If you've read my book Fly, Cherokee, Fly you will know I love animals. I'm sure you do too. As well as pigeons, there are two types of wild animal I've always been particularly fond of: polar bears and squirrels. Strange combination, huh? The only place I've ever seen a polar bear is, sadly, the zoo. But I've had plenty of encounters with squirrels, and it was one of these that gave me the idea to write THE FIRE WITHIN.
When I was a young man (zillions of years ago) I lived for a while in a place called Bromley. Perhaps you know it? Perhaps you live there? Hello everyone from Bromley! One day I went to visit the Churchill Library, which is just off a small precinct in the town centre. It was a lovely autumn day and rather than spend the time lounging in the library, I decided to go outside and read my books in the public gardens next door. I found a quiet spot on a low stone wall, unwrapped my lunch (a cheese and pickle sandwich) and settled down.
While I was munching away, I spotted a movement from the corner of my eye. It was a squirrel. It bounced up the path to sit by my feet. It had a big bushy tail and a rather cheeky twinkle in its dark brown eye. It raised itself up and had a sniff at my book. It didn't seem too interested in the adventures of Paddington Bear, but it was quite keen to investigate the filling in my sandwich. So I broke off a corner and threw it on the path. The squirrel leapt on to it instantly. It picked up the offering and held it tightly between its front paws. It brought it to its nose and had a sniff. And then that squirrel did something quite shameful. It took a nibble of my sandwich, wrinkled its nose in a mildly disgusted sort of way and spat cheese and pickle all over my trainers! Well! That's gratitude for you. I scowled at the squirrel. It shrugged at me. If I could have put words into its mouth I'm sure it would have said, "That pickle's rubbish; bring me something nutty." The squirrel hopped away into the trees. What's more, as if to add insult to injury, it then started to rain. I wiped my shoes with a tissue and headed home.
I must have been strangely drawn to squirrels that day, because I took a slightly different route back to my lodgings and that was when the other thing happened. As I was walking along the pavement, something dropped with a clonk on my head. It was an acorn. At first I thought that squirrel had followed me and was playing a bit of a game. But the truth is, I was standing underneath a large oak tree. It was on the other side of a tall, panelled fence, but its boughs were reaching right across the pavement. It had shed its acorns all over the road. I looked at those acorns and I thought about the squirrel in the library gardens. Acorns are nutty, I thought. So the following day I came back to the oak tree, armed with two brown paper bags. I gathered up as many nuts as the bags would hold, then I headed back to the library gardens.
As you can imagine, those acorns went down very well indeed. Squirrels turned up in droves. I fed them by hand, which is something you must be very careful of doing because squirrels look very cute but they can give you a nasty nip - so if you're going to feed them, always make sure there is an adult present. Some of the cleverest (and cheekiest) squirrels took a nut from me, buried it in the nearest patch of soil, then hurried back for another! When the acorns were all gone, the squirrels waddled off into the trees and I went home feeling I had done my bit for nature. Years later, when I came to write THE FIRE WITHIN, I thought about this incident and used it in the book, as you'll discover when you read it.
Now I know what you must be thinking at this point: if the book is about squirrels, why is there a DRAGON on the front cover? A-ha, good question! Let me explain...
One day I was wandering around a little collection of craft shops and I happened to step into a unit where a lady was making small clay dragons. Her name was Valerie Chivers. I saw Val's dragons and thought they were beautiful. I simply had to have one, but I didn't have much money with me. So Val pointed me in the direction of 'Casualty Corner', an area reserved for those dragons that had lost a scale or chipped a toe or something. They were a bit cheaper than the other dragons but no less beautiful. And it was there, in Casualty Corner, that I saw the most appealing creature in the whole shop. He had a slight chink out of one foot and his 'topknot' was missing (a 'topknot' is on the top of a dragon's head and looks a bit like a shark's fin) but I bought him in an instant. He 'spoke' to me, in much the same way that you might have an affinity for a teddy bear or a pet. It seemed to me he needed a magical name. So I called him GADZOOKS! So if you fancy a personalised dragon like Gadzooks? Then click here and I will put you in touch with the real Mrs Pennykettle!
At first, Gadzooks didn't figure in the story of THE FIRE WITHIN. But before long I realised I needed to give one of the characters, Mrs Pennykettle, a job. So she became a dragon maker. After that, lots of dragons began to creep into the story and I began to have some interesting ideas about Mrs Pennykettle and her daughter, Lucy, and just what the dragons might mean to them.
So the next question you might be asking is this: is THE FIRE WITHIN a book about dragons, then? Well no, actually it's not. The dragons are in it, just like the squirrels, but the book is really about INSPIRATION and where writers and storytellers get their ideas. I could try to explain this to you on the website, but it's much more fun to pick up a copy of the book - and read it...