I Belong to Chrestomanci Castle

There is a Diana Wynne Jones tribute going on, and I have kept thinking and thinking about a way to contribute to it, and kept feeling entirely and massively inadequate.

I never met her, and if I had I don’t think she would have been terribly impressed. I would have just stared with damp adoration, and maybe said ‘I loooooove your books’ in tones more unutterably creepy than I can describe to you. It would have been like Gollum saying ‘I am rather fond of costume jewelry.’

Robin McKinley, in her tribute to Diana Wynne Jones, which is, fair warning given, much better than this one is going to be, said ‘I was a better worshipper than I was a friend.’ That is how I would have been if I’d ever met Diana Wynne Jones—I just flat-out would never have believed she wanted to talk to me or that I could ever have had anything interesting enough to say. (That is certainly how I feel about Robin McKinley.)

I cannot talk about her as a Fellow Writer because honestly I feel like as a writer she was like a star—so, so far away, and yet so illuminating to me. I’d be much too overawed to do that.

But I eventually thought I could talk about her as a reader, because I wanted to talk about her while the tribute was ongoing.

I always planned to write her a letter—a real letter, I mean, on paper that I’d post to her, because that seemed more Real and Like Tribute, and I started that letter so many times. It was an ongoing project of mine, starting the letter to Diana Wynne Jones, and then putting it by, in a desk, until I was better, until I could say it right.

I never sent any of the letters. I never even finished one. But I did want to write this.

When I found out Diana Wynne Jones had died, I just quietly shut up my laptop and immediately went to Belfast. This doesn’t sound like a very impressive reaction, but when I came home my roommate was a bit frantic. ‘You left your computer!’ she said. ‘OVERNIGHT! Is everything okay?’

I’d just wanted to be alone for a bit, with the weird feeling of loss for a woman I never met, and without torturing myself reading all about other people’s feelings about Diana Wynne Jones, which I knew I would do if near my computer. And indeed once I was back to my computer, that was what I did, and I cried and felt a little better.

Cassandra Clare and I were doing a bookshop event together, and we were asked about our favourite books and our favourite heroes in them, and she said ‘Howl in HOWL’S MOVING CASTLE!’ and I said ‘Oh, you wench, that was what I was going to say!’ Cassandra Clare at another time when she was not creeping all up on my fictional boyfriends, said: “People who know and love the same books you do have the roadmap of your soul. I believe that.”

I believe that, too.

A girl I was vaguely friends with in college said ‘I love Harry Potter and I wish there were more books like that’ and I said ‘I have something so much better for you’ and brought in an armful of books by Diana Wynne Jones the next day. She was, I think, alarmed and somewhat put off by my extreme fervor, but she read them, and she asked for more. She may have thought she’d be in trouble if she didn’t read them, mind you…

She now lives with me and has for years, and is one of my closest friends. She reads everything that I put in her hands. It’s possible we’re in some sort of hostage situation that I’m just really oblivious to.

Diana Wynne Jones has marked epochs in my life: not simply the first discovery of CHARMED LIFE, a battered paperback that neither of my parents seemed to have ever read, in my house (Magic book-lovin’ elves seems to be the only answer there), or the discovery of THE LIVES OF CHRISTOPHER CHANT on my first trip to the library when I was about twelve, where I also discovered Robin McKinley and Margaret Mahy and a lifelong love of fantasy. The first book I was ever sent for a professional review, when I sat about on a worn red sofa and felt like a Real Official Author, was ENCHANTED GLASS (of course it was a rave).

One such moment in my life stands out very vividly: being at a fair in Guildford, when I was twenty-three, wandering disconsolately around because living in England was new and I was having a hard time making friends and I missed both my Irish and my American friends. There were stalls of fruit and used clothing, mainly, and the bright orange fabric covering miles of melons and yards of shawls seemed frankly oppressive. I was in, if it is not obvious, a somewhat jaundiced frame of mind. The sky was grey and it was raining, that fine persistent drizzle that everyone always just tries to ignore. ‘Oh no, it’s not really raining, and it’ll let up in a second anyway!’ I call that rain Frizzle Drizzle, because your hair will frizz right up and your clothes will all be damp and one particular awful icy trickle will go right down your neck, and you’ll be miserable, and you still won’t go inside.

My jumper was damp, my spectacles much beflecked, and I think you have a picture of how my hair looked already. I saw the tiny stall with just a very few books in it, instantly gravitated toward it, and began rooting through them with my vaguely numb red paws. And I came upon a copy of THE OGRE DOWNSTAIRS, the 1977 edition (before I was born) with the cover illustration gone all sepia and an inscription inside with love to a stranger. A Diana Wynne Jones I’d never read before! Suddenly the whole day was bright. I passed over a 50p coin and retreated with the book clutched to me. I read it leaning against a gray brick wall by the fair, body angled to protect the book. My hair at this point might have been setting off cyclone alarms in the weather report and all my edges were chilled, but I was happy and at home.

Books can be like that, a light in a hearth or a beacon welcoming you, something to rush toward. Books like Diana Wynne Jones’s taught me that.

Her books taught me a lot of other things: that children’s books were just as smart and important as adult books, never to believe that fantasy or publishing were American-centric, that fantasy could seem real and true and near, always to have the magic on the doorstep with the milk bottles.

Her books left memories I have easy access to, which occur to me at random moments in my life like jewels on a chain

There are the horror of Christopher realising the packets of fish were mermaids in THE LIVES OF CHRISTOPHER CHANT, the ‘everyone’s got to have hobbies, and ours is human sacrifice’ moment in THE POWER OF THREE, the feeling like drinking bleach faced with the fact that people you love cannot be trusted to love you back or treat you well in FIRE AND HEMLOCK. I realise at this point I sound like some sort of book masochist, but I find misery in books really enjoyable. Crying madly over fictional death is cathartic! And if a book can make me feel anything deeply, then it’s a GOOD book.

But also, sometimes—and with Diana Wynne Jones, often—the misery in books tells you ‘You are not the only person who ever felt this way. You are not alone.’

I never met Diana Wynne Jones, but she kept me company.

And her books did a lot of fun things for me, too: Diana Wynne Jones has the dubious honor of writing the most heroes I have crushes on. Christopher Chant, Howl, Malcolm McIntyre, all have a place in my Fictional Boyfriends Hall of Fame. Her books did perhaps the most important thing that books do—they made me laugh, and taught me that smart, wonderful, heartbreaking books could make you laugh, and that humour never diminished them in any way.

In CHARMED LIFE, there is a moment when the protagonist Cat takes out a bunch of stuff from the castle of the nine-lived enchanter who is now his guardian, but even simple things like china plates are magic there—and they all start to shout out their protest.

‘I belong to Chrestomanci Castle!’ they say. ‘I belong to Chrestomanci Castle!’

Because of Diana Wynne Jones, who I never met, I was irrevocably altered: my purpose in life, the things I wanted, the way I think and the way I communicate with other people. Her words changed my world.

That means a lot. She meant a lot to me.

Part of me belongs to Chrestomanci Castle. It always will.

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