Diana Wynne Jones has been my favorite author since I was eight, when Howl's Moving Castle became my favorite book. (It still is.) In the summer of 2007, I had the extreme good fortune to meet DWJ. I've never been so excited to meet someone in my life. She surpassed all of my expectations, mostly in being so very kind.
First, some months before, I had written a fan letter to DWJ. I was stunned to have her write a very encouraging personal letter back. Later, when I found I'd be doing a summer study-abroad in Bath, not far from her home in Bristol, I wrote again to ask whether maybe, possibly, by any chance, I could take her out for lunch or otherwise meet her. I gave her the dates I'd be there and the address where I'd be in Bath, but expected that if she were to write back, she'd do it before I left. When I didn't hear from her before heading to England, I supposed sadly that I'd crossed some kind of fan-stalker line.
June 3, 2007
On arriving at the house where I would stay during my five-week summer study-abroad
The girls in my building (eight or ten or so?) helped me move my stuff, and they told me importantly "you have a letter!" I thought "oh, Momdad sent me a letter before I got here, sneaky sneaky!" But no. No indeed. What I have is a letter from Diana Wynne Jones saying that I must call her so that we can arrange a time when I can come to her house for tea, and would I like her to give me a copy of The Skiver's Guide, a book of hers not available in the US?
June 5, 2007
I TALKED ON THE PHONE TO DIANA WYNNE JONES. Yes. And I have scheduled to go for tea to her house on Sunday the 17th. Oh my freaking gosh. I am going to have tea with my hero. I cannot believe this. :D
June 17, 2007
*Still can't believe any of this*
So, at 1:53 pm today, I got on a train for Bristol with two DWJ books in my backpack (and Emma, to read for class on the train). At the Bristol Temple Meads station, I got a cab to Diana Wynne Jones' house. Just like she said in her letter, it has a blue door with a knocker with eyes (or Eyes, as she called them) on it. It also has a beautiful garden and, across the street, had a huge children's birthday party going on with rented inflatable things and everything. I knocked on the door, and Diana Wynne Jones answered it. (!!!) (Yes, I know that this is pretty within the realm of normality, given that she does in fact live there, but DIANA WYNNE JONES! I'm sorry for this freaking out. Won't happen again.) She invited me inside (IN DIANA WYNNE JONES' HOUSE! Sorry, won't happen . . . again.) and we got a tray of tea stuff and went upstairs to sit and talk. She has a fireplace in her sitting room which is nonfunctional and has a fluffy stuffed Calcifer in it from the movie of Howl's Moving Castle. She has, in fact, a lot of merchandise from that movie, which was given to her; she thinks they sell it in Korea. Fluffy stuffed Calcifers are adorable. She has at least two, and also magnets, figurines, paperweights, and dolls of Howl and Sophie.
We talked about the movie of Howl's Moving Castle. She said that, while Miyazaki was working on Spirited Away, he sent a crew of people over to ask her in-depth questions about the book and the fantasy world, which they did very confusingly, through two interpreters. They wanted to know what real-life scenery they could use to base the landscapes off of. She said there wasn't any, as she had made it up. They went to Cardiff and based the scenery off of that, which wasn't right. Miyazaki got back from working on Spirited Away, said "Fine, I'll do it myself," and fired everyone but the screenwriter and producer. He still made changes - some of which DWJ didn't like much more than I did - but at least one thing is explained for me: the huge war that he put in the movie that wasn't in the book. He not only read Howl's Moving Castle, but also its sequel (also a good book), and noted that a war took place in between them, and he wanted to move that war back into Howl's Moving Castle. DWJ, who talked with Miyazaki (she says he speaks English but uses an interpreter anyway, and that the poor interpreter didn't get anything to eat while they were at a restaurant, but claimed to be used to it), says that they were both kids during WWII, and that she thought the bombing scene in the movie was very good. She said that, after the bombings, her husband and his friends ran around collecting ammunition pieces and trading them, while she and her friends picked up the strands of aluminum thrown out to confuse sensors or something, and made them into bracelets.
We talked briefly about politics (stemmed from the war discussion), and then moved on to airport issues (via the way that they decidedly do not need terrorist threats to be inefficient). At one point, DWJ visited Robin McKinley in Maine because they had the same publisher. She got stranded in an airport in Boston, and her luggage went on to New York and possibly to Bombay, India. DWJ thus got to Maine very late, and Ms. McKinley had been waiting in the airport for hours, and DWJ burst off of the plane and exclaimed "I haven't any knickers!" They went to a mall and got her more stuff.
DWJ also talked about the people she has to put up with when she publishes things, because the copy editors always want to change things. I find this inconceivable, but they do, especially the ones in America. She said that she had one read a book she'd written which takes place in a village that has a post office, and they called her and said "villages don't have post offices in America," and DWJ said "I think they're busy living in New York and don't know anything about it." Also, one of them claimed that muesli did not exist, and DWJ said "I've been to your office. There is a health food store across the street that sells muesli. Look out your window!" After she sent in Howl's Moving Castle, it was sent back with editorial marks all over it in red pencil, and she got some erasers and went through and erased all of it ("I left every page a pink smudge") and sent it back, which got the point across. They contacted her later with much chagrin and asked whether they could use Post-its next time, and she said she didn't want there to be a next time. (They kept wanting her to change dialogue because it "wasn't grammar". What the heck?) She also says there is a woman who loves subjunctives and has "a voice like water running over gravel" who calls and says *does low, scratchy voice* "Diana, I'm not happy." ("But I usually throw her a subjunctive or two just because she's so nice.") Also, SHE'S WRITTEN ANOTHER SEQUEL TO HOWL'S MOVING CASTLE, which will be coming out soon!
All this time, I was drinking tea (DWJ actually does not like tea, and never has), and DWJ was smoking a lot, which was the only thing to make me sad during the visit, since I hate to see anyone smoke. Her husband, who I met for a bit and who also seemed nice, smoked too. I did not meet her cat, who was shy of strangers.
I gave DWJ the clotted cream fudge I had picked up for her in Cornwall, and she brought me downstairs to a basement full of towers of boxes full of books and started going "Do you have this one? Do you have this one?" and making a stack of books to give me. She also showed me covers from lots of different countries (she thinks she's published in most languages except for a few of those in the African countries) - the Russian covers were really beautiful. She says that it's unusual for illustrators to read the books, but the Russian ones did, and they put everything into the covers and got every detail right. She also showed me the cool Korean and Japanese covers, and she gave me a copy of a book only available in the UK.
Back upstairs, DWJ signed ALL OF THE BOOKS to me (except for the one I brought to ask if she would sign it to a friend back home, which she did). Glad I brought my backpack! Then, she and her husband and I came downstairs had a more proper sort of tea, with tea and crumpets (crumpets!) and Cadbury chocolate biscuits (they also have Hobnobs, the cookies I discovered here and love, which is awesome). Her husband asked questions about me, and I answered them; DWJ thinks that being a creative writing professor is a good idea for a writer, as long as you don't start thinking that writing really works the way so many teachers say. I told her that what seems really useful to me about a class is the chance to get feedback from a group, rather than just one person, who might be wrong or just be giving an opinion that most people wouldn't have; she agreed. When I said I was majoring in psychology to write better characters, she laughed and said that seemed like an excellent idea, but that she really likes to write characters based on real people she knows. And then *CANNOT BELIEVE THIS HAPPENED* DWJ talked with me about writing. She told me about her writing process; how her mom suspected correctly about some of the characters being based on her; the music she listens to; the time her repairman (with whom she's on a first-name basis and who was there doing the same thing we had a repairman here in Linley to do on Friday, namely clearing out a drainage pipe so that the roof would stop leaking in the rain) made her stop writing when she was in a rush two pages from the end of a book, saying "I want you to look at pictures of my baby", and then showed her pictures of "a really generic-looking baby" on his digital camera; how she loves it when the story takes on a life of its own and characters do things you don't expect; and so on. And she actually cared about MY writing, too! It was so amazing!
We also talked about lineage and various ancestry things; she thinks Mom's gold family tree mobile sounds like story material. I've always thought it was pretty neat.
Then, her neighbor, father of the birthday kid across from her house, came over to apologize for the noise. He was very nice (and a one-time psychology major himself), and told me his kids are big fans, too; he tried to convince DWJ to stop smoking. She said she is allergic to the patch. (She has lots of allergies.) I timidly suggested nicotine gum. She said she is allergic to that, too. Her neighbor said triumphantly that she is allergic to nicotine. She said that she certainly is not, and he told her jokingly that if she won't quit, she should at least switch to weed.
Her husband called me a cab, and I got a photo of DWJ (would have liked one with her, but her husband had gone to watch cricket and her neighbor back to his house, so I had no one to take it), and she gave me a hug (DIANA WYNNE JONES HUGGED ME!!! Sorry, sorry.) and said "I'm sure I'll see you around again", and I left. I returned, grinning, to Linley House, where I sprayed myself and my backpack with air freshener, because I cannot live with myself smelling like smoke.
Ohmyfreakinggosh. :D Is that not the awesomest thing ever EVER?
P.S. Michelle has returned from Brighton, and without a caddish military husband. I told DWJ about that - she thought it was funny. :)
This loss is heartbreaking - I knew she was fighting cancer, but last I'd heard, she was doing pretty well. And, of course, like so many, I'd hoped so hard she would beat it again that I didn't want to think about the possibility that it wouldn't happen. I feel incredibly lucky to have met her, but I think we've all been lucky to have been DWJ's contemporaries. We'll always have her books, with which she made the world a better place. My thoughts to her family and friends.