Youmans (pronounced like 'yeoman' with an 's' added) is the best-kept secret among contemporary American writers. --John Wilson, editor, Books and Culture

Monday, March 28, 2011

The House of Words (no. 5): Diana Wynne Jones

Death interrupts us in the midst of life, and just so it interrupts The House of Words. Here is Rebecca Beatrice Miller, my daughter, on the death of Diana Wynne Jones. I just imagine that this will remain for me the most beautiful and meanngful fan letter I know because it is a wonderful letter and because it is tied so tightly to the childhood of my middle child. Rebecca (along with her friends Jin and Lauren) was home on spring break when Diana Wynne Jones died. She wrote this letter shortly after returning to school.

* * *

Dear Diana,

This is the letter I’ve been meaning to write to you for--years now, I guess. But mostly since this August, when I heard that you were going off of chemo. I thought then that I’d write you a letter, and maybe, if it was you I was writing to, I’d finally be able to explain to someone just how important you’ve been to me. But I waited until it was too late. I know it’s a cliché, but I even remember saying to someone that I felt like by putting off that letter, I could stretch out your life, because you couldn’t die before I sent it to you. For the past eight months I kept thinking about how sad I’d be when it finally happened. But I think that I didn’t really believe that it would. I definitely didn’t realize how sad I’d really be.

When you’re a kid, it’s not like you don’t think about death. But you’re running on insufficient knowledge, and it’s puzzling and kids don’t tend to dwell on things that confuse them. Up until a certain age, I just kind of assumed all the writers I was reading were dead. Weird, since I live with an author--one who is perhaps more alive than most people. Like you were, Diana. That’s why when I read Howl’s Moving Castle for the first time, I wanted to remember your name. I guess that was the age when I started thinking about writers, their lives and writing processes. That’s when I started wanting to write seriously. I think I wrote my first real short story in third grade, the same year I read Howl’s Moving Castle. I remember something vague about a child in a big house, something about being caged. A cliff by the sea, and a boy who turns into a bird.

So I remembered your name, and I talked to my mom (who gave me the book) about you, and she brought me more books. Charmed Life and the rest of the Chrestomanci quartet (because it was just a quartet back then), the Dalemark sequence, Dogsbody, Eight Days of Luke. I still think that The Homeward Bounders is one of the most devastatingly sad books I’ve ever read, and the characters all seem so ancient and real. But there’s one book that I always go back to--of course, it’s Howl’s Moving Castle. I’ve read it so often. I don’t own a copy, I always check out the same old one from the library next to my house. The first time I read it, I was so tense and excited that my fingers tore little arch-shaped holes in the bottom edges of the pages. I like to read it again and look at the holes I made in the library copy so long ago--more than ten years ago--and wonder if anyone else read the book and touched the holes and wondered who made them.

From then on my childhood was a romance with the weird and wonderful, and I couldn’t get enough of your stories. Diana, you had this incredible way of saying so much with so little, so that as I read I had these little “oh” moments that were unlike anything I found anywhere else, and still are. You trust the reader in a way so few writers can: cleverly, yet modestly, with an unaffected enthusiasm that sweeps us away.

I don’t know if you’d remember this, but I sent you a letter once. More of a card, really--it was a piece of paper all folded up, with a picture of Tony from Magicians of Caprona dressed like Punch, with a big red nose. I’m not sure how old I was, but I’m thinking the drawing wasn’t too great. I don’t remember what was inside. I think I was too shy to write very much. It must have been when I was about eleven or twelve, a little before I first heard that Howl would be made into a film--a Miyazaki film, no less, of whom I was already a fan. (I was ecstatic, to say the least; at first I thought it couldn’t be real.) I think it was then because my mom was sending letters to you, and that’s when The Curse of the Raven Mocker was being written. I remember you read it, and you said you loved it, you loved how different it was next to the majority of the children’s fantasy genre. I remember that letter. I remember you saying that my picture was on your trophy shelf. I wonder how long it stayed there, and I wonder how crowded your shelf was then compared to later, when you must have gotten letters in floods. I was so happy though.

Diana, when people asked me who my favorite author was, I always hesitated, even though your name was the first one to come to mind. The truth is that you were more than a favorite author to me--you were not even in the same realm as other authors any more. You had a shrine in my heart where I placed the memory of the first moment that I opened one of your books, frozen, inviolate, forever. Your stories became a part of me in a way no other stories ever did. They spoke to me about loss and loneliness and helplessness and frustration, but they also made me laugh and sigh with happiness. You told me that childhood and life are hard, but things aren’t always what they seem and you find reasons to keep on going. Your books were a whisper of darkness and a dream of adventure. When I was happy or sad or sick of life I wanted to read Diana. Each time a new book came out, I had to have it. I brought five of your books to college with me, because I couldn’t stand not to have your words with me--a place without Diana doesn’t feel like home. You taught me a certain special kind of writing philosophy, the kind that said that children’s books don’t have to be dumbed down, that the best books are loved by adults and children alike, and by other authors. But most importantly, your books said loud and clear that you only ever wrote what you wanted to write. Remembering that freedom in thought that you had, the cheerful way you trampled expectations, makes me sadder than anything else. You weren’t merely a childhood favorite author; you were unique in all the world.

When I heard you had died, I didn’t just shed tears. I cried like a baby, helplessly and with abandon. I cried for about an hour, hiccuping until I couldn’t breathe. I was shocked at how I cried; I still can’t really fathom it, but in a DWJ sort of way I understand perfectly how I could have been touched and changed so much by a woman 57 years my senior, in a country I have never visited, who I never met.

Authors have a special kind of relationship with their readers. As creators, they have a tiny sort of godhood: a reader of stories usually never sees the writer’s face, or speaks with him or her, except maybe through letters. Likewise the author’s fate is led by a faceless mass of unknown number, sometimes buoying their spirits with letters and pictures. There is love between these two halves of the equation, a kind of devotion or loyalty that I feel doesn’t really exist anywhere else in the world. And I think it’s because of the nature of writing. When you read a book, you’ve got a direct line into someone else’s head; you’re literally reading their thoughts, even if they were refined and crystallized into this form.

Diana, thank you so much for giving me your thoughts, for teaching me so much, for helping me, for lending me your dreams and nurturing my hopes. Whenever I felt disgusted with the world, frustrated at life, or simply helpless, your words comforted me. This is the bitterest goodbye I’ve yet had to make, because at times I’ve thought that you were a sort of guardian angel to me.

I think you must view the afterlife in a funny way, so I won’t say too much--but hopefully, someone nice is paying attention and will make sure that you see this. If nothing else, Diana, just know that you made a little girl smile.

Love,
Rebecca

Diana Wynne Jones, 12 August 1934 - 26 March 2011

Nature's first green is gold
Her hardest hue to hold.
Her early leaf's a flower;
But only so an hour.
Then leaf subsides to leaf.
So Eden sank to grief,
So dawn goes down to day.
Nothing gold can stay.

Illustration: The cover to Howl's Moving Castle shown here is the same as the library copy Rebecca mentions.

19 comments:

  1. What a beautiful, beautiful letter. Marly, your daughter writes with such maturity. I'm unfamiliar with Diana Wynne Jones, but Rebecca's loss made me cry.
    --Julie

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  2. Hi Julie--

    I hope she is not wroth with me, as I pilfered it from her fb notes... Just thought it was too good not to share.

    Yes, it is well done and full of feeling. When she was five or six, she used to sit on my lap and I'd type little things she would narrate.

    I'm sure she will have something to do with words, but she loves all of the arts. But she's a mere freshman, so--lots of time.

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  3. This is very moving. Very moving indeed.
    'Authors have a special kind of relationship with their readers', Rebecca writes.
    Yes, they do. They do indeed 'lend' their imaginations, dreams, and ideas to others
    Rebecca rocks big-time, Marly.

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  4. Hey, I think so too! Thanks, Paul.

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  5. Wow, this made my eyes go moist and my heart melt. What an amazing daughter you have, and she has your talent with expressing herself with words. You must be very proud of her. I must look up the authro's books
    perhaps for my granddaughter...

    PS. Rebecca is a winner, according to word verification!

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  6. marja-leena,

    Yes, I think they are monkeying around with word verification. Too many ironic or appropriate ones for accident, surely. Mine is "blessin," and yes she is one!
    I am proud of her--she has many talents and a big heart.

    Most people start with the Chrestomanci stories, it seems. But there are lots of grand ones.

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  7. Marly, thanks for the suggestion to start with the Chrestomanci stories. Just curious, are the books very scary? Our 10 yr grandgirl is an avid reader but a little sensitive to anything too scary.

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  8. marja-leena,

    Hmm, good question. Perhaps you had better take a look yourself. There are some scary elements, but they are often blended with characters who see the absurdity of the thing--in fact, there is almost always a kind of comedy threading through her stories, and a reassuring and amusing clash of characters that sees one through tight spots. My guess is that these books aren't the sort that would bother her, but you know best. If she's 10 and avid, "Howl's Moving Castle" might work for her.

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  9. Rebecca's letter is beautiful and accomplished beyond belief. I am frankly in awe of her talent. Thank you SO much for sharing that, Marly. I just sat and cried.

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  10. Phil, you are good to say so! I think it is beautiful too.

    The whole press of grief behind it says that if one is a writer, it is possible that a creation in words may really make a deep, keen mark on another's soul. And that is a wonderful, frightening, and beautiful idea.

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  11. What about your books for children, Marly? Oh, I know I must check out all your book links as I'm still getting to know you and your work.... thanks for your time!

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  12. They are both out of print but sometimes can be found in stores still--"The Curse of the Raven Mocker" and "Ingledove." I have some copies. And there's abe.com.

    Oops, must run pick up my little hurdler and runner! I do have another book I'll submit that I wrote for him...

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  13. Look on those pages at http://www.marlyyoumans.com--you can see some review clips and such.

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  14. Staggering.

    You have another writer in the family!

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  15. Clive,

    Yes, indeedy.

    She is rather secretive and modest and doesn't show anything, so I am afraid that I snitched this! She took a writing workshop last semester, and the teacher (a novelist) told them that it was the best group she had ever taught. So I guess there are some good young writers coming up! But I think she is going to concentrate in studio art and film in school.

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  16. Incredible letter, Marly! That girl has huge talent (And DWJ was so right about 'The Curse of the Raven Mocker')

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  17. Two sets of "thank you," Clare!

    Life is so marvelous, the way the babies grow up and then step out and do. Wonderful. Hard work, and yet looking back it seems like a dream and magic.

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  18. That was really beautiful. When I realized what this was I decided to save it for the perfect introspective morning.

    Your daughter is really insightful.

    She should let the librarians know she would like to buy that copy of the book should they decide to weed it.

    Wow, what a great letter. I am just speechless. Although I will say I think Diana got the message.

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  19. Susannah,

    My husband said the same thing--wanted to swap them a new copy when he read this.

    Yes, it does seem like it could punch through the barriers between worlds, doesn't it? Really heartfelt.

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Alas, I must once again remind large numbers of Chinese salesmen and other worldwide peddlers that if they fall into the Gulf of Spam, they will be eaten by roaming Balrogs. The rest of you, lovers of grace, poetry, and horses (nod to Yeats--you do not have to be fond of horses), feel free to leave fascinating missives and curious arguments.