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Cressida Cowell on her new series and Sussex inspiration

PUBLISHED: 11:40 09 October 2017

Cressida at her London home © Debra Hurford Brown

Cressida at her London home © Debra Hurford Brown

© Debra Hurford Brown

For her next children’s book series, bestselling How to Train Your Dragon author Cressida Cowell has drawn on her childhood memories of Sussex. She told Jenny Mark-Bell that there’s magic in our landscapes

Children’s author Cressida Cowell has one of the most expressive voices I’ve ever heard. Listening back to our interview I imagine musical annotations sprinkling the conversation: forte; pianissimo; scherzando.

She has a beautiful home in Hammersmith where she lives with husband Simon and children Maisie (19), Clemmie (16) and Alexander (13). Walking there from the London Underground I’m struck by the number of schools in the vicinity. I wonder how many young How to Train Your Dragon fans know how close they are to the books’ author.

Inside the house, art covers the white walls like drawings on a page. As well as lots of Cressida’s own work there is a framed Charlie and Lola illustration by her school friend and current Children’s Laureate Lauren Child.

Hammersmith is a long way from rural Sussex but the reason for this interview is Cressida’s follow-up to her best-selling series about Hiccup Horrendous Haddock III (also a well-received animated film franchise).

The inspiration for Cressida’s series about a young Viking’s adventures came from childhood family holidays on an uninhabited Hebridean island. That island, owned by her father Michael Hare, the environmentalist and former chairman of the RSPB and Kew, became the fictional Isle of Berk.

For her new series The Wizards of Once, Cressida tapped into memories of visiting her grandmother in West Sussex and the places “within bicycling distance” that stimulated her young imagination. “I was fascinated by magic as a child and I was particularly inspired by certain places in Sussex where I felt there was a sort of magical presence. It’s a very old landscape and it does sometimes feel that some of it is haunted by the ghosts of the past.”

The opening book, out this month, introduces the characters of Wish – a young Warrior and daughter of Queen Sychorax – and Xar, a Wizard and son of the Enchanter. Both feel like a disappointment to their larger-than-life parents, Xar because his magic has not yet ‘come in’, and Wish because she is creative and empathetic – not ideal character traits for a Warrior.

Queen Sychorax’s Iron Fort is based on Maiden Castle in Dorset. But the idea was born out of childhood visits to Trundle Hill, an iron age hill fort near Chichester. “They built these hill forts so that you could see for miles,” says Cressida. “When you’re a kid it’s like you’re on top of the world.

“We used to toboggan down it, which I’m not sure we should have done – it was made particularly exciting because there was a huge main road at the bottom. I remember when my brother [the philosopher Caspar Hare] was tiny he tobogganed down and my mother or father just missed catching him. He just went shooting off and there was a barbed wire fence at the bottom. He was so small he just went under it and straight into the road. Thank God there were no cars.”

A sheaf of drawings lies on the table between us – stylistically different from the Hiccup illustrations, although “In the later Hiccup books I was starting to draw in slightly more detail. It’s so they can hold the epic weight of the story, so that it feels real.”

Sketches for sprites have a flavour of the illustrations of Arthur Rackham, who lived in Houghton near Amberley in the 1920s. A chart showing the Wizard and Warrior territories also hints at the scope of the series. “I always start with a map, because it makes a fantasy place seem real. It roots it and gives you ideas for stories.”

The mythical characters that populate the series were inspired by the myths and legends of England and specifically Sussex – including tales of giants and sprites.

The landscape of Levin Down hinted at magic to a young Cressida. “All the landscape is quite cultivated and Levin Down means ‘leave it alone’, meaning it was set aside from the plough. It has quite a different atmosphere from the countryside around it. There are trees growing there, yew and juniper. Because of the name, I had it in my head that it was an exciting place but dangerous.

“In a landscape populated by barrows, which people often thought were the graves of giants, I thought the hillocks in the ground might be the graves of fairies.”

The Weald and Downland Museum has, she says: “been integral to my development as a writer. It brings history alive and gets you thinking about the real people who lived here. It’s incredibly inspiring for children. Also it’s not just grand history – somewhere like Hampton Court is very inspiring but it’s rather nice to have something about ordinary life: how people farmed, what their vegetable gardens might have looked like. All those little domestic details get children thinking.”

Cressida works in a delightful shed at the bottom of her small garden. The walls are lined with character sketches and towers of books teeter tipsily in corners. At the moment the books are predominantly about fairy folklore, as well as subjects such as herbal cures, magic and medicine.

Since it launched in 2003, the How to Train Your Dragon series has become a beast of almost mythical proportions: translated into 38 languages and selling more than seven million copies. Cressida started working on it after the birth of her first child and it has grown alongside the family. So following it up was a daunting prospect.

“It’s quite tricky when it’s something that is so much about my childhood,” she says. “Stoick [Hiccup’s father] has a lot of my dad in him. It’s a world I love, there’s a reason I’ve written 12 books. It caught my imagination and I loved it. Starting a new series was quite nerve-wracking because I wanted it to be as good or better.” The new book is aimed at the same age group as How to Train Your Dragon – eight to 12 – which Cressida finds interesting as children make the transition from picture books to more complicated stories.

There are returning themes from the earlier series, such as looking after nature and children finding their way out of the shadow of a dominant parent. Cressida has spoken before about basing Hiccup’s relationship with his father on her own struggle to live up to her beloved father. She elaborates: “Trying to live up to a much-loved parent from whom you are different is personal for me, but it’s also something that resonates with so many children. I try to show it from both points of view because it can be difficult as a parent: you love the child and if a child is different from you they suddenly seem very far away. It’s difficult for the kid because it feels like a rejection of the parent and they can feel guilty. And those are things I think are all to do with growing up and what’s your place in the world.”

The characters’ gender roles are refreshingly non-traditional, from a villainous male Witch to the Warrior Queen. Cressida says: “I like overturning these gender stereotypes, I don’t like children to feel boxed in. This isn’t always intentional, but I tend to make my heroes outsider characters and they’re often very creative. I try to present children with the heroes that we need. We need creative scientists, we need original thinkers. I also think it’s quite important to explore, as I did with Hiccup, how the idea of what it is to be a man has changed so much and it can be tricky for boys to negotiate.

“There’s a number of themes I go back to, not only things that I found personally difficult. One of those is bullying, which is one of the top concerns of children in all national surveys. I get so many letters from children saying how Hiccup has helped them through a difficult time.”

In this universe Wizards come into their magical powers at age 12. Xar is 13 and still stubbornly unmagical, a fact which causes his some anxiety. “For the age group that I’m writing about, puberty is a big deal. I thought it would be rather interesting to have the magic coming in then as well. Xar is not the kind of boy who wants to be waiting for his magic to come in, it’s about machismo for him.” In children’s literature puberty often spells the end of magical capability, so it’s novel in that way too. Cressida continues: “And I think it is accompanied by a sense of loss, it is a really tricky change for them to negotiate. You’re having to be more responsible and I remember that feeling of a loss of freedom in a way, although of course you’re gaining independence.”

Her own children have grown up with the books and have made the odd suggestion: “Maisie was about two when I wrote the first How to Train Your Dragon book and now she is grown up I will try out stories on her. Xanny didn’t want to know what happened in the story until a book was finished.”

There are currently three books planned in the Wizards of Once series – but that was the case for How to Train Your Dragon too and Cressida ended up writing a dozen. “I’m trying desperately not to do 12, but it’s going to be tricky to stick to three. There’s so many stories, so many ways that I could go. I’m writing book two now and I’ve got an overarching story arc in mind.

“I was so worried about starting a new series and I now love this world even more than Hiccup. But I do have other stories to tell so I mustn’t spend another 15 years on this,” she says decisively.

Dreamworks Animation has snapped up the rights to The Wizards of Once and will be hoping to repeat the success of their How to Train Your Dragon series which concludes in 2018. Cressida is a fan of the films: “They’re very different from the books in some ways but they’re true to the environmental message; they make you laugh, they make you cry and they make you think. I’ve been very lucky because they’ve asked my opinion, but still it’s a different medium and it’s going to take a different form. You can’t clamp down on other people’s creativity. The books are my story and I wrote them as books, not as screenplays.

“My quest is to write books and get children reading and you mustn’t lose sight of your own quest.”

And it’s a quest every bit as magical and important as the plot of one of her books.

The Wizards of Once is published by Hodder Children’s Books.

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