Book Talk: Roald Dahl, a misanthrope who adored children

NEW YORK Wed Sep 29, 2010 3:17pm EDT

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NEW YORK (Reuters) - Children's book author Roald Dahl's literary reputation, two decades after his death, has been enhanced by movie adaptations of his books, like "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory" and "Fantastic Mr. Fox."

More adaptations are coming, says Donald Sturrock, author of a new, authorized Dahl biography, "Storyteller," which explains the author's penchant for the fantastic and the macabre and his talent for seeing the world from a child's perspective.

Sturrock, who had complete access to Dahl's papers, reveals a man shaped by his experience as a Royal Air Force pilot during World War Two, who was frustrated for years by his inability to break into the British literary establishment.

Q: You call Dahl a family man, an outsider, a fierce moralist, egotistical self-publicist, misanthrope, a provocateur, and an overgrown child. What was he like?

A: "He was all those things, larger-than-life. He was a big guy physically but he was also a big personality. When he walked into a room you noticed him. He was a bit of a showman. He was a bit like Willy Wonka, he didn't like to be ignored. He could be enormously charming and entertaining. But he was also distant. I only knew him the last five years of his life, but if he was tired, at the end of a meal he'd get up and go. He was somebody who basically did what he wanted to do."

Q: During the war, Dahl only spent four weeks at the front, but it seems to have been a formative experience.

A: "The war shaped him hugely. The bash on the head that he received when he crashed his plane, allied with the four weeks spent in Greece and Palestine, made an enormous impact. His sisters all told me he returned changed from the war. Those events made him into a writer."

Q: To what extent was the writer of macabre tales for grown-ups separate from the eventual author of children's stories? Or do kids need that hint of the macabre?

A: "It helped because children like evil villains and funny, twisted quirks of human nature. Dahl had a quick-witted sense of how far to go in his children's fiction. He pushed the line further than anyone else had done, but the two bodies of work are quite separate. The adult stories are quite misanthropic."

Q: Was that misanthropy a reflection of Britain's post-war mood, with its shortages and rationing?

A: "That's true. I also suspect it was linked to his experiences at school, where he experienced daily cruelty. Also, being Norwegian in England -- England was not then welcoming toward outsiders. It was a very conformist society.

"From the war onwards, life was in some ways a struggle. He was in almost daily pain from back injuries. Within five years of starting a family, his son had been terribly injured and two years after that his eldest daughter died. Those two disasters coincide with him abandoning being an adult short story writer. He found refuge in that world of fantasy."

Q: Your book is authorized but often unflattering. Were limitations placed by the estate in exchange for access? And what advantages did you have over Dahl's other biographers?

"My advantage was unfettered access to the papers. I said right at the beginning I wouldn't do the project if I couldn't write what I wanted to. My other big advantage was having known him. He did have this extraordinary charm. In Britain, the book is not described as authorized, and I didn't want it to be. (To be authorized) provokes the question, what's missing? I really did try to write as balanced an account as I could, trying to bring the man to life, this personality I remembered quite fondly."

Q: The proof that this is a warts-and-all biography comes at the end, where you reveal Dahl's unprintable final words.

A: "I could just see him saying it. The quantity of swearing in Dahl's house was unbelievable. He censored himself a lot in his kids books. There is not a whiff of sex. There's no bad language. They're part of the great tradition of English kids' stories, quite classical in a way."

Q: You describe Dahl as having the ease to enter a child's mind. Where does one get that?

A: "I think he was born with it. If he had known that was a special gift he had he'd probably have used it earlier."

Q: How has Dahl's reputation changed since he died?

A: "It's definitely more favorable. The books have sold in ever increasing numbers and as children who loved him become parents, they take pleasure in reading those stories to their kids."

Q: For a biographer, what is it like to inhabit another person's life for months or years at a time? Can you stop at 5 o'clock and go back to your own life and cares?

A: "You do stop. But you'll sometimes go out to dinner with people and your head will be somewhere else, like 1940s New York. The energy is dispersed. You find yourself engaged in a conversation on contemporary politics and your mind is still somewhere else. One does get obsessive and want to turn over every possible stone."

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