• The Irish Times | 17 October 2009 | Brian O'Connell

    VAMPIRES : With 15 million books sold, and a first film adaptation on release on Friday, Darren Shan's success story is bloody marvellous

    “The door feels red hot, as though a fire is burning behind it. I press an ear to the wood – but there’s no crackle. No smoke. Just deep, heavy breathing – and a curious dripping sound. My hand’s on the door knob. Inside the room, somebody giggles – low, throaty, sadistic. There’s a ripping sound, followed by snaps and crunches. My hand turns. The door opens. Hell is revealed.”

    THE QUESTIONS IS , which Irish author wrote the above paragraph?

    I’ll narrow it down for you. He lives in Limerick, is still in his thirties, and has sold 15 million copies of his books globally. He’s huge in Japan, some of his work is about to get the Hollywood treatment with a film out next week, and he is currently on a global reading tour, attracting hordes of fans wherever he goes. He’s a soccer fan, wrote his first novel in his mid-teens, and had early success when finishing as a runner-up in an RTÉ scriptwriting competition aged just 15. Still not getting it? Welcome then to the world of Darren O’Shaughnessy, otherwise known as Darren Shan.

    Born in London, Darren moved to Limerick, where his parents and grandparents come from, aged six, and attended local primary and secondary schools. He admits he had a quicker ride than most to the world of literary stardom, although his passion for writing was evident from a young age. “I always loved making up stories and was writing books for friends when I was 15 or 16. I finished my first novel at 17 and was 26 when I got my first book published. It was easier getting adult books published than my children’s ones, no-one wanted them at first,” he says.

    Cirque Du Freak was Shan’s first children’s book, and would eventually form part of a 12-book series, the first three of which are about to hit the cinemas as The Vampire’s Assistant , staring William Defoe and Salma Hayek. Yet, when Shan began offering Cirque Du Freak to children’s publishers – with its themes of death, blood drinking and insecurity – many were reluctant to take on the Limerick author.

    “I think it was because there was nothing out there like Cirque Du Freak at the time,” Shan says, “publishers were nervous about it and thought perhaps the book might be banned. There was an expectation that a book about a boy who fakes his own death and drinks blood to survive would not be deemed acceptable 10 years ago. I mean, if you read the blurb on the back of my books, like the one from Lord Loss , these are gory scenes and you could form an opinion that they are horrible books. But if you take a wider view, they are books about characters struggling to do the right things. I think they are like the old fairytales, bringing positive messages, albeit using a gruesome backdrop. The horror is a great way of serving up that message. I can get across the message that it’s wrong to steal and that you should respect your friends much better if I slip it in under a veil of blood!”

    While Shan may be an idol to his core audience of millions of teenagers and young children worldwide, there is a sense that the adult world, particularly here in Ireland, has yet to fully appreciate his success. Why is that?

    “My latest book, Hell’s Heroes , has been my strongest in the UK and Ireland for 10 years, so I am still picking up steam here. It’s a word of mouth process,” he says, “Certain things break the mould suddenly, like Harry Potter, but for the rest of us it is a longer process. I mean it took Roald Dahl 10 or 15 years to get established. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory was released in the US almost 10 years before it was published in the UK.

    “If books are read by children and teenagers, it takes a lot of time for those books to sink through. I had a breakthrough in Japan in 2001, when I literally sold hundreds of thousands of copies and entered the adult bestseller charts, but in other markets it has been a slower burn among adults. JK Rowling is the exception not the norm.”

    For now though, there’s the film adaptation to look forward to, as well as a new adults’ book, City of the Snakes , due in March 2010. Hell’s Heroes , the final instalment in his 10-part Demonata series, released earlier this month, has already topped the bestseller charts. Shan says that despite reports to the contrary, he believes that children’s publishing is vibrant and that books in their physical form, continue to appeal.

    “I think we read in the papers, on slow news days, that children are not buying as many books because of the digital revolution. I actually think they are reading more than ever before. The Internet has, ironically enough, made access to titles and authors easier for children. When I was younger we didn’t know when an author had a book coming out. Now I communicate directly with my audience through my website, and you can build a level of anticipation among readers. Kids now look forward to a new book the same way as they might have looked forward to a new album in the past. Kids are a lot more tuned in nowadays.”

    Hells Heroes is published by HarperCollins. The Vampire’s Assistant is released in cinemas nationwide next Friday.

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