Why do we need stories? Joan Aiken tells us…

Spring gift giving2

Joan Aiken writes about her favourite stories, and the magic of storytelling…in a new collection of some of the best of her own – out now from Virago!

“Stories are mysterious things; they have a life of their own. Animals don’t tell each other stories — so far as we know! Man is the only creature that has thought of telling stories, and, once a story has been written or told, it becomes independent of its creator and goes wandering off by itself. Think of Cinderella, or Beauty and the Beast —we don’t know where they came from, but they are known by people all over the world.

A story is very powerful. If I start to tell you a story, you are almost sure to stop and listen to it. It’s like hypnotism — or a small piece of magic. Indeed, stories often have been used for magic, by priests or medicine men. There used to be special stories kept secret and only used on rare special occasions: stories that would heal sickness, or give victory in battle. Storytellers, in primitive times, were treated with great respect, probably given extra large rations of mastodon steak, when the cavemen were all sitting round the tribal fire. In those days, before anything was written down, stories were the means by which important facts were stored and remembered. In a way it is still so. Think how much easier it is to remember that Alfred was the king who burned the cakes than what his dates were; I bet if I stopped anybody in the street and asked them what they knew about King Alfred, those cakes are what they would remember, not which year it happened!

People sometimes ask me: How do you write a story? How do you set about it? How do you get your ideas? And I always say, first you have to have ingredients. You couldn’t go into an empty kitchen and expect to be able to cook a dinner. A writer, like a good cook, is always on the lookout for ingredients that might come in handy. Sometimes they are the things you read in the newspaper — the woman who buys a raffle ticket with her last pound and wins a million, the violinist who leaves his Stradivarius in a taxi, the man who trains his dog to bark at Salvation Army bands. Sometimes they come from dreams. I keep a little notebook and write down all these things in it.

I don’t really believe there is such a thing as ‘a born storyteller’, especially when it is applied to me! Storytellers aren’t born, they have to learn. It is a craft; like oil painting or ballet dancing, you don’t just come to it naturally. A story needs to be carefully built up —like a house of cards — one thing balancing on top of another. And then the end, when you get to it, ought to be a little bit surprising, but satisfying, too, to make the reader think, ‘Yes, of course, that’s it! Why didn’t I think of that?’  I can remember exactly the moment when I realized the importance of that surprise, while telling my brother a story on a walk, and I rushed home, and wrote the story down. It was a story about a princess who turned into a parrot. That was when I was about sixteen, and I’ve never forgotten it. Stories are fun to write! They are, or should be, like a sleigh-ride, and once you get on course, then some terrific power, like the power of gravity, takes command and whizzes you off to an unknown destination.

A very important element in a story is the setting —where it all takes place. Some of the stories I’ve written have their settings and surroundings so firmly in my mind that I can call them back whenever I want to.  ‘The Boy with a Wolf’s Foot’ was written when I travelled back and forth to London every day, along a railway line whose stations all seemed to begin with W.  ‘The Rain Child’ came when I had a job picking apples in a huge series of orchards. ‘Moonshine in the Mustard Pot’ is a mixture of Paris and the beautiful city of York. My daughter lived for a time in both these cities and I visited her there, and the grandmother in the story is a mix of my daughter and myself.  ‘A Harp of Fishbones’ is purely invention, but I know that mountainside and that ruined city as well as if I had lived there all my life. The stories that have the strongest settings are my favourites. I like to revisit them from time to time, and that is like going back to stay in a house, or piece of country, that one has known since childhood; it is a happy, refreshing thing to do.

Reading is and always will be one of my greatest pleasures, and I love to re-read books and stories that have been favourites for years, and I particularly like to re-visit some of my own short stories, as they too have now taken on that mysterious life of their own. Favourite stories, like unexpected presents, are things that you can keep and cherish all your life, carry with you in memory, in your mind’s ear, and bring out at any time, when you are feeling lonely or need cheering up, or, like friends, just because you are fond of them. That is the way I feel about some of these stories.

One of the nicest letters that I ever had from a reader said: ‘Your stories are such a gift, they make me feel as though I dimly remember them. I seem to know the characters and places from long ago, like a forgotten dream …’

Maybe they will feel like that for you too, and become some of your own favourites — after all, where do our stories really come from?

Who knows?”

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This is Joan Aiken’s introduction to The Gift Giving, Favourite Stories

which includes favourite stories from many of her collections

Published by Virago Modern Classics

With Illustrations by Peter Bailey

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Books of Delight: Joan Aiken & John Masefield

Box & Wolves

Childhood favourites and Christmas Classics are often inextricably linked, and may have more in common than we realise – there are many more stories behind them…

“The Wolves are running…” is the mysterious message Kay Harker is given by the old Punch and Judy man in Masefield’s The Box of Delights; it was a potent image from Joan’s childhood reading, complete with snow, and became one of the Christmas story traditions that remained with Joan Aiken until she was able to write the ‘wolves’, as she said: ‘out of her  subconscious’ and into her own story many years later.

The poet John Masefield with his wandering seafaring life had been a powerful influence on Joan’s father, the poet Conrad Aiken, who was writing himself from the early 1900’s; the first Masefield novel Joan came across was lent to her by an old sailor in the village where she lived; as a small girl she was utterly gripped by the mysterious and terrifying Bird of Dawning, but Masefield’s books for children The Midnight Folk and The Box of Delights didn’t appear until  years later, and she first discovered them in 1936.

Joan wrote:

Box ist readingBox ist reading 2

So although readers may associate the two ‘Wolves’ books, John Masefield’s and Joan Aiken’s, with their stories of heart-stopping snowy chases across wooded landscapes, it was the first of his Kay Harker books, The Midnight Folk, that was to have the most lasting influence on Joan Aiken.  And rather than her ‘Wolves’, it is another story of Joan’s that owes most to John Masefield – the one she made up at age 17, at the height of the Second World war, to comfort and distract her small brother. Aiken’s real first novel, first published two years before The Wolves of Willoughby Chase, was called The Kingdom and The Cave. It was a pure homage to the Masefield books she and her brother knew and loved, and Joan Aiken, fully recognising her debt, never imagined that one day it would actually be published.

But years later, at a time when when she desperately needed to support a sick husband and two small children, she took out the old exercise book where she had written it down, typed it out and found a publisher who agreed to take it after a complete revision which finally made the story  her own. As she said later: ‘All young writers learn by imitation…and certainly I could not have chosen a better model.’

It seemed absolutely fitting that Virago Modern Classics should agree to republish this book,  Joan Aiken’s real first novel – written many years before The Wolves of Willoughby Chase – and that it should get one of its best reviews from a young reader who found as much delight in her story as she and her young brother had found in Masefield’s, so many years before.

He wrote:

Young Guardian review

The ongoing influence of great writing on young readers, and future writers is discussed in a review by Piers Torday who has adapted The Box of Delights for a Christmas production at Wilton’s Music Hall. He describes the influence that John Masefield has had on many other writers for children, including Susan Cooper and C.S.Lewis; and we can all share their enthusiasm for Masefield’s wild imagination and skill in crafting an enduring fantasy, and their wish to create books like the ones that as children so delighted them….

Here is Joan Aiken’s own tribute to the master:

KingdomAndCave_B_9780349005874

The Virago edition of The Kingdom and The Cave can be found here

and you can read more about it here

Excerpts above are taken from an article Joan Aiken originally wrote for

The Journal of the John Masefield Society

 

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On Holiday with Joan Aiken and friends…

Sea Monster

“Down, sir! Heel. Go home now, good serpent.”

What would you wish for on your holiday, apart from lazy days of  sunshine, rest and relaxation and a good book? Joan Aiken’s Armitage family have an unfortunate knack of wishing for things that come true when they least expect it; in this case Mrs Armitage is finding her honeymoon a little too peaceful, and idly slips a round white stone with a hole in it on to her finger, remembering:

“When I was little I used to call these wishing stones.”

She goes on to speculate happily about the future, imagining:

‘a beautiful house, in a beautiful village… with at least one ghost…two children who never mope or sulk or get bored…and a few magic wishes…and a phoenix or something…’

“Whoa, wait a minute…you don’t really believe in that stone, do you?” Mr Armitage said anxiously.

“Only half.”

“Well how about taking it off, now and throwing it in the sea, before you wish for anything else?”

Armitage honeymoon

And of course now we’ll be waiting to see how those wishes  come true…

The amazing adventures of the Armitage family continue in

Joan Aiken’s The Serial Garden

  Perfect Summer reading for all

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UK edition from Virago illustrated as here by Peter Bailey

US edition from Small Beer Press with pictures by Andi Watson

Andi Watson dragon

E.Nesbit and Joan Aiken – best loved classics

Nesbit & Aiken

The sincerest form of flattery…? Beware spoilers!

Joan Aiken and Edith Nesbit had a good deal in common – for a start they both lost their fathers at an early age, and later they also lost husbands, or found themselves the chief breadwinner of their family, struggling to feed children from their not always successful writing careers. Nesbit portrayed a mother in just this situation in The Railway Children, and it is striking that in this book, unlike in her more fantastic stories, there are no magical solutions. Having been an avid Nesbit reader since early childhood, Joan Aiken didn’t discover this Nesbit classic until much later:

JA Rwy Children1

There was for her an instant recognition of the straitened circumstances of the family, and of the poignant loss of the father; her mother was married to a struggling often absent writer, and losing a husband was something she was to discover for herself just a few years later, and so it was with enormous sympathy she wrote:

JA Rwy Children2JA Rwy Children3a

Joan Aiken, like Edith Nesbit was able to take the most poignant events of her life and transform them into stories, and also most tellingly, even into happy endings. By the time she had written her own most memorable classic The Wolves of Willoughby Chase, Joan Aiken had overcome the more desperate events of her early life and her writing career would take off with this book.

Perhaps because her own early reading had been so inspiring, and that particular happy ending was something she too had so strongly wished for, she was especially determined to have it come true for her own heroine, Bonnie Green.

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Read more about the astonishing background to Joan’s classic story here

and see more of Bill Bragg’s illustrations for the beautiful Folio Edition of ‘Wolves’ here

Look for a new edition of The Railway Children  from Virago

with original C.E.Brock illustrations as above

…and forgive Joan’s occasional typo – writing at speed!