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J O A N    A I K E N :
Wolves and Alternate Worlds

(excerpted from Locus Magazine, May 1998)
Joan Aiken
    Photo by Beth Gwinn

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Joan Delano Aiken was born September 4, 1924, daughter of the poet/writer Conrad Aiken. When she was five, her mother remarried. Her new stepfather was another writer, Martin Armstrong. Aiken began as a writer of short fiction, works gathered in collections All You've Ever Wanted and Other Stories (1953) and More Than You Bargained For and Other Stories (1955); many further collections would appear in later years. She has received awards for children's fiction (the Guardian Award in 1969) and for mystery fiction (the Mystery Writers of America Poe Award, 1972), and has also written ''sequels'' to Jane Austen books, as well as other Regency historicals. But to Locus readers she will be best known as the author of the alternate-world YA series (sometimes called ''King James III'') featuring feisty heroine Dido Twite. This series began with her second novel, The Wolves of Willoughby Chase (1962), and is still in progress, interspersed with stand-alone fantasies, dark fantasies, mysteries, children's books, plays, poetry, etc.

''I started The Wolves of Willoughby Chase, the first of my alternate-history fantasies, in about 1952, and then it got broken off because my husband fell ill and died, and I had to get a job, and couldn't get on with it. So there's a seven-year gap. But I'd written two chapters with great confidence and joy. When I finally had a good, well-paid enough job so I could get back and go on with the book, I found it took off exactly as though there had never been a gap. At that point, the alternate world wasn't so important. I just knew vaguely that it wanted to be in the reign of James the Third and the Channel Tunnel with the world coming through from Europe, so I could give myself scope if I wanted to, to change things, alter the course of history.

''The book, when it came out, had a wonderful review in Time magazine, in the early '60s. So I had enough money coming in to be able to stop working in an office and just write full-time. The next book was the sequel, Black Hearts in Battersea, which I did at a sort of breakneck pace because it was such fun. There I used the alternate worlds idea much more.

''I do so many things in between books in that series, it's rather a pleasure to come back. I'd intended Dido Twite to be drowned at the end of Black Hearts in Battersea, but I had a really agitating, moving letter from a child who said she was a good character, and she should not be allowed to drown. The publishers forgot to forward the envelope with the address on it, so there was no way I could answer the letter. I thought the only thing to do would be to rescue Dido and bring her back to life in Night Birds on Nantucket.

''At the moment, I'm filling in the series, because there's a substantial hole between The Stolen Lake and The Cuckoo Tree. The new book's working title is Limbo Lodge. It takes place on a spice island in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. There's a bit more alternate worlds in this one. I'm using Emily Bronte's Angria Chronicles the fantasy tales the Bronte children made up when they were young. It's all about an imaginary country called Angria, which was obviously a parallel of somewhere like Portugal. They had a terrific reverence for the Duke of Wellington, and he figures in it in a sort of disguised form. So I'm using bits and pieces of these ideas, inventing a Pacific Ocean which has been colonized by the Angrians. And now they're being pushed out of it by the rightful owners. It's a sort of ecological book.

''I find short fantasy much easier to manage than long fantasy. It's partly because you have to make yourself a whole lot of rules when you're writing a long fantasy, and abide by them, whereas with a short one you can sort of whistle away without supplying any explanations. And characters can be much simpler in a short fantasy.

''John Masefield was another influence. A couple of his books: The Boxes of Lights and The Midnight Folk. Mervyn Peake's 'Gormenghast' books I greatly admired him. And I suppose the C. S. Lewis trilogy, Out of the Silent Planet and so on. I couldn't stand his books for children. They came out after I grew up. My children loved them, but I always thought they were repulsive books, the 'Narnia' books. I can't stand that awful lion!

''I can't write a long fantasy very easily. The Cockatrice Boys was a sort of tour de force which I doubt if I'll be able to repeat again. It was published as a Young Adult in Britain and an adult book in the States. I'll be curious to see how it does in America, as an adult book.

''I haven't written scripts myself. Midnight Is a Place was done by Southern Television very well, but then, unfortunately, that company folded, so that production has gone into limbo, which is rather sad. Then there was Black Hearts in Battersea, which the BBC did a couple of years ago only moderately well, I thought. They messed around with the plot a good deal, made it unnecessarily complicated. But they certainly did it very handsomely, and they had one or two excellent actors for the parts. The little girl who did Dido Twite was really remarkable.

''Why do we want to have alternate worlds? It's a way of making progress. You have to imagine something before you do it. Therefore, if you write about something, hopefully you write about something that's better or more interesting than circumstances as they now are, and that way you hope to make a step towards it.

''People need stories. I was on a panel at the 1997 World Fantasy Convention, and I started describing the scene in the railway carriage in which I came up to London, and noticed the quality of the audience's attention instantly changed and sharpened. Everyone was listening, to hear what was going to happen next, because it was a story.''

© 1998 by Locus Publications. All rights reserved.