by Tony Jones
“Work hard at it.” That’s really the single key piece of advice, and those who hear it and heed it will make good progression. Those who don’t, who are convinced that there are shortcuts and who go looking for them, will be looking for the secrets in vain forever."
Ginger Nuts of Horror was honoured to have the opportunity to chat to Darren Dash, the alter ego of the international best selling YA author Darren Shan. His initial breakthrough was with an adult book, in February 1999, called "Ayuamarca" (later republished as "Procession of the Dead"), the first of a trilogy of books known as "The City". That was followed by "Hell's Horizon" in February 2000. Then, several years later, when the first two were re-edited and re-released, he published the third book, "City of the Snakes".
In January 2000 Darren's first children’s book, "Cirque du Freak", which he’d written as a fun side-project, was published. The first book in a series titled "The Saga of Darren Shan" (or "Cirque du Freak" as it’s known in America), it attracted rave reviews and an ever-growing army of fans hungry to learn more about vampires which were quite unlike any that anyone had ever seen before!
Darren loved writing for children so much that for the next several years he focused almost exclusively on his books for younger readers. First, he wrote a total of twelve books about vampires. He quickly followed up his vampiric saga with "The Demonata," a series about demons. Running to ten books in total, "The Demonata" cemented Darren Shan’s place as the Master Of Children’s Horror, and saw him score his first UK #1 bestsellers. He also wrote a one-off short book, called "Koyasan", for World Book Day in the UK in 2006.
Could you tell the readers a little bit about why a multi-million copy selling writer of child and teen fiction rebrands himself as ‘Darren Dash’?
Freedom! It’s a bit like Paul McCartney in the 1960s, when he spoke longingly of going on tour with The Beatles in disguise, under a different name. Success is great, and I love that my stories have reached so many people, but it does impose limits. If you have a large fanbase who have come to expect books of a certain kind, you risk disappointing them gravely if you release something completely different. I’ve always written for adults – the first book I ever published was for adults – and I never wanted to use my YA name for them. My publishers convinced me to give it a try for a while, but I felt uneasy from day one, and in the end I was very happy to switch names. While I want my older Darren Shan fans to be aware of my adult books – I thought about not revealing myself as Darren Dash, but didn’t think it would be fair on those fans of my more mature stories – I also want them to be fully aware that these are NOT the same thing, just with some sex and swear words added in. I want to go in all sorts of weird and different directions with my adult books. As Darren Shan I would have felt restricted, but as Darren Dash there are no boundary lines.
How long do you think Stephen King’s Richard Bachman alter ego would be kept secret in the social media age of 2016?
Actually, I think he could have kept it secret even longer, because one of the advantages that writers have now that we didn’t back then was the option to self-publish digitally. I’m currently releasing the Dash books all by myself. When they’re ready to go, I simply upload them to Amazon, without going through any actual physical interactions with anyone. In the old days, you had to rely on other people keeping your secret, but now, as long as you’re happy to scrap it out with all the other self-publishing authors, you can be as open or secretive as you wish.
Who are some of your favourite horror authors? You are of the age to have read King, Herbert and Hutson as a teen, did you?
I am indeed, though in my head it’s hard to believe that the 1980s were thirty years ago! I’ve been a huge King fan since my early teens — in fact, I read Salem’s Lot before I even hit my teens. I still keep up with his new releases — he’s been one of the few constants in my life. I was a big Herbert fan too, and still count Domain as one of my favourite horror novels. Hutson never did it for me, but Clive Barker has a seismic impact on me, as did Jonathan Carroll — Barker’s books sent me off in an anything-goes direction for a while, then Carroll’s showed me that sometimes it can be better to reign things in.
What have been the biggest influences on your writing outside of horror?
Loads. I think it’s vitally important for writers to expose themselves to as many different ideas as possible, regardless of your preferred genre. I’ve always read widely, and incorporated ideas from all over the place, to try to bring something new to the horror field, rather than just replicate what others have done. Ray Bradbury was a huge influence. James Ellroy. Hubert Selby Jr. Philip Pullman. I’ve also been strongly influenced by movies, and again, by all different types of films. For instance, Procession of the Dead, one of Darren Shan books for adults, was inspired by Miller’s Crossing by the Coen Brothers.
How do you feel about the whole YA branding, and in particular age certifications on books? Is it a gimmick? It would be pretty hard to get an ‘18’ wouldn’t it? Would you rate ‘An Other Place’ a ’15’ or a ‘12A’ or something else?
I like the YA branding. It wasn’t in place when I started out with Cirque Du Freak, and I’d have to define myself as a guy who wrote children’s books, then always add, “but not, you know, for little kids, but older ones and teenagers.” It’s a lot simpler to be able to just say I write for YA. As for age certs — I’m dead against them. This was mooted in the UK several years ago by the publishing industry, and pretty much every children’s and YA author stood against it, for various reasons. You can’t apply the same arguments to books that you can to movies or video games, i.e. that “innocent” children can be accidentally exposed to them, and traumatised by the experience. An adult book requires all sorts of levels of sophistication to read. A child can’t stumble into that world. It’s something a reader seeks out. I’m of the opinion that if that desire and ability to read a book for adults is there, then a reader is probably ready for that book.
If you could erase one YA literature cliché what would it be?
I didn’t know there were any!
In writing for adults instead of kids what are the main things you do differently in writing for kids?
Well, on an obvious level, I’m free to include sexual scenes, and the characters can talk more realistically, i.e. they swear. I know there are plenty of YA writers who include sexual scenes and swearing in their work, but I guess I’m a bit old-school that way, and save my saucier scenes for the adult books. On a much more important level, my adult books tend to be a bleaker experience. When writing for teens, I make hope the core of the story. As bleak as things get, they’re books about people who are fighting the good fight and trying to triumph over evil. On the adult side I’m more interested in exploring the human condition, looking at people in all their various states. A good, gripping story always comes first for me, but around that I like to deal with main characters who are often greedy, self-absorbed, deeply flawed. In The Evil and the Pure, one of the characters pimps out his teenage sister. In An Other Place, the main character isn’t especially likeable and treats women very poorly. My adult books aren’t necessarily any gorier than my YA books, but they work on a much more disturbing level.
How positive has Darren Dash been received thus far? Do you think kids who grew up on Darren Shan have graduated to your alter ego? Do they all know of him do you think?
The reaction has been far more positive than I anticipated. I did shop out a couple of the Dash books to publishers, who tended to react with revulsion, and I was told that they might have a negative impact on my YA work, since they were so dark. But readers and reviewers have taken the books to heart. You can’t please everyone, of course, but for the most part the response has been overwhelming. Most of the fans tend to be people who read my YA books, and have either grown up since then, or were adults when they read them, but I’m getting other readers too, people who are discovering the books as word slowly spreads. I have a feeling, based on the feedback, that they might be enjoying a higher degree of commercial success if I was with a publisher, or had the time to promote them more aggressively, but for the time being I’m not in a position to act on that, as I’m kept pretty busy by my “day job.”
Kid’s authors trying their hand at writing adult novels and visa versa is fraught with danger. Many have failed miserably. JK Rowling is an obvious example of huge success, Cliff McNish recently wrote a brilliant adult horror novella and Gregg Hurwitz wrote his first YA novel ‘The Rain’ recently which Ginger Nuts loved. Why do you think there have been so few success stories?
They’re two very different disciplines. I think most of the writers branching out tend to be adult authors trying their hand at books for younger readers, and I suspect the vast majority try it for two reasons — 1, YA books are popular right now and publishers are encouraging writers to go down that route, and even marketing books for the YA genre when they’re really book for adults, and 2, they think it’s going to be easy, which it most definitely is not. To write successfully (and I judge success by the quality of the book, not the units sold), you have to truly love the field in which you’re working, and I suspect the reason why many crossover authors fail is because they’re doing it for the money and not the love.
Personally I think there are way too many sequels and never ending sequences in kids and YA literature. Having written a fair number of sequels yourself, what do you think? It really isn’t so common in adult horror fiction, many of the most respected horror writers from Ramsey Campbell to Adam Nevill concentrate on stand-alone novels. Having said that I am looking forward to reading Simon Bestwick’s ‘Hell’s Ditch’ sequel…..
Well, you have to remember that children and adults tend to read in very different ways. As an adult, I rarely re-read books, and I find long series too time-consuming to commit it — I have limited reading time, and I’d prefer to read fifteen or twenty books by different authors in a year than fifteen or twenty by the same person. But as a child and teenager I loved the more immersive experience of a long series, whether it was The Famous Five or Secret Seven, or something like Lord of the Rings or The Belgariad. Back then, I couldn’t get enough of my favourite books. Now, when I write for teenagers, I never think about sales or spinning a series out as much as I can. I always give a story as much or as little room as it demands, whether that’s one book (The Thin Executioner, Koyasan) or many (The Saga of Darren Shan, The Demonata, Zom-B). But when I’m writing for teens, I try to recall what I was like at that age, and basically write the sort of books that I would have liked to have read, and my mind tends to naturally gravitate towards the monumental. On the adult front, it’s different, and I mostly work on one-off books. I did write The City Trilogy, of course, but even then, the books started independently of one another, as stand-alone stories, and just kind of got woven together during the editing process.
The alternative city in ‘An Other Place’ is a pretty wacky place and the reader is hit with one weird situation after another. Were you inspired by anything in particular? I was reminded a tiny bit of the film by Terry Gilliam ‘Brazil’?
I love Brazil, though it wasn’t a conscious influence, though I’m sure subconsciously it was. I actually got the idea watching a Tarkovsky film, Solaris, and the movie Dark City was another direct influence. In terms of inspiring authors, Kafka and Philip K Dick were two key influences, even though I’m not that keen on their work — I love their ideas, but not their writing style. Outside of external influences, the book was largely self-inspired. As weird as it might sound, this is one of my most autobiographical books. I was in a strange place at the time, extremely productive and full of ideas on the writing front, but socially very inward-looking. I felt I was falling adrift from the rest of mankind, and was worried I might end up like Howard Hughes — I’ve always been a bit OCD, but back then I felt like I was losing more and more ground to it. An Other Place was my way of turning a spotlight on myself and reflecting on where I was and where I might wind up if I didn’t act to implement personal changes. Maybe I should list it on Amazon as a self-help guide… J
The shadowy character in the background, the Alchemist, was there a bit of The Wizard of Oz in him?
I guess, yeah. I’ve written quite a few characters in that mould over the years, from The Cardinal in the City books to Mr Tiny in my vampire novels. As a writer, you’re godlike as far as the worlds you create are concerned, and I’m fascinated with playing with that idea of ultimate power and control, looking at how it works and how it impacts on the rest of the cast. As much as I loathe and fear the man, I’ve no doubt that if the real world was a construct of mine, and I was writing its script, Donald Trump would have won the presidential election in my version too!
I read Darren Dash’s ‘The Evil and the Pure’ a while ago, I remember it as more of a thriller rather than a horror, is it your intention that adult writers might find your writing difficult to pigeon hole? That’s what I love about the adult Horror writer Nick Cutter who we reviewed recently on Ginger Nuts, he writes straight thrillers as Craig Davidson and horror as Cutter and they’re 100% unique.
Yes, although I don’t really like describing my books too neatly, I’d describe Evil as a dark thriller. That said, I still consider it horror. For me, horror is wide-ranging and far-reaching. Evil concerns human monsters rather than fairy-tale beasts, but they’re even more horrific in my opinion for that very reason — I think readers will be far more disturbed reading about a man masturbating to the sight of his teenage sister making love than they will be reading about vampires draining victims dry. I’ve always wanted to extend the boundaries of what horror is and can be. If you look at the three books I’ve published under the Dash name, the first is a dark thriller, the second is a tongue-in-cheek Bigfoot in Bulgaria story, and the third is a Kafkaesque mind-fuck. They’re very different in style and execution, but what they share is a taste of an off-kilter world, a place where people fall into the shadows and encounter unpleasant things therein. Publishers and booksellers don’t like that sort of fluidity. They want to be able to direct readers to straight, clean genres. And I get that. As a reader, I often want to be directed in that way too. But as a writer, I want to be William Shakespeare, writing horror, history, comedy, covering it all.
You’ve written a lot of varied stuff over the years. I was always a fan of the ‘Procession of the Dead’ trilogy. I always saw that as an adult book, was I wrong? Come to mention it, wasn’t ‘Lady of the Shade’ adult also?
Yes, all four of those were written for adults. When the first two City books were published (under my real name, Darren O’Shaughnessy), that was very clear in the way they were presented and marketed. Then my Darren Shan YA career went stellar and publishers wanted to cash in on that, hence the more teen-orientated covers. It wasn’t a path I was happy to go down, and in retrospect I wouldn’t have, but at the time my publishers were saying, “Put them out there as Darren Shan and they’ll get noticed. If you do them under a different name, we won’t be able to sell them.” I always want my books to be available, so at the time I went with their advice, but these days I’m happy just to put them out there as self-published books. If people find them, great, I’m delighted, I honestly am. But if they don’t… well, the Shan books keep me in a very nice lifestyle, and I’m not overly greedy.
Is there one horror subject you would never write about? What is it?
No. I don’t believe in limits or shying away from tough subject matter. That’s one of the reasons why The Evil and the Pure wasn’t published by an industry publisher. A major publisher had bought the rights, and worked on the book with me for a long time, but ultimately they wanted me to water it down too much, remove certain sections that I felt were key to the book’s strength and meaning, and we respectfully agreed that our aims were too different and that we should part ways. I’ll go wherever a story leads me, and to hell with the consequences.
What do you think is horror’s never ending fascinating with vampires from Dracula in recent years? From Stephen King’s Salem’s Lot, via Anne Rice’s Interview with the Vampire to The Strain trilogy by Chuck Hogan and Guillermo del Toro? You’re written about a good few yourself down the years….
Well, the difference in my case is that my vampires were real, of course… J Look, it’s a question that gets asked all the time, and the honest answer, which I’ve never given when in Darren Shan mode, is quite simply — “Well, sheee-it, those fuckers are cool!”
What is the best piece of advice you ever received from another author?
Anything along the lines of, “Work hard at it.” That’s really the single key piece of advice, and those who hear it and heed it will make good progression. Those who don’t, who are convinced that there are shortcuts and who go looking for them, will be looking for the secrets in vain forever. Knuckle down, knock out as many stories as you can, learn from your mistakes, and keep going. Don’t be precious about your work. Don’t buy into the “writer’s block” lies. Keep your head down, keep writing, and see where it leads you.
Many of the readers of the Ginger Nuts of Horror know the subject of horror inside out, for those who haven’t read any of your books, which adult author would you compare yourself to?
Well, we’re very different stylistically, but for the variety of where we’re willing to go, I’d have to say Dan Simmons. I’m a big fan of his, and I love the way he moves between genres, even though that’s probably hurt his career. But, y’know, at the end of the day, we’re all going to be pushing up roses or filling the inside of an urn, so if you have a multi-track brain that’s drawing you a dozen different ways all at once, you have to decide what’s more important to you — a career, or laying down markers that will say definitively to the world, “This is who I was.” It isn’t easy to buck the publishing trend and force through the books that you want to write, and I’ve huge respect for Simmons and anyone else who throws caution to the wind and writes from the soul.
What you are working on next?
I work on a number of projects in any given year. I’ll spend at least two or three years on a book (with some of the Dash books it’s been a dozen years or more). I’ll do a first draft, leave it for a while to go and work on something else, return and do a rewrite, leave it again, return again for an edit, and so on. It’s a chaotic way of going about my business, but it’s the way my brain likes best. At the moment I’m working hard on my next Darren Shan series (which will be a shift more into fantasy than horror) and my next Darren Dash book, which will be a light-hearted piece about relationships based around a group of actors who perform A Midsummer Night’s Dream every year. I’m also toying with some other stuff too.
What was the last great book you read, and what was the last book that disappointed you?
I loved Boy’s Life by Robert McCammon, and A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness. They’re two of the best books I’ve read in the last few years. As for the other end of the spectrum, it’s been a while now since I read it, but I was hugely disappointed in Stephen King’s Cell. That’s the problem with being so prolific — every now and then you’re doomed to hit a bum note. But, hey, at the same time I love that it was so bad, because if the master can produce something that flat, it means the rest of us needn’t feel so bad when we write a stinker!
If you could kill off any character from any other book (not your own) who would you chose and how would they die?
You know, along with the rest of the world, I loved the Harry Potter books, but I did feel that J K Rowling went a little too easily on her cast. I’d have liked to see quite a few of them bite the dust, especially in the early books. Not because I didn’t like them, but because it would have made us care more about – and worry more about – those who remained.
If you could live in any fictional world where would you choose to live?
What's the one question you wish you would get asked but never do? And what would be the answer?
Hell, I’ve been asked pretty much everything over the years. The one I get asked most often, of course, is, “Where do your ideas come from?” I like to vary my answer.
There are few kid’s authors who have contributed more to getting kids to read than Darren Shan, especially boys. But as years go by kids are more and more attached to their electronic devices and downloadable TV as a way of escapism. The fantasy worlds of our youth, Narnia, Middle Earth and your own worlds no longer hold the same pull for the kids of 2016. What can we do to pull more kids into the world of imagination?
I disagree. I think books do still appeal to the young, and I think technology is our friend, not our enemy. The availability of books has always been crucial to their growth. Before the printing press, when books were hand-produced and thus extremely rare, access to them was limited. Before the internet, if you lived in a rural location as I do, it was hard to know what was new and out there, and to get your hands on it. I’m a big supporter of ebooks and online stores, because they make it easier to find out about and buy books. I think the most important thing for parents and teachers to do, to keep bringing in young readers, is to keep reminding them that books are fun. Too many people push them for their educational values, where they should be pushing them for the thrills, the scares, the laughs, the radicalism. “You like XX film or YY game? Then read ZZ book — the writer got away with way more than they could in a movie or game!” I don’t go in for superiority or snobbishness where books are concerned. A good book is no better or worse than a good movie, comic, video game, etc. It’s our job to help the young realise that they shouldn’t be reading because “books are good for you” — they should be reading because books are gonna blow their crazy little minds!
Finally, years ago I heard you give a talk to 400 kids where you read a bit from Lord Loss where a guy got ripped in half in the first chapter. You could hear a pin drop in the hall. Do you still use that reading?
I do! Not as much as I used to, as I like to vary my readings, and publishers get upset if you don’t focus for the most part on your new books when they pay to send you out on tour. But that’s my favourite scene to read out, my signature piece, and I still go into Lord Loss mode quite regularly at events. But you’re remembering the scene wrong. It was a girl who got ripped in half, by a demon who then slips into the cavity at the back and manipulates her like a hand puppet. The guy in the scene was hanging from the ceiling, head chopped off, blood dripping to the floor from the gaping red O of his neck… Happy days!
Darren Shan or is it Darren Dash it has been an absolute pleasure talking to you. Everyone at Ginger Nuts of Horror would like to thank you for your time and wish you best wishes for your many future projects!
To purchase Darren's books click on the links below