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Home Interviews Darren Shan on ‘Cirque du Freak’ and Conquering YA Literature – Exclusive Interview

Darren Shan on ‘Cirque du Freak’ and Conquering YA Literature – Exclusive Interview

by Conor O'Brien
Darren Shan

Irish novelist Darren Shan, known for the number one bestselling ‘The Saga of Darren Shan’ and ‘The Demonata” chatted to Courageous Nerd about his work.

Since The Saga of Darren Shan was first published, London-born, Limerick-raised novelist Darren O’Shaugnessy has gone to write The Demonata, Zom-B, The Thin Executioner and The Saga of Larten Crepsley, among others. In fact, the popularity of the Darren Shan books led to a 2009 feature film starring John C. Reilly, Josh Hutcherson and Willem Dafoe.

This interview has been condensed for length and clarity. To hear the full conversation, listen to the audio version on our YouTube channel, linked below.

Welcome Darren and thank you for taking the time to chat with us today.

Darren Shan (DS): Thanks for having me on.

Interestingly enough, both of us were born in London and moved to Ireland at an early age. How did your upbringing in Limerick affect your development as a writer?

DS: I wanted to be a writer even before I came back. I was very young when I came back to Ireland, only 6. Even then, I loved telling stories, making things up, telling them to my friends, my Mum, writing a few for school. I think I would be a writer no matter what. A lot of Ireland works into my books – certain sayings which I would pick up from being in Ireland. My Editors have to correct me and say, “No one else is going to know what those mean.”

Many of your books use a distinct first-person narration style, including The Saga of Darren Shan being a ‘true’ story. How do you find writing characters from that perspective and to what extent do you believe the stories would be different if you had not done so?

DS: I’ve written from third-person as well, for adults as well as YA. As you say, most of my YA ones have been first-person. I just go for what feels right in a story – Lord Loss, the first book in my Demonata series, I actually started writing that in third-person. After a few pages, it just didn’t feel right to me. I had planned to do it in third person. It didn’t give me the immediacy and the intimacy that I wanted.

No matter what approach you take, there are pros and cons. Writing in the first person ties you to what that one person sees. You can’t really explain what’s happening in other parts of the world that you might have set your story in. That gives you a real sense of being in the moment, which I like. Stepping into characters’ shoes, being there with them – readers seem to like that too. It has a huge impact on how the story unfolds, how it goes on, what you do with the story and how you choose to tell the story. It felt right for most of my series.

One of the later Cirque du Freak books features one of my all-time favourite plot twists – involving a certain Harkat Mulds and an anagram. Considering all the elements involved, that had to have been planned for a while. With this in mind, would you say your writing style is more methodical than meandering?

DS: The way I write is unusual. I’ll usually be almost finished a series or even first draft of the last book before the first book gets published. Often what I will do is that I will get ideas from later books so I’m rewriting and editing the first few books before they get published. Harkat was originally going to be a different character and his name was going to be Harvey. Then when I got halfway through the series, I realised the character I’d meant him to be… it didn’t work.

It was going to be Evra [Von]. Evra was supposed to be much more of a storyline than he was. When it came to write book four, there was absolutely no reason for Evra to go [to Vampire Mountain] or be in the next three books. I’d have been sending him there purely as a plot device. Obviously, you have to use plot devices as a writer, you have to move your characters into situations where you wanted them to be. As much as possible, you shouldn’t push it too far or throw characters in there who wouldn’t logically be there. The question then became, “Why would [Evra] become Harkat Mulds?” Why would he align himself with Darren so closely? What character could it be?

After I’d written book six, I realised who it should be and who it needed to be. Someone who needed to atone by helping Darren, who was going to help the vampires. The answer became obvious at that point. Most writers will do one book, finish it, publish it and move along. I’m sort of bouncing back and forth between them. I’m able to incorporate ideas from further on in the storyline and tie it in much more neatly. It makes me seem as if I’d looked ahead like a crystal ball, but the answer is I’m like Mr. Tiny – having seen the present, I’m able to go back and tweak the past.

Over the course of twenty years, your ‘bread and butter’, so to speak, has been long-running Young Adult novels with supernatural elements. Of all the worlds you have created, which was your favourite to write about and which would you feel most compelled to revisit, creatively speaking?

DS: I don’t really have a favourite. My most popular has been the vampire series, by far. Cirque du Freak tends to be what the vast majority of my readers start with. The vampire series is the one that’s had the longest legs. The one that probably means the most to me is The Demonata because it was the most challenging, The way it came together, the way structure revealed itself throughout the series. It was a long time on that where I thought it wasn’t going to work, that I was going to have to truncate it and just write a few books about this Grubbs Grady character. It was crazy ambitious and I really pushed the boat with what I could do. For a long time, I thought there was a danger to it.

When it all came together and all clicked… I look back on it now and it’s almost impossible to remember how it all worked and how I did it. Planning that today, I think I’d run a mile. It was my most ambitious and crazy series so for those reasons… I don’t have a favourite series but that’s one that probably means a bit more to me than the others, just because it really was a stretch to try and put it all together to make it work. The fact it did work so well, I got a real buzz out of it.

Owing to the subject matter of your books, there has also been a high body count ranging from central characters to supporting allies. In the years since, which deaths have generated the most response from audiences?

DS: By a long way, it’s Mr. Crepsley. Spoiler for those who haven’t read it, but it’s twenty years ago so most people have read book nine of the Saga. That’s the one who really left a big hole for a lot of readers. He was a really important character and as I was writing it, I knew… he meant a lot to me and I knew it was going to be painful. It all goes back to the prologue of Cirque du Freak, everything I’ve done in light of that prologue… I say it’s a true story and I always treat my books as if they’re true stories. Obviously, in the real world, bad things sometimes happen. Good guys sometimes die.

I’ve always taken the approach where when I’m writing a series, I don’t protect characters. You’ve got to have enough around to get the reader to the end of the story. You can’t kill everyone off in the first book. I do let my important characters die, I don’t wrap them in cotton wool. Just because a character’s popular, I don’t save him from death if death is what the story demands. At the same time, I don’t go looking to kill off characters.

With the Archibald Lox series, I thought all the characters were going to make it to the end. I wanted to write a series where all the characters remain intact. When I got to the later books, I realised “No, that’s actually not going to happen.” A few are going to fall away because that’s what the story demanded. The story to me is the real boss. A good story that’s working well takes on a life of its own and as a writer, you learn to follow the story rather than impose your will on it at every single junction.

In 2009, you joined a select group of authors in having their work adapted into a feature film – Cirque du Freak: The Vampire’s Assistant, starring John C. Reilly as Mr. Crepsley and Josh Hutcherson as Steve Leopard, among others. Although the film has had a polarising response from fans of the Saga, what did you most enjoy about it?

DS: I liked it on its own terms. I’m always open to work being adapted – I love books, I also love movies and TV. They’re different mediums and stories work in different ways. My approach has always been to allow my works to be adapted if someone wants to adapt them and stand quite far back from the process. Unless they really want to involve me. I’ve read lots of interviews with other writers who tried to get involved or tried to exert control. You just can’t as a writer. Sometimes, they will respect your viewpoints or look for your opinion and try to incorporate it in. Usually, they do their own thing. Sometimes it works, a lot of time it doesn’t.

Image courtesy of Universal Pictures

Even when it doesn’t work brilliantly, even when it’s not the most faithful adaptation – the Cirque du Freak movie certainly wasn’t. It does bring your work to the new audiences. I picked up a lot of new readers on the back of the film who’d never heard of me, never heard of Cirque du Freak. They’d been to see it in the cinema, liked it enough to get interested in the story – get the books and start reading. Twelve years later, they’re still here as big fans.

I always say that Cirque du Freak, like many film adaptations, is better appreciated if you’re not familiar with what the world is like. You come to the books and discover the full story. If you go the books first and then see the film, they cut out that character, they changed that story. I would have liked it to be more faithful and I think it would have worked better had it been more faithful, might have had a chance at the box office. On its own terms, I think it’s a nice little film.

More recently, your latest project is the Archibald Lox series. What inspired you to create this new world and write about those characters?

DS: I don’t actively look for series ideas. A series takes several years of my life. Each time I do one, I think that’s probably going to be it. I’ll never do something this mammoth again. If you look at other writers like Neil Gaiman, apart from his big, multi graphic novel collection, it’s been individual books. Alan Moore is unusual, he wrote several long series. It is very odd to find yourself working on something that long and to have more than one of those. Very few writers have one of those in them and to find you’ve got three or four of them, very unusual. I keep getting drawn back and every time I think it’s the last time.

When I was working on Zom-B, I was sure it was twelve books. That’s it now, focus on one-off stories and standalone tales. Then, I was walking across a bridge in London and saw a girl walk towards me, she was pulling these strange faces. “Oh, is she trying to open a door to another universe?” And I was off again on another multi-book adventure.

What sets Archibald apart from the likes of Darren Shan, Grubbs Grady and B Smith?

DS: Archie’s probably most like Darren. If you compare him to someone like Grubbs or B Smith, he’s much more placid. More inclined to go along with things. He’s a very interesting character, we don’t really get a full handle on him until the last book in the series. It’s one of those mysteries I throw up very early on.

Archie, to all intent and purposes, is a very ordinary boy. He then discovers he has this power to open locks and cross universes into the universe called The Merge. He doesn’t know why he has that power and no one else knows why he has that power. That is the main storyline of the series – there are story arcs within it, but the overall storyline is asking what’s the deal with Archie. How does he have these powers? Why is he such a good locksmith? That will all be slowly answered by the time we get to book nine. He’s an interesting character, he’s a nice character.

Generally speaking, your books share the same target audience. With this in mind, how was the decision process of justifying how gory some could be compared to others?

DS: It’s a gut decision. I try not to think of the audience too much; I try to imagine myself when I was 10, 11, 12, 13 years of age, what I enjoyed reading and watching, what was too much for me. I read Salem’s Lot when I was very young and loved that. Cujo was adult and dark, it took me places where I felt uncomfortable. I think back to what I would have enjoyed reading. I just use common sense to draw the line, I’m always very, very conscious of not taking my YA books too gritty. At the same time, kids love horror. Cirque du Freak, what I saw was a way to bridge child’s horror and adult horror

Writing is of course a competitive industry to enter – there can only be so many best-selling authors. In your opinion, what do you think more aspiring writers should be aware of or prepared for before committing to pursue writing as a career?

DS: If you’re looking for a financial career move, being a writer is crazy. Very few writers make any money out of it. It’s very hard to get established, very hard to stay established. There are so many authors out there. You’ve got to do it because you love it. I just love writing and got very, very lucky with one of my stories, Cirque du Freak and enjoyed great financial benefits from it. I always do it because I like it and because I enjoy it. That’s got to be your approach, you write because you want to write, you have to write. If you get lucky and it sells those copies, that’s a bonus.

Your aim should be to write the best stories you can, develop your talent as much as you can, and write stories that you can be proud of. It’s a lot of time locked away in a room by yourself, just you and your imagination. I think if you try and chase the market, write vampire stories because you think vampire stories will sell, you’re going to end up frustrated with books that probably won’t sell. Go with your heart… that would be my advice. Hope a demon doesn’t rip it out before you get there.

More than twenty years after the first Cirque Du Freak novel was published, what do you hope people take away from that series and your other books?

DS: I just hope they enjoy the stories. When you write a story, you always hope that people will enjoy the characters, enjoy the storylines, take them by surprise or maybe feel compelled to come back and reread them. Hopefully, pass them on. That’s the great thing about children’s books, they do tend to get passed on – from older brothers and sisters to younger brothers and sisters, friends, neighbours, cousins. There are copies of the first Cirque du Freak that have been out twenty years that have gone through many different hands. It’s a lovely thing to think that stories can do that.

Looking ahead to the rest of 2021, what do you hope to accomplish, professionally or personally?

DS: I’m working on editing the last few books of Archibald Lox – I’ve released books four, five and six over the course of this summer and books seven, eight and nine will come out in 2022. Before this interview, I edited the end of book seven and I’m into the first few chapters of book eight. Book seven ends on one of my big huge cliffhangers so I’ve enjoyed those, hopefully, fans will too. We’ll get those out next year and see what’s next.

Thanks again for taking the time, Darren. Take care and stay safe!

DS: Thanks a lot Conor, cheers.

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