• AMAZON UK | 20 February 2000 | Damian Kelleher

    Cirque du Freak's combination of luxuriously dark imagery and sinister realism caused something of a stir in the book world, and hasn't escaped the notice of the Hollywood execs who have snapped up the rights for a rather impressive sum. With the second book in the saga, The Vampire's Assistant, published in June, Darren Shan is heading for the Big Time. For Amazon.co.uk Damian Kelleher talks to him about the series that looks set to catapult him to cult status.

    Amazon.co.uk: Your real name is Darren Shaughnessy. How and why did you decide to change it?
    Darren Shan: When I was first doing the book I decided to write it in the first person and say it was a true story. I knew that I'd have to use a different name because I write other books, and Darren Shan just popped into my head. I've got an uncle who always used to call me Shan the Man!

    Amazon.co.uk: When did you first start writing?
    Shan: I first started when I was at school. I began writing short stories. Then when I was 14 or 15 I got my first typewriter - a little portable number that I bought in Argos - and I found I could write much much quicker. It was very easy to press the buttons and it made a nice little clattering sound.

    Amazon.co.uk: What did you write in those days?
    Shan: I used to write very dark horrible stories--the normal things teenagers do: the nastier the better! These were my first stabs at books. I always enjoyed writing stories in English--I had a teacher in the first and second year at secondary school who was very encouraging. Brother Seamus, he was called. But as you get older, they tell you to stop writing stories--you have to start writing essays then.

    Amazon.co.uk: Do you let anyone read your books as you write them?
    Shan: No, not until I finish. The earlier drafts are very rough, I don't like anyone to read my work until it's as good as it's going to get.

    Amazon.co.uk: How did you start writing Cirque Du Freak?
    Shan: At the time I was working on another book when I had the idea for Cirque Du Freak on the Thursday. I started it the following Monday. Originally it was just a side project--I'd never written a children's book before--so I had no idea how it was going to turn out. I thought, well I'll start it and if I don't finish I don't really care. I'll just knock out a few pages in the evening, just for fun! But as it went on, I got more involved with it.

    Amazon.co.uk: Was it your first book?
    Shan: No! I've written loads and loads of books. I've got a huge stack of first drafts propped up on my bedroom floor! It's good to write books, just to write. A lot of the books I've written aren't ready for publication. You learn from it. I finished my first novel when I was 17. Having finished it, I felt as if I'd really achieved something, and it encouraged me to keep on writing. Once you actually do something and realise you can do it, it's a case of honing your craft and really working at it.

    Amazon.co.uk: Cirque Du Freak isn't a one-off, is it?
    Shan: No, it's going to be a big long series with about 24 books in total.

    Amazon.co.uk: Have you planned them all out?
    Shan: Well I've just finished book eight so I've planned them about two or three books ahead at a time. I know the overall plot-line for the story--all the ins and outs. The relationship between Mr Crepsley and Darren develops as they go on, and there are new characters coming in.

    Amazon.co.uk: Do the characters have a life of their own ?
    Shan: Definitely. Take Mr Crepsley. I wasn't entirely sure how he would develop. Is he good? Is he bad? What's he going to be like with Darren?

    Amazon.co.uk: Why would anyone want to read this book?
    Shan: It's a good book for people who don't normally read books because it gives you something that most books don't . It's unpredictable. When you start out, you don't know how it's going to finish up. Most books usually start out and follow a normal format. The template for Cirque Du Freak--and I didn't realise it at the time--is the movie Psycho. It starts out as one thing, there's a big revelation mid-way through, and it becomes something else again.

    Amazon.co.uk: There's a strong feeling of taboo about the freak show isn't there?
    Shan: There's a forbidden feel to it, yes. There are no other children at the Cirque Du Freak, but they go in anyway. I think readers like that--if you ever tell a child you can't do this, they want to do it. You can't go there--they're off! But going back to the origins of children's literature, some books were exceedingly dark, with a strong religious aspect. Grimm's Fairy Tales were really gruesome!

    Amazon.co.uk: Cirque Du Freak creates a strange world, doesn't it?
    Shan: It's an underworld. A lot of fantasy books I've read--people like Clive Barker--explored hidden societies

    Amazon.co.uk: What did you read as a child?
    Shan: I really liked comics when I was growing up; the Eagle when it was relaunched in the 80s, 2000AD. I read a lot of Enid Blyton too. It takes the knocks these days but I loved her stuff. The Famous Five were my favourites. I used to argue with my uncle about it--he preferred The Secret Seven.

    Amazon.co.uk: Ever read any Goosebumps?
    Shan: Goosebumps wasn't out when I was growing up but I did used to read lots of Alfred Hitchcock , and other adult stuff like that.That was something I was trying to do with Cirque Du Freak--I was thinking about people like Poe, great old creepy tales. I wanted a nice dark feel to Cirque Du Freak, a book you can read through very quickly, but at the end you don't just put it down and forget about it--it keeps trickling through your mind. You think about the start--going into the theatre, the woman who has her hand bitten off--thoughts keep going around.

    Amazon.co.uk: It's very cinematic isn't it?
    Shan: Yes, I watch a lot of films. I've seen virtually every horror film there was at one stage. I used to watch all those Hammer Horror films when I was a kid. I lived in London until the age of six and occasionally I'd stay up late and catch a glimpse of Vincent Price. And I used to watch Tales of the Unexpected too. And The Outer Limits, Tales from the Darkside. And I loved The Ray Bradbury Theatre and I've read all his [Ray Bradbury] books too.

    Amazon.co.uk: How did you come to "star" in your own novel?
    Shan: When I was writing the book, I was thinking about what I liked reading when I was 10,11, 12-years-old. So by using myself as the main character I was able to put myself in the position where I wrote about what I would have liked. So instead of imagining what a 12-year-old might like to read today, I imagined back to what I liked when I was younger.

    Amazon.co.uk: Darren, the central character is quite an ordinary kid isn't he?
    Shan: The best fantasy always start off with something ordinary. And if you have your characters wander in to something extraordinary it makes it more interesting. I read loads of fantasies when I was growing up, stuff like Lord of the Rings with hobbits and elves. If you can start with real people though, you have characters that readers can identify with.

    Amazon.co.uk: Do you prefer fantasy to reality?
    Shan: Children believe in fantasy more readily than adults. They like scaring themselves. When I was a child I loved thinking about Dracula flying in the the window and attacking me as I tried to fight him off. At the same time, I always knew the difference between what was and wasn't real. Children can definitely tell the difference.

    Amazon.co.uk: What scares you, Darren?
    Shan: Well I'm not too fond of spiders! Tarantulas would be fine, I don't mind holding one of them. It's when they creep up on you unawares, when they drop down on you while you're eating dinner or watching telly - urgh! I used to squish 'em but since I wrote this I guide them out of the room. I think I owe them that now. 

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