Derek Landy interview: Skulduggery Pleasant, Demon Road

Derek Landy is excited. Next week, he’s going to see two of his favourite 80s films on the big screen for the first time. His publisher Harper Collins is hosting screenings of Joe Dante’s Gremlins and Wes Craven’s A Nightmare On Elm Street at London’s Picturehouse Central for Landy’s legion fans as part of the publicity circuit for book two of his Demon Road trilogy, Desolation.

Landy made his name in Young Adult fantasy with the nine-book Skulduggery Pleasant series about a skeleton detective and his teenage girl accomplice. The huge success of the first Skulduggery novel was a tornado that lifted him Dorothy-like straight out of his family’s farm in Ireland and plonked him down in Hollywood where he was wooed by major studios searching for the next Harry Potter movie franchise.

That yellow brick road hasn’t yet led to a Skulduggery movie, though he says there are still adaptation plans afoot. The project initially stalled at Warner Bros. after Landy’s draft screenplay was butchered into “the worst thing [he'd] ever read” but the film rights are shortly due to revert back to the author, so watch this space…

I chatted to Landy about the status of the movie, horror influences, turning down a Doctor Who book series, Feminism in Demon Road and why we all need to be Buffy the Vampire Slayer…

Let’s talk a bit about Gremlins and A Nightmare On Elm Street, the two films you’ve chosen to share with your fans. Why those in particular?

The entire Demon Road trilogy is a love letter to American horror, books, TV, comics, movies. So when Harper Collins came to me with the idea that maybe we could show a movie or two, it became basically a journey to find which two movies, one for a general audience and the other for adults, could I show to pretty much encapsulate the ideas behind the series. Gremlins is just, it’s up there. It was a choice between Gremlins andGhostbusters.

Back in the eighties, when I was just discovering pop culture and horror culture, movies for kids were a lot more adult than they are these days. You’d get away with cursing, with partial nudity, with all of these things that you would not have a chance with in a PG movie today. Back then they weren’t afraid to push the envelope and so Gremlins is just… I’ve never seen it on the big screen, it’s always on TV and it really does encapsulate a very specific time of my life and a lot of other people’s lives.

They’re making Gremlins 3 now of course.

Oh wow, I didn’t know that. Wow!

Chris Columbus is producing. It’s apparently going to be a sequel not a remake, taking the Jurassic World approach, like thirty years on.

Okay, okay.

What do you make of Hollywood resurrecting those films from our childhoods?

I don’t mind it if the resurrected film is at least on a par. I’m actually a fan of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre remake with Jessica Biel. I probably prefer it to the original simply because the original makes me actually queasy, so I can’t actually watch it. The production values are better, the sound is better, the visuals are better, the acting is better. When it’s something like that when you can actually bring something of quality to a remake which didn’t have those same chances, that has a chance to be artistically credible. It’s all in the approach. The Hitcher remake was awful, The Fog remake was awful, most remakes are dreadful and if they go CGI for the Gremlins, that will lose ninety per cent of its charm.

On the subject of CG Gremlins, am I right that you don’t want a CG Skulduggery Pleasant in a movie adaptation, you want him to be played live-action with a green-screen head?

Yes. Whether or not the Skulduggery movie will ever happen is another story! But even then, I was hedging my bets because I got to the fourth book and I was in the middle of talking to the studio…

Which at that time was Warner Bros?

At that time, yes. And I realised, ‘Oh my God, this is going to be awful because if the studio wants a star then the studio is going to get a star and they’re not going to get a star and not show his face.’

I wrote the first draft of the script but it was handed off to other writers and then the script that I got back had a skeleton body who somehow retained his head and face. If that version got made then it would have been the biggest cop-out, so I wrote into the books a disguise, a false face that Skulduggery has that flows up over his skull to give him the appearance of a regular person.

In any project from an artistic point of view, you always have to balance the art with the business, with your main actor’s face, the face that will sell tickets. If it’s too cynical a fix, the audience will know, but if it’s organic, artistic, creative, then they will roll with it as far as they can.

This must be when all the ‘Johnny Depp is playing Skulduggery’ rumours exploded?

Yes.

Was there anything to those?

I think his agent was sent the script, but keep in mind that this script was awful, I mean, this script was diabolical. I submitted the first one and it was handed off to about three other writers one after another.

And it came back with a musical segment I understand?

A musical number! For some reason! Well, I know the reason. The director who was attached at the time—and I will do him a favour and not reveal his name—he wanted in his next film to have a musical number, whatever the film. So they put in a song and dance routine for Skulduggery dancing around the living room to Man In The Mirror by Michael Jackson. Yes.

Not your vision, it would be fair to say!

[Laughs] Not really, not really no, no.

Hollywood can be a bit of a small town in some ways, and people in it tend to be quite careful about what they say in public about projects in development, but you seem to have a refreshing candour about this stuff. Have you felt any push-back from Warner Bros about your honesty on the failings of that script?

No. I think it would be different if they didn’t agree with me. The producers got that script and they all went ‘What? Seriously?’. The producer sent me the script, he didn’t really say much about it, just ‘There’s a new draft in, see what you think’ and I read it and I got back to him and said ‘This is the worst thing I’ve ever read’ [laughs] He sounded so disappointed, but he agreed with me.

I do tend to be quite upfront about those kinds of things. I suppose I’m not really a team player in that sense. The company would like to present a united front and that’s entirely, one hundred per cent understandable, it’s just that I don’t represent the company, I represent not only myself but the readers, so I kind of have an obligation to the readers to be as honest and upfront as possible about the ins and outs of developing a movie.

If the movie is released, it will be different to the books. There will be sequences that are brand new and sequences in the books cut out, there’ll be characters that no longer exist, there’ll be characters who act and behave differently. That’s a shock to the system for a real fan of a book, but I figure if I can keep them up to date on the hows and whys of why things were done, they will be able to enjoy the experience a lot more.

You say ‘if there will ever be a Skulduggery movie’, is that a big question mark now?

It’s always a question mark until it’s actually made. I’m kind of hamstrung by certain things I can and can’t say but it was with Warner Bros. for three years, I worked on the script myself for about a year and we hooked up with a production company and I worked on the script with them. The script got really, really good if I do say so myself. We brought it to another studio, they optioned it and everything was going swimmingly and then the executive who’d been championing it left and a new one came in. As is the way in Hollywood when someone new comes in, they sweep everything away and they bring in their own projects. Skulduggery was one of those casualties of this change-up.

Basically we were told that it’s not going to happen, and I said ‘fair enough, no hard feelings’. It’s what, April now? In June the option will be up again so the rights will revert back to me. In between writing books I’ve been working on the script again and again, I’ve got it to yet another stage of brilliance, if I say so myself. In June, I’ll be finished writing the Demon Road books and certainly for the first time in a year and a half I’ll have time and we’ll be going at full blast. I’m quite looking forward to that.

The BBC recently announced a big adaptation of the Philip Pullman His Dark Materials trilogy. Have you thought about doing Skulduggery on television?

Back in 2007 when the first book was out and we signed the deal with Warner Bros. that same year, we were saying ‘this is a movie, it’s not an animated movie, it’s a movie with special effects but it’s not for TV, it’s a movie’. Since 2007, the entire television landscape has shifted dramatically. Some of the best stories are being told now on TV. More and more special effects are not a problem, you get dragons for God’s sake.

Zombies.

Yes! The special effects, computer effects, make-up… could we do it as a TV show? We could. It would go on for about twenty years! [laughs]

Stephanie would be in her mid-thirties by the time it ended!

At the moment my attitude to it is firmly on movies, I see the next stage of its life as a series of movies if it actually ever happens. But my attitude to TV, while always positive, has blossomed recently so for future projects, who knows?

Are you planning to do a JK Rowling in ten years’ time and return to Skulduggery?

I said from the very beginning it’s going to be nine books long. I’ve actually given eleven books with the novellas and extra stuff. I don’t know. No, I said it was nine. I said it was nine. That’s all I’m going to say.

Nine is a nice occulty sort of number.

Yes.

Returning to the film screening event, would you say Nightmare On Elm Street has a particular bearing on the Demon Road trilogy? There seem to be touches of Freddie Krueger in the character of Dacre Shanks, for instance…

Absolutely, absolutely. The first book is a road trip and the nature of a road trip is you meet a lot of characters, every few chapters there’s a new character with a new story and each one of these encounters is a different trope of American horror. It’s Stephen King books, it’s Wes Craven movies…

As you say, the Dacre Shanks character is influenced by Freddie Krueger with that kind of unstoppable nature, the cockiness and the very specific power and ability. When it came time to choosing an over-18 film to show, it was a choice between Elm Street and Nightbreed, which I would also love to see on the big screen, but Freddie has been a childhood hero of mine since I was twelve.

My colleague has an interesting take on Gremlins, that like The Burbs, these Joe Dante movies are satirising the middle class, and that the Gremlins are essentially a manifestation of middle class fears – they don’t speak English, they have no manners, they probably lower house prices….

[Laughs]

What fears do you think are expressed by the monsters in your books?

It’s all very layered. Everything has a second or third meaning. Or does it…?

Essentially, there are a few points of genesis for the Demon Road books, there is the idea of a girl who finds out her parents are demons and they want to kill her, that was the hook. That was me going, ‘what is the most horrific thing I can think of?’ I was brought up in a very loving environment with two very loving parents, so the idea of a parent who would want to hurt me in any way is completely alien, I cannot fathom it. So okay, that.I was playing around with it and nothing was really working until I realised I could set it in America and what’s more iconic than an American road trip? It meant it could be a litany of horror tropes.

Like a best-of compilation…

Yes. Over the course of the three books, there’ll be a Nightmare On Elm Street, there’ll be X-Files, there’ll be Buffy, there’ll be Stephen King, Psycho… everything I loved as a horror fan is all in this series.

I looked at Skulduggery and said ‘I don’t just want to repeat myself, I don’t want to have a wise-cracking older male character and an tough-as-nails teenage girl’, so I made Milo the strong, silent type and I took the confidence away from the girl. Also, I took away the physical advantages that Valkyrie had—she was tall, she was pretty, she was strong, athletic, so she commanded attention—most people, we don’t have that luxury because a) we aren’t fictional characters and b) we all have flaws. I wanted Amber to have flaws so she isn’t tall, she’s short, she isn’t athletic, she’s kind of overweight, she isn’t pretty, she’s kind of plain… and yet when she turns into a demon, she’s tall and strong and beautiful and red-skinned and horned and all of this wonderful wish-fulfilment fantasy come to life.

The books have got three or four different points of origin. Everything is there to explore this idea of a family chosen and a family you’re born with and the stresses that teenagers have everyday plus the added stresses that girls have in a society that’s just becoming worse and worse as we go along.

A depressing thought.

To a degree in the last fifty years we’ve seen huge strides against racism, against homophobia and it would seem against sexism, and yet, my girlfriend will go out to a nightclub and she’ll come back with tales of…

Horror stories?

Yes, absolute horror stories. This is the area in which we are regressing and I can’t understand it. I have four nieces, I’m about to have five nieces and I don’t want them to grow up in a society that treats them like this. So that is another part of the books, how Amber is treated when she is a beautiful demon and how she is treated when she is just a normal girl.

On that, there’s a section at the end of the first book, when Amber confronts the cat-caller. I’d say that your books have a really enjoyable lightness to them, they don’t feel po-faced or worthy and you don’t feel you’re being preached to, but there was definitely an educational message there to young readers, both female and male.

You’re absolutely right, I don’t want to preach. I have no intention of imposing my views onto my readers but at the same time, if I look around and you spend anything more than fifteen minutes online, on Twitter, and you are assailed by a barrage of hate. I figured, she’s a teenage girl, she has a life on fan-fiction forums, this is a girl who does live part of her life online, she will be exposed to this, and so it would be disingenuous to avoid it.

About a year ago I said on my blog or on Twitter, “I’m a Feminist”. For years I hadn’t called myself a Feminist because I figured the best thing to do would just be to act in my belief that everyone was equal. When I was a teenager, you were seeing great strides and I imagined that they would only continue, so I stopped calling myself a Feminist and I just acted. Be the change you want to see in the world, and that’s what I was doing. I was being the change. And then I realised that isn’t enough anymore. There was a great tide of Feminism but it hit and when it rolled back it took so many things with it. So I said “I’m a Feminist” and I got a barrage of Tweets from the Men’s Rights Activists, and I was like ‘what are you talking about, dude?’.

These books aren’t a morality tale or lesson in anything but if you’re going to be talking about a specific age and specific things to do with people of that age, if you ignore something that you see as a problem then why are you writing in the first place.

You mentioned Buffy earlier. Years ago you said there would be no Valkyrie without Buffy The Vampire Slayer.

Oh yes.

Amber awakening her demon self, the violence and power inside her, that all seems to have a strong connection to Buffy.

Yes. For me as a writer, Buffy is probably the most important TV show in existence. I was already out of school, I was about seventeen or eighteen when Buffy started so I got to it as I was taking writing seriously, Buffy was going strong. I can’t say enough good things about it. It had some really dodgy episodes and a dodgy season or two but that idea… That’s why I stopped calling myself a Feminist, because I thought “We have Buffy now! And Buffy will change the world so I don’t have to do anything!” But you know, she saved the world… a lot. She just didn’t change it as much as she should have. Now I think it’s up to the rest of us to carry it on.

We’re the Potentials?

Exactly. Exactly.

If that set a template for you as a writer, then what did the work of people like Clive Barker and James Herbert mean to you? I understand you read them and Stephen King when you were really young, so did I, a group of us got into Stephen King around the age of eleven or twelve and my feeling is that kids with horror are quite good at knowing when enough is enough and when to stop. We self-policed quite well around those books. I don’t think I’m traumatised by them. I also read a lot of Danielle Steel around that age—it was a case of anything in the house—which, if anything, was probably more damaging…

[Laughs] Their influence on me was quite apparent in school. In English class whenever we got assigned a short story for homework mine would invariably be horror. It would either be horror or comedy. I have yet to combine the two because I was one extreme or the other, as you are when you’re a teenager. You read a James Herbert, a Shaun Hutson and it’s all describing the bullet entering the brain and shattering the skull and the grey matter exploding…

It’s the paperclip through the eyeball in King’s The Dark Half I will always remember…

Yes! It’s divine stuff. “Splatterpunk” is the term that was used back in the heyday, and I was an avowed fan of graphic violence in books and in movies. It didn’t traumatise me in the slightest. As you said, we policed ourselves. If I didn’t love these books I wouldn’t read these books, if they gave me nightmares I wouldn’t read them. I was watching all the classic horrors, Nightmare On Elm Street and Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and they didn’t have any adverse effect on me.

These days, it’s a weird kind of dichotomy because you have a culture that is slipping towards—and I’m not saying if this is a good thing or a bad thing—but it’s slipping towards trigger warnings on everything. Content advisory stickers practically telling you what to expect in this book and this movie. That’s obviously essential for some people and not essential for other people. Society seems to be becoming a lot more sensitive, and I say this without apology, a lot more easily offended.

At the same time we also have the internet and you can be as sensitive as you want about certain things reaching your kids, but you have no idea what your kids are up to and have access to. The best thing, the healthiest thing is to be open and honest and have a healthy conversation. If you see something adversely affecting kids, you step in, but I trust them. My parents trusted me to handle whatever I was into. I will write beheadings into Skulduggery and Demon Road and I will trust the reader that if they find this stuff objectionable, they will stop reading.

Tell me about your character names. Ghastly Bespoke, Skulduggery Pleasant…Do your magnificent character names come from your deep-seated desire to be called something other than Derek?

Derek isn’t really a cool name, I wanted to be called something like Johnny Rockjaw! Just something strong and cool.

The name thing started from a very story-centric place as in when I came up with the name Skulduggery Pleasant, within a few minutes of that I came up with a few character names, China Sorrows and Ghastly Bespoke and Mr Bliss. Suddenly I had about six names that were really evocative and told me who these characters were. Bizarrely, I’m not a fan of the Dickensian mode of like…

…literary nominative determinism?

Yes! I always thought that was a pretty cheap way of getting across a character’s motivations, and yet, here I was calling all of these characters very specific names that elicit a very specific response. Then, when I thought about it some more I thought I could make it a part of the story, a part of the world’s internal logic. The idea occurred to me that when they are old enough the sorcerers take on a name, so Skulduggery Pleasant wasn’t born Skulduggery Pleasant, this is a name he later adopted.

Then it went back to the old superstitions, to Rumpelstiltskin, folklore and the roots of language. If you’re a caveman and you see a big monster, a lion—I don’t know what a lion would be doing there, but anyway!—if you saw a thing with teeth and fur and muscles and claws then you’d be terrified because it’s a formless, nameless thing, it’s just fear. The moment you put a name on it, you own it. It’s a lion and lions are like this, that is you taking control of the conversation. It’s how language began.

Then it just became somewhat fun because I realised that younger readers would be adopting new names for themselves. Skulduggery forums are alight with strange sounding people.

I always liked Clandestine for a first name. I’d be Clandestine Saunter.

Ooh yes. Oh that’s good! [Laughs]

Let’s talk about cars in fantasy and horror. Classic American models like the Plymouth, the Dodge… seem to be woven in with horror stories. Am I right that you drive a Ford Mustang?

I do have one, yes.

So cars and horror. There’s Stephen King’s Christine, of course. Skulduggery has the Bentley. Milo has the Dodge Charger in Demon Road. What’s the connection there?

It’s a very specific American subset of the horror genre. It’s Christine, it’s Duel, it’s the truck chasing the salesman. Then you have the Winchester boys driving the Impala, Nosferatu in Joe Hill’s book with his Rolls Royce. You could really only trust America to use cars and trucks as a horror fetish. Only they would be so bold as to imbue a car with evil intent. For a series that is set in America, the moment I said ‘road trip’ I thought ‘oh my God! I get to have a spooky car! A Dodge Charger that is haunted’.

So it’s part of the homage.

Oh yes.

One of the Demon Road reviews I read said it felt like binge-watching an exciting Netflix series. How far do you envisage your stories visually, or in terms of TV and film?

I started out writing scripts. I wrote two small films made in Ireland. When I was teaching myself how to write to a professional level it was with screenplays. That’s how I write now. I write visually. It’s like how Elmore Leonard wrote, very rarely would you get into the character’s head. He would describe what they were doing, he would give you huge amounts of dialogue and within that and the action and the things said and not said, that gave you the insight you needed into the character. So that’s how I write. I don’t do an awful lot of internal struggles within the thought process. I think visually, I think in terms of dialogue. Because of that in every chapter I need the characters to be doing things, going somewhere, completing some task.

Not navel-gazing?

Exactly. They are physically involved at every moment, even if it’s just a chapter where they are side by side in a driving car, there’s a reason why Amber is looking out of the window right now instead of looking at Milo. It is very visual so I do like that binge-watching Netflix comparison, that’s nice.

All of which surely makes you a contender to write an episode of Doctor Who?

[Laughs] Well! Patrick Ness is my friend, so come on… Patrick’s doing Class, give me a spin-off!

Since you did that fiftieth anniversary story, have there been talks about contributing an episode?

No. My agent, who actually is also Patrick’s agent, every so often she’ll come up with an idea…

The Doctor Who short story was a lot of fun. There was talk of me writing a book series for one of the publishers. It was offered to me and I turned it down. It was a struggle to turn it down, but the fact is I need to be able to kill anyone on the page at any stage. When you are playing in someone else’s wheelhouse, you have to ask their permission and I don’t know how well I’d be able to work within those limitations. I started in movies and moved to books and suddenly the freedom of books was astonishing. Because, you make a movie and it’s a compromise, it’s a team effort, and sometimes decisions are made that you don’t agree with and you have to go along with and suddenly writing a book you’re…

King of that universe.

It’s beautiful. So to go back to that kind of thing within the books but having to jump through all of those hoops would be my idea of hell. But a script? A single script is different. I think they know I would be willing to do it, but I think Moffat could have known but I don’t know who the new guy is.

Chris Chibnall? From Torchwood and Broadchurch.

Oh, that’s right!

He’s who you need to follow on Twitter. Presumably then, you have all the gossip about Class?

No, and I have resisted asking my agent for any details.

You’re unsullied, as we like to say.

[Laughs]

To finish then, you’ve written a fair few libraries, from China Sorrow’s collection to Heather’s workplace in Demon Road. As more news comes in about the effects of library cuts and closures, can you tell us about the role they played in your development as a writer and a person?

Libraries and second-hand bookshops are where I lived as a kid. There were books that I just got out of libraries, put them back and take them out again, I loved them so much. When I was younger, I’d be at the library every weekend, and I’d take away an armful of books. It was glorious.

In my career, I’ve visited a load of schools, colleges and libraries and I can’t see how anyone would not be able to see the advantage they give, especially with the fact that most libraries now have rows of computers. I don’t understand how they could be so neglected. I don’t think it is as bad over here in Ireland, but what’s the UK statistic I heard, that only 38% of people use libraries? Of 22 million people? 38%? Only? That’s still a lot… I don’t have a coherent answer because it’s not a coherent question. It should not even be a question. It’s a library for god’s sake!

I’m going to get that printed on a t-shirt. Derek Landy, thank you very much!