• J/M | 10 June 2001 | Carel Helder

    This interview originally appeared in a Dutch magazine, in the Dutch language


    Author Darren Shan is the Irish equivalent of Joanna Rowling. His horror series for children ranks high on international bestsellerlists. Recently, the first volume, The Great Freakshow, was published in a Dutch translation, prompting Carel Helder to book a flight to Ireland immediately for “An interview that makes sense.”

    My name is Carel Helder. I had read a book by Darren Shan. It was the best book I’d ever read. It was called The Great Freakshow, and when I’d finished it, I was sure it was going to change my life. I just didn’t know how yet. Three weeks later, I was on the plane to Ireland and wrote the first sentence in the notebook I’d just bought: “Even when the plane was descending, Darren Shan’s book was ascending international bestseller lists.” Not really a great sentence, maybe, but then, not such a bad one either. In my opinion. For a boy of twelve, that is.

     But perhaps I should start by telling you that I’ve always wanted to become a journalist. Or a writer, I’m not sure yet. My father is a journalist, my grandfather was a journalist, and I have an uncle and a niece who are journalists, too. Moreover, I have a distant cousin, who is a writer, and who is going to be world-famous. I’m willing to bet a year’s pocket money on that. That cousin happens to be Darren Shan, and I wanted to be the first Dutchman to interview him. My Dad thought it was a wonderful idea (he was proud already), but my Mum thought it was dangerous, actually (she’s a bit fussy). Finally she agreed with a sigh.

     At the Dublin airport, I was met by a lady of the publishing company with a cardboard sign that bore my name, and she put me on the train to Limerick. I was supposed to be met by Darren there, though he hadn’t put it exactly like that. “We’ll find each other,” he had said over the telephone. “Or, in any case, I’ll find you.” After a short silence, there was a sound that I didn’t recognize as a laugh until he’d put the receiver down. I decided to believe him. Darren Shan is a strange customer (after all, he’s half vampire), yet he’s someone you can rely on — I thought. When he was five or six years old, he already knew he would be a writer. When he was fourteen, he bought a typewriter and taught himself how to type, and three years later he wrote his first novel. After that, he went to London, where he read English and sociology at the university — sociology to learn to understand mutual relations and structures in relationships. To be honest, I didn’t understand that completely — or, rather, not at all. I didn’t even have a notion what sociology was — but I was afraid he would think me dumb if I would confess that, so I wrote it down anyhow. At the age of 21, he became a professional writer. According to him, it wasn’t difficult. “You just have to really want it,” he said. “And stick to it.” I didn’t know right away how to translate that last expression into Dutch, but I grasped his meaning. That, if you want something, you have to go on trying to do it, until you finally can do it. And not one thing now and something different next.


    The rail journey lasted hours. In order to have something to do, I produced the camera my father had borrowed me, and repeated mentally what he had told me. Always keep the sun in your back, focus and don’t move. Nothing to it, according to him. And this little dial should be in that little circle. That was about all. And, ah yes: strap around my neck, for should I drop his camera, he’d have my hide. Through the viewfinder, I looked at at the other people in the carriage, until I sighted two girls who pulled funny faces at me and waved. Blushing heavily, I lowered the camera and proceeded to stare silently out of the window for some time. (Silly bitches.) At the other side of the pane, the Irish landscape undulated past. Having jotted down this nice litlle sentence, too, I tried to describe what kind of weather it was - after all, I was a reporter - but as it kept changing every other five minutes, I gave up after some time. As a last resort I took Darren Shan’s book out of my bag again and read the blurb for the twentieth time:

    Darren Shan is an ordinary schoolboy - Until he attends the Great Freakshow... Until he meets Madame Octa ... Until he faces a night creature ... In no time at all, Darren and his friend are ensnared in a lethal trap. Darren is forced to make a deal with the only one who can save Steven. But ... for that person only one thing counts: BLOOD...

    I must have fallen asleep, for the train was slowing down when I awoke. Still drowsy, I got out and dropped my backpack on the ground. First I saw the train empty itself , then the platform. I waited five minutes. No sign of Darren. I waited ten minutes. No Darren Shan. I waited twenty minutes. And still that ... Shan hadn’t turned up! Since then I know there is nothing emptier on earth than an empty platform. After twenty-nine increasingly longer minutes, I hoisted my knapsack on my back and, with slow steps, walked outside. I must confess that Limerick was far bigger than I had expected — and that I felt myself far smaller suddenly. Being hungry and thirsty, and miserable as well, I decided to buy two Twixes and a can of Coca Cola at the Spar department store across the road. I looked to the left first – no traffic – meanwhile walking towards the middle of the road, the way I had done a thousand times back home in Amsterdam. Turning my head, I heard car tires squeal. The next moment I looked straight into the driver’s face. It was a young woman. Driving on the wrong side of the road! I saw panic in her eyes, just as she must have seen in mine. I opened my mouth to scream, but couldn’t utter a sound. I wanted to jump away, but couldn’t move. I was paralyzed with fear. The only thing I could do was close my eyes and wait for the knockover. When I opened them again, I found myself on the pavement across the road, next to Darren Shan


    “You know, once I almost walked under a car like that,” he said. By that time, we were seated in his favourite restaurant, Eddie Rockets, in O’Connell Street, savouring his favourite food, French fries with ketchup and a hotdog (our tastes are similar). “That was in France, though. You just don’t reckon with cars driving on the other side of the road.” He had been held up in a traffic jam (Limerick is a madhouse, Darren says), had seen me crossing the road and been just in time to grab hold of me. But for his supernatural forces, he would never have managed that. I told him that I really had thought I was done for. Darren grinned and sucked his chocolate milkshake, thus giving me the opportunity to observe him at leisure. I hadn’t expected a writer to look quite like that. Frankly, I don’t know what I had expected, but certainly not a man of his appearance. He was small for his age (about 29), plump (Mum would have said), with dark, short hair and chubby, red cheeks. The funny thing was that on my way to the restaurant I had seen two butchers who looked very much like him. The difference was, though, that Darren didn’t wear a white apron, but a mysterious, big, black, leather coat, and that he could easily have bitten his fork in two, if Eddie, of Eddie Rocket’s, hadn’t disliked it so much. (People who haven’t read Darren’s books often don’t have the faintest idea what vampires can and cannot do). I thought he was one of the nicest adults I had ever met. When we had finished our meal, he suggested I start interviewing him straight away, so there would still be time for him to show around the city afterwards.


    Though, frankly, I had been a bit nervous about it, it turned out a lot easier than I had expected. Actually it all amounted to four points:

    1. To be a writer, you have to sit down and start writing.

    2. To get to know a writer, you have to read his books.

    3. Children like horror stories, because they are scary, but harmless, and they give them a shot of adrenaline.

    4. Parents should have lots of children, all of whom must buy Darren Shan’s books.

    Personally I wondered if it shouldn’t have been a bit longer, but Darren said the interview made more sense to him than any he had read for a long time. In the gathering dusk, I found myself on my own on an Irish train for the second time in one day. The big difference was that now I could produce a signed copy of The Great Freak Show from under my coat. I opened my notebook and hoped I wouldn’t come up with the best sentence of my writing career straight away.


    . The Great Freak Show is the first volume in the series The World of Darren Shan. Some twenty volumes will be published. Darren has almost finished volume ten. Collins, his English publisher, will release one volume every six months. Darren Shan has always wanted to write a vampire story. The idea for The Freak Show stems from a 1930 Freaks movie. Darren Shan still lives with his parents in the countryside near Limerick. Darren Shan’s mother is a primary school teacher. She taught him how to read and to write.

    . Darren Shan has a younger brother who writes poems. But he has never shown any of them to Darren.

    . Darren Shan loves classical music such as U2 and Bob Dylan.

    . Occasionally, when work is finished, Darren Shan will indulge in a glass of Bailey’s.

    . J.K.Rowling, author of the Harry Potter books, is full of praise for The Great Freak Show by Darren Shan. “An irresistable book, full of strange adventures. Anyone who has read this, craves after more,” according to Ms Rowling.

    . Another lifelong ambition of Darren Shan has been to become a magician. Anyone who visits Limerick and isn’t chicken-hearted, should visit Mr. Pat Clancy’s Magic Shop on Mallow Street, the most mysterious shop one can imagine...

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