September 13th, 2009

Roald Dahl made me a writer

I've changed my userpic in honor of Roald Dahl. Today is his birthday. His books have sold more than 100 million copies.

Thinking of that, it's pretty amazing that I got the postcard I'm using as my userpic. It's dated 24th August '72, and says, "Dear April, I loved your story about Herman the frog. I read it aloud to my daughter, Ophelia, who also loved it. I read it to my secretary, Hazel, who giggled. Lots of love, Roald Dahl." What's even more amazing is that Dahl took the short story I sent him when I was 12 - carefully printed on wide-ruled paper- to lunch with the editor of a children's magazine. She contacted me later and asked if she could publish it. It was about a six-foot-tall frog who loved peanut butter.

In real life, he was a complicated man. "He was famously a war hero, a connoisseur, a philanthropist, a devoted family man who had to confront an appalling succession of tragedies," his biographer wrote. "He was also, as will be seen, a fantasist, an anti-Semite, a bully and a self-publicizing troublemaker." Recently it has also been revealed that he was a spy, working for the British in Washington, DC.

"Charlie and the Chocolate Factory," and "James and the Giant Peach," have overshadowed his more chilling adult work. Some of his short stories could have come from Stephen King: In "Lamb to the Slaughter," a pregnant woman kills her unfaithful husband by hitting him over the head with a frozen leg of lamb, which she later cooks and serves to the police. In "Skin," a starving man is forced to sell a picture of his wife that has been tatooed onto his back by a famous artist.

Ophelia Dahl, who was described as loving my short story in 1972, is currently the executive director of Partners In Health, a Boston, Massachusetts based non-profit health care organization dedicated to providing a "preferential option for the poor." I don't know what happened to Hazel, who probably must have typed hundreds of postcards. And I don't have a copy of the magazine any more. I think it was called Puffin. I subscribed to it for a year. It cost a lot since it came from England. Since they didn't pay me for my story, they probably got the better deal. But Roald Dahl helped make me a writer through that postcard and that act.

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