Diana Wynne Jones and why she was so important to me
By Megan Whalen Turner
Diana got me published. That is not a little thing. I was twenty-seven years old and had just spent a year in San Diego while my husband was a visiting researcher with a John Simon Guggenheim Fellowship. I had decided to dedicate the year to my own writing, and thanks to some amazingly intense nesting instincts I was inside writing most of the time. I was a little surprised by how many short stories I finished and how happy I was with what I’d written. I had no idea if they were any good, but I liked them. My husband liked them, too, but I refused to believe that either of us was a reliable judge.
“How do you know if something you’ve written is good or not?” he asked, and I said, “I suppose you send them to someone who writes the kind of thing you want to write and you ask.” I didn’t know. I didn’t know from a hole in the ground. I’d never read the Writer’s Market. I had no idea how publishing worked. The Internet had hardly been invented yet, and there were no snarky blogs back then where you could ask your naïve questions and be mocked online. I knew that it probably wasn’t a good idea to send magical realism to Judy Blume, but other than that, I had not a clue.
“So, whose writing do you admire?”
That was the fatal question. I said, “Oh, Diana Wynne Jones, for example.”
“Great!” he said. “Send them to her!”
I never, never, NEVER would have had the nerve to send my short stories to Diana if I hadn’t been pretty sure that my husband was going to do it if I didn’t. And I was curious to know what someone not related to me by blood or marriage thought of them.
So two of the stories were mailed out and we got distracted by the arrival of a new family member and then one day a blue airmail envelope arrived at the door. It was a lovely letter. It is almost twenty years later and in my mind’s eye, I can still picture the font from an old-school typewriter. Diana liked my stories. That was all that mattered to me and that’s really all I took in the first time I read it. Not until my husband read the whole thing out loud did I realize that Diana Wynne Jones had given me the name of her editor in the United States, Susan Hirschman at Greenwillow Books, and recommended I send my stories to her.
I sent two for a sample, along with a list of titles for other stories, and I got a letter back asking for the rest.* When Susan Hirschman had read them she called me on the phone to say that she’d like to publish them in a book. There was a dead silence while I thought, “This is the meanest prank call EVER.” I said, “O-oh-kay,” and waited for the laughing to start. Just like that, I became a Greenwillow author.
All this is important, obviously, but I don’t know if it is as important to me as the books Diana wrote. Diana’s books are so important to me that in all the years I knew her, I wrote to her very rarely. I was too shy. Honestly, I was afraid I’d say something stupid and that for the rest of my life when I reached for one of the books, I’d realize, “Diana Wynne Jones must think I’m an idiot.”
If this sounds silly, it’s because it is silly. Mostly, I have a little more control over my shyness these days, and of course I wish now that I had written her more often. But I won’t lie, given the chance to do it all over again, I’d still be completely tied in knots at the thought of writing to Diana, because her books were just that important to me.
*It was at this point that I had to tell my husband that while I had told him several of the stories, I hadn’t actually written anything but the titles. But that’s a different story.