Winnie the Pooh and his pals may have lived in an idyllic English forest called the Hundred Acre Wood, but author David Benedictus says the classic stories of Pooh, Tigger, Rabbit and their other friends bear some resemblance to a group of television Friends in modern New York.
"If you look at the storytelling in the TV series Friends, each episode has not one but two or three storylines, yet one major character is featured," says Mr. Benedictus, a fan of Winnie and his pals since boyhood. "It may be Phoebe and her singing, and the other characters feed into her.
"A.A. Milne did the same thing with his Winnie the Pooh books: each story has several storylines but features one more than the others. Friends has six characters and Milne has eight or nine, and there's very little room with which to explore their stories, so it requires very skilled storytelling that makes people want to know what happens next."
As with Friends, he says, Mr. Milne's tales were "perfectly crafted for the length of the story."
Based in London, Mr. Benedictus, 70, is the author of the soon-to-be-published first authorised sequel to Mr. Milne's much-loved works, Winnie-the-Pooh and The House at Pooh Corner, which were published in 1926 and 1928, respectively. The new work, entitled Return to the Hundred Acre Wood, will be published on Oct. 5 in the U.S. by Dutton Children's Books, an imprint of Penguin Young Readers Group (USA). Egmont Publishing will publish the book in Britain.
Mr. Milne's original Pooh works have sold an estimated 50 million copies around the world, and are currently available in 50 languages.
The new work, with illustrations by Mark Burgess, will have totally new stories relating to the existing characters. Mr. Benedictus, also an actor, teacher and chess player active in tournaments, was very familiar with those characters through two Pooh audiobooks he produced, which starred British actors Judi Dench, Stephen Fry and Jane Horrocks.
Yet the author felt he needed to get a fresh feel for Mr. Milne and his mindset, so he decamped for Ashdown Forest, a beauty spot in southern England where Mr. Milne took his son Christopher Robin for walks in the 1920s and which helped inspire his imaginative tales.
"I felt I needed to get into Milne's skin," says Mr. Benedictus, who was formerly assistant to director Trevor Nunn at the Royal Shakespeare Company and commissioning editor for drama series at Britain's Channel 4 television station. "I didn't want to write pastiche, so the only way a new volume was going to work was by writing out of respect for the originals - to get the flavour right, the style right, the particular mindset of Milne."
Besides the two-day visit to Ashdown Forest, Mr. Benedictus also scoured his brother's collection of old Punch magazines, a well-known British periodical of which A.A. Milne was assistant editor in the 1920s and 1930s. "I read all of them, and gradually came to feel that I knew enough about Milne to get into his shoes."
Mr. Benedictus, whose cramped apartment in South London includes an antique record player and a rare Blankenstein piano from the mid-19th Century, shows a visitor his prized possession: a rhyming dictionary once owned by composer Oscar Hammerstein Jr., a gift from an actor friend in New York.
"When I began to investigate Milne I found a fair amount in common with him, particularly an approach to language. He plays games with words a lot."
As for the new adventures of Pooh and the gang, Mr. Benedictus's lips are sealed on plotlines until the new book is published, though he acknowledges that the new book brings back Christopher Robin, who at the end of The House of Pooh Corner had sauntered off with Pooh.
The author says he aimed to retain the "ambiguity" of Mr. Milne's characterization of Christopher Robin - someone who is "depicted as a child" but also "acts like a parent in sorting out the problems of the animals."
Nevertheless, he anticipates that some readers may object to some aspects of his work "because people are very protective" of the original volumes. "I'll welcome their comments whether I have it wrong or have it right. I hope they feel it's something Milne would have approved."
Illustrations © E.H Shepard (This is an illustration from the original Pooh books by A.A. Milne).