Cressida Cowell at The Wicked Young Writers Awards
The Wicked Young Writer’s Awards took place last week for the seventh time. Each year they have a panel of judges and who better to judge such a Prestigious event than the incredible author of the ‘How To Train Your Dragon’ series: Cressida Cowell. She very kindly gave us some of her time to speak about The Awards and gave us some great advice on how to become a successful writer.
How are the awards going?
It’s always so inspiring being a judge. We’ve just had the awards ceremony and its an incredibly inspiring occasion. I’ve judged the awards for 3 or 4 years now, and it’s just so inspiring. It’s an amazing occasion because it’s on the Wicked stage which gives it a real sense of drama. What happens is, you have all the finalists there and one by one the kids get their piece read out by a real actor from the Wicked cast, so that’s really wonderful for the kids to see their piece of work brought to life like that. The quality of the writing is just outstanding and this is why it’s always so lovely as a judge, as you’ve got so many young people who can just write so well. There’s a real variety of funny writing as well which was really brought out by the actress who was reading out a funny piece, there’s moving writing, there’s poetic and it’s really really inspiring as a judge.
So, you had the inspiration for the ‘How To Train Your Dragon’ series from your childhood of living on an Island in Scotland. What advice would you give to a young person who didn’t have such an experience if they were struggling for inspiration?
*Laughs* You don’t have to spend your childhood on an inhabited island on the West coast of Scotland to be a writer. Most people do not have that childhood. The thing is, you don’t have to be on an inhabited island on the west coast of Scotland, you can be ANYWHERE in Scotland or in the countryside. I’ve written a new series that is coming out in September called ‘The Wizards of Once’ and that was not inspired by living on an Island in Scotland. That was inspired by the cast, it was inspired by all these Iron Age hill forts but ANYBODY can go and visit a hill fort. You don’t have to have had an extraordinary childhood in order to be a writer. You have to write about things that you care about and that you mind about and things that you might have wanted to read as a child. The thing is, I know I’ve talked a lot about being inspired by that island but I was also inspired by writers, you can be inspired by other writers. So the writers I was inspired by Tolkien (The Hobbit, Lord of the Rings) and Diana Wynne Jones (Mixed Magics) so you don’t have to have gone to these places to be inspired to write. I don’t want to put anybody off who hasn’t had that kind of childhood! Many many incredible brilliant and successful writers didn’t have that kind of childhood.
What advice would you give to any young writer who is looking to begin a career in writing?
Well, I suppose I would say firstly to write as much as you can. I illustrate as well so write and draw if you’re interested in that. Write things that you would enjoy reading. Try and move yourself; to laugh or to cry or to think. Predominantly, write something that you would like to read. Don’t worry when you’re younger if you’re basing what you’re writing on other writers that you admire. I used to do that the whole time! I loved Enid Blyton so I’d write ‘The Secret 5’ or something like that. That doesn’t matter nowadays, you have a whole genre of fan fiction for older writers and I think that’s a fantastic way to learn. I think that’s an amazing way to learn how to write. As long as you’re not publishing stuff that’s based on writers you admire and its something you’re doing to learn then it’s absolutely a great way to learn.If you’re illustrating, I used to copy illustrators I admired just to try and get a feel for how they did things. Entering competitions! This is one of the reasons why I like judging this Wicked competition, because I entered quite a few competitions when I was little and one of them I won when I was about 9. It just made me realise that this was something that I could be, something that I could do. When I was an art student I also entered a children’s book competition and getting to the final of a competition really makes you think “maybe this is something I could do!” Nowadays, there are much more courses than when I was young. Creative Writing courses for example are brilliant things to do. I learnt a huge amount from art school – I did a course in narrative illustration and that was really helpful to help me find my illustrative voice, so those are the things to look out for.
With the Wicked Young Writers Awards they’re obviously really important for encouraging creativity among young people. Are they any new writers that are up and coming that we should be keeping an eye out for?
Yes, well, all of them today were quite amazing. There were some extraordinary children and I don’t like to pick out one particular child but there was this little boy in the 5-7 category that wrote something called ‘Auntie Helen goes to heaven’. It was so touching, about death, and ‘Auntie Helen’ was related to this kid but he had written this really beautiful piece. Very thoughtful, about going to heaven and what might happen and that Auntie Helen might come back as a tree with roots, so deep. It was an extraordinary piece of writing, very very moving. There was another girl, again very young, 11, who wrote a wonderful piece about love, very very thoughtful on aspects of love. These were really impressive pieces of writing for a young person to be doing. There was another comic piece called ‘A Spot Of Bother’ about a spot and it was brought to life brilliantly by the Wicked actress who acted it out. It was great because comedy can sometimes (when weighed up against tragedy or something serious) feel light. But you could see how everybody was laughing in the audience, and you think to yourself that these could really be the writers of tomorrow. You can see these kids growing up to be screenwriters or to be book writers or write for the television. I always say, you don’t have to be a book writer like me, there are so many things that need writing. So I would look out for these winners. There is a wonderful writer, Patrice Lawrence, who I judged who was a finalist out of the older writers and she’s written a book called ‘Orangeboy. She is definitely one to look out for; she’s going places. There are so many great writers out there and one thing I do say is that it’s a profession you have to go into for the love of it. You have to love it because you MIGHT be successful but there are still wonderful writers who are writing who don’t necessarily get that break for whatever reason. Often people see the big successes who are doing really well and making lots of money but that doesn’t always happen. There are careers that are more reliable and I want to stress that because I don’t want to give the wrong impression to children and young people. It is something you want to go into for the love of it and if you do that its a lovely, lovely job, it’s a lovely career.
I work in the music industry where sexism is unfortunately quite a huge issue. What, if any do you feel have been barriers for yourself as a female leader in your creative industry?
Oh, that’s quite an interesting question! I haven’t particularly, and I’m not saying that its not a problem but I haven’t personally experienced it. It is tricky balancing a career with motherhood but I’ve been very lucky in that my husband has given up his job to support my career. That, in my opinion is an amazing thing for somebody to do. I work mostly with women in my industry; my editor is a woman, my agent is a woman, my editor in America is a woman and the head of my publishing company is a woman, What I am seeing is a lot of female leaders around me personally which is encouraging. A lot of my fellow writers and friends are women. Maybe that’s not the problem that I’ve personally experienced in the same way as you have and I’m really sorry to hear that. You’d hope that in 2017 that it shouldn’t be an issue but in my personal experience I am surrounded by women. Additionally, the producer of my ‘How To Train Your Dragon films is a woman so I’m working with a lot of women in my career. I don’t know how representative that is of all industries! I am somebody who is quite comfortable with being a woman and speaking my mind.
Do you have an all time favourite book or favourite book series?
Ah gosh, I always find ‘favourite questions’ so difficult, because its very difficult isn’t it! To Kill A Mockingbird. Children’s books are SO difficult. Louis Sachar – Holes and Wonder by RJ Polacio I LOVE that book, its a great book about empathy for all ages. That’s three but I could easily list a tonne!
With the book to film development, did you initially want it to be as close to the books as possible, or more of an adaptation? How did you overcome any worries you might have had about your stories being potentially changed?
What I wanted was a great film. I didn’t write the book series to be screenplays and I have quite strong views that books and screenplays are very different things and books shouldn’t become screenplays and we shouldn’t be looking for books to be screenplays; those are different things. There is a danger that if you start thinking that films have to be exactly the same as the books, then book writers will start writing books like films and they are a different medium, they offer something separate and interesting and different. So, I went into it very much feeling what I want is a great film so I was open to my story needing to be changed. I wasn’t going to be changing my books to account for the fact they were making these films at all. I was writing 12 of them! 12 books, and they were never gonna make 12 films. So I what I wanted was for it to be a wonderful film that captured the spirit of what I was trying to say. I needed it to look beautiful and include the message about the environment, the relationship between human and dragon and our relationship with nature and what makes a great leader. All of these things were the the things that I cared about. Also it being funny but also emotional and moving and the boy trying to live up to his father and all of these things were more important to me than sticking exactly to my story-line, if that explains. I love the film and I’m very close to the film maker so its worked out very well.
Are you working on anything else right now that you can share with us?
Yes! For the first time in about eighteen years I have written a new book that isn’t ‘How to Train Your Dragon’! It’s coming out in September and I’m very excited about it. It’s called ‘The Wizards Of Once’ and it’s great, I really love it. It’s about magic so there are giants, and sprites and all these different things and its been really lovely to write. There’s equally weighted boy and girl heroes who are from warring tribes and its about what happens when they meet. We sold the film rights to Dreamworks and they are making a film. I am very excited about that!
Finally, we asked Cressida if she could translate some of our favourite song titles into Dragonese, but unfortunately she didn’t have her Dragonese dictionary on her! Can any Dragonese experts help us out?!
- Sign Of The Times
- Black Magic
- Still Got Time
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