Joan Aiken on Waiting for Inspiration…

“Being a writer is not unlike being a medium; sometimes the message comes through loud and clear, sometimes it doesn’t,”   Joan Aiken said in a talk on writing ghost stories.  Perhaps this is particularly apt for those with a gift for sensing odd atmospheres or noticing the unusual in the everyday, as she certainly did.       Her love of writing short stories, above all other forms of fiction, came from being aware of this gift –  although it often seemed that some ideas for stories arrived almost fully formed, being able to harness them was a skill she had to nurture.   As she said, it took years to learn to listen for that voice, to pay attention to her dreams, and then look out for, and make a note of the odd occurrence that would add the final spark or structure to complete a story.

Monkey Intro

But what when the voice doesn’t come?  When a dream remains just that,  an inconclusive mystery, a puzzle that doesn’t seem to have an answer.   Wait and see, she says, the universe, or something out of the blue may provide an answer, and unconsciously you are looking for it..

Writer's Block W2WYour block has unblocked and you are off again!

Joan Aiken used to object to being called ‘a born story teller’ – she knew writing was hard work, a craft you had to learn like any other, but in the case of her stories she did admit to the possibility of there being some kind of added ingredient beyond her control – a magical gift that she learned to listen out for, and which if she could catch and shape it, would become a story that would haunt her readers for ever.

voice in ear

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Joan Aiken wrote nearly thirty collections of stories for adults and younger readers, many fantastic and spooky, and many unforgettable.

Find some of them here.

Creating Alternate Worlds…why we need stories

Sun God's castle

Why do we need stories? In one of her most quoted remarks Joan Aiken explains:

Locus Interview Alternative worlds

Jan Pienkowski, who died this week explained that his pictures helped him transform images of horror in his mind into stories he could control. He lived through invasion and terror as a child in the 1940’s in his native Poland, but re-created and conquered the fearful situations in his storytelling and illustrations, making the uncontrollable situations manageable for a child – the hideous Baba Yaga becomes Meg the silly witch, or in the version he illustrated for Joan Aiken, in The Kingdom Under The Sea, she becomes a selfish fool, easily outwitted by her own child. The idea of the witch might be scary, but it becomes manageable when viewed through a story, and as a picture in a book read in the safety of home.

Baba Yaga Jan

    Another of the great creators of alternate worlds was Ursula Le Guin, whose recent death brought not only a celebration of her writing, but a recognition of the importance of fantasy, and speculative fiction as it has come to be known. Both Le Guin and Joan Aiken resisted the label ‘Science Fiction’ for their fantasy writing – in an interview for The Paris Review LeGuin talks about the importance of ‘trying on’ other ideas::

“I don’t think science fiction is a very good name for it, but it’s the name that we’ve got. It is different from other kinds of writing, I suppose, so it deserves a name of its own.

I’m not a quester or a searcher for the truth. I don’t really think there is one answer, so I never went looking for it. My impulse is less questing and more playful. I like trying on ideas and ways of life and religious approaches.

That could be part of what led me to write more about possible worlds than about the actual one. And, in a deeper sense, what led me to write fiction, maybe. A novelist is always “trying on” other people.”

Joan Aiken acknowledged that “writing a full length fantasy novel made out of pure invention is the very hardest kind of children’s book to write successfully…Ursula Le Guin has done it in her Earthsea books…it can be done, but it is a considerable challenge.”

Through reading and writing about other worlds we can confront and deal with the faults in our own. Joan Aiken only attempted a full scale dystopian novel once, in her novel The Cockatrice Boys, addressing the ‘sleep of reason’ which has threatened our own world with climate change and devastation – through stories, Aiken wrote, you can help children deal with the unanswerable question ‘Why?’

Cockatrice The Sleep of Reason

You can read more about what she and others called The Sleep of Reason,

or the failure of the imagination, here.

Generally she preferred to base her kind of fantasy on folk tales, an age old form of storytelling which could be adapted, often humorously, to comment on our own world. The illustrations by Jan Pienkowski above come from their collection of stories based on traditional European tales which he knew as a child – re-told for him by Joan Aiken –  The Kingdom Under the Sea.

In this story three boys set out to make their fortunes, but despite the good advice of the Sun God, about caring for those who have loved and cared for them, they  become distracted by the voices of darkness and become so lost to the world around them that they have to be rescued by their wiser grandfather:

Somebody sat on the steps of the castle weeping, with his face hidden in his hands.The old man called, across the white cloud and the pink cloud.
“What is the trouble, my child?”
The weeper lifted his head, and they saw that it was Yanek.
“The sun-god won’t let me into his palace,Grandfather,” he answered, “because I did wrong to leave you.”
Tears ran down the old man’s cheeks when he heard that. He turned to Martin and Mihal and said to them, “Go back to the forest, my children, live rightly, and never let the sacred fire go out. I am going to help Yanek.”

Sun God ending

     We must teach our children that we depend utterly on our imaginations, we need to cross over into fantasy, into the unknown, and make the attempt to imagine what if…?

We ignore this opportunity at our own risk. What we fail to imagine has a dangerous habit of coming true.

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Find more about the Joan Aiken Jan Pienkowski stories here

Read another fascinating Blog on Joan Aiken and some more Alternate Worlds here

And find the incredibly useful Internet Speculative Fiction Database here

Christmas at Willoughby Chase – a Joan Aiken Happy Ever After?

Willoughby Christmas

Can you imagine that this might be a Willoughby family Christmas card showing a festive stroll in the park for Sir Willoughby and Lady Green with their adopted niece Sylvia, taking gifts to Aunt Jane in the Dower House? Perhaps Bonnie is off shooting wolves with Simon in order to safeguard Lady Green’s new herd of deer (and maybe bag her mother another handsome wolf stole?) Or maybe she is back home at Willoughby Chase, tyrannising the Cook, Mrs Shubunkin and the kitchen staff and being adored and spoiled with sugar plums as they prepare the gigantic Christmas turkey and dozens of figgy puddings, with a sprinkling of diamonds due to be concealed inside them instead of sixpences, when Aunt Hettie brings them down from London…

     Many readers always hoped to meet the two heroines of Willoughby Chase one more time, and have them meet the Duke and Duchess of Battersea – Simon’s new found family, and so here Joan Aiken did have a go at a merry sequel, but it turned out to be too tongue in cheek, even by her own pretty wild standards to ever see the light of day…

So I’ll take the liberty of sharing a taster or two of her imagined

Christmas at Willoughby Chase!

Season's Greetings

Halloween at Willoughby 1a      When Joan Aiken imagined the famous first volume of the Wolves Chronicles, she was planning to replicate the eye-watering dramatic reading of her own early childhood, full of oubliettes and haunted castles, blunderbusses and shipwrecks, as these were the kinds of wild adventure that she had most enjoyed, rather than some of the more saccharine tales generally recommended for children growing up in the 1920’s.

     But when she herself became a children’s writer, she was always very concerned for the well-being of her readers, as she wrote in her spirited guide The Way to Write for Children:

Tragedy Endings Way to Write

      So did she believe there must always be happy endings? These are not necessarily a good idea, she realised, because if you have tidied everything up and polished off all future adventures for your characters, then where is the next story to come from…?

Season's Greetings

     And so in this madcap short festive tale that Joan has cooked up, everything goes wildly wrong, and there is certainly a spot of misfortune, if not total tragedy!  The puddings turn out to have been poisoned by an impostor cook called Mrs Svengali, who has lured Mrs Shubunkin away with a false message, and the festive diamonds meet an unfortunate fate when the Battersea coach is held up by  the impostor’s fiendish highwayman friends – these, luckily, are seen off in tremendous style by Bonnie and Sylvia who have been practising with their crossbows on the battlements!

Halloween end 1       The ever resourceful Bonnie, determined that the Christmas preparations will not be spoiled, turns to the newly arrived Duchess of Battersea (Simon’s Aunt Hettie) saying:

Halloween end 3Halloween end final      Season's Greetings

      Even for Christmas Joan Aiken can’t quite allow herself a completely happy ending – let’s hope the ever capable Mrs Shubunkin has some spirits of Rhubarb on hand for poor Aunt Hettie – like many a Happy Christmas, this one might end with the need for a dose of salts!

indigestion

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I hope you (and Joan Aiken!) will forgive me for this bit of festive nonsense!

Find out about the real Wolves sequels here!

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.

With the petrol supply problems and queues in the UK at the moment, this one is rather timely:

Argosy jingles

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 his writer partner Kelly Link of the independent American publishers, Small Beer Press, offered to bring out a collection of these early works,  even including some previously unpublished finds, among which are some of her wildest and most memorable stories.

Also in this collection is a short introduction Joan Aiken wrote for the title story, full of her own generous and hard earned writing wisdom, especially 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, as a way of providing 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