Interview with Donald Sturrock: The Authorized Roald Dahl Biographer
(I spoke to Donald Sturrock, who penned Storyteller, which has been lauded by critics as the definitive biography of Roald Dahl. Though Dahl is most famous for his books for children, he wrote several short stories which have earned comparisons to Maugham, Saki, O’Henry and John Collier. In my conversation with Mr. Sturrock, we spoke about how Dahl’s creative and fertile imagination created so many tales which today stand as short story classics.)
AFG: I’ve been a big fan of Roald Dahl’s adult fiction since I was a very small kid. l loved his Tales of the Unexpected and one of my favorites was “Lamb to the Slaughter.” What were some of the inspirations behind his most famous stories such as the Mr. Botibol stories, “Man From the South,” or “Galloping Foxley”?
DS: I don’t really have an easy answer because I think those things were not clear-cut with him. He suffered from something that quite a lot of writers have, which is that they’re very unwilling to explore the sources of their own inspiration lest it dry up. So I think what he would have said was that, he watched people, he thought about things: little things he read in the newspapers kind of intrigued him. I think he spent quite a lot of time mulling over what I might call the “what ifs.” I remember him telling me that’s how James and the Giant Peach sort of started, when he was sitting in his writing hutch and thinking, “Well, what would happen if a fruit just continued to grow and didn’t stop growing, and what stops it growing?” And I guess probably with “Lamb to the Slaughter”—I don’t know but I would guess that he pulled the leg of a lamb out of the deep freeze and thought, “Wow, this is heavy and hard, and you could probably do somebody an injury with this, maybe even kill him. Well, hmm, that’s quite an interesting idea; I wonder if anyone’s ever done that.” That’s I feel how they’re written, (how) quite a lot of the inspiration for some of those famous short stories started. He had so many interests: he was quite a keen gambler and blackjack player, and he was always interested in odds and bets and how people cheated; he was quick to see if somebody cheated while playing a game, and how people did manage to cheat. I enjoyed that story titled “Taste,” about how somebody could pretend to have the most spectacularly sensitive palate and be able to define the exact wine, the exact year, and whatever, pretending to do it out of skill and sensitivity and palate, whereas actually he just sneaked in and had a look at the bottle.
AFG: I know; I love that story.
DS: I think a lot of his stories came from that kind of playful “what if’” sort of premise. There are others that are more psychologically interesting; I think one that definitely came from somewhere deep down in his unconscious was that “Galloping Foxley” story.
AFG: Oh yes, the one about the brutal bully.
DS: And that’s something I think that was quite powerful within him. I mean, he had a terrible time at school; there were terrible bullies and beatings at Repton, the school that he attended between 13 and 18. There was a character who used to gallop down the corridor to beat the boys. And I think that surfaced within the context of what he always used to go on about whenever I heard him talk about writing; you know, “Observe; you’ve got to exaggerate a bit but observe, and put it into a real context.” I mean, the context of that “Galloping Foxley” story is about a kind of rather dull, very set in his ways commuter who takes the same train in from his house every day, and everything is exactly the same and it’s totally ordered. He, of course, did that for three years in his early 20s before he went to Africa. He went to work for Shell and commuted every day on a train, and I think there are lots of little details from that experience he observed then. I know there are little details actually from just having been through the letters he wrote to his mother—school letters—which weren’t complaining at all, but there are details of some of the boys he shared his study with that come into “Galloping Foxley.”
AFG: About “Poison”—do you think that was inspired by his time in Africa?
DS: Yes, I think it’s quite interesting because he was very aware of the fact that he was a member of a privileged group when he was in Africa. It comes across in the letters quite a lot, and you’re aware of him actually doing things that most of his fellow ex-pats didn’t do, you know, going to local festivals. Quite a lot of his photographs are of the natives, and he was interested in the background of the people who worked for him when he was there. So I think he had even then a sense of being able to see that ex-pat existence from the other end of the telescope and to be aware of how many of his colleagues, friends perhaps, were basically pretty stupid and pretty much out-and-out racists, too. I think, funnily enough, that another detail from his schooldays comes into that; there’s a detail about a pearl button or something on the pajamas of the guy who said there’s a snake curled up on his stomach; again, I seem to recall a letter he wrote when he was a kid describing somebody older in his study who bullied him who had something like that. I think that character in the bed who kind of shouts at the Indian doctor at the end when there isn’t a snake there probably had in mind one of the nasties from his school.
AFG: And then of course he was also an art collector, and that features in “Skin.” Roald Dahl did have Soutine paintings?
DS: Yes, very interesting, Soutine. He didn’t have any when I knew him but he was one of the first painters whose art he bought. He saw where Soutine worked when he went to Paris with his friend, the artist Matthew Smith, after the war, and that made a big impression on him. But again, that story I think is a “what if” one. I mean, he was very interested in paintings and their value, and he made quite a lot of money out of buying and selling paintings, and he was interested in artists and restoration and in the tricks of that slightly corrupt art world. I think probably the idea for the story came from the fact that there are people who paint on board and they paint on canvas, and they paint on cloth and they paint on wood; but what would happen if a great artist did a tattoo on a real person? And there will always be some shady art dealer who would be prepared to buy it and probably, you know, kill off the person whose back was tattooed. I’m sure that’s how his mind worked.
DONALD STURROCK is an award-winning TV film producer and a librettist who has been the artistic director of the Roald Dahl Foundation since 1992. He grew up in England and South America, attended Oxford University, and joined BBC Television’s Music and Arts Department in 1983. In 1995 Sturrock directed an acclaimed BBC television version of his own adaptation of Roald Dahl’s Little Red Riding Hood with Danny DeVito, Ian Holm, and Julie Walters. In 1998, at the Los Angeles Opera, Sturrock also directed the world premiere of Fantastic Mr. Fox, an opera based on Dahl’s book, adapted by Sturrock, and with designs by Gerald Scarfe. His children’s opera Keepers of the Night premiered in Los Angeles in 2007. Storyteller is his first book.