Friday 23 March 2018

How his writing saved bestseller Derek Landy's life

He is a best-selling author whose characters talk fast for a reason. Derek Landy tells 
Barry Egan about his stammer since he was 3, how writing saved his life and how his late dog Ali was the love of his life, a fact that mightn't amuse his girlfriend Laura

LIFE-CHANGING: Derek Landy found his redemption in writing. Photo: David Conachy
LIFE-CHANGING: Derek Landy found his redemption in writing. Photo: David Conachy
Samantha Mumba in the movie ‘Boy Eats Girl’, which was scripted by Derek Landy.
Barry Egan

Barry Egan

Bono used to sing about finding redemption in the blues. For Derek Landy, his redemption was found in the books. Prior to becoming the foremost children's author in Ireland of his generation with his Skulduggery Pleasant series that began in 2007, he was in a place of manifest misery. "The lowest point of my life was working on the farm for ten years," he says. He makes picking vegetables on his lovely parents John and Barbara's farm in north county Dublin sound like something from the pages of Solzhenitsyn's The Gulag Archipelago.

I accuse him of melodrama and ask him was he really that miserable? "There were moments when I was completely miserable. I used to watch the buses and wish I was on them because everyone on that bus was going somewhere. There were occasions where I would start crying. And I am not a crier. Ten years of that was soul destroying."

Writing, Derek says, took him out of that personal pain and gave his life, perhaps for the first time, true meaning, or at least hope. "I was a burden on my parents and my life was going nowhere. I messed up school and messed up art college, I squandered every opportunity. The only thing left to me I hadn't yet messed up was writing. It was my only chance,"

During his time working the farm, the manual labour, he says, wouldn't engage his brain. So he would be actually writing in his head at he toiled, straining and sweating, in the fields around Lusk, dreaming of one day making it big as a writer. The gods didn't seem to be smiling on him, however. "By the time I was 30 and I was writing the first book, I had two films made," he says, referring to Dead Bodies and Boy Eats Girl (two movies scripted by Landy, the latter starring Samantha Mumba). "I was still living at home. I had no money, I was in debt to the credit card for about 12 grand. My parents were worried. My siblings all had prospects."

He puts it more succinctly: "While I was the black sheep, the one whose head was full of dreams. If I didn't have the idea for Skulduggery then I would be condemned for being a dreamer and being a waster and wasting my life on this ridiculous dream of being a writer."

Everything changed very quickly in 2007 - " the best year I'd had, I became much happier" he says - when, aged 30, Derek finished Skulduggery Pleasant "and it was sold within two weeks of my agent sending it out. There was a bidding war. I don't have the tale of rejection slip after rejection slip. It was brilliance from the moment it went out." He was suddenly quite loaded and more than able to pay off the 12 grand.

Asked did he go to Las Vegas on a trip with the money to celebrate, Potentially Decadent Derek says, no, he and his younger brother Ivan went to the Pavilions shopping centre in nearby Swords and purchased a pair of Quasar guns. "That's the only thing I bought," he says. Born October 23rd 1974. Derek - who has an older sister Nadine and two younger siblings, Audrey and the aforementioned Ivan - sums up his raison d'etre thus: "I just wanted to tell stories from a very young age."

The Dying Of The Light, his new book and the final in The Skulduggery Pleasant series, encapsulates, he says, "what the series has been about all along. Essentially: a hero who realises halfway through the story that she is destined to become the villain. Everyone is compromised, everyone has another side to them, and a happy ending is not guaranteed. War, death and jokes, basically."

Derek is as full of surprises as his best-selling books.

Landy's next book, which he is already quarter of the way through writing, he says will be a departure, while "having some of the same elements as Skulduggery. There's horror. There's fast talking. It will be for a little older age group. I think any writer who writes a long running series, you can bet anything as it goes it will get progressively darker because it has to. As the readers grow more sophisticated you have to give them [something] a lot more challenging."

The reason Landy mentions "fast talking" in his books is almost crucial to him, because when his characters talk fast they are not stammering. "When I was 3 years of age," Derek explains, "I came down to the kitchen with a stammer. And suddenly I had a stammer for the rest of my life." He says he hasn't a clue where it came from, or why. "No one knows, but suddenly I have a stammer.

"My mother is under the impression that I had a particularly bad nightmare that scared me so much."

And did he? "I can't remember. I was 3," he laughs.

I ask him was he abused by someone as a child. "No. No. No. No. The brain is mixed-up. The part that the right side controls freezes and so ... you stammer. I never got bullied because of it at school. I was talking to a guy a few weeks ago who had a stammer and he was telling about his life and he had a hellish life, and it was all because of stammering. No one even tried to bully me."

Derek, now 39, can remember rainy Saturday afternoons as a kid watching old black and white movies with Bogie and Bacall in them and being spectacularly - possibly even spiritually - smitten, because in those movies "everyone speaks really fast - "and for a kid with a stammer, it was awe-inspiring," he remembers. "So I grew to love those movies with the rapid-fire dialogue. My main inspiration in terms of dealing with characters and dialogue in my books is Bogart and Bacall."

The stammer made him appreciate the spoken word a lot more than he would have otherwise, Derek continues, "because I couldn't speak fast and talk fast. I would be standing with a group of friends and I would have the perfect one-liner in conversation but I would never say it. Yet my friends were understanding and patient and accepting."

Derek reveals, almost heartbreakingly, that he went through a year of being unable to answer the phone at home when he was 16 "because I couldn't say hello."

Once he was on the phone he was fine. "I was stammering away but it was that initial hello that I said 'No, I can't say it.' So for a year I didn't answer the phone. The phone would ring. I am the only one in the kitchen and I didn't answer. "Derek went to the speech therapist when he was 11. He says if his stammer was extraordinarily bad "he would have been more motivated to lose it." But he could get by.

"When I was in primary school, I was in all the school plays and I was fine. I didn't stammer when I was in character."

He is one of the great characters of the Irish literary world. Derek is a fascinating ball of nervous and creative energy, a feeling that is reinforced when you meet him and he looks a little like the late Philip Seymour Hoffman, but, from the 90 minutes I spent in his company last Friday in the Morrison hotel and walking around Mary Street, Mr Landy is very funny with it. He is as full of surprises as his best-selling books. He drives a 1966 Ford Mustang. He lives on his own. He has three cats - Mammy Cat, Pooper and Groomer. Then in the next sentence he says: "I'm a dog person. I always have been."

A dog person with cats, I say.

"The love of my life was my German Shepherd who died a few months ago," he says wistfully of poor Ali.

I ask him was there a human who was the love of his life at any point.

"No. No - as of yet ..." Derek says before adding, slowly, "I'm seeing this fantastic girl. She's wonderful. But, er, I don't know, you ..."

But have you feelings of love? Are you capable of loving another human being? I joke

"Oh yes! I'm not sociopath - yet!" Derek laughs. "I have four nieces and a nephew all below the age of four. So they get my absolute love."

He has been seeing Laura, who lives in England, for about a year. They see each other every three weeks for a long weekend. "I resisted being in a relationship for so long because I couldn't afford the time - the distraction to my writing."

Will she mind him saying the love of his life is a four legged beast?

He roars with laughter: "She probably will!"

"I may have issues with the fact I love my dog more than most people! But I am the best boyfriend ever!"

Derek Landy will be appearing at the Pavilion Theatre in Dun Laoghaire at 
3pm on August 31. 'The Dying of the Light' will be published by HarperCollins on August 28.

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