Roald Dahl Wanted His Magical 'Matilda' To Keep Books Alive

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Author Roald Dahl stands with his wife, American actress Patricia Neal, and their newborn daughter, Lucy, outside their home in Buckinghamshire, England, in August 1965. Roald Dahl died in 1990. (Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
Author Roald Dahl stands with his wife, American actress Patricia Neal, and their newborn daughter, Lucy, outside their home in Buckinghamshire, England, in August 1965. Roald Dahl died in 1990. (Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Correction: Previous audio and Web versions of this story incorrectly referred to Roald Dahl as being English. Dahl was Welsh.

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."


Interview Highlights

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.

Copyright 2015 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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Transcript

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Audie Cornish.

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

And I'm Robert Siegel. It's time now for NPR's Backseat Book Club. Each month we pick a must-read book for kids and for November, we've chosen the classic story "Matilda." Here's Michele Norris.

MICHELE NORRIS, BYLINE: The late author Roald Dahl wrote children's books because he had children, and he used to tell them stories every night.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ROALD DAHL: Most of them pretty bad but now and again you'd tell one, and you'd 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. I thought, well, heck, why don't I write it?

NORRIS: That, of course, became his first children's book, "James and the Giant Peach." Lucy Dahl remembers those bedtime stories. She's the youngest of Roald Dahl's five children with his first wife, the American actress Patricia Neal. We spoke with Lucy Dahl about NPR's Backseat Book Club pick this month, "Matilda."

It's the story of a lonely girl with special powers and neglectful parents. Matilda finds her courage facing off with an evil and hideous woman, a bully of a headmistress named Miss Trunchbull.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "MATILDA")

PAM FERRIS: (As Miss Trunchbull) You - detention. You're too small. Grow up quicker!

NORRIS: Lucy Dahl said "Matilda" represents the joys - and the struggles - of her father's writing.

LUCY DAHL: "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. I have a letter here that I brought with me. He wrote to me all the time; he was a great letter writer, wherever I was. And this is dated December the 10th, 1986; and it says: (Reading) Dear Luc - which was my nickname - 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 finished it, and I know jolly well that I'm going to have to spend the next three months rewriting the second half.

(Reading) 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 of the window, but that's the way it is. I must have rewritten "Charlie" five or six times all through, and no one knows it.

There we are.

NORRIS: Well, good writing is always rewriting, isn't it?

LUCY DAHL: Yes.

NORRIS: The magical narrative in Roald Dahl's books makes writing seem easy, but all that playful language took toil.

LUCY DAHL: My father was really, very much a single dad. My mother was in America working, throughout most of our childhood. And he wrote for the money; he didn't hide that. And he also wrote screenplays, and he hated writing screenplays but he did it because the money was good. He wrote "Chitty Bang Bang"; he adapted Ian Fleming's novel. And he wrote "You Only Live Twice."

NORRIS: The James Bond film.

LUCY DAHL: Yes. And I remember waking up in the night and going to the bathroom, and seeing the glow of the light in the little hut and - 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.

NORRIS: What was his writing space?

LUCY DAHL: His hut was a sacred place where - 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 sort of slightly carved out for where his tummy was.

And when he sat down - his routine, 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 to his right, that he would sharpen at the beginning of each session. And 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. And even if there was nothing to write, he would still - as he would say, put his bottom on the chair.

NORRIS: We have several young people who send us their questions.

TESS: Hi, my name's Tess(ph). I'm in third grade in Washington, D.C., and I have some questions about your dad - or Roald Dahl, as I know him. "Matilda" is a really good book that has a lot of feeling. Did he write somewhere really active, somewhere quiet, somewhere with memories from his childhood?

LUCY DAHL: Well, Tess, that's - I would like to spend a day with you in England and actually, at the Roald Dahl museum, where we have moved his hut. So we have carefully taken every single piece of it - even the old cigarette ends in the ashtray. But to answer your question, the hut was sort of in the middle of a field, in a very quiet place at the end of the garden.

NORRIS: And it was there he wrote "Matilda." Lots of our Backseat Book Club readers zeroed in on Matilda's arch nemesis - that evil Miss Trunchbull.

KAI: My name is Kai(ph). Why is Miss Trunchbull so mean?

THEO ADAMS: Hi. My name is Theo Adams(ph). Miss Trunchbull once punished Matilda for something she didn't do.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: I read that he had really mean teachers when he was in school, and I wanted to know if that's how he got the idea of Miss Trunchbull, the meanest teacher in the school - and really, the only mean teacher.

LUCY DAHL: Yes. He had very mean teachers, and so did I. And he detested mean teachers. He detested bullying and so yes, that is exactly where he got the idea of the Trunchbull. In fact, whenever we had teachers that were mean, he would write to them without hesitation, somehow mocking them or making fun of them in a way that he could get away with, but we absolutely adored.

NORRIS: You also are a writer, a screenwriter. What did your father teach you about writing? Do you hear his voice when you write?

LUCY DAHL: What did he teach me? He taught me the discipline. He taught me the discipline of the hours - the 10 until 12 and 3 until 5 - and even if there's nothing to write, you sit your bottom on that chair because something will come.

NORRIS: Lucy Dahl, discussing her father Roald Dahl's novel "Matilda." NPR's Backseat Book Club has something very special for its next selection, a book called "Because of Mr. Terupt." It's a story of a very special and very kind fifth-grade teacher, and the lives he changed.

I'm Michele Norris, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.