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publishers, Small Beer Press, offered to bring out a collection of these early works,  even including some previously unpublished finds, among which are some of her wildest and most memorable stories.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

All Best Wishes…

BestWishes

 Wishes have always been at at the heart of fairy tales and story telling…they can be the seed that creates a whole new world or, more often, the first creak of discontent that brings on a landslide of disaster!

In her own stories Joan Aiken played with all the classic ideas – the dangerous wishes without forethought, the sometimes ludicrous results of gaily tossed off wishes, the indigestible effects of wishes that can’t be stopped, the wishes that come true in ways you would never have expected…

One of her most long lasting wish-gifts – given to Mrs Armitage, mother of Joan Aiken’s imaginary Armitage Family – was  that she and her family, while living out their traditional ‘Happy Ever After’ in her stories would ‘never, never be bored’.

This wish was to be prophetic also for Joan Aiken who was to go on writing their extraordinary stories throughout her life, with obvious enjoyment and relish.  One of her own last wishes was to have all the Armitage family stories collected together from the many different story books where they had appeared over the years, and which was first published in the US, as The Serial Garden This  is the title of one especially memorable story, and also a very Aiken pun describing a garden that grows week by week, which is made from cut-outs found on a packet of breakfast cereal. This last story collection was intended for those readers who had written to her saying that the story was one that would possibly haunt them forever…  The outcome of the original ‘Serial Garden’ story couldn’t be undone, but perhaps because of Joan Aiken’s original promise of a Happy Ever After, there would be a way to change it for the better?

Joan Aiken first started writing about the Armitage Family almost as a joke, a parody of her stepfather Martin Armstrong’s successful Children’s Hour series “Said the Cat to the Dog” which was being broadcast on BBC children’s hour in the 1940’s when she was in her teens.  But to her surprise this imaginary family took her over, and even came to supply a sustaining, alternative world which she returned to over and over again. During one of the bleakest periods of her life when her own future was deeply uncertain, she said that something extraordinary happened to help her through:

“I think my own most creative burst was during a week in April 1954 when I wrote a short story every day, children’s fantasies, some of which I think are among my best work.”

Luckily it was a gift that lasted all her life.

Here is part of the Prelude Joan wrote to go with the Armitage collection, explaining perhaps to herself, or maybe to Mrs Armitage, why the family should be blessed with such good fortune – could it be because, in best Fairy Tale tradition,  they knew when to stop wishing?

Serial Prologue

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Read a Serial Garden story excerpt: The Apple of Trouble

Complete Stories now published in the UK by Virago Children’s Classics

Riddell quote

Best Wishes also to Joan Aiken’s life-long literary agent Charles Schlessiger,

 For a Very Happy 82nd Birthday!

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“If you love books enough, they will love you back.”

This marvellous moment of realisation occurs  to Mori,  the heroine of Jo Walton’s Among Others but could be a life saving discovery for any lonely child – and every child is in danger of loneliness as soon as they start to wonder about the world they have been born into.

Joan Aiken was a lonely child, home schooled in a  remote village and isolated from the company of other children, but surrounded by books which became her friends instead.  In Among Others, Jo Walton’s equally lonely heroine  Mori,  lives in what could be seen as a fantasy world, but it is also her way of ‘seeing’ the world, and the books she reads are the most real part of it,  providing her lifeline – bringing her comfort, meaning and companionship, and in the end, some fantastic solutions.

Joan Aiken resisted the obviously fantastic in much of her writing, but in her short stories she could endow a bleak reality with magical possibilities, and persuasively share her vision of the everyday magic that comes from inside us.  She knew from her own experience that magic solutions didn’t come just by wishing, but she had a gift for communicating hope; for showing that out of loneliness imagination is born, and she was able to communicate this through her writing, and to create books that if you let them, can absolutely love you back.

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A Ghost Mouse – a story of hope from ‘Watkyn,Comma’

Watkyn2

From a story called Watkyn, comma in Joan’s collection A Fit of Shivers

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