STORYTELLER: The Authorized Biography of Roald Dahl by Donald Sturrock cannot be missed, yet for two years I missed it. What is wrong with me? (Eh-hem, this is a rhetorical question, thankyouverymuch.)
Roald Dahl remains one of the most iconic children’s authors of all time, yet he began his career writing macabre short stories based upon his experience in the Royal Air Force during World War II. Just how did he evolve into the fantastical children’s author we all love?
Sheila St. Lawrence, Dahl’s literary agent at the Watkins Agency, is to thank. She realized “the ease in which Dahl could enter a child’s mind,” clearly apparent in his short story “The Wish”. In the tale, a young boy dares to walk across a carpet by stepping only on its yellow portions. Should his foot slip onto another color, he thought he would “disappear into a black void or be killed by venomous snakes.” This story was the only adult Dahl piece to feature a child protagonist to date, and it could not escape St. Lawrence’s attention.
After a disastrous two-year foray into playwriting, St. Lawrence implored Dahl to turn his literary aspirations elsewhere. Yet he ignored her kidlit suggestion, wrote stories that got turned down by The New Yorker, and instead got placed in the far less desirable (but still paying) Playboy.
Dahl’s publisher Alfred Knopf expressed interest in a children’s book, but then dropped a collection of adult stories called “Kiss Kiss” from Knopf’s 1959 list. Dahl spouted some choice words in response, threatening that Knopf would never squeeze a children’s book out of him.
Dahl once again became focused on writing for actors, as he wished to develop vehicles for his wife at the time, screen star Patricia Neal. After all, if Neal was working steadily, her income afforded him more time to write what he wanted to write. There were shows for Hitchcock and a drama series for TV based upon classic ghost stories, produced by Alfred Knopf’s half brother. But when the pilot episode encountered a controversy, the series got permanently shelved and Dahl was forced to return to the idea that evolved into JAMES AND THE GIANT PEACH.
I will say “and the rest is history” here, although STORYTELLER is only halfway through Dahl’s life story at this point. So like Sheila St. Lawrence, I implore you to turn your literary aspirations toward it.
But before I go, it would be a shame not to share with you Dahl’s advice to children’s writers, as told to Helen Edwards in an interview for Bedtime Stories exactly 42 years ago:
What makes a good children’s writer? The writer must have a genuine and powerful wish not only to entertain children, but to teach them the habit of reading…[He or she] must be a jokey sort of fellow…[and] must like simple tricks and jokes and riddles and other childish things. He must be unconventional and inventive. He must have a really first-class plot. He must know what enthralls children and what bores them. They love being spooked. They love ghosts. They love the finding of treasure. The love chocolates and toys and money. They love magic. They love being made to giggle. They love seeing the villain meet a grisly death. They love a hero and they love the hero to be a winner. But they hate descriptive passages and flowery prose. They hate long descriptions of any sort. Many of them are sensitive to good writing and can spot a clumsy sentence. They like stories that contain a threat. “D’you know what I feel like?” said the big crocodile to the smaller one. “I feel like having a nice plump juicy child for my lunch.” They love that sort of thing. What else do they love? New inventions. Unorthodox methods. Eccentricity. Secret information. The list is long. But above all, when you write a story for them, bear in mind that they do not possess the same power of concentration as an adult, and they become very easily bored or diverted. Your story, therefore, must tantalize and titillate them on every page and all the time that you are writing you must be saying to yourself, “Is this too slow? Is it too dull? Will they stop reading?” To those questions, you must answer yes more often than you answer no. [If not] you must cross it out and start again.
For me, these are words to write by. Funny that he should utter them within days of my birth! (Wait a second, did I just reveal my age?! Eh-hem, this is a rhetorical question, thankyouverymuch.)
UPDATE: Whoopsie. I looked at the wrong footnote. The quote above is from a letter Dahl wrote to “The Writer” Magazine in October, 1975: “A Note on Writing Books for Children”.