Plotting a great escape
Published 12/12/2011 | 06:00
As his sixth Skulduggery Pleasant book hits the shelves, best-selling children's author Derek Landy tells Ciara Dwyer how he dreamt up lines for screenplays while pulling leeks on his father's farm -- and why he'd welcome a gold-digger or two
When Derek Landy's first novel Skulduggery Pleasant was published in 2007 there was a huge fanfare for the children's writer. And no wonder. After a decade working on his father's vegetable farm in Lusk, Co Dublin, he had been offered an advance of £1m from his publishers HarperCollins.
When his London agent phoned to tell him the good news, he was out on a tractor. (He had to turn it off to answer the phone.) As he said to his brother and mother when he was told of the offer: "My life has changed." He was right.
Suddenly, photographers clamoured for a photo of the debut novelist who was now hailed as hot property.
"This was my big moment," he says. He had been hoping for a glamorous Hollywood-style photo shoot, full of razzle dazzle and dancing girls. But it was not to be.
"They all had me standing in a field with a cauliflower in my hand," he says. "And they'd ask, 'So what sort of cauliflower is this?' I don't know."
He laughs at the memory.
There was a time when Derek would have felt like flinging the vegetables to the ground but now he was able to smile broadly for the photos.
This was an image of the life he was happily leaving behind. Finally, after many years of failing and drifting -- including failing his Leaving Cert, repeating it and then getting kicked out of Animation College for not doing any work -- he no longer needed to work on the vegetable farm. Writing was something he had always enjoyed doing and eventually he knuckled down to it and found success with it.
He wrote two screenplays which were turned into films -- Boy Eats Girl and Dead Bodies -- but he found writing a novel much more satisfying, particularly as it didn't involve the endless collaborative process where plots are teased out around a table and there are often committee-style demands for characters to be changed. Derek was in full control with a book.
The character Skulduggery Pleasant came to him one night when he was in London staying in a dingy hotel beside his agent's office, the only one he could afford. It cost £45.
"I was on the seventh floor and the windows wouldn't open and there was no air conditioning," he says. "It was the height of summer. It didn't have an en suite. You had to go out of the room and down the corridor to use the toilet. I was in this terrible hotel because I was over to meet producers to get another film made.
"The two movies I'd already done didn't actually get me any money or advance my career the way I'd been assured they would.
"I remember I was standing in the middle of the room, completely naked -- now there's an image we want -- when two completely unconnected words came into my head as a name -- Skulduggery Pleasant. It told me exactly who he was, what he was and what he was like and that was it really. Suddenly, I was writing a book."
Skulduggery Pleasant went on to become a series of books and they are phenomenally successful. The latest one, his sixth Death Bringer -- has just been published. Derek tells me that he has lost track of the number of translations (37, he thinks) but it brings him much joy to look at the foreign editions of his novels. It is also deeply satisfying when he hears from his devoted readers.
Derek is as quick-witted on the page as he is in person but within minutes of meeting him I hear that he has a stammer -- it's not severe but it is present nonetheless.
He tells me that when he was three he came down to his kitchen one night, having woken from a dream, and suddenly his mother noticed that he was stammering. It has never left him.
"I'm pretty sure I wasn't traumatised about it," he says. "As a result of the stammer, I have never been able to speak fast but my theory is that having the stammer made me appreciate words more than I otherwise would have. I latched on to Cary Grant films, film noir with Bogart and Bacall and all that really rapid-fire patter."
It is in his writing and in his speech too. Conversation with him is more a volley of funny lines, often self-deprecating, than a straight chat.
He even turns his stammer into a laughing matter, as he points out the bizarre way in which he doesn't stammer at the usual expected places, like on stage in front of large crowds making speeches.
And it is thanks to the stammer that he started to write. He could express himself quicker on the page. We laugh at how he even made a stammer become something positive.
"My stammering non-hell," he says, anticipating the headline of this article.
But there weren't always laughs in his life. Before Derek got down to the writing, he was busy going nowhere.
He lived at home with his parents on the family farm where he spent his days picking vegetables. This was something which he had done during his summers as a schoolboy and after leaving college, he was back doing it again, having plummeted to an abyss.
It's clear that the farming life was not for him.
"My summers were spent in a glass house picking tomatoes, which is hell," he tells me. "You get up at six to beat the heat but you never beat the heat. You're stinking of tomatoes and it's never-ending and depressing."
While his friends had done college courses and were off making their way in the world, Derek was busy dodging life and any challenges it might present. Failure had become a way of life for him. But he knew no way out of the rut.
Before the nirvana of publication, Derek was drifting and his parents were worried about him. His father knew that the farming life wasn't for his son. Instead he lived in a dream world, enjoying comics from Forbidden Planet and running up a £10,000 credit card bill which he busily ignored.
When he had completed his first Skulduggery novel, his mother told him that he needed to get a real job, one that was away from the farm. She was about to organise a job where he would drive a van, delivering mattresses.
"My sisters and brother were always really good at knuckling down and doing the work and studying, but I'd always been the black sheep in the family.
"Until Skulduggery, I was the one person who wouldn't take anything seriously. This inability to take anything seriously has plagued me my entire life."
Is he still the same?
But two screenplays and six novels don't get written unless you get serious about something. Derek hit some low points, so low that he knew he had to wrench himself out of his stupor and make something of himself.
"I was miserable, completely miserable. I lived for the weekends and I was still joking around. But the longer it went on the more depressed I felt myself becoming. I would stand in the yard and watch the Bus Eireann buses pass on the road and I would envy everyone on those buses because they were all going somewhere, whether to a job or to meet someone or to do something. "
"In the October of my 20th year, everyone else was going back to college and I'd spent a year working on the farm, just like I always did and suddenly everyone was going back to college and I was still working.
"I said, 'listen, you've got to take something seriously'. In school there was always English and art. The drawing hadn't worked out but the writing was the other constant passion."
That was when he started on the screenplays.
"After the first film was made, we were all out pulling leeks. You can either pull the leek or go behind the guy who pulls the leeks and sort them into bunches.
"I was assigned to pulling the leeks out of the ground because it didn't require any thinking. I was doing the manual repetitive work and my mind was free. That's how I approached the 10 years working on the farm. I was writing the lines in my head and I would go over them to imprint them.
"By the time I sat down to write in the evenings I had scenes in my head and I just had to put them straight down."
"In the summer of 2005, when I got the idea for Skulduggery, I spent six months putting in everything I always wanted to write about. I didn't know if anyone was going to read it, like it or publish it. I had the best time writing it.
"From book two onwards, I knew there was an audience and I knew I was going to be published. The amount of comfort that gives you is immense but still looking back on all six books, I associate the first book with happiness because I was putting in all my plots."
When Derek told his mother Barbara that he got his colossal advance, she confessed to him afterwards that her first thought was one of sadness because she knew he was going to move out. Now he lives a few minutes away from them in Rush. It is clear that he is still close to them.
When he was asked back to talk to the pupils in his old school he told them that failing the Leaving wasn't the end of the world and that the Leaving Cert is just one step in life.
The delightful thing about Derek Landy is that he hasn't lost the run of himself. Money is no longer a worry for him, but it hasn't ruined him either. He has two cars now and was wearing a very nice jacket when I met him.
Has he ever done anything extravagant like buy designer knickers for himself?
"I bought a pair of silk boxer shorts but they didn't last long," he says.
People warned him about the dangers of his newfound wealth.
"My mother and agent and aunties warned me to be careful about gold-diggers. They will come, they said."
And did they?
"No, I've never met a gold- digger. I've been so disappointed. Every girl I've been with since has been lovely and decent and unimpressed about anything. It's a disgraceful reaffirmation of the decency of people. I'm appalled. Seriously, I want shallow relationships."
Maybe Derek should start partying with Silvio Berlusconi. In the meantime, girls you know where to find him -- in that soon-to-be no longer sleepy village called Rush. Watch out for the Skulduggery gold-digger stampede.
'Death Bringer -- Skulduggery Pleasant' by Derek Landy is published by HarperCollins, €14.50
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