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How to Seize a Dragon’s Jewel – Meeting Cressida Cowell

Writing.ie | Magazine | Children’s and Young Adult | Special Guests

By Méabh McDonnell

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Laughing children, bemused parents, and one of the most enthusiastic authors you’re ever likely to meet were the first things that greeted me when I arrived at British author Cressida Cowell’s signing in Eason, O’ Connell Street.

The author illustrator of the hugely popular How to Train Your Dragon  series was running across the stage to entertain her captive listeners, an audience of would be Vikings and Hooligans, literally jumping up and down in their seats in an effort to speak to their favourite author. With questions full of pointed specifics about the adventures of Hiccup and his dragon, Toothless their incredible interest only seemed to encourage Cressida, who answered every one of their questions with equal enthusiasm. It was enough to make the most hardend sceptic a believer in dragons and the star of the How to Train Your Dragon Series, Hiccup – Hope and Heir to the Tribe of the Hairy Hooligan’s quest against evil. Now on the tenth book in the series, How to Seize a Dragon’s Jewel  Hiccup’s journey has gone from strength to heroic strength.

“I said right at the beginning that it was going to be about becoming a hero the hard way,” Cressida says of her young protagonist. “He was sort of on a quest without knowing it. I always knew it was going to be more than one book, and I had written all of it in my head to begin with. But I definitely didn’t know that there were going to be twelve books in the series or that it would be made into a Dreamworks Animation. All of that was just a delightful accident.”

Just talking to Cressida, you can see her characters are real, even if they only live inside her imagination. “I love writing all of the characters, I love Fishlegs because he has a really sarcastic sense of humour and I love Camikazi because I really wish I was like her, she’s so brave and so cheeky. But then I love writing the villains, I love Alvin the Treacherous and his mother, who is so gloriously evil”, she told me with relish.But how does a woman from London come up with a story about Vikings and dragons and quests? “The story is quite heavily autobiographical,” Cressida smiled: “ It was all inspired by a part of my childhood spent in Scotland, on this small uninhabited island off the West coast.” On her website (http://www.cressidacowell.co.uk/), she goes into more detail, “Every year we spent four weeks of the summer and two weeks of the spring on the island. The house was lit by candle-light, and there was no telephone or television, so I spent a lot of time drawing and writing stories. In the evening, my father told us tales of the Vikings who invaded this island Archipelago twelve hundred years before, of the quarrelsome Tribes who fought and tricked each other, and of the legends of dragons who were supposed to live in the caves in the cliffs.” This island was in fact the first place the Vikings landed when they invaded the British Isles. “I mean, obviously I made up my dragons,” she added, with a twinkle in her eye.

The characters in her books have all taken small parts of their personalities from other people in Cressida’s life, “I suppose Stoic is a bit like my Dad, Camikazi is like my daughters and Hiccup, Hiccup is a little like my husband. But then they take on a life of their own. It’s taken quite a while, ten years…when you’ve lived with a set of characters for such a long time they do begin to feel real.”

Cowell went to school with fellow author Lauren Child, now one of her best friends and confidantes, read English at university, and worked briefly in publishing. Ironically both she and Lauren Child started out writing picture books that developed into novels featuring those early characters. Indeed, they had their first book published within the same month, and Cressida’s daughter Maisie voiced Lola in the TV adaptation of Charlie and Lola.  A picture book, Little Bo Peep’s Library Book, was Cressida’s first book, published by Hodder Childrens’ Books in 1998. Prior to writing the How to Train Your Dragon Series, she wrote ten more picture books, including the ‘Emily Brown’ stories, which won the Nestle childrens’ book prize in 2006.

The How to Train Your Dragon series though, is a long way from Little Bo Peep – every book is a nonstop ride of drama and crazy twists, punctuated by laugh out loud humour, epitomised by the wonderful names that Cressida has given to her characters, from Hiccup to Camikazi to the Dragon Furious, “All of the Vikings are inspired by real Viking names. Even Alvin the Treacherous is inspired by an ancestor I had who was a Viking called ‘Bernard the Dane’ and I just thought ‘Bernard’ was such a great name for a Viking,” Cressida laughs.
But since her children have grown, Cessida has moved her writing from her home to a studio out in the garden. Here she can write away from distractions, and immerse herself in the rich complexity of the world her dragons live in. “If I’m getting to a new character I always draw them first, so I know what they’re going to look like. I also draw a lot of maps.”Like many new writers, when she started the How to Train you Dragon series, Cressida couldn’t afford to be very precious about how or where she worked “The thing is that when I was wiritng it I had these three children and they were sort of babies at the start and it was quite a chaotic atmosphere, so I couldn’t really afford to be too fussy!”

Keeping a clear idea of characters and where they are going in their journeys is essential for Cressida’s writing, “As the books go on, they get hugely complicated – I have all of these charts on the walls detailing the overall story arcs and then I have individual story arcs for all of the characters. And by now there’s a cast of thousands! There’s all the tribes and the dragons and  three villlains and then Hiccup’s destiny is interwined with one of the villains,” She says all of this in one long breath, and her passion for Hiccup and his flying companions is obvious.

But the end of Hiccup’s story is coming soon, “The books are about growing up and I have written the end of this story arc.  It’s taken quite a while – ten years.” The last How To Train Your Dragon book won’t mean the end of Cressida’s fantasy writing however, “I love writing fantasy and I love writing for children”, she says, it was the kind of writing she always aspired to, “I always liked writing stories, when I was little I wrote like Enid Blyton and then when I was older I would write things inspired by Tolkein.” But one of the best memories Cressida has is of the first story she ever wrote, “I was about six amd it was a love story between two hippos and the male hippo’s chat up line was ‘Hi, my name’s Hongo. What’s yours?” she laughs, obviously thinking about how far she’s come since then.

I met Cressida on her last stop of her tour of Ireland, and she has thoroughly enjoyed her time. I ask her if there’s any chance that Hiccup could come to Ireland like his Viking companions, “ Well, my goodness they could! Absolutely they could”, Cressida laughs, “I mean Hiccup’s been to America, why not to Ireland?” We await his arrival with huge anticipation.

About the author

(c) Méabh McDonnell

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