Q&A with Sophie Dahl

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Best-selling author Sophie Dahl has written her first children’s book, Madame Badobedah – a timeless story celebrating friendship and imagination.

Illustrated by Lauren O’Hara, Madame Badobedah tells the story of Mabel who lives with her parents at The Mermaid Hotel, by the sea, and likes to keep an eye on the comings and goings of all the guests. When a rather intriguing old lady comes to stay, Mabel decides there is something very suspicious about her. But an unlikely friendship grows between the pair, as their fantastical exploits take them well beyond the corridors of their seaside home.

Books and words were Sophie Dahl’s first love. In 2003 she wrote Sunday Times bestseller The Man with the Dancing Eyes, an illustrated novella, which she followed in 2007 with her first novel, Playing with the Grown-ups. A devoted home-cook, Dahl has also written two cookery books. Sophie lives in the countryside with her husband, daughters, rescue dog, cat and tortoise.

We caught up with Sophie to find out more about the wonderful world of Madame Badobedah

Where did you get your inspiration for Madame Badobedah?

My grandmother lived on the Sussex coast, and in my head I saw Mabel, walking on a shingle beach with her bare feet and her fishing net, going home to a tumbledown B and B, full of secrets. Then an enigmatic old lady, surrounded by trunks, unappealing to grownups, but catnip to a child, walking into the B and B. I’m ever interested by people’s back story, how they end up where they are, and how, much of the time, we don’t know half of what people have lived. That was the impetus for Madame Badobedah herself. I’m a geek about vintage wallpaper, dressing tables, and perfume bottles, so all of those things became a part of the fabric of Madame B too. As a child I was a fiend for the idea of secret passages leading to magical lands, and so I couldn’t have a story without a magical land.

What appealed to you about the setting of a hotel for this story?

I guess again, it goes back to back stories, and transience, hotels are the keepers of secrets. So much goes on in them!

Was Mabel’s character inspired by anyone?

I was an only child til I was seven. I was very nosy and loved detective books – Emil and The Detectives, Harriet the Spy, and was convinced there were secret passages lurking at every corner. Mabel’s adventuring and pragmatic nature is all my daughters!

What made you want to write a children’s book?

Because of the Dahl mantle, I’d sworn never to touch children’s books, and wrote about food and grownup fiction. Then I had children, and was reading all of those books I loved as a child, and it felt like a totally natural (albeit a bit terrifying) trajectory. I guess if I was going to think too deeply about my grandfather’s legacy, I’d never leave my bedroom and lie rocking in my bed and staring at the wall, so I rolled my sleeves up and just got on with it.

Were you inspired by your own children?

As a parent to a six and eight year old, we spend a lot of time reading – I got to re-read all the classics from my childhood and my siblings childhoods – long form picture books like Miss Rumphius, Make Way For Ducklings, Madeline, We’re Going on a Bear Hunt, Owl Babies, Five Minutes’ Peace and the rest. Through my kids, I’ve discovered exciting contemporary authors like Jessica Love, Polly Dunbar, Laura Dockrill and Sonya Hartnett. Now we’re onto longer form fiction, Astrid Lindgren, Joan Aiken, David Walliams and Chris Riddell. It’s a treat to rediscover and discover books through their eyes.

Where do you find literary inspiration?

My kids, their friends, people watching, reading, places. It’s all around. Having written cookery books before, it’s no surprise that there are fantastic food descriptions in Madame Badobedah!

What were your favourite foods as a child?

Like Mabel, I loved Yorkshire puddings. And I was keen on treacle sponge, breakfast, lemon mousse, and roast chicken. I hated custard.

How did you come up with the name Madame Badobedah?

My step grandmother would say, “Who do you think you are, Madame Badobedah?” And it stuck. I’d play a game of it with my kids, where I was a mysterious old lady called Madame Badobedah and they could boss me around.

Do you think adults will see a different layer to the story when reading it with their children?

Obviously there’s a pathos to her, she’s on her own – she’s escaped a war – she’s very vulnerable. But to Mabel she’s something else entirely, and I love this, that to children, grownups are who they are then and there, not their past.

How did you find working with an illustrator on this book?

I loved working with Lauren, she intuited so much of what I saw in my head, but also made it perfectly her own. The illustrations were both so familiar and exciting. She’s supremely talented. In my head Madame B was a mix of Auntie Mame and an elderly Eastern European Ava Gardner with a bit of mine and my husband’s grandmother thrown in. Lauren nailed it.

What were your favourite books to read as a child?

Ronia, the Robber’s Daughter, The Brothers Lionheart,The Wolves of Willoughby Chase, Goodnight Mister Tom. The Ramona books. The list is endless!