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publishers, Small Beer Press, offered to bring out a collection of these early works,  even including some previously unpublished finds, among which are some of her wildest and most memorable stories.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

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.”

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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

Joan Aiken’s Haunting Garden…

Fruhstuckgarten

   A haunting moment from Joan Aiken’s own childhood was turned into one of the most memorable stories she ever wrote – ‘The Serial Garden’, but this sad story went on to haunt her too.

Do you remember, as a child, coming home to find that your room has been completely turned out, and some of your much loved, if dusty treasures tossed in the bin, only to have your mother say in reply to your outrage and anguish: “Oh you didn’t want that did you? I thought you’d finished with it.” And this (spoiler alert!) was the terrible memory that inspired one of the saddest stories Joan Aiken ever wrote.

In this rather tragic story, one of the many she wrote during her lifetime about the eccentric Armitage Family,  Joan Aiken has the son, Mark discover that a cut out garden from the back of a series of cereal packets comes to life when he whistles or sings a certain tune. When he goes into the magic garden he meets the Princess of Saxe Hoffen-Poffen und Hamster, and learns that the garden comes from an old book of pictures belonging to her, and that she herself is imprisoned in the book, in the garden (thanks to a bit of parlour magic!)  and still waiting to be rescued by her long lost love,  the Court Kapellmeister and music teacher who her father had forbidden her to marry.

As the haughty princess explains:

“All princesses were taught a little magic, not so much as to be vulgar, just enough to get out of social difficulties.”

– which was just what she used it for, concealing herself in the book, so that she could run away with her suitor.

Serial PicThe original illustration of the cut out ‘cereal’ packet garden was by Pat Marriott

   But the maid who was supposed to give the book to her beloved Kapellmeister never delivered it, and the book is lost.  Only when the pictures are reproduced on the back of a Brekkfast Brikks cereal packet many years later, and found by Mark, can the garden be re-created; the tune which has unwittingly been passed on to Mark by his music teacher, turns out to be the one which can bring it to life – is there an amazing last chance of happiness for the long estranged lovers?

But while Mark is out, urgently fetching his music teacher, Mr Johansen, his mother, Mrs Armitage has been spring cleaning….

The brisk, no nonsense character of Mrs Armitage,  was based on Joan’s own mother,  Jessie Armstrong, who re-married after her divorce from Joan’s father, the poet Conrad Aiken, to her second writer husband, Martin Armstrong.  When Joan was young, Armstrong was famous for his own series of children’s stories for the BBC radio Children’s Hour, about a rather polite 1940’s family in thrall to their various talking pets: Said the Cat to the Dog, and Said the Dog to the Cat. Joan’s own ‘Armitage’ family stories, the first of which she also sold to the BBC, had begun as a tongue in cheek parody of his, and were based very much on the family’s life in their remote Sussex village where Joan lived until she was twelve; but the Armitage family’s ongoing magical adventures went on to become her lifelong passion.

The story of ‘The Serial Garden’ was originally published in Jessie’s lifetime, in a collection of Joan Aiken’s fantasy stories called A Small Pinch of Weather ; the book was even dedicated to her mother, but in later years Joan came to be haunted by the sad ending of the story. Perhaps she felt it was  unjust to her mother’s memory; she certainly was taken aback by the many letters she got from readers protesting against its rather shocking ending.  Joan wanted a chance to make amends, and although she couldn’t undo the dreadful ending of the first story, once written, she said the story could not be undone, but she thought she could perhaps give Mark and poor Mr Johansen another chance to find the vanished garden and the lost princess.

So, just before she  died Joan  was preparing a last book –  a collection of all the Armitage Family stories she had written over the years, including four new ones  and a sequel to ‘The Serial Garden’ story, giving the chance of a hopeful solution to the estranged lovers.  She planned that the book would be published under the title of The Serial Garden to alert anyone still waiting for their long promised happy ending to the sad story, that it might finally be on the way.

If you missed it, and are one of the people still haunted by that unforgivable ending, all is not entirely lost – the complete book has come out, and perhaps hope can spring again…and you can also enjoy the entire collection of these witty and wonderful stories!

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See a picture Timeline showing the history of this haunting story

and the family and village that inspired it

in The Guardian newspaper online

3.Farrs

Joan’s childhood village home

Read more about Joan’s childhood in the village that forms the magical background to The Armitage Family stories

Read about the Prelude to the stories

which tells how the family come to have their magical Mondays

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Visit the Joan Aiken Website to find UK & US copies of The Serial Garden

Serial Gdns Webpage

Joan Aiken’s Musical Inspiration in dark times

Japanese Touch of Chill

    “Heard melodies are sweet,” Keats wrote, “but those unheard are sweeter.” For Joan Aiken this idea provided the inspiration for stories full of  music, in times when it was especially needed, which the reader can hear only in his imagination.

She created some wonderful magical music, like a tune which when whistled or sung brings a cardboard cut-out garden to life in her unforgettable story of The Serial Garden, or a record which quietly turns itself over while sending the listener into a mythical garden of her own, in More than you Bargained For; or a kingdom so dedicated to music that when the people forget to honour their goddess, they are stricken with a burning, freezing curse until she can be summoned back by notes from a harp that comes from deep water, a harp that no man has ever played,  A Harp of Fishbones.  In many of her stories, music is understood to be a powerful and healing force, which is almost better when you have to imagine the tune.

Brought up in a household with only a piano to provide music, where her mother regularly gathered the family to sing, and before anyone had a record player or even a radio, as there was no electricity in their village, Joan Aiken became musically literate enough to make use of ‘heard melodies’ that stirred the imagination of her readers too.

One of her earliest stories, The Mysterious Barricades, is inspired by a piece of  François Couperin  harpsichord music which for years she played on a 78 record. (I vividly remember her small but colourful record collection in an old tin box, which included Handel’s Harmonious Blacksmith and Beethoven’s Rage at a Lost Penny, some saucy songs by Jean Sablon, and the Red Flag among its treasures.) The Mysterious Barricades inspired a fantasy she set in a Transylvanian territory that might have come from  Mary Shelley, except that it was also a wry comment on the kind of Government Department where she had worked in the 1940’s, helping to keep the wheels of Britain turning during World War Two.

The gloom of the restrictive red tape and deadening bureaucracy of those times could only be lightened by one of her typical flights of fantastic imagination.  In Joan Aiken’s story of their musical quest to escape from it all armed only with a cup of tea and a biscuit, two civil servants and a canary finally arrive together on a mountain top and play a piece of music ‘of more than mortal beauty’ which causes those Mysterious Barricades to open and let them through.

Mysterious Barricades

Illustrations here and below by Pat Marriott

Music was a great support to her at that time – going to concerts and singing in London churches provided solace in those dark days, but she wasn’t afraid to parody the over seriousness of the musical establishment of the time either. In the 1950’s Joan Aiken worked at the short story magazine Argosy first editing, then writing, or finding,  copy to fill odd corners and producing a monthly ‘log book’ full of imaginary news items.

   It is perhaps not surprising that the first story of hers that was accepted for publication by Argosy in 1955 also had a musical inspiration; called Some Music for The Wicked Countess,  it has as its hero a serious young composer who finds himself in the wilds of Ireland earning his living as a music teacher in a village school, but who is utterly unaware that the surrounding forest is not only ‘stiff with enchantment’ but also contains a magical castle inhabited by a scheming Countess determined to lure him up to her bower for a musical soiree…

He fails to fall for a whole series of her magical entrapments, and in the end the enraged Countess is forced to appear to him in person while he is out in the forest collecting moths. Slightly bewildered he follows her up ‘half-a-hundred stairs’ to her tower,while she sends a couple of leprechauns to fetch his piano, and having unwittingly avoided drinking another magic potion he sits down to perform:

Wicked Countess

Countess   The  cover illustration at the top is from the Japanese edition of another collection of Joan Aiken stories, A Touch of Chill. The story called A Rented Swan was also originally published in Argosy  and tells of a composer who finds an apartment with a grand piano, but discovers too late that it also includes a swan. “It’s in the lease, Sir, didn’t you read it? Furniture, fittings, appurtenances, and one swan; care of aforesaid swan to be undertaken by the hereinaftermentioned Henry Wadsworth Oglethorpe.”

(and of course it isn’t an ordinary swan, but an unfortunate piece of enchantment, and the story was originally, fiendishly, entitled Lease of a Gold Banded Pen…)

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Read here about a collection of these early stories  The Monkey’s Wedding  with an introduction about Joan’s Argosy days

Monkey's Wedding

And find these and more mysterious stories in the new Joan Aiken collection from

Small Beer Press

The People in the Castle

Now out in Paperback

People paperback

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