Most literary people in Ireland—indeed anyone with children—by now will have heard of Dave Rudden, author of the acclaimed Knights of the Borrowed Dark. He has been called the next J.K Rowling and has just released the second part of his YA series: The Forever Court.
So, on paper, a literary genius; in person, well, still a literary genius, but also one of the most genuine, down-to-earth people I’ve met. You get the sense he is still in disbelief over the position he finds himself in.
Last month we met and talked on the banks of the river of Frankfurt, Germany, and our conversation switched easily between interview and general chit-chat. Rudden is as articulate in his speech as he is his writing, and as excited about life as the demographic for his novel.
It’s easy to see how KOTBD has captured the hearts of children—and adults—around the country.
What’s in a name…
The characters in Knights have unique, stand-out names—not least the main character, Denizen Hardwicke. How did you come up with such names, and do you think it’s important for a character name to have a specific meaning behind it?
I was doing NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) for the first time in 2012 with my friend Deirdre, author of the Prim and Proper series. And I think all good writers have slightly differing talents—Deirdre is great at naming things.
So Deirdre and I were writing in this hotel room, and I actually wrote the first chapter of Knights in one straight go—and it’s never really been edited, just tweaked here and there—and I got to the part where the Clockwork Three tell the Orphanage Director they’re looking for this boy—and I said, ‘I need a name!’
And Deirdre, without skipping a beat, just said ‘Denizen Hardwicke’. Not even a bit of thought to it, just Denizen Hardwicke. I said, I need a name, something Lemony Snicket-sounding, because originally the story was going to be full of Victorian-esque weirdness—now it’s not, but I kept the name anyway, and now actually there is a reason he’s called Denizen Hardwicke—but you don’t find that out till Book Three.
So I think sometimes you pick a name and you find a way for it to make sense, because if you spend your first draft bogged down on finding the perfect name you won’t get anything done.
But D’Aubigny’s name has a meaning; she’s named after a French woman from the 1700s. This D’Aubigny was a mistress to a Lord when she was 13, then ran away with an alcoholic sword fighter, and did sword-fighting shows on the road. Then she fell in love with a girl, but the girl got taken away to a nunnery to be punished. So D’Aubigny broke into the nunnery, stole the body of a nun from the morgue, then put it in her girlfriend’s bed and burned down the nunnery to make it look like her girlfriend had died.
Then, she joined the Grand Paris Opera company, got caught kissing another girl at a party; three men challenged her to duel– she beat all three of them, started dating one of them, then wounded one of them. So then she was in court being charged, but the Lord she’d had an affair with when she was 13 stepped in and saved her– and then she killed herself. Died at something like 33, but she had some life.
But I don’t think all names have to mean something. It can just be ‘I like that name,’ or whatever. Because cool names are fun, and when writing for kids you’re supposed to be having fun, and you’re going to be writing these names over and over again so you might as well like them!
The science of it
Knights of the Borrowed Dark has some cleverly thought-out dimension-hopping bad guys, as well as protagonists who undergo physical changes through use of their powers. Did you do any research into this or is it pure imagination?
The reason I gravitate more toward fantasy than Sci-Fi is that Sci-Fi builds on things we already know. It can seem like super far-fetched stuff but there still needs to be a grounding.
But magic only has to make narrative sense. There’s no basis for the Knights turning into iron except for when I say, ‘Iron is the most here thing there is,’ and when I say that to people they kind of nod and say. ‘Yeah that makes sense!’
Like, people don’t metastasise into iron randomly. It doesn’t make realistic sense—just narrative sense. Fantasy is completely divorced from science. As long as it sounds good; as long as it clicks and makes sense with the story, then it works.
You can discover things about your own writing, and can fit things together, like I was saying earlier about names—in book two there’s a revelation about how Vivienne and the Woman in White look very much alike, because The Tenebrae are malleable, and their obsessions change them. The Woman in White hates Vivienne so much she’s started to look like her. And that’s not scientific but it works. And actually, when I was writing Book One, to me, The Woman In White looked like the evil babysitter from season one of The Simpsons!
As a writer
Your career has taken you around the world, sparked the imagination of countless children and has spawned a new generation of bookworms. What is that like?
It’s great. As a writer you get to create things. Like, there’s things in the world now that exist only because you put them there. Your characters become as real to other people as they are to you.
It nearly feels like you’re cheating—you’ve slipped beyond the bonds of a normal job and you get to just run around the edges. I’m always careful to look at the privilege I have in being a writer—it can be really stressful, and I’ve visited something like 213 schools and libraries. It’s amazing but super tiring. I’ve done every school, schools with 30 students, schools on Achill island.
And I brought my parents to London for the book launch and my dad met the boss of Penguin Publishing, and she said to him, ‘It’s so great that Dave is willing to get out there and visit schools and really sell the book,’ and my dad said, ‘What are you talking about… I’d have him out there going door-to-door!’ And that really is what you have to be like.
With two books published and a third written, and having been to several countries promoting the series at libraries and schools, it seems like you’re living the dream. When do you think you’ll get to the point where you can say, ‘This is it. I’ve made it.’?
When I unhook my jaw and swallow the entire world. *laughs*
No, that’s terrible. But I suppose my first rock-star moment was when Penguin and Random House merged, and they had an event with 1200 members of staff, in the Birmingham Hilton, with a bunch of accomplished writers, like Caitlin Moran and Malorie Blackman, and we all went for dinner, and I of course finished my wine before everyone else, but didn’t want to ask for another because the company was paying, and then one publisher asked me if I wanted one.
So I said I felt bad, but she said, ‘No I’ll get it for you… Have to keep the talent happy!’ And I realised… ‘That’s me!’
And the next day at the conference they were announcing my book and I had to do a reading in front of 800 people, so I was waiting in the green room, and then MARGARET ATWOOD came in, and I was freaking out internally… and she asked me what the Wi-Fi password was. That was surreal.
But I think to be a writer you have be fundamentally discontent; the goal changes. ‘Making it’ used to be getting published. Now it’s that people will like book two, then it will be that people like book three… I want to be good. I want to be really good. I would like to sell really well because it means financial security, but really I want people to read my stuff and think it’s excellent. The idea that people would say, ‘Book one is his best book,’ kills me.
I just never want to be done. I know no-one can have an upward trajectory forever, but I want to keep evolving and getting better and satisfying myself artistically. As long as my readers are delighted, as long as I’m upsetting and shocking and amusing my readers, and myself, then I’m happy.
Rachael O’Connor hails from Newcastle West, Co. Limerick and holds a Masters in Writing from NUI Galway. She has previously published articles, short stories and excerpts via Campus.ie, The Galway Review, and Sin Newspaper. She currently lives in Germany.