To my mind, Roald Dahl (1916 – 1990) was a genius with words; he’s definitely one of my heroes. I’m far from the only one: His books, which have sold more than 250 million copies worldwide, include James and the Giant Peach, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Matilda, The Witches, Fantastic Mr. Fox, The BFG, The Twits, George’s Marvellous Medicine and The Gremlins.
Thirty-seven years ago this month, Dahl gave a lively interview that revealed the following little-known facts about him:
- He worked in a hut in his orchard.
- He wrote each day from 10 till noon, then 4 to 6pm, “hot-footing it” to the house at noon and 6 for a drink.
- To warm up for writing, he played classical music, claiming that “it’s impossible after playing great music to write absolute rubbish.”
- As a schoolboy, he had an English teacher describe his writing as “indolent and illiterate.”
- As part of a school expedition, he hiked across Newfoundland with a 110-pound pack on his back.
- When his mother asked him, “Oxford or Cambridge?” he replied, “I want a job that will take me to distant lands.” He subsequently landed a job in East Africa until the war, when he trained as a fighter pilot.
- His writing career was launched by his own hero, CS Forester (The African Queen), when Forrester interviewed him for stories on his wartime experiences. During that luncheon conversation, Dahl offer to “scribble it down so you can put in into shape.” When Forrester received the write-up, he sent it on unchanged to The Saturday Evening Post, then let Dahl know that the magazine wanted more of Dahl’s material.
- While in the Royal Air Force, he got shunted out of a diplomatic job because “I’m a tactless sort of fellow.”
- He invented the word “gremlin.”
- He was once flown to Hollywood by Walt Disney himself, who was so enamored of The Gremlins that he worked to turn it into film (though it was then scrapped).
- Dahl considered the Charlie and the Chocolate Factory film “crumby.”
- He scripted the James Bond film “You Only Live Twice.”
- He has said, “I only write what I think is funny. I don’t think [my stories are] gruesome or tragic.”
- Outside of writing, his passions were wine, antique furniture and art, gardening and gambling.
- And if ever stranded on a desert island, he’d have grown tobacco, built a coconut distillery to provide drinks, and read poetry.
All this and more is revealed on the delightful 40-minute Nov. 2, 1979 radio broadcast, Desert Island Discs, available online.
P.S. I never, ever tired of listening to tapes of Dahl’s stories when my son was young and we played them on car trips. And I never, ever tired of reading his stories. BFG (Big Friendly Giant) is my favorite.