Since I was little, I wanted to be a writer. I would pretend that I had written the books I was reading, dreaming of a day when my books would be in print. I stumbled onto the style I liked best quite early, when my mum inadvertently bought me an anthology of Roald Dahl’s stories when I was 10. I don’t know if she realized that his adult stories were quite a bit overtly darker than his kids stories. I say overtly, because anyone who has read his kids’ stories understands that there is quite a bit of darkness to them. But there was always a separation. The protagonist was easy to love, to sympathize with. The antagonists were comically and absurdly horrid, easy to revile.
His adult stories sometimes lacked this distinction.
The woman who kills her husband with a leg of lamb and then serves it to his friends on the police force who are investigating his murder. The woman who knowingly leaves her annoying husband in a horrifying situation before going on vacation. The sweet landlady with a penchant for taxidermy. The adventurous uncle who travels the world, with an appetite for money making schemes surpassed only by his prowess with the ladies.
I saw nothing terribly nefarious about these characters. He made them people I could sympathize with. Perhaps that’s just as much to do with how my brain works, as his storytelling capability. At any rate, I wanted to write stories with lovely twists and turns that resulted in “ooooooh, that’s dark!” or better yet, “Oh my god! I did not see that coming!!!! How very clever!” Neil Gaiman has this same ability, he goes places so familiar and strange it’s like coming home to a place I hadn’t been yet, but always hoped someone might take me to, if that makes any sense. I could do a whole post about him, but this is about beginnings. And Roald Dahl was where I started.
I love his children’s stories. Danny the champion of the world might be my favourite, (young child living simply in a caravan with a mechanic dad??? Foreshadowing of my actual existence, anyone?) though the BFG is definitely up there. I wanted to be Sophie, I wanted to see the dream country. I’ve long desired to have a whole pantry filled with colourful jars that contain every flavour of thing, including dreams, ideally golden phizzwizards. All of his kids books will forever have a place in my heart.
But the dark twisty delight of his short stories? He took me to places I didn’t think the human psyche could go and still be relatively content they are on the side of the ‘good’. He gave me permission to giggle at the darkness contained in the human mind. That there could be a happy ending of sorts for the ‘bad guy’ who I felt enough of a connection to cheer on. That’s what I wanted to do. I wanted to write stories like that.
I had a box, a red box made of cardboard with little drawers and a lid that lifted up. It contained blank lined paper and pens. The three drawers had three categories of stories. Ones I hadn’t written but copied down because they were short and filled with ideas I wanted to be reminded of, ones I had written that I didn’t think were very good, and stories I’d written that I liked. That I hoped to develop into much better stories for the anthology I would make someday.
Of these, there were stories about a sculptor husband who drove his wife insane with a horrid troll that she insisted was moving though he pretended it wasn’t, a man who had his wife turned into a statue when she told him she was leaving him for another man, a woman who was attacked when the townspeople thought she had come back from the dead, though she’d just been away visiting her sister. For the most part they were pretty badly written. I was in practice mode.
But then I wrote one that I was really proud of. I was convinced it was the best thing I’d ever done. Honestly? I can’t remember for the life of me what it was about. But I knew it was good. Good enough to publish.
I mailed it to Roald Dahl. This was back before the internet, so I had a devil of a time tracking down his address in Buckinghamshire. But I did, and sent it, filled with joy. That was November of 1990. I told my parents while we were driving downtown, I was excited, figuring it wouldn’t be very long before he wrote back, telling me what a charming and clever girl I must be to come up with such a story. I remember how quiet they got. My mum looked at my dad, who was driving, and he looked back. We were on the highway, just about to cross Tillicum road.
“Oh Trish. Roald Dahl died a couple of days ago.”
I don’t remember if I cried. I was 14 and angry about everything, stoic as hell (though according to my dad, I was even stoic as a little kid. He said it used to freak him out how I wouldn’t cry sometimes) and I can well imagine my instinct to withdraw even further into my teen angst bullshit and never let anyone see me hurt.
1990 was a tough year, we’d already lost Jim Henson back in May, my world of creative inspiration gods was getting smaller. Plus I was 14 and everything sucked.
The worst part? I stopped writing stories. I kept writing, I wrote incessantly! Diary entries filled with musings over how futile and lame everything was, how bleak the future and how apathy or rage were the only options. Pretty typically terrible stuff. After I left home, I had my backpack stolen at one point. The loss of clothes was whatever, but all of my diaries from age 12-present day were in there, except for the one I was writing in at the time. I was kind of relieved. I still am. I don’t have the nostalgia for the things I wrote back then, it was fucking terrible. Trust me, I remember.
But it was a damn long time before I came back to anything resembling fiction. Some tiny fragment of my brain wondered at the timing of my grand story and his death. Had he read it? Would it be rude to write to his wife and ask for it back? Did I kill him? (Yes, I know how insane that sounds, have you met people? We’re kinda crazy sometimes)
I also stopped reading fiction regularly for a while. I was pretty busy, what with living on the streets, being a wandering mendicant, journaling epic poetry, gaining perspective and learning who I was without the constraints of societal expectations. I was lucky. For the most part, it was a good experience for me. Sure there were harsh and shite moments, some lessons harder and more painful than others, but I survived mostly intact and have no regrets.
Except one. That I let fear of writing feel louder than the stories that wanted to be told.
I stopped delving into the dark of my own imagination and decided I needed to know how it looked for real, in order to be able to honestly write about it. A lot of Dahl’s experiences in the war changed him. I didn’t want to go to war, but I got caught up in this need to suffer to understand how to be a better artist. It wasn’t necessary and I’m very fortunate it never went altogether sideways on me.
It feels right that I’d come back around to paying homage to my first favourite short story writer on the anniversary of his 100th birthday by submitting a story for publication. Which, coincidentally, has references to Charlie and the Chocolate factory in it. I had no idea it was his birthday when I was writing the story, I only discovered that fact after I’d finished it.
The first story of many I hope to write, to share, and hopefully someday? To make someone feel the way he made me feel.
As though there is magic everywhere, because there is.
Thanks Roald Dahl. For all of it.