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Transcript from an interview with Chris d'Lacey

Below is an edited transcript from the Reading Rockets interview with Chris d'Lacey. The transcript is divided into the following clips:

A reluctant Jane Austen Club member

Well, initially lots of people will say to you did you read lots of books when you were a young boy? That kind of thing. Well, I have to hold my hands up and confess that I was not a great reader when I was a young boy.

I did read. But what I tended to read were things like the D.C. Comics, the Novel comics, Batman, Superman, Spiderman, all that kind of thing. I absolutely adored those sort of things. And I was introduced to reading really by a very good teacher at school.

One day, I got into trouble in an English lesson. I was just sitting in the lesson. And our teacher was reading to us from Shakespeare who, of course, is this very famous English author and all American kids at some point are going to get introduced to Shakespeare.

And I was just sitting in the class. And I was a little bored. And I was twiddling my thumbs around and around like this. And my teacher came up to me and closed his book, came around behind me. And he didn't hit me with the book. He sort of went bang above my head like that.

I jumped about thirty feet into the air, you know. And he said to me, he said, can't you do anything but twiddle your thumbs like that, boy? And I was very cheeky. I said, yes sir. I can twiddle my thumbs like that. I went the other way around, you know.

So, of course, I got a nice detention for that. And if you got a detention at school, you were always sent to the library for punishment. Librarians hate this story, of course. Because, you know, the library is not a place of punishment.

So he sent me off to the library. And there was a particular teacher on duty that day who was kind of half teacher, half librarian sort of thing. And his punishment was to make you read for an hour. And he sat me down. And he said, right. You're going to read for an hour. But you were not allowed to read the book of your choice. You had to read a book of his choice.

So he sat me down, and as I say, put a book in front of me. And we always talk about not judging a book by its cover. But he put a book down in front of me that had a picture of a woman in a lacey bonnet and a long flowing gown on and all that kind of thing. And I was fourteen years old. And I looked at this cover and I sort of went no way. I'm not going to read that.

He said, well, you're here for an hour. You read it and tell me what you think. And it was "Pride and Prejudice." So I read the first few pages of "Pride and Prejudice." And I actually got hooked onto the story. And he said to me if you like the story, why don't you take it out and read it?

And I said, if I take that out, I'll be beaten up by my mates. No one's going to like that sort of thing. But I did. I hid it in my bag. I took it. I read it. Came back. And he introduced me to many, many other things. And eventually actually onto fantasy.

I read the Tolkien books, of course. And lots of boys and girls will say to me what's your favorite book that you've ever read? And my favorite book is still "The Hobbit." And, of course, what's on the front cover of "The Hobbit"? A lovely big dragon guarding his treasure. So that was… that kind of got me into reading.

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Science, songwriting, and stories

Well, my everyday life now is I am, in fact, a full time author now. I gave up working full-time in another job about three years ago. I began my life … I did a science degree. I wanted to do music and English when I was at school as a higher educational subject.

And my teacher said to me, no. You're father took science. You should go into science. And they pushed me into science. And I ended up doing a science degree. So, of course, ultimately, I had a science job as well. And I worked as a technician, a kind of glorified technician, at the university in Lester. And I ran a microscope facility.

Which was a really very interesting job to do. Because lots and lots of people from all sort of different walks of life in the university would come in. So I would see clinical specimens. And I would see geological specimens, biological specimens, all kinds of things. Met all sorts of interesting people. Great job.

And I did that for twenty-eight years. And twenty-eight years, as you know, to do one job is more than enough usually. And for most of the time, I was sitting in a darkened room just looking down a microscope or sort of putting things together on the computer, all that kind of stuff.

And it was a good job. I liked the job. But I'd always had this creative streak in me. The music thing was always there with me, very big with me. I wrote many, many songs all the way through my twenties and thirties. I still do write songs. In fact, if you go onto my website, you can hear a couple of songs on the website.

And I kind of switched over from songwriting into having a go at story writing in my thirties. And I was at the university in those days. And what I used to do was write during my tea breaks. And we're going back to the days now when the kids sort of looking at this would not believe that we only have one computer in my whole department at the university. It was thought one computer would be enough, would serve as enough, you know. Of course, it's like one computer on every desk now.

And I used to go to a room. And I had two tea breaks in the day, half an hour tea breaks. And I would go to the computer room. And I would sit down. I'd always been fascinated by IT and that kind of stuff. I sit down and I tap away at my story. And I get up and leave it. And for a long time, all I ever did was write for an hour a day. And then, of course, I was able to get a computer at home. I never liked writing long hand. You know, I could never do that.

I then I got one at home. And then, of course, I would spend a couple of hours at home every night after I came home from work and that kind of thing. And so, for fourteen years, I actually balanced the two. I was published I think… I think I had about ten years to go at the university when I was published, maybe eight.

And I just sort of kept the two going side-by-side. Eventually, the books became more of… they began to take over. And as they became more and more successful, people were beginning to ask me to do school visits more and more and festivals and all that kind of thing. And I just couldn't keep the balance. And eventually took the plunge. And I sort of decided this is it. I'm going to have a go. And I left about three years ago.
Well, it's basically thank you, America. Because it was the American sales of the books that allowed me to really give up the day job and come and do lovely things like this.

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McCartney and Lennon, literary heroes

Well, people will often get onto a subject by asking me who my literary heroes were. And as I said earlier, I didn't really start reading until I was quite late, until I was fourteen. And although, I loved the books that I read, I wouldn't say anyone really introduced me to writing. There was no passion, no desire to write from that.

You know, if certain authors would say I've been reading… sorry, I've been writing ever since I could pick up a pen and that kind of thing. And I read everything in sight. And that wasn't me. Music was the thing for me. I had three ambitions when I was growing up. One was to be a soccer player. One was to be an astronaut, a fine American tradition. And the other thing I would have looked at being was a pop star, a rock star, something like that.

And the only problem to that ambition was I wasn't a great musician. And I certainly can't sing. And if you go onto the website and listen to the songs, you'll know. So I thought, I know. I'll do the next best thing. I will try to write songs. So I did.

And my literary heroes, if I had any, would have been a little pop group called the Beatles which I'm sure you've heard of. I must tell you a nice couple of little stories about the Beatles. I was down in Florida at the start of my tour.

And there was a little girl there. She was about nine years old. She's got a Beatles t shirt on. And I saw the t shirt. And she said do you like my t shirt? And I said, yeah, it's great. You know, the Beatles. And she said, yes. She said, I wore this to make you feel at home. Which was great.

And a boy stuck his hand out at the same time. And he said Mr. d'Lacey, can I ask you a question? And I said, yes, what's that? He said, are the Beatles your favorite band? And I said, well, probably yes over a period of time. And he said, I thought so. He said, all old people like the Beatles. So that was great.

And, of course, I grew up with John, Paul, George and Ringo and many, many bands from the '60s, that kind of thing. And songwriting was a great thing. And I found I could do it. I enjoyed it. I like the creative aspects of it. It was like computing in a sense. You know, I liked the creative aspects of using the computing language, languages, to create something much bigger.

And for a long time, of course, I just thought that was it. That was what I was going to do. If I can write songs and I can publish songs and I can do all that, I can be in bands and so on. But it never quite happened for me. That sort of pathway sort of never took off.

And I wouldn't say I got tired of writing songs. But I just wanted to try something different. I think creative people are always looking to sort of express their creativity in all sorts of ways. So writing is the next obvious thing to do. I switched over in my early thirties.

I found it very hard at first, really difficult at first. I was always scrunching up paper and throwing it across the room. And then when I got onto the computer, I found it a little easier. Because I could sort of go back and start editing things, you know, quickly.

And that's how it came about. So music, in a lyrical sense I think, led me into writing, crafting, stories. Because a song is… I mean, okay, there are many different types of songs. But if you can write, create a story, within, you know, that short space, rather like poetry, of course, then you're halfway to understanding how to structure a story. So that was that.

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A Christmas story, and then some

Yeah, strangely, there's quite a long, sort of complex evolutionary history to the dragon books. And it really begins with me right at the start of my writing career wanting to write a story for my wife for Christmas.

I had bought her a stuffed animal, a stuffed animal, a polar bear, beautiful thing. And I thought it would be nice and romantic to write a sweet little story about it for Christmas. So I knew that polar bears were big and white and they lived in the Arctic and that kind of thing. And they ate seals.

But I didn't know an awful lot about them. So I when to my local library and did the research. And the more I found out about them, the bigger my small Christmassy story grew. And I sort of realized they were sort of heavily involved in Inuit legend. And I found out about how they migrated across Hudson Bay and all that kind of thing.

And the short story that I intended to write for my wife actually turned into a 250,000 word novel. Now, that novel is still in my what we call… a writer calls their bottom drawer. It's never come out. Except for small inserts of it actually appear in "Ice Fire" in the second book.

So I think it's important for a writer to do research, especially if you're going to talk about a system, an ecological system, like the Arctic which is a very precise location to talk about. And you need to know your stuff. And I watched dozens of videos. And I read lots and lots of books. And I talked to people who'd been there. I'd never been myself. So that helped.

But with the dragons, it was easy. Because the dragons actually… because the big fire breathing monster type dragons don't really appear until later in the series, I didn't have to do too much research about them. And obviously, I could place them wherever I wanted to in the world.

And basically, I kind of tied in the locations for the dragons into places that I knew such as the Arctic. And strangely enough, places in England and Scotland and later moved, of course, to America for the American editions of the books.

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Creativity and imagination

I think there are many different pathways into creativity. And somebody once said to me… it's something I've never forgotten, they said there are as many different ways of writing as there are people out there doing it. Which is quite profound when you think about it.

But it's true. We all come at it in a different way. I could give a class or children a subject, you know, and say to them write about this. And they will all… or a scene, for instance. And they will all come at it from a different angle. That's what I find fascinating… fascinating about the creative process. It's just wide open.

Well, I think the thing about… what I always say about children, sorry, children, and children planning books particularly or planning stories. Of course, they're not really going to write a book at their age… is this. Is that children have phenomenal imaginations. They are just incredible. Again, I could give a child a scene and say what do you think happens next? And they will come up with ten or a dozen things I have never thought of.

And I really admire them for that. They're fantastic at it. What they don't have is the technical ability to structure their thoughts on paper. Now, we have that because… well, not all of us. But most of us have it. We have at a later stage in life, because you read a lot of books, you learn how stories are paced and structured, that kind of thing. They don't have the time to develop that.

So I do feel for teachers who are trying to teach them that kind of sense of structure. But, of course, conversely, what happens with us is that as we get into adulthood, the responsibilities that we face kind of drain some of that imaginative ability that they've got.

And so I think what you're trying to… you know, children's writers, for instance, will always say I'm really a big kid at heart. And I think that's what they're doing. They're trying to gap back into the imagination, you know, the imagination that they had when they were ten years old. And put themselves back into the eyes of a ten year old. And it works very well.

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Leave a little cliffhanger

Well, let me say something about planning books first of all. I actually told this story on the way here. I was talking to a group of children once in the library. And the children were asking me questions after I'd given a presentation.

And their teacher put his hand up and he said can I ask you a question? And I said, yes. He said can you tell these children how much time you spend planning a book? And I said to him do you want the truthful answer? Or do you want the diplomatic answer? And he said I want the truthful answer.

And I said I spend no time at all planning a book. And all the kids went yes. Because, of course, they'd been told that they have to plan their stories. And I sort of qualified that. But I turned to the kids and said, but you do need to plan them. You know, at your age, you have to do this and you should pay attention to what he says.

When you get to my age, if you've read enough books, then you will understand the structure of the story. The books are written very organically. I usually know the beginning of the story. And I have a vague idea of where I'm going to end up. It doesn't necessarily follow.

But the rest of it is a journey of adventure. And the way I write like that is because I think if I'm discovering it spontaneously as I go along and it's exciting me to write it down on the page, then hopefully it will just be just as exciting for anybody who's reading it off the page.

So it's a dangerous way to do it. Because, you know. What I try to do is leave a little cliffhanger at the end of every chapter. Many boys and girls write to me about the cliffhangers. And say, you know, I got into trouble the other night because I was reading the book in bed and my mom came up and told me to switch the light off. And half an hour later, I put the light back on again, you know. That kind of thing.

And I find that very flattering when children write to me and say that kind of thing. And I always write back and say, well, okay. You should do what your mom and dad say. But I like to think your parents would be happy that you're at least doing something like reading rather than playing on an Xbox.

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Hooking kids with books

I think it's a great thing to read aloud to children or adults actually. I still like being read to aloud. You know, has anybody ever had an audio book in the car? I would say long, long journeys, get an audio book of Harry Potter or whatever it's going to be, you know. Put it in the player and let the kids listen to it. It's not as good as reading, but it's almost as good. And that's one way of introducing them to it.

I once heard a lovely story actually from the Australian, the author Paul Jennings. And he was signing books. And a dad came up to him and said, Mr. Jennings, will you write something in the book that will make my son read it? And he said, sure. He said, Dear Simon, your dad will pay you $50 if you read this book, you know, kind of thing. Which I thought was great.

So bribery is very good, moms and dads of America. But I think generally what you need to do, it's like with any activity… I actually don't have children. So it's hard for me to go into it in some respect. Because I'm not authority on it. But I would have thought that anything you can do where you share the activity with the child has got to be a good thing.

I love the letters I get from moms and dads who sit down and actually read a book together with their child. And I even get them from moms and dads who have sat down with a twelve or a fourteen year old and say we really enjoyed the book together. I think that's a terrific thing to do.

And what's nice about writing a series is that when a child gets into a series and they identify with a character, they can then go and read three, four, five books, whatever. And then, of course, they'll drive me mad. They'll read "Dark Fire" or something in a day. And they actually go on the computer. When's the next one coming out?

So I would say to moms and dads read the book yourself. Have a look at it yourself. Find out what it is. You know, if it gets you interested, then there's a very good chance that it is going to get your child interested.

You know, there's no harm. If a child just wants to read books about certain subjects, ponies or whatever, there is no harm in a child reading endless books about ponies. Because at least they're reading and that makes a difference. And they will come to it in their own time just like I did.

And I like to think that everybody will come to reading at some stage in their life. A book is a window to the world. And we can all learn so much from books.

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Squirrels and dragons

I write about dragons purely from a serendipitous point of view. I had never ever intended to write a fantasy series at all. And my first book about dragons, "The Fire Within" began about ten years ago and started its life as a squirrel rescue story.

I was basically asked to write an animal rescue story because I'd written a book about pigeons which had done quite well for me, been short listed for a big prize called the Carnegie medal. And I didn't win the Carnegie, but I came highly commended.

And the first thing a publisher will say to you, of course, is if you write a successful book on a particular subject, they'll always say to you write us another one exactly like it. So I did. I wrote it a book about squirrels. And because I've always liked squirrels.

And when the book went to my publisher, my editor liked the story very much. He thought it was very charming and very English and a very sweet story. But there was one particular character in the story. The mom in the book called Mrs. Pennykettle. And she said, Chris, what does Mrs. Pennykettle do for a job?

And I said, oh, I don't know. I haven't thought about that. And she said maybe you could give Mrs. Pennykettle a job. So a couple of days later, I was still wondering what job Mrs. Pennykettle could do when I went to a craft fair in Gloucester, in England, where I live. And I met a lady who makes clay dragons.

And I put the clay dragons into the story thinking this nice, quirky sort of job would be interesting in the book. And my editor picked up on it. And she liked it. And she said let's turn it into a dragon book rather than a squirrel book. And that's how the first book came about. So, as simple as that.

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Dragons sweet and scary

Well, I've written over thirty books now. But, of course, the books I'm best known for are the series of novels called "The Last Dragon Chronicles." I do write for younger readers as well. But unfortunately, many of the books I have written for the younger age group are no longer available or probably not available in the USA.

But there is a series of books called "The Dragons of Wayward Crescents" which is actually just started coming online. I was asked to write a prequel to the first of the dragon novels. Because if you read the fire within which is the first book in the chronicle series, there is quite a jump in reading ability from the fire within up to "Ice Fire." And that is largely because of the way "The Fire Within" evolved and changed and stuff. And I then went onto write pure fantasy after that kind of thing.

So I decided to try and write something before "The Fire Within" that would work as a prequel at the same kind of reading level as the fire within. But I couldn't get a prequel to work at all. And then I had the bright idea of actually writing a series about individual dragons.

So the lady who makes the dragons in the book, Mrs. Pennykettle, we have a story about the various dragons that she makes and why she makes them. And these were beautiful little books, illustrated books as well. And the idea is that collectively if I do the twelve or sixteen that I want to do, they will form a prequel to "The Fire Within."

And they will be… they will be a little thread running through them that will take you and kind of leap over into "The Fire Within." I like those books. Because you know exactly what you're getting with "The Dragons of Wayward Crescent." Basically, the stories are roughly the same in format and structure.

But, of course, the different dragon characters lend something different to each story. So they're very sweet, really aimed at sort of, oh, I Don't know, seven to nine, ten year olds. But the interesting thing is that the readers who'd gone onto read the dragon novels also look back at the young books.

Because some of the dragons that appear in the young series also appear in the novels. So there is a kind of switchover. And the novels, I guess, I would say that they were sort of ten plus upwards. But I get a lot of children, sort of eight, nine year olds, reading "The Fire Within" and then going on and really having no trouble with the rest of the series.

Even though the chronicles get deeper and darker as they go along. I don't know. I think they're nice adventure stories. They're very intriguing. Somebody said to me why do you… is there any great influence behind the novels as a whole?

And the one influential thing is I used to love a TV series called "The X Files" which I'm sure many, many Americans would know about. And in the X Files, you get an awful lot of intrigue, but you don't get many answers.

And that's kind of the way the dragon novels are framed. They're very intriguing. And it drives the kids mad because they say to me, yeah. But what does this mean? I love the books. But what does this mean kind of thing.

But they will always go on and read them. So those are there to test your mind, to stretch the minds of the children who read them I think. Whereas, "The Dragons of Wayward Crescent" are very much there just to sort of say these are sweet books that you can read with your eight year old or your eight year old can read alone kind of thing.

So they're just very standard, but lovely books. Whereas, the dragon novels are really there to really blow your mind apart in some respects.

Well, it's like the truth is out there somewhere kind of thing. The dragons are out there somewhere.

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The other Gregory Peck

My strange relationship with pigeons. "Fly Cherokee Fly" is a book that really led me into writing about dragons. And when I talk about this in schools, I usually use a PowerPoint presentation. And I say to the children… I put a slide that says what inspired me to write about dragons. And they will all put their hands up and all have their various answers. And then, of course, I put up a picture of a pigeon.

And they'll go what? What are you talking about? Basically, I was walking across my local park one day. And I saw a pigeon flitting about in the bushes, having trouble taking off. Now, I'm very soft hearted. And I can't bear to see an animal in distress.

So I went across to this pigeon, picked it up and held it in my hands. And it was very distressed and quite filthy. It had been in all sorts of muddy puddles and things. And it had broken a wing. So I took it to a veterinary surgeon across the road and asked if there was anything they could for it.

And the veterinary surgeon looked at it and shook his head. And he said, oh, that's going to die within two days. The kindest thing you can do is put it back in the park. Leave it to die. Let nature take its course kind of thing.

So I went to put it back. And I got back to the place where I picked the bird up. And I thought to myself I can't do this. So I took it home with it instead. And I actually nursed it back to health. I kept it for three months in the shed at the bottom of my garden.

And one day, I went into feed this pigeon and he was up in the rafters of the shed. He had started to fly again. So I went into the house and I said to my wife, Jay. I said, Jay, you won't believe this. We called him Gregory Peck by the way. You should know this. Sorry, America.

So I said, you won't believe this. And Greg has started to fly again. So she said, great. Well, we'll take him back to the park. We'll let him go where we found him.

So we took him back up the road the next day about a mile away from the house, threw him up into trees. Bye, Greg. Have a nice life kind of thing. He landed on a branch of the tree. And we watched him turn around and cook at some of the pigeons kind of thing.

We walked back home, got into the house. And Jay said to me, would you like a cup of tea? And I said, yes. And she went into the kitchen. She said, Chris, come here a minute. What? She pointed through the kitchen window like this. She said, Greg's just landed on the shed roof.

So I thought, oh right. I'm going to have to take him a little bit further. So the next day, I put him in a shoebox on the passenger seat of my car. Sorry, it's this way for you isn't it? Passenger seat of my car. Drove about fifty miles up the road with him, let him go in the countryside, watched him for a couple of minutes pecking around with some of the pigeons. Got back into the car, drove back home.

By the time I got home, he was back on the shed roof. So we knew we weren't going to be able to let him go. So we ended up keeping him. And I wrote a story about him. And I thought this is a nice idea, a nice idea for a story. Because this is what authors do basically. We take experiences from our lives and we pop them into books.

So I just transposed myself into a twelve year old boy who finds this pigeon. And the only thing I changed about it is that the pigeon turned out to be a racing pigeon and the boy tries to find out who the racing pigeon belongs to. And it gets him into all sorts of trouble at school and stuff with a bully.

And the book was very well received. You know, people liked it very much. It was short listed for a big prize called the Carnegie medal which is kind of the equivalent of your Newberry medal I think. And although I didn't win, it was highly commended. And that was really… it was because of that my profile zoomed, you know, because of that.

And that was really what got me into writing about the dragon books after that. Because I went on… I was allowed to go on and write other novels about, you know, other animals and develop that sort of writing path.

The pigeon. Now, the veterinary surgeon had told me this bird would die in two days. We kept him for fourteen years. Fourteen years. I'm not joking. And actually, I did a silly thing. I built a box on the back wall of the house. I was being totally gregarious. So, I sort of put this box on the back wall of the house.

And he… I put the pigeon in the box. He was free to fly away and come back as much as he liked. And every day, I would climb up a little ladder and feed him. He flew away and came back for a couple of weeks. And one day, he came back with a girlfriend, you know.

And, of course, you get a girl pigeon and a boy pigeon together, what do you get? Pigeons. So we ended up with twenty-two pigeons in my shed. We turned the shed into a pigeon loft. And we kept them, as I say, for a long… he lived fourteen years. We had pigeons for about twenty years.

And it was terrific actually. I got to know many, many people who kept them

"Reading should not be presented to children as a chore or duty. It should be offered to them as a precious gift." — Kate DiCamillo