It's a warm afternoon in Beverly Hills. Tessa Dahl, 31, is sitting on a big white couch next to a heap of stuffed animals in Andre and Heather Previn's homey living room. She's wearing a maroon sweater embroidered with flowers over a maroon blouse, a bright floral print skirt, black stockings and black flats. Her hair is pinned back with barrettes, highlighting her sculpted cheekbones. Remove the schoolgirl costume though and she looks like her mother, actress Patricia Neal.
The daughter of Neal and writer Roald Dahl, Tessa Dahl is staying with the Previns (they're old family friends) while she's in Los Angeles promoting her first novel, "Working for Love" (Delacorte Press: $16.95).
Her children, Sophie, 11, Clover, 4, and Luke, 2, are back at the country house near London with their nanny. "It's nice to be here with Heather," she says. "But, no, no one's come with me (on the tour), which is probably why I ended up crying with my mummy on the phone."
Being on her own is rare for Dahl. For that matter, so is working. She's never had a "proper" job or had to worry about money. "I wasn't brought up on the work ethic like you were," she says. From Day One, there's been "Daddy" or a husband to take care of her. Now, however, there isn't. So in addition to peddling her novel and writing fiction, she's doing interviews for such British publications as the Daily Mail. The writing is gratifying, the money is not. "The checks never cease to disappoint me. I think it's extraordinarily difficult to earn a living," she says without guile. "Don't you?"
Hefty Sum for Book
But not to worry. Dahl is hardly close to penury. "Working for Love" sold for a hefty sum to a British publisher and was a best seller. She got six figures from her American publisher as well.
Now, Tessa Dahl, onetime British playgirl, divorced mother of three, wants to clarify the difference between her real life and events portrayed in her first novel.
Published last October in Britain and just debuting in the States, the book borrows liberally from her famous family's tragedies. Her mother's devastating stroke. Her sister Olivia's death from measles at age 7. An accident that left her brother, Theo, brain-damaged. Her parents' nasty breakup. Her own troubled marriage and divorce. Her lifelong quest to please her aloof father. In essence, we have a story of a woman trying to carve out an identity by a writer who's trying to do the same. A women-who-loved-too-much tale of the '80s. And though journalists in her native Britain have been impressed--"compelling stuff," according to the Sunday Times in London; "works brilliantly," said Publishing News--so far in America, Dahl says, there's been a lot of flak in the form of a much greater interest in how much of the book is true to life.
"A lot of people have harped on the autobiographical side of it," Dahl says, her bare, pretty face looking wounded. "In my naivete and in making these characters so obviously real, I thought it would be accepted that the rest is fiction. My life is very, very, very, very different to the life of Molly (her browbeaten heroine). Some of the events from my life I've used--and who wouldn't?"
Other than a bit of journalism for the Tattler, Dahl didn't seriously start writing until she was nearly 30. After dropping out of a British boarding school at 15--to act in her first and last film--she tried her hand at modeling (she is 6 feet tall), ran an antique shop, worked in an employment agency, attended drama school in New York. But nothing lasted. In between, she lived in London, having lots of affairs with lots of famous men such as Peter Sellers and Prince Michael of Kent, she says. "I went through a very tempestuous adolescence," she says. "I took a lot of drugs and (knew) a lot of men."
At 20, living with actor Julian Holloway, Dahl gave birth to her daughter, Sophie. Two years later, she left the wild times behind and married James Kelly, a rich, handsome, 45-year-old divorced American she met on a blind date. For the next seven years, her life, like her character Molly's, revolved around babies, decorating and dinner parties. Then came the break-up.
"I'd been married to James, who's very nice--unlike (Molly's husband) Jack in the book--and he left me, which wasn't very nice. I went away on holiday, and my stepmother (Roald Dahl's current wife) said to me very provocatively, 'Why don't you write this book you've been saying you're going to write?' So I brought along five loose-leaf note pads. I didn't know how I was going to fill them.
"The first night I wrote a letter to James. I went to bed and was lying there thinking, 'Oh, woe is me.' Then I thought, the character could start with this letter. So I started writing it. Then I came home to England and I showed it to my father's agent." Dahl thought that would be the end of it. The agent, however, pronounced it "poignant." "She said, 'You could sell that, but you won't finish it.' "
The agent almost proved right. "I stopped writing it because James came back." But then he left for good, and she got back on track. "I wrote it because I said I was going to write a book and because I needed to have a career and earn a living."
Beyond that, "It was also very cathartic. Because all the childhood things I wrote about, it was as if I surrendered them."
But, perhaps most significantly, she also wrote "Working for Love" to win her father's respect. The novel is dedicated to him, and as Molly, who seems to have the same fixation as her creator, laments: "I used to long for you to approve of me, Jack. For you to come home and listen to me. But you didn't want to. Neither did Daddy."
"We always had a relationship which was potentially volatile," Dahl says. "He's incapable of expressing emotion, and I'm terribly like my mother. He always found my mother's outspokenness and overemotional bursts disquieting. So I think I made him slightly uneasy. And yet we've always had this great love.
'A lot of the point of the book is this girl striving to live up to a dead sister. That's what Molly was doing. With me, I was very aware of it. I think my dad was so devastated when my sister died, I tried to compensate by being jolly and sweet. But you can't compete with someone who's dead. Even now, my father will say, 'Olivia wouldn't have done that.' "
Not surprisingly, Dahl asked her father to read the book before it was published, hoping he would like it. "He came into the kitchen and he just plopped it on the table and started talking about something completely different. I couldn't look at him. Eventually he said, 'Well, I've read your thing '--which is not an auspicious start. 'And?' 'It's bloody marvelous,' he said."
Unfortunately, Dahl says, the father-daughter relationship didn't change. "I thought once I had achieved something he would treat me as a grown-up. I work very hard, and I seem to get a lot of respect. And he hasn't changed one bit. I really made myself believe he would."
Dahl also showed the book before it was published to her mother, who loved it. That's not particularly odd, unless you consider the actress-mother in Dahl's novel. She's cold and selfish and--come to think of it--about as likable as the mother in Patti Davis' roman a clef, "Home Front." But then this is fiction.
"My mother and I have the most wonderful relationship," Dahl says. "She's called me about every day on this tour. You really lay yourself on the line with a first book. After a week of smiling at people. . . .
"I was talking with her on the phone one day, and she asked me how I was. I couldn't talk because I was just sobbing. Now I know how frightening it is to be a writer, hoping people like what you have great faith in."
It may be an unpleasant thought, but at some point readers are going to wonder: Would Dahl's novel have been published without the weight of her family name and connections? "Without question," she says. "Had I sold it for a small amount, the fact that I ended up with a number of publishing houses in England and America bidding for it, I've got to believe it wasn't because my father's a famous writer."
Dahl has written a second novel, but she doesn't care to talk about it. "It's very different from the first," she says. "It's also been much harder to write. With the first one, reviewers would say provocative little things--it was a good book, and if she has a second novel in her we look forward to it.' So it's important for me to get it right."
She's also keeping company with Angus Gibson, a British businessman, whom she talks about like a love-struck teen-ager. "He's my age," she says. "He runs a business which installs electronic systems in people's houses. He loves my children. He's the best adult with children I have ever seen. He's very leveling for me. I am a very large, powerful, overemotional person and it doesn't upset him."
As it happens, shortly after a reporter begins to interview her, he telephones. "Oh, it's my Angus," she says brightly. "Should I talk to him?" They chat for a few minutes about a vacation they're planning to the Grand Turks after Dahl finishes her American book tour. Dahl mentions that the travel agent has come up with "two dog hotels." "I don't know," she tells him. "The other thing is Venice. Have you ever been to Venice? You don't want to go to Venice, I promise you. It's just so expensive."
Globe-trotting aside, Dahl says her life has changed "enormously" since writing her novel. "In writing it, I proved to myself I could actually do it. Also that I could earn money. I just didn't think I could. (Being published) has given me a great sense of self-worth. It's made me not frightened anymore.
"I kept thinking all my life something would make me happy--a man, a dress, a party. It wasn't until I let go of my childhood that I was truly happy."