Cressida Cowell interview: Bestselling author of How to Train Your Dragon series talks The Wizards of Once ahead of Letchworth visit

Bestselling author Cressida Cowell, who has a new novel called The Wizards of Once. Picture: Debra H

Bestselling author Cressida Cowell, who has a new novel called The Wizards of Once. Picture: Debra Hurford Brown - Credit: Archant

Best-selling author and illustrator Cressida Cowell took time out of her hectic schedule to speak to Siobhan Doyle about her upcoming book series, her inspirations, and what advice she would give to aspiring writers.

We caught up with 51-year-old children’s author behind hit novel series How To Train Your Dragon ahead of her appearance at Letchworth’s St Francis’ College from 4.30pm on Wednesday, September 20, where she will be discussing her latest work – The Wizards of Once.

SD: What was the writing process for The Wizards of Once?

CC: This particular book began with a map I drew about six or seven years ago. I began in a large sketchbook which I filled with rough drawings and ideas, and then after I’d finished the last How to Train Your Dragon book, I showed it to my agent and my editor, who thankfully, thought it was brilliant. It’s nerve-wracking, writing a new series after 18 years, but I’m also very excited.

SD: What influenced you to take an interest/write about and illustrate worlds containing mystical beings?

CC: When I was a child I wanted to be magic. Why? I think essentially because children often feel powerless. A child has to put up with constant tellings-off and bossing-about – where they go, what they eat, when they go to bed. All are decided by parents, relatives, teachers who are larger, more powerful (and hopefully wiser, but not always) than they are. Many of my favourite books have mystical beings in them. When I was a kid, roaming around West Sussex on my bicycle, the magic that I read about in the pages of Diana Wynne Jones and Ursula le Guin and T.H. White seemed perfectly possible. The earthworks and hill forts around where I spent my holidays are so extraordinary you could see why previous generations may have felt that the land was moved by giants, that the barrows were their graves, and the chalk horses were illustrations drawn by gigantic hands…

SD: Have you always aspired to write children’s novels?

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CC: For me writing for children is the greatest privilege on earth, and my quest as a writer is to play some small part in trying to get the children of today to read books with the same excitement and wonder that I read them when I was a kid.What a gift it is, to be lucky enough to write for children, and therefore to be constantly reminded to look at the world through the cool clear eyes of a child. For children are interested in the truly important things in life. Heroism, wilderness, our relationship with the natural world, death, love, spirituality, adventure. I love to read other genres – I love non-fiction books for example – but I am committed to writing for children.

SD: Did you ever anticipate that your ‘How to Train Your Dragon’ franchise would be so successful?

CC: I definitely did not expect it to be such a success. I actually think that’s a good thing, because if I had known, it would have been a much more pressured creative process! I am very lucky that the books have connected with so many people. A lot of the themes of How to Train Your Dragon are universal: growing up; your relationship with your parents or your children; what makes a good leader; protecting the natural world. I’m also, of course, very lucky that the DreamWorks movies are brilliant – I LOVE that they’ve captured the spirit of adventure in my books – which has brought lots of new readers. I’m looking forward to seeing how they are doing with How to Train Your Dragon 3 when I go to LA in October, and I’m thrilled that DreamWorks are going to adapt The Wizards of Once as well.

SD: What were your contributions to The Dragons exhibition at the Victoria Art Gallery in Bath?

CC: I think I sent them a selection of drawings from different books to show a range of emotions, characters and styles. Readers might notice that the illustration style changes throughout the series. At the beginning, they’re very scratchy, because I wanted kids to think that they could do it themselves. As the books go on, the illustrations are more epic and dramatic, because the stakes are getting higher and the adventure is getting more serious.

SD: What advice would you give to aspiring writers or illustrators?

CC: To kids, I say: read lots, don’t worry about finishing stories, or copying other people’s work (I used to write Famous Six stories), or your spelling or grammar. I used to get very downhearted because my Snoopy drawings didn’t look right, and it meant I couldn’t be an illustrator. It didn’t mean that, it was just that I was only nine! To adults, I also say read lots, and if you want to become a writer, sit down and write. There’s no magic trick, it’s time and practice. Many don’t realise that we NEED children to be creative – the creative industries make over £86 billion a year for the UK, so it’s crucial we have a new generation coming through as writers, or artists or in other creative jobs.

SD: Are you excited about your book event in Letchworth?

CC: Yes! It’s tricky sometimes balancing the creative time with events, but as a children’s author, I love spending time with readers and getting kids enthusiastic about books. I’ve been an ambassador for the National Literacy Trust for over a decade, and getting children to read for pleasure is vital to our society, and kids themselves. (Did you know that there are two key indicators of later economic success: parental involvement in education and reading for pleasure?). Creatively, every decision I make is made with that as the guide, and getting children’s reaction to my books first hand is very important to me.

• Cressida’s talk will take place at St Francis’ College in Broadway at 4.30pm on Wednesday, September 20.

Tickets are £12.99 and include a copy of the hardback book The Wizards of Once or £15 for a child and parent, which also includes the hardback book.

To buy yours, contact David’s Bookshop on 01462 684631 or call in at the Eastcheap shop.