You can listen to Roald's Dahls' answers here
. The interview was given in 1988, two years before his death, in the gypsy caravan (or shepherd's hut
in his garden. The interviewer was Todd McCormack.
WHAT IS IT LIKE WRITING A BOOK?
When you’re writing, it’s rather like going on a very long walk,
across valleys and mountains and things, and you get the first view of
what you see and you write it down. Then you walk a bit further, maybe
you up onto the top of a hill, and you see something else. Then you
write that and you go on like that, day after day, getting different
views of the same landscape really. The highest mountain on the walk is
obviously the end of the book, because it’s got to be the best view of
all, when everything comes together and you can look back and see that
everything you’ve done all ties up. But it’s a very, very long, slow
HOW DO YOU GET THE IDEAS FOR YOUR STORIES?
It starts always with a tiny little seed of an idea, a little germ,
and that even doesn’t come very easily. You can be mooching around for a
year or so before you get a good one. When I do get a good one, mind
you, I quickly write it down so that I won’t forget it, because it
disappears otherwise rather like a dream. But when I get it, I don’t
dash up here and start to write it. I’m very careful. I walk around it
and look at it and sniff it and then see if I think it will go. Because
once you start, you’re embarked on a year’s work and so it’s a big
HOW DID YOU GET THE IDEA FOR JAMES AND THE GIANT PEACH?
I had a kind of fascination with the thought that an apple-there’re a
lot of apple trees around here, and fruit trees, and you can watch them
through the summer getting bigger and bigger from a tiny little apple
to bigger and bigger ones, and it seemed to me an obvious thought-what
would happen if it didn’t stop growing? Why should it stop growing at a
certain size? And this appealed to me and I thought this was quite a
nice little idea and [then I had to think] of which fruit I should take
for my story. I thought apple, pear, plum, peach. Peach is rather nice, a
lovely fruit. It’s pretty and it’s big and it’s squishy and you can go
into it and it’s got a big seen in the middle that you can play with.
And so the story started.
WHAT IS YOUR WORK ROUTINE?
My work routine is very simple and it’s always been so for the last
45 years. The great thing, of course, is never to work too long at a
stretch, because after about two hours you are not at your highest peak
of concentration, so you have to stop. Some writers choose certain times
to write, others [choose] other times, and it suits me to start rather
late. I start at 10 o’clock and I stop at 12. Always. However well I’m
going, I will stay there until 12, even if I’m a bit stuck. You have to
keep your bottom on the chair and stick it out. Otherwise, if you start
getting in the habit of walking away, you’ll never get it done.
HOW DO YOU KEEP THAT MOMENTUM GOING WHEN YOU ARE WRITING A NOVEL?
One of the vital things for a writer who’s writing a book, which is a
lengthy project and is going to take about a year, 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 are
writing it for a year, you go away and you 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, a 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
through the year. If you stop when you are stuck, the you are in
WHAT IS THE SECRET TO KEEPING YOUR READERS ENTERTAINED?
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.
HOW DO YOU CREATE INTERESTING CHARACTERS?
When you’re writing a book, with people in it as opposed to animals,
it is no good have people who are ordinary, because they are not going
to interest your readers at all. Every writer in the world has to use
the characters that have something interesting about them, and this is
even more true in children’s books. I find that the only way to make my
characters really interesting to children is to exaggerate all their
good or bad qualities, and so if a person is nasty or bad or cruel, you
make them very nasty, very bad, very cruel. If they are ugly, you make
them extremely ugly. That, I think, is fun and makes an impact.
HOW DO YOU INCLUDE HORRIFIC EVENTS WITHOUT SCARING YOUR READERS?
You never describe any horrors happening, you just say that they do
happen. Children who got crunched up in Willy Wonka’s chocolate machine
were carries away and that was the end of it. When the parents screamed,
“Where has he gone?” and Wonka said, “Well, he’s gone to be made into
fudge,” that’s where you laugh, because you don’t see it happening, you
don’t hear the child screaming or anything like that ever, ever, ever.
HOW MUCH HAS LIVING IN THE COUNTRYSIDE INFLUENCED YOU?
I wouldn’t live anywhere else except in the country, here. And, of
course, if you live in the country, your work is bound to be influenced
by it in a lot of ways, not pure fantasy like Charlie with chocolate
factories, witches, and BFG’s, but the others that are influenced by
everything around you. I suppose the one [book] that is most dependent
purely on this countryside around here is Danny the Champion of the
World, and I rather love that book. And when I was planning it,
wondering where I was going to let Danny and his father live, all I had
to do, I didn’t realize it, all I had to do was look around my own
garden and there it was.
ROALD DAHL ON THE SUBJECT OF CHOCOLATE:
In the seven years of this glorious and golden decade [the 1930s],
all the great classic chocolates were invented: the Crunchie, the Whole
Nut bar, the Mars bar, the Black Magic assortment, Tiffin, Caramello,
Aero, Malteser, the Quality Street assortment, Kit Kat, Rolo, and
Smarties. In music the equivalent would be the golden age when
compositions by Bach and Mozart and Beethoven were given to us. In
painting it was the equivalent of the Renaissance in Italian art and the
advent of the Impressionsists toward the end of the nineteenth century.
In literature it was Tolstoy and Balzac and Dickens. I tell you, there
has been nothing like it in the history of chocolate and there never
I find what he said about writing being like a long, long walk through a landscape and not seeing the whole book until you're standing on a high hill at the end very encouraging. As I write things often I don't know what I'm doing -- or where I'm going -- only now at the end (I am ALMOST done with my last chapter!) do I see what is important (to me, anyhow!) in what I've written.
To Roald Dahl, "everything fit" (but maybe that was after rewriting?). I will have to take out some things and rewrite others in order for the whole landscape to work -- but that, as a friend said, is what revisions are for!
The idea of stopping for the day when you know what is going to happen next is one I had read before (in some Hemingway essay or biography). But Hemingway didn't explain it or admit the part about being stuck if you don't do it -- so I GET IT when Roald Dahl says it.
Hurray for Roald Dahl and children's books!