The creator of Skulduggery Pleasant talks to Julia Eccleshare.
2007 is a long time so it is pretty telling that I remember the launch of Skulduggery Pleasant so well. From the outset, we all had huge expectations. Skulduggery Pleasant was billed by its publisher as a VERY big new book and the idea of a sharply dressed skeleton detective had exactly the kind of edge that makes pulses race. And, in Ireland where Derek comes from, he was promoted as the next J. K. Rowling from the outset.
The writing was slick and fast, the idea was original and so was the launch – we gathered in a crypt. But, though important, those background details are not entirely new. What made it so memorable for me was the author. Derek is a striking physical presence and, though he spoke with modesty, he had passion, energy, wit and conviction. And he had a track record as a writer of a zombie screen plays which gave him a certain authenticity. Added together, it was enough to carry conviction that Skulduggery Pleasant would indeed be a very big success.
By my memory and Derek’s memories of the launch differ slightly. Where I saw a confident new addition to the distinguished band of Irish writers for children, Derek’s memories of the early time around publication are hazy. He knew that his publisher was backing the book strongly but he was also aware enough to know that all publishers think that their book is the best. How does he remember the launch?
Even now, 15 years later he still shivers. ‘Every publisher has huge hopes for their debut author. Everyone hopes for longevity but for no definable reason, a debut release just doesn’t catch on. That could have been me! I was just extraordinarily lucky. Skulduggery gave me longevity. I had the right idea at the right time and it hit the right readers. It’s scary to think it could all have gone wrong!’
But beyond luck, Derek had enough of a back story as a wannabe writer to know that beyond having the right idea at the right time he had to apply some carefully honed principles to getting Skulduggery Pleasant right. ‘I’d written loads of stories before but I had always got bored. My track record was about a third of a book. But then Skulduggery popped into my head and I suddenly had this idea for a great character. I knew how he looked and who he was. Because my track record on writing a whole book was bad, I had to find a way of fooling myself into keeping going. I made sure every single chapter contained fun – usually it had fun on every page. I had a blast and it was suddenly a book that had no limits.’
Derek still buzzes as he talks of the energy that the fun he has had creating Skulduggery Pleasant gives him. It is the big tip that he shares with young writers when they ask him for advice. ‘I always say just have fun. It sounds trite but fun jumps off the page. It is not contained.’
But while fun helped him to trick himself out of boredom, the thing that has kept him returning to the books again and again is the characters. ‘When I go back, it’s like meeting up with old friends. I adore them and really enjoy their company. To write a character like Skulduggery who dresses like a character from a 1940s private eye movie and speaks with that kind of dialect keeps my interest. I have a wandering attention span but that has held my interest throughout. Valkyrie also interests me. I really care about what has happened to her and how she will navigate what is to come.
Derek’s dynamic storytelling has a ‘light the blue touch paper and run’ quality to it. The cleverly balanced mixture of fear and fun is at the heart of their popularity – especially with reluctant readers as he has learnt from the time he spends talking to children. From his conversations with readers of all kinds at the many events he has done across the country he is very aware that there are reluctant readers everywhere and that they need to be encouraged to find the right book. ‘I firmly believe that for reluctant readers often they need just to find one book. When they do, it can become more important than anything else.’ He knows how often that book is Skulduggery Pleasant and it delights him that he gets letters from parents saying their child has never read anything before but because of finding Skulduggery Pleasant the whole world of books has been opened up to them.
In the years since Skulduggery Pleasant was first published Derek has written 15 Skulduggery Pleasant books neatly published in a series of trilogies starting with ‘The Faceless One’ and including ‘The Death Bringer. He has also added additional titles including a prequel, Skulduggery Pleasant: Hell Breaks Loose, and a story collection, Skulduggery Pleasant: Armageddon Outta Here. Taking a different tack, he wrote Skulduggery Pleasant Grimoire, The Secret History of the Universe. A witty and insightful compendium to the series which he wrote partly because his mother had been on at him to do because, unlike most Skulduggery readers, she only read each book once and so needed some reference back up, it shows just how carefully and richly he has created his complicated fictional world.
And now he’s taken yet another new tack. Skulduggery has been freshly re-imagined in Bad Magic: A Skulduggery Pleasant Graphic Novel. Derek is very clear that this is not just a new version of his first book. It is a new format which has allowed him to take a new approach to how he tells the story. ‘You must never take your readership for granted or exploit them. Every move that we make as a writer/ publishing team shows that we are on the same page as the readers and that we respect and are grateful to them. I’m lucky that I can experiment and try new formats through which I can deliver something surprising and nourishing.’
To hear him speak about his books you would think that Derek lives entirely within the world of Skulduggery Pleasant. But he does have time out from them and he unwinds by reading comics and playing video games. ‘I can’t play games when I’m in the middle of a book as I’d stay up far too late and not be able to my job. But I play an awful lot of games when I’m not writing – in a disciplined way for six months of the year. I started out writing screen plays, to relax and for intellectual stimulation, it’s sitting down with a movie, playing video games, reading comics or books. That’s how I unwind.’
‘My best advice to parents and teachers about how to get children to read is to point out where books sit in that universe. It’s a united world not a divided one. You have the video game, you have the film, you have the books, you have the comic. What it shows is that the players, and the readers, and the viewers are all after story and they are all after the characters so they will follow them through different mediums. All of them are just a way of engaging a person in a world that doesn’t exist. Videos are just another system of storytelling. They are very immersive which is why they are very attractive. Parents are often anxious about the immersion because of a fear of tech and games. They think of books as the Holy Grail but really it’s an inter relation of all these things. There should be no fear of any of it.’
Coming from an author that might seem like surprising advice but Derek himself has experience of many ways of storytelling. He studied animation at college though only lasted on the course for a year. He was kicked out because he wasn’t focusing on it partly, he says, because although he was good at art he wasn’t great. And before he hit on Skulduggery Pleasant he wrote the screenplays for a zombie movie but found writing for film frustrating. Although he’d being writing stories since primary school he had never met a writer and assumed you had to be a kind of rock star. ‘It just didn’t seem to be a feasible career for me. Before you make it there are so many chances to accept defeat. So many off ramps. It’s up to you to stick it out.’
It took Derek ten years to write Skulduggery Pleasant. Thank goodness he stuck it out!
Julia Eccleshare is children’s director of the Hay Festival and head of Public Lending Right policy and advocacy.
The Skulduggery Pleasant books by Derek Landy are publisher by HarperCollins Children’s Books.
Books mentioned, all by Derek Landy, published by HarperCollins Children’s Books:
Bad Magic: A Skulduggery Pleasant Graphic Novel, by Derek Landy, P. J. Holden, Matt Soffe, Rob Jones and Pye Parr, 978-0008585785, £14.99pbk
The Skulduggery Pleasant Grimoire, 978-0008472450, £8.99pbk
Hell Breaks Loose, 978-0008585730, £14.99 hbk
Armageddon Outta Here, 978-0008554279, £14.99 hbk