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Tuesday, March 1, 2011

A Chat With Roald Dahl, Part 2

Back in January, I started a series featuring my childhood favorite, Roald Dahl (for those of you who have only read his children's stories, I'd encourage you to try some of his adult works too- it's interesting to see his range as an author, from journalistic pursuits to clever and sometimes darker tales for grown-ups. MJ Ware might be interested in a few of the dark ones--check out his blog for a few scary ebooks for MG readers).

In the back of my copy of The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar and Six More is an interview conducted in 1988 by a family friend. Not too many people were allowed to come into his inner sanctum, especially not people from the media. Dahl himself said, “I have worked all my life in a small hut up in our orchard. It is a quiet private place, and no one has been permitted to pry in there.”

The interview still fascinates me, so I thought from time to time I’d post a question/answer. It’s a nice way to see the thought process behind one of the most beloved children’s writers ever (my first post is HERE).

Question from family friend Todd McCormack: How do you keep the momentum going when you are writing a novel?

Answer from Roald Dahl: One of the vital things for a writer who's writing a book, which is a lengthy project, is how to keep the momentum going. It is the same with a young person writing an essay. They have got to write four or five or six pages. But when you're writing for a long time, you go away and have to come back. I never come back to a blank page. I always finish about halfway through. To be confronted with a blank page is not very nice.

But Hemingway, the great American writer, taught me the finest trick when you are doing a long book, which is, he simply said in his own words, "When you are going good, stop writing." And that means that if everything's going well and you know exactly where the end of the chapter's going to go and you know just what the people are going to do, you don't go on writing and writing until you come to the end of it, because when you do, then you say, well, where am I going to go next? And you get up and you walk away and you don't want to come back because you don't know where you want to go.

But if you stop when you are going good, as Hemingway said...then you know what you are going to say next. You make yourself stop, put your pencil down and everything, and you walk away. And you can't wait to get back because you know what you want to say next and that's lovely and you have to try and do that. Every time, every day all the way throught the year. If you stop when you are stuck, then you are in trouble!

Question from family friend Todd McCormack: What is the secret to keeping your readers entertained?

Answer from Roald Dahl: My lucky thing is I laugh at exactly the same jokes that children laugh at and that's one reason I'm able to do it. I don't sit out here roaring with laughter, but you have wonderful inside jokes all the time and it's got to be exciting, it's got to be fast, it's got to have a good plot, but it's got to be funny. It's got to be funny.

And each book I do is a different level of that. Oh, The Witches is quite different from The BFG or James (and the Giant Peach) or Danny (the Champion of the World). The line between roaring with laughter and crying because it's a disaster is a very, very fine one. You see a chap slip on a banana skin in the street and you roar with laughter when he falls slap on his backside. If in doing so you suddenly see he's broken a leg, you very quickly stop laughing and it's not a joke anymore. I don't know, there's a fine line and you just have to try to find it.

Have a great week! On Friday I'll be posting agent gems/advice from Twitter.

**PS-for those of you who read my Crusader Challenge post, the pineapple/reading Velveteen Rabbit to the dying bunny was the most popular choice for my lie, but it's true! The only lie was that I've never done fencing :)


  1. Wow, very cool. Thanks for sharing his responses about writing, Jess. I don't like to come back to a blank page either, so if I finish a chapter, I start the next one before I stop.


  2. This is so interesting! I actually have read some of Dahl's work for adults too and I liked a lot of it...hmmm...Going off to look for my copy of his short stories.

  3. This is such great insight from Roald Dahl! And it's so true! I'm so bad at it, though. If things are going well, I always want to keep going in case I forget or can't get back into the groove. Dahl really had the knack. We read Fantastic Mr. Fox so many times when my kids were little that we could all recite huge sections of the text. "Cider is particularly good for badgers!"

  4. Wonderful post, Jess. You totally got me on your lie. Great job!

  5. Love this post on Roald Dahl. It's so interesting to enter an established writer's world and see what he thinks.

  6. Roald Dahl had to have been such a lovely person. And a genius too! I love his advice--the second one I've never read before and I'll have to think about it some more. I wonder if there is a line between the dire and the hilarious.

    Thanks for sharing, Jess! I love your Crusader challenge. Too funny that people thought that was the lie.

  7. I think Roald Dahl is a brilliant writer. great post

  8. I love the idea of stopping when things are going well. Wouldn't it be great to be dying to get back to writing?

  9. I gave you an award on my blog. Come on over to get it!

  10. Ah, what lovely and practical advice! Forcing yourself to stop when you're on a roll! I am definitely going to start praticing that because that is exactly why I lose momentum - I write until I'm through the current scene in my head, before I've brainstormed the next one. Can't wait for your next installment from this interview.

    I missed the WriteOn con live chat but I definitely plan to check out the results! - thanks for letting me know about it!

  11. Aw, I didn't want the bunny to have died!

    What I really like about these answers are that you get a sense of his personality from them, which doesn't always come across in interviews. Dahl was one of the staples of my childhood, I wish I could have met him!

  12. I don't know that I like the Hemingway trick of stopping when I'm on a roll. Sometimes I find it difficult to get the momentum going and when I do I want to keep it going beause the ideas are usually coming so fast that I eventually have to stop from being tired. I usually know exactly where I want to pick up next and look forward to it. Stop when I'm on a roll? Maybe I should try it sometime, but I hate to.

    Tossing It Out

  13. It's cool, but slightly deathy! (As in all the killing of animals)

  14. I'd have to think twice before stopping on a role. I generally go with it until something else catches my attention.

    But when I write, I am usually a man possessed. lol

    Fascinating post, Jess.

  15. I loved James (ATGP), I had no idea there were other adult books...and I LOVE hearing how other writers write.

    Great post!!

    Finally making the rounds, thanks for swinging by my blog. Now following you back so I don't miss anything exciting!!

    The Survival Mama

  16. I love your ideas for posts. I'll be reading you long after the Crusade ends. ;)

  17. I never knew Mr Dahl wrote adult fiction too! I'll have to check one of those out. He's a favorite of my kids.