Roald Dahl: ‘Children only read for fun; you’ve got to hold their attention’
From the archive: Roald Dahl speaks to the Irish Times in 1982 about writing for children, his inventions and becoming an accidental art collector
Roald Dahl answers a telephone while filming an episode of the science fiction show “Way Out” in Central Park, New York, March 25, 1961. Photograph: CBS Photo Archive/Getty Image
Roald Dahl is among the world’s best-known writers. His short stories for adults brought him to the forefront many years ago. And mention James and the Giant Peach, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator, Fantastic Mr. Fox or Danny the Champion of the World to any child who reads and his face will light up.
Roald Dahl lives with his wife, the actress Patricia Neal, in Great Missenden in Buckinghamshire, in what was once a small Georgian farmhouse. It stands on five acres of land; he bought it over 26 years ago. Since then he has obviously lavished time and effort and love on extending it, improving it, furnishing it, always with concern for its original character.
So far as he knows, he is the only person who consistently writes for both children and adults. On reflection, he says he prefers writing for children. “The fascinating thing - and I’ve never been able to understand this about a children ‘s book , a much-loved children ‘s book - is that it doesn’t stop. Yet someone like Graham Greene or Angus Wilson or Saul Bellow can write a first-rate novel, which will get a pretty big sale in hard covers the first year, when it comes out, a reasonable sale during the next couple of years and then it will go into a steady trickle, and that is literally all. I talked to Edna O’Brien some time ago. I said ‘You have lots of books out, and she said in her funny Irish accent, ‘But it’s hard to make a living from them. ‘
“Every year probably twenty first-rate novels are written in English. I think the answer lies in the fact that during that year there are no more than one or two first-rate children’s books written. And of course children read a book they like ten times; we read a novel once. Children, once they fall in love with a book, read it again and again. “
It is an even bigger enigma to him why top-class writers can’t write children’s books, because “I can promise you they try. There is far more money in writing a successful children’s book than a successful adult novel. My sales for all my children’s books are unvarying, every year. Charlie, or James, or Mr Fox, or Danny, in America 100,000 a year, every one of them. In England they’ve topped their million a long time ago.”
Such books must have humour; they must have a strong plot. “A child doesn’t have the concentration of an adult, and unless you hold them from the first page, they’re going to wander, and watch the telly, or do something, else. They only read for fun; you’ve got to hold them. “
His writing discipline, he believes, came from twenty years writing nothing but short stories for adults, “literally nothing else, and that’s probably the most severe discipline you can get.” Lucky Break, one of a collection called The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar and Six More tells how he started to write in the first place - mostly by pure lucky chance and a meeting with C. S. Forester in America.
He turned to children’s stories because he had started telling stories to his own young children. “I used to tell them a different made-up story every night they were only about three or four at the time. Some of them were pretty rotten, but with one or two of them a child would say ‘can we have more of what you told us last night?’ And so I started to write ‘James and the Giant Peach.’ I liked doing it so much that I went straight on to Charlie.
“If you’re going to have an enduring children’s book, it just doesn’t burst out as a best-seller straight away. It climbs and climbs and climbs, and then when it gets to the top it stays there. “All his children’s books are now available in Puffin, and his. Adult books are also published’ by Penguin and sell very well. “I’ve been lucky,” he says, “and of course the television series boosted them all over again. “He didn’t sound enthusiastic about the televised version of Tales of the Unexpected which was shown virtually all over the world, “but one or two of them, were well done.”
He writes every day from ten to 12.30, and from four to six. Most of his time is spent at home in Gre at Missenden. “In the old days, when I was younger and spryer, I would go to America a lot with Pat. Now I go along to France, every summer for two weeks, and I try to spend two weeks in April somewhere in the sun. You see I’ve got two steel hips now and spinal ‘injuries from the war. And although I can play nine holes of golf, which I love, that’s about the most of it. Each step you take you feels.”
Though he has enjoyed a great deal of success in his life, it has also dealt him some very harsh blows. Patricia Neal had a stroke when she was expecting their youngest child, Lucy, who is now sixteen. The story of her recovery has brought hope and strength to many stroke patients. Her recovery took between two and three years; that it succeeded so well was in large measure due to Dahl’s determination that she would get well, and the way in which he virtually masterminded her recovery.
“I just organised it,” he says, “with a lot of help from amateurs.” As a result there is now a very impressive organisation for helping stroke victims, with about 35 branches, all over Britain and Northern Ireland. Each branch has about 100 members, and all the work is voluntary, except for a paid supervisor. It’s allied with the Chest and Heart Association and it’s called the Volunteer Stroke Scheme. “Our members move in when any stroke case, is discharged to go home. The doctors call us as soon as the patient is due to leave the hospital, and say ‘so-and-so is going out, can you do something?’”
He had five children, but one died as a result of a measles complication. His son Theo, now 21, suffered brain damage in an accident when he was a baby. The valve which was developed to help him now carries the Dahl name, and is widely use for patients with similar problems. “I didn’t invent it,” Dahl says, “I just spurred on its invention.”
He has collected paintings almost all his life, “even when I couldn’t afford anything. Before I was married I’d sell a story to the New Yorker, get $2,000 and go straight out and buy a picture, and then take a long time to write the next story and so have to sell the picture. Many paintings that today could be acquired only by billionaires decorated my walls for brief periods in the late 1940s: Matisses, enormous Fauve Rouaults, Soutines, Cezanne watercolours, Bonnards, Boudins, a Renoir, a Sisley, a Degas landscape. In the end I finally managed to keep one or two, and they built up.
“I have very good pictures, which I bought because I loved them and usually they were cheap, a long time ago. Now I’ m saddled with a collection of immense value, which I don’t like very much. I refuse to insure them, because that makes you think of the money side of it. To hell with it - I never insure anything. I think one should only insure something if its loss is going to alter your life standards: I’ll ensure my house, but not the contents. I’ll insure my life, because there is no way at all in which I can profit from it myself.”
He has a Van Gogh, “and I think he’s a genius, the genius of all time. I wouldn’t have a Leonardo, although they’re wonderful; I wouldn’t have a Renoir. I had a love affair with the Russian revolutionary painters, Malevich, Rodchenko , Tatlin , Popova, Ermilov - they ‘re very rare and marvellous and I was lucky to pick them up, years ago. I have an early Bonnard, which he did when he was doing his military service, aged 18. I have a number of Francis Bacons - I bought a lot of him in his younger days and they’re now immensely valuable. I have a number of paintings by Sir Matthew Smith. We became very great friends during the war.”
To him, being a short story writer means that you have to have a wide variety of deep and absorbing invests. He is an expert on pictures, especially modern paintings, and on furniture, especially English 18th century furniture. Carved wood is one of his passions, and he has a six-foot, 18th century Chippendale mirror in his bedroom - “a marvellous thing. You used to buy those for £80 thirty years ago, you see, and then. I learned to water-gild which very few people do now. I’m a water-gilder. That’s the way all gold leaf was put on in the 18th century. It’s a very extraordinary process, and you use rabbit-skin glue and French day, and things like that, and little agate tools for burnishing the gold. “
He is also an expert on wine -he has 4,000 bottles in his cellar. He breeds a rare kind of orchid, he has an aviary of parakeets; he loves gardening. And he likes good motorcars - he has a BMW, in which he drives over to France every year “to visit friends who own vineyards, and that’s really my only extravagance, a £14,000car.”
This article was originally published on February 13th, 1982