An Interview with Cressida Cowell

This year, our Halloween adventure trails have been inspired by Cressida Cowell, author of the best-selling Wizards of Once series.

We caught up with her to find out how she ended up writing her books and where she gets her inspiration from. Plus, she gives us her expert tips on writing and illustrating.



Character: Bodkin. Wizards of Once Illustrations © Cressida Cowell
Character: Bodkin. Wizards of Once Illustrations © Cressida Cowell

Was history a subject you did at school? Is it something that you’ve always been interested in?

Absolutely. I’ve always been fascinated in history. The short answer is I found history very, very inspiring and still do.

Thank you, Miss McDonald! She was my history teacher in upper 4M and she set me a history essay task which was ‘imagine you see Vikings on the horizon’. I wrote a whole creative writing essay in my history lesson!

I was already writing about Vikings because of Scotland and my childhood in Scotland, which of course was the first place the Vikings invaded when they invaded Great Britain and the last place they left. So four hundred years of that part of the world is filled with Viking stories and Viking history and my interest descended from there.

Roman re-enactors marching along Hadrian's Wall
Roman re-enactors marching along Hadrian's Wall

Is there a time period that you enjoy reading and learning about most?

Oh I love all of these different time periods. I am very drawn to the distant past, partly because when it’s the dark ages I can make up what we don’t know! There’s so much that we don’t know and I find that astonishingly exciting.

We do have Viking literature, which I love. I read a lot of the Viking sagas when I was at university. I love that history, about which we know some but there’s a lot that we don’t know… it’s very fragmentary. I love the dark, dark history where we know nothing except a few vanishing footprints.

I’m going to name a lot of history that I haven’t written about and I would love to. I’m very interested in Roman history. We’ve got a lot of Roman history here: Hadrian’s Wall, Fishbourne Palace… I encourage you to take your children. They are amazing, fascinating places. I’m very interested in the Tudor and Shakespearian periods too... this great flowering of literature with all of these plays and playhouses. I read up a lot about that time period, which I’ve never written about but I find the history incredibly inspiring.

Stonehenge at sunset approaching the winter solstice
Stonehenge at sunset approaching the winter solstice

This Halloween, your characters and your illustrations will be part of our trails at our sites. How does that feel, for your characters to be going to historic places?

Oh, it’s such a lovely thing. I’m really hoping that it will do for children what going to these places did for me, which is to spark their imagination and get them thinking about writing their own stories about these places. I hope that it will bring everything alive for children.

What are some of your favourite historic places?

I have so many happy memories of visiting historic places as a child.

Tintagel Castle is a wonderful place to go to. Maiden Castle is a fantastic Iron Age hillfort, and there’s Hadrian’s Wall too. These are all wonderful places, though Stonehenge might possibly be my personal favourite!


Character: Wish. Wizards of Once Illustrations © Cressida Cowell
Character: Wish. Wizards of Once Illustrations © Cressida Cowell

In your Wizards of Once book series, you have warriors, wizards and witches. What, to you, is the difference between a wizard and a witch?

Well, I’ve made up the difference! I actually love it when witches are portrayed in a way where they could be good as well as bad. So I love it with, for instance, the musical Wicked where they turn that archetype on its head.

For Wizards of Once, I was wanting to have a personification of evil magic. And I just couldn’t think of a better word than ‘witch’ because it carries such weight. The word ‘witch’… suddenly you’re thinking of the witches in The Wizard of Oz, for example. Because we’ve got such a history of believing in terrifying witches in the past, I think it’s the associations that that word carries. I was very careful to make the witches both male and female because I don’t approve of how witches are often made out to be only female! I could have gone another way but that’s what I chose the witches to personify.

I also had loads of wonderful historical, real witches to do lots of research on. There was one witch in the north of England: she was supposed to have these really long fingernails, and she would reach into the houses and grab the children! So I had plenty of real beliefs like that about witches that I could tap into and use to then create my scary witches in the books. I do a lot of research into people’s real beliefs and things that people believed about magic in the past.

Character: Xar. Wizards of Once Illustrations © Cressida Cowell
Character: Xar. Wizards of Once Illustrations © Cressida Cowell

How do you find the inspiration for what your illustrations will look like?

I do a lot of research into real things to make you think that the imaginary things are true. That goes for the drawings as well as the plots and the stories. I’ll discover that Vikings discovered America way before Christopher Columbus. And so I’ll think ‘oh, that’s very interesting. Maybe I can make Hiccup (from How to Train Your Dragon) go to America?’

In a similar sort of way, if I’m trying to make you believe that my giant snow cats are real, I will do research into what a lynx might look like. And I’ll think ‘oh, well, it might have been a bit colder end of the bronze ages, beginning of the Iron Ages… so I’ll make my giant lynxes look like ordinary lynxes but much bigger. And those Canadian lynxes with soft fur like powder snow’.

So yes, I do a lot of research into real things to make you think that my imaginary things are true.

Maiden Castle in Dorset, one of the largest and most complex Iron Age hillforts in Europe
Maiden Castle in Dorset, one of the largest and most complex Iron Age hillforts in Europe

What inspired the Wizards of Once?

The Wizards of Once books were inspired really by Sussex, near to where my grandmother grew up. I spent a lot of time there as a child and there were some incredible woods, including one of the oldest new forests in Europe called Kingley Vale where some of the trees are over 2000 years old. It’s pretty spooky! There are lots of wonderful stories about how on certain nights the trees would run red with blood because of the Viking ghosts. So it was partly the wild woods that inspired Wizards of Once.

It was also the incredible Iron Age hill forts. All of Britain is covered in extraordinary history: thousands and thousands of years of people living in our incredible landscape. Trundle Hill, for example, and Maiden Castle are Iron Age hillforts. Subsequent generations had obviously seen these incredible fortifications and thought they couldn’t have been built by human beings, they must have been built by giants. So there were a lot of legends in that countryside about giants living there. And so I sort of mixed them all up together… the incredible wild woods, the stories about the giants and the fairies that were all made up by people who lived after the Iron Ages, and I put them all together into Wizards of Once.

It was those real places and historical places that sparked my imagination. I do think the extraordinary history that we have in these islands is part of why we have this very, very rich literary history.


For any aspiring authors out there, what is your favourite thing about being an author?

It’s so tricky because there’s so many things that I love about being an author!

I love being able to tell stories for a living. I mean, how wonderful is that? I particularly love it when I get children excited about reading because I love books and I want children to read books with as much excitement as I read them when I was a kid. That’s why I make my books look like sweets, not Brussel sprouts!

I make the story very exciting… I make them laugh, and sometimes I make them cry too. I try and make my books genuinely wonderful to read. My favourite bit is when somebody writes to me and says ‘oh my kid wasn’t reading before they read your books, and suddenly they are’. That’s the most wonderful moment.

Wizards of Once Halloween Quests

Explore our special historic places this Halloween on our brand-new adventure trails. Will you find the ingredients for the Spell to get rid of Witches and uncover the location of the Cup of Second Chances?

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