Exclusive: Phoebe Dahl on Roald Dahl’s Legacy

With the centenary of his birth being celebrated on September 13, and his classic children’s novel, The BFG, hitting the big screen this weekend in a handsome revival starring Mark Rylance and directed by grown-up kid Steven Spielberg, Roald Dahl has never been more celebrated. His stories are a part of our common cultural language, household names and images that resonate into adulthood. We chatted with Dahl’s granddaughter, Phoebe Dahl, about her grandfather’s cultural impact and asked her to pick her own favorite story from his massive body of work.

As a Dahl whose grandfather wrote these wonderful books, why do you think they transcend time?

He wrote about magical, mystical characters like witches and giants which have been fascinating to us and our children for hundreds of years; their existence transcends our own existence and this will always be fascinating to children and adults alike. We like to believe that there is magic out there to keep us going – Dahl’s stories merge the normal with the paranormal in a way that pulls you in and makes you feel like it could happen to you at anytime.

What is it about these stories that makes them work and that resonates with so many different people across different generations?

Roald Dahl appeals to such a broad range of ages as he himself was so young at heart and so playful in his soul. He writes about the good and the extraordinary and sprinkles in some darker elements, which both adults and children strongly identify with.

Roald Dahl was one of the first writers who didn’t patronize his readers, and liked to explore the dark as well as the light.  Why do you think he had this ability to talk to readers as an equal?

His compassion for children and the underdog are absolutely equal which is rarely seen in fiction. You get to see into the life of the antagonist, see why they are evil and where it came from, but in doing so, understanding that they were not always evil. You’re shown how to have compassion for evil, by seeing how certain events in their life brought them to evil – which is a strong message for children, and adults – to have compassion and understanding for all.

What is it about your grandfather that led him to treat young readers with such respect?

He had the sense of humor of a child, the same child-like wonder and curiosity for life – this is why he was able to communicate and connect with children. He was a child at heart filled with love and warmth.

He was always inventing things and chasing hot air balloons and flying kites with 50-foot tails – everything was great fun for him.

What are your favorite Roald Dahl bookse?

I loved The Twits – I like a bit of trickery and mischief!!

Did you have a go-to Roald Dahl book as a child?

The Minpins was always our bedtime story – it was such a nice tale to bring you into the depths of dreamland. Fairies, forests and magic. I always imagined myself as one of the Minimins, high up in the trees, nestled away in my own little treehouse.

the bfg

What is it about Roald Dahl’s storytelling that has created this enduring power?

I am incredibly proud, and love to see his legacy carry on through generations. The stories are magic; they make you believe in something bigger than yourself; they transport you to a land that you only get to visit in your dreams; they introduce you to friends and confidants that you spend a lifetime looking for; and also feature fear and heartbreak that is not so easy to recover from. To feel these emotions and be transported from your day, if only for 15 minutes, is a treat. Sitting through a feature length movie of these emotions where you get to watch everything come to life is absolute bliss.  In cinematic terms, he wrote in very broad sweeps which translate beautifully as timeless and placeless which are perfect for reinventing a story for the purpose of filmmaking. The timeless theme of good triumphing bad never gets old.

The BFG is in theaters tomorrow.

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