• FWOMP | 06 January 2004 | Chris Kemp

    If you're like me--an adult who feels "called" to write supernatural fiction for juveniles--you may find yourself plagued by insecurities of appropriateness. Am I writing at the correct level? Do my characters sound authentic? Am I hopelessly out of touch with the tastes of today's 'tweens and teens?I wrestle with these questions on a daily basis, so it's always interesting to read the works of an adult who has successfully tapped into the juvenile fiction market. Darren Shan, creator of the Cirque du Freak series of novels, is one such author. The series of books (slated to reach 20 installments!) chronicles the adventures of an adolescent who--though a series of bizarre events--becomes part vampire and begins traveling with a gallery of fellow misfits in a not quite above-ground freak show, including the vampire who sired him.

    As a writer, Shan--who is British--accomplishes much that is admirable, beginning with the force of his narrative drive. The volumes I read I finished in a sitting, testimony to their appeal to an attention-challenged younger generation. In addition, Shan manages to put an original spin on the vampire mythos. I won't go into the details here--the books themselves articulate the concept better than any synopsis could--but I will tell you that in Shan's world, vampires are not necessarily evil.

    Perhaps the most noteworthy aspect of Shan's writing, in the context of the concerns outlined at the beginning of this introduction, is the voice with which he writes. It is deceptively unadorned, yet sounds believable. This is particularly important given the series of novels is written in first person, that person being the boy who has submitted to vampirism. That Shan can avoid slang, descriptions of wardrobe and other specific cultural references, yet strike a responsive chord with middle and high schoolers, was heartening. As an American I couldn't even tell the stories are set in England! Shan also manages to set a clear moral compass throughout, without becoming heavy-handed or preachy. Actions have consequences, often dire, though sometimes they take a while to play out. Plot logic is never sacrificed to make a point.

    You can learn more about Shan, Cirque du Freak, and his books for adults on his Shanville website (www.darrenshan.com). For the purposes of this interview, FWOMP concentrated on the specifics of writing juvenile fiction and the unique challenges it presents. Shan was more than generous (and timely!) with his responses, providing for an entertaining and informative read.

    FWOMP: At what age group is your Cirque du Freak series aimed?

    Darren Shan: It varies. I wrote them with an 11-13 year-old audience in mind, but I remembered that I was reading a variety of books at that age, some meant for children, some for adults. One day I'd read Roald Dahl [author of such children's classics as Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and James and the Giant Peach -Ed.], and the next I'd read Stephen King! At that age, I wanted to write a book for myself, one that combined the best elements of the children's and adult books I read. It would touch on many dark, thought-provoking adult subjects, but also be an exciting, easy read.

    As such, the Cirque du Freak books appeal to a very wide age range. In the UK and USA they're aimed at 10-14 year olds, which is similar in many of the 25 countries in which the books are sold. However, in other places they're aimed at older teens, or even adults. In Japan many of my readers are 18-30 year old women!

    FWOMP: What made you decide to write for a younger audience?

    DS: It had been an aim of mine for a long time. I've always enjoyed children's books, and even in my later teens and twenties was happy to read books by the likes of Robert Cormier [The Chocolate War, I am the Cheese, and many more -Ed.], Robert Westall [British children's author known for his ghost stories, among others -Ed.] and Roald Dahl. I also studied children's literature for a year at university. The problem was finding the right story--and the right voice. For a long time I held off attempting a children's book and focused on my adult novels (I've had two books for adults published, but they failed to take off like the Cirque du Freak books).

    Then, one day, I got the idea for Cirque du Freak and started to write it down a few days later. It really was as painless as that! I started it as a side-project, meant only to amuse myself. As I got more into it, I began to think it might sell well, but I honestly didn't think it was going to do as well as it has--or that what started as one single book would transform into such a long series!

    FWOMP: When writing for middle or high schoolers, some authors feel obligated to use slang, fashion and the contemporary social/school structure to make their work "relevant" or "hip". The downside to this strategy is if you miss the mark you sound foolish and out-of-it. Even if you succeed, such a flavor can date your books quickly. Your stories manage to avoid this trap--they could take place at any time and in any location in America in the latter 20th century--yet they "feel" contemporary. Speech is straightforward, yet it seems authentic. Was it a conscious decision on your part to avoid drawing on specific aspects of youth speech and culture? If so, what went into your thinking process when deciding to write that way? How did you figure out this kind of "universal approach" was the way to write these novels?

    DS: I deliberately avoided slang and in-vogue catchphrases wherever possible (although some have been added to the American editions of my books, which have been Americanized by my editors in the States--a process I readily agreed to in the beginning, but which I now rather regret). As you say, getting teen slang right is difficult--especially since something that sounds good when said in a live situation can look absolutely ridiculous when set down on paper! For the most part I think slang is meant to be spoken and not written! Also--again, as you note--it dates a book, and I wanted to write a story that could work in any country, at any time. In your question you say that the story is set in America--and while it most certainly could take place in the States (the reason why I agreed to let the books be Americanized), it could also happen almost anywhere else! For me, the first book is set in a cross between Limerick and London (the two places where I've lived)--but every reader supplies their own locations when they read these books. It was a gamble--by setting a novel nowhere specific, you risk not finding an audience anywhere! But the gamble has paid off.

    FWOMP: How much research did you have to do in determining age-appropriate vocabulary for your audience?

    DS: I have a simple philosophy that I apply to both my adult and children's books: big ideas, small words. For me a great story is one that is intricate and multi-layered, but also widely accessible. While a book like James Joyce's Ulysses is a remarkable, laudable work, writers like Shakespeare, Dickens and Twain are far more important. There's no reason why any book should be inaccessible to anyone with a good grasp of the language. You can construct the most fantastic, remarkable plots and characters using very modest language--just as you can build an amazing palace using the simplest of building materials. I never use a thesaurus when I write, and only occasionally a dictionary when I want to check the spelling of a word. The words I use in my books are the words I use in everyday life--what you read is what you get.

    When it comes to writing for children, I generally try to recall what my understanding of the language was like when I was a kid and base my writing on that. If there's a certain word I think readers are going to struggle with, I'll sometimes explain it within the story--but normally I'll try to make it make perfect sense within the context of the sentence in which it appears. If it doesn't, I'll search for another word. Each reader is different, so I don't think you can rely on research in a case like this--you just have to go with your gut instinct and keep your fingers crossed that you've got it right! If not, you'll soon hear about it from your readers!

    FWOMP: Though you deal with bizarre and scary material, I sense a moral compass directing events in your stories. You do it without being preachy, but there is a sense of ethical order in these books. Again, is this a conscious effort? If it is, why do you think this aspect of your writing is important? Is it because you know you might be influencing impressionable minds?

    DS: In my adult books I've often been more ambiguous than in my children's books--the world can be a dark, cynical, relentless beast, and I quite enjoy exploring its seedy underbelly. But children read books differently than adults, and while an adult can read a book by the likes of Hubert Selby, Jr. [Last Exit to Brooklyn, The Room -Ed.] or Bret Easton Ellis [Less than Zero, American Psycho-Ed.] and appreciate the insights they provide into the grimmer layers of mankind, I think a child might find such a book oppressingly bleak. I don't think children should just be given books about happy kids having happy adventures, in a world where nothing ever goes wrong--but I do think it would be wrong to drop them into a moral abyss that life hasn't yet (hopefully!) prepared them to handle. I don't preach in my books, and I don't tell readers how to live their lives, but I do try to provide them with characters who know the difference between good and bad, and who know the importance of fighting for what is right and just.

    FWOMP: Though terribly overused as a story device, you manage to spin a fresh perspective on the vampire legend. Any particular reason you chose vampires to be a centerpiece of your fiction?

    DS: I loved horror when I was a child. Ghosts, ghouls, werewolves, mummies, zombies--I devoured movies, books and comics about them with delicious glee! But vampires were my favourites. I found them irresistible. Anything that had anything to do with vampires, I tracked down and absorbed! Later I tired of the genre, since it's so repetitive, but I still enjoyed works that managed to produce a fresh take on the old ideas, such as the movie Cronos [influential 1992 Mexican horror film; the first in the career of director Guillermo del Toro -Ed.]. So, while I had no wish to crank out another stale Dracula rehash, I was quite interested in exploring what a blood-sucking creature would be like if he wasn't an evil monster--and had a young boy for a companion.

    FWOMP: Do you claim any writers as influences?

    DS: Loads!! Stephen King is one of my main influences--I've loved his work ever since I read Salem's Lot. Ray Bradbury has also been a big influence, as well as Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., and a wonderful writer by the name of Jonathan Carroll [American fantasist, author of many short stories and novels including the Rondua Trilogy -Ed.]. And, of course, the hilariously macabre Roald Dahl.

    FWOMP: What is a typical day for you in terms of work habits and writing schedule?

    DS: Rise about 9 a.m. Begin writing at 10. Work for two hours. Have a break. Work for maybe another two hours. Chill!

    Not a lot of hours per day, I know, but that's because I write very quickly. When working on a first draft, I set myself the target of ten pages per day--the quicker I get those ten pages done, the quicker I can knock off!!

    In addition, I normally spend additional hours--as few as one, as many as three or four or more--answering e-mails, editing, updating my website, etc.

    FWOMP: Do you have any advice for those wishing to write age-specific material? Are there any special challenges the process poses to adults who feel compelled to write supernatural fiction for youngsters?

    DS: Hmmm…It's tricky. I think you have to remember that you're not writing for simpletons (some writers seem to have no idea whatsoever of what child readers are like!), but you're also not writing for adults who know as much about the world as you do. Try to tell a good story, with an engaging and challenging plot. Don't preach. Don't make them educational books in disguise. Remember what you were like as a child and try to write for that child you once were.

    FWOMP: Is there a place readers can visit to learn more about you and your work?

    DS: www.darrenshan.com--co-designed and solely updated on an irregular basis by yours truly!

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