Cressida Cowell speaks to Graham Marks
Cressida Cowell’s Hiccup books, which she also illustrates, are now published in over 30 countries around the world and the first book in the series, How to Train Your Dragon, has been made into an animated movie by DreamWorks; Cressida also writes and illustrates picture books. The eleventh title in the Hiccup Saga, How to Seize a Dragon’s Jewel, is published in September, and here she talks to Graham Marks about pretty much everything to do with writing a hit series…
Did you ever see a careers advisor at school and if so what did they reckon you should be?
I think I did, but I can’t remember exactly what they said. I think I did say I wanted to be a writer and I think they said maybe I should have a Plan B; they weren’t very supportive of going into creative careers back when I was at school! Back in those days people thought it was a bit unrealistic and why didn’t you find a nice profession or something. Art was often treated as a subject that you went into if you weren’t very clever; I never saw it like that at all and have always taken art very seriously. I hope things have changed.
Where did you go after school?
I went to St Martin’s [art school], and then on to Brighton, which had an excellent course, very, very good - Narrative Illustration - so it was quite specialised. In fact I wrote my first published book on that course, called Little Bo Peep’s Library Books, that’s how specialised it was, really practical and taught you how to write children’s books.
Would the school kid version of you be surprised at how your career has turned out?
Well, do you know she oughtn’t to be at all. Looking back I spent my whole time writing, I was writing stories in primary school, filling exercise book after exercise book with them. There’s a going to be an exhibition at Seven Stories and they wanted look through my old books and we found a History exercise book in which I was writing about being a Viking, ‘Imagine you are a Viking’, things like that! And then a school friend and I wrote a spoof romantic novel together, when we were 14, called Angora of the Shetland Isles. So I was writing a lot of stuff, even when I was little, although I never knew it was something I could do as a job until I was older.
When you started out on this saga, some ten years ago, did you have any idea what a real saga it was going to turn into, or was Hiccup’s story meant to be a one-off?
Well Hiccup actually started with a picture book [Hiccup the Seasick Viking] about thirteen years ago – I’m notoriously bad with numbers, so I don’t remember exactly. And no, he wasn’t meant to be a one-off - I didn’t think I was going to write twelve books, I hadn’t worked it out to that extent, but the story was meant to be answering the question ‘What if dragons existed?’, and also telling the story of what happened to the dragons.
I said that right at the end of the first book, I’d sown the seeds of all that; I knew Hiccup was a hero who didn’t know he was a hero, and knew I was sowing a lot of seeds early on for things that were going to become significant. And fairly early on I also wrote what is going to be the very last bit of the whole series.
Do you have a wall chart or filing cabinet somewhere with all the information you’ve invented about dragons and vikings?
Yes I do! A massive, huge wall chart which fills up an entire wall of my writing hut.
No, it’s not big enough, it couldn’t all fit; but the plot strands of all the books are there – writing a 12-book series is a huge task, you end up with a vast cast of characters and lots of dense, complicated plots strands which all link together. I try to do everything very delicately, so nothing’s flagged up and the reader gradually realises, as they go through the series, what seems like a random event is part of a plan; there’s a pattern. Because I think that’s what life is like. I want there to be that feeling of surprise, of it all fitting together.
I love the fact that you, as the author, are so present in the story, so much the voice of the storyteller; I felt like you were there talking to me as I read and I wondered, is this something from your childhood or did you develop this style with your own kids?
I was read to as a child; my parents were great at reading stories aloud, and my Dad used to read Scottish folktales and myths. I know how important it is to have the parent acting the story out, so I always had in my mind that the Hiccup books would be read aloud by an adult to a child. I always had the idea that it would be a performance, but of course it doesn't have to always be that way, but that was how I wrote them.
I try and make the books work on two levels, for the adult and the child…it’s all about growing up, and it’s bookended by a hero looking back at his own childhood, with wisdom, which gives it a bitter-sweet quality. Growing up is all about leaving something behind as you move forward into a new and wonderful world, and the adult reading to a child will remember that feeling. I find that interesting as a writer, trying to write something complex and deep and meaningful, and also simple for the child.
That’s helped a lot by the fact that the drawings are a completely integral part of the books, and have the same energy and immediacy as the writing – does one inspire the other?
I do write first and then do the drawings, but before I created the characters I drew them, and whenever I get to a new character I draw them first, too. And I draw the world, the environments and maps as well, but the drawing and writing has have evolved as I don’t like staying in the same place, and change keeps me interested and excited and feeling that I’m getting better.
The thing about the way the books look is that we’re competing with the best telly and film and Internet ever, all beamed effortlessly into children without them having to do anything, and there’s a danger with books, which require effort, that even for children who aren’t dyslexic or reluctant, reading will become associated with school. So I was trying to make the drawings cut through the text and make the books lively and give the them a sense of being an exciting object where, unlike school, there were no rules. Also that they were like something they could do, like graffiti, and in that way I was also influenced by illustrators I love, like Ronald Searle and Quentin Blake.
What do you use to make the drawings?
A lot of pencil, which is a medium children have access to, and allows you to build up textures, rub things out…and what I like is the strictness of only being black and white and only being in pencil, but within those limitations getting better and discovering new things all the time. There’s also a certain strictness in the writing of a series as well, which I like. I’ve never felt stuck or got bored myself with writing the books.
That speaks volumes for the actual breadth of the world you’ve built, a place so enormous that you’ve spent years exploring it.
Yes…and I don’t feel as if it’s run out for me at all, and it occurred to me I was going have difficulty leaving it, as indeed I have. It’s become so much a part of my life, and I’ve spent so much time with the characters…I know authors often say this, but they have taken on an independent life of their own, which I know sounds a bit mad.
Your books are funny – lots of great characters, desperate situations and wonderful slapstick – and I think written in a style which is very cinematic in a way. Would you agree?
Yes, it is cinematic, but also terrifically wordy, I think, very auditory. I haven’t dumbed down anything in the style, and I think I write with an awareness of what the modern child is like – with all the distractions I’ve mentioned. I want to make the story exciting, exaggerated, funny and gripping, so you care about the characters and want to read on all the time.
It’s quite complicated in that the children talk to each other in the way children do, but there are quite lot of long words and the narrator talks in what I’d say was quite a literary sort of way. And I’ve done that deliberately because if children don’t read that kind of language, where are they going to hear it and how are they going to connect with the books of the past? So I mix it up quite a lot.
But there’s also a great depth in your stories, surprising elements of seriousness and morality amongst all the hilarity, and I thought it was a really interesting mix of things you’ve got going on there. And then I discovered you used to read GA Henty!
We just happened to have the whole set and I read them all, along with Kipling and lots of very old-fashioned stuff. I read Inside the Third Reich, by Albert Speer, about three times because we were stuck on this island every summer, and I read all sorts of different kinds of book, including adult, quite young. People sometimes think there these ‘posh literary books’ [puts on ‘posh literary’ voice] and then there are ‘easy-to-read’ books, and I like the idea of mixing up everything together and not feeling you can’t write books that are exciting and thrilling that children want to read, but which also make them think.
Do you ever get pulled up for what I have to call your frankly cavalier attitude towards historical accuracy?
Yes, I have! I have tried to flag it up, saying something like ‘any historical fact is entirely coincidental’…Vikings may not really have had dragons, but it’s fantasy pretending to be history, and that may be a bit iconoclastic, but I think children are quite naturally iconoclastic. I play a lot of games in my books but I think children respond to that, though quite often boys can be very literal. And I do do loads of research - not that I stick to it in any way - to give me ideas for plotlines, and I love historical fiction that is exquisitely researched. But I was never trying to do that, I’ve set out my own rules, flagged them up and I think that’s fine.
Another one of Cressida’s Rules is that you say you don’t have to read the books in any particular order, yet they are a series, which is interesting – is it that you feel they’re so full of story that you can pick any one at random and have a really good time reading it?
Yes, and I’m trying to make that even possible with Books 10 and 11, and I hope it’s true you can still do that…I suppose I did it because I thought it's a bit annoying for a reader to find Book 4, say, and not understand what on earth’s going on if they hadn’t read 1 to 3. It’s not really a rule, just something I set up for myself, because there are no rules in writing, I don’t think, apart from the internal ones that hold a series together.
One of the things that’s a constant throughout all the Hiccup books is the fantastic names you give your characters, and as I was reading How to Seize a Dragon’s Jewel I wondered if Alvin is just a badly-spelled anagram of ‘villain’, and another of your jokes?
No…oh I should have just have said ‘Yes!’, shouldn’t I!…No, it wasn’t, I just thought it was funny to give him an unexpected 1970s name, along with all the marvellous Viking ones, like the ones they really did have. By a complete coincidence I have a very, very remote ancestor called Bernard the Dane…
Yes! And I don’t think I’ve ever told anyone that before. Anyway, I just thought Bernard was a very funny name for a Viking, a bit like Alvin – you can’t have a Viking called Bernard! So Alvin’s name was just a private joke.
You’ve obviously had such a huge amount of fun with Hiccup and his world, which makes this a bit of a sad question, but do you know where you’re going to go after you’ve finished his story?
You think that’s a sad question?
I think you might be sad to leave it all behind.
Yes, I really am sad, actually…it is difficult, it is difficult, and I have found this last book very emotional to write and I cried a lot. I know the books are funny, but I think they’re very emotional and I write them in an emotional way…I like books that teach you something, but you’ve got to do it in a way that doesn't look like that’s what you’re doing; if children think you’re lecturing them they’ll turn the other way.
The Hiccup books are inviting you to think about things like bullying, your responsibility to your peers – Hiccup is the hero and potential king, but his empathy is one of the most important things. The books are all about the whole process of growing up, realising you can’t just be completely egotistical; I’m trying to talk to children, in a very small way, about the importance of your role in the family, what is being a leader about, what are your responsibilities to your tribe. I bring all these things in because I think children need to think about them…and I’ve now forgotten what your question was!
Well, you’ve very neatly side-stepped the question of what you’re going to do next.
Oh yes! Well I do feel so sad about leaving this world, because it’s been a very, very satisfying series to write, intellectually interesting for me and moving as well, and covers so many things I like to write about. But as I keep saying in the books, one of the things about growing up is, sometimes that actually has to happen, that’s the point! And yes, I am beginning to write a new series, alongside finishing Hiccup.
Is it a secret?
Yes, it’s a secret.
Well, we shall just have to wait and see…
Cressida was speaking to Graham Marks. Follow him on twitter @GeeMarks and visit his website: www.marksworks.co.uk
Cressida growing up on the island