I’ve had the pleasure to interview Darren Shan, whose newest book, The Procession of the Dead, came out on the 4th of June. You can find out more about Mr. Shan and his various books, including the Cirque du Freak and Demonata books, at his website.
Now for the interview:
First, thanks very much for doing this interview. Could you let folks know a bit about who you are? What first inspired you to try your hand at writing (for fun and professionally, if you can disentangle the two)?
I’ve spent the last ten years writing books for older children and teenagers — Cirque Du Freak and The Demonata — but I actually started out writing for adults, and now I have returned to that field with Procession of the Dead, the first of a trilogy. I’ve always wanted to be a writer, ever since I was 5 or 6 years old. I just love telling stories! I began trying to write books when I was a teenager, completed my first full draft when I was 17, and powered on from there. I began writing full time when I was 23 and got my first cheque a couple of years or so later. I struggled to get off the mark with my adult books initially, but then Cirque Du Freak came along by accident — I didn’t plan to write children’s books for a living; I just wanted to try it for fun! Fifteen million book sales later, I’ve never looked back!
Who are some of the books/writers who have most influenced you? Likewise, who are some of your favorite authors/books from the last ten years?
Stephen King’s been my biggest single influence, but I like to read widely and have been directly inspired by all sorts of writers, from Mark Twain and Frances Hodgson Burnett, to Ray Bradbury and Kurt Vonnegut, to Jonathan Carroll and James Ellroy, and many, many more. From the last ten or so years, His Dark Materials by Philip Pullman has impressed me the most. I also loved Neil Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book.
Your bio indicates that you are a huge movie and comic fan. Which movies and comics do you find yourself going back to over and over and what draws you to them?
With movies, all sorts, but some of the ones which I watch religiously every few years or so are everything by Sergio Leone, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Being There (the Peter Sellers film), The Chocolate War, Pulp Fiction, the Star Wars movies, the Godfather films, The Searchers… As for comics, The Watchmen is absolutely amazing and my favourite single work of any medium. V For Vendetta, Miracleman, The Killing Joke, The Dark Knight Returns, Love & Rockets, Cerebus, The Sandman, Bone.
What does your writing space look like? Are you the messy desk type, or the old cushy chair with the patches type? Pen and paper, old typewriter, or computer?
I write on a PC, and I like organised chaos! My office is fairly tidy, and my books are stacked meticulously on their shelves, but there are always bits of paper everywhere, books on the floor waiting to be sorted through and shelved (my books are published in almost 40 countries, so I get lots of foreign editions in the post every month!), CDs of photos waiting to be uploaded to my site, and so on. It’s all fine as long as nobody comes in to disturb it!
Do you develop your novels, whether in The City Trilogy or your previous series, with the idea of a series in mind, or do they sort of take a life of their own after the first book? What for you is the most difficult aspect of writing a series of books?
No, all of my three series to date started out as stand-alone story ideas. With Cirque Du Freak I knew there would be room to do some sequels if I felt like it, but I didn’t have a long series planned. With Lord Loss and Procession of the Dead I never dreamt that either would be the first book of a series. But after I’d written them, I came up with ideas for stories that tied in with them and took things from there.
Procession of the Dead reminds me a lot of Gangs of New York and some of the work by Brian Evenson (along with other 1920s-30s-styled books/movies). What was the inspiration for this particular novel? How did it develop in your head? And why blind Incan priests who seem to be invisible to everyone else?
It actually started life when I was watching Barton Fink! I wanted to write a quirky, funny book about an insurance agent and his wacky mentor. But as I played around with ideas it quickly became something more sinister and involved. I wrote the first draft back in the early 90s. Other influences would have been the Godfather movies, Once Upon A Time In America, the old gangster movies that I’ve always loved (the ones with Jimmy Cangey, George Raft, Bogie, etc), the books of Jonathan Carroll. The Incan angle came after I’d pieced together most of the main story. I was looking for a good title for the book, and I remembered reading an Incan calendar some months earlier. When I went back to it, I liked what I found and chose the names for the chapter headings. Then, as I worked on the book and subsequent drafts, the Incans just sort of grew and became more integral.
Your books have a particularly dark fantasy slant to them, and Procession of the Dead certainly seems to play even more with the dark, odd, and bizarre. What draws you to the dark and the bizarre and what do you think it is that intrigues us, as readers, about such things?
I think it has to do with our fear of death. We’re aware that we have limited time on this planet, and I think most people like to believe that death won’t be the end of us, that we’ll live on somehow, some way. Any sort of fantasy helps us cling to the idea that there’s more to life than this one short burst of it. Even if it’s a horror story, I think people would rather believe in a world of monsters and dark magic than a world of plain, brutal reality when we live for a while, die, and the universe moves on quite nicely without us. Fantastical explorations, whether they take the form of religious books or horror novels, are crucial to keeping most of us sane and on the right track. In a world of darkness, there’s a chance that a force of supreme good exists and that we are being judged. In a world of bland reality, why should we obey laws, respect the rights of other people, toe the line? If anyone ever proves that there are no gods or ghosts or any other supernatural beings, I think we’re going to find ourselves in a whole heap of trouble! In the meantime, let’s dream big and believe whatever the hell we want to and play with all the dark, morbid, other-worldly stories that our fevered minds can conjure up — it’s fun and it’s good for us!
Do you keep maps of your world(s), such as the City in Procession of the Dead, or do the places you play with in your writing exist as vivid dreams in your mind?
The only time I’ve ever drawn a map was when I wrote The Thin Executioner, which is an out-and-out fantasy novel set on a make-believe world. Otherwise I keep my stories in this realm, although I do often play around with geography — I don’t feel like I have to completely obey the laws of reality, and places like The City are a mix of various towns, cities and villages which I have visited or imagined over the years.
Being a bestselling author, you have undoubtedly dealt with modern innovations in distributing stories, such as ebooks and so on. Do you think we will live in a mostly paperless world, with physical books becoming more like collector’s items than the preferred medium?
I definitely think hard copy books are on the way out — digital books just offer too many advantages. It’s like DVD versus video, CD versus tapes — there’s only ever going to be one outright winner! However, I think it will take time for books to go completely digital. People like me, who grew up on books, have an emotional attachment to them that’s hard to break — that’s why many people ridicule the very idea of reading from a screen, because to them it’s an insult to even suggest that they might ever abandon their beloved paperbacks. But as computers become more commonplace in schools, and as more and more children are taught to read by looking at a screen, they will grow up without that emotional attachment, and they will opt for the more advanced digital world over the very 20th century world that we have come from. The revolution will truly begin with the young, but it’s a revolution I look forward to — it will make access to books far easier and more widespread than it could ever otherwise be, and I think it will lead to even more people reading.
What other projects do you have coming up besides The City Trilogy? Can you tell us a bit about them?
In August I release my one-off book, The Thin Executioner. Then in October I start a four book series called The Saga Of Larten Crepsley, about one of the characters from my vampire series.
What unusual piece of advice would you give to any aspiring writers out there?
Don’t think too hard! Writer’s block only happens when you think too much about a story. It’s like riding a bike — don’t stand there looking at the damn thing and trying to analyse everything that must be done in order to operate it — just jump the hell on and see where the ride takes you!
Random Question: If you could bring to life any dark fantasy creature you’ve either invented, written about, or read about, which creature would it be and why?
This world would be a very interesting place with the chess-playing Lord Loss from my Demonata series, an eight-armed demon master with a hole where his heart should be, filled with dozens of tiny, writhing snakes, and a desperate yearning to experience human sorrows in all their forms and flavours. Oprah would love him!
And that’s it, folks! Thanks again to Mr. Shan for his time and patience. Now go get a copy of Procession of the Dead!