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On the family's page

Model Sophie Dahl, granddaughter of Roald Dahl, goes from turning heads to turning phrases in the pages of a first novel.

May 21, 2008|Mark Kennedy | Associated Press

NEW YORK -- It seems somehow appropriate that a mischievous dog helped stop Roald Dahl's granddaughter from making a big writing mistake.

It happened when model turned author Sophie Dahl was composing her first full-length novel in longhand, on a legal pad. She thought it was more romantic that way -- and the tone matched.

"It was so childish, but I found I was writing as I imagined a book should sound. I had this sort of rather grand voice. It wasn't true," she says. "It was bloody awful."

Thankfully, that's when a puppy -- Can't you just imagine it leaping from the pages of one of her grandfather's quirky, magical novels? -- destroyed the fledgling novel.

"In the morning, I came down and there was just confetti. The puppy had just ripped everything to shreds," says Dahl, 30. "Actually, I thought it was the funniest thing I'd ever, ever seen.

"I thought, 'OK. Fine. Start again.' "

What emerged is the semiautobiographical "Playing With the Grown-ups," which has earned some polite reviews for a young writer hoping to keep a third generation of Dahls in print.

The book captures the adolescence of a girl named Kitty, the precocious daughter of a stunning young artist -- the kind of mother who shows up at a school play and leaves behind a "snaky trail of Mitsouko and some wobbly looking fathers."

Kitty's single mother is also a bit tragic. She's a hopeless romantic who puts on extravagant parties, cries at doves cooing on her windowsill -- even when they're just city pigeons -- and suffers from debilitating bouts of depression. Kitty grows up constantly on the move, from London to New York to a guru's ashram and back again, learning about boys and life. She matures into a head-turner and a bit of a hellcat.

The story has piqued the interest of her fellow Brits, who see parallels with the author's life. A beautiful mother who suffers from depression? Check: Dahl's mother is Tessa Dahl, an actress turned writer who had Sophie when she was 19 and has chronicled her personal struggles.

What about the precocious daughter? Check: Sophie had a nomadic childhood that included 10 schools and 17 homes in New York, London and an ashram. She also matured into a head-turner and a bit of a hellcat, one who reportedly dated Mick Jagger.

"It's a first novel. Find me a first novel that doesn't have parallels with the author's life. The quirky thing about mine is that some of my life is on the record," Dahl says.

An emphasis on talent

Nan A. Talese, who released the book on her Doubleday imprint, says Dahl's beauty can sometimes overshadow her skill with words, which is what has centered her during a chaotic life.

"I'm just so keen for her to keep on writing because she has a remarkable insight into human nature, she has a great sense of humor, and in this book she's certainly enormously forgiving," Talese says.

For her part, Dahl says she's just glad she got her first novel out of the way. "It's been a huge learning curve, and actually what I want to do now is write things just so unrelated to me -- unrecognizable in any way, be it fantasy or historical murder fiction," she says, then adds with a laugh: "It's going to be about crime from now on."

Dahl became a model when she was 18, a 6-foot, wide-eyed stunner whose non-heroin-chic curves became a tabloid staple. She hit star status after posing naked in an ad for Opium perfume, a campaign so racy it provoked protests in Britain and France.

She first dipped her toe into writing when she teamed up in 2003 with artist Annie Morris for the novella "The Man With the Dancing Eyes," which she calls a "little, illustrated, sweet, slight, pretty book."

Her attention soon turned to the push and pull of mother-daughter relationships and the secret life of adolescence, two themes she says fascinate her. She took inspiration from some of her favorite authors: Esther Freud, Mary Karr, Tobias Wolff, Evelyn Waugh, Graham Greene, David Mitchell and F. Scott Fitzgerald.

"I realized you can never, ever read Fitzgerald while you're writing a book because you just want to kill yourself," she says. Of Zadie Smith's "White Teeth," she says, "First novels are not meant to be that good."

Literary roots

Dahl hopes Americans will enjoy her debut without knowing all of her back story. "Here, they're more interested in my genes than the size of my jeans," she says.

Those genes, of course, include her late grandfather's, who wrote such classics as "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory" and "James and the Giant Peach." He named the young heroine in his book "The BFG" after her.

Sophie says Roald Dahl was a big influence on her, although she was quite young and one of many in the family clamoring for his attention before he died in 1990.

"It's a funny thing to be asked to produce anecdotes and memories, because he was my grandfather and I was an annoying child that was just sitting at the end of the table and told to shut up if I talked too much," she says.

Dahl, a contributing editor at Men's Vogue, has already written her next work -- a food-focused book with recipes and anecdotes that has the facetious, arch title of "Miss Dahl's Voluptuous Delights."

It's her attempt to address the constant questions she gets back home in England about her diet and weight. Strangers seem to have no qualms about approaching her and asking extremely personal questions about her stomach.

"I've spent a great deal of my life one way or another talking about food or eating food," she says. "I decided to knock it on its head."

Dahl hopes the two books may mean an end to the catwalk. Writing, she says, is what she wants to do now full time.

"It's what I totally love doing. If I could do this for the rest of my life and get paid to do it, I would be a supremely happy person," she says.

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