From the age of five, Darren Shan knew he wanted to be a writer. So, as a very young child, he channelled his creativity into the stories he wrote. Sometimes he was praised for writing at school, but other times, with horror and fantasy being his genre of choice, his writing landed him in hot water.
“Sometimes, if I wrote a really good story, I would be able to go to the other class and read it aloud. I would occasionally get in trouble in school as well, when I would write stories that were deemed inappropriate,” recalls Darren with a laugh.
“It was quite strange actually, the books I wrote are now part of the syllabus. Whereas back in the day, I was very nearly kicked out for the stuff I put into schools now. It all changed quite a lot.”
The author, who writes both childrens and adult fiction, first attended primary school in London, where he was born. He moved to Pallaskenry, Co Limerick, with his family at age six. He went to Salesian Secondary College in Pallaskenry, which many readers will know is on the same campus as Pallaskenry Agricultural College.
The books I wrote are now part of the syllabus. Whereas back in the day, I was very nearly kicked out for the stuff I put into schools
To this day, Darren, who has sold 25m books worldwide, still lives outside the village with his wife and two children, though he did return to London for university, where he completed a degree in English and sociology. Irish Country Living asked: with such a desire to become a writer, why didn’t he study creative writing?
Interestingly, Darren thinks that when it comes to being a writer, it doesn’t matter what you study or do in life, as everything informs the experience of writing.
“Creative writing courses are all well and good, I’m sure you’ll learn a lot from them. But in terms of writing, you will get just as much from studying to be an accountant, lawyer or doctor. I’ve actually found sociology stood to me with the books. When I was writing about vampires, I took an anthropological approach to them,” explains Darren.
“The way I wrote about them, I made them real. I brought a sociological type of view to the vampires when I wrote about them, rather than making them Dracula-type monsters. I don’t think I would have been able to do that if I hadn’t studied sociology at university.”
I’ve actually found sociology stood to me with the books. When I was writing about vampires, I took an anthropological approach to them
The vampires Darren refers to are the basis for his first series of books, The Darren Shan Saga, aimed at children and teenagers. The first of the 12 books, Cirque du Freak, was released in 2000. A movie of the same name, based on the first three books, was released by Universal in 2009.
Darren was just 26 when he struck it big as an author with The Saga of Darren Shan. However, it is no surprise really, as he had been writing novels from the age of 17. Although his early writings went unpublished, he says these initial texts allowed him to make mistakes and learn from them.
Since he started publishing books, Darren has had a number of names on the go. The year before Cirque du Freak came out, Darren released his first adult novel under his real name, Darren O’Shaughnessy. Nowadays, he writes his adults books under the name Darren Dash.
In the beginning, as he had already sold his other adult books to a publisher under Darren O’Shaughnessy, he decided he would need a different name to differentiate his adult fiction from his childrens fiction.
“I started wondering what sort of name I could use. My grandfather had always been known as Paddy Shan. Even his children always referred to him as Paddy Shan. So immediately, Darren Shan popped into my mind. It was different enough to Darren O’Shaughnessy, so I thought I’ll use that as the name I’m going to write under.”
I thought if I use the name Darren Shan for the main character as well, I can blur the lines between fantasy and reality. Make readers wonder, could it be true?
Darren Shan is, of course, not only his pen name, but also the protagonist of the author’s first series of books – a clever literary tool.
“I knew in the first chapter of Cirque du Freak I was going to start and say it was all a true story. I thought if I use the name Darren Shan for the main character as well, I can blur the lines between fantasy and reality. Make readers wonder, could it be true? Even 20 years later, I still get emails from some of my younger fans saying, ‘Did this really happen? Did you really have spiders?’” chuckles Darren.
“My wife has started reading the books to our five-year-old son during lockdown and I read some to him as well. Chapter one describes how Darren always loved spiders and used to collect spiders as a child. In real life, I’ve always been rather scared of spiders. But my five-year-old son is convinced that I love spiders. When I try telling him I don’t, he says, ‘Don’t be stupid Dad, it is in the book. Of course you love spiders’”.
After the Darren Shan Saga, the author went on to write three more childrens series, as well as other adult fiction. Four years after he released the last book in the Zom-B series, Darren surprised fans with a new release just a few weeks ago.
During lockdown, he published the first book in a new series called Archibald Lox in eBook format. Later in the year, it will be out as a physical book.
It was a snap decision by the author, made possible by the fact that he now self-publishes.
“I hadn’t planned to release it until later this year – it might even have been next year. When lockdown kicked in, I was doing my final edit of the book,” says Darren.
“It would normally be several months before it would come out. You would have to get the cover sorted out, arrange publicity, marketing, get reviews and all that sort of stuff. When people went into lockdown, I felt when the book was ready to go, is it possible to get it out there quickly? And it was, so I sort of went for it.”
Darren describes it as one large book divided into three parts. Archibald Lox is quite different to his other series, as it is fantasy based in a completely made-up world, as opposed to primarily grounded in horror like Darren’s other series. As he was going in a different direction, the first part of the eBook is free to readers.
“I felt if I made the first part free of charge, readers could take a chance on it. If they didn’t like it, they wouldn’t have to give too much of their time to it and they wouldn’t have to give any money to it.”
When Darren says he has a passion for writing, he really means it. In all his books, he writes more than he needs. But as Archibald Lox was set in a fantasy world, he wrote double what was eventually used, so he could understand the world himself. What originally was a whole chapter could become just a sentence.
When writing a series of books, Darren pens several at the same time. In fact, by the time he had the first Zom-B book published, the draft of book 12 was done. Writing so far in advance allows him to make changes the whole way through the series and put in subtle clues along the way about what is going to happen.
Overall, Darren feels he is lucky to be doing something he has such love for.
“I always said, if I never got paid to write, I’d be doing it for fun as a hobby. It’s something I love doing, I have to do it. Lots of writers can’t afford to write fulltime. They have to fit it in around other stuff to pay the bills, which I assumed I would have to do as well. Cirque du Freak came along and changed everything.
“Before Cirque du Freak, I had resigned myself to a life of living on the breadline. Just scraping to make ends meet and fitting in the writing. To be able to do it fulltime, I feel very, very privileged and very lucky.”