EVERYONE BORN on planet Earth must know by now that J K Rowling is Britain's most famous fantasy writer. But when it comes to choosing the most consistently creative author writing fantasy stories for children during the past 30 years, the answer for most critics will almost certainly be Diana Wynne Jones. Already with 40 books to her name, her next work of fiction, The Merlin Conspiracy (Collins, pounds 12.99), appears next week. Inventive and original as ever, it features parallel worlds, a country not unlike Britain in King Arthur's day, a famous science-fiction writer who is also a type of Time Lord, and two teenagers who have to sort out a national crisis which threatens social disaster.
All fantasy writing demands a certain initial investment from the audience, requiring readers to learn the new rules of an unfamiliar universe. But Diana Wynne Jones's books still manage to stay reader- friendly, however much her plots spiral into new and ingenious surprises. Her characters - human, animal or whatever else - are always approachable, talking in matter-of-fact tones with no hint of the windy rhetoric that can prove such a bane in a lot of fantasy writing.
The quarrels that arise between the factions in her novels stem from easily recognisable human faults, with villains more inclined to be pettily selfish than grandly wicked. Her young heroes and heroines tend to be stoic and sensible, simply wanting a quiet life rather than any dramatic adventures. The wizards who occasionally help them out have the distracted air of well-meaning adults who would rather be getting on with something else.
Although a constant prizewinner, Diana Wynne Jones is only now enjoying popular as well as critical success. Buoyed up by the new interest in fantasy roused by the Harry Potter series, all her former titles are being brought back into print in bright, new editions which have already sold over 700,000 copies since May 2000. It has taken her ten years to produce one more fantasy book aimed principally at children, but another is already on its way with the promise of others after that.
Meeting in the Bristol house she has lived in for the past 25 years, we sit not in her study but in the drawing room, which may be just as well. "I was just writing A Tale of Time City at the moment when its houses come crashing down when I heard a distinct noise of something else crashing down in my study. The entire roof had come thundering in, leaving a hole through to the sky."
Diana herself was elsewhere, but this is certainly an author whose fiction has an uncanny and often uncomfortable way of coming true in her own life. She is still recovering from the broken neck previously described in The Lives of Christopher Chant and, after helping launch a friend's newly acquired catamaran, she was then briefly marooned on a hidden island - a plot detail exactly similar to a scene in Drowned Ammet.
She knew she wanted to be a writer at the age of eight. Spending most of the day and every night banished to an unheated, two-room lean-to in rural Essex, she wrote a couple of epic novels between the ages of 12 and 14. These were then read aloud to her two appreciative younger sisters, fellow exiles in the cold lean-to with its rough, concrete floor.
Denied books herself, save for one Arthur Ransome novel every Christmas to be shared between all three children in the family, she had to pick up what she could from the adult library across the yard at the conference centre, presided over and lived in by her mean and selfish parents. Dipping into anthropology, folklore and mythology for any glimpses of the fantasy she yearned for but which her parents disapproved of as self-evidently "silly", she was not the first to take refuge in the imagination from a tough reality.
Details still rankle today. "We were always dressed in cast-off clothes …