LINDA WERTHEIMER, host:
Author Roald Dahl is best known for his children's books: "James and the Giant Peach," "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory" and "The Fantastic Mr. Fox." Those are three of his best-loved works. But Dahl didn't begin writing for children until he was already in his mid-40s. By that time, he's already tried out several other careers.
He was an oilman for Shell, a pilot in Britain's Royal Air Force and a member of the British diplomatic corps.
Donald Sturrock covers all that ground in "Storyteller: The Authorized Biography of Roald Dahl." And the book also looks at Dahl's marriage to Oscar-winning movie star Patricia Neal. It was a relationship of extreme highs and lows that lasted 30 years.
Mr. DONALD STURROCK (Author, "Storyteller"): A marriage, I think, that had its years of very great strength, if not happiness, probably because Pat and Roald were bound together by these two tragedies that happened quite early on with their children, one when their son Theo was knocked over and crushed against the side of a bus by a cab in New York. And secondly, when their eldest daughter, Olivia, died, aged only seven, from complications resulting from measles.
WERTHEIMER: And then, of course, Patricia Neal had a brain aneurysm and a series of strokes, which caused her to lose the use of one side of her body. She was - she could scarcely speak. And Roald Dahl became famous for his care of Patricia Neal, and what I gather was a very, verging on cruel, kind of therapy for her, which is still taken very seriously as a way of rehabbing brain injuries in stroke victims.
Mr. STURROCK: That's right. What Dahl did was very pioneering in its time. And I gather it's almost become standard practice now, this kind of idea that, you know, you must stimulate a stroke victim quite early on and quite extremely in order to get them back to health.
And he just went hell-for-leather to stimulate her, to try and get all her faculties back. And I think it was very painful for Pat. But Pat, herself, thanked Roald from the bottom of her heart, you know, when - and the recovery was amazing, because within, you know, a couple of years, she was back making a movie and nominated for another Oscar, which is astonishing.
WERTHEIMER: As he grows older, he's living out in the country in a place called Gypsy House. He becomes more and more eccentric. And you tell a few tales of Dahl as a kind of childlike person who wrote his books at a weird little hovel that he called a writing hut. What was that about?
Mr. STURROCK: Well, I think he did have a lot of domestic responsibilities. You know, for many years, even before Pat's stroke, she was often away and he was responsible for looking after the kids and performing the sort of mom role in the relationship. And then when, of course, Pat had her stroke ,she was recuperating there a lot, and looking after Theo meant that whenever he was around the house, there were many, many, many, many distractions to keep him from work.
So I think he set up the hut largely to give himself a little private space where he could indulge his love of fantasy and absolutely escape from reality. I think that's really what the hut was about.
You're right. It was a very weird place. He did surround himself with a bunch of very strange objects, including bits and pieces of his own body that had been removed in operations.
And I remember once going there for dinner and him producing the head of his femur at the table, which was a sort of creamy, white, cracked ball-like thing, and passing it around the table and asking people if they could guess what it was. I actually knew what it was, because he showed it to me before. But, I mean, nobody guessed it right. And a couple of people, when he told them, were absolutely horrified.
WERTHEIMER: Well, at least he didn't fish it out of the stew and present it.
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Mr. STURROCK: He didn't go that far. No.
WERTHEIMER: What about - you also say that at dinner, that he, I guess, in a sort of reference of some kind to "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory," that he would serve dessert by passing around a little red plastic box of candy bars.
Mr. STURROCK: He was really quite obsessed with chocolate. He could tell you the year that every great chocolate bar was invented in the 1920s and '30s. And...
WERTHEIMER: I have to say that I'm with him there, because the Brits have the best chocolate bars I've ever eaten.
Mr. STURROCK: Well, he was a fan of British chocolate, but he was also a big fan of American chocolate, too. He could tell you all kinds of details about the life of Mr. Mars, for instance, and how and when he'd invented all his best recipes. I didn't actually know Mr. Mars was a person until I met Roald Dahl.
WERTHEIMER: The children's books that he wrote, I mean, I assumed in reading your book, the sort of odd behavior, the way he talked very well with children, got on very well with his own children, that the slightly scary, very strange books that he wrote for children kind of reflected that personality, or maybe -do you think he understood children?
Mr. STURROCK: I do. I think that was perhaps his most special gift as a writer for children. He had an extraordinary confidence about his ability to see into a child's mind and to see the world as a child saw it.
I mean, that's one of the things he used to - he once said to me about going to that funny little writing hut. He said I can cut myself up there, and within minutes, become six and seven and eight again. And he was very, very confident about his ability to do that.
I don't think he was self-consciously creepy, but I think he knew just how to frighten them and just how far you could go. I think, in a funny way, he's no more scary than other children's writers before him.
I mean, Beatrix Potter, in her own way, can be quite scary, although you think of her as being all fluffy bunnies and stuff like that. But, you know, there are rats that want to eat kittens and turn them into puddings.
WERTHEIMER: Now, you knew Dahl personally, and you know members of his family well. You admired him. Presumably, that must have affected the way you wrote about him.
Mr. STURROCK: Yes, it did, because I obviously liked him. And I did feel that in much that had written about Dahl before, the quirky oddities and kind of more outrageous and sometimes offensive parts of his behavior had been misunderstood in some respects, because a lot of it was done with a twinkle in the eye.
And I wanted to try and recreate, as much as I could, that rather sparky, fun-loving, anti-establishment, jokey person that I remembered. I mean, I only knew him for the last five years of his life, when I think he was probably happier than he'd been for some time.
But it always struck me as funny that people sort of almost wanted to dislike him. And I did, in a way, want to put the record a little bit straight without fudging over any of his, you know, any of the more controversial sides of his character, but the fact that people who knew him well really liked him - until they fell out with him, of course. I didn't know him long enough, probably, to fall out with him.
WERTHEIMER: Donald Sturrock, thank you very much.
Mr. STURROCK: It's been a pleasure. Thank you very much.
WERTHEIMER: Donald Sturrock's book is called "Storyteller: The Authorized Biography of Roald Dahl."
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WERTHEIMER: Tomorrow, we'll talk to the collaborators on a new children's book.
Ms. LESLEY BLUME (Author): Let's not forget that traditionally, children's fairy tales have not been very nice. And this book returns to those dark roots.
WERTHEIMER: Author Lesley Blume and illustrator David Foote join us to talk about "Modern Fairies, Dwarves, Goblins and Other Nasties."
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WERTHEIMER: This is NPR News.