Very bright and very dark: Darren Shan on writing for the cusp
Darren Shan (real name: Darren O'Shaughnessy) is famous for his YA horror stories: from Cirque du Freak on, so if your child has a penchant for the darker side of fantasy, Shan is probably a household name.
As the final instalment of his latest Zom-B series approaches, we sat down to discuss the light and dark sides of being a teenager, why zombies work with strong themes, and how he’s managed to publish twelve books in just four years.
Writing for the cusp
Though now he’s most famous for his YA writing, Shan originally started out writing for adults. He still writes for older readers, but he confesses that if he was forced to pick, nowadays he would choose YA.
"I was at my most voracious as a reader in my teens," he explains. "I was reading a couple of books a week, I’d just plough through them… I think as teenagers, the world is very bright and dark at the same time. Our brains are all in a whirr; we experience these huge highs, these seemingly terrible lows. We just deal with it and get on with it, but it’s a really interesting time in our lives: as we become teens, we find our voice and we start to make choices that are going to affect our lives and where we’re going to go. We can go in all sorts of different directions as teenagers, as adults I think we’re more set in our ways… I really like tapping back into that."
If writing for YA audiences was a discovery, horror has always been a fixture, but catering for younger readers does mean Shan has to be careful about where he draws the line. "I remember as a teenager I was trapped between adulthood and childhood. I still loved reading Roald Dahl but I also loved Stephen King, Clive Barker and James Herbert. I think teenagers are drawn to both worlds so I try to tell stories that have all the darkness of adult books, but which are written with a younger audience in mind. I’m always conscious of not taking it too far, but at the same time I believe YA books can go very far. But I never glamourize violence, never write about it as an offhand thing. The violence is always there for a reason and I explore the consequences of it. It’s about how the characters come to terms with these events and overcome them.
"I think really good horror and fantasy books are always a reflection of the world in which we’re living. There’s much more going on in them than just the fantasy trappings."
Using strong themes with care
Real life issues bleeding through genre is perhaps more clear in the Zom-B series than any of Shan’s other work, as it deals closely with the theme of racism. "I actually wanted to write about racism first and foremost. I wanted to write something that addressed the dangers of what happens when we don’t stand up to racism. This was all in the wake of the bombings in London. You got parties like the BNP coming into prominence and fear-mongers trying to stir people up. I wanted to write something to address that but I didn’t want to write a preachy novel, so I thought about how to tell an exciting and entertaining story that also touched on these issues. Zombies just seemed like a natural match. It was an interesting idea to be in this world overrun by the living dead, but that the biggest monsters in the series weren’t actually the zombies."
The theme crops up in the first book, with the protagonist, B Smith, whose father is an abusive racist. "It was a hard read for a lot of readers because it starts off with this character who is borderline racist," Shan reflects. "It’s trying to show how if we don’t take a stand – even if it’s against the person we love most – we will end up becoming monsters just like them.
"I was concerned that I didn’t make it too moralistic, that I wasn’t ramming this message down readers’ throats, but in the first book, the message was quite strong because the whole series does evolve from that. It looks at this character who’s done something absolutely terrible in book one, and how she sets about trying to make her life have meaning afterwards in some way. The message is that we all make mistakes in life – no matter how bad they might be – but we’ve just got to push on and try to become better people, to do some good. And that’s B’s journey… It was a difficult for me to write. Writing about demons and stuff like that – that’s fun! Whereas as real life horror is stuff like racism and that can be much more disturbing."
That was a stand his US publishers in particular took to the eighth book in the series, Zom-B: Clans, which was originally titled ‘Zom-B: Klans’, in reference to the KKK who make an appearance. "My American publishers were very nervous about that because obviously the KKK are still active in the States," Shan says seriously. He adds that he always has open discussions with his editors, but that he never changes anything he would feel uncomfortable changing. "I’ve been very lucky, I’ve worked with very good editors and they don’t try and force changes on me. They know what they’re getting when they get me! They know I’m going to be out there close to the edge – sometimes a little bit over the edge! But I don’t want to be putting people off: I do take them on very rough journeys."
Getting shelf space
How did his editors (at Simon & Schuster Children's) feel then when he approached them with the Zom-B project, for which he wanted to publish one book every three months?
"They were really excited about it! I wanted to do them like the old serials, release them very quickly. It was an experiment for me: I just wanted to see if I could do it, and if readers would go for it. I wanted to create this real sense of anticipation!" You can hear the enthusiasm in Shan’s voice, but that’s not say the gruelling publication schedule hasn’t had its drawbacks too.
"Publishing isn’t set up for that sort of release schedule these days. Booksellers like a book a year - two books a year they can deal with. But every three months, we have found it a bit hard to keep getting shelf space. I don’t know if it’s an experiment I’ll be trying again, but it’s been an interesting journey and for the readers who have been following it from the beginning, it has been something different for them. In my mind Zombie was always going to be this series of short, sharp books, and luckily the publishers were willing to go with it. As challenging as it’s been, I think they really enjoyed those challenges."
This was perhaps partly down to the fact that Shan had completed much of the series before he approached his publishers. He tends to spend three or four years writing a book, juggling multiple books at once, but even by his standards, Shan admits, this was an unusual series: by the time his publishers knew about Zom-B, he was already on book ten! "It allowed me to go back and fine tune the series, make sure everything tied together neatly." It also means, he is quick to point out, that he was writing about zombies long before it was fashionable.
The release of the twelfth book has been linked up with a tour of equal intensity to the publication schedule, with Shan often attending three bookings in one day. Clearly, he does nothing by halves. "I love touring," he grins. "It’s the most enjoyable part for me. You know, you meet your fans, get feedback from them, see the excitement in there eyes. When I write, I write in isolation, there isn’t that much contact with the world and it can be quite a lonely profession, but meeting fans is the icing on the cake for me. It’s a chance to get out there and see the stories working in the way I always hoped they would."
Zom-B: Goddess was released yesterday in £12.99 hardback. Darren Shan will be conducting a farewell Zom-B tour around the publication date. For more information, visit: http://www.darrenshan.com/
Pictured: Darren Shan at home in Pallaskenry, Co. Limerick Credit: Kieran Clancy