Is this the final curtain for Skulduggery Pleasant? Damian Kelleher meets Derek Landy to find out more
Everyone’s favourite 400-year-old skeleton gumshoe Skulduggery Pleasant is back and I’m meeting author Derek Landy over Zoom to discuss the final book in the second series. Except the gremlins have landed and our Zoom link won’t play ball. So we revert to plan B – the good old telephone – to talk about Until The End. Derek is talking to me from his home just outside Dublin, surrounded by fields and meadows which he says ‘help me to write’. I ask him if he found it any different writing during the lockdown.
‘Anyone who chooses to become a writer, they’re willingly entering into a life of essential solitude,’ he explains. ‘So this is something that we have chosen. Then suddenly to be in a lockdown, you’re like, ‘Well this is just my average day!’ It hasn’t really affected me the way it’s affected other people. For me it’s just an excuse to not go out, whereas in the past I had to explain myself.’
As with all his Skulduggery Pleasant books, Derek says Until The End was six months in the writing.
‘I started this late summer 2021 when Ireland was still in a pretty stringent lockdown. It generally takes six months to write a book. I have a slow start and then we get to the halfway point and you’re cresting a hill, then you just roll down to the other side, gradually picking up speed. It always starts off nice and steady, slow and casual, and then by the halfway point it’s frantic and obsessive and that’s when all the work gets done, just when the deadlines are screaming at me.’
There’s been much speculation among his fans on social media that Until The End will be a final showdown for the skeletal gumshoe and his redoubtable sidekick Valkyrie – the clue is in the title right?
‘When I started the series I only thought it was going to be nine books long,’ Derek admits. ‘I was writing towards that until I got to book six or seven and realised actually it will go on. So I got to book nine and I put that to one side and called it phase one and then phase two started. If you had asked me a few years ago will I stop at a particular point I would have said ‘absolutely’ because I had no intention of continuing on in this world without Skulduggery and Valkyrie. But now that I have written more and Skulduggery’s universe expanded and the characters have evolved – I am no longer so dogmatic. So now I’m a lot more open to the idea of continuing.’
One of the reasons why Skulduggery Pleasant has been such a huge hit with its readers is that the books break all kinds of boundaries. Landy knows only too well that this is what makes them so appealing for his audience, but he also realises that this is what makes writing the books so much fun for him. But it’s never easy to bid farewell to a much-loved series is it?
‘I have to be aware that sometimes a story is more impactful if it has a definite end,’ says Derek. ‘I have to weigh that up with the vibrancy that Skulduggery gives me and the opportunity to write in whatever genre I want. The glorious thing about these books is that they have allowed me to write horror, fantasy, adventure, comedy, crime, mystery – there is no genre that I cannot incorporate into the Skulduggery books. I don’t know what I’m going to do when I’m no longer writing about Skulduggery and Valkyrie.’
As with all Skulduggery Pleasant books, there’s action and pace and witty dialogue, but there are also political, social and religious themes running through this book. As the series has evolved, inevitably Landy has had to grow the Skulduggery universe to embrace all kinds of concepts. ‘I’ve still got to write for the 9-year-old, the 10-year-old. So nothing I write can be inappropriate for those readers,’ explains Derek. ’And yet the evolution of the Skulduggery universe needs to be more complicated and complex in order to keep everyone happy.’
Is it a delicate balancing act, I ask, trying to write for new younger readers without alienating your core audience?
‘I’ve had a few mishaps over the years, and in the first drafts of these books there will always be a sequence where my editor comes back and reminds me that 10-year-olds will be reading these books! I will still colour outside the margins when I’m writing but I’ve got to know what I can do, and my readership. The interesting thing about writing for so long is that I now know what I have to take out before I send it. There’s a lot less to edit these days. Just through the experience of working with editors, I now know what is right for these books. I’m a lot more efficient.’
There’s something else that crops up in Until The End and that’s the strong sense of family; we have revelations about both Skulduggery and Valkyrie that will surprise the fans. Throughout this book, there’s a recurrent theme of the power and security of the family, the sense that no matter what happens and whatever you do, your family will always be there to forgive – and to love.
‘I think the family thing started when my nieces were born 12 years ago. I don’t have kids myself and up until then I’d been an island, I’d been on my own, happy and content and then suddenly I meet these two little newborn babies and I loved them. At the time I felt, ‘I don’t know them, I don’t know if I’d like them when they are older, I don’t know who they are as people, but I love them, and I would do anything for them. I have unconditional love.
‘Because of that I gave Valkyrie a little sister because I wanted to explore that feeling. Her sister was never in the plan when I plotted the first nine books. But it’s because of my nieces, the books have veered away from the absolute darkness they were heading towards. If I didn’t have nieces and now nephews too, the books would have just got colder and darker; they would be completely different.’
Now, in this golden age of film and TV, it still seems odd that Skulduggery Pleasant hasn’t yet made it to the big screen. The book was originally optioned by Warner Bros, but that fell through because the screenplay was what Derek calls ‘unworkable’. Then came a deal with Sony that also foundered.
‘I’ve been working on the film script with a new company for the past two or three years and it’s now the best version that it has ever been. If I could go back in time and rewrite the first books, with everything I’ve learned as a writer, I would change the original books to be like the script. In terms of storytelling the script has a more cohesive story.
The film has come so close in the past and then we’ve veered away. I’m asked about this on Twitter every week. All I can say is ‘we’re working on it.’ No matter how close we are, I still say that. Until we get the green light it means nothing. I’d say we have another week or two of work to do on the script, and then I’ll be happy with it, my producers will be happy and then we can begin the next stage of the process.’
What next for Derek Landy, I wonder? Are the rumours of an adult novel true?
‘I was planning to take three years off to write horror and crime for adults, but after talking with my publisher we’ve compromised on one year away and in that year I’ll write …’
But that information, dear readers, is embargoed! Suffice it to say, that it won’t be much of a year off for Derek …
Damian Kelleher is a writer and journalist specialising in children’s books.
Skulduggery Pleasant: Until The End by Derek Landy is published by HarperCollins Children’s Books, 978-0008386351, £14.99 hbk.