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Darren Shan Interview

Thursday, 21 February 2002

Jubilee Books: How many books will there be in the Darren Shan Saga?
Darren Shan: It's a big long series, it covers a lot of time, there are lots of other characters, more introduced in later books, some are kill off, I don't know the exact number but there will be somewhere in the region of 19 or 20 books. It's a crazy undertaking but that's how long it's going to take to tell the story.

Did you know that there would be several books in the series?
Cirque Du Freak was going to be a single book, I also write adult books and this was the first time I had written a children's book so I had no idea whether it was going to work or not, I did know it was going to have an open ended finish so that there might be room for one or two sequels, but I had no idea it was going to be such a big long series. It was really when I was writing book two and planning book three that I thought a series was coming in to place. In that book I came up with the idea of the vampanese and the Lord of the vampaneze and this big war between the vampires and the vampanese which is the backdrop of most of the series.

Where did the idea for theSaga of Darren Shan come from?
Originally I just wanted to do a book about vampires because I liked horror movies and books and vampires are my favourite creatures. There's just something very creepy about them, they sleep in coffins, they drink blood to survive, they don't go out at night, but as I got older I saw so many vampire movies with the same basic Dracula story and I didn't want to do that, I wanted to do something different. The vampires in my books, even though they're not evil, don't have much in common with humans, they're much tougher than humans, they sleep at night, they have to feed on humans to survive. So I started wondering who a vampire might hang out with, who would his friends be and I came up with the idea of these circus freaks and the Cirque Du Freak with other creatures and magical being who live apart from humanity, because they are a sort of travelling family I thought it would be a logical place for a vampire rather than wandering about on his own.

How do you think up the names for the characters in your books?
They come from different places, Mr Crepsley came from taking the word Mr. Creepy. When I first had the idea for Cirque Du Freak he was going to be called Mr. Creepy and his performing tarantula Madame Octa, but I thought Mr. Creepy was far too childish for so serious a character but I liked the sound of it so I started playing around with it and put a few extra letters in. That happens with loads of names, some will be ordinary names which I'll take and juggle around with, some will be words that I've played around with. They come from different places, some of the characters will have ordinary names, I enjoy playing around with vampire names and making them sound mysterious. The books aren't set anywhere specific and the reason I don't mention place names in the book is so that readers reading the book can imagine it happening wherever they are, so I create weird names for vampires so that they don't come from a specific country.

Have you done a lot of research into vampires and their habits or have you used your imagination?
If you call watching loads of old Hammer movies research then yes I've done many hours, but basically it's all taken from old movies and books. I started watching vampire movies when I was about 6 years of age, I wa 25 when I started Cirque Du Freak so I had about 20 years of thinking about vampires, so there's been no actual hard research on them but a lot of thinking, lots of playing around with vampire ideas. Of course if it's a true story it's all first hand experience.

Is the character of Darren Shan in the book similar to you?
He is similar in many ways, obviously I use the same name that I write under. I've got to admit that he is a much more nobler character than I am, he's much braver than me, much tougher than me, especially the decision he makes in book one to sacrifice his own life for his friends life at that age I think very few kids would choose.

Have you had many complaints about the content of your books, for example from religious groups or from church school teachers?
I was expecting some sort of backlash because the books are very dark books, they are about circus freaks and vampires, although the circus freaks in my books are very positive characters I thought people might seize on the word freaks and jsut go off with that but so far we've had no reaction whatsoever. I've had no reports of bookshops being forced to take books off of their shelves or complaints about the subject matter.

I wanted to ask you something which seems especially poignant after Philip Pullman won the Whitbread Book Award for the Amber Spyglass is that as an author of books for adults and children, do you approach writing them in different ways?
I don't, not really, obviously they're two very different types of writing, the adult books tend to be longer, much darker subject matter, obviously explore more mature themes. When it comes to writing I write them more of less the same way, the children's books tend to flow a bit quicker, they're much pacier and I like to keep children's books really snappy so the readers have the urge to keep turning the page, when you are a child that's what you want. With an adult the books will tend to be more gradually paced, they're still quite fast moving but not as fast moving as the children's books. There are obviously certain areas you can't explore with children's books, or there are areas you're better not to explore. Each writer sets their own benchmark of what they will and won't do. There are things I would do with adult books that I won't do with children's books so in that way they are different.

How long does it usually take you to write a book?
Each book is spread out over about two years, I do a first draft in maybe three or four weeks and I go over that maybe five or six times before it's published. I like to leave a few months gap between writing each book. For example, I wrote Cirque Du Freak then I went into the first draft of the Vampire's Assistant, then returned to Cirque Du Freak again and edited it, so it's very much a backwards and forwards movement in the books, but start to finish the books take about two or three years.

Who were your favourite writers as a child?
I read loads of Enid Blyton books, I liked Alfred Hitchcock and the Three Investigators. From about the age of 11 on it was Stephen King, I read Salem's Lot when I was about 11 or 12 years old and since then it's been non stop horror, he's probably my most influential author.

Who are your favourite writers now?
There are loads, I recently read the Philip Pullman books, I thought they were excellent, I love the Harry Potter books, I've read the first three of those. Robert Cormier is one of my favourites, unfortunately he died last year but he's a wonderful writer. I don't read as much horror as I used to, I read lots of stuff, James Elroy, and I take inspiration from all sorts of places.

Do you have a favourite vampire story or film?
My favourite would probably be Salem's Lot, the book, the film was also one of the better vampire movies but the book in particular was excellent. The remake of Nosferatu with Klaus Kinsky, that would be one of my favourite vampire films, really spooky.

What ingredients do you think go into writing a good horror story?
I think that it has to move from the very start, to tell a good story you have to build suspense and I think it's good to throw readers right in, you have to build up characters and situations in as tense a way as possible so they're not waiting and waiting. Lots of bad horror movies tend to have half an hour or 40 minutes where nothing much happens and you're waiting for something. I think it's important to have things going on, not necessarily horror, but to drop in little hints that something bad is on the way. I think you have to be honest, lots of horror books would end a chapter with something jumping out of the closet and in the next chapter it'll be something like a cat. I think is room for humour in horror, you do need lighter moments, but a good horror book should be honest, it should be real horror. I think that if something bad happens the characters should deal with the repercussions of that, for example in Cirque Du Freak they go off to a freak show and that's very exciting, then Darren sets out to steal a spider and that's exciting but stealing is wrong and he goes on to pay a price for what he does.

What appeals to you about writing horror stories, do you like scaring people?
Yes, I've always loved writing horror stories. Oddly enough the Saga of Darren Shan is more fantasy than hhorror, from about book four on although there is a horrific element it's more of a fantasy series and I think lots of good books are like that. The original Dracula book is very much a horror book but it's more than just horror, it's social commentary, it's got a fantasy element to it. I've always loved scaring people, I love Halloween, scary stories for children, I have young cousins and I love to tell them really gruesome tales, horror is fun, it's like a roller coaster ride, it's very scary but it's also safe, no matter how scary it is or what you write about it's just a work of fiction and readers know that, they pretend it's true to enhance the fear factor but they know it's fiction.

Where and when do you usually write?
I know if you're a horror writer you're supposed to write at night with storms blowing outside and everything but actually I write in the daytime between 10 and 4 o'clock. I sometimes do some work later in the evening, I do an hour or two on my website at night and reply to e-mail's, checking out my message board. On the prowl at night, out with Mr Crepsley.

What was your favourite subject at school?
English was my favourite because I always loved telling stories, apart from that it would probably be history. The vampires in my books are like those ancient warriors like the Romans, the Celts and the Samurais, I always loved reading historical stories about them, the way they lived, the way their societies were structures, so it's a blending of horror and fantasy with history.

What other jobs have you had?
The only other long term job I've had was working for a cable company back in Limerick installing things like Sky Sports stuff working on a computer turning on people's Sky Sports and movies and disconnecting them if they haven't paid. That was quite fun as well it was also quite horrific.

When did you start writing?
I've been writing virtually all my life, as long as I learnt to write I've been writing stories as far back as I can remember, 5 or 6 years old. I began seriously writing when I was 14 or 15, that's when I got my first typewriter, that's when I began writing in my spare time, up until that point I'd normally only write as school work.

What do you think you would be doing if you weren't a writer?
I'd probably be working with computers because I've always enjoyed computers, working around them or else I'd be a funeral director.

I read that you have ober 2,000 films in your collection, what sort of films do you like, are you a fan of horror?
I used to be when I was a teenager, the trouble is I saw so many horror films, if you see too many of any genre horror, fantasy, romance or whatever, after a while it tends to be a bit much. I really do watch anything that goes, I watch everything from silent movies, to foreign movies, to contemporary action movies. I really do watch anything!

Still on the subject of film, the rights to your first books have been bought by Warner Brothers, when can we expect to see the first Saga of Darren Shan film?
The rights have been bought and what they're actually planning to do is take the first three books and combine them. A company like Warner Brothers buy lots and lots of books every year but only film a small number, so although they are working on it, the producer on board is actually the producer of the Harry Potter films David Heyman, there's not guarantee that there will be a film, I'll actually have very little say in it and if there is one it'll be at least two to two and a half years before it's released.

Do you have any hobbies or interests outside of writing?
I love reading, I think every writer loves reading because if you don't like reading books you're in the wrong business writing them. I love watching movies and watching football, I'm a Tottenham supporter and I'm in London at the moment so I go to Tottenham home games. I like going for walks and travelling.

Do you listen to music?
Yeah I listen to lots of music, I've been listening to popular rock the last few years. I've been listening to music from the sixties and seventies, old bands like The Who, The Kinks, The Rolling Stones. I also like to have music playing when I'm writing, I find it hard to write in silence.

Where is your favourite place?
I was in the London Dungeons last week and the Edinburgh Dungeons shortlt after that and I must say do I feel right at home there, you've got coffins, you've got people screaming, darkness and shadows, lovely, I feel right at home.

What are your best tips for budding writers?
The best tip I have is to keep writing. The more you write the better you get, there is no magic involved, there is no secret formula, it's simply a case of the more you write the more you learn the better you get. So i't s a lot of time, a lot of hard work, a lot of self belief and perseverance. If you're determined to be an author and stick with it the chances are excellent that you will succeed, very few people actually fail if they set out ot be an author, most who do give up if they're not making it, take rejection on the chin, keep writing, you will succeed, of course you might not end up like J.K. Rowling and a multi millionaire but getting a book published, very few people who have that dream fail to realise it.

Interview conducted with Joseph Pike
Material © Jubilee Books.
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