An Interview with Darren Shan

Photograph by Tarmo Tulit

By Contributing Writer Colin Heaney

Irish writing giant and best selling author Darren Shan has recently released Volume One off his new self published series “Archibald Lox”– which has since been crowned a #1 Amazon Best Seller. After finding worldwide success with his series “The Saga of Darren Shan” (or “Cirque du Freak” as it’s known in the US) in the 2000’s, and continuing to release an array of books for children and young adults over the years, Shan’s books have now sold over 25 million copies across the globe. Darren also writes under the pen name Darren Dash for his adult books- like “An Other Place” and “The Evil and the Pure”. Contributing writer for The Jumble Magazine Colin Heaney had a chance to chat with Darren Shan about his successes, challenges, inspirations, and the oddity of publishing a series in this peculiar year.

Hi Darren, to start this off it’s worth addressing that you are in the unique position of being both a mega successful traditionally published author as well as being self-published. For aspiring writers who might be reading this, what do you feel are the pros and cons of traditional publishing vs self-publishing?

I always suggest trying the traditional route first, by reading “The Writers And Artists Yearbook“, following their tips and advice, and trying to get an agent who will then try to find a traditional publisher for your work. Lots of rejections are pretty much a guarantee, which is always disheartening, but the experience is a good one – if you want to be a published author, you have to develop a thick skin and learn to deal with setbacks – and if you do manage to snag a good agent, they will help you on your work, offer lots of advice, guide you through rewriting and editing. If you then get to the stage where your work is picked up by a publisher, they’ll help too, firstly of course with more rewriting and editing. (There’s lots of that, which is why I always urge young writers not to worry too much about the quality of their first draft – you’ll get plenty of chances to tinker with it and fix it on the long road to publication!) A traditional publisher will also handle every other aspect of the publishing business – have the book proofread, design the cover, typeset the book, cook up the blurb for the back cover, try to get it distributed through as many chains as possible, hopefully advertise and market it, maybe arrange book tours… A huge amount of work goes into the making of a successful book, and it’s an awful lot for any one person to take on, especially if they’re new to the game.

On the other side, self-publishing can be a lot of fun, and it often offers a lot more freedom than traditional publishing. I’ve always loved jumping around from genre to genre, trying different types of stories, pushing myself in various directions, and that’s been a problem for my traditional publishers. The normal book market loves to pigeon-hole authors – that’s what publishers like, that’s what booksellers like, and that’s what most readers like. It’s all based around giving people what they know they want. It’s perfectly understandable, and makes perfect business sense, but it’s very frustrating if you want to be a jack of all trades, if you don’t want to just (and only) write straight-up genre books. If you self-publish, you can write whatever the hell you want. There are no restrictions, no fixed parameters, no having to worry about the market. The downside to that is that it can be extremely difficult to find an audience, and to make people aware of your work’s existence. You have to put in a lot of work, and you need to do research, and you have to be a publisher, marketer, book designer, and a whole lot more. But if you’re prepared to do all that, you learn a great deal, and you find yourself doing things that no traditionally publisher writer gets to do, and… yeah… it’s fun. It’s rewarding on a personal level, even if not on a financial level – and most people who self-publish don’t make any money. Hitting it big is by no means impossible – I have a friend who’s doing brilliantly, making six figures a year – but you need a good business head if you’re going to succeed financially, and you usually have to take a similarly pragmatic approach as a traditional publisher. (The friend I mention pumps out lots of books in a particular genre.)

“If you want to make a living from your writing as a self-publisher, then you need to approach it seriously, from a business as well as creative angle, and really learn a lot about how to sell. If you’re doing it as a side-line, then have fun with it, enjoy each sale, but don’t worry too much about the money, and just be happy that you’re doing far more than most would-be writers ever do, by putting your work out into the world.”

Photograph by Tarmo Tulit

Another unique position you are in is that you have had fans who have grown up with your work: kids who loved the “Darren Shan Saga” growing up are now old enough to read your material that deals with more adult themes. To this new generation “Archibald Lox” might be their introduction to Darren Shan. Does the awareness of this impact your writing at all?

Not really. I try not to think about my audiences when I write. I was uneasy when my publishers were releasing my books for adults under the Darren Shan name, as I knew they would wind up in the hands of younger readers, no matter what the publishers and booksellers did to try and make sure that didn’t happen. But these days I release my adult work under the name of Darren Dash, and it’s clear that these are not intended for a younger audience, so anyone who seeks them out knows the score in advance. That frees me to do whatever I want on that front, and not have to worry about my darker material accidentally finding its way into the hands of teenagers or pre-teens and blowing their innocent minds!

Archibald Lox” is your first middle grade book to be self-published. Keen fans will also note that this series does not find its roots in horror, more akin to a fantasy like “The Thin Executioner” than the “Darren Shan Saga” or the “Zom-B” series. How does it feel as a writer to explore different terrains, and do you ever have any gripes about possible typecasting as a horror author?

I love horror and always have, so I’ve absolutely no problems with being typecast as a horror author – for the most part, that’s what I am, and even when I write a book that isn’t a horror novel, it’s usually quite dark. But I’ve always loved lots of other genres too, and I like to explore all sorts of different avenues when I write. If you look through my backlist, you’ll actually find that my books tend to mix up genres quite aggressively, and always have. “Cirque Du Freak” and its sequels were equal parts horror, fantasy, action, adventure… Because they were about vampires, they were sold in most markets as horror (although in some they were sold as fantasy), but in truth they were a mix. Even in my more solidly horror series – “The Demonata” and “Zom-B” – I throw in left-of-field elements, and there are story-lines in those series that could just as easily be sold as sci-fi, war yarns, or spy adventures. My publishers liked to downplay those elements, but I think they’re a strong part of my appeal to fans – you never truly quite know what you’re going to get with a Darren Shan novel, or where it might lead you.

I’m going to cheat here and ask two questions in one. Firstly, I thought we could talk a bit about your decision to release “Archibald Lox “so suddenly during lock down. How did that initially come about, and is it gratifying as a writer to be able to control your own schedule? Secondly, Archie was released as three separate books, also compiled into one volume. What influenced that decision?

Heh heh – I released the three books that make up Volume One of “Archibald Lox” (there will be three big Volumes in total, three books per Volume) just before the end of March, then casually posted about them on April 1st – loads of my fans thought I was joking! Yeah, that’s one of the big pros of self-publishing – you can release your work whenever you want. I was planning to release Archie later in the year, but when lock down happened, I felt compelled to get the books out there, because I knew a lot of my fans were at home and struggling, and hoped the new work might lighten their load a little bit. It meant taking a pear-shaped approach to the publishing schedule, and the hardback and paperback editions came out months later – from a business point of view, it didn’t work, and I made a lot less that I would have done if I’d released them “properly” as I’d originally planned – but it put a big smile on a lot of faces, and in this instance that was my only real concern.

I’ll be honest – and I’ve said this to my fans right from the start – if “Archibald Lox” had been traditionally published, Volume One would have been released as a single big book. That’s how I wrote it, as one big novel, and I wrote Volume Two and Volume Three the same way. I assumed the series would be picked up by one of the traditional publishers, but as the old saying goes, “to assume makes an ass of u and me!” Various factors worked against it – the fact that it was fantasy not horror, that it was more leisurely paced than my other work, that it couldn’t be easily pigeon–holed as middle grade or YA… Anyway, the publishers that I took it to all passed, and it became clear that if I wanted to release it, I was going to have to self-publish. That’s when I started considering breaking the Volumes up into shorter books, in order to be able to market them more effectively. I knew that by self-publishing, I was going to have to rely on the eBooks more than the physical editions, and doing them this way allowed me to reach more readers than I could have otherwise – for instance, I made the first book free to download, so I was able to attract a lot of people who liked the idea of not having to pay for it. (It’s still free, by the way, and most probably always will be.) As a writer, I wanted people to read the story as one whole book, but as a publisher I had to ask myself what would work from a marketing standpoint, and this seemed like the best way forward.

Archibald Lox” has a unique subject matter as a series. While many of your works deal with the scary and gruesome (vampires, demons, zombies) Archibald Lox focuses on something unexpected: locks and locksmithing. Archie’s skills with locks come across as preternatural and magical. What was the inspiration to focus on locks and locksmithing, and crafting your world around this ability?

The entire series started when I was walking across a bridge in London one day, and saw a young woman walking towards me, twitching her nose and pulling faces. I’ve no idea why she was doing that, but my imagination immediately seized on it and suggested she was doing it in order to unlock a gateway to another world. I liked the idea of that, and decided to send a character after her, to find out what was on the other side, and it simply seemed logical to me that the best person to unlock a lock was… a locksmith. I suppose, with hindsight, I should have foreseen the raised eyebrows among publishers – “A 500 page book about a kid whose big talent is that he can pick locks? Really?” – but I fell in love with the idea, and I’m still in love with it. It’s not just about locks, of course – there are lots of other elements at play – but each of the three Volumes is structured around Archie’s skills, and the plots grow out of certain key moments where those skills have to be employed. The “Archibald Lox” books are built like carefully constructed puzzle boxes, and I guess one of the big influences on them (even though they’re no horror) was “Hellraiser“, the Clive Barker film.

I would regret not mentioning “An Another Place”, which was such a fantastically dark and mind-bending story. Reading it, I couldn’t help but think back on some of my favourite noir stories – particularly “Dark City” and its cunning blend of sci-fi and horror. What were your biggest influences when writing it?

Oh boy! I was so nervous when I released “An Other Place”, because it’s such an out-there book. I had no idea how it would play with readers, and was fully prepared for every kind of negative backlash imaginable. I could barely believe it when it started picking up rave reviews, and it’s definitely gone on to become something of a cult favourite. “Dark City” was certainly a key influence – I thought that was a great film – but all sorts of other things came into play as well. For instance, the scenes where the main character wanders round the city, stark naked and creating a menagerie of animals in a most unusual fashion, dated back to a short story that I’d been playing around with in my teens but had never developed.

“A lot of the book grew out of my OCD and the distanced relationship I felt in my late teens and early twenties to the world around me, and in a way it was a self-help guide, a coded way for me focus a mirror on myself and ask where I was going with my life and what sort of a man I wanted to be.”

In terms of other books and movies, I’m sure there were all sorts of influences playing out on a subconscious level – “1984”, “THX 1138”, “Solaris”, “Taxi Driver”, The Coen Brothers films, “The Omega Man”, the books of Clive Barker…

The Jumble Magazine is focused on showcasing the best talent that Ireland has to offer. As such, I was wondering if there are any contemporary Irish artists that you’d love to mention?

I love Brian McCarthy’s paintings, and Orla De Bri’s sculptures. I read “Leonard” and “Hungry Paul” by Ronan Hession a few months back, and got a great buzz out of it. One of my favourite songs of 2020 was “Home” by King Pallas. And I loved the movie “Wolfwalkers” – I’ve been a big fan of Cartoon Saloon and Tomm Moore since “The Secret of Kells”.

You can learn more about Darren Shan on his website. You can check out “Archibald Lox” on Amazon, Waterstones, and The Book Depository. Follow Darren on Twitter and Facebook to keep up to date with his work. Be sure to look for his work next time you are able to visit your local bookstore!

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