Q&A with author Andy Shepherd

  1. Your latest book is The Ultimate Guide to Growing Dragons, please can you tell us a little bit about it? 

The book is a companion to the other five titles in the series. I had the idea of doing a ‘non-fiction’ style guide, bringing together everything Tomas has learned along the way. But what I really love writing is the relationships, especially between Tomas and Grandad and Lolli, and having those little heart moments in there. So, I quickly realised I wanted to do more than just compile what he already knew. With the superhero squad scattered around the world from Mexico to China to Spain, I soon found there was lots of story left to explore and that was really fun to write.

So, in this book, messages ping back and forth as the superhero squad share their adventures and continue to help each other. And it’s just as well they do with a fiery new visitor in the garden to deal with and a quest to find the remaining dragon-fruit tree in Mexico. Along with Tomas, we find out about water dragons in China, Quetzalcoatl in Mexico, Draco the star dragon and we see Tomas and his friends using what they learn about geoglyphs to discover a huge forest dragon cutting through the trees.

2. Can you describe this story using only three words? 

Dragontastic! Adventure. Friendship.

3. Can you recommend any other books that are similar? 

For dragon lovers I’d recommend Ed Clarke’s The Secret Dragon and its sequel. If readers like the conversational tone of the book, I’d recommend the sparky voice of Loki by Louie Stowell.

4. What inspired you to start writing?

When I was young it was a combination of being surrounded by and immersed in stories whether it was reading or listening to them or watching TV & films. And then a healthy dose of boredom! Living in a small place where not a lot happened, I liked the way I could escape into my imagination and create magic out of thin air – which is what it often feels like when you create anything whether it’s a story, a painting or a piece of music. I found it really freeing. I think if you can get into the habit of looking at the world with wonder and imagination you just end up seeing things through that lens and the trick is to nurture that and practise it. The thing that inspired me to get back to writing those stories down after so long was definitely my children.

5. How long have you been writing?

I started writing properly in about 2010. I finished my first middle grade story in 2012 and met my agent at the SCBWI Agents’ Party in 2013. She read and loved that story and signed me, but unfortunately after a near miss we didn’t find a home for that one. It was deemed ‘too quiet’. I hope one day it’ll find its place though as it’s an idea I keep returning to. After that near miss, I wrote another book just for my boys, to fall back in love with writing. But it took another three years to get my publishing deal.

Like many authors the road to publication has been a story in itself. If anyone would like to read more about it, I wrote a post called ‘8 Years in the Making’ to show just how long winded it was: https://www.andyshepherdwriter.co.uk/post/8-years-in-the-making

6. Which authors do you most admire and why?

There are so many! And for lots of different reasons. I love David Almond for the sheer originality of his work, his language and the characters he creates that stay with you like no others. I love Katherine Rundell who has the most glorious turns of phrase and an incredible ability to conjure a character with the tiniest of descriptions. Other writers who I have to read everything they write include: Kiran Millwood Hargrave, Lucy Strange, Anne-Marie Howell and Sophie Anderson. They all write wonderfully rich, satisfying stories. And for humour it’s Sam Copeland and Louis Stowell. But really I could be here all day!  

7. What were your favourite books growing up?

I love and still reread ‘Bottersnikes and Gumbles’ by S A Wakefield and illustrated by Desmond Digby. It’s funny, charming and original. The book I remember being read in school and that completely captivated me was ‘I Am David’ by Ann Holm. I think that book changed how I felt about stories. I also absolutely loved the ‘The Silver Sword’ by Ian Serraillier. I generally liked stories set in the real world, or where just one thing was a little different or magical, like Mrs Pepperpot and Stig of the Dump. I think that’s maybe why I write the kinds of stories I do where there’s a little sprinkling of magic on the everyday world.

8. What advice would you give to those who want to become published writers?

Start writing and don’t stop. I stopped for a really long time out of fear. And then I thought about the example I wanted to set for my boys and decided I’d rather try and fail than not try – and actually if I was writing then I wasn’t failing anyway because I was doing what I loved to do. One thing writing has definitely given me is more resilience. I’d also say write the story that excites you. It’s important to know the market but don’t look too hard at trends because everything in publishing takes so long by the time you get there it might have moved on.

9. What do you think is the most difficult part of your writing process?

All of it! Seriously, I worry that I won’t have any more ideas, I worry that I won’t be able to get the idea onto the page if I do, I worry that I won’t be able to edit it, I worry that no one will read it or like it if it finally makes its way out into the world. I don’t think I find any of it easy!  Maybe once I get started on a first draft and in the thick of it and I know where I’m heading then I forget myself enough to get into the flow and that is the most enjoyable bit. But even then it’s sprinkled with doubts and days where I want to throw it in the bin.  I remember I was on a writing course and in response to someone saying it’s just too hard, the person coaching us said: ‘Just stop doing it then.’  I sometimes remind myself that I could just stop. But then I have a few days or a week away from it and I can’t imagine doing anything else.

10. You have written many stories in the dragon series but which is your personal favourite and why?

Too hard! The first book is special because that’s where it all started and is the first book I had published. But I loved writing the ending of the third book, ‘The Boy Who Flew With Dragons’ set in the botanic garden in Cambridge, which is a place I love visiting.

And I really enjoyed bringing all the story threads together in the fifth book ‘The Boy Who Sang With Dragons’, in what I thought was the final book.

Right now, I would choose ‘The Ultimate Guide To Growing Dragons’ because it was an unexpected surprise and I’m really proud that I took it in the direction that I did. (see the next question!)

11. What risks have you taken with your writing that have paid off?

When I wrote ‘The Boy Who Grew Dragons’ I wrote the story I wanted to write. It was longer than I’d seen suggested for that age group, I didn’t hold back on the richness of the language and as the books have developed I’ve aimed to make the plots rich too.

The first publisher who was interested in the story wanted me to try rewriting it for a much younger audience and a much lower word count. I did try, but it ended up feeling like I lost all the things I loved about the story and Tomas’ voice. It felt risky to walk away from what felt like my first proper interest. But I’m so glad I did because I couldn’t have written the books I have under that brief. When I met the team at Piccadilly Press and they loved the voice and wanted me to develop the story over three books I was thrilled. I’m very glad I trusted my instinct and waited for the right home.

Similarly, with ‘The Ultimate Guide’, I followed Tomas’ voice and what I loved about the stories and have ended up writing a mix of story and guide. I was quite nervous about how that would work, which is why I’m so delighted to have had so many positive responses from teachers. They’ve seized on the potential for using it as a tool for showing a variety of writing styles.

12. If you could spend the day with another author who would you choose and why?

Douglas Adams. I wrote to him when I was fifteen and he sent the loveliest letter back and something in that exchange made me feel like a proper writer. I think he was light years ahead of his time with the ideas he came up with and brilliantly funny. I wish I could have met him.

13. How does it feel being a published author knowing readers are really enjoying your stories?

In a nutshell amazing!. I spend so much time on my own in my little bubble writing and editing that when I get message from readers, it still feels slightly surreal. Especially as the books have been translated into twenty-four languages now and so they come from all over the world. It’s wonderful and I definitely don’t take it for granted.

14. Are there going to be any more stories in The Boy Who Grew Dragons series?

I don’t have plans for more in the series at the moment, but then I thought it was all over with the fifth book ‘The Boy Who Sang With Dragons’, so, I’ll never say never! Even if there aren’t any in the current format there are definitely more adventures to come for the dragons.

Just this summer I had the opportunity to write the lyrics to some Dragon Songs for a project with the Britten Pears Foundation. There are twelve songs based on the books, with lyrics by me and music composed by the wonderful composer Joanna Lee. (You can find out more about the songs and access all the free resources to use them and sing them at  https://www.fridayafternoonsmusic.co.uk/songs)

And the books are under option with Adastra Creative so hopefully one day the dragons will fly onto screens too!

15. Are you writing anything else at the moment? If so, are you able to give us any clues?

I am! And sadly I can’t. However I can say that it is for the same age group (7-9) and it still has that idea of finding magic right on your doorstep at its heart. I’ve had lots of fun researching this one and I can’t wait to talk about it more!

I want to say a huge thank you to Andy for taking the time answer my questions and feature on my blog.

You can buy/pre-order all of Andy’s books from all booksellers, online and of course using any independent local bookshop.

You can follow Andy on Twitter: @andyjshepherd and on Instagram: andyshepherdwriter

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