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Interview with 'How to Train Your Dragon' series author Cressida Cowell

How to Train Your Dragon book series author Cressida Cowell
Photo by Michael Buckner/Getty Images

In 2010, I interviewed Cressida Cowell, author of the 'How to Train Your Dragon' series of books on which the hit movie with the same name was based. So today, in honor of the release of 'How to Train Your Dragon 2,' a look back on that interview...

As a mom of three children, Cressida has a lot to share with other parents about being a Do It All Mama and about the inspiration behind the books and movie. I asked Cressida a few questions about that inspiration, passing that on to children and even her unique name...

Angele: The story of your childhood on the small Scottish island and its role in your imagination is quite interesting. Tell us about that and how it influenced How to Train Your Dragon.

Cressida: I spent a great deal of time as a child on a tiny, uninhabited island off the west coast of Scotland. The island had no roads, houses or electricity.
The name of the island is a secret, but it was such a small island it wasn’t really big enough to have a name at all. There were no roads or shops, just a storm-blown, windy wilderness of sea-birds and heather.
When I was four, my family would be dropped off like castaways on the island by a local boatman and picked up again two weeks later. In those days there were no mobile phones, so we had absolutely no way of contacting the outside world during that time. If something went wrong, we just had to sit tight and hope that the boat really did come to pick us up in two weeks time.
In those days there was no such thing as mobile phones and so if somebody broke their leg or their neck or got horrible food poisoning or acute appendicitis my parents had ABSOLUTELY NO WAY WHATSOEVER of getting help from the outside world.
I was a bit more of a worrier than my parents and so even as a four year old I thought they were completely crazy.
I thought they were even crazier when they got a boat, because my father was a very confident sailor but he didn’t really know what he was doing. He was clueless but bossy. There was something glorious about the dignified way my father barked out orders while heading us straight into a Force Eight gale, or hitting a rock, or accidentally tying the boat to a lobster pot instead of a buoy.
This was what gave me the idea for the characters of Hiccup and his father Stoick..
By the time I was eight, my family had built a small stone house on the island, and my father got a boat, so we could fish for enough food to feed the family for the whole summer.
From then on, every year we spent four weeks of the summer and two weeks of the spring on the island. The house was lit by candle-light, and there was no telephone or television, so I spent a lot of time drawing and writing stories. In the evening, my father told us tales of the Vikings who invaded this island Archipelago twelve hundred years before, of the quarrelsome Tribes who fought and tricked each other, and of the legends of dragons who were supposed to live in the caves in the cliffs.
That was when I first started writing stories about dragons and Vikings, way back when I was nine or ten years old.

Angele: My children all absolutely love Toothless the dragon, as he reminds us of our black kitty cat in both look and mannerisms. Was a cat the inspiration behind this dragon at all? If not, what was?

Cressida: The Toothless in the books is different from the Toothless in the film. The Toothless in the books is a small, disobedient Common-or-Garden dragon, who speaks to Hiccup in Dragonese (with a stammer). In the films, Toothless is a large, frightening Night Fury, who cannot talk. Both Toothlesses have a sweeter, gentler side to them than is at first apparent. And both Toothlesses were indeed, inspired by cats, in both look and in character.
I wanted to make the dragons feel like they could really have existed, so I based each dragon species on real animals. The Gronckle, for example, is inspired by a warthog mixed up with a toad. The Toothless in the books is a cat with some reptilian and dog-like characteristics.
In the case of the Toothless in the books, I was inspired by my own cats Lily and Baloo. Lily and Baloo are very beautiful, mischievous Burmese cats, and their curiosity and adventurous spirit always gets them into trouble.
The look of the Toothless in the film is a mixture of cat and bat. The animator of Toothless tells me that the way Toothless moves and acts is inspired by watching his own cat.

Angele: Your name is unique. What does it mean? Is there a story to it too?

Cressida: There is a story behind the name Cressida, and the story was first told by Homer, and then by Chaucer, and afterwards by Shakespeare in his play ‘Troilus and Cressida’. I am afraid that the reason so few people are called Cressida is that Cressida really did not behave well at all, in fact she behaved extremely badly and ought to have been thoroughly ashamed of herself.
Cressida and Troilus were in love in the story, but Cressida abandons Troilus because he looks like he is on the losing side of the battle for Troy. She waltzes off with someone on the winning side, leaving poor Troilus to die of love.
I must say, even though I thoroughly disapprove of the behaviour of my fickle namesake, I’ve always liked the actual name Cressida, because it is so nice to be called something unusual!

Angele: Your imagination was sparked as a child. As a mother of three yourself, what advice do you have for other parents about encouraging reading as well as story telling through writing and drawing in their own children.

Cressida: My books are all about inspiring children to read, write and draw. What I try to do with my own children, is to read to them and with them. I know that it is often hard to find the time to do this, we are all so busy nowadays. But in theory, just before bed in our house is ‘story’ time. I read a couple of picture books, or a couple of chapters of a book, to my 6 year old, Xanny, and my older daughters, Clemmie (10) and Maisie (12) read to themselves.
I say ‘in theory’ because it doesn’t always work out like that….
I find that even with ‘older’ books it can help extend your child’s reading if you read with your child as well as them reading on their own. I specifically wrote the Hiccup books with this in mind, with the idea that a parent might read one chapter together with their child and the child might then be hooked and go off and read the next chapter solo.
My daughter Maisie is twelve, and a voracious reader, but I sat down with her in the summer holidays and read How to Kill a Mockingbird with her. This isn’t a book that she would have attempted on her own, because she would have thought it was too ‘adult’. But when I started reading it to her she realised that she loved it. (It was also a great pleasure for me to read it again).
My daughter Clemmie is ten, and it has been harder to get her excited about reading. (In fact it is quite hard to get her to SIT DOWN for longer than five minutes, she is one of those busy, busy, busy jumpy about-y sort of kids). I do think it is important with this kind of kid not to say to yourself, ‘Okay, then, that must mean that she or he is not a reader’. It could just be that she or he hasn’t yet found the books that will spark his or her interest in reading. I kept on trying, and once we found one particular book that she loved, she realised that she could find pleasure in a book, and therefore became more positive about the idea of reading in general.
I have to admit, that one of the great things about spending the summer on the island when I was a child is that there was no telly, so I did spend the time reading, writing and drawing and amusing myself.
I don’t ban the kids from watching t.v. – they watch plenty! But I do try and put some limits on it, so that they have time to read and write and draw and make things up.

Angele: Have you found it hard work being a do-it-all mama?

Cressida: I have found it very hard work indeed being a do it all mama. I am incredibly lucky to have such a wonderful job, but family life can be chaotic. My tip would be, don’t be too hard on yourself. A little imperfection is just fine…

Angele: You have other dragon books besides How to Train Your Dragon. Are any of them going to become movies as well? They have such refreshingly wonderful characters.

Cressida: I have written eight books in the How to Train Your Dragon series, and I am just finishing the ninth. Excitingly, DreamWorks have just announced that they are making a sequel to How to Train Your Dragon, to be released in 2013.

Angele: Anything else you want to add about an experience in writing the book, or seeing the book turned into a major motion picture?

Cressida: The book is very close to my heart, because its subject matter is so mixed-up with my own childhood.
I am still somewhat astonished to see it turned into a major motion picture, even though the process took seven years, so I ought to be used to the idea by now!
I love the film, so it has been a very pleasurable experience for me.

How to Train Your Dragon 2 is in theatres now!

Follow me on Twitter @AngeleOutWest

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