Diana Wynne Jones, who wrote some of the twentieth century's finest children's/YA fantasies and died this March, never seemed quite grown-up. Rather than being a dignified Major Author and Living National Treasure, she had the air of a mischievous teenager who just happened to have wrinkles (like the age-cursed heroine of her Howl's Moving Castle) and might at any moment do something outrageous. I remember Diana chatting at a convention, wearing a neck-brace – her health jinx had struck again – decorated, with permission, with a frieze of dancing nymphs by an artist from the Encyclopedia of Fantasy team. This seemed entirely logical.
As an expert fantasy practitioner she gave the Encyclopedia a helping hand, mainly through trenchant notes in the margins of overly pretentious drafts: "Bollocks!" Her favourite critical quote came from a student thesis about her: "Jones disagrees." This became a household catchphrase, frequently addressed to the cat.
You must know her wonderful books: the Chrestomanci and Howl series, the Dalemark quartet, the hilariously daft Archer's Goon (adapted for BBC television), the genre-crossing Deep Secret (a fan favourite, containing a wickedly plausible SF convention) and many more.... Critics tried to pin down Diana's elusive magic; she read the results with fascination and was delighted by the tasty bits: "My favourite is the assertion that I am 'rooted in fluidity'. Obviously hydroponic, probably a lettuce, possibly a cabbage. A new light is cast." The critic, I'm told, was mortified.
It wasn't only Diana's health that was jinxed. She was convinced that disasters escaped from her books into real life. For example, there's a goddess in Drowned Ammet whose power is to raise islands: "The first time I went on a boat after writing that book, an island grew up out of the sea and stranded us." Even a visit to 10 Downing Street, when Tony Blair threw a party for top children's authors, included cursed canapés ("I took a rice thing from one of the small ladies and it came open and rice went all up my sleeve, like gummy little beetles.") and the dire political embarrassment of nearly getting trapped in the Number Ten loo.
Likewise the joy of publicity: "Did you know that the Daily Mail insists that all women have to be photographed in a skirt? And not in black. I had to buy a skirt." And again: "The feisty photographer from SFX decided that the best and most typical pose for me was halfway down the stairs to the hotel toilets, where she had me leaning against the wall idly toying with a beer bottle. Now what gave her that idea?" Some of my happiest memories of Diana are from convention bars....
Jones was still Disagreeing in her last email to me. She'd seen the proceedings of a learned seminar on her work, which she'd been too ill to attend: "the whole set of speeches from the DWJ conference (that I most miserably failed to get to; now I am glad: I would have shot upright from the audience and announced 'Jones disagrees' like anything). Anyway, these speeches had now been tidied into articles and I read them and found myself most thoroughly Derridaed and Foucaulted and always referred to as 'the Text'. In future I shall have to say 'The Text disagrees'." And she signed off in a Welsh sort of way, as Jones the Text.
Now the memories and the highly rereadable texts are all we have. If only Diana were here to disagree.
David Langford isn't much consoled to know that two final books (one short fantasy, one essay collection) are awaited.