Shantastic Voyage: A Conversation with Darren Shan

Darren Shan is an author who needs very little introduction. Based in County Limerick, his books have been translated into over thirty languages and sales of his work worldwide total almost 15 million copies. Already in 2010 he has published two books, The Thin Executioner, a stand-alone fantasy novel, and Birth of a Killer, the first volume in a new series which sees him revisit some of the characters from his first bestselling epic, The Saga of Darren Shan. Before he went on a well-earned holiday, I caught up with him to quiz him about his work.

 

Your published book count at the moment is, I believe, about 27 books and you’re already writing volume 7 of a new – as yet unpublished – series. What keeps you motivated to sit in front of the keyboard every day and write something new? How does your writing stay fresh? Is it difficult to keep writing big series without knowing that they’ll definitely see the light of day when you’re working on them?

I just don’t feel happy unless I’m producing new material every year. Believe it or not, I have slowed down – several years ago I would write five or six new first drafts every year, while now I’m down on average to three or four! But I can write swiftly, and I enjoy seeing where my imagination leads me, and I’m able to juggle projects, which has been crucial to my productivity. I actually spend at least two to three years working on any individual book, so I give myself plenty of time to work on each one, but I can move from one to another with ease, which is how I’m able to publish them so quickly. As for a big series – the one I’m working on at the moment is the first time that I’ve known in advance that it was going to be a long series. With the Saga of Darren Shan and the Demonata, each series started off simply enough, with no plan in mind to develop the stories into large-scale epics. They just kind of exploded as the ideas kept flowing! To be honest, that’s my ideal way of working, as it means I’m not under pressure from the start. The new series has been a bit daunting, knowing from the first book that I’m committing myself to a huge chunk of my life (my other two long series both took more than seven years to complete – that’s each!). But, hey, the challenges keep life interesting!

Although you started off as a writer of adult fiction, your big break came with Cirque du Freak, the first book in the Saga of Darren Shan series. How different do you find writing for adults and what challenges does writing for different age groups present?

I don’t really vary my writing routine much, whether I’m writing for adults or teens. I mean, my children’s books are usually even bloodier than my adult offerings, so there’s not a huge amount of difference between them! What I do focus on more when writing for younger readers is the moral side of things. My adult books tend to explore the grey area between good and bad, right and wrong, and I often leave it up to my readers to draw the dividing line themselves. I usually make my heroes more heroic in my children’s books – as dark as they are, they have a weirdly nice feel to them! My adult books can, on the other hand, leave you feeling a bit soiled. But as far as the mechanics of creation are involved, I go about my work much the same in both cases.

You’ve described your last book The Thin Executioner as being a response to the Iraq war. Did you start out with the intent to deal with what is a very political issue or did the politics impose themselves on the novel as you wrote it?

The main idea for the book popped into my head before the war started. But while I was planning the novel, it became more and more evident that the USA and UK were going to take the decision to invade a country which had done nothing to merit such action. I was no fan of Saddam Hussein, but as violent a piece of work as he was, there was no justification for an international invasion. The months before the start of the assault were like a slow car crash – we could see it all coming, we all wanted to stop it, but our ‘noble leaders’ had taken that power out of our hands and decided to press ahead regardless of international law and the wishes of their supporters. The injustice of it galled me then, as it still does, and I wanted to do what small bit I could to mark that and comment on it and, at the same time, deliver some grains of hope to my readers. The Thin Executioner is, ultimately, a call to arms – well, more to action than arms, as it most definitely doesn’t advocate violence. Rather it says to readers to look at their world more closely, examine their leaders more scrupulously, think about what they’ve been taught and told, don’t just go along with the flow. And if they perceive an injustice, do what little they can to right it. I’m no hippy, but I do believe that we all have a role to play in the shaping of the world, and that lots of small individual steps equate to huge communal strides forward.

The Thin Executioner is your first published foray into fantasy fiction. How did you find crossing over into a new genre?

I’ve actually covered all sorts of genres in my works. The book trade likes to place authors into a niche, and because my books normally feature quite horrific scenes, I’ve been labelled a horror writer. Which I’m absolutely fine with – I’ve always loved horror! But my books are a mix of horror, fantasy, sci-fi, adventure, detective stories, and a whole lot more.

Your recent book, Birth of a Killer, is the first in a new series and features one of the most-loved characters (and indeed my own favourite) from the Saga of Darren Shan, Larten Crepsley. How did it feel returning to characters that you knew so well and, possibly, had never thought you’d encounter again? Did you feel under any pressure to live up to the expectations of the fans of the original series?

There was definitely pressure there! I didn’t want to cock it all up and write a series that would detract from the original! But it’s dangerous to think too much about your audience – I think I’d be too terrified to start any book if I sat and considered at length the risk of letting down my fans! So although I was nervous, I put all thoughts of my readership aside and focused on writing the best book I could, which is what I always do. Once I’d figured out the structure (and that took several years of tinkering around with various ideas and scenes) and sat down to write, it was great fun, and I really loved spending time with the characters and getting to develop them even more than I did first time round. It’s been a wonderful time in my career – I’ll be sorry when I have to leave them behind forever and move on.

Your books, particularly the Demonata series, can be quite gruesome and horrific as well as having a strand of dark humour running through them. Is it difficult to maintain a balance between the two and how do you stay on the right side of what might be considered acceptable (by your audience)?

I do a lot of touring and school events. If I think a scene might have gone a bit too far, I think about what it would be like if I read that scene out in front of a room full of children. Would I feel uncomfortable? If the answer is yes, then I’ll go back and tweak it. The humour grows organically out of the horror. I think it’s important, otherwise the books would get too grim and grinding. I don’t water down my books, but some of my most humorous moments come when things are at their most tense.

On the basis of what I’ve read on your blog, you write, watch movies, travel a lot for both business and pleasure, attend football matches and go to the theatre regularly. The fact that you’ve so much work already written for future publication would certainly suggest that you spend a fair amount of time writing. This begs the question, how do you find the time to do all this and do you have a regular routine for your writing?

It was easy ten years ago – I never really travelled anywhere, because I didn’t have any money, so I just sat at home and wrote ten pages a day, five days a week, most weeks of the year! Now I have to fit it in around my other movements. It can be difficult at times. I still try to adhere to the ten pages a day, five days a week routine when working on a first draft, but sometimes I have to maybe work for two or three weeks solid, depending on my travel commitments. Sometimes I get frustrated when I’ve been away from the PC for a long time – I get edgy and itchy when I’m not producing first drafts on a regular basis! But what’s the point of having all this success if I don’t make time to enjoy it? It’s all about finding the balance. As long as I can keep up with my publishing schedule (or ahead of it by a few years, as I have been for a long time now), then I’m happy. If the travelling started getting in the way of my work, I’d have to cut down.

With the first volume of the Saga of Larten Crepsley about to hit the bookstores, what’s next for Darren Shan?

As you noted above, I’m working on a new, long series. It probably won’t be as long as the Saga of Darren Shan or the Demonata, but there will be lots of volumes, as I’m planning to do it like the serials of old – short novels, most of which end in a cliffhanger, designed to be read when they’re all published as one big, sweeping book. But I can’t say anything more about it at the moment – it’s a closely kept secret!

Which authors influenced you when you began writing. Which authors do you read now?

Stephen King had the biggest influence on me, but I was inspired by loads of others too, such as Robert Westall, Robert Cormier, JRR Tolkien, Ray Bradbury, Jonathan Carroll, Alan Moore’s comics, Frank Miller’s comics, the comics series Cerebus. More recently, I think Philip Pullman raised the bar with His Dark Materials, and James Ellroy has had a big impact on my style.

Did you find that being based in the west of Ireland was any kind of impediment when you tried to get your books published?

Not really. It doesn’t help when it comes to trying to get Irish exposure – if you’re based close to Dublin, it’s much easier to make yourself available to the media. But that’s only really a problem further down the line. When it came to actually trying to get a book published in the first place, geography meant nothing. I didn’t submit my work to Irish publishers, because I knew they weren’t interested in publishing the sorts of stories that I was producing, so I went to the UK market. Where you live has never mattered much where authors are concerned, and now less than ever, given the internet and emails and all the rest.

You were the most borrowed Irish author in Irish libraries in 2009. That’s quite an achievement. How did it make you feel when you heard?

That was one of the career peaks for me! The Irish market embraced my books before any other in the world – I was made feel welcome here long before my books started to succeed in other countries. My first tours were all of Ireland, my first chart successes came here, my first real fan base was composed mainly of Irish fans. For me it’s very important to try and sustain that link – it’s why I still tour regularly here. In the early days, when public events were out of the question, I relied on the generosity and support of librarians and teachers to help me connect with my fans. I’ve been to most of the libraries in Ireland over the years, and have many fond memories. So to find out that I’d topped the lending charts here last year … well, that put a big smile on my face!

You do a lot of travelling to publicise your books and keep in touch with your fans. How do you stay motivated on the road year after year?

It ain’t easy! I’d love to be in a band, with other people to tour around with and share the experiences with and have fun with. In the UK and Ireland it is actually a bit like that – I have a top-notch publicity team here, and it really does feel like travelling around with friends when I do home-front tours. But it does feel rather lonely when I go abroad. I didn’t mind that so much when I was younger – I’d do long, gruelling three-week, coast-to-coast tours of the States without blinking – but I’m getting a bit softer in my old age! These days I don’t do quite as much global touring as I did when I first started out. I still love meeting my fans, and it’s always a pleasure when I’m doing an event, but the travel involved in getting to far-flung locations is far less of a joy! Again, it’s about finding a balance. I feel like I have a duty to tour, to meet with my fans and sign their books, but at the same time I have to find a way to make that enjoyable for me too. I’ve done that by cutting down the length of the tours a bit, and not going on as many as I once did.

You’ve been to the Edinburgh Festival eleven years in a row as both a participant and spectator. What is it about this particular festival that brings you back year after year?

It was the first festival I ever did as an author. I got about fifty fans at my event and I came away buzzing – that was a huge public turnout for me in August 2000! So it’s got that sentimental attachment. But also I love the city, and I love the festivals that take place in August. When I go there, I get to combine book events with theatre and comedy shows and fine dining and wild nights on the town… I’d go there on holiday even if I wasn’t invited to do an event at the book festival, but getting to do an event is the icing on the cake, as it makes me feel like I’m contributing to the good times rather than just being a consumer.

 

Birth of a Killer, book 1 of the Saga of Larten Crepsley, was published by HarperCollins in September 2010 and book 2 in the series, Ocean of Blood was published in April 2011. With another series (the subject of which is still under wraps for now) already in development, Darren Shan shows no sign of slowing down – which is great news for his legion of fans worldwide.