Author Feature: Darren Shan

Could you tell us about your path to publication? Any sprints or stumbles along the way?

I started out writing books for adults, and published my first in the UK a year before Cirque Du Freak (February 1999). I’d been writing a lot since I was 16, 17, but started writing full-time when I was 23. I didn’t make any money for a number of years, and then only very little money for a few more after that, but luckily I had very supportive parents who let me live at home with them.

I found an agent (Christopher Little) quite quickly after I started to write full-time, but it took longer to find a publisher.

When I sent Cirque Du Freak to him, he was very excited, but publishers were more wary–20 turned it down before HarperCollins in the UK took a chance on it! It took them nearly two and a half years to publish it (mainly because of an editorial change), and during that time their enthusiasm in-house grew, as it was passed around and read by people in different departments. Then, shortly before its release, Warner Brothers optioned the movie rights, which meant it exploded onto the scene on a wave of publicity which definitely helped get it noticed in the early days.

I’ve been very lucky–in children’s books, it’s hard to get noticed quickly, so authors normally have to plug away for many years, gradually building up their audience. I managed to make the breakthrough quite swiftly, so ever since Cirque was published, I haven’t had to struggle the way many children’s authors have to–I’ve been able to afford to write full-time.

The first of your books that I read was Cirque du Freak: A Living Nightmare, Book 1 in the Darren Shan Saga (Little Brown, 2001). There are eleven more in the series. Could you tell us about them?

The 12 book Cirque Du Freak series is about a boy called Darren Shan who becomes a vampire’s assistant. My vampires are very different to the traditional stereotypes–they’re not evil, they don’t kill, they don’t have fangs, they don’t live forever. The stories explore Darren’s life in the world of vampires, the struggles he faces to adapt to his new circumstances, the adventures he gets swept into.

Although it’s published as a horror series, I think it’s an adventure series more than anything else, which is why it appeals to such a wide range of readers, not just those who like horror. It has a strong horror edge in many books, yes, but also fantasy, science fiction and mystery elements.

Predominantly, though, it’s about adventure. It also focuses strongly on family and friendship, and what happens when you lose people close to you, or are betrayed by someone you thought of as a friend. That’s why I get far more letters and emails from readers saying they’re cried reading my books than saying they’ve had nightmares!

What inspired you to create these books?

I just write books that I’d like to read. With Cirque Du Freak, I tried to remember what I was like when I was 12, 13, 14 years old, the books and movies I enjoyed. Then I wrote a books which would hopefully include the best of everything that I liked, which the teenage me would have loved to read. I never write a book for an audience or to fill a market niche. I just tell stories which interest me, then hope to hell that other people are interested in them too!

What was the timeline between initial spark and publication, and what were the major events along the way?

I started writing the book a few days after having my initial idea. The first draft took 6 weeks to complete. My agent liked it and sent it out to 20 publishers, all of whom turned it down! Because it was different to everything else that was being published, and because it was so dark and not aimed at a specific age group of children, publishers were wary of it.

Then HarperCollins decided to publish it. It was meant to be published within 18 months, but because my editor left several months later, that got delayed. At the time that was very frustrating, of course, but instead of moping about it, I used that time to forge ahead with the series, to the extent that by the time the first book was published, I’d already written the first draft of book 8!

I release my books very quickly–at least 2 a year–but I spent an average of 2-3 years writing them, working on the editing process. That delay at the start of my career has meant I’ve always been way ahead of my publication schedule and have never had to worry about a deadline, so, looking back, I’d have to say that was the best thing that could have possibly happened to me!

What were the challenges (literary, research, psychological, and logistical) in bringing the series to life?

The hardest part was letting the characters develop and change, without developing and changing so much that I started to lose the readers I’d attracted in the first place. The story of Cirque Du Freak spans almost 30 years. Darren only ages physically by 4 or 5 years during that time (because he’s a vampire), but obviously mentally he undergoes many more changes. I wanted to show this change, but not have him age so much that children could no longer identify with him. It was a delicate juggling act which I think I just about pulled off!

You followed up this success by launching The Demonata series (Little Brown, 2005-). Could you describe these books?

“The Demonata” is a 10 book series about demons. It’s very different than Cirque Du Freak in that there are three narrators, living in different time periods, who take it in turn to tell part of the overall story.

The first half of the series consists of stand-alone story arcs, and the characters and stories don’t seem to be particularly connected. But everything comes together at the midway point (books 5 and 6) and the story power straight ahead from there. It was risky, writing a series that for a long time seems to be just a collection of randomly connected story ideas and characters, but I hoped my fans would trust me to pull everything together and create order out of chaos, and luckily most of them have! The books are somewhat bloodier than my vampire books, and I would describe this as a horror series, but the focus of family and friendship remains the same.

In terms of your writing process, did you go about framing this series any differently than the first one? If so, how?

It was very different. Cirque Du Freak was an ongoing storyline, with one main characters, so it was simply a case of me asking myself, ‘What happens next?’ The story had a natural rhythm and flow, and I simply had to decide what I wanted to add to the mix on a book-by-book basis.

“The Demonata” began life as a series of free-standing stories. I wrote the early books out of order, with no sense of assembling them into a carefully structured series. Because I was so far ahead of publication schedule, I had lots of time to play around with things. I didn’t need to present my ideas to my publishers for a few years (I wrote the first draft of Lord Loss way back in 2001!), so I just experimented and went wherever the stories led me.

Fortunately, as I was working on the books, I had more ideas and started to see ways to link them up and mold them into something far more complex and interlinked than I’d originally intended. Through lots of re-writes and editing, The Demonata as we know it finally came together. But in the beginning there was no grand plan–indeed, no plan at all!

What about the children’s book audience appeals to you?

Their enthusiasm. If a kid or teenager likes something, they really get excited about it and don’t seek to contain that excitement. Adults are more reserved and will tell you politely how much they like your work. That’s very nice, but as a big kid myself, I much prefer the open gasps and exclamations of my younger readers!

If you could go back and talk to yourself when you were beginning writer, what advice would you offer?

The advice that others writers gave in interviews that I read–write! There are no shortcuts. The more you write, the more you learn and the better you get.

Like most young writers, I hoped there was some sort of trick to it, that I could just be inspired by some magical force, then write the books in a whirlwind daze.

Luckily, I realized quickly that good writing is the result of hard work, so I knuckled down and threw myself into it.

It’s frustrating when you’re starting out, not being able to write the way you’d like to, not being able to do justice to the stories you have inside your head, having to learn through a process of trail and error, having to write lots of bad stories before you learn to write good ones. But if you accept the need to work hard, and put in the hard work, that struggle and learning curve is what makes everything worthwhile.

I think you can only truly enjoy success if you’ve had to work for it. If you had a muse and writing came easy, then what would you have done that you could be proud of? A muse could speak through anyone–if the words aren’t yours, you can’t take credit for them.

What would you say specifically on the topic of writing horror?

It’s fun!

How about on writing a book series?

It’s hard work, but intriguing and stimulating. It’s fascinating taking a group of characters on a long, multi-book journey. You get to do things you hadn’t planned, go places with them that you never imagined.

I don’t think a writer should force a book series–with both Cirque Du Freak: A Living Nightmare and Lord Loss, I had no intention of writing a long series. Each was intended as a one-off book. But if characters grow on you, and you find yourself wondering what happens next with them, then you shouldn’t be afraid to take them forward and write a follow-up.

A good story will always suck you in and force you to write it, and you shouldn’t shy away from that just because you know some people will accuse you of cashing in and taking the easy option.

Gothic fantasy/horror is so popular with young readers. What do you think it at the heart of the appeal?

We’ve explored most of this world and it’s hard to get really excited about most things now, since we know so much and have seen so much of this planet. But the darkness and the mysteries it holds…they’re as enticing and unexplained as ever. People have always been drawn to the unknown and the unknowable, and I think they always will be.

What do you do when you’re not writing?

I like to read. I watch lots of movies and TV shows (but only on DVD–I almost never watch a show when it’s first airing–I prefer to wait, then watch all the episodes in a short span of time). I enjoy going to art galleries. I like to travel. I go to soccer matches in the UK.

How do you balance your life as a writer with the responsibilities (speaking, promotion, etc.) of being an author?

It’s difficult. Success brings a whole new set of problems–fan mail to respond to, a web site to maintain, tours to promote your work, interviews.

When you’re as prolific as I am, and published in so many countries, the problems are amplified. Some writers choose to bypass those problems–they only tour rarely, they hire someone to reply to fan mail or just ignore it, they don’t give interviews, they ignore the web or leave the running of their site in the hands of others.

I prefer to meet the problems head-on–I tour every year, I’ve been all around the world promoting my books, I’m always happy to give an interview, I run my web site myself, I reply personally to every letter that I receive. And I fit my work in around all that. It’s easy enough to do as long as you’re focused and make the most of your time.

I probably won’t always be able to keep so many balls up in the air at the same time, but for as long as I have the energy, I like fitting so much in.

My favorite ever quote was by film director Cecil B. DeMille‘s brother, who said, ‘The problem with Cecil is he bites off more than he can chew–but then proceeds to chew it!’

I like setting the bar high and having a running at it. Life’s easier if you settle for the things you can comfortably manage–but where’s the fun in that?!?

What can your fans look forward to next?

The rest of The Demonata series (10 books, coming out every April and October). Then…something else! I’m already hard at work on my next project, but I can’t talk about it yet.

All I’ll say is, there’s still a lot more to come. I’m nowhere near to easing up yet!