Remembering Joan Aiken

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The Hermitage, Petworth ~ Joan Aiken’s home ~

Joan Aiken died in the month of January. Listening for her voice I sometimes make surprising discoveries, in this case what appeared was a rough version of poem, never seen before and found in an old notebook.

This portrait of Joan’s last house was painted by the architect friend who helped her bring it back to life, when she and her painter husband discovered it lying ruined and abandoned on the edge of the little town where they lived.

It was supposed to be haunted, Joan had read a story about it in the local paper, when a couple walking their dog reported seeing a ghostly monk on the path below the house, and the newspaper took up the story with relish…!

The previous inhabitant, by then an old lady, had found sharing the house with the apparition too unsettling after the death of her husband, and so she herself became something of a local legend:

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Sadly Joan Aiken never saw the ghost, although she bought the house partly because of its strange history – indeed it could be one of her own.  A friend recalled her saying she liked to eat cheese for supper in the hope of having a good nightmare to provide story material; as readers of her ghost stories will know she had a rich and wicked imagination…

I like to think something of her own history now haunts the house, perhaps a friendly presence that belies its quiet exterior, and that was why this poem seemed so apt. Here is a fragment of the unfinished poem, written many years earlier:

  “Swan among trees, the yew in its dark plumage

Raises its points against the glittering sky

Dropping a pool of shadow across the house

Shuttered and soulless since you are away.

Perhaps behind your shuttered features also

There lives a friend? This front gives rise to doubt

No inmate waves a hand at the blank windows

No footprints tell of passage in or out.”

Joan Aiken was often asked where she got her ideas.  Often, she would say, they came simply from life, or from newspaper articles, but it was always worth writing them down in a notebook because you never knew when they would find a home in a story. 

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Read more about Joan Aiken’s strange stories here

And see a recent collection of some of her most memorable ~ The People in the Castle

Painting by Vernon Gibberd

 

The Way to Write for Children by Joan Aiken

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joan writesIn 1982 Joan Aiken was asked to write a practical guide on the art of writing children’s books. From the first line it is clear that she wasn’t entirely sold by this concept (‘There is no one way to write for children’), but concedes that there are many practical things that a new writer can do to create a successful children’s book – mow the lawn, put your feet in a bucket of hot water, take laudanum….

The world of children’s publishing has moved on a lot since this guide was published, but there is much sensible advice packed into the book’s 93 pages that still rings true. The Way to Write for Children is more than just another how to guide, it stands alongside Aiken’s many fictional books as a fine, funny and revealing piece of writing.

Looks aren’t important.

Huck-Finn Mark Twain’s Huck Finn with Jim, illustrated by Edward…

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The Power of Storytelling – Joan Aiken’s strange stories

People in the Castle

Joan Aiken once described a moment during a talk she was giving at a conference, when to illustrate a point she began to tell a story.  At that moment, she said, the quality of attention in the room subtly changed. The audience, as if hypnotised, seemed to fall under her control:

“Everyone was listening, to hear what was going to happen next.”

From her own experience – whether as an addictive reader from early childhood or as a story teller herself, learning to amuse a younger brother growing up in a remote village – by the time she was writing for a living to support her family, she had learned a great respect for the power of stories.

Like a sorcerer addressing her apprentice, in her heartfelt guide, The Way to Write for Children, she advises careful use of the storyteller’s power:

“From the beginning of the human race stories have been used—by priests, by bards, by medicine men—as magic instruments of healing, of teaching, as a means of helping people come to terms with the fact that they continually have to face insoluble problems and unbearable realities.”

Clearly this informed her desire to bring to her own stories as much richness, as many layers of meaning, and as much of herself, her extensive reading and her own experience of life as she possibly could. Stories, she said, give us a sense of our own inner existence and the archetypal links that connect us to the past…they show us patterns that extend beyond ordinary reality.

Although she repudiated the idea that her writing contained any overt moral, nevertheless many of Joan Aiken’s stories do convey a powerful sense of the fine line between good and evil.  She habitually made use of the traditional conventions of folk tales and myths, in which right is rewarded and any kind of inhumanity gets its just deserts.  Her particular gift though, was to transfer these myths into richly detailed everyday settings that we would recognise, and then add a dash of magic – a doctor holds his surgery in a haunted castle, and so a ghost comes to be healed.

What Aiken brings to her stories is her own voice – and the assurance that these stories are for you.  By reading them, taking part in them, not unlike the beleaguered protagonists she portrays as her heroes – struggling doctors, impatient teachers or lonely children – 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 unloose 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 this collection – and hope, Aiken believed was the most transforming force – is Watkyn, Comma.  Here she uses the idea of a comma – in itself almost a metaphor for a short story – to express a sudden opening up of experience: “a pause, a break between two thoughts, when you take breath, reconsider…” and can seize the opportunity to discover something hitherto unimaginable.

In the course of 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.  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, our real will to learn to communicate – she leaves us feeling like the characters in the story – “brought forward.”

Aiken draws us into a moment of listening – gives an example of how a story works its magic – and invites us to join in the process of creative sharing, believing,asking:

“Could I do this?” 

…and hearing her answer:

“Oh never doubt it.”

Aiken is perfectly capable of showing the dark side of the coin, of sharing our dangerous propensity to give in to nightmares and conjure monsters from the deep, but at her best and most powerful she allows her protagonists to summon their deepest strengths to confront their devils.  In the story of this name, born from one of her own nightmares, even Old Nick is frustrated by a feline familiar called Hope.

This collection of stories, taken from her entire writing career, some of which I have known and been told since I was born, form a magical medicine chest of remedies for all kinds of human trials, and every form of unhappiness.  The remedies are hope, generosity, empathy, humour, imagination, love, memory, dreams… Yes, sometimes she shows that it takes courage to face down the more hair-raising fantasies, and conquer our unworthy instincts, but in the end the reward is in the possibility of transformation.

The Fairy Godmother is within us all.

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~ From The People in the Castle ~

 collected strange stories by Joan Aiken pub. April 2016

Includes this introduction by Lizza Aiken and another by Kelly Link

Read a story from the collection and a review from a newly devoted reader at Tor.com

Find Small Beer Press details here

 

 

The Kingdom and The Cave – or Against All Odds?

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Joan Aiken’s very first novel came from a story she made up to entertain her small brother, when he was ten and she was just seventeen. It was faithfully recorded chapter by chapter, in an old school exercise book, which she kept for the rest of her life. Nearly twenty years later she got it out, typed it up and offered it to a publisher, but her dreams of becoming a professional novelist didn’t come true all at once.
Joan had always expected to be a writer having been ‘brought up in two households both of which were absolutely geared to book-writing’ – those of her father, the poet Conrad Aiken, and her stepfather Martin Armstrong – and so it seemed to her ‘the natural, indeed the only way to make a living’. She was also aware that it was a tough profession:
“I never, from the earliest days, had any illusions about earning great riches from a writer’s life, but I never had the least intention of doing anything else.”
Until she was twelve Joan was taught at home by her mother, a Canadian post graduate from Radcliffe, the women’s college at Harvard, and an excellent instructress. Apart from formal lessons, much of their day was spent reading aloud to each other as they kept up with household tasks. Joan had been, as she said, ‘so stuffed with French, Latin and Literature that when I got to school I was so far ahead of my classmates I was considered a prig!’

But in the end her solitary upbringing and her extensive childhood reading paid off, and she soon realised she had a useful reputation for being wonderful at telling stories. World War II had begun during her last years at her small boarding school, and she was often called upon to cheer and distract her friends.

‘When there was an air raid we all had to bundle down to the basement in our night clothes, and someone would say “Come on Aiken, tell us a story!” ‘

The war changed all their lives – the purpose of The Kingdom and The Cave, as she first told it to her small brother in 1940, was also to cheer and distract. Its hero is the young Prince of a country which, like England, is about to face its darkest hour, and who with the help of his faithful cat discovers how to save his kingdom. Drawing on many of their favourite authors for inspiration, such as Rudyard Kipling, E.Nesbit, and John Masefield she spun him a gripping adventure tale about a boy rather like himself. When you realise that this fantastic story was in reality set against the background of the Blitz, Joan’s apparently matter-of-fact descriptions of giant flying ants arriving to destroy the country, or futuristic weapons capable of creating vast craters begin to have a deeper resonance.

Years later, after the end of the war, having had little time to develop her writing career as she might have hoped, she was involved in a struggle of a different kind, as she found herself having to support two small children and a sick husband. She had succeeded in publishing two collections of short stories, and had a couple broadcast on the BBC, and earned what she could from selling stories to magazines, but she had been firmly told by her agent ‘that she had no talent at all for the novel form’.
Nevertheless she fished out the old exercise book containing her first long story. By now she could see that it clearly owed a debt to some of her favourite childhood authors, but as she badly needed to make money for the family she put her concerns aside, and when a publisher offered to take it if she would undertake extensive revision she agreed. At his request she bravely chopped out an entire sub-plot, many wild magical episodes and quite a few characters, and reduced it by more than half. After all this work it was accepted and she received the princely sum of £75.00 advance.

First Kingdom cover

Joan Aiken was always ready to admit to the influence of her forbears, and indeed could see from her own reading how E.Nesbit, for instance, owed much to the works of Dickens; Masefield to Nesbit; C. S. Lewis and T. H. White to Masefield and so on. This process continues today – many contemporary authors are still happily re-writing and emulating their favourite childhood classics and these are openly acknowledged as with Kate Saunders respectful and heart-wrenching sequel to Nesbit’s Five Children and It.
Indeed Joan Aiken freely acknowledged that for a would-be writer, reading widely and studying one’s forbears was essential practice.  She wrote:

advice 1Reading is absolutely essential for writers, she goes on. Like all artists they have to absorb the contribution of their predecessors:

advice 2

In fact she was probably too hard on herself, and the original Reader’s Report on
The Kingdom and The Cave, (which she proudly kept!) was absolutely glowing:

“This is quite a find – a children’s book with excellent style and characterisation, warmth of feeling, delightful invention; it is rich, unusual, attractive and sustained. A remarkable feature is the balance of humour, common-sense, fantasy and adventure – in other words the quality of the author’s imagination.”
Despite this fairly bruising early experience – first being told that she couldn’t write novels at all, and then having to take on board such brutal editorial advice in order to achieve her first publication – Joan Aiken’s confidence was at last beginning to grow.
Heartened by her first success, she sat down with great enthusiasm to continue another book she had started many years earlier – a pastiche of 19th century children’s stories full of ‘wolves, and perils and tremendous exaggerations.’ When it was completed, the same publishers responded very dubiously saying it was rather too alarming and could she remove the terrifyingly Dickensian school where the poor orphans are sent, and definitely take out all those wolves…
But this time of course she said no!

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 The Kingdom and The Cave Joan Aiken’s first novel is being reprinted at last by Virago Modern Classics

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