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Interview

WRITEAWAY - 23 june 2007

interviewer: Alec Gamble

 
Darren O’Shaughnessy was born on 2 July 1972 in London. After starting school at the age of three, he moved to Limerick with his parents and younger brother. He went back to London to study Sociology/English at college. Darren worked for a cable television company for 2 years before setting up as a full time writer. He had his first taste of literary success aged 15 when he was runner-up in a television script-writing competition with a comedy script titled, ‘Day in the Morgue’. Darren completed his first book aged 17. A big film buff, he also reads lots of adult-orientated indy comics. Other interests include long walks, outdoor swimming, watching and discussing football, scuba-diving…and dreaming up new ways to terrify his readers!

Were there any antecedents to your chess-playing demon Lord Loss in you first Demonata story?

Lord Loss started as a poem, the one that you can find at the beginning of the book. I used to write lots of poetry and I wrote that one years and years ago. Most of the poems I forgot about but Lord Loss was different. I found myself thinking about it, even years later. I wondered whether there was a story to go with this creepy, eight-armed character, let loose in a world of webs. Then about five years ago I was playing around with ideas for a werewolf story and I realised I could amalgamate that story with the character of Lord Loss and make it more than just a simple werewolf book. I used chess because I like chess and I thought it would be more interesting than having a simple battle to the death at the end. It’s a bit more cerebral.

Bec is set in quite a different time to the other Demonata books. Did you find that challenging?

Yeah, Bec was the hardest book I’ve had to write. I had to do lots of research, because it was set in a very specific time and place, Western Ireland, 1,600 years ago. I had to make sure it was historically accurate. With most of the books I can just wing it; I don’t have to do lots of research, because they’re not set anywhere specific or even in a specific timeframe. But with Bec, I had to make sure that things were accurate. My research involved travelling around Ireland and reading lots of books about Irish history. So, yes, that was quite a challenging one.

Is the story based Celtic Mythology? I thought when Bec and Drust go under the cliff, under the sea it had the feel of the Celtic Otherworld?

It’s not really based on Celtic Mythology, although I did bring in the Fomorii, which were a breed of monsters from Celtic Mythology. Obviously the Celts had their own Gods and they used certain phrases, which referred to those Gods, which are included in the book. It was all historically accurate. Everything that’s described in the book is as real as I could make it: the clothes they wear, the way they speak, burial customs, the huts they live in. All I did was add demons to the mix. The demons are a composite of different things and a product of my own imagination.

Do you ever feel that you’ve overstepped the mark with your horror?

I don’t think so. When I write a first draft, I do sometimes go further than I should, but then I always hone it in later drafts. I’m always very conscious that I am writing for children. I have 15, 16, 17 year olds and older reading my books, but I also have 10 and 11 year old readers, so I try not to put in anything too extreme. You can actually go quite far with violence in children’s books, as I’ve proven over the last seven and a half years. As long as the story is about, demons and vampires and magic, then it’s not real, and I think you’ve got more licence. So, in Lord Loss there’s an upsetting scene where Grubbs’ family are killed by demons. However, because demons are doing the killing, it’s not ‘real’. Kids aren’t going to be traumatised…..

……Well, I was traumatised.

Yeah, not seriously though. If it was about a serial killer, I think that would be different. Because demons are mythical creatures, it’s fun horror. Yes, it’s scary but there’s also an element of the ridiculous about it. Everybody knows that an eight-armed monster is not going to turn up in real life. It is fun to believe it might, but really we know it’s not. I think that fantasy element gives you freedom to go quite far with violence.

Do you enjoy scaring yourself then?

I never really scare myself because I think horror’s only scary if you don’t know what’s coming next. And, of course, when I’m writing the books, I always know what’s coming up, so, no, I never scare myself with my own books.

So what do you think makes good horror fiction? Is it the build up of suspense and tension?

Well, first of all, you have to create characters that people care about. That’s the same no matter what genre you’re writing. Now, what you do with those characters afterwards, that’s entirely up to you. You might write a horror book, fantasy, Sci-fi or a love story, but you’ve got to be interested in the characters. Then you need a solid, well-structured story. With horror you do need tension; you need to have something unexpected. You need twists, a bit of deceit and a splash of bloodshed, although the most horrific scenes aren’t usually that bloody. One of the most upsetting scenes I think in the whole of The Saga of Darren Shan was in the first book when Darren was buried alive. There’s no bloodshed just a boy in a coffin and his parents crying overhead thinking he’s dead. That’s quite an upsetting scene, but it’s not bloody and it’s not gratuitous. The fun stuff is the blood and gore and demons ripping people apart, but the real menace comes in the quieter moments.

I have some issues creating character names that suit my stories. Obviously some of yours like Grubitsch seem quite unrealistic, but they work…

Well, that’s because it’s a fantasy book. Now if I was writing a book about modern teen issues it would be ridiculous to have names like Grubitsch Grady and Dervish and Vancha March. In fantasy it’s fun to have these strange names. You’ve always got to go with what suits the story. In my vampire books, the vampires start off as humans, so they would have had normal names, but because they’ve got magical powers no-one ever questions the fact that they’ve got these weird names because they just seems to go with the type of life the characters lead. . I’ll start out with an idea for a character and I’ll play around with names. I always know a name is right when I come up with it. It’s all about finding the name to fit.

Is there anyone whose work has influenced your writing?

Loads. You know, as a writer you take things in from all over the place: from movies you see, from books you read, and things you experience in real life. One of the biggest influences for me is The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett, which was one of my favourite books as a child. Whenever I say that people frown and say, “Well, how can that be an influence, you write horrible, scary books?” Well, The Secret Garden is about a young girl who loses her family in India to a disease and she comes to live in England. She lives in a big old mysterious house on the Yorkshire moors with her uncle. Basically that is the story of Lord Loss, but without the demons.

 Mark Twain's, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn was a big influence on me. Later on, Stephen King and Clive Barker influenced my writing. Other writers like James Elroy and Tolkien were influential too. I read lots of different types of books when I was younger, and I try to mix up those genres; I take different ideas from all over the place and try and create something new out of them.

So are any of the places, like Gurubbs’ house in the Demonata based on real places?

His house isn’t anywhere specific. I mean, all the scenes in Bec, all the places in Bec are based on real places in Ireland. The village where it starts is actually the village where I live, and the view that Bec describes of looking across the river and seeing hills in the distance, is the view from my bedroom window. It takes place in Limerick City; it crosses over to the Cliffs of Moher, and that’s where the old creatures live. The caves are based on Mitchelstown Caves. The theatre in Cirque Du Freak, was based on old cinemas I used to go to in London and in Limerick years ago.

Do you plot in detail? And do you do any drawings to help you plot a story?

 I can’t draw. I was always terrible at art, so I don’t do any drawing. I begin to plot a book by playing around with ideas. When I have a fairly clear idea of what I want to do, I’ll write a very brief plot outline, maybe just one sheet of paper. After that I’ll break it into chapters and describe roughly what would happen in each chapter. The finished book won’t be exactly like t but it will be fairly close. And then I start writing….

Okay, so does the story unravel itself as you write?

Yes, the hardest bit is when you’re trying to get everything clear in your head, at the beginning. Sometimes I’ll have an idea and everything will just snap into place instantly, and I can begin writing a few days later. Other times I’ll have an idea, and I might spend a year, maybe even two years playing around with it. Trying to turn an idea into a story, that’s the difficult part and there’s no way of controlling that. You have to hope that eventually a story will emerge out. Once I have a general idea of where I want to go, then it’s a case of writing down. As I’m writing down my notes, other ideas will fall into place, and I will see it start to come together.

I was looking at the covers from different countries on your website. Are there any that you particularly like?

Yeah, I love The Demonata covers from the UK. I think they’re some of the best ones around. With the vampire books, my favourites were probably the Japanese. I think they were beautifully designed. I always like it when a country produces its own cover. The Norwegian covers, of The Demonata are completely different. I like to see what works in other countries.

Yeah, the Japanese ones seem to have Victorian dress…

On The Demonata they do, yeah, that’s the, sort of, style they’ve for with Demonata. I don’t like them as much as I like the vampire ones. I thought the vampire covers of Japan were really, really brilliant. The Demonata ones, from Japan, I think are very, very good, but I don’t like them as much as the English ones.

Thank you Darren Shan for talking to Write Away

http://www.writeaway.org.uk/component/option,com_mtree/task,viewlink/link_id,1779/

 
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