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“Gobsmacked! Memories of Editing ‘The Witches'”

This article was written by Stephen Roxburgh and appeared in the July 13, 2013 edition of Publishers Weekly.


Roald Dahl in his writing hutI was Roald Dahl’s editor from about 1981 to 1987: at the time I was president and publisher at Farrar, Straus and Giroux Books for Young Readers. It was an enormously productive period: in all we worked on eight books together, the first The BFG, the last Matilda. In 1983 we published The Witches. Working on this book provided the occasion for me to go to Great Missenden, the small town where Roald lived, and visit him at his home, Gipsy House. This fall Farrar, Straus and Giroux is publishing a 30th-anniversary edition of The Witches, and they asked me to write a brief reminiscence of working with Roald on the book as an afterword. Here it is.

I first met Roald Dahl in January 1982. We’d done all our work on The BFG by correspondence. Naturally, I wanted to meet him in person. I was in London on business and took the train out to Great Missenden, where he met me. We drove back to Gipsy House, had lunch, and chatted about this and that for a couple of hours. Then he excused himself to go take a nap, or, as he would say, “have a kip.” His gardener drove me back to the station, and that was that. Or so I thought. A day or two later, after I’d gotten back to the flat in London where I was staying, my hostess was atwitter. Imagine if the BFG had knocked on your door! That afternoon Roald Dahl had dropped off a package for me. It was a manuscript titled War on Witches. No one else had read it, not even his agent or his British publisher. I was gobsmacked!

That night I read the manuscript and then read it again the next day before getting back on a train to Great Missenden in the afternoon. The manuscript was good but still very rough, so I just asked a lot of questions. I was nervous, but I had already discovered that with Roald all I had to do was ask good questions and leave it to him to come up with answers. It was a process he reveled in. Once I said I’d thought the story was terrific, we were off and running.

I came back to America and on February 4 received a revised manuscript with this note: “This one, thanks to you, now has a far better shape and form. It has, as you can imagine, been done at some speed. In fact, I’ve never worked harder or faster, because I was determined to get it off my mind before leaving for Barbados.”

We discussed the revision over the phone while he was in Barbados. On March 17 another revision arrived. “Here’s the re-write…. There are quite a few changes. And the end is better.”

Within hours I received calls from both Roald’s agent, Murray Pollinger, and his British publisher, Tom Maschler, saying time was of the essence. The pressure was on.

Our early conversations and the revisions Roald made had to do with the shape of the story, the major characters, how the story began, how it ended, and what was missing. One significant change involved two chapters about problems the hero had at school. They were good stories, but I didn’t think they belonged in this book. Roald disagreed, strongly, and we argued about it. That was not fun. Eventually he agreed and the two chapters disappeared, but not forever.

By March, The Witches was coming together, and it was time to drop down to the next level. Editing is like an archeological dig. You start moving big things, but, in the end, you focus on the smallest details. On March 26, I wrote a long editorial letter—nine single-spaced typewritten pages—to Roald, with all sorts of questions. He responded on April 22 with the salutation “Dear Max Perkins.” This was his way of telling me he was pleased with my work. Perkins was a legendary editor who worked with Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Thomas Wolfe. Roald signed the letter “Ernest, Scott and Tom.”

Here’s some of what he said about the revision.

The Grand High Witch’s speech: “I have already told you that I didn’t feel I could add much about this except to give her a very strong letter R. I don’t like my original version because it does not make for easy reading aloud.”

Grandmamma: “I have softened her all the way through. She is less incisive and far kinder, especially to Bruno’s parents…. I have allowed the mouse-hero to have all the bright ideas instead of Grandmamma.”

Originally, Roald felt that the mouse-hero had to change back into a boy. Otherwise, he wrote, “I am afraid I have let myself in for a sequel there but I don’t want to think about that for the moment.” He never intended to write a sequel. I asked: why does he have to change back? Why not leave him a mouse? Roald was delighted by the idea and, as usual, took considerable pleasure in defying expectations.

I was concerned about the portrayal of women, but Roald wasn’t. “I don’t agree with you about women coming in for a lot of stick all the way through. The nicest person in the whole thing is a woman [the grandmother] so I have not changed anything here.”

And when I suggested that women teachers standing on their desks in response to seeing a mouse was a cliché, he wrote, “This is not a cliché to children, it is a situation they will enjoy. I must keep reminding you that this is a book for children and I don’t give a bugger what grown-ups think about it. This has always been my attitude.”

Roald was pleased with this revision, saying, “I am inclined to think that it is now a book of the same quality as The BFG.”

The BFG will always be my personal favorite, but I agreed then, and I do now, that The Witcheswas right up there.

Meanwhile, the British publisher, Tom Maschler at Jonathan Cape, had approached the illustrator of The BFG to illustrate the new book. The author was delighted: “Quentin Blake has very nearly finished a vast quantity of drawings. They are even better I believe than the ones he did for The BFG. He is frightfully good with mice.”

The manuscript was in good shape at this point, but again, the more refined the manuscript, the closer the critical scrutiny. I wrote another letter on April 28, this one four pages, about a lot of little things. Also, aware that we were finishing our work on The Witches, it made sense for me to think about what was next. So I brought up the possibility of Roald writing his autobiography. In fact, it was those two chapters we’d pulled from the manuscript earlier that inspired Boy and were subsequently included in the book. Roald resisted the idea of writing autobiographically at first, but he eventually came around. He even wrote a sequel, Going Solo. That’s how two deleted chapters and an argument resulted in two marvelous books.

Despite all the work we’d done on The Witches manuscript, things cropped up that we’d missed. On May 3, Roald wrote, “It occurred to me in the bath this morning that the first paragraph of chapter one was written on the assumption that ‘I’ escaped from the witches a second time and that only Bruno was turned into a mouse. It reads ‘I myself escaped twice from the clutches of witches before I was eight years old, and for that I have to thank my grandmother.’ ”

But that aspect of the story had changed in revision. He pointed out now, “I did not escape from the clutches of witches the second time so this paragraph must be changed.”

Roald revised the paragraph to read: “I myself had two separate encounters with witches before I was eight years old. From the first I escaped unharmed, but on the second occasion I was not so lucky. Things happened to me that will probably make you scream when you read about them. That can’t be helped. The truth must be told. The fact that I am still here and able to speak to you (however peculiar I may look) is due entirely to my wonderful grandmother.” Roald closed his letter saying, “It’s odd that all of us missed this one.” Indeed, it was.

Letter to Stephen RoxburghOn May 9, Roald wrote, “Meanwhile, last Friday Liz Cowan, the copy editor at Cape, came out here and spent four hours working meticulously with me over every page of the manuscript.” Here are a couple of the things they discovered:

p. 18a. “We all think that dogs droppings should be spelt dogs’ droppings, with the apostrophe after the s and as two separate words.”

“p. 74. ‘You can set a twenty-four hour alarm clock….’ This is a good point. The ordinary alarm clock can only be set twelve hours ahead so we have to invent this twenty-four hour alarm clock and try and get away with it. If we don’t a million smarty-pants children will write in about it. I think this is better than saying digital alarm clock, which has a nasty modern ring to it.”

Meanwhile Roald had turned his attention to my earlier letter, which I started by saying how strong I felt the book was. Roald responded, “I am naturally overjoyed at your first paragraph comments. I had doubts about this book at the beginning but I am now rather inclined to agree with you that it is a pretty good one. It is certainly the kind of stuff that none of the children or teachers or librarians will have had before.”

Even at this point, Roald was making important revisions:

“p. 25. I agree that rat is a bit close to mouse, but I hesitate to take the example out altogether. I like the idea of three different ones here. Therefore let the right paragraph read as follows: ‘Often it’s a slug,’ she said. ‘A slug is one of their favourites. Then the grown-ups step on the slug and squish it without knowing it’s a child.’ (That will make them squirm.)

“p. 59. I agree with you about the spelling of poo, etc. Therefore on page 88 it should read—Poo! Poo-oo-oo-oo-oo-oo-oo! Also page 90—Poo!”

“p. 65. You are of course right, all over the world kids arrive at school at different times. Over here it does tend to be nine o’clock, in your country it is earlier, in France I believe it is earlier still. Let’s leave it as is. The point is made and we are talking about England here. Kids in your country will realise it will be a simple matter for the alarm clock to be adjusted an hour earlier.”

“I hope that’s it for ever and ever. I enclose some re-written pages which must be inserted including a very important one for p. 152 about the longevity of a mouse and p. 153 about the heartbeat of a mouse. It seems that I have been misled by the People’s Trust for Endangered Species. A zoologist has checked that the mouse beat is about 150 per minute. I could take the whole thing out but I want very much to leave it in simply for the sake of one important line on page 154 which reads—’Often,’ she said. ‘I hear it when you are lying very close to me on the pillow at night.’ ”

On the issue of a mouse’s heartbeat, Roald wrote again, the very next day, May 11: “New and incontrovertible evidence has come to me that the heartbeat of a mouse varies between 350 and 500 times a minute. This from a book called The Biology of the Laboratory Mouse. So please substitute the enclosed pages. We are just about back to where we were in the beginning.”

On May 16, I sent Roald our American copyeditor’s queries, three closely typed pages of minutiae, most of it involving using American English rather than British English. Roald wrote, “I don’t approve of some of your Americanisms. This is an English book with an English flavour and so it should remain.” Here are a few examples:

“elevator vs. lift: I agree elevator for ‘lift’ because most American children simply won’t know what ‘lift’ means.

“candy vs. sweets: I do not agree ‘candy’ for ‘sweet.’ Your children will know what sweets are and anyway it’s important for the witch to say “Sveet-shop.” So no candy or candy-shops, please.

“tuna fish vs. fish-paste: I won’t have ‘tuna fish’ for “fish-paste.’ Please keep this Anglicism. It’s a curiosity even over here.”

On the critical issue of how to spell “dogs’ droppings,” I argued, “Those sibilants are damnably hard to pronounce, and they definitely affect the pace if you try to pronounce them. Wouldn’t ‘dog droppings’ work as well, without the preciseness of the plural possessive ending?”

Roald responded, “I don’t think that ‘dogs’ droppings’ is all that hard to pronounce. It is at any rate over here the common usage. Nobody says ‘dog droppings.’ I’d like this to stay as is.”

What more was there to say? Finally, we were finished. On May 26, I informed Roald that I’d turned the manuscript over to the production department and it was out of our hands. I promised to send him some books that I thought would interest him. He wrote a brief note acknowledging their receipt: “I love getting books. Please don’t stop sending them.”

A few months later, Roald’s agent was in New York and called me to say that he was sending a package from Roald to my office by messenger. I thought it might be another manuscript and was prepared to be gobsmacked again. It wasn’t a manuscript, but I was gobsmacked. The package was a hand-bound proof of The First Forty-nine Stories by Ernest Hemingway, with the author’s annotations correcting the Spanish and indicating his favorite stories in the table of contents.

The inscription on the title page reads “For Roald / with much affection / Ernest Hemingway.” A handwritten note to me read, “Dear Stephen, here is a tiny present—for all the help you’ve given me. Yours, Roald.”