Every night, author Roald Dahl told his children a story: “Most of them [were] pretty bad,” he admitted in a 1972 BBC4 interview, “but now and again you’d tell one and you see a little spark of interest. And if they ever said the next night, ‘Tell us some more about that one,’ you knew you had something. This went on for quite a long time with a story about a peach that got bigger and bigger and I thought, ‘Well heck, why don’t I write it.'”
That bedtime story became Dahl’s first children’s book, James and the Giant Peach.
Lucy Dahl — the youngest of Dahl’s five children with his first wife, American actress Patricia Neal — remembers hearing those stories before she fell asleep. She joins Michele Norris to talk about Matilda, this month’s pick for NPR’s Backseat Book Club. It’s the story of a lonely girl with special powers and neglectful parents. Matilda finds her courage facing off with a bully of a headmistress, named Miss Trunchbull.
The magical narrative of Dahl’s books makes the writing look easy, but there was a lot of toil behind that playful language. Lucy remembers a letter her father wrote to her in December 1986, two years before Matilda was published:
The reason I haven’t written you for a long time is that I have been giving every moment to getting a new children’s book finished. And now at last I have finished it, and I know jolly well that I am going to have to spend the next three months rewriting the second half. The first half is great, about a small girl who can move things with her eyes and about a terrible headmistress who lifts small children up by their hair and hangs them out of upstairs windows by one ear. But I’ve got now to think of a really decent second half. The present one will all be scrapped. Three months work gone out the window, but that’s the way it is. I must have rewritten Charlie [and the Chocolate Factory] five or six times all through and no one knows it.
On writing Matilda
Matilda was one of the most difficult books for him to write. I think that there was a deep genuine fear within his heart that books were going to go away and he wanted to write about it.
On how he loved writing, but he also approached it as a job
My father was really very much a single dad. My mother was in America working throughout most of our childhood. He wrote for the money — he didn’t hide that. He also wrote screenplays and he hated writing screenplays, but he did it because the money was good. He wrote Chitty [Chitty] Bang Bang. He adapted Ian Fleming’s [James Bond] novel … You Only Live Twice.
On his work ethic
I remember waking up in the night and going to the bathroom and seeing the glow of the light in the little [writing] hut while it was still dark outside. I don’t know what time it was but that was during the days when he was adapting screenplays and the deadlines would kill him. He didn’t like working on deadlines. But he did it because he had to.
On the “hut” in the garden where he did his writing
His hut was a sacred place. … We were all allowed to go in there, but we only disturbed him when we absolutely needed to because he used to say that his hut was his nest. You would walk in and the smells were so familiar — that very old paper from filing cabinets. And he sat in his mother’s old armchair and then put his feet up on an old leather trunk, and then on top of that he would get into an old down sleeping bag that he would put his legs into to keep him warm.
He then had a board that he made that he would rest on the arms of the armchair as a desk table and on top of that he had cut some billiard felt that was glued on top of it, and it was slightly carved out for where his tummy was. When he sat down … the first thing he did was get a brush and brush the felt on his lap desk so it was all clean. He always had six pencils with an electric sharpener that he would sharpen at the beginning of each session. His work sessions were very strict — he worked from 10 until 12 every day and then again from 3 until 5 every day. And that was it. Even if there was nothing to write he would still, as he would say, “put his bottom on the chair.”
Next up for the Backseat Book Club: In November, we’ll read Because of Mr. Terupt by Rob Buyea about a very special fifth grade teacher and the lives he changed.