Tuesday, 12 October 2010

Quentin Blake & Roald Dahl: A Journey

Event: Words on Monday - Foyles Literary Evening: Quentin Blake & Donald Sturrock
Location: Kings Place, London

Everyone knows Quentin Blake: the famous illustrator of Roald Dahl's books. His trademark squiggles can be recognised anywhere.

Anyway, he was in dialogue with Dahl's official biographer, Donald Sturrock at a Foyles literary event, and it was a good fun hour spent learning about Dahl's life, his art and of course, his relationship with Blake.

I didn't know that Roald never set out to be a children's writer, and that for the longest time, he refused to write a book dedicated to children. In his early adulthood, he wrote primarily macabre short stories that featured grotesque narratives and strange characters. Little did he know that his fascination with grim and ghastly plot lines can translate well in to the sphere of children's lit. Quentin remarked: 'You can write the most horrific scenes, as long as there's terrible laughter (afterwards)'. If you look back at Dahl's repertoire, it is quite stunning that books like The Twits (about an ugly, nasty couple doing horrible tricks to each other) and The Witches (about a group of - yes - witches who wanted to destroy children!) could be good children's novels. The Witches, for example, has been a frequent target of censors, but if you look back at the history of children's tales / fairytales, Roald Dahl's 'macabre' stories would fit quite nicely in the tradition. Children's stories evolved from the oral tradition: often, they were horrific cautionary tales where people - good or bad - can die horrible deaths.


In any case, apparently Roald Dahl had an imposing persona at times (Quentin said wryly: 'When Roald Dahl's not happy, you knew about it'), but he could also be very engaging with the young. In one instance, at a book signing, a little boy looked up to Dahl and asked:
'What do you do when people tell you they don't like your stories?'

His immediate response? 'I hit them'.

Anyway, it was good to hear Quentin Blake's take on the books, and his description of how his art functions in relation to the text. He says Roald's stories are very action-driven: he uses a character's actions for characterisation, and the challenge for Quentin is to convey the characters' behaviour/actions without giving too much of the plot away. So if there's a scene where a teacher (in Matilda) hits a student by smashing a plate on his head, instead of capturing the moment when the plate comes into contact with the boy's head, Quentin decided to show the teacher lifting the plate in mid-air. This suspension draws the reader to the text, and instead of detracting from the reading experience, enhances it by leaving you with a sense of anticipation.

I thoroughly enjoyed the talk, although it was a bit short for my liking (it was about an hour long, followed by a quick book signing session). Also, I really dislike Q&A periods when they open it up to the general audience. Call me a snob, but usually people ask the dumbest questions, and only because they love the sound of their own voice.

Other than that, a good event!

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