Thursday, 11 December 2014

Exploring the Diana Wynne Jones archive, by Creative Writing student Becky Orwin

When the opportunity came up through my MA course at Newcastle University to take part in a temporary writing residency at a ‘cultural venue’ in Newcastle or Gateshead, I’m not saying I was holding out for Seven Stories. I’m not saying there was some careful avoidance and glossing-over of emails, I’m just saying that I was thrilled when I heard that Seven Stories were happy to have me hang around for a couple of days. As an aspiring writer for children, the National Centre for Children’s Books is a pretty lovely place to me anyway, but I was particularly excited to be given a private look at some of the archive material.



Some of Diana Wynne Jones's childhood notebooks



I’d seen some of the material before at Seven Stories events, but had generally been too worried about sneezing on something important to spend too long hovering over it. But in November at the Gateshead archive, I got to spend a day flicking through papers at my own leisure. I say ‘papers’ as if that’s all they were, but in actuality I was focusing on the Diana Wynne Jones material. The point of this was originally to focus in on fantasy writing for children, but frankly without some kind of parameters I could have locked myself away in there until next summer.




Part of the Diana Wynne Jones archive at Seven Stories


Even just focusing on the Diana Wynne Jones archive I stayed two hours longer than intended, and still had boxes heartbreakingly unopened when I left. As a writer myself, I can’t describe (ironically) how fascinating it was to look through the manuscripts, drafts and notes of an author as celebrated as Diana Wynne Jones. It’s easy to assume as a young, unpublished, would-be author that nobody but you has problems redrafting, nobody but you throws half-formed ideas away in frustration and nobody but you occasionally produces something so genuinely dire not even your mother can find anything nice to say about it. It’s wonderful to know that Diana Wynne Jones made notes for so many eventually unused ideas, and went through so many enormously changing drafts of a book that eventually shaped millions of childhoods, and wrote as precociously as any fourteen year old convinced of their own cleverness. And not just to know it, but to physically hold evidence that not every word that falls from an eminent author’s pen is perfect the first time round, is pretty thrilling!



Page from manuscript of Charmed Life (Macmillan, 1977)


My favourite piece by far was a very early letter from Diana Wynne Jones’s agent. I think it was dated sometime around 1968, so before Jones had published her first novel and long before she was a legendary name in children’s fiction. Stupidly, I didn’t write the contents of the letter down, but the gist was along the lines of ‘I have unfortunately been unsuccessful in selling your article. Sadly, the nature of these things tends to be that unless you are enormously qualified or have a renowned and illustrious name behind you, publishers aren’t interested.’ That, to an aspiring writer with a collection of rejection letters in the dozens and a name my own teachers struggle to remember, was a hugely satisfying read!



Letter from Diana Wynne Jones's agent, 1968


The whole experience was hugely satisfying, in one way or another. The generosity of Seven Stories in allowing me to wander through the archive material at my own pace, the material itself, and the insight it gave me to the life of a professional writer. In an industry as London-centred as writing and publishing for children, to have resources like Seven Stories and the collection here in the North East is an opportunity that should not be missed; you never know what you might find.


Becky Orwin is an MA Creative Writing student at Newcastle University. Becky visited Seven Stories and the archive as part of the 'Write Around the Toon' project - a student-led project, which places students from Newcastle University’s Creative Writing programme in short residencies with cultural venues across Newcastle-Gateshead  (you can read more about it here: http://watt.nclacommunity.org/content/).



The Diana Wynne Jones collection is available to view by appointment at the Seven Stories Collections Department (you can read more about it here: www.sevenstories.org.uk/collection/collection-highlights/diana-wynne-jones). To find out more about the Seven Stories Collection click here. To make an appointment to visit the Collection or to enquire about other collections that we hold then click here to contact us.



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