If ever there was a series that defines me, it’s this one. Nearly all of the fan mail I’ve ever received has been about these books. To this day, I can’t quite explain what it is about them that captivates people so much. All I can say is they are well-loved and have sold millions of copies. So who am I to complain?
Strangely, book one, The Fire Within was never intended to feature dragons. It began life as a simple animal rescue story called The Adventures of Snigger the Squirrel. It was all about a young man, David Rain, who becomes a lodger in a house in a leafy suburb called Scrubbley. His landlady, Elizabeth Pennykettle, has a ten-year-old daughter, Lucy. As soon as David moves in, Lucy pesters him to help her rescue an injured squirrel she’s seen running around in circles in the garden. There really wasn’t much more to the story than that. My editor, Megan, loved it, thankfully, but when she read it she asked, “What does the mum do for a living, Chris? Should she have a job, perhaps? Maybe working from home?” I thought about Megan’s comment for a couple of days, struggling to decide what kind of occupation Liz Pennykettle might have. Could she be an artist perhaps? Or a music teacher? Nothing seemed right. But then the universe moved in its mysterious way and a day or so later I found myself at a craft fair, where I met a woman who was selling a range of clay dragons she’d made. I thought they were wonderful and wanted to buy one. Sadly, I hadn’t enough money for a pristine one, but in a section called ‘Casualty Corner’ I found a particularly appealing dragon that had a tiny piece chipped off one foot. This one I could afford. So I snapped him up. On the way home, I had a ‘lightbulb’ moment that changed my life. I suddenly thought it would be a great idea if my character, Liz, was to make clay dragons and sell them on a local market stall. Pennykettle Pots & Crafts. Perfect.
So I wrote the dragons into the story and a second draft of the manuscript went to my publisher. Note, the dragons were nothing more than quirky ornaments that sat around the house in Wayward Crescent at this point. Then one morning I answered the phone and it was Megan, with her editing hat on. She wanted to talk about the book. “These dragons,” she said. “Can they come to life?” I laughed. Heartily. Megan didn’t. She said, “Wouldn’t it be great if the dragons came to life and did … unusual things?” I laughed again, a little less heartily. I realised she was serious. “But that would be a completely different story,” I replied. “That would be a fantasy book. You asked me to write a squirrel rescue drama.” Megan thought for a moment. “Yes, I know. But the dragons are such a good idea. I think we should make it more about them than the squirrels. In fact, why don’t you drop the squirrels altogether and just write about the dragons? I’ll give you three months to change it. Bye.”
The rest, as they say, is history. In those three months, I completely turned the story around and renamed it The Fire Within. There’s so much more I could write about this, but the one part of the tale that often goes untold is the creation of everyone’s favourite dragon, Gadzooks. I told Megan that I didn’t want to drop the squirrel rescue story. She replied, “Okay, I’ll let you keep the squirrels if you can find a good reason for them to be in the book.” That same night, I came up with a neat solution. What if David wrote a story for Lucy’s birthday about the injured squirrel she was trying to save, but needed some help from one of Liz’s ‘special’ dragons? And lo, in a flash, Gadzooks, the writing dragon, was born. Perhaps he’s the real reason for the overwhelming popularity of The Fire Within. I’ve often said publicly that TFW is not really a book about squirrels or dragons, it’s a book about creativity and where ideas come from. Gadzooks’ ability to shape the future by writing words on a notepad he holds not only brings enormous charm to the book, but sets up the remainder of the series as well. If you’re going to read them all, get ready to go on a journey that will twist your imagination every which way. I wrote the series ‘organically’, letting it wander wherever it wanted to. It’s complex, funny, weird, mysterious, topical (there are several passages about climate change), frightening and deeply moving in places. The Pennykettle dragons hold everything together, but be prepared for a bit of mind-boggling time travel and the odd alternate reality. By the end of the series, trust me you’ll have moved a long, long way away from squirrels…
I could bang on all day about the six books that followed The Fire Within, but the best place to go for more information is the official guide book, Rain & Fire, written by my wife, Jay. There you’ll get tasters of the first five novels (all seven in the US edition), plus lots more background info. All I’ll add are these few snippets. My favourite book of the series is the sixth one, Fire World, though nothing can truly match the charm of The Fire Within. I did originally plan to split book seven, The Fire Ascending, into two volumes, but my publishers didn’t think an eighth book would be viable. My favourite characters are too numerous to mention. I love Gadzooks for obvious reasons (though I adore Gretel, too), Bonnington the daft cat, Zanna (especially in her younger form as Rosa), Kailar the polar bear, Liz Pennykettle (best mum in the world), Gwilanna the misguided villainess, and my beloved firebirds. And to answer a common question, Yes, David is based on me when I was younger. I would have done everything he did and more. Will there ever be another book? No. But I might, I stress might, do something special when the twentieth anniversary of The Fire Within rolls around in 2021. Watch the Chris d’Lacey blog for that.