Sunday, March 27, 2011

Being Alive. Mostly about Diana.

I'm in the UK right now, in the middle of nowhere, working on Monkey, about to go offline for a few days.

I came over to do three things: to give the BBC a day to promote Episode Four of the next season of Doctor Who, which I have written; to see Hilary Bevan Jones, a wonderful producer with whom I've been working for years, about a couple of things; and to see Diana Wynne Jones.

Thursday I was interviewed about Doctor Who all day. Mostly the interviews would go like this:

Them: "So, can you tell us the title of the episode?"
Me: "No."

It was a fun but sometimes frustrating day.

(This is a photo of Diana Wynne Jones around the time I first got to know her.)

Diana's been my friend since about 1985, but I was a fan of hers since I read Charmed Life in about 1978, aged 17. I've loved being her friend, and I'm pretty sure she loved being my friend. She was the funniest, wisest, fiercest, sharpest person I've known, a witchy and wonderful woman, intensely practical, filled with opinions, who wrote the best books about magic, who wrote the finest and most perceptive letters, who hated the telephone but would still talk to me on it if I called, albeit, always, nervously, as if she expected the phone she was holding to explode.

She adopted me when I was a 24 year old writer for magazines of dubious respectability, and spent the next 25 years being proud of me as I made art that she liked (and, sometimes, I didn't. She'd tell me what she thought, and her opinions and criticism were brilliant and precise and honest, and if she said "Yee-ees. I thought you made a bit of a mess of that one," then I probably had, so when she really liked something it meant the world to me).

As an author she was astonishing. The most astonishing thing was the ease with which she'd do things (which may be the kind of thing that impresses other writers more than it does the public, who take it for granted that all writer are magicians.But those of us who write for a living know how hard it is to do what she did). The honest, often prickly characters, the inspired, often unlikely plots, the jaw-dropping resolutions.

(She's a wonderful author to read aloud, by the way, as I discovered when reading her books to my kids. Not only does she read aloud beautifully, but denouments which seemed baffling read alone are obvious and elegantly set up and constructed when read aloud. "Children are much more careful readers than adults," she'd say. "You don't have to repeat everything for children. You do with adults, because they aren't paying full attention.")

She dedicated her book Hexwood to me, telling me that it was inspired by something that I'd once said about the interior size of British Woods, and I wrote a doggerel poem to thank her.

(Hang on. I bet I can find it. There.)

There's a kitten curled up in Kilkenny was given a perfect pot of cream
And a princess asleep in a thornwrapped castle who's dreaming a perfect dream
There's a dog in Alaska who'll dance with delight on a pile of mastodon bones
But I've got a copy of Hexwood (dedicated to me) by Diana Wynne Jones

There's an actress who clutches her oscar (and sobs, with proper impromptu joy),
There's a machievellian villain who's hit on a wonderf'lly evil ploy,
There's wizards in crystal castles and kings on their golden thrones
But I've got a copy of Hexwood -- dedicated -- to me! -- by Diana Wynne Jones

There's a fisherman out on the sea today who just caught the perfect fish,
There's a child in Luton who opened a genie-filled bottle, and got a wish,
There are people who live in glass houses have managed to outlaw stones,
But I've got a copy of Hexwood, dedicated to me, by Diana Wynne Jones

I crop up, in semi-fictionalised form, in a book by Diana -- Deep Secret -- and she told me once that the young Chrestomanci in The Lives of Christopher Chant was sort of based on me too. I'm proud of both of those things, even if it does mean that people who have read Deep Secret sometimes ask whether I really ate two breakfasts while mostly asleep, and I tell them that yes, I did.

So. Diana, who smoked (with joy and delight and enthusiasm) got lung cancer. And so each time I would come to the UK, I'd go and have dinner with her and her husband John, and the dinner would be cooked and accompanied by Dave Devereux, who has been helping them, and somewhere in there I would see our mutual friend Tom Abba, as well. Each time, I'd take a few minutes at the end and I'd make sure that I'd said to Diana anything I wanted to be sure that I'd said, because I knew I might not see her again, and unsaid things are the hardest.

(Two photos of Diana from last September. She'd just stopped all chemotherapy, on the advice of her doctors, who said it wasn't doing any good. When I originally posted the second of them, it was with the caption Here is Diana Wynne Jones looking beatific in her kitchen today. The inexplicable notice is from about 1987.)

(Here's a photo of the two of us together from that September 2010 trip. I think the photo was actually taken by Robin McKinley)

I'd planned to see her yesterday, Saturday, to go down to Bristol with my daughter Holly. But on Friday morning I got a call from Dave Devereux telling me that it was time and I should come now. I called Hilary Bevan Jones, apologised (she was very understanding, as were the other people I was meant to see), and I went to Bristol.

I wrote a letter that night to a friend. I'll quote it here, if you don't mind.

She's at a hospice. It's beautiful there, and the staff were wonderful - helpful and nice and you never felt like you were bothering them, as one does at so many institutions.

I saw the family outside. They warned me that Diana was very frail and changed.

She was on morphine, breathing heavy and hard, as if she was fighting for every breath, and I sat by her bedside. I thought about the phrase "your last breath..." as every breath felt like it could be final. But she kept breathing. I told her you said goodbye. Her hair was whiter and she seemed thinner, but not really changed. but it seemed less like someone was actually there -- as if there was a distance between the person I'd known and the body breathing in the bed. Less of a distance than with a body -- but there was a sense that felt like a certainty that she wasn't going to open her eyes and talk again. This sleep was final, and soon the breathing would stop.

I went out and sat in the waiting room with Tom Abba, and we talked about Diana, and we both cried a bit.

Then I went back in with Tom and we sat some more.

I thought about Dogsbody, which I have to write an introduction to, and wondered what star Diana would be, if she was a star.

I said goodbye again.

Then I went out, and Mickey, her son, went in and sat with her, and I talked to the family. I met Diana's sisters for the first time, although I had heard much about them.

I spent the rest of the day with the family, with John and Diana's sister Isobel and Mickey (with whom I'd shared a room at World Fantasy Con in 1988), and we had a Bristolian Chinese meal, and talked about lots of things.

And I told John I'd come and see him whenever I come to Bristol, and I shall.

It's hard. But I am glad I did it, and they said that Diana was pleased that I was coming, and perhaps somehow she heard me and knew I was there.

I stayed up late that night until I could talk to Amanda back in Boston about what had happened that day, and once I had talked to her I felt better.

In the morning I was woken by a phone call from Dave, telling me that Diana had passed away in the night.

The news was out -- someone had already changed her Wikipedia page to give it a date of death.

I posted this on Twitter:

Rest in Peace, Diana Wynne Jones. You shone like a star. The funniest, wisest writer & the finest friend. I miss you.

There are some wonderful reminiscences coming in -- I loved this one by Emma Bull. (My family travelled to Minneapolis on the same plane as Diana the time Emma is talking about. Diana used to tell me she had a travel jinx, something I only really started to believe when the plane door fell off.)

I felt sad, but also felt lucky. Lucky that I'd known her, lucky that I'd gone and said goodbye on the Friday and not tried to wait until the Saturday. Lucky to have had a friend like that.

I do miss her, very much. I have some wonderful friends. I have people in my life who are brilliant, and people who are colourful, and people who are absolutely wonderful, and who make the world better for their being in it. But there was only one Diana Wynne Jones, and the world was a finer one for having her in it.

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