Fear in Writing: Do you know Roald Dahl?

Today in Literary History

Today in Literary History...December 14, 1907: Rudyard Kipling receives the Nobel prize for literature, the first English-language writer to do so.ud

Friday, November 27, 2009

Do you know Roald Dahl?

In fifth grade my teacher read aloud to us The BFG. I was swept along with Sophie to Giant Country, where I hung on every stranger word the BFG (Big Friendly Giant) said, where I learned the origin of dreams: giants mix them up and blow them threw a trumpet into the ears of children. Mrs. Brown moved from this magical tale to James and the Giant Peach and I was smitten. An adventure inside an enormous fruit, with insects for companions and batty aunts as villains? This author writes of imaginary worlds with such conviction I sware he has visited them. They must exist.

Then today my sister sends me this article. It turns out Dahl's writings did not start out as works of fantastic whimsey. As James Parker writes in Slate's article, Dahl once wrote of "a woman who beats her husband to death with a frozen leg of lamb, then defrosts the murder weapon and serves it to the investigating police officers('Lamb to the Slaughter')."

The strange thing is that while Dahl's writing became lighter and more fantastic, his life took dark and twisted turns. In 1961, the year he published James and the Giant Peach, his son was injured when his carriage was hit by a taxi. The following year his daughter died of measles. In 1965 his wife, actress Patricia Neal, had a stroke while she was pregnant, and Dahl began the long road nursing her back to health.

We know our lives affect what we write. We know change in ourselves affect our writing, for better or worse. This man was a magician with a pen to me. I didn't realize he was so human. But that doesn't make his books any less wonderful.


  1. It's hard to think of our fave authors as human sometimes. I'd heard some of those things about Dahl before, but not all of them. Makes me wonder if he was escaping the real world into his writing a bit. Rough road.

  2. The writing was probably good for him, but hard to fit into his day.

    I didn't realize he was married to Patricia Neal, who I'm familiar with mostly from her role as "the decorator" in "Breakfast at Tiffany's."

    Elizabeth Mystery Writing is Murder

  3. Very interesting. Almost all his books have "escape" as their main theme. I never realized how much pain he was trying to escape himself.

    I almost cried when I recently read that L.M. Montgomery's grandchildren have admitted that the family wondered if she committed suicide. You can trace the growing darkness in her books, and some of her non-Anne books are downright depressing.

  4. Jemi-I agree. I feel that way about radio personalities as well. I don't want to see their faces b/c they are voices to me, characters. But authors like Dahl are larger than life. They ARE their books. But I am glad to know more about him now.

    Elizabeth-I didn't realize he was married to Patricia Neal either! The only thing I knew about her was she was the only time Gary Cooper strayed from his wife...And I LOVE Gary Cooper, so I wasn't a fan of Patricia Neal. And that isn't fair of me! This paints her more sympathetically. In Slate's article, it says the Dahl-Neal marriage ended after Dahl cheated on Neal with one of her friends! Too much reality for me.

    Karen-I read another possibility: that Montgomery's supposed suicide letter was actually a journal entry. But the darkness is present either way.

    For many of us, this is why we write. There is a darkness inside that we must channel somewhere, and writing is a positive outlet. Healthier than some mediums!


  5. Some writers seem to have a certain darkness shadow them and terrible things happen. They write out of a place of pain and publish some terrific works. Thanks for the post.

    Stephen Tremp

  6. Know him, love him, was obsessed and read everything including some of his adult works like 'My Uncle Oswald.' I've even read his granddaughter Sophie's three lovely books.
    Also,I'd very much like to thank you for your kind advice with my 'letter and synopsis.' I'm nothing but grateful.
    All the very best.

  7. I stood behind him as we were checking into a Westin hotel in Pasadena once, he was quite elderly at that time, and when I heard his name I then recognized him. Quite exciting for me and my daughter. His life was truly stranger than fiction.

  8. I didn't remember Dahl being Patricia Neal's husband. If you are a Paul Newman fan, you should check out the movie HUD, she won the best actress academy award for her role in the movie. I never connected "James and The Giant Peach" with Dahl either. Interesting!

  9. He seems he played many different roles in real life, and created many different characters in fiction.

    Elizabeth - what a thrill! Did you read his books with your daughter? I hope to read them with my children.

    Judy - I love it when great writers surprise us. I usually shy away from their private lives, but this time it was interesting to learn a little more.

    For us mystery writers, Roald Dahl won the Edgar for short story in 1954 for "Someone Like You." See http://www.theedgars.com/edgarsDB/index.php for more information.