Ursula Jones talks exclusively to The Star about completing her sister Diana Wynne Jones' final book, which was left unfinished when Diana died two years ago.
Any younger brother or sister knows the peril of messing with their older sibling's things. But when that elder sister is the late Diana Wynne Jones, the godmother of children’s fantasy herself, and the little sister has been asked to complete Diana's last manuscript, one imagines a whole other level of pressure – not to mention the bittersweet experience of reconnecting with and missing a loved one.
These were the feelings Ursula Jones, an award-winning children’s author in her own right, struggled with while finishing her sister's final book, The Islands of Chaldea. Diana had been working on the novel when she became too ill to continue, eventually dying of cancer in 2011, aged 76.
Wynne Jones left behind a legion of fans worldwide, and a body of work that includes revered children’s fantasy novels such as Howl’s Moving Castle, Fire and Hemlock, the Dalemark and the Chrestomanci series. After her death, two of her books were published, Earwig and the Witch in 2011 and Reflections on the Magic of Writing in 2012, a collection of non-fiction articles.
The Islands of Chaldea, however, looked like it would never reach readers, as Wynne Jones had given no indication how she intended to end the story. When Diana's family decided Ursula was the best person to complete the novel, Ursula admits she was stumped.
“(The biggest challenge was) trying to work out how on earth she meant (the book) to go on," Ursula says in an exclusive e-mail interview. “She was a masterly storyteller, and though she never cheated and always gives her readers clues as to where things were going, they are impossibly difficult to pick up on.”
Ursula explains in The Islands Of Chaldea’s afterword that several months went by with no progress, with her unable to discern where the book was supposed to go. During this period, she was plagued by weird and even frightening dreams, and very much felt her sister's presence. But once she found one of Diana's clues in the manuscript, Ursula's writing took off.
It was as if, “Diana were at my elbow, prompting, prodding, turning sentences around, working alongside – and then it was finished, and she was gone again. That was a terrible wrench. But her book was there – complete,” Jones says.
Set in a fictitious group of four islands, the Islands of Chaldea, the novel is the story of a girl descended from a magical family but who's struggling to find her own powers. Then, she gets mixed up in the rescue of a prince from a magically hidden land.
A swirling mix of magic, adventure, action and humour, the book is grounded by the keen insight into human emotions that Wynne Jones excelled at. Ursula admits that her writing differs radically from Diana's. “Diana uses magic and myth in her fantasy writing. I do so rarely except in The Witch’s Children picture books and, of course, in any adaptation of fairy tales. Strictly speaking, I’m not a fantasy writer,” Jones shares.
The Islands of Chaldea, Ursula insists, is entirely Diana's baby, and Ursula is quite happy that no one has managed to spot exactly where she took over the book from her sister. “I don’t really see myself in any parts of the book,” Jones says. “It’s all her, as far as I’m concerned. She’s the fountainhead. I’m the splashes.”
Meanwhile, as far as the book is concerned, Ursula is as much reader as she is author. “I love it! I don’t know how (Diana has) managed to mix such turbulence with an innate sense of peace,” Ursula says.