12 books in and the story of Hiccup Horrendous Haddock III, which started in 2003, is set to come to an end with How To Train Your Dragon’s grand finale, How To Fight A Dragon’s Fury. The series’ author Cressida Cowell reveals its origins, why she loves writing for kids and how hard it was to pen the last book
How tough was it to write How To Fight A Dragon’s Fury?
It is always hard work and this one in particular was. It’s number 12 in the series, so it was tough tying up all the plotlines and there are a lot of stories to tell. It’s still subject to twists – I like twists and kids do too, so from that point of view it has been tough. From an emotional point of view I have been writing these books for 15 years. They are books about growing up and I have always had an ending in mind. It’s all about growing up, being a parent, that parent and child relationship – and I started writing them when I just had a child myself, and now she is going around looking at art schools!
What has the response been like from fans to the fact this is the last book?
It’s very mixed. Lots of people don’t want it to end at all, they have been writing to me saying ‘what are you doing!?’. But I have been going to literary festivals and meeting fans who don’t want it to happen, but realise everything comes to an end eventually.
Your fans now stretch from your books to the films and TV series. How involved have you been with the last two?
Well the first film was a very long process! It took seven years to make. For the first five years everyone was working out the story and you have different screen writers very early on, coming up with different ways of interpreting the books. You get through that whole process and get sent scripts, little bits of animation, the visuals, the ideas for the characters were there pretty early on, but the final film coming together happened quite late. I knew I loved the directors for the first film – Chris Sanders and Dean DeBlois – and I loved Bonnie Arnold, one of the producers, so knew it was in safe hands.
What did you think when you first saw the original film?
The whole family went out to LA – about a year before the film came out – and it wasn’t completed at the time. We saw a couple of completed scenes, but the rest was in black and white. One scene completed I really remember seeing for the first time. It was the scene where Hiccup first meets Toothless and shoots him down. It had extraordinary lighting, very unique lighting, done by Roger Deakins. He lit it as if it was not an animated film. That whole scene – the ambiguity, the subtlety – just blew me away. I knew then that this was going to be fabulous.
Going back, the story had its origins in your childhood didn’t it?
It did. My time was split during my childhood between London and a place in Scotland. My dad liked bird watching – he was a chairman of the RSPB – and every year from when I was a baby we would be taken to this uninhabited island. We were dropped off there and picked up two weeks later, and there was nothing on the island, like Robinson Crusoe or Treasure Island – so as a kid it was inspiring! It was inhabited around 150 years earlier, but from the late 1800s it became desolate. Before that there were a lot of settlers and one group who settled there were the Vikings, so of course I imagined I was a Viking. There were a lot of local tales that went back to Viking times. In Viking legend, dragons really existed and one tale said that a dragon turned into a mountainside on this island. My dad would read these tales to us and I would the lie in bed wondering ‘what if this dragon woke up?’… The actual story of Hiccup was a storyline I didn’t come up with until 15 years ago, but I was always dreaming about dragons.
But before How To Train Your Dragon came about, your first published book was Little Bo Peep’s Library Book. How big a moment was that for you?
That was a huge moment. It seems a very long time ago, something like 18 or 19 years ago. It was a huge moment for me. When I was growing up, I was one of these kids who always read, particularly when we didn’t have a TV on the island. I read so much, so to suddenly have a book in print was a dream – but I spent a long time getting there. I went and read English [at university] and worked for a bit in publishing, then went back to art school. It felt to me, in my 20s, that all my friends were getting on! I had a lot to prove [about making it as a writer], it certainly wasn’t a hobby. I spent so much time in education that I always saw it as a career. Being a writer is a very uncertain career, you just don’t know how it’s going to go. I certainly didn’t think I would be successful at it.
After this moment, did you have an idea who you wanted to write for – children or adults?
I was always interested in getting children to read. I do a lot of work with the National Literary Trust (NLT), the Reading Agency and World Book Day, so I am really interested in getting children to read. That mixture of telling stories in words and pictures and getting children excited about reading and books, that’s what attracted me to writing for children. Books are under threat I guess, so we are doing exceptionally well in getting children reading despite the demand on a child’s attention, which is much more than when I was growing up. The growth of TV, the internet… You are competing against these things. I am passionate about the survival of books and that all comes together when writing for children.
But I am also not only writing for children in my books. Adults are reading them to their children, which is a great way of getting them into reading. Today films for children are traditionally written with adults in mind too – after all, you can’t send a kid to watch a film at the cinema on their own. I write the books to be enjoyed on different levels.
Have we forgotten what it’s like to read for pleasure?
That’s a key message of the NLT. It’s about reading for pleasure rather than schools telling them to. It is a fight for a child’s attention. There’s something very exciting for an author to rise to that challenge and getting children hooked on a story. That’s through the NLT, but also school teachers, parents, people who run festivals like Hay… All these people want books to survive. The competition is tough and the NLT is aware of that, but the inspiring thing is so many care about the survival of books. It’s incredibly important not to just leave it to schools.
Did you have any inkling of the success How to Train Your Dragon would have?
No, not at all. It wasn’t an immediate smash hit for a start! It was a cult thing. It did get published and was noticed – Waterstones took it up right from the beginning, as did the book critic Amanda Craig. We sold it to 20 different countries very early on, which was a bit of a surprise. But it wasn’t like Twilight! It took a while to build a fanbase.
The numbers today are pretty astonishing from books sold to film box office. Is that ever a little overwhelming when you think about them?
Yes, it is a surprise! I go out a lot to festivals and schools, and you get a lot of feedback and it’s such a surprise that something you wrote in a shed in Hammersmith has gone on to be this enormous success. Something done all on your own too.
I asked about if writing How To Fight A Dragon’s Fury was tough to write, but how do you like to write? Shut yourself away?
I had to be really disciplined and I am not normally disciplined at all! When I first started writing I was just about to have my first child, so I have always had children when writing. I had to write every day, or when I had childcare for two days a week, I had to fit everything into those two days. I had a contract as well, a book to finish – that’s good at getting you disciplined! I do always try to lock myself away. I had a shed to write in, which puts you into your own little world and you are hard to get to if it’s raining!
Is Chiswick a lovely area to be based in now with your family?
I love Chiswick. I am just on the border of Chiswick and Hammersmith, and I love it. It’s very green, you can walk down to the river or go up to Chiswick House, or Kew down the road. Ravenscourt Park is really well used having kids myself. It’s brilliantly managed, there’s something for everyone – a little place for toddlers, or a bowling green for older people, it’s really well thought out. You get very attached to your area, there’s a real sense of community. I love that – I know so many people walking around. People say London is anonymous, but that’s not in my experience at all.
So once the book is out, what’s next?
There is something, but I am not allowed to say what!
Words: Mark Kebble
How To Fight A Dragon’s Fury is published on 8 September, priced at £12.99 (hardback). Read more about Cressida at cressidacowell.co.uk