Irish author Dave Rudden on overcoming bullying and self-harm and how writing changed everything
Dave Rudden has overcome many obstacles - bullying, anxiety and even self-harm. Now, as the final instalment of his best-selling fantasy trilogy hits the book shelves, the self-confessed 'giant child' tells Maggie Armstrong why you don't need a six-pack to be a hero
When, at the tender age of 25, Dave Rudden set out to write the first book of his fantasy trilogy, The Knights of the Borrowed Dark, he was sure of one thing.
"I wanted to create a hero that didn't have a lantern jaw and a six-pack, that didn't shy away from the darker aspects of what it's like to be a teenager."
Who did he invent? Himself, essentially. Thirteen-year-old Denizen Hardwick is short, red-haired, inquisitive and sometimes racked with anxiety. Dave Rudden is short, red-haired and loveably anxious. As his prodigious talent in creating a parallel supernatural world for young adults attests to, he's pretty inquisitive too. "I drew on a lot of my own experiences for Denizen. Our minds work the same," says the now 30-year-old publishing dynamo from Cavan.
Growing up in the "tiny, tiny" village of Bawnboy, he was "very bookish, very awkward, very questioning of everything. I would have been the odd, different kid." He was bullied "quite badly" in the school in which his father was vice-principal, and learned to cope with the pain by self-harming. Today, he has his sleeves buttoned over the scars on his forearms.
In a waistcoat and paisley tie, cultivating a bushy red beard and with flame-red curls piled atop his head, he resembles more an eccentric tutor from his own fictional orphanage when we meet to discuss The Endless King, the final book in the trilogy.
Drinking two pots of tea in hasty sips, he has a kind of unstoppered, overflowing warmth, talking at dazzling speed, stopping only to apologise for being "super-rambly" and "ranty". His passion for his work is uncontainable, and good luck and good riddance to the interviewer who tries interrupting him mid-flow.
A self-confessed "giant child", if you were a confused and anxty teen there is surely no one better placed to bounce into your classroom and cheer up your world view than Rudden. When we meet, he has just spent the weekend with a couple of thousand kids around the country, a side to his work he talks about with missionary zeal.
Rudden is an "author and storyteller"; his Facebook handle is "raconteur", and his craft has always had this public side. Counselling and a loving family may have helped him recover from childhood bullying, but writing and performing helped him grow into the reckonable force he is today, once he moved to Dublin to study English and History and to become a schoolteacher.
"I fell in love with doing drama. Theatre very much tells you that you can be anyone you want as long as you can sell it," he says.
From 18 he mingled in the spoken-word circuit in Dublin, telling humorous stories on pub stages with varying degrees of success. "It very much connected to me to my audience. You can hear the deadening silence when your joke hasn't landed, you can hear the shocked laugh when you really amuse them."
Teaching, for a year in the school in his hometown in Cavan and for a year in Cairo, was training that still stands to him when he sits at his writing desk.
"Because I'm an actor and a teacher I know that you've got 10 seconds when you walk out in front of a group of people, to make them intrigued if not completely obsessed. And so that first scene in the book, my first lines are so crucial. Children's literature has never been better. So the reader needs to feel they can't put it down."
A precocious debutant he may have been to the literary world at 25, but it did take him some years before that to gain the confidence to put pen to paper. "I thought that to be a writer you had to be super-posh, or English, or dead. No, apparently not."
It was the forgiving community of fan fiction writers on the internet that helped him test out the written word. His first authorial forays were writing Dr Who and Warhammer 40,000 fan fiction, slotting his own plots into worlds already realised by authors before him. Rudden was 80,000 words into a fan fiction story the day his laptop crashed. Nothing was backed up. "I was like: 'This is a sign.'"
With the help of a scholarship and his parents he pulled together the fee for the Creative Writing MA at UCD. One of the first assignments was to write the first chapter of a book. He wanted to write the kind of book he would have liked to have read when he was 13 - the one with the hero who didn't have a lantern jaw and a six-pack. When he visits schools he asks kids to write down what a hero looks like. Almost every boy and every girl he has met writes 'he' for the hero. "I'm very quick to remind kids that heroes can look like everybody, be from anywhere, be any orientation, anything."
This may be why in the Endless King we have Denizen the diminutive ginger, transgender Ed and Iranian girl fighter, Abigail. He wanted his main hero to be questioning and brave: "He is anxious, he is worried, but when push comes to shove, he risks himself to save other people." The chapter he wrote for his tutor was the first, marvellously imagined chapter of The Knights of the Borrowed Dark, almost exactly as you read it today. It was snapped up by a children's lit agent.
It's hard to imagine that when Rudden got the news Puffin were offering him a deal, he was "hilariously broke", cutting up Tesco's Vienna rolls and rationing them out over days.
Five years and three books on, the film and TV rights of his trilogy have been sold to Zombieland director Ruben Fleischer, and Rudden is working on an anime series for the streaming service Crunchyroll. And you must have come full circle when you have kids writing their own endings and plots for your trilogy: essentially, fan fiction.
The trilogy takes an otherworldly Irish setting - Crosscraven orphanage is an outpost on the edge of the Atlantic - and goes quasar, as the orphaned Denizen finds out he has magical powers and must train as a knight to fight villains and mutating monsters. There are nods and homages to characters from different fantasy and horror worlds, and inventiveness at every turn of the page. Instead of weapons, the heroes fight with sunlight, and instead of physical scars, the cost of bravery is that parts of their body turn to iron.
The villains in the first book are, what else? Bullies.
Rudden is one of the first major authors of fantasy who happens to be a millennial, and his influences are a fresh hotchpotch from popular culture. Writing, he drew on his love of horror films and fantasy video games as well as from the authors he read growing up - Terry Pratchett, JK Rowling, Ursula Le Guin. "My parents gave me Dracula. I was eight years old, going, 'What's a bodice?'"
The novels have a jaunty and accessible tone, but Rudden's creative process is tied to a strict and rigorous methodology. His first draft is pure creativity: "I just pour it out on the page." He likes to walk everywhere - "because I'm easily distracted and I can't drive" - listening to playlists on a pair of big headphones, playing scenes from his books in his mind like movies.
"That's what I did when I was a teenager, because I didn't have any mates," says Rudden.
Does he mean that?
"I kinda do. I'm fine with it now. I would have a lot of friends now."
He relishes description, and will settle for no less than five ways of painting an image - then plays "description jenga" as he narrows these down to three, and so on, for the final cut. The resulting images are comic gold: Denizen's friend Simon looks like "a crow in a scarf"; a tall, lady villain carries an unlit cigarette, while the orphanage ceilings are "built for cobwebs".
Rudden is no slacker then when it comes to writing the final draft: "I'll go back with a scalpel." He copies and pastes every single word into a new document and interrogates that word.
The trilogy has been widely praised not only for its imagination but for its literary heft - not always an aspect of the fantasy genre, when suspense, page-turning, humour and thrilling battle scenes are what hungry young readers look for.
One illuminating reviewer on goodreads.com - a hot spot for the honest review - criticised Rudden's books for being "overwritten" for the 9-13 age-group. Rudden believes young people are as entitled as anyone to poetry, and the "privilege" of writing it for them is enormous. "It does bother me when you see people who assume that a book for young people has to be simple. I think people forget what it's like being a kid. As a kid you're not simple, you're just new."
When Rudden was first launched he was handed the compliment - and the burden - of headlines such as "The Next JK Rowling". But Rudden is definitely not a household name yet.
When Puffin sent me his three books, I gave the first in the trilogy to a fantasy-obsessed nine-year-old of my acquaintance. But the gift was rebuffed; the nine-year-old told me, "It's not Harry Potter." I tell this to Rudden, and put it to him that children are obsessive collectors - even going by my own penchant for Babysitters Club, Ramona and Sweet Valley High books when a tween. How do you compete with JK Rowling? "If you consider yourself in competition with JK Rowling, you're not going to win," says Rudden without pause. "She had a bit of a head start."
Some of his contemporary YA authors - JK Rowling and Louise O'Neill included - wrote for older readers after they achieved success. But writing for you or me is not among Rudden's unfolding plans. "At an event, you'll never get a kid saying: 'This is a statement more than a question'." He smiles. "At the minute, all I want to do is write for teenagers. I want to capture how it feels to be that precarious and that invested in every new thing that comes along. Because that's what I'm kind of like. I'm basically a giant child."
He sees the age groups as being more porous than the marketing of his books allows for. He is about to visit his 335th big group of kids, which helps remind him how smart and how varied his target readers are. "We don't think of adults as a monolithic group, but sometimes people think of children as a monolithic group."
Take a scroll through his Twitter account (@d_ruddenwrites) and you'll see a person consumed less with his own self-promotion than with current affairs, including the referendum to repeal the eighth amendment.
"I'm more caught up with politics than I have been at any other time in my life and it is stressing me out so much," his eyes go small and then shut entirely, as he continues. "I think we have a duty to be aware of everything that's happening, all these abuses of power and slow erosions of democracy. To be politically aware in times like these is to live in constant, skin-tightening dread."
Stress and anxiety come up a lot in our conversation. Now he faces one of the scariest passes of all: ending a trilogy. "It's scary to say goodbye to characters. It's scary to decide what their endings are." (He is working on another novel for Puffin, about which his lips are sealed by the forces of the earth).
Writing endings have in the past put him into an intense state of anxiety. He wants his endings to give people a "breathless, drag-you-along experience." "With Book One I wrote the last 21,000 words all over one weekend, and put myself in hospital with a stress-related asthma attack."
His hero's body parts turn to iron as he spars with his enemies. You have to wonder, what has been the personal cost to the creator of the Knights of the Borrowed Dark? "I'm the same person I was before I wrote the books," he says. He still lives in a rented house with friends in Drumcondra. The six-figure sum he was first offered breaks down as a "good wage" over the four years of writing.
"Nothing much of my life has changed except I've bought more books. The one treat I allow myself is I have a nice laptop," - for playing fantasy and strategy video games - "And I can now afford beard oil." He makes a Cavan joke about stretching every pound.
As for those ancient-history antagonists back in his Cavan youth, schoolchildren ask him if he ever confronted the people that bullied him. He gives a vigorous shake of his beard, saying, "No, to do that would be to allow them some remaining power over me. Instead, I can just go and live my life and be happy, and that's a more perfect revenge than anything else."
'The Endless King', published by Puffin at €8.99, is out now