A year ago, 32-year-old Derek Landy was living with his parents on the family farm north of Dublin, teaching karate and working on film scripts, with which he'd had modest success, having seen two of his screenplays produced by the Irish Film Board. Then a name popped into his head, a name so evocative, Landy already knew who it belonged to: a suave but sardonic skeleton detective. Without having received a single rejection slip, he parlayed this out-of-the-blue idea into a manuscript, and a three-book, $1.8 million (£1.45m) deal with HarperCollins. Not bad for a college dropout.
Bookshelf caught up with Landy when he was in New York doing publicity in advance of his first book, Skulduggery Pleasant.
Tell us that you at least studied writing, now that you are a "literary sensation" at home.
Well, I'd like to, but basically, I have always found it very difficult to actually study, even when I got into college. I studied animation for a year. Unfortunately, the course was three years, but at the end of the first they asked me not to come back. I wasn't doing the work. I was just having too much fun. So for the next six years, I worked on the family farm, something I always swore I would never do. Those six years made me realize I would have to work hard at my writing if I was ever going to get out.
But farming itself is very hard work. Was it a dairy farm?
Too hard for me, right. No, not cattle, crops, but still. Lettuce, celery, cauliflower. Everything I hate.
Okay, but I'm having trouble picturing how this young man on a farm in Ireland decided his ticket out was to write film scripts. Was there even a movie theater in your town?
There wasn't, but the nice thing is that, even though where we live is rural, it's so close to Dublin that you can get there in 15 minutes. I was at the cinema in Dublin an awful lot. I chose scripts instead of books because the scripts are 100 pages with lots of white space. You write down the middle of the page. Books, well, with books every page is filled with words and it seemed too hard.
So how did you go about learning how to write scripts while working on the farm?
Well I bought a few collections of scripts, just to see what the format was, and a book, Teach Yourself to Write Scripts. But if you already love movies, you're unconsciously aware of the structure already. This book just put a name on it.
And what kind of scripts did you start out writing? What were your favorite films?
Generally, I like horror and science fiction, but the films I rewatch are the ones where the characters talk really fast, like in the Coen Brothers' films. I've had a stammer since I was four so there's a joy in watching fast, witty dialogue. That was what I was striving to write myself, and it crept over into writing the book.
Speaking of the book, tell us how you got the idea for Skulduggery Pleasant.
Well, I'd had two films--Dead Bodies, and a zombie film with the charming title, Boy Eats Girl--produced, and I was firmly in screenplay mode. I had no intention of writing a book. But I was in London meeting with some producers in the summer of 2005, and the name Skulduggery Pleasant popped into my head. I've been asked so many times how I came up with that name and I don't know how or why but with the name came the character. He was a skeleton, that was the skulduggery part, and he was urbane, well-dressed and intelligent. That was the pleasant part.
But why a book and not a Skulduggery Pleasant screenplay?
There was just too much to capture in a script, so I found myself in the unfortunate position of having to write a book, which was not in the plan. Not in the plan at all.
Would your teachers be shocked?
No, probably not. I was always writing when I was a kid, and I was always coming up with stories. I'd get so bored in church, I'd imagine a whole scenario where the bad guys would storm in, smashing through the stained glass windows, and I'd take them out with gunfire. The real world was not a worthy enough distraction.
Did someone encourage you to write those stories down?
Actually, both sides of the family are claiming responsibility for me being a writer. The Landys were always great storytellers. They do tend to talk a lot. And my mother's father was an amateur writer, and she is a professor of English at a college in Dublin.
Oh, no wonder your teachers weren't surprised! Irish farm boy pens Boy Eats Girl and Skulduggery Pleasant is a little less startling when you learn there were storytellers and college professors in the household. How do you feel about the "overnight sensation" label, though?
I feel wonderful. Every time you hear "overnight sensation," you're not hearing about the years and years of work that went into it, of course….
All those mornings picking aphids off lettuce leaves.
Exactly. And I couldn't have written Skulduggery six years ago. I wasn't confident enough. But it has been an amazing experience. When you write a book, the focus is entirely on the writer. In film, it's all about the producer, and the stars, and the director, and the writer is interviewed if the caterer isn't available.
Now you're exaggerating.
Actually, we do have some wonderful caterers.
So, are you done with scripts?
No, but there's a freedom to writing a book, as opposed to writing a script, that's huge. When you've written a script there's a lot of, let's see how to put it, intervention, from the directors and even the financiers, people who don't necessarily know anything about how to tell a story. So book writing is really freeing.
And how's book two coming?
Really well. I was hesitant at first because I didn't want to repeat myself, but it is turning out to be a joy going back to the same characters. It's like visiting old friends.
So I guess no more farm work for you.
I'm in the process of moving out, and even Dad is talking about easing into retirement. The land is more valuable at this point than the farm business. Somehow, he's made it work all these years even though, all around us, people were selling off their land.
And I guess your karate-teaching days are over, too.
I taught karate for 10 years, but I'm taking a break now. I started training when I was 18, and got a black belt a few years later. It has really informed how I write fight scenes. I've read children's books where it's clear the author's never been in a fight. The actions are too stilted and too precise. A fight is a chaotic thing, but a focused thing, too. And, in teaching, I've been around a lot of 10- and 11-year-old kids. They're as smart and witty as anyone else. That opened my eyes to the fact that they were worthy of respect, which is why I made Stephanie (Skulduggery's sidekick) extremely smart and capable.
Has there been any film interest in Skulduggery?
There has been, but I'm concentrating on the books right now. After I get the second one finished, I think I'll be able to stand back and allow myself to think about a film. Because I started in film, I'm very eager to see it as a film, but I want it done right.