Anyone who has known me for a long time will know that I am most likely to be found with my nose in a book. As a kid, I could go missing for hours and be found squashed in a corner somewhere, book in hand. As an adult, I often complain that my bag is too heavy, only to open it and find a tiny library inside. I don’t think it’s much of an exaggeration to say that I found out what kind of person I wanted to be in the pages of hundreds upon hundreds of books. As someone who puts a lot of pressure on herself, I collect heroes and heroines who struggle with who they want to be, whether they can really be the person that they’re expected to be. Of course, I’ve never had to brandish a sword or cross vast, strange lands on a mystical quest, but nonetheless, I found friends in characters that I recognised myself in. And I found another in Finn, the hero of Shane Hegarty’s young adult series, Darkmouth.
Full disclosure here: Shane is a friend of the family. I know a lot of really brilliant people, so it was only a matter of time before one of them did something really brilliant. And my god, this is really brilliant. I read the entire first book in one evening. The series takes place in a small Irish town called Darkmouth, which is strikingly similar to Shane’s hometown of Skerries. But Darkmouth is different. Because in Darkmouth, there be monsters. In ancient times, the world was filled with portals, through which enormous mythical monsters, called Legends, escaped into our world. Darkmouth holds the last one. Fortunately, the world is protected by Hugo, a fearsome Legend hunter, and Finn, his young son. Finn is being trained to take up the family business. Except that he’d really rather just be a vet. I shan’t spoil it for you but this is a gorgeous, hilarious portrait of a young boy struggling to live up to his legendary father, all while fending off literal demons left, right and centre. I caught up with Shane and his talented illustrator James de la Rue to find out more about the men behind the Legends.
Shane, what first gave you the idea for the Darkmouth series?
I’d always wanted to write fun, adventurous, fantastical fiction but took years to build up the confidence to actually give it a go. The irony is that I was writing for years before that – as a journalist and as the author of two books of popular history. In the end, I came up with this not particularly original idea – a boy fights monsters that invade his town – but knew it offered a great starting point to explore two worlds. And for jokes. Lots of jokes.
If you were a Legend, what kind of Legend do you think you’d be?
I’d like to be one with seven heads and fourteen arms so I could write these books quicker, without having to interrupt the all-important coffee-drinking. In the books I choose from existing myths because a) I’m lazy and b) it’s fun to imagine what would be the practical, day-to-day reality of having, like an Orthrus, a dog’s body but a snake for a tail.
You take a lot of inspiration from your hometown…ever seen any monsters or mythical creatures lurking?
I’m not allowed say, for fear of libelling someone! But writing is often a game of “what ifs”. What if my town had been invaded by monsters of myth for a thousand years? What if you had to fight off invading minotaurs and then go back to school? Again, I’m lazy. This approach works for me.
(Note from Fiona: I wish my laziness was this productive. When I’m lazy, I tend to binge watch Pretty Little Liars, rather than casually penning a bestselling book series)
The latest instalment of the series, Worlds Explode, has just hit bookshelves, what should we expect from Finn and the gang this time around?
The first book is about Finn living in the shadow of his dad, but the second is about how he has to cope when his dad isn’t around. It’s also a glimpse into the world of the monsters, which was always the plan from the very beginning, but also turns out to be just what the readers were asking for. As it’s only just out, the reviews are only coming in. I met one boy who said it was the best book he had ever read. That boy happens to be my son, and I was buying him ice-cream at the time, but still…
What is it like to have kids sharing your stories and loving them so much?
(Note from Fiona: Can you hear the innate jealousy in this question?)
I’ve four kids, but only my 10-year-old son is old enough to read and enjoy the stories. The best bit of the whole adventure for me was the night he wouldn’t turn his light out because he needed to read on and see what happened. That was a relief. I’ve to write four of these books and if my own son didn’t enjoy them it was going to be a long few years.
James, I am completely obsessed with your illustrations. Where do you get your inspiration from?
My main inspiration is from the writing! There is of course a mixture of influences from favourite illustrators such as EH Shepard, Chris Riddell, Edward Gorey, Mervyn Peake, Helen Oxenbury, John Burningham, plus any number of movies, TV shows, etc., but the more vivid the writing, the more vivid the images are in my head, same with any reader. I just go one step further and draw what I see.
Do you have a favourite illustration from the Darkmouth series? Why?
I’m quite keen on one from Darkmouth: Worlds Explode in which Finn is inside a room made entirely from the bones of demonic beasts (being careful with spoilers here because spoilers). It’s a tense moment in the story and the effect of the starched, whiteness of the remains comes over reasonably well. Essentially it’s one of those rare illustrations of mine I don’t mind looking at for more than five seconds.
If you could be a Legend, what kind of Legend do you think you’d be?
My kids think I’m a legend already so I know how that feels. Not going to last forever probably. Although if you pushed me I’d have to say something with wings. Who’d want to be a Legend if you were stuck on the ground, especially if it was infested?
What drew you to the Darkmouth series?
The concept, as it was initially described, was simple and I just thought “I’d draw that”. Then by the time I’d read a couple of excerpts (I was requested to do a couple of character sketches) the dialogue in particular showed me this was going to be good. Finn was instantly likeable, and I think that’s a difficult trick to pull off so quickly. Even though I had a worryingly full schedule at the time (always a good problem) I didn’t want to let this one slip away.
Where can we find more of your work?
I’ve done plenty of Spy Dog books which are widely available; I’ve done some Terry Deary World War Tales recently and have lots of covers to do for him over the next few weeks; Archie Greene is a magical series with book #1 already out there; also Myth Raiders, a series whose concept is not totally dissimilar to Darkmouth, but with a different tenor; there are other things scattered around too, and the list is building nicely. I remember thinking none of this would ever be possible.