31 March 2011

Jones on “Birthing a Book”

The Horn Book just reposted Diana Wynne Jones’s 2004 essay “Birthing a Book,” in which she confesses:

I once, when asked to give a talk about my book Fire and Hemlock, did have a stab at describing what went on while I wrote it. I teased out every layer of the book. Starting with what I felt about heroes and the heroic, I went on to describe my passion for cello music and how a rereading of Eliot’s Four Quartets sparked the actual book and gave rise to the presence of a quartet of musicians in it. I charted the various myths and folktales that surfaced and sank in the course of it, and of course I expounded on the ballads of Tam Lin and Thomas the Rhymer — regarded as the negative and positive of the same story — which were the framework for the narrative. I gave the paper and the audience nodded wisely. This, they seemed to feel, was real stuff. I then went to New York, where my publishers had taken a great interest and had asked for a copy of the talk. I went in to see Libby, one of the editors — a wonderful wise lady with a voice like a sack of gravel being shaken. She was just finishing the paper as I walked in. She looked up from it and shook gravel at me:

“Very nice, Diana, but writers don’t work like that.”

I wanted to shout, “Yes, I do! It’s all true!” Instead I sort of gulped and answered, “No. You’re absolutely right.” As soon as I thought, I realized that the book had not been written in at all the analytical way I had tried to describe. The second draft might have been, when I was trying to make clear all the various elements that went into it — a process I always liken to pointing up or grouting the basic brickwork — but the first draft had been written at white heat, in a state where I was unable to put it down. I worked at it in any spare five minutes I could find. I even got up at six in the morning to write. This was so unheard of that my family wondered if I was ill. And such was the passion with which I was going at it that it seemed to pull in all sorts of queer but relevant things from daily life — I can’t tell you half the weird things now, but I do remember being followed around by a van labeled King’s Lynn, and going to a lecture where the speaker turned out to be the image of Mr. Leroy, with great black bags under his eyes, who proceeded to talk about both the Four Quartets and the ballad of Tam Lin, in a lecture that I think was supposed to be about Shakespeare.

Yet the book got written with a shape and a coherent story. The various elements I so carefully dissected in my talk got fed in at the right places. And I know I was very careful throughout, even in the first draft, to keep all the supernatural elements just a bare thread away from things that could have a normal explanation after all. This was one of the prime requirements from the book itself when it first came thundering into my head.
Later Jones reports, “I had no idea what Chrestomanci was going to be like until he first appeared in Mrs. Sharp’s kitchen. This is in spite of the fact that Charmed Life was a book that came into my head almost whole and entire from the start.”

There’s lots more of value, but one shouldn’t read this essay as a guide on how to write. Every writer’s method is different. The main value of such author essays, I think, is in how they show the wide range of working styles, with bits and pieces that others can pick up while leaving the rest to wonder at.

Tor.com has fantasy scholar Farah Mendelsohn’s essay on Jones’s career and passing. Neil Gaiman’s very personal appreciation is here.

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