Mag­i­cal au­thor Cres­sida Cow­ell

For­get Game of Thrones’s fire-breath­ing furies. Cres­sida Cow­ell cap­tured the imag­i­na­tion of mil­lions with How To Train Your Dragon. And it was all in­spired by her true ad­ven­tures on a des­o­late Scot­tish isle

The Mail on Sunday - Event - - CONTENTS - In­ter­vIew by sarah oliver

Some­where on the raggedy edge of the He­brides – the kind of place that should be marked ‘Here Be Dragons’ – lies a tiny pri­vate is­land. Just a third of a mile square, it’s rav­aged by the howl­ing winds and wild wa­ters of the At­lantic that long ago drove its hu­man in­hab­i­tants to refuge on the main­land. Yet this is the wilder­ness that in­spired the

How To Train Your Dragon phe­nom­e­non: 12 books with around eight mil­lion copies sold; two DreamWorks films, both with an Os­car nod; an an­i­mated TV series and a com­puter game. A third Dragon film, voiced by Hol­ly­wood A lis­ters Ger­ard But­ler and Cate Blanchett is due for re­lease in 2019.

All have flowed from the well­spring of child­hood mem­o­ries be­long­ing to writer and il­lus­tra­tor Cres­sida Cow­ell, whose fa­ther bought the is­land as an an­ti­dote to Lon­don life half a cen­tury ago.

‘We’d be dropped off like cast­aways by lo­cal boat­men,’ she re­calls. ‘There were no phones or elec­tric­ity, it was very Robin­son Cru­soe. We didn’t even have a house for the first few years so we camped, sleep­ing in an inch of wa­ter with rain drip­ping down from the roof of the tent.

‘By the time I was nine we had a home built on the tum­ble­down re­mains of a crofter’s cot­tage so we could spend whole sum­mers there. We fished and ate the seafood we caught; mack­erel and lob­ster, cock­les, win­kles and mus­sels. We’d ex­plore the caves and go out in rub­ber dinghies with­out life jack­ets. My brother would dive down to look for pearls.

‘God it was dan­ger­ous look­ing back. There re­ally were no rules. There was an old bell my mother rang when it was time for lunch, oth­er­wise we were not both­ered by adult in­ter­ven­tion.’

Cow­ell and her brother and sis­ter made their own free range fun by day. It was their fa­ther who pro­vided the evening en­ter­tain­ment.

‘At night, lit by can­dles, my fa­ther told us folk tales of the Vik­ings who had in­vaded this part of Scot­land 1,200 years be­fore, the quar­rel­some tribes who fought and tricked each other and the dragons that were sup­posed to live in caves in the cliffs.

‘One of his sto­ries stuck in my mind. It was about a dragon that had turned into a moun­tain. I used to lie in bed and imag­ine what would hap­pen if the lit­tle hill by our house re­ally was a dragon and woke up!’

In 2003 the dragon did blaze into wake­ful­ness – just not in the way Cow­ell ex­pected. How To

Train Your Dragon, the story of Hic­cup Hor­ren­dous Had­dock III, the skinny ginger boy who must grow up to be the leader of Vik­ing tribe the Hairy Hooli­gans, and his loyal dragon Tooth­less, was pub­lished. Eleven more books fol­lowed un­til Cow­ell brought the saga to a close in 2015.

Even as she did so, her imag­i­na­tion was rang­ing across a new ter­ri­tory hun­dreds of miles south of the He­brides – the chalk hills and wood­lands of the Sus­sex South Downs. ‘That land­scape is so old, it’s al­ways felt haunted to me,’ she says. ‘I used to think lit­tle bumps were burial mounds for fairies…’ and then she’s off chat­ter­ing about leg­ends and giants and spells and all the other in­tox­i­cat­ing el­e­ments found in her new book, The Wizards

Of Once, which has al­ready been snapped up by DreamWorks. The Wizards Of Once is set at the dawn of the Iron Age in the wild­woods of old Eng­land and tells of a young boy wizard, Xar, and a young war­rior princess, Wish, who must unite against the an­cient peril of witches. In the el­e­gant first floor draw­ing room of the west Lon­don town­house where she’s lived for the past 20 years with her hus­band Si­mon Cow­ell (not that one, as she is fond of say­ing), she shows me the idea books that have brought the story to life over the past five years. In Cow­ell’s un­mis­take­able, scratchy pen­cil sketches, Xar and Wish leap from the pages with their snow­cats and Hairy Fairies, their ter­ri­fy­ing par­ents, ogres and en­chanted ob­jects. The books are crammed with the kind of maps, draw­ings and ad­den­dums (Cow­ell’s in­spi­ra­tions range from Shake­speare and Pan to Alexan­der McQueen and chore­og­ra­pher Matthew Bourne) that made the Dragon books a swal­low dive into a dif­fer­ent world. ‘It’s about hero­ism, the nat­u­ral world and our part in it, death, love, spir­i­tu­al­ity and ad­ven­ture. There are no themes you can’t tackle with chil­dren,’ says Cow­ell. ‘The world can be dif­fi­cult, even scary and I want chil­dren to be able to deal with that and to know that it is also an awe-in­spir­ing, mag­nif­i­cent place.’

It’s a sense of per­spec­tive she gained on the is­land where she had to be coura­geous and re­source­ful de­spite be­ing a rather anx­ious child. She still goes there to­day with her own chil­dren, three teenagers aged 13 to 19. ‘They suf­fer with­drawal symp­toms,’ she smiles. ‘It’s one of those rare places that still has no mo­bile phone con­nec­tion, let alone any hope of Face­book. But once they are over that they play card games and act­ing games, watch ot­ters and catch fish, paint and ex­plore caves and get bored – just like we did.

‘These days we spend the whole time try­ing to en­ter­tain our chil­dren and try­ing to pre­vent bore­dom – but be­ing bored is ex­cel­lent for cre­ativ­ity.’

The proof of that is in the empire she has built since sign­ing her first book deal back in 1998, when she and her hus­band were ex­pect­ing their first baby. They’ve been to­gether al­most 30 years, since she was 22 and he was 23, and he is now Cow­ell’s full­time man­ager, leav­ing her free to do what she does best: writ­ing, draw­ing and imag­in­ing.

It all hap­pens in a wooden shed in her gar­den. There’s no heat­ing, no phone line and un­til very re­cently, there was no broad­band ei­ther. It’s a tiny cre­ative space filled with tow­ers of books, pots of pen­cils and a sturdy day bed cov­ered in cush­ions and cosy quilts.

Cow­ell ad­mits to tak­ing the oc­ca­sional tac­ti­cal nap on it and you can’t help but think of her four decades ago as a lit­tle girl snug­gling down while sum­mer storms howled through the He­brides, happy in the knowl­edge that dragons and magic are real, if you just know where to look. ‘The Wizards Of Once’ is pub­lished on Tues­day (Hod­der Chil­dren’s Books, £12.99)

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