• WIGGLEFISH | 22 April 2002 | Kilian Melloy

    Darren Shan, author of the young adult series Cirque du Freak: The Darren Shan Saga, meets me in the lobby of an upscale Boston Hotel. I nearly don't figure out who he is – I've been expecting a haunted, gaunt figure, someone with long greasy hair and glowing eyes, someone with demonically long and pointed cuspids, someone who looks a bit more like – well, a vampire, really. Were it not for the fact that he's clad entirely in black, I would never have taken this apple-cheeked lad with the cheerful smile and the slightly rumpled aspect to be the creative force behind the popular series of books that follow the adventures of a youthful, conflicted half-vampire – a vampire's assistant, to be precise – and the collection of supernaturally talented performers he travels with in a group called the Cirque du Freak.A quick primer to bring the uninitiated up to speed: Darren Shan – in the books anyway – is a nice young man, though given to the occasional hot-headed reckless impulse. When his best friend Steve Leopard talks him into sneaking out one night to attend the mysterious "Cirque du Freak," Darren is so taken with the act that he steals the trained tarantula, Madame Octa, that belongs to a performer (and vampire) named Mr. Crepsley. But karma being what it is, Darren's friend Steve is bitten by Madame Octa and is facing death when Mr. Crepsley appears on the scene to retrieve his pet and offer Darren a diabolical choice: Darren can repent for his rash deed by seeing Steve die – or he can allow Crepsley to turn him into a half-vampire, to serve as Crepsley's assistant. Being noble and loyal at heart, young Darren agrees to serve Crepsley, even though it means leaving his family forever – and gaining Steve Leopard's implacable hatred for "stealing" the vampiric life Steve had wanted to blackmail Crepsley into granting him.

    It seems like a lot of dilemmas and a lot of horrific plotting for one single volume, let alone an entire series, but each adventure sets out a well constructed story – diabolical dilemmas a specialty – and introduces new and intriguing characters for Darren to concern himself with, and – more often than not – haplessly endanger. It's a marvel of allegory for the frustrations and confusions of adolescence which, in young Darren's case, is going to last a long, long time.

    It's nighttime in Boston – but of course! — and as I lead the way to the subway, Shan fills me in a bit on his day. With the third book in his series, Tunnels of Blood, coming to America (in the U.K. they're up to Book 6 already) Shan's been on a coast-to-coast promotional tour, albeit a tour which has skipped most of the Midwest. Today he's been reading his work to kids at an area school, and their youthful enthusiasm has helped him bring his story to life. Not content to settle for a dry read-aloud, Shan invited them to help him act the stories out: no shortage of young talent on hand for this bit of imaginative interpretation!

    Over dinner, Shan refrains from the house vintage. It seems he never drinks ... wine, anyway. But afterward, we wander to a local chocolatier's establishment, where Darren reveals a passion for hot cocoa. He's nothing like you’d expect a vampire to be, but then that's the point of his books. The vampires in Shan's work are nothing like the blood-sucking undead of horror movies (though the writer relishes recounting his favorite creature feature flicks, and we fall into a happy chat littered with beasties, screaming victims, and ... er ... Pumpkinhead, a schlocky 1980s flick starring Lance Henrickson. Okay, Pumpkinhead was my contribution, but I stand by it). In Darren Shan's literary alternate universe, vampires co-exist with human beings, and though it's not always a happy arrangement, neither are there mad-eyed German Professors with pointy stakes made of crucifixes wandering among crypts looking for ghouls to destroy. Not that a wooden stake would be strictly necessary, for in Shan's stories, vampires are neither immortal nor magical – they're just super-strong, long lived, ordinary joes trying to get by like everyone else.

    So there you have him: Darren Shan, regular guy. Or ... ?

    Darren Shan graciously lent his services to the wigglefish zine for an interview in which vampires, warriors of old, and assorted other heroic types were up for discussion.

    wigglefish: You currently live in Ireland. Are you of Irish ancestry? What brought you to move from England?

    Darren Shan: My entire family's Irish, and I am too. My mother's side of the family and my father moved to England in the 60s, when jobs in Ireland were scarce. Though I was born in London, I moved back to Limerick when I was six years old and have lived here ever since. I still have a Cockney accent, but don't let that fool you – I'm most certainly Irish!

    wigglefish: How did you end up deciding to become a writer — and a writer of horror books for young adults, for that matter?

    Darren Shan: I always wanted to be a writer, even when I was a kid. I loved writing short stories and reading them out in class. Horror was my main love, which is why most of my books have a very dark theme. I actually started out writing for adults (I've had two books published in the U.K. for adults), and I still do write books for older readers. Cirque Du Freak started out as a side project — I wanted to see if I could write a book for kids — and it just kinda took over my life!

    wigglefish: The latest book, Tunnels of Blood, is the third volume in the tales of Darren Shan. Are you looking to make this an open-ended, continuing series, or do you have a definite story arc in mind, with a limited number of volumes?

    Darren Shan: I've a very definite single story in mind. The Saga will run to twenty or so books in total, but when it gets to the end, that will be that. Everything is planned, and everything ties together. Though it's rather sprawling, I'm actually telling the story as swiftly as I can, digressing as seldom as possible. This is simply the length it will take to tell the grandiose Darren Shan story – which is why it's called a "Saga!"

    wigglefish: It's interesting that you name your main character after yourself. Does giving the book's narrator your own name help you write his story? Or are you re-inventing your own story as a vampire tale?

    Darren Shan: Naming your central character after yourself gives you an interesting slant on the story you're telling – though I've written many books in the first person, this is the only time I've used my "real" name — though of course, Darren Shan is actually an alias; my given name is Darren O'Shaughnessy! It does make a difference. It brings you much closer to the heart of the story. It's not something I imagine ever doing again, but it's fun. And, of course, it could all be true ... heh heh heh!

    wigglefish: The Harry Potter books have provoked a certain amount of hysteria from religious fanatics here in America. Have you encountered any similar furor as a result of your books centering around a youth learning how to be a Junior Vampire?

    Darren Shan: I was expecting a backlash in the U.K. when I wrote the [first] book (more for the "freaks" than the vampires), but so far the powers that be have only had good things to say about it — many teachers in the U.K. and Ireland are using it as a classroom text, and it's received the widespread support of librarians! The books, despite their subject matter, are very moral books (misdeeds are punished), so I don't see why there should be an uproar about it – but then again, the Harry Potter books are moral too, so who knows?

    wigglefish: I had noticed that the Cirque du Freak books have a strong moral streak about them – though you seem not to have any compulsions about allowing your young protagonist to make huge mistakes and pay equally huge prices for them. Do you worry that you may be handing kids too much pain, too much trauma? Young Darren has to convince his parents he's dead in the first story. After that, he sees a good friend die at the claws of a wolf-man. And now in the third book, Darren witnesses his best friend being tortured. How awful!

    Darren Shan: Oddly enough, the fake death scene [from Book 1, The Vampire's Assistant] upsets grown-ups more than children – I've had lots of adults admit to sleepless nights about that piece, but kids seem to take it in their stride. I always bear the age of my readers in mind when writing, and I take care not to freak them out. The Darren Shan books are often painful and traumatic, but they don't wallow in pain. I'm a great believer in learning to deal with the real world through literature, and a large part of what I'm doing with the Saga of Darren Shan is exploring death and the pain of loss, and how to come to terms with it.

    wigglefish: When you look at other literature for young readers, does it strike you as being disingenuous in the way the genre often seems to want to reassure younger readers that the world is a soft and cuddly place? Are you out to correct this to some extent?

    Darren Shan: I've no problem with books that present the world as soft and cuddly. What I don't like are books which establish the world as a harsh, testing place, drop their characters into the middle of various dangerous situations – and then allow them to wriggle out with only a few scratches. If a writer's going to explore the darkness, s/he must be prepared to play by the rules. In a world of danger, characters should experience pain, loss, even death – just as they would if their world was real.

    wigglefish: What about the larger culture kids are faced with these days? Do you agree that younger people are barraged with unhealthy images? Do you worry, as some do, that this may make kids grow up to be callous or more prone to violence?

    Darren Shan: No. While every kind of emotional stimulus has an influence, I firmly believe that those [people] of integrity filter out the negative – while those inclined towards violence will gravitate towards it regardless. I like to think "bad" people can be helped – but through personal, positive intervention – not by removing supposedly harmful material from the public sphere. Life isn't that simple.

    wigglefish: Do you have any kids of your own? If so – do you allow them the privilege of being a test audience for your Darren Shan books?

    Darren Shan: I don't have any children. Even if I did, I probably wouldn't let them read the books until they'd gone through the editing process: I don't like showing my work to anyone until I'm happy with it. Though I did test the first draft of Cirque Du Freak on some kids in a local school. Since it was the first children's book I'd ever written, I wanted to try and see it from the point of view of those it was intended for.

    wigglefish: After the Darren Shan saga, do you anticipate writing other works for younger readers? If so, would they also be horror / adventure stories?

    Darren Shan: I've already written a few other books for kids/teens — mostly horror, though I've tried some other stuff too. But with the Shan books coming out so swiftly, it isn't really possible to bring anything else out at the moment. Maybe a bit further down the line, perhaps under a pseudonym.

    wigglefish: It's intriguing that the vampire in your stories, Mr. Crepsley, is neither evil incarnate nor a particularly nice guy. Your take seems to indicate that vampires are people, too — selfish, cranky, but still capable of the occasional kind gesture.

    Darren Shan: I had no interest in writing a book about "traditional" vampires, in which they were bloodthirsty butchers. Though the vampires in my books are fantastical creatures, I try to make them as believable as possible. For instance, why should a vampire be evil? They need to drink blood to survive, but they don't need to kill – they can just take small amounts of blood here and there. My vampires are hard-living, like old Celtic or Samurai warriors, but honor is vital to them. Having said that, there are killers in the Saga of Darren Shan, and it's not until [the current book] Tunnels Of Blood that we find out the full truth about Mr. Crepsley and the other creatures of the night.

    wigglefish: Yes, indeed! You introduce a scary breed of vampire in the third book – the "vampaneze." Are we going to see more of them in adventures to come? And are they the only offshoot of the vampire race or are there others waiting to emerge?

    Darren Shan: We're going to be seeing loads more of the vampaneze over the course of the rest of the Saga! Few of them are as deranged or as murderous as [Book 3's villain] Murlough, but they're on a collision course with the vampires, and Darren and his friends will act as the focal point of that fatal coming together. Oh, and the vampaneze are the only vampire offshoot.

    wigglefish: Tunnels of Blood is a brilliant title, by the way! But tell me, when you say that honor is important to the vampires in your saga, are you envisioning them as some sort of dark superhero types? Will Darren and Crepsley ever take on villains and predators in the human community the way Anne Rice's Vampire Lestat does?

    Darren Shan: Not superheroes as such. My vampires don't have much interest in humans and their ways. They live apart, by their own laws, and mix with ordinary people as little as possible, avoiding both the good and the bad. Though as the series progresses, that all starts to change.

    wigglefish: You were talking about "bad" people a moment ago, and in fact one of the main characters from Book 1 turns out to be evil – to have, as the vampire puts it, "bad blood." How far will you explore this theme? Will the vengeful former best friend of your young hero be back on an occasional basis?

    Darren Shan: Steve Leopard – he of the supposed "bad blood" – we later learn that not all vampires believe it's possible to tell good from evil simply by a person's blood, so Mr. Crepsley may or may not be right about Steve – will return in Book 8. He's a major character in the series, but I won't be reeling him out in every book. One of the joys of working on a series this large is that I can shift characters out of the limelight for quite a long period of time, and still have them come back and play an important part in the overall proceedings.

    wigglefish: Steve Leopard is described like someone with a brain chemical imbalance. Any plans to address possible medical treatment for the poor lad?

    Darren Shan: Vampires don't go in for medical or psychological treatment. They're hard-living, stiff-necked warriors who abandon or kill their weak and unbalanced brethren. This is one of their major faults, and I dwell on it at some length as the series progresses.

    wigglefish: So insane creatures of the night like the vampaneze lunatic Murlough aren't uncommon in the world of the vampire? Is that to do with how rough they live, or how they have to feed on human blood? Is the nature of the vampiric lifestyle, if you will, something that drives them crazy over time?

    Darren Shan: No, there aren't a lot of mad vampires or vampaneze, but occasionally one does fly off the rails, and since they're such extreme creatures, their madnesses are also extreme.

    wigglefish: On the subject of adapting to the vampiric way of life, you do a clever job of addressing young Darren's aversion to drinking human blood. In many ways your books are an allegory for the difficulty of entering adolescence: being half in one world, half in another, and finding that ways of thought and behavior that once seemed incomprehensible now make a certain kind of sense. It seems to me your books are designed to help kids address just these sorts of anxieties as they find themselves changing mentally and physically into young adults.

    Darren Shan: Absolutely! Growth – both mental and physical – is one of the key themes of the series. I want my readers to see Darren age and change, and I want them to reflect on the difficulties he faces as he matures – and also on the way he deals with those difficulties.

    wigglefish: How long do you reckon it will take to write and publish all those books? Ten years? Given the schedule your books have followed so far here in the States, it seems there's a new book every four or five months?

    Darren Shan: In the U.K., the first three books came out every six months. Books 4 to 9 have come out and are coming out at four month intervals. I'll probably slow up a small bit again from Book 10 on. The aim from the start was to average one book every six months, and that's still what I'm aiming for, though if I have to take a break at some stage (to get my head together and do justice to the story), I will, which might delay it a bit longer. If all goes well, the saga will probably take another nine or ten years to complete. And if that seems like a long time to the readers, it's even longer for me – I've already been working on it for four years!

    wigglefish: How many years will your saga span? It's established in the first book that Darren will age only one-fifth as rapidly as a normal human being, so he's got decades ahead of him until adulthood. Will the saga carry him though all that time? I notice you don't give many indications as to what year the first book takes place in.

    Darren Shan: The saga spans a long period of time! At this early stage I don't want to say how many years exactly, though I will say that by the start of Book 7, Darren's pushing thirty, though he still only looks like a teenager. I don't mention the year, or any place names in the book. This is to give the book a universal, timeless feel as much as possible.

    wigglefish: Though I can't help noticing in Book 3 you make references to contemporary culture: cell phones, reruns of The Simpsons. At Book 7 you must be about to make a big jump into the future! Given how tight the logic is in all your plotting and storytelling, you must have taken this into account?

    Darren Shan: Book 7 isn't set very far in the future, but we do move much further ahead in later books! The books get more fantastical as the series progresses, but I'm always aware of the statement I made in Book 1 — that this is a true story. And though it might seem to readers that I've lost my way and spun off at a totally unbelievable tangent, if you follow the series all the way to the end, you'll see how it does all tie together – and how it could be a true story.

    wigglefish: Are you planning on concentrating on the Vampire community, if community is the right word here, or would you, as the Buffy The Vampire Slayer TV program does, also include other creatures of the night: werewolves, witches, and what-have-you

    Darren Shan: The books revolve around vampires and another group of night creatures — you'll have to read Tunnels Of Blood to learn more! But the story takes in various other odd groups too, such as the Little People — the small people in the blue robes and hoods in Cirque Du Freak — and cannibals!

    wigglefish: Now, these mysterious "little people" – are they "little" as in Ireland's legended Little People?

    Darren Shan: The Little People — according to their master, Mr. Tiny, who made his debut in Book 2 — are the inspiration for the legends about fairies, elves, leprechauns, etc.

    wigglefish: Let's talk spiders for a moment: so are you really a big fan of our eight-legged friends?

    Darren Shan: Not really! I was always rather nervous of spiders, to be honest – though I'm less so since writing Cirque Du Freak and handling a live tarantula at the launch party in England!

    wigglefish: In the introduction to Cirque du Freak you talk about a regrettable incident involving a tarantula and a vacuum cleaner. Did this happen to Darren the writer in real life or is this a case of Darren the literary character making a point about one's deeds having consequences?

    Darren Shan: This was an invented scene — it didn't happen to me in real life. But it's one of the scenes I get asked about in nearly every school I go to!

    wigglefish: Not to nit-pick but you describe a tarantula, Madame Octa, as "throbbing," "breathing," and eating pizza. Do tarantulas actually do any of those things? Especially breathing: I thought spiders didn't have lungs?

    Darren Shan: If they don't throb, breath and eat pizza — they should! To be honest, I'm not entirely certain if real-life spiders can do these things, but in the world of the Cirque Du Freak — where women can grow beards and suck the hair back into their skin, and Hans Hands can run a hundred meters on his hands in eight or nine seconds — they can!

    wigglefish: Will we see more of Madame Octa? Will she be a major character in works to come?

    Darren Shan: We will see more of her, though she only plays a small part in the next few books, before enjoying a more prominent role in Book 6.

    wigglefish: What are your personal views on paranormal entities: angels, spirits, and the like? Might some of these beings actually exist or are they all metaphors and constructs?

    Darren Shan: In the world of Darren Shan, ghosts can and do exist. As for my own personal views, I don't have any clear beliefs. I don't dismiss the possibility of otherworldly entities, be they angels or aliens, but nor am I convinced they exist.

    wigglefish: Vampires, in a literary sense, have been depicted as butchers, as you say. There's also a deeper literary current to them in that they traditionally represent the aristocracy sucking the life out of the peasant class. In your book, though, they are a sad lot. Does this reflect something larger in the culture, economic distinctions becoming less important, perhaps?

    Darren Shan: I wouldn't necessarily say they're sad – as we learn more about them in the [current book], we see that they're a proud, hard-living, separatist group, who make their own laws and stick rigidly by them, much like Samurai and Celtic warriors of the past. Mr. Crepsley's quite a lonely character, but that's a choice he makes. Other vampires tend to stick together, and though their lives aren't easy, they aren't on the whole a miserable bunch.

    wigglefish: That said, I wonder if being Irish contributes at all to a love of the horror / supernatural creature genre. Certainly, the idea that vampires are a strict and separate caste like warriors in ancient times might be influenced by your Celtic heritage.

    Darren Shan: There's certainly a wonderful fantastical/supernatural culture here [in Ireland], which has fed into my work. Of course, an Irishman gave the world Dracula! My vampires are definitely influenced by old Celtic legends, though also, as I've already said, by Samurai legends too, plus many old Greek and Roman tales which I used to love reading when I was young.

    wigglefish: You say you're looking at perhaps twenty volumes in all for the Darren Shan saga. Again: a Celtic heritage resonance? I mean, look at all the Celtic cycles of legends and poetry. It's a massive amount of literature!

    Darren Shan: Hmmm ... I don't think we can attribute the size of the Darren Shan saga to Celtic mythology! I didn't intend the series to be this long. When I was writing Cirque Du Freak, there was no series — it was only meant to be a single book! It's grown by itself. Although twenty books are a hell of a lot, I'm not dragging the story out – I'm actually streamlining it down all the time!

    wigglefish: You mention several books for adults. What are their titles? Are they also horror books?

    Darren Shan: Ayuamarca and Hell's Horizon, written under my real name, Darren O'Shaughnessy. They're dark fantasy/thrillers.

    wigglefish: Will dedicating so much time to Darren Shan's story stop you writing adult fiction for a while? What are you thinking of for your next adult book?

    Darren Shan: Nope, I'm still going strong on the adult front. Last year I wrote a fantasy/thriller sequel to my first two published works, which will hopefully see the light of day sometime in the not too distant future; I've just finished editing a comedy/fantasy about a group of amateur actors who stage A Midsummer Night's Dream every year in a Limerick forest; and I'm [at] work on a hard-hitting crime novel. Busy busy busy!

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