On September 19, 1940 a young Royal Air Force pilot named Roald Dahl stepped out of a Gloster Gladiator onto a remote military airfield in northern Egypt. This was the beginning of his military service and the experiences that would shape much of his writing for the rest of his life.
Aside from a book he did for Walt Disney (to be covered in later post), Dahl published his first book in 1946. For the next fifteen years he would experience modest success with adult fiction, much of it autobiographical. But by the time his short story collection KISS KISS was published in 1960 his popularity had waned and he was finding writing difficult.
More than once his long time agent, Sheila St. Lawrence, had encouraged him to try writing for children. Since Dahl’s wife was a successful actor and was frequently on location, Dahl wrote at home and loved telling stories to his children. The combination of slow sales and his natural story telling ability made him finally considered his agent’s suggestion.
In 1959 the family went on a vacation to Norway where elements from stories previously told his children started to coalesce into a new story. As he said, he started to “walk around [his new story] and look at it, and sniff it.” The more he smelled it, the more he liked it. St. Lawrence loved the story and told Virginia Fowler, then children’s editor at Knopf, that it was even better than E. B. White’s CHARLOTTE’S WEB.
In 1961 Dahl started the second and more important part of his career with a bang, when Knopf published JAMES AND THE GIANT PEACH. It would take seven more years for an English publisher to have the sense to publish it in Dahl’s home country.