An interview in 1981
Roald Dahl sells two million books a year. As three-quarters of these are for children, he was a fitting choice to open Austicks’ new children’s bookshop in Leeds last month. At 65, with five spinal operations due to war injuries behind him, and with the addition of two steel hips as the result of osteo-arthritis, he is active, assertive, and successful.
Sitting imposingly in the middle of a cluttered room at the back of the shop, he prepared to run the interview for me.
With justifiable good humour, he took as a starting point the fact that, apart from himself, there are no writers of both adult and children’s fiction who produce enduring bestsellers.
Dahl began to write after the war, almost by accident, and has long been acclaimed as a master of the difficult art of short story writing. His children’s books are hugely successful—Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is still topping the bestseller list after 20 years, and James and the Giant Peach, which he prefers, is not far behind.
To illustrate the difficulty of writing for children, he told a story about a New York publishing firm, which some years ago came up with the idea of compiling an anthology of stories for children by the great modern writers in English; among them Updike, Graves, Greene, and Dahl.
No one turned down the invitation to contribute. Dahl made a face as he recalled how “bad” the submitted stories were.
“Guaranteed to anaesthetize any child in five minutes,” he commented. The project was abandoned. Dahl’s own contribution, The Magic Finger, still sells well.
The secret of writing for children, he said, lies in the state of mind.
“Interest in kids,” he said firmly. “You have to be a jokey sort of nipper at heart, the type who likes knock knock jokes.” He has never tested his work out on his family first. “You must know yourself whether you’ve written something good or not.”
Discipline is required for the writing. Dahl works from 10 til 12 noon in the morning, and from 4 til 6 in the evening. “All ideas come at the desk. Outside the workroom, you shut yourself off, and just mooch around washing and shaving and so on.”
Ideas do not consciously come from other people, though experience is vital. “I’m very much against encyclopedias,” he said, slightly obscurely.
His knowledge of antique furniture, pictures, and wine—all of which have come into his stories—stems from personal interest. He collects all three, and his cellar at home contains 400 bottles of wine.
As for putting a moral into a story: “It must be pure entertainment,” he said vehemently. “A moral is a very dangerous thing. Children don’t want to be taught things.”
He now prefers writing for children, enjoying the challenge. “An adult’s learnt to concentrate. If there are a few dull pages, he keeps reading anyway, but a child will just throw it away and go to the telly. You’ve got the telly to compete with.”
Many of Dahl’s short stories have been adapted for television. Tales of the Unexpected has been sold to 42 different countries, and is especially popular in Norway.
“I was wildly pleased with the first two or three,” he said, “but then they took tremendous trouble over them.”
He complained that they meddled with his plots. “I’ve taken so much trouble with the construction of a story—months. They look solid, but if they’re moved around they shatter.”
What about the type of story? “I hate science fiction; impossible stuff. The fun is in making them just possible.”
The supernatural holds an appeal for him, though here again he has his reservations. “I’ve longed to write a ghost story, but they all lose me because there’s a point where you can’t believe them.”
By this time the shop was seething with excited children, with a few parents helplessly trying to gain control.
Dahl read a couple of witty poems, yet to be published, before making a brief speech and sitting down to autograph copies of his latest book, The Twits.
As I struggled to the door, the shop manager grinned at me. “Don’t forget to mention us,” he said.
© Roz Kay
This interview was originally published in Leeds Student (the Leeds University free student newspaper written by and for students) on May 1, 1981, with the headline “Roz Kay meets Roald Dahl.”
The various organisations that manage Roald Dahl’s estate maintain a wonderful web site at www.roalddahl.com. You can follow them on Twitter @roald_dahl. They now hold a copy of the Leeds Student with my interview in their archives at the Roald Dahl museum at Great Missenden in Buckinghamshire, England.