According to Amazon UK, on the 27th September 2021, ‘The Fire Within’ was 20 years old. For those of you who don’t know the book, ‘The Fire Within’ is the first in my children’s series ‘The Last Dragon Chronicles’. It is, without doubt, my best-loved book and the one I’ll always be remembered for. In literary terms it’s not the best story I’ve written, but it’s probably the most inspirational. And because of that it’s done rather well for itself. I was once told that if a children’s book sells 30,000 copies in the UK it’s considered a bestseller. ‘The Fire Within’ has sold over a million copies worldwide.
I felt I couldn’t let such a significant anniversary go by without saying a few words about the book and what it’s meant to me. So here’s a little bit of history, unashamedly written for the dragon devotee, but hopefully of interest to any browsing parties.
Anyone who comes to the book for the first time could be forgiven for thinking it’s a book about squirrels, because they feature so prominently in the narrative. All I can say is, they should stick with the series and read on.
I’ve always loved squirrels, greys and reds. The gardeners among you will be gnashing your teeth reading this, but no one can deny that squirrels are fun to watch. I first happened across them when I was an unemployed ex-student, renting a room in a house in Bromley, Kent. One autumn morning I was sitting on a wall in the Churchill Library Gardens in the centre of the town, when a tame grey squirrel tried to encourage me to part with some of my cheese and pickle sandwich. I gave it a corner of the crust, which it promptly devoured. It wasn’t quite as impressed with the cheese and pickle (it made it sneeze), but it hung around till I’d gone, before moving on to its next free lunch. It was a charming encounter, and though I didn’t know it then, it would turn out to be a momentous one.
I left the gardens and walked home as I always did, but for some reason took a slightly different route. On the way I passed an oak tree that had shed dozens of acorns into the road. I don’t quite know what motivated me to do it, but the next morning I came back to the tree with two brown paper bags and filled them with acorns, including any that had been broken up by car tyres. Then I went back to the Library Gardens.
You can probably imagine that once word got around that there was some guy dishing out free acorns, I was very well received by the squirrel population of Bromley. I counted seventeen around me before the bags were empty. They were on my knees and shoulders, and one even hopped into a pocket of my greatcoat. It was an amazing experience. One I would never forget.
So now we scoot forward a few years. I’ve met my wife, Jay, and we’re living in our first house in Leicester. It’s coming up to Christmas and I’m trying to think of a present for her. Something interesting but cheap (we were struggling to make ends meet back then). Apropos of nothing, I decided I would write her a story. I’d never done it before, though I had written lots of songs. How difficult could a story be? (The writers among you, feel free to guffaw.) Jay loved two things: reading and cuddly toys. So it seemed sensible to write a story about her favourite polar bear, Boley. So I did a little research about polar bears and the Arctic – but it gave me a problem. I uncovered so many interesting facts about the bears that shortly after I’d started the story it soon became clear I was writing a saga, not the short read I’d intended. There was no way it was going to be ready for Christmas.
So I had to put a hold on the Arctic manuscript. But the idea of writing a story as a present was just too good to abandon, and frankly I had nothing better up my sleeve. I just needed another subject. That was when I thought, ‘I know, I’ll write about my encounter at the Library Gardens, but I’ll turn it around. Instead of taking the acorns to the gardens, I’ll have my hero steal them from under an oak tree there and take them home to use as bait in a trap to catch an injured squirrel he’s trying to protect from an angry crow. Brilliant. What a plot!’ As these things go, it was a half-decent idea. I was working at Leicester University by then and had seen a young squirrel attacked by a crow in the graveyard adjacent to my office, so all the key elements of my story were in place.
I began THE ADVENTURES OF SNIGGER THE SQUIRREL, in earnest, towards the end of October that year. Just like the polar bear story, it began to grow. I’d realised by now that you don’t tell a story where it’s going, it tells you. But this time I knew roughly what was going to happen. I just needed enough time to get it out of my head. But how do you write something in your spare time and keep it a secret when your partner is always on the premises? Answer: you get up at 5:30am while she’s still asleep, go into work for two hours, use the ONE COMPUTER in the department, hammer out as many words as you can, then go home, make her a cup of tea and wake her as if nothing has happened – then set off for work as usual. I got away with this day after day because Jay was suffering from ME when I met her and she slept like the proverbial log. Every cloud…?
The story was a great success. I’d finished it in time to have it bound and printed in the University’s reprographic department and Jay loved it. I’d even done what kids do with their stories and designed my own cover. Note the snow. It’s not fake.
The photograph was taken in the aforementioned graveyard, which was knee-deep in snow, in December. I even left the poor toy squirrel in the tree by mistake and had to tramp back to rescue him. I’m nothing if not dedicated.
Writing ‘Snigger’ was a lovely, romantic thing to do and my dalliance with writing could have ended there, but I’d caught the bug by now and discovered a whole new creative hobby, and it was just a hobby – until the day I joined a writers’ club in Leicester. Their aim was to get their members published. With the help and encouragement of the club I managed to get a few short stories (for adults) into small press magazines, and I even won a few pennies in various competitions. But children’s writing was not on the agenda, not until the day a club member showed me a competition leaflet to write a story for children between the ages of 7 and 11. Initially, I turned my nose up, until I noticed that the first prize was £2,500…
I wrote a story – about a polar bear who travels from the Arctic to explain the concept of global warming to a young boy. It didn’t win the competition. It didn’t even make the anthology that accompanied the competition. But I read it at the club one night and people liked it. Send it to a publisher, they said. So I did. I sent it to a company called Heinemann, who published a well-known series called Banana Books. To my astonishment, a few weeks later I received a phone call from a delightfully plummy-voiced editor who told me she wanted to include it in the next run of Bananas. They could only pay me £1500 for it, she said. Was that all right? I nearly fell off my chair.
That was my entry into children’s fiction, but it would still be another seven years before the dragons arrived. In the meantime, I was exploring different areas of children’s writing and still trying to wrap my head around the idea that I was a published author. On the strength of the Banana Book contract, I acquired an agent. I have to say it wasn’t the happiest of relationships, but the one good thing she said to me before we parted company was, ‘If you want to get ahead, write a novel.’ So I did. I wrote on a subject I knew something about: pigeons.
Now you might be thinking, ‘What has any of this got to do with the dragon books?’ Well, hang on in there, the pigeon stuff is important. The novel I wrote was called ‘Fly, Cherokee, Fly’. It was loosely based on the true story of me finding an injured pigeon and nurturing it back to health. It took three months to write and was one of those stories that ‘fell out of the sky’ (no pun intended). My new agent thought it was fantastic. There was only one publisher she wanted to send it to: Transworld. They snapped it up and invited me to London to meet their editorial team. And it was there, in the foyer of Transworld, that I was greeted by a young employee who would one day become the editor of ‘The Fire Within’, the woman who would encourage me to write about dragons.
Her name was Megan. She was excited to meet me, because she had been the one to champion ‘Cherokee’ to the rest of the Transworld editorial team. But she was sad, too, for it turned out she was leaving Transworld to move to another company, Orchard, and would therefore have to leave ‘Cherokee’ behind. The editorial meeting went well. Afterwards, I walked to Ealing tube station with Megan and happened to say, ‘Perhaps I could send you something when you start work at Orchard?’ We both thought that would be great, but she pointed out that if ‘Cherokee’ did well I’d probably be under contract to Transworld for some time…
‘Cherokee’ did do well. It was shortlisted for the Carnegie Medal that year, eventually being highly commended behind David Almond’s ‘Skellig’. I could write many things about the Carnegie experience, but the story that’s relevant to ‘The Fire Within’ happened in the discussion I had with my Transworld editor and one of the directors of the company in the back of a black cab after the ceremony. It went something like this: Director, “What else has he got?” Editor, “Well, he’s got this rather lovely idea about Peter Pan.” Director, “Peter Pan?” Editor, “Yes.” Director, “Okay, sign it up. What else?” Editor, “We talked about a football story, I think.” Director, “Football. Always popular. Sign it up.” Me, “Erm, ‘he’ is in the cab, remember…” Director, taking little notice, “Anything else?” Me, jumping in, “I’ve got this story about squirrels.” Director, “What?” Editor, “Squirrels. They talk.” Director, confused, “The squirrels talk?” Me, “There’s a bit more to it than that.” Editor, “I’m not sure talking squirrels is the right thing for us. Didn’t you mention doing a sequel to ‘Cherokee’?” Me, “Possibly.” Director, “I like the sound of that. Sign it up.”
In a nutshell (ha, ha) this meant not only had I satisfied my contractual obligations to Transworld (I would go on to write several books for them), they had also turned down my beloved squirrels. So I decided to send the story to Megan, at Orchard. Before I did, I made some significant changes. In the original draft, I was the central protagonist and I had direct conversations with the squirrels! Bearing in mind my Transworld editor’s reservations about anthropomorphism, I had a rethink. I shifted the story into the third person and introduced some new characters. ‘I’ became David, a young student who moves into a house, as a tenant, with a woman called Elizabeth Pennykettle and her young daughter, Lucy. Lucy, I decided, would be passionate about squirrels and would be attempting to rescue an injured one when David joins the household. He would get roped in to help. I liked this idea. It had legs. Not only did it introduce a child into the story, it echoed my various interactions with the squirrels. I had high hopes for it.
Megan liked it – or rather, liked the idea of it. She didn’t want to acquire it straight away. Instead, she sent it back for a rewrite along with lots of general suggestions. One of those suggestions would prove to be a major turning point for the story. She said, “What does the mum do for a living, Chris? She doesn’t appear to have a job. Maybe she could work from home or something…?”
That weekend, I was still musing about what Liz Pennykettle might do, when Jay and I decided to visit a craft fayre in Leicestershire. I’d narrowed Liz down to artist or music teacher by then, but neither occupation seemed quite right for her Then the universe once again performed its mysterious dance. At the craft fayre, we happened across a woman called Val, sitting behind a potter’s wheel. She was making sculptures. From clay. Primarily, dragons.
They were beautiful, Val’s dragons. They weren’t your typical slant-eyed, glittery-winged, fire-breathing monsters. They were happy creatures. They had big feet, huge eyes, almost dinosaur-like scales and smiley faces. They were glazed in shades of green and turquoise that glinted in the autumn sunlight. Jay decided she had to have one. But we’d come out for something to do, not something to buy. Neither of us had much money on us. Val took pity. She pointed us towards the discounted dragons in ‘Casualty Corner’. Sitting there was a dragon with a small chip off one foot, though the ‘injury’ was barely noticeable. He had his ‘paws’ clamped together as if he was praying for us to take him home. He cost me a fiver, the best fiver I’ve ever spent in my entire life.
On the drive home I had a lightbulb moment. What if the mum in my squirrel story was a potter who made dragons and sold them at the local market? I mentioned it to Jay. Yes, she said. Perfect. And there it was, as simple as that. Liz Pennykettle would be a dragon maker.
I wrote it into the story. All around the house at 42 Wayward Crescent, there would be dragons – on bookshelves, windowsills, the fridge, the loo cistern. You couldn’t miss them. And Megan didn’t. A few days after the redraft of ‘Snigger’ had been sent, she rang me, practically breathless with excitement. “These dragons,” she said, “are they real?” Me, “What?” Megan, “Can they, you know, come to life?” Me, “Are you joking…?” The dragons, I said, were nothing more than ornaments. Come to life? Don’t be daft!
Megan was not daft, nor was she about to be moved. “I like these dragons,” she said. “I think they should come to life and do…funny things.” Me, “WHAT?!” Megan, “In fact, I think you should make it more about the dragons than the squirrels.” Me, shell-shocked, “But that’s a completely different story. That’s…a fantasy story. I don’t write fantasy.” Megan, “You do now. In fact, why don’t you drop the squirrels altogether and just stick with the dragons?” Me, vigorously shaking my head, “I can’t do that. No way. I’ve spent years with those squirrels. I can’t abandon them now!” Megan, “Okay, I’ll make you a deal: if you can find a clever way to keep the squirrels in, I’ll let you run with it. I’ll give you three months to change it. Bye.”
I could have folded tamely at this point. The idea of writing a fantasy novel about dragons did not appeal to me in the slightest. I was firmly rooted in domestic drama. Why would I want to step outside my comfort zone? Truth be told, I was scared. I really wasn’t sure I’d be able to write fantasy. But Jay was full of confidence. She was keen to see the story evolve in that direction and wholeheartedly encouraged it. From that moment on, we began to work together on the stories. Indeed, many of the best ideas would come from Jay as the series later developed, and she would become its guiding light. For now, I knew I would be in fairly safe territory if I could manage to keep the Wayward Crescent set-up intact. The question was: how?
Yet again, the planets realigned. This time in a deeply mysterious way. As I mused on the idea of how to maintain the squirrel/dragon/human balance an idea came to me, an idea that mirrored the very beginning of my writing path. As well as having David help Lucy rescue her injured squirrel, why not have him write the background story of how the injury occurred, from the squirrels’ point of view, and present it to Lucy as a birthday present? In other words, write a story within a story. Best of all, what if when David got stuck with his writing, one of Liz’s dragons helped him out…?
Enter everyone’s favourite dragon: Gadzooks. I had his name in my head even before I saw him wielding his famous notepad and pencil. Within days I’d worked out how he would come into the story (a housewarming gift for David, ho ho) and how he would write single, inspirational words on his pad whenever David hit a writing block. Not only that, he would appear to write things contemporaneously as the actual events of the squirrel drama unfolded. But was this life imitating art, or art imitating life? That was a paradox I would come to explore over and over again throughout the series. Just how powerful was Gadzooks? Was he simply a dragon who could do ‘funny things’? Or was he part of David’s consciousness, made manifest in material form…? This, I quickly realised, was going to be a dragon story unlike any other.
I completed the manuscript within the three months and Megan acquired it for Orchard Books. Now it was a question of what to put on the cover – and what to call the book. It clearly couldn’t be THE ADVENTURES OF SNIGGER THE SQUIRREL , or even SNIGGER AND THE NUTBEAST, the title of the story David wrote for Lucy. We needed something that better described the book as a whole. The editorial team at Orchard were floundering. They wanted the word ‘dragon’ in the title. I’d rather not repeat some of the naff suggestions I heard coming out of their London office. Besides, I already knew what to call the book. I’d put it on the title page when I’d sent the manuscript in. “But why THE FIRE WITHIN?” Megan asked me on the phone when I’d refused every other suggestion they’d thrown at me. I said, “Because it’s not a book about dragons. And it’s not a book about squirrels. It’s a book about creativity and where ideas come from.” That’s a line I’ve rolled out at every single talk I’ve ever done since then. I’ve never gone as far as saying, ‘It’s a book about Gadzooks’. But it is. Thankfully, Megan caved in and let me keep the title. And once we’d settled on that, we were also able to resolve the cover issues…
People often ask who designs the covers of books, and does the author have any say in it? The answer to the second half of that sentence is an emphatic ‘no’. The author will usually be asked what they’d like to see on the cover, but it’s a redundant query because it rarely matches up with the way the design team are thinking, and they are the ones who win out. I’ve yet to sign a contract that doesn’t hand full control of book design over to the publisher. The author, however, has every right to moan about the cover roughs they’re presented with. And, boy, did I exercise that right over this book. They simply couldn’t find anything that worked for me. I’ve displayed the worst example here. I was beginning to despair, until one day Megan rang and said they had asked an artist they liked, a young man called Angelo Rinaldi, to rustle up a picture of a dragon crying. This sounded interesting. One of the best ideas I’d come up with when writing the book was the notion that when a dragon dies it cries a single tear, and its life-force, its ‘fire’, is captured within the teardrop. (Tangentially, this is something I really like when writing about creatures that supposedly don’t exist: you can invent your own mythology about them and no one can question it.) Angelo’s original brief was to draw the head of the dragon. But to get the detail of the teardrop better, he decided to work more closely on the eye itself. I was stunned when I saw the result. It was so good we went on to repeat it for the next six books – though we nearly didn’t. When I came to write the second book ‘Icefire’ and we were going through the usual cover angst, I said, “Why don’t we do the eye thing again in a different colour and add some tiny detail into the eye as if the dragon is looking at it? An icescape, for instance?” They said no, and came up with something suitably unappealing (that I moaned at length about). A couple of weeks went by and I received a message from Orchard. It said, ‘We’ve had a great idea! We’re going to do the eye thing again but just change the colour…’ Whomsoever you believe, the designs of the ‘Fire’ series, as it was originally known, were arguably some of the most iconic children’s book covers of the start of the 21st century. They have been much commented on and are often the first thing remembered by people who recall reading the books when they were younger.
And so, on September 27th 2001, THE FIRE WITHIN came into the world. It wasn’t an instant success, certainly not in the way that Cherokee had been. It made the Carnegie longlist and won a couple of small provincial awards, but never received the literary praise that the pigeon book had. But it sold well enough for me to dare to ask Megan if I might write a sequel. We were at a Christmas party in Orchard’s basement at the time and she answered rather gaily, a glass of something bubbly in her hand, “Yes, we’d love it if you wrote a sequel! Do two, if you like.” Well, it would have been impolite not to, wouldn’t it…?
It’s probably fair to say that ‘The Fire Within’ really only came to prominence once the next two books were out. By then, my US publishers, Scholastic, had become involved and everything was about to go boom. I remember the day my agent phoned to tell me that Scholastic US had bought the rights to the books. “Is that good?” I asked. “Is that good?” she repeated incredulously. “Where are you, I can hardly hear you?” I said, “I’m standing outside a music shop in Birmingham looking at a guitar I can’t afford.” She laughed and said, “You can now…”
The first three books were soon on the New York Times’ bestseller lists – and the Americans wanted more. I was thrilled. I had a whole new presence overseas and a lovely transatlantic editor. Among the many good things she did was to get me to think up a better series title. I came up with THE LAST DRAGON CHRONICLES, which seemed to suit everyone on both sides of the ocean.
There is so much more I could say about the series, but I’ll finish off with just a few more lines about ‘The Fire Within’ itself. Is it my favourite of the series? No, probably not. It’s a delightful, charming book, but if I have to think in terms of what makes a book a favourite, I’d have to include how good the plot is and how well I think it was written; there are others in the seven that fulfil those criteria better. But it’s a book that’s very dear to me and its importance should never be underestimated. Compared to the others in the series, it may seem twee and slightly out of context with the deeper and sometimes darker themes I explored from ‘Icefire’ onwards, but without it, without the creation of Gadzooks, I don’t think the series could have worked. ‘The Fire Within’ made me think seriously about the nature of creativity and the concept of reality itself. Adults who read it as children often write to me now expressing the same sort of feedback. It’s a remarkable little book. It really is. It makes people smile. It makes them cry. It makes them remember where they were when Conker the squirrel died (spoiler alert!). Above all, it makes them think. In that sense, I doubt I will write anything better. And will it ever be made into a film? I don’t know! Stop asking! (But the rights are available.) As usual, I’ll let Gadzooks have the last word as he always seems to know. “What do you think, Zookie? Will you ever make it to the big screen…?”