• GOTTA WRITE | 17 June 2004 | Denise Fletcher

    If you are a teenager, chances are you are familiar with the Cirque Du Freak series written by Irish author Darren Shan. You may have started reading Book I: A Living Nightmare and can not wait to get a copy of the soon-to-be-released Book 7: Hunters of the Dusk.

    If Shan is new to you, the series follows a young schoolboy, named Darren Shan, who receives an invitation to a bizarre and frightening troupe known as Cirque Du Freak. He is then introduced into the sinister world of vampires and learns that evil forces can destroy the world as he knows it. You didn't read wrong. The author shortened his real name, which is Darren O'Shaughnessy, and made himself the protagonist. Now sit back, my young vampire lovers, and read about a young man from Limerick, Ireland.

    Although he is Irish, Darren O'Shaughnessy was born on July 2, 1972 in St. Thomas' Hospital, London, directly across the river from the Houses of Parliament in Westminister. He lived in Southeast London, near the Elephant and Castle. He started school at the early age of three in English Martyr's. At the age of six, he moved to Limerick in Ireland, with his parents and younger brother, and has lived there ever since. He went to primary school in Askeaton, where his mother was a teacher, then to secondary school at Copsewood College in Pallaskenry. Later, he went back to London to study Sociology and English at Roehampton College. He worked for a cable TV company in Limerick for a few years, before setting up as a full-time writer.

    Shan bought his first typewriter when he was 14 and never looked back, writing short stories, comic strips and making false starts on several uncompleted books. He enjoyed his first taste of literary success when he was 15, as a runner-up in a TV script-writing competition for RTE in Ireland, with a dark comedy script called "A Day in the Morgue." He admits to being morbid even then.

    At age 17, he finished his first novel, "Mute Pursuit," which was a futuristic cross between "The Terminator" and Stephen King's "The Dark Tower." Although the novel was never published, Shan loved the experience, but still felt he needed to move away from the short story format. Between college and his job, he wrote a book a year in various genres. When he began writing full-time, he was able to complete five to six books a year. Currently, though, he's down to two or three. Promoting his novels eats up a lot of his free time.

    What was growing up in Ireland like?

    Quite lonely, actually. I lived in the countryside, so seeing my friends after school or during holidays was quite hard. I used to spend a lot of my time by myself, making up stories, playing games with make-believe buddies, daydreaming about being all sorts of different people when I grew up."

    He's not complaining. He actually enjoyed spending time by himself.

    "But it was quite solitary, and still is. That's one of the downsides to being a writer - you have to spend huge chunks of time working by yourself, in isolation. But, hey, if you don't enjoy that, or can't handle the loneliness, you simply find another career. Me, I get on fine with it. Though every so often I do need to take a break from the PC and go spend some quality time with family and friends," he said.

    What does his family think about his novels?

    "I have a 'very' large family. Some of them have read all my books - some haven't. Two of my most dedicated fans are probably my Grandad and Mother - they read every last word and let me know 'exactly' what they think about them."

    In a recent online article, Shan stated that Vincent Price's "Theater of Blood" movie led to his hunger for horror books, comics and movies. What was it about horror that grabbed his attention and never let go? 

    "I loved being scared and grossed-out! I'm actually not that much of a horror buff any more - I saw so many horror flicks and read so many books, I guess I got a little tired of the genre. I still enjoy a really good horror film or book as much as ever - but I don't devour them anymore," said Shan.

    What inspired him to write the series was his goal to write a childrens book.

    "But I never quite found the right story or tone of voice until 'Cirque Du Freak.' " I also wanted to write a vampire book - but I didn't want to simply repeat the stale old Dracula formula. I was waiting for a fresh idea to strike me. Then, one day, I thought about what life would be like if an ordinary kid encountered a vampire, and through a series of misadventures, ended up having to reluctantly become his assistant and travel around the world with him. As soon as the thought hit me, I was off like a greyhound after a hare! I began writing the book a couple of days later - and haven't stopped yet!"

    Shan was not interested in the "gross factor" or writing what is on the edge of being acceptable. Instead, he has a message he's trying to get across to his readers through the series.

    If he tried to write the series when he was a teenager or even in his 20s, it would have been a lot bloodier and gruesome, he confessed.

    "What I wanted readers to feel - even more than fright or repulsion - was sadness and compassion. Darren, the main character, has a very hard life. He has to leave his home, family and friends; people close to him die and he is betrayed by close allies. I wanted readers to share that, partly so that they could realize just how good their own lives are in comparison.

    "A story like Darren's will maybe get readers to say, Hey, hang on a minute, I'm actually one of the lucky ones.' For those who aren't having things so good right now, who've maybe moved home, don't have many friends, or have lost someone close to them, the books show that no matter how bad your life is, there's always a way forward. Things can and do improve. You just have to hang in there, ride with the blows, battle hard, and eventually you will overcome whatever obstacles that have been set in your path."

    Many of the same characters in the series do continue from one book to the next, but several die during the course of the storyline. Not just minor, secondary characters are lost, he added, some of the "biggies" have died.

    "It's one of the things which makes these books different from other series. I write them as if they really happened, and I apply the rules of real-life to the stories. As I say in book 1, real life is hard, and the good guys often don't win. Readers never know, from one book to the next, who is going to live or die. I think that adds an edge to them and makes them much more exciting than other series where the heroes always march through unscratched," he said. Some of the challenges his characters face are: being buried alive, having to battle a savage wolf man; running into a band of purple-skinned blood-suckers who always kill when they feed; murderous bears; cannibalistic, blue-robed creatures known as Little People; and betrayal by friends.

    Shan believes the secret to writing good horror, or any genre for that matter, is always the same.  "If you write about interesting, imaginative, engaging characters, readers will enjoy your books," he said. Shan started the path toward publication writing adult books and admits to having had several manuscripts turned down by many publishers before one was published.

    "Then with 'Cirque Du Freak' my agent and I sent it out to 20 publishers in the UK - and they all turned it down! Hard to believe, now that the books are on sale in 27 countries around the world, having sold, at last count, five million or so copies, but true! He added that almost every writer gets rejected when they start out - including Tolkien, Stephen King and J.K. Rowling. "It's something you learn to accept and deal with and it makes you all the stronger in the long run."

    Shans first efforts at writing began with "loads" of stories and books when he was a teenager and in his early 20s. He admits that most of them "stink." He had had some very good ideas, though.

    "But as I said, characters are what matter the most, and it took me quite a while to learn how to develop characters that readers would care about. Every writer has to go through the process. Writing is something you learn how to do, it's not a skill you're born with. Yes, some people are naturally more imaginative and inventive than others, but I don't think any writer has ever written anything of worth without putting in years of good, hard, honest sweat!"

    Shan has written a few books which he intends to bring out once this series ends, but they are shrouded in secrecy at the moment.

    Typical feedback from his readers has been "Is this really a true story?" and "Can you turn me into a vampire?" He simply smiles.

    With five million books sold, his devoted following is his best form of promotion. Still, an author has to actively participate in the process.

    "My publishers do lots of work promoting the novels. It's not easy getting a book into a store, and then getting people to buy it. A lot of people on the Little, Brown staff have had to work very hard over a long period of time to make the series as successful as it is. I chip in by touring, answering questions like these, and by making myself accessible through my website."

    Speaking of his website, he actually created it. One would ask when he even has time with a totally impressive U.S. tour ahead of him.

    "Not long after the first book came out in the U.K., I borrowed a Create Your Own Web Site in 24 Hours' book and set to work on putting Shanville (the name of my site) together. I knew absolutely nothing about the web at the time. I'd only went online a month or two earlier, but I wanted to give it a crack. I actually had the site redesigned by a professional last year, but I'm still the controller. I update it and keep it ticking over."

    Even though it eats up a lot of his time, he enjoys working on his site. Since he was a fan before he was a professional writer, the fan in him thinks it's cool to maintain the site.

    Now for the questions most fans ask their favorite authors: Does he have a daily writing schedule and does he write in a quiet room or have music blasting? "When working on a first draft of a book, I do 10 pages a day, five days a week. I write on a PC, in my office. Up until this year I was living with my parents, and wrote in my bedroom, where my PC was. I wrote with music playing softly in the background, normally rock or indie pop," he said.

    Asked if he writes the books or his characters dictate to him, he replied, "It's a combined effort. I set things in motion, and guide it along, but there always comes a point where the characters start to take over. At that stage I just hang on tight and go along for the ride, hoping it all works out for the best in the end."

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