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Roald Dahl: The Story Of The 'Storyteller'

Roald Dahl is best known for his children's stories.  His first -- and arguably his most famous -- was James and the Giant Peach, published in 1961, when Dahl was already in his mid-40s.

But prior to finding his calling as a children's author, Dahl tried out several other careers -- as an oilman for Shell, a pilot in Britain's Royal Air Force (RAF) and a member of the British diplomatic corps.

Perhaps one of the most interesting periods in Dahl's life -- and one that demonstrates his considerable charm -- was during World War II. Early in the war, Dahl spent several years living in the United States, trying to raise awareness for the British war cause. Donald Sturrock, author of Storyteller, a new biography of Dahl, tells NPR's Linda Wertheimer just how successful Dahl was in this endeavor.

"It was a dizzying ride to the top of Washington, New York and L.A. society," he says. "Dahl's mission was to conquer American society, which he did with a series of speeches about what it was like to be a RAF man."

Dahl's writing career took off here, too.  While in America, he wrote a short piece of fiction about gremlins -- the mythical creatures that cause problems with RAF airplanes.  The story became very popular and received a tremendous amount of attention.  A copy sent to First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt charmed her enough that she invited Dahl to the White House.  Walt Disney also fell under the gremlins' spell and flew Dahl to Hollywood to discuss making a movie.

Dahl's gremlins never made it into a movie, but they did make it into a book, which Sturrock says may have helped in promoting a positive image of Britain and the RAF to wartime America.

Dahl would capture America's attention again in 1952, when he married actress Patricia Neal, who later won an Oscar for her performance with Paul Newman in Hud. Although the marriage almost failed in the first few months, Sturrock says it eventually became one of great strength.

"Pat and Roald were bound together by these two tragedies that happened quite early on with their children," he explains. "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 7, from complications resulting from measles."

Neal would also suffer an aneurysm and a series of strokes, which caused her to lose the use of one side of her body and made speech very difficult. Dahl worked out an intensely rigorous rehabilitation therapy for her that, to many, seemed almost cruel.

But, Sturrock says, what Dahl did was very pioneering at that time.

"It's almost become standard practice, his idea that you must stimulate a stroke victim quite early on and quite extremely in order to get them back to health," he explains.

Dahl worked hard to help Neal recover and, although it was a very painful process for her, she was extremely grateful to him, especially given that she was able to return to her acting career within only a few years.

Neal's acting career, and then her illness, meant that Dahl assumed many of the domestic responsibilities -- taking care of the house and the children.  But to focus on his writing, Dahl needed a more private place.   He would often retire to a small work hut -- his writing hut -- where he could indulge his love of fantasy and escape from reality.

Dahl himself told Sturrock that the hut helped him think like a child.

"I can cut myself off there," Dahl said, "...and within minutes become six and seven and eight again."

That, says Sturrock, was Dahl's most special gift -- he truly understood children.  "He had an extraordinary confidence about his ability to see into a child's mind and to see the world the way a child saw it."

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