Archives for posts with tag: writer

Most of the time, being a writer is a solitary job. I was going to say ‘lonely’, but that wouldn’t be true, as that implies that we writers feel sad, sitting alone at our desks all day. On the contrary: writing is what makes us very happy. It is true, though, that we are alone a lot of the time (unless you take into account the company of hundreds of made-up characters who romp around inside our heads!)

However, every once in a while we get to go out into the world and talk about our books. I have posted here before about going to festivals and schools and libraries. I love doing this as I like nothing better than to meet my readers face to face.

But today, I did something incredibly extra-special: I WENT ON THE TELLYBOX! Yes, I was on TV. I can hardly believe it actually happened now that I am back at my desk, typing this, but here is a photo to prove it:

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I was asked to appear on the ITV breakfast show Good Morning Britain to be interviewed by presenters Kate Garraway and Ben Shephard about Roald Dahl. Why? Firstly, because today is the day that the delumptious, scrumdiddlyumptious Dahl Dictionary is published by Oxford University Press. And secondly, because I MET ROALD DAHL WHEN I WAS TEN YEARS OLD!!

Which is why, in the photo above, you can see his autograph on a page of pink paper. (Sadly I have written his name again for him underneath his signature. Clearly I didn’t think much of his messy handwriting.)

As soon as I had agreed to do the interview, I started panicking. What should I say? Would I be nervous? What should I wear? Should I wear make-up? Mostly I just wanted to scream hysterically and jump up and down. Luckily my kids were at home and they kept me calm, told me not to wear anything with animal print on (tricky as most of my wardrobe has something animally in it) and took the mickey out of me to keep me sane.

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Roald Dahl means a lot to me, so I was thrilled to get the chance to go on telly to talk about him. I first came across his books when I was a member of The Puffin Club in the early 1980s and I started to collect all his stories. Not only did I read and re-read (and still do) his delumptious classic children’s tales such as Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, James and the Giant Peach, Matilda and so on and so on, but I also went on to read his writing for older readers too. One of my favourites is The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar and other stories.

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This collection was published by Puffin Books as a ‘Puffin Plus’ title for older readers, long before the terms ‘Young Adult’ or ‘YA’ were coined. They were also the basis for a television programme I was an avid fan of called Tales of the Unexpected. In these stories, Dahl shows off the dark side of his writing far more than in any of the books for younger readers. Some of these ‘Tales of the Unexpected’ gave me nightmares, but I still wanted to read them and watch the TV adaptations!

One of the stories in the collection is not a horror story, it is actually the tale of how Dahl himself came to be published for the first time. It is called Lucky Break. In this tale, Dahl touches on his time at school which was a famously terrible time for him (if you want to know more, read his autobiography, Boy). He also gives some excellent top tips for writers as follows:

  1. You should have a lively imagination.
  2. You should be able to write well. By that I mean that you should be able to make a scene come alive in a reader’s mind. Not everybody has this ability. It is a gift and you either have it or you don’t.
  3. You must have stamina. In other words you must be able to stick to what you are doing and never give up for hour after hour, day after day, week after week and month after month.
  4. You must be a perfectionist. That means you must never be satisfied with what you have written until you have rewritten it again and again, making it as good as you possibly can.
  5. You must have strong self-discipline. You are working alone. No one is employing you. No one is around to give you the sack if you don’t turn up for work, or tick you off if you start slacking.
  6. It helps a lot if you have a keen sense of humour. This is not essential when writing for grown-ups, but for children it is vital.
  7. You must have a degree of humility. The writer who thinks his work is marvellous is heading for trouble.

These tips have stayed with me ever since the first time I read them when I was twelve years old. I paraphrase them and use them over and over again when I talk to people about writing.

The other thing that struck me was how inspirational it was for Dahl himself to have met his own favourite author. He was a big fan of C S Forester who wrote the historical Hornblower novels. It was when Dahl met Forester and told him about his own experiences of war as a WWII pilot, that Dahl’s own writing career started – this is the ‘lucky break’ of the title. Dahl says of meeting Forester:

‘What astonished me was that he looked so ordinary. There was nothing in the least unusual about him […] and yet here was a writer of stories who was famous the world over […] Tt was then I began to realise for the first time that there are two distinct sides to a writer of fiction. First, there is the side he displays to the public, that of an ordinary person like anyone else, a person who does ordinary things and speaks in an ordinary language. Second, there is the secret side which comes out in him only after he has closed the door of his workroom and is completely alone. It is then that he slips into another world altogether, a world where his imagination takes over and he finds himself actually living in the places he is writing about at that moment.’

When I finally got to meet Roald Dahl, I had that exact same feeling that Dahl himself had had when he shook the hand of C S Forester.

WOW, I thought. I want to be like that. I want to become a person who has a secret, magic life, writing stories.

And, guess what? Reader, I did!

So, this summer, get out to your local libraries, book festivals and bookshops, and bury yourself in stories. You never know where they might take you. Who knows, one day you might meet your literary hero and be inspired to write something yourself . . .

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Last weekend we were lucky enough to see the musical of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. The book is up there with my favourite children’s books. I have always loved the anarchic character of Willy Wonka: he is, in many ways, an overgrown child, but I have always felt that he was also perhaps Roald Dahl in disguise. One of Roald Dahl’s daughters, Ophelia, has been recorded as saying that she felt there was more of her father in the character of Grandpa Joe than in Willy Wonka, but surely Mr Wonka is the perfect character for a children’s writer.

* He does not think much of adults, particularly adults who do not even play by the rules of adulthood (the parents of Augustus Gloop, etc, have no idea how to parent.) This is something all children’s writers will empathise with. I cannot wait to “get rid of the parents” when I am writing, as children have so much more fun when the adults are not there.

* He is creative and inventive, always thinking of new, magical recipes for his confectionery. A writer has to do this too, we simply use words instead of sugar and chocolate.

* He creates new ideas alone in his factory, only using the Oompa Loompas to produce the final product: a writer must work alone at the craft of storytelling, only using others’ help when it comes to needing a good, thorough edit or a publisher to market the final product.

* Finally, and most importantly, Willy Wonka prizes a good imagination above all things. His imagination is his toolkit; the only thing he needs to begin the process of creating all the marvellous chocolates and sweets.

David Grieg, the writer of the story for the musical, saw this and made something of it; something I thought was a lovely touch. Towards the end of the show, when all the disobedient children have come to their various sticky ends, Mr Wonka takes Charlie and Grandpa Joe up to his Inventing Room, which consists of a lonely desk and a notebook. The notebook has a few things in it, but is mostly blank. Mr Wonka takes Grandpa Joe aside and tells Charlie not to touch anything. Charlie beings to read the notebook and is so inspired by Mr Wonka’s scribblings, that he begins to write down some of his own. When Mr Wonka comes back, instead of reprimanding Charlie as he did the other children, he delights in Charlie’s imaginative ideas. Charlie asks him: “Why are there blank pages in the book?” and Mr Wonka replies, “Those are the ideas I haven’t had yet.”

Willy Wonka sees himself in Charlie: a young man who has imagination in abundance (and has had to have it because he has never had much in the way of material possessions). Charlie doesn’t need to guzzle the chocolate river, because the wonder of the Chocolate Room is something he savours with all his senses; he doesn’t grab the chewing gum “meal” because he is enjoying the story behind the gum which Mr Wonka is telling the children – he doesn’t grasp at any of the treats because he is carried away by the whole magical experience of being in the factory with Mr Willy Wonka, the man Grandpa Joe has told him so much about.

In the end, it is all about storytelling. Mr Wonka is the writer, and Charlie is the reader, who might one day become the writer too. For me, this is Roald Dahl who inspired me so many years ago to read and read and read and read until one day I thought maybe I could write as as well.

I collect notebooks. It is something of a fetish. Some of them are full of notes for stories that have become books. Some of them have nothing in. I like to think that they, too, are the ideas I haven’t yet had.