Have you ever wondered how authors dream up the mystical fantasies from our favourite books? So have we, which is why we asked MFM readers what questions they’d love to ask a fictional writer, to delve into the world of a storyteller.
You bombarded us with your questions, so MFM sat down with Cressida Cowell, the author of the smash hit animation film, How To Train Your Dragon, to find out her inspiration behind Toothless the friendly dragon and Hiccups, the hapless but loveable trainee dragon slayer. Plus we asked what motivated her to write about the mythical world of dragons and Vikings.
I’d like to know where you get your ideas for your main characters. Are they totally from your imagination? Tricia Clark
C: Well, it’s a bit of a combination, I suppose. I take little bits from myself or people I know and then I make them into an entirely new character. Toothless, for instance, was based partly on my own children when they were about two, and not at their most reasonable. Like Hiccup, I was a slightly nervous child, with an academic bent…but Hiccup is a quiet, unassuming sort of person, whereas I was a chatterbox.
No character is entirely lifted from life.
Cressida, how did you get her first novel published? Did you have an agent or just send your book off to the publishers? Also, what advice would you give to other mums who would like to write children’s stories? Susanne Robertson
C: I got a picture book published first. I entered the Macmillan Children’s Book Prize while I was still at art school, and won a Highly Commended award. The editor I met at the awards ceremony then published my first book, ‘What shall we do with the Boo-Hoo baby?’ I didn’t have an agent until I’d been working for two or three years. To other mums who would like to write children’s stories I would say, persevere, and have faith in your own vision.
Did you become an author by writing down the stories you were telling your children? Sylvie Smith
C: No, I didn’t actually, I started writing before I even had children. The one book I have written that was directly inspired by my children was That Rabbit Belongs to Emily Brown. When she was about four, my daughter Maisie had this toy dog called Mister Dog that she slept with every night. One terrible evening, we looked high and low, but we couldn’t find Mister Dog anywhere. Maisie was inconsolable, but for the first time in her life she had to go to bed without Mister Dog…Two days later, I opened the freezer, and there, perched jauntily on the fishfingers, was Mister Dog. No wonder we hadn’t found him. We’d looked everywhere, but unsurprisingly, we hadn’t actually thought to look in the freezer. I asked her, “Maisie, why was Mister Dog in the freezer?’ And she replied, ‘Oh, yes, I remember now…we were playing this game and he was looking for the North Pole…’
Did you work in the evenings when your children had gone to bed? Trendy Wendy
C: I try not to! Once the children have gone to bed I really want to have a nice quiet evening… I have always had childcare for three days a week. Even though, I find it really difficult to get everything done. Of course, when I have a deadline, I HAVE to work in the evenings, and I will do that for two months or so before I have to hand a book in. But I try not to, because you end up feeling really frazzled.
What did you do before you were an author? Viva La Diva
C: I read English at university, worked very briefly in publishing (I wasn’t very good at it), and then went back to art school. I’ve been an author for over twelve years now.
Why did you choose to write about dragons and Vikings? Debra Cutting
C: I wrote about dragons and Vikings because I spent a lot of time as a child on an uninhabited island off the west coast of Scotland. I always used to imagine that there were dragons living in caves on this island. You can find out more about this (and photos!) by visiting my website.
How do you keep your family life separate from your writing – do you have a quiet ‘no-kids’ room where you write? Do your children get upset when you say you have to work? Rachel Elton
C: My study is right in the centre of the house, and is it a no-kids room? HA! Absolutely not, there are kids permanently in and out of there, partly because it is the room with the big computer in it. It’s the smallest room in the house but probably the most occupied…The only way I have ever got any work done at all over the last ten years is that I have always had the luck to have brilliant childcare (see above), for three days a week. I know that there are some women writers out there who do this job without childcare, and I am full of admiration. I don’t know if I could have done that. My children don’t get upset when I have to work because they really love Judit, who looks after them when I’m working.