'Talking to kids about books knocks the edges off you' - Dave Rudden
As the second instalment of his YA trilogy hits the shops, Dave Rudden tells our reporter about meeting his young fans, trying to bring his first book to the big screen and why he wouldn't rule out writing a romance, with a few dragons thrown in...
'I'm a giant 12-year-old, really," Dave Rudden declares proudly. I have no doubt the YA author is a big kid at heart, but on the outside, he is far more hirsute than the average 12-year-old. His face is dominated by a full, ginger beard which stretches up to meet a mass of red ringlets at his temples. The curls bounce joyfully when he becomes particularly animated.
And Rudden is definitely in an excited mood when we meet, just a few weeks before The Forever Court, the second instalment in his trilogy of YA fantasy novels, is published. When I tell him I've just finished the book, and loved it, his curls go into overdrive. "Not many people have read it yet, so I am dying to hear what anyone thinks," he says.
The trilogy tells the story of Denizen Hardwick, a 13-year-old boy living in an orphanage on windswept Achill Island who discovers he belongs to an ancient order of knights that protects an unwitting public from a sinister breed of shape-shifting monsters called Tenebrous. Knights of the Borrowed Dark was named Irish Children's Book of the Year in November. But just three years earlier, the former teacher was making a last-ditch bid to turn his passion for writing into a full-time career.
In 2013, Rudden was a regular at writing groups and spoken-word competitions, and while "bits and pieces were going well", he was miles away from making a living from it.
"I made the decision that if I think I have a future in this, then I need to commit," he recalls. "Go big, or go home."
He applied and was accepted on to UCD's Creative Writing Masters. His first assignment was to write the opening chapter of a novel and Rudden set about penning what was to become the first instalment of his fantasy trilogy. "Luckily, I was working in the UCD library, so I was skived off as much as was possible to get to use the computers around the library to write the book - in between shushing people, of course," the Cavan native jokes.
After finishing his MA, Rudden sent the manuscript to 25 agents. He got just one 'yes' - but it was all he needed. In early 2014, the then 26-year-old signed a six-figure book deal with Puffin.
Brought up in Bawnboy, Co Cavan, voracious reader Rudden had exhausted all the age-appropriate options in nearby Ballyconnell library by the time he was nine. "I even read a lot of Danielle Steel because I had read everything else in the library. I was like 'huh?... What's a bodice?" he recalls, using a high-pitched voice to channel a pre-teen Dave. "So then we went to Ballinamore library, and then Enniskillen library, and Cavan."
But despite this insatiable appetite for reading, the path to bestselling children's author did not seem an obvious one to the young bookworm.
"I never really drew a line between that and being a writer. I definitely thought there was no path between 13-year-old Dave drawing Orcs in his copy books to Terry Pratchett or Neil Gaiman or JK Rowling," he says, rattling off his literary heroes. "No one came to my school and told me I could be a writer."
But author Rudden is all about getting out and about to meet his readers. Since the first book was published, he has visited 210 schools and libraries. Knights of the Borrowed Dark was chosen as the Dublin UNESCO City of Literature's Citywide Read, which involved the writer visiting every library in the capital. He reckons he's met at least 20,000 kids over the past year. "It knocks a lot of the edges off you, talking to kids about books," he admits. "It definitely pushed me to worker harder on books two and three, to make sure I'm surprising my audience."
Rudden has spoken in the past about being bullied as a child, and how he suffered from depression while in university. I ask if he thinks young boys in Ireland are lacking role models, having been overlooked in the focus on empowering young women.
"I think that the empowerment of women is absolutely necessary at the minute," says the author, whose books boast just as many strong female characters as male ones.
Writing, he says, definitely helped him cope with personal challenges in the past. "I think it is essential, whatever your gender, wherever you are at in your head and in your life, that you have some sort of creative outlet," he says.
Rudden's experience of being bullied directly fed into the construction of his trio of villains, The Clockwork Three, in his first book, each representing a different side of the bully. In book two he has explored a new kind of 'villain'. "In book one, Denizen is alone, and in the second book he is part of a family, and has to interact with people and be a bit more open, and I wanted to explore that. And the Croites [a family in The Forever Court], they are certain, and certainty is something that I never had. People who are so absolutely certain that they are right and better than you, that makes them villains."
Young adult fiction is where it's at in terms of publishing, with sales accounting for about 30pc of the market. It is not uncommon to hear people scoff that anyone could jump on the lucrative bandwagon and write a children's book. Rudden is not so sure it's that simple.
"I think that if you go into it thinking that writing for kids is easy, or simple, you're not going to write something good," he says.
"We're living in a time when we have more choice of good literature than ever before."
Rudden's first book was praised for the lyricality of its prose, and the latest instalment marries the same high standard of writing with a more complex narrative. But Rudden says he has never felt the need to 'dumb down' the prose for his young audience.
"I wouldn't stop myself using words, or concepts. I don't try and put myself into the head of a 10-year-old and say, 'well, they won't know that word'.
"I'd rather give them a chance to read the word, and either figure it out from context or I'd find some way of explaining it in the text," he says, "but the being lyrical is something I have to keep an eye on for myself. I think there is a line between pleasing yourself and making the reader enjoy something."
The YA market is also spawning a number of big-screen adaptations. A production company already has an option on the film rights for Rudden's first book. There is a producer and director on board, although the production has yet to be green-lit. Rudden is staying closely involved in the process as a consultant on the script.
"We went down the route that would allow me as much control," he says. "I have read their synopsis and their breakdown, and I'm delighted with it. I was super nervous when we had the first conversation, and I asked them about filming it in Ireland, and they were like, 'of course, have you seen the tax breaks in Ireland?'"
Rudden has already mentioned Terry Pratchett as one of his biggest influences, and later that evening he's due to give a talk about his hero as part of the Mountains to Sea festival in Dún Laoghaire. It is not the first time he has been asked to speak about the late writer.
"When he died, I was asked to write something, but I couldn't - the thought of messing it up," he says, shuddering. "But it's been a while now since he passed away. It took me a long time to write it. It's very personal - I think that's the only way you can connect with your heroes."
Rudden, who says he can "basically write upside down in a tree", is brimming with ideas for what comes after the third instalment of the trilogy, which is already written and which, he cryptically confides, all "comes down to just one line".
"Fingers crossed, I have a long time to try writing everything. I'd try crime, a western, I'd try a romance novel... maybe with a few dragons thrown in," he laughs.
Before we part company, I ask Rudden about something I haven't been able to stop staring at since we sat down - and it's not his impressive facial hair.
"Where did you get it," I ask, gesturing at the small badge, with the familiar blue galleon, pinned on his lapel. It's a Blue Peter badge. "Oh yeah, I did a brief interview and they were like, 'here's your badge'. Then I nearly gave it away, because there was a kid who asked if it was a Blue Peter badge, and I almost said, 'yeah, do you want it?' And then I thought, 'actually, no'."
It seems the 12-year-old inside just couldn't let it go it, and I don't really blame him.