years after her famous children’s classic.  This novel, also set in a snowy landscape, draws on her Gothic imagination and ability to conjure scenes of suspense and sinister villains, with thrilling chases across wild snowy moors; but this time the story is written for grown ups, so will there be a happy ending?

In the pre-feminist 1960’s women’s struggle for independence had barely started, but in Joan Aiken’s novels, her courageous and free thinking heroines were based on earlier models from her reading of Jane Austen or the Brontes, or indeed on her own experience of being left a young widow with two children, and an urgent need to earn a living for herself and her family.  In one of Joan Aiken’s favourites,  Northanger Abbey,  Jane Austen had written a parody of the Gothic Novels she was reading in her day, such as Mrs. Radcliffe’s best-seller, The Mysteries of Udolpho, where hapless heroines found themselves in haunted castles threatened by unknown horrors.

Jane Austen’s juvenile skit, Love and Freindship, written in 1790 when she was fourteen, also poked fun at the Gothic school whose heroines, like Emily in Udolpho, faint at every emergency, both major and minor.  Sophia, one of the heroines of Love & Freindship, when dying, advises her friend Laura: “Run mad as often as you chuse; but do not faint.”  Over-indulgence in fainting  brought on pneumonia, which finished her off!

Aiken writing her 1960’s Gothic Romance was just as tongue in cheek! Her poor heroine, having arrived by night at a remote farmhouse on the Yorkshire moors, has to start up the generator to get the lights on (no shrinking violet she!) but the scene is written almost as a comedy, with a hysterical guard dog throttling himself at the end of his chain while our heroine wrestles with the machinery. Nevertheless all the trappings of romance are there – the heroine, Deborah has mysteriously lost all her possessions in a burglary, her family have all disappeared, the employer who takes her on as a governess to a young prodigy, almost immediately establishes a mysterious hold over her with veiled threats and blackmail, and at first sight it is impossible to tell whether the hero is the villain, or vice versa…

A trademark of Aiken’s writing, familiar to all who have been brought up on her books for children, is that she never writes down to her audience; her language is rich and often riotous, her settings exotic and extraordinary, and her plots absolutely bursting with action and excitement, so that her children’s books appeal just as much to adults, who seem to re-read them with pleasure throughout their lives. So what is the difference in her writing for adults – not a great deal perhaps?  In The Way to Write for Children – a guide commissioned by the Arvon Writers’ Foundation – she says:

“Children have tough moral fibre. They can surmount sadness and misfortune in fiction especially if it is on a grand heroic scale…it may help inoculate them against the real thing.  But let it not be total tragedy, your ending must show some hope for the future.”

So, in her writing for adults, is the chief difference that the book need not end happily?

You will have to read on and see…

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An early reviewer wrote:

” After a long life reading thrillers…I tend to turn impatiently to the end. Not so in the case of The Silence of Herondale – rather than wanting to rush ahead and discover the ending…I wanted to spin out to the last possible moment the pleasure of that discovery.”

 

The Murder Room at Orion are re-issuing six early thrillers  by Joan Aiken.

1st three Silence,Sunday Product X

All EBook Titles will be available with this dramatic new look

The Silence of Herondale is reissued in Paperback January 2020

Read more about all her Adult novels here.

Thank You Charles! Celebrating 50 Years of Dedication to the Aiken family and their world of books.

Aiken cartoon

The Aiken Family Business – as seen by the New York Times in 1963

The delightful Charles Schlessiger of Brandt & Hochman, the New York literary agency,  (who celebrated his 81st Birthday in 2014 while still at the office!) has died this week at the age of 86. He was Joan Aiken’s agent for 50 years, and only recently decided to retire; he was sad to give up his daily subway journey  to the Agency’s offices in Times Square where he saw the passing of over half a century, and many changes in the publishing business, including the move from handwritten letters to email, and the introduction of electronic books – which he originally greeted with much suspicion! Throughout his years in the business he gained a reputation for his charm, courtesy and good humour, and for the wonderful stories he could relate of his vast experience and acquaintance in the publishing world. Honoured on the Brandt & Hochman website as the ‘Institutional Memory’ of the agency, having worked his way up from a young assistant in 1956 to respected and very senior agent by 2014, he  became practically an institution himself.

As Lewis Nichols noted in the New York Times in 1963, in an article which accompanied the cartoon above, Joan was not the only Aiken producing books at the time he took her on.  Her father, Conrad Aiken, Pulitzer prize winning poet and novelist, had just published his Collected Novels, sister Jane Aiken Hodge was becoming well known as the author of gripping historical romances, and Joan herself was celebrating the publication of her  hugely successful children’s book The Wolves of Willoughby Chase  – hailed by Time magazine as “One genuine small masterpiece!”  and which had, according to Nichols  already sold over 11,000 copies within the first few weeks and gone into a second edition.

Charles, who says he was initially nervous about taking on the author of a children’s book, read it at one gulp, and realised he was on to a winner, and remained one of Joan’s greatest fans and supporters ever afterwards, assisting with the publication of more than 100 further books – children’s novels, thrillers, Jane Austen spin-offs, story collections plays and poetry – ably and delightedly handling the full flow of her unstoppable creativity.  Even since her death in 2004, as new editions and translations continued to come out yearly, he would often shake his head, rueful but admiring, and say “Wow, God bless her…!”

In the early days, when he was still addressing her with charming formality, (and by airmail!)  as ‘Dear Miss Aiken’, he wrote:

“I suppose I am counting my chickens before they are hatched, but I am delighted to be working with you, and I know this is all going to work out!”

It certainly did.

Another of the early letters from Charles written in 1963 reads:

“I’ve read the collection, WITH MURDER IN MIND ( later published as The Windscreen Weepers ).  If I wrote you my reaction to all the stories this letter would turn into quite a tome.  Let me just say that I think JUGGED HARE is one of the most delightfully ghoulish stories I have ever read…”

Joan kept all her letters from Charles, which soon began to mount up, as did hers to him, and soon they were not only corresponding but meeting frequently, as Joan flooded his New York office with stories, and began to be published regularly in the USA.  When in 1976 Joan married American painter Julius Goldstein, and began to spend half her year in Greenwich Village in New York, they all became close friends.

Along with finding publishers for Joan’s phenomenal output, Charles was also amused to have to advise on occasional language bloomers which needed ‘translating’ from English to American.  For example, of one of her modern novels he wrote:

“On page 64, if an American girl were tired from too much exertion and found out that she was ‘knocked-up’, she would be a mighty surprised girl!”

For an English reader this would mean she was exhausted –  but since the Hollywood movie of the same name came out more recently, I guess no-one in England would now be unfamiliar with the phrase’s more current meaning…

Books of Wonder

Charles introduced me to the owners of Small Beer Press, huge fans of Joan Aiken, who have now published three of her story collections; here we met for the launch of The Serial Garden in 2008 at celebrated children’s book store, Books of Wonder, together with another admirer, Michael Dirda of the Washington Post.  I returned to New York in 2012 to celebrate the 50th Anniversary of The Wolves of Willoughby Chase, and as Joan’s  daughter and literary ambassador, with the help of the Brilliant Bank Street Bookstore  we hosted an evening of celebration for her acclaimed classic children’s book. Rather alarmingly it turned out to be just days before the truly devastating hurricane Sandy hit town, and so it was not until some time later, when Charles disclosed news of his upcoming 80th birthday that it became obvious that we should have been having a double celebration!

Joan’s father, poet Conrad Aiken died in 1973, but his work continues to be published and honoured, and her grand daughter Arabel Charlaff, therapist and literary consultant, who worked for the Feminist Press in New York, also did a spell as an intern in the offices of Brandt & Hochman. Charles kindly and ably supported us through the last fifteen years since Joan Aiken’s death, and I will miss his gracious messages, his delightful phone calls and the encouragement he has always given with the handling of the Aiken Estate. Usually I would send him these posts, for his comment and enjoyment, and it is very sad that for the first time he is not there to read this one.

So here’s a heartfelt Thank You, Dear Charles (and Brandt & Hochman!) for over fifty wonderful years,  as you cared for four generations of the Aiken family.

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CHARLES 80th crop at B&H

Charles with Gail Hochman celebrating his 80th Birthday at the New York office!

 

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Joan Aiken complete Bibliography

(with endless help from Charles!)

Joan Aiken is also represented by the London office of co Agents A.M.Heath

See related posts:  Thanksgiving for Joan Aiken and End of an Era