BookBrunch | How to move your readers: An interview with Cressida Cowell

Hold your breath. This week I got to interview How To Train Your Dragon author Cressida Cowell – and it was as awesome as it sounds! Read our full conversation over on BookBrunch, or get stuck in with this excerpt right here:


There can be no argument that Cressida Cowell’s children’s book series HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON has been extraordinarily successful. Testament to this, perhaps, is the fact that Cressida calls me for our interview from a cab between meetings, but that is not to say she doesn’t give me her full attention. In fact, Cowell is as genuine and enthusiastic as you could possibly want. We talk isolated Scottish islands, what it’s like being a parent, and that last How To Train Your Dragon book.

From books to screen

Cowell discovered she wanted to write seriously after studying English at university, during a brief stint as an Editorial Assistant. “I realised that I didn’t want to be on the business side, I wanted to be on the other side – the creative side – so I then went back to art school,” she says. “I was quite a long time in education. In the end I did an MA, but now I look back and think I couldn’t have missed any bit of it. It was all kind of crucial even though it took a long time.”

She did an MA in Narrative Illustration, and it was at art school that she wrote her first published book, which she submitted to the Macmillan Children’s Book Prize. There, she met her editor, Anne McNeil, and they still work together, fifteen years on. In recognition of the prize’s importance in giving her a leg-up to getting published, Cowell has recently written a book for the inaugural Carmelite Book Prize, launched by Hachette, for entrants to illustrate.

“For me, that’s what gave me my first break, so I wanted to encourage that. Many authors and illustrators find that leap of getting their first book published almost the hardest,” she reflects. “I was thirty by the time I had my first book published. I wasn’t an overnight success: How To Train Your Dragon was not by any means my first book, I wrote four or five picture books which we kind of moderately successful beforehand. I’d been working for five or six years as a writer with nobody paying any attention in particular, then How To Train Your Dragon came out! I hope publishers would have the patience nowadays to stick with somebody who didn’t have a huge success.”

How To Train Your Dragon was Cowell’s first fiction book, published in 2003, and has now stretched to a twelve book series. It has even been turned into a film by Dreamworks. “That was extraordinary! Very early on I had a lot of telly and film interest, which took me slightly by surprise, and I did say no to a lot of things. Then Dreamworks came along, and I knew that they would do it well. Dragons should make you go ‘Wow’ – I really wanted that feeling. You have to have that feeling. The books were all about that feeling, the wonder of the dragon world and looking after it.”

That first film has since expanded into sequels, short films, a television show and video games. It was nominated for a huge number of awards, including the Academy Award for Best Animated Feature, and won many more. “It’s so funny, because I didn’t write it thinking about it being made into a film at all. Looking back, the first book wasn’t even Hodder’s Book of the Month! It was a paperback! Nobody was really expecting it to be a big thing. I never planned any of it, it was just a lovely thing that happened.”

End of an Era

The final installment of the series, How To Fight A Dragon’s Fury, came out in paperback yesterday. “I always wrote it to have an ending. It was about growing up, the boy becoming a hero and what happened to the dragons, and those things require an ending. It’s a very bittersweet feeling for me to come to the end of it, because I’ve put so much of myself into it. Also my eldest daughter, who was the inspiration, has just turned eighteen. I’ve written the last book and she’s about to leave home, so it is the end of an era.”

Cowell has moved on to writing something new, due out next year, though a bond of secrecy prevents her revealing what it is yet. “I really enjoyed writing about the dragon world. It was never a struggle in that sense. It was very stressful writing the book though, because if you’ve written a twelve book series that’s taken you this long, you need the last book to be worth it. I’m really proud of this last book, so it was satisfying to end it in that way.”

“It was deliberately a long series,” she adds. “One reason is that I’m very interested in getting kids reading and getting into a long series is a fantastic way to make that happen. I think every child who struggles with the mechanics of reading, when they find a series they love and they’re hooked on it, they know it’s worth the effort and they’ll carry on making that effort. I get a lot of dyslexic readers.

“I’m interested in the survival of books as a medium alongside films and telly because I think they can offer something different. Things on a screen happen out there, but in a book things happen inside your head, so it’s very good for building empathy in children. A screen is very prescriptive, it tells you exactly how something is, whereas a book allows the child to fill in the gaps. It promotes creativity, argument and deep thought around a subject. It’s not that I think we should ban all these screens but children do those things as well as reading! By having my books made into a film, I’ve sort of embraced that. I get children coming along to book things who aren’t bookish children, but they start reading my books because they’ve seen the film and they love the characters and world, so they think it’s worth having a go. I try and work with those things rather than fight against them…” [READ MORE]

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