Monday, January 15, 2007

The terror of interviewing Roald Dahl

In 1989 I was a reporter for the New Zealand Herald, a daily paper that sold quarter of a million copies in a city of a million people. Most of the time I covered general news or high court trials, but I wanted to be in the features department. Alas, you had to wait for someone to die or retire before there was an opening. I did get seconded to features for a month, but never managed to make the move upstairs permanent. Eventually I got frustrated and decided to try my luck in the UK. To save money for the trip, I volunteered for every piece of freelance work going, interviewing people on my day off and writing up the results for the features department.

In April 1989 I was offered the chance to interview legendary author Roald Dahl. He was over 70 at the time and not a well man, but had been persuaded to undertake a visit to Australia. The Herald was New Zealand’s biggest newspaper and had been granted a telephone interview. But the features editor warned me Dahl could be prickly and was likely to cut off the interview at any point if he found my questions annoying, offensive or simply boring. My task was to get enough out of Dahl to turn into a full-page feature, with annoying, offending or boring the Big Friendly Giant. Gulp.

I read both volumes of Dahl’s autobiography in preparation, along with all the available articles in the Herald’s cuttings library. My efforts to interview Dahl got postponed several times. An event he was attending in Sydney overran by several hours, but he phoned the next day from Melbourne to apologise and our conversation was rescheduled for the followed morning. When it did happen, Dahl urged me to ask different questions: ‘Thirty Australian journalist have asked me what I think of Australia already. I’ve been stuck in hotel rooms for the past five days so I haven’t seen Australia yet. Let’s make this a slightly unusual interviews – cook something up.’

Dahl’s visit to Australia in 1989 was his first time down under. He was attending a children’s festival in Adelaide. The writer said he as much fan mail from Australia as he did from within the UK. Besides, he had once had ‘an angel of a housekeeper’ from Adelaide, so he had agreed to travel below the equator. By the time we talked, he was regretting the decision. ‘I have to do to some luncheon soon and give a speech. I loathe the whole thing really.’ So, an easily riled author who was bored with dull questions and hated doing publicity events. All I had to do was get him talking and keep him talking. It’s fair to say I’ve never been so nervous during an interview.

Come back tomorrow to read what Dahl had to say for himself…


Laura Anderson said...

Ooh, I'm looking forward to post 2!

I think in 1989 I was probably just passed the height of my Dahl obsession. He was always one of my favourite authors, I loved almost everything he wrote. (Particularly Mathilda and The Witches.) Also, everything I know about adenoids was learned in Boy.

Good stuff.

Laura Anderson said...

"Matilda" not Mathilda. I always spell that the other way around.

James Moran said...

Ooh, you swine! Cliffhanger! I loved Dahl's work, he was an evil genius.