Diana Wynne Jones died on Saturday. I heard the news on Monday morning, so I’ve had a day and a bit to absorb it before trying to write this. Which is probably a good thing; I’m not sure I’d have been able to do anything but wail if I’d tried to say anything right away.
I think the first Diana Wynne Jones book I ever read was the paperback of Charmed Life, some time in the early ’80s and I immediately went looking for more of the same. I was delighted to find the run of Greenwillow hardcovers under YA, and rapidly became a devoted fan.
In 1987, I attended the World Science Fiction Convention, which was held in Brighton, England that year. Practically the first thing I saw was that I’d been put on a panel that Diana was to moderate. I had that sinking sensation that you get when you know you’re going to make a fool of yourself in front of one of your idols, but it wasn’t like I was going to tell them I couldn’t do it. And then I walked into the Green Room a bit ahead of the panel, checking out name tags, and there she was.
She looked like the best kind of witch in the world, with bushy black hair down to her shoulders and an infectious grin, a book in one hand and a cigarette in the other. I took my courage in both hands and stepped up, and she blinked over at me and said cheerfully, “You’re on my panel. I have to introduce you. Who are you? What have you done?”
I was still suffering from the worst kind of stage fright, so I just pulled out the copies of my books that I’d brought along and handed them to her. She shuffled through them and then looked up at me with a frown. “But these look marvelous!” she said accusingly. “Why haven’t I heard of you?”
“Um, American writer?” I stammered, and she grumbled something about publishing and which books got published in different countries, and that was the start of a twenty-four-and-a-half-year friendship.
Most of the time, it was a letters-and-emails sort of friendship, and an erratic one at that. Neither of us had a lot of time to spend writing letters. Periodically, one of us would put together a big box of books that weren’t yet available in the other one’s home country and ship them off to the other; it was a toss-up whether it was more fun to pick out things I thought she’d like, or to see what she’d chosen for me. That was how I got hold of Nancy Farmer’s The Ear, The Eye, and The Arm, and Sally Odgers’ Translations in Celadon.
We saw each other mostly at conventions. There was one where Diana was going around asking everyone to suggest types of magic swords for a project she was working on. The suggestions got increasingly more hilarious as the hour got later, but she wouldn’t talk about the project because it wasn’t completely settled yet. The project turned out to be The Tough Guide to Fantasyland, which later generated The Dark Lord of Derkholm.
Diana always said that her books were true after the fact – whatever she wrote about eventually started happening to her in some way – and she had a string of hilarious anecdotes to prove it. She was friendly to nearly everyone, and she and her husband were beyond hospitable – when I told her I’d be back in England in 1996 and asked if we could arrange a meet-up, the next thing I knew, she’d arranged a ride down from London for me and my travel buddy so that we could stay overnight at her home.
She was funny and dear and energetic, and even when she complained about things, she was entertaining. I will miss her for the rest of my life, even more than I’ll miss her unwritten books, and I will always remember her as the best kind of witch there ought to be.