The ever mysterious Joan Aiken…

HGazebo crop

Who was the real Joan Aiken, and 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 she submitted. Remembering this 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, (and in her early writing days she had a few warnings about this possibility – see below) or to be at the mercy of endless angry letters about the misrepresentation of a reader’s well loved home town or village, or heaven forbid, incur outrage even closer to home with dangerous disclosures familiar to their own relations…

Libel letter 1950's

(signature illegible I hope!)

So does Joan Aiken’s most mysterious possibly autobiographical 1980’s novel, Foul Matter, tread a fine line?

It was for instance 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. A clue to Joan Aiken’s intentions in this possibly autobiographical novel lies in the chapter headings she has chosen to take from Milton’s famous Pastoral Elegy, Lycidas and whose muses she invokes at the opening of her book: ‘the sisters of the sacred well.’  Milton’s poem was written as a song of mourning for his friend and fellow student who had drowned when his ship sank off the English coast – as does Dan, 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 – in fact the family  were rescued by some passing sea scouts, but who would believe that?

Clytie, or Aulis or Tuesday, the heroine of Foul Matter,  has many different names, and does speak 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 Deathanother 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 this 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. This tradition of using different literary forms and references was in the reading and writing blood of the family, so Joan Aiken had plenty of background both real and fictional to draw on; and her own family history, like that described in 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 any of them her own?  Is Foul Matter  set in Rye or Lewes, where she did live, or perhaps 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,  a picturesque little East Sussex town with weatherboarded houses and marsh views, so reminiscent of New England where he had grown up, and which he yearned for constantly when back in America.

Perhaps Joan Aiken’s novel, written in her sixties at the height of her career, was an attempt to throw out the old memories, junk the lingering Foul Matter,  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 novel 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 available as a new paperback

 Foul Matter PB.

All Joan Aiken’s modern novels now available as EBooks

 Find new editions of  Orion early thrillers here

and  Modern novels from Bello Macmillan here

Suspense Group 1

A Joan Aiken Story – about Bob Dylan!

Chris & Guitar

Bob Dylan first appeared and sang in the UK on a BBC Sunday Night play in January 1963 which made a big impression on Joan Aiken. Called Madhouse on Castle Street, it included a strange and sinister song called The Swan on the River, which reminded her of the often grim and lurid folk ballads her Canadian mother used to sing, such as Lord Rendall, about a young nobleman who was poisoned by his lover. At the time Dylan was relatively unknown, having only brought out one album, and this was his first visit to England, but his performance, and that song were unforgettable, and she didn’t forget the singer.

That year, in 1963, Joan Aiken visited America for the first time to celebrate the publication of her now classic children’s novel The Wolves of Willoughby Chase, where she also visited  her writer father in his home country for the first time, and met Charles Schlessiger, the man who was to be her literary agent and undying supporter for the next fifty years. This publication also catapulted Joan Aiken to fame in America with a stunning review in Time magazine which began:

‘This year can boast one genuine small masterpiece, called The Wolves of Willoughby Chase.  Written, as any children’s book should be, with obvious fond delight by Poet Conrad Aiken’s daughter Joan…it is almost a copybook lesson in those virtues that a classic children’s book must possess: charm, a style of its own, and the skill and authority to create a small world without writing down to small readers.’

Back home in Petworth, Sussex Joan Aiken’s two teenage children (and their Beatnik, guitar playing babysitter) like characters from a folk tale, or one of her own stories, had requested a particular gift to be brought back from New York – a Bob Dylan album.

She came back with two, Bob Dylan, and The Freewheelin Bob Dylan. These records made us the stars of our small town, and started a lifelong passion in the family. Joan Aiken went on to write many songs for her own plays, which were set to music by her guitar playing son, perhaps prophetically named John Sebastian, and Dylan’s words and music continued to entertain and inspire her. Sadly she died before Dylan was awarded the Nobel prize in Literature “for having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition.” I am sure she would have applauded.

But a combination of Bob Dylan and our own equally influential guitar playing Beatnik, gave birth to a character from Joan Aiken’s much loved Arabel’s Raven stories – the baby sitter Chris Cross whose singing totally entranced Arabel, as seen above in Quentin Blake’s picture, from a story that appeared a few years later – Arabel & Mortimer and the Escaped Black Mamba.

Having run out of milk (after an unfortunate accident!) while he is minding the pair one evening, Chris takes Mortimer and Arabel down to the station where there are all kinds of amazing automatic machines to get some more, and while there (after various adventures!) they make their own record of one of Chris’s songs to bring back home.

Sleep End of Mamba

Chris Cross remained an integral part of the Jones’ family life, and Bob Dylan’s songs went on to influence Joan’s own compositions, here for instance from a Shakespearean parody called Mooncusser’s Daughter, with music by her son..

Mooncusser Full fathom Five

Joan Aiken went on to marry an American painter and take up residence in Greenwich Village, New York.

I like to think of them walking the same streets.

The recording of  Bob Dylan’s Gliding Swan song can still be heard here

Bob Swans 1963

Happy 80th Birthday Bob, with all best wishes

from Joan Aiken (and family!)

The Joan Aiken Future Classics Prize – We have a winner!

AYEWcopy postImagine the moment when a copy of Joan Aiken’s own first published book arrived in the post – what if it was yours?

At the time, in 1953, despite her dreams of honour and glory (and all the hard work!) she was paid the princely sum of £25.00…but that didn’t discourage her from going on to write over one hundred more!

Were you one of the ‘dedicated semi-lunatics’ (as she called fellow children’s writers!) who entered our competition to write a new children’s book?  Joan Aiken knew this was no easy task; she herself had long dreamed of publishing a book, and she understood it took hard work and persistence, (and some of the lunatic self-belief she describes above!) before she would finally see the arrival of her own first published copy.

We were thrilled by the enormous response to our search for a new writer to follow in her footsteps, for a story inspired by Joan Aiken’s own classic children’s books and her  dedication to writing for what she considered the most demanding audience – children – who may form a lifetime’s habit of reading pleasure having been inspired by your story!

Julia Churchill, Joan’s agent at A.M.Heath, and Lizza Aiken, Joan’s daughter, chose a shortlist of six, and then had the incredibly difficult task of picking a final winner. The entries ranged from magical adventures, to gritty modern dramas, some were set in exotic landscapes, some in the past or in futuristic societies; they were written in language that ranged from poetic flights of the imagination, to the gritty dialogue of 21st century urban life.

And the winner  we chose – a joyfully inventive and gripping adventure which encompassed many of these alternative realities – was Harklights, by Tim Tilley.

The setting, like one of Joan Aiken’s own Wolves Chronicles could be sometime in the Victorian past, but also conjures up the possible future with the threat of a disaster that affects us all, the loss of our green world through greed and the exploitation of the miraculous gifts of nature – the loss of our old shared world of myth, magic, and natural mystery.

Wick, the orphan hero of Harklights, escapes the brutal mechanised world ( an Aikenesque orphanage!) and finds a family home and a life in the forest, where he has a chance to stop the terrible destruction of the Natural World.  He is able to go back into a society that has almost been lost – a world of magic, where there is love between all creatures, where children are cherished, not abandoned as he was – but then he must also return and confront the monstrous machinery which is mercilessly eating it all up…

mushrooms

What are the important elements in a children’s book that make it a lasting favourite? Katherine Rundell said about Joan Aiken’s writing that she excelled in three main areas that appeal particularly to children:

“Love, peril, and food…she writes all three with an insight and grace that has rarely been rivalled.”

There were some marvellous examples of all of these in our shortlist – Tim Tilley”s hero Wick experiences the first real food of his lifetime – a breakfast of forest mushrooms and eggs – utterly mouth-watering, even if the size of the portion is so tiny! Caroline Murphy’s moving story about fractured families, The Truth about Chickens produced some wonderful comfort food to cheer a lonely boy; in The Wild Way Home Sophie Kirtley wrote beautifully about family love, and our instinctive urge to protect the young and innocent; Nizrana Farook created a powerful story in a landscape drawing on her native Sri Lanka, and feisty characters with their own special charm and spark, who confront deadly peril in The Girl Who Stole an Elephant. Susan Bailey and Nicola Penfold showed great confidence and sympathy in their handling of lonely isolated children and their yearning for fulfilment, in Snow Foal and Where the World Turns Wild, where nature also plays a healing role. 

AYEW JA Frozen Cuckoo

Joan Aiken was a gifted artist, and often sketched while brooding on a book – as in her drawing of the dish of mushrooms above. Like Tim Tilley she included sample illustrations with her submission of that first book – All You’ve Ever Wantedhere is one of them where a cat called Walrus taunts an enchanted frozen cuckoo! Although these were gently turned down by the publisher, who said blue ink would be a little difficult to reproduce, and that they did have their own illustrators,  I felt she would have appreciated Sophie Kirtley’s visual imagination and ‘multi media’ presentation which we thought was very vivid. Nizrana Farook painted a wild and beautiful world with words, and a heroine who was as determined as Dido Twite, and Tim’s illustrations were so speaking that they form an important part of his début publication which has now been beautifully produced by the publishers Usborne – definitely a delight to discover on your doormat!

Harklights book

All in all, running the competition was a fantastic experience, and we were proud to have encouraged so many of you to send in your stories – we wish you all success in the future, and would just remind you not to give up – writing for children is a serious vocation, and once the bug has bitten, it can bring a lifetime of pleasure for the writer as well as the reader!

>  >  >  >  * <  <  <  <

  Do visit the Joan Aiken Website to see a picture Timeline of her life

and discover all the books that she went on to publish!

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Hope, Joan Aiken’s greatest gift to us?

Mouse 3

What Joan Aiken brought to her stories was her own voice; she seems to be speaking directly to us, saying these stories are written for you. By reading them, and so, taking part in them, just like the  beleaguered protagonists she so often portrays as her heroes – struggling doctors, impatient teachers, or lonely unhappy children whose lives she transforms in fiction – she shows that we too can learn to take charge of our 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 our imagination and share some of her leaps into fantasy we 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, she believed was the most transforming force – is Watkyn, Comma – a very unusual ghost story.

Joan Aiken 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 take part in something hitherto unimaginable… learning how to live, from a ghost?

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. Her heroine is trapped in a haunted house, in what we foresee will be frightening and unpromising circumstances, but she refuses to be cast down, and Joan Aiken offers her, through the power of her imagination, a wonderful release. By gently offering the possibility of previously unknown forces – the ability to develop new capacities, the will for empathy between the many creatures of our universe, and finally the real desire to learn to communicate – Joan Aiken leaves us feeling like the characters in the story “brought forward.”

Watkyn2

We are magically drawn in – given an example of how a story works its charm – an invitation to join in this process of creative sharing, which makes us ask with the heroine:

“Could I do this?”

And hearing the answer:

“Oh never doubt it.”

>  >  >  > * <  <  <  <

This story can be found in The People in The Castle

out now from Small Beer Press

People paperback

It also includes an introduction with more from Joan Aiken

on The Magical Power of Storytelling 

You can read some excerpts  here