Ellen Renner grew up in the Ozark hills of southern Missouri. She studied both painting and creative writing at university before moving to England in her twenties. She now lives in Devon with her husband and teenage son. Ellen's debut novel, Castle of Shadows, is an adventure for readers aged nine-plus, set in an alternative Victorian world. It won the 2007 Cornerstones/Writers News WOW Factor Competition for unpublished writers and was published in January 2010 by Orchard Books. Castle of Shadows was longlisted for the Waterstone's Prize and the Dorset New Horizons Book Award, and is currently shortlisted for the West Sussex Children's Book Prize. The sequel, City of Thieves, will be published by Orchard in August. Here Ellen writes about Diana Wynne Jones.
Ellen Renner on Diana Wynne Jones
I was in my thirties and settled in England before I discovered Diana Wynne Jones. A reprint of Charmed Life mysteriously found its way into a clutch of books my husband was reviewing for an academic journal and he passed it on to me. It was a happy coincidence: I had just come to the realization that what I really wanted to write was children's fiction, and now I had discovered the writer whose stories would connect with me in a way no others have before or since.
There are few writers whose works I can visit repeatedly and find something nourishing in them each time. Few books I can lose myself in on a second, third, fourth reading, slipping into the story without noticing mechanics of prose, characterization and plot.
But when I sit down to try to analyse what I find so satisfying in DWJ's books, it's hard to pin down the mysterious ingredient. There are many things she does extraordinarily well: she writes in a clean, lucid style which appears effortless; she creates colourful and memorable characters; her plots are satisfying twists on traditional forms; she unpicks myth and folklore and weaves it afresh; she world-builds convincing and enticing realms. But the world of children's literature is full of excellent writers who do all of that. None of which explains why I keep returning to my favourites among her books over and over again. I think the simple truth is that she writes the stories I want to read.
Charmed Life remains my favourite DWJ, along with Howl's Moving Castle. They are both examples of that rare thing: a perfect book. Other much loved titles include Dogsbody, Fire and Hemlock, The Magicians of Caprona, The Lives of Christopher Chant, Outward Bounders, Deep Secret (and its sort-of sequel, The Merlin Conspiracy) and Hexwood. But can I possibly leave out The Power of Three, Black Maria, The Ogre Downstairs and A Tale of Time City? I especially love the fact that, although Wynne Jones revisits certain character types and themes, each book is different.
Charmed Life illustrates a repeated theme in DWJ: a young person in search of their identity, coming to terms with their unique gifts. The young Cat Chant, orphaned, bewildered and stubbornly gullible, must come to terms with who and what he is. In Howl's Moving Castle it is another orphan, Sophie Hatter, who in classic fairy tale mode sets out to seek her fortune. Both protagonists seem almost wilfully blind to their real talents until forced by circumstances to accept their gifts and use them.
Part of DWJ's own magic is to make you want to be her characters. That's why one reads, after all: to go into a new world and become a new person. In real life we are trapped inside one body and one existence. In the world of story we can be anyone, have any adventure, experience life and death a multitude of times. I would love to be the reluctant Cat, the redoubtable Sophie, the slippery, vain Howl (that ultimate slitherer-outer), although perhaps not the imperturbable Chrestomanci. He's too controlled, too omniscient, altogether too perfect. DWJ is at her most enticing when she combines the magical and the mundane. The combination of the prosaic and the fantastic enriches her books with humour and poignancy.
Her best characters are flawed and human (even when supernatural). We care about the Dog Star, Sirius, in Dogsbody because he's better at loving than thinking; Howl is attractive because of his flaws and his reluctant overcoming of them. Sophie is impetuous and bossy but also brave and determined. DWJ's characters may have extraordinary gifts of magic but they remain fallible - and therefore attractive. It isn't their magic which gets them out of trouble, it is ordinary human qualities of loyalty, bravery and determination.
And the evil they face is human evil: Greedy, manipulative Uncle Ralf in The Lives of Christopher Chant is reborn in the greedy, manipulative Uncle Alfred of Conrad's Fate. Aunt Maria in Black Maria is the epitome of a classic Wynne Jones villain: the cannibalistic, self-centred mother, given various expressions as Gammer in The Pinhoe Egg, the terrifying fairy queen Lauren in Fire and Hemlock, the stolidly awful Duffy in Dogsbody, Nick's poisonous mother in Deep Secret and that perfect expression of banal evil that is Grundo's mother in The Merlin Conspiracy. In fact, Wynne Jones's most evil villains are consistently female, while her most appealing, if flawed, characters are often male (although she does a good line in strong heroines). Her favourite heroic type is variously incarnated as Howl (subject of serious crushes down the generations), Rupert in Deep Secret, Thomas Lynn in Fire and Hemlock and Andrew Hope in her latest book, Enchanted Glass.
The world of fantasy writing is profligate with boffiny plotters and detailed world-builders whose characters are about as real as the cardboard horse and driver in The Magicians of Caprona. The difference is that in much fantasy writing magic is an end in itself. In DWJ it is always a means to an end - often that of gaining insight into the natures and personalities of her characters.
Relationships, families (usually dysfunctional) and individual moral responsibility - rather than an archetypal battle between abstract good and evil - are the focus of her alchemy. Add to that a strong sense of the absurd and a talent for humour and you have a potent mixture.
Diana Wynne Jones is unique, stubbornly refusing to be caught, categorized, pinned down. That originality may be part of the reason she has never enjoyed the renown she deserves. But while others of her contemporaries and descendants may be more famous, her books, I am willing to bet, will continue to enchant readers for generations to come.
[All the pieces that have appeared in this series, with the links to them, are listed in the index here.]