Q&A: Derek Landy
As The Last Stand of Dead Men, the eighth book in his best-selling Skulduggery Pleasant series, is published, Irish author Derek Landy talks to New Humanist about his skeleton sleuth, not believing in magic and the influence of Buffy The Vampire Slayer
New Humanist: Describe your religious upbringing
Derek Landy: I was raised Catholic. Kind of. It was a Catholic environment, anyway. Prayers in school, communion, confirmation, church every Sunday. Hated every minute of it. Then, when I was about 12, my folks realised they were pretty much atheist, and I gladly left it all behind. My sisters kept going to Mass, but really it was just to see who else was there. There was no actual faith or worship involved.
Where do you stand on the whole god thing now?
I don’t believe in magic. And if I look around at this real and natural world and I don’t believe in magic, then can I believe there was magic here 100 years ago? Five hundred years ago? Two thousand years ago? And if I can’t believe that there was magic in this real and natural world 2,000 years ago, how can I believe in a magical god? How can anyone? It’s just ... silly.
I’ve got nothing to say about religion that hasn’t already been said by smarter people than I. Sometimes it helps. Sometimes it damages. Sometimes it’s about people doing nice things and sometimes it’s all about power and greed.
I like the old-fashioned Christian values, though. You know, the being nice to people, helping people, being tolerant, that kinda stuff. But the one thing I find puzzling is how mercenary religion makes it. If you do nice things in this life, just to be rewarded in the next one, doesn’t that kind of negate the niceness of it all? Wouldn’t you be a better person if you did the nice thing just to do the nice thing?
What inspired the Skulduggery series?
I was a scripwriter but I wanted to do something different. The second film I wrote had been made with a lot of creative compromises, so when I got the idea for Skulduggery – and I realised it was a book and not a screenplay – I launched everything I had into it. I put in every wild and crazy idea I could think of, made it a mish-mash of half a dozen genres and just kept going. It was action and adventure and comedy and horror and most of all it was crime, so I could have the rapid-fire dialogue that I’ve always loved. I’ve had a stammer since I was three, and it’s only in my thirties that I began to get a handle on it, so I’ve never been able to speak as fast as I wanted. I reckon it’s because of the stammer that I learned to appreciate the spoken and written word as much as I did, and it’s no surprise that the dialogue is the strongest part of my work.
Why did you decide to make your hero a 400-year old skeleton?
Because I could...! Most of the sorcerer characters are hundreds of years old. They’ve all been around the block. They’ve done good things and bad things and they’ve passed through the other side – but Skulduggery is the only living skeleton among them.
His name popped into my head first – Skulduggery Pleasant – and it told me everything about him. I knew who he was, what he was and what he was like. His first name alone told me he was a skeleton detective— I mean, that’s pretty obvious to ANYONE, right? Right?
You have said that your books are not fantasy – what have you got against fantasy?
Did I say that? I probably did. I’ve changed my mind about fantasy since then, though, thanks to George RR Martin [author of A Game of Thrones] and Joe Abercrombie [author of The First Law trilogy]. But I don’t like the fluffy fantasy, where there’s never any real moral danger. Absolute good versus absolute evil is pretty bland to read, let alone write.
Some say you based Skulduggery on yourself. Are your characters inspired by real people?
I based my heroine Valkyrie on a real person. When I realised my main character was going to be a teenage girl, I immediately had a problem. The fact is, I’ve never been a teenage girl. That phase passed me right by. So, in order to ensure that Valkyrie’s voice and attitude remain consistent, I based her on a girl I taught martial arts to, who is now a very good friend of mine. That way, I could always measure the character against the person to gauge whether I was staying on the right track.
As for whether Skulduggery is based on myself, well ... He’s hyper-intelligent, insanely witty, and supremely arrogant. I’ll leave that up to you to answer...
Your animal-like vampires are different from the glamorous vampires we’ve become used to. Why?
I was getting tired of seeing sexy, brooding vamps everywhere I looked. So I made my vampires into unthinking monsters – creatures that even the strongest sorcerer would be wise to run from.
Then Twilight caught fire, so not only did we have sexy, brooding vamps back on the scene, but now they were toothless little bunnies too. Their main problem wasn’t that sunlight killed them, it was that they were too beautiful, for god’s sake.
I have my issues with Twilight, with the message it sends, and maybe it’s unfair of me to condemn another author’s work when my own work probably sends out all kinds of messages of its own. But if there is one quality I admire in people, it’s strength, and that is the main quality that is lacking in Bella. I do tackle the Twilight issue in the Skulduggery books, by the way. It involves a character called Caelan, and it’s not exactly subtle.
Out of everything you have written what is your favourite?
There’s a difference between “favourite” and “best”...! My best work is always my latest. If you are any good as a writer, you improve with every book. I am a MUCH better writer now than I was when I started, on every level. But my favourite book is still the first one, for sentimental reasons. I didn’t know what I was doing, I didn’t know if it’d ever be published ... I was just writing to write, to feel that buzz growing inside me, that maybe – MAYBE – this one was something special.
Why did you decide to send your ass-kicking heroine Tanith Low to the dark side halfway through the series?
Good versus evil doesn’t interest me. Compromised good versus mostly evil, however, does. I seem to be drawn to that struggle, the struggle against our own worst nature, and I keep coming back to it in my writing.
Tanith’s fate, however, is not my fault. I introduced her in the first book as a kick-ass heroine with a sword, who dresses in tight leather and runs up walls, and she was there to befriend Valkyrie and be fun and fresh and irreverent. And then, just as the climax is starting up, my plan was to kill her.
I wanted the readers stunned. I wanted them distraught. I wanted them worried. “If he’s prepared to do this to Tanith,” I wanted them thinking, “what will he do to Skulduggery and Valkyrie?”
But I changed it. My agent convinced me that it ended the book on a downer. So I kept Tanith alive, on the condition that I get to torture her in every subsequent book. Turning her evil halfway through the series is just the latest development.
Your characters have several names each. Why is that?
In my books everyone has three names – the name you’re given, the name you take, and your true name, the secret name you’ll never know. I have actually taken a sorcerer name, and I make an appearance in the books. I’m just not telling anyone who I am. That way I can do outrageous things and no one can blame me for it...
Which is your favourite Skulduggery Pleasant villain?
I have two. The first one is Scapegrace. He started out as a villain with delusions of competence, and proved so endearingly pathetic that now he’s actually entered into the readers’ affections as one half of the Gay Zombie Duo. Whether or not he’s technically gay or technically a zombie any more is beside the point.
My other favourite villain is Darquesse [Valkyrie’s evil alter ego]. Ignoring the fact that it’s so much fun to write about her ever-growing powers, she’s such an innocent that I can’t help but love her. Yes, she’ll pull your arms and legs off, but only to see how much force it’d take to do it. She’s a sweetheart.
The series Buffy The Vampire Slayer is the best thing ever on TV, and anyone who doesn’t think so is wrong. Discuss.
Ah, Buffy. It made a few missteps along the way (I’m looking at you, Season Four) but look at what it’s done for the world. It brought Joss Whedon to the masses, it gave Sarah Michelle Gellar a lot of miniskirts and it introduced us all to a whole new vernacular.
It also emphasised character development, revelled in dialogue and had the saviour of the world be a blonde cheerleader. Valkyrie would not exist without Buffy. Hence, Buffy is the best thing ever on TV.
Do you have any plans for what you will do after Skulduggery Pleasant?
Vague plans ... I intend to keep to my schedule of the September releases, so the only thing I know for certain is that I won’t be taking any time off. I have four or five ideas that I’ll be playing around with – some brand new, some a few years old. It’ll all depend on what grabs me. Writing Skulduggery is just so much fun, so whatever the next series is, it’ll have to be just as exciting.
Questions devised by Saul Melville, age 11. The Last Stand of Dead Men, the eighth book of the Skulduggery Pleasant series, is published on 29 August by Harper Collins