‘Joan Aiken changed my life…’

Every year, the anniversary of the 4th of January takes me further from my mother’s death, but since I have been with her every day ‘looking after the books’, it is also a good moment to be thankful for all that I have been given, and for the wonderful task she left me…

One of the great pleasures of being Joan Aiken’s daughter, and curator of her estate, has been answering letters, requests, enquiries, searching into mysteries, and trying to explain the inexplicable in her books – sometimes fielding rumours and random nonsense in the ever expanding farrago of the internet – and sometimes having the extraordinary pleasure of meeting the people whose lives, like mine, she has changed.

One of these, a fan not just of Joan Aiken, but of her alter ego Dido Twite, corresponded with her over a period of five years, and was one of the people I hoped to reach by creating the Joan Aiken website, and replying to some of the letters she had kept – shown on the webpage above.

On that page I wrote:

“Joan Aiken loved to get letters from her readers, and as she was a terrific letter writer herself, some of these correspondents turned into good friends. I couldn’t write back to all of you when she died, but I wanted to let you know how much pleasure you gave her, and share some of your best letters here, and also some of the secrets behind the books that a few of you may already have found out for yourselves… “

One of these, is that the books themselves provide a lifelong companionship.

What I know readers feel, what I feel when I read my mother’s books, is that I am alone with her, while she is alone. Joan Aiken put so much of herself, her thoughtful personality into her books, that you will never be completely without her guiding vision again. In the same way, she filled her books with the memory of her own mother, here appearing as Masha, in Blackground and she describes the same powerful feeling:

That young correspondent, now a writer herself, did see her own letter on the website and so was able to get in touch, describing her devotion to the books, and the importance of her letters to Joan, and saying something I completely understood, and that I possibly could have said myself:

“I never quite managed to explain that her characters assuaged my own loneliness.”

When she came on a visit from America, having arranged to meet me, I was able to show her the letters she had written to my mother years before.

Afterwards she wrote:

“I try to tell Lizza what her mother’s books meant to me — mean to me — but I stumble, because even now I’m not sure of the extent of their meaning. There have been other books, of course, that have wrapped themselves around my entire existence. I cloak myself in their characters and wear them around. These books are different from each other, and I am different reading them, living them, but taking them on, amounts to the same thing. Like Dido Twite, like Joan Aiken, like the rediscovery of myself on the page at Lizza Aiken’s kitchen table, these books all say the same thing. They say, “You are worthy. Be brave.”

And so, nearly twenty years later, on Joan Aiken’s behalf, here I still am…

And below in the comments are some more grateful messages about Joando add your own?

Visit the website – maybe your letter is there? http://www.joanaiken.com/pages/letters.html

Read more: Being Joan Aiken’s Pen Pal Changed My Life –

Christmas Wishes


Christmas Poem & Pastel

 by Joan Aiken

Christmas Poem

Joan Aiken was as adept with pastels and poems  as she was with plots,

and liked to send home made cards to friends and colleagues…

Best wishes and thanks to all of you who who visit

I hope to see you again next year!

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Joan Aiken ~ Return to a Haunted Childhood

     Joan Aiken was born, as I have just discovered, under an extraordinary series of planetary influences  –  with Mercury  Jupiter and Neptune rising, under a midnight Scorpio Moon, all marking her out to be an extraordinary teller of tales, someone able to communicate other worldly ideas, if not actually a psychic, and of course, making her first appearance at night in a haunted house full of history that her impoverished American/Canadian parents had just bought in the ancient sea port of Rye, in Sussex.

     Joan Aiken and her father, poet Conrad Aiken, were equally haunted by Jeake’s House, as it was called, after the astronomer philosopher whose family built it. She described it as ‘Full of a strange melancholy, with a haunted beauty not unlike the atmosphere of an Edgar Allan Poe story.’

Just before her birth Conrad wrote:

     Both of them were to leave and return to this house many times; Conrad abandoned the family when Joan was two, going back to America; she and her mother left when Joan was four, but Conrad kept the house and returned with a second wife, and then finally a third. Joan didn’t come back to Rye or see Conrad again until she was nine, as in Harken House to meet a stepmother, but memories of the house with or without her father were a potent background to her childhood.

    As an adult writer she revisits the house through her earlier memories in this ghostly re-telling of the traumas of a poignant period of her own childhood in the late 1930’s, but in her own strongly matter of fact manner, manages to make a sympathetic tale out of the trials of her young heroine, who suffers as much from her own rampant imagination, her loneliness and her hair raising diet of Gothic novels, as she does from the mysteries of adult relationships, and the rumblings of global upheaval as World War Two gathers pace.

     The book was originally called Voices, as young Julia not only hears ghostly voices, but apparently becomes possessed by earlier inhabitants of the house; she is equally haunted by the voice of Hitler bursting out of her Austrian stepmother’s radio, the voices of characters in her absent father’s plays, the voices of Faustus or The Duchess of Malfi in her grimly Gothic reading, and even ghostly commands from her brisk, no nonsense mother who she is desperately missing on this Summer away from home, and whose solid sensible advice bears no relation to the strange world of  historical ghosts and diffident grown ups, or incurious local characters among whom she now finds herself.

    Written as a Young Adult Ghost tale, this short novel is now just as gripping for the autobiographical light it shines on Joan Aiken’s childhood. The absent father is as potent a figure as the usually ever present mother, who has educated Joan at home for the previous half a dozen years; and Julia, the heroine, or Joan herself, is forced to come to terms with the extraordinary mix of cultures, personalities and the all pervading voices of literature, all of which go to make up the character, and the imagination of the writer she goes on to become.

Joan and her older sister at Jeake’s House. Conrad Aiken.

Return to Harken House is now out as an EBook from SFGateway

together with other Joan Aiken Y.A.Ghost and Fantasy titles

Joan Aiken’s Desert Island Stories

Winterthing Island

Joan Aiken was often asked where she got her ideas. She was once so moved by a news story and a powerfully melancholy piece of music, written to save a Scottish island, that this story, and the story told by the music itself, inspired her to write her own mythical supernatural tale, The Scream about an endangered and lost island. It was linked in her mind, to the famous Munch painting of this name, and an an extraordinary present she had been given –  a screaming pillow, which also comes into the story…

Sir Peter Maxwell Davies wrote Farewell to Stromness when the  future of the Orkney Islands where he lived, was threatened by a proposal to mine there for uranium, known locally as Yellow Cake. His music formed part of a protest performance on Orkney called The Yellow Cake Revue, which helped put paid to the horrific project. His hypnotic piano piece, only five minutes long has become a poignant part of many people’s lives,  bringing peace, comfort and hope.

But it is not an entirely soothing composition, more of a dangerous journey;  the way has to be followed round crags, up mountains, over high bridges, through mists and fog – we are in danger – until at last the light appears through the mist, first dimly then welcoming and then blazing, and finally home is seen again. The opening rhythm returns, this time more like the rocking of a boat, and quietens, takes us in its arms into the rocking of a lullabye. Finally it softens, and fades, gently into history.  The danger has been surmounted, but the experience remains.

Inspired by this powerful musical expression of struggle and resolution,  Joan Aiken wrote her haunting story called The Scream,  which also references the famous Munch painting of that name, of a terrified figure seeing an appalling vision on a bridge. In Joan Aiken’s story the inhabitants are forced from their homes on a Scottish island because it is due to be poisoned for a scientific experiment. Brought up on their own myths, these people had always believed local dangers would be wrought by Kelpies – water demons, very hostile to humans – not by alarming technological developments…

“Before the time of electricity, radio, motors, long-range missiles, aircraft,

 people thought seriously about such things.”

But while the exiled islanders have to adapt their way of life to the ugly new towns and tower blocks where they now live, they have brought with them a powerful magic which is stirring, endangering their new lives and calling them to return, and which finally it breaks out in a great Scream, with the force of a tidal wave, and with the unleashing of this ancient power the island is reclaimed.

As the daughter of Joan Aiken, I was brought up on stories which although haunting, also saw me through dangers and rocked me to sleep. We shared music too, and this piece which recalled the Scottish folk tunes her mother used to sing, spoke to us both of our roots, and a love of islands, many of which we had visited together. The last one we visited before she died was the Channel Island of Herm, her house was called The Hermitage, and we joked about the journey being our Herm from Herm. Sitting on a shore of sea shells, she told me how she had always longed to be on Desert Island Discs, and had often thought about her music choices while waiting to fall asleep at night. One of her choices would have been Farewell to Stromness, and so we had it played at her funeral, to see her safely home.

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Hear Farewell to Stromness played by Sir Peter Maxwell Davies

The haunting Y.A. novel The Scream has just come out as an EBook 

Find it here

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The illustration at the top is by Arvis Stuart from the cover of a children’s play by Joan Aiken called Winterthing – another mythical island which disappears each winter