The most memorable authors are the ones who have a personality that shines through their prose. The titles of my favourite childhood books have all blurred together with age – but I’ll never forget the mischievous tones of Roald Dahl, the shrewd whimsy of Terry Pratchett or the silken strangeness of Neil Gaiman. You forget the words, but you remember the voice. It bursts out through the odd descriptions. It hides in the parentheses and footnotes. It’s a persona that the author creates for themselves, like a form of literary showmanship.
Cavan-born author Dave Rudden is a natural showman: when you have a booming stage voice, an electric presence and bristling red hair, it’s difficult to be demure. I met with him recently to discuss the launch of his debut novel Knights of the Borrowed Dark, and to chart the long and difficult process that led him to its publication.
The novel, which is geared towards a teenage audience, is the first of a fantasy trilogy published by Puffin Books. It centres on the story of Denizen Hardwick: a thirteen year old boy who is trying very hard to lead a normal life – but ends up in the centre of an ancient war between forces of spoken light and monstrous darkness. As you do.
“I was always the child who wanted to find magic in the world,” Rudden explained, smiling. “But I was a very cynical kid, too. I became increasingly sceptical of the protagonists I saw in fantasy novels: the kids who gallantly accepted their destinies, who vanquished evil and escaped unharmed. That’s not what childhood is like.”
“When you’re young, the world is an unexplored and scary place. I wanted to reflect that. I wanted monsters that were unpredictable and frightening, I wanted characters that were diverse. I wanted tragedy. I wanted true bravery – the kind that’s a conscious choice, not a character trait. I wanted Denizen to make these tough decisions even though he was frightened and confused and conflicted. I guess I was writing for the kind of child that I knew.”
Dave spent a chunk of his twenties teaching English and Creative Writing to secondary school students, so he knows how to impress bored teenagers. “Teenagers are by far the toughest audience!” he laughed. “They won’t give you a second chance. They won’t read a boring book from cover to cover just because they know the author, or they’re feeling merciful.
“But there’s absolutely nothing wrong with being critical. In the classroom, as in writing, you have to learn how to hook your audience immediately: with your first line, your first page, your first chapter. You must encourage them to keep going.”
“It helps to acknowledge how difficult their situation is, too. Adolescence is tough. It’s a period of massive transition. YA authors have a tendency to depict everyone as sympathetic and helpful to the protagonist, but that’s not what it’s like in reality. When you’re a teenager nobody ever has time to coach you through your decisions and changes. Nobody seems to care. I wanted Denizen to live without a safety net.”
There is no chance of Denizen living with a safety net: Rudden prides himself on “being cruel to fictional children”, and it’s easy to see why. A masterful aspect of Knights of the Borrowed Dark is that it is genuinely dark and frightening throughout, despite its witty and light-hearted narrative voice.
Denizen spends his childhood in a dismal and crumbling orphanage on the Irish coast, and is actually coping quite well until he is whisked away by a grim and dismissive stranger who answers none of his burning questions. From there he is plunged into the world of the Knights, and gradually learns of the terrifying sacrifices they make to keep the ever-encroaching darkness at bay.
The novel’s magnetic power comes from the intrigue of its villains: individual, surreal beings from the realm of the Tenebrae who slip into the human world through shadows. Their exact nature and intentions differ from iteration to iteration. The only constant is that they are very, very angry.
The Clockwork Three are the central antagonists of the novel: they are vicious, petty and utterly terrifying. “I was trying to contrast that recent trend of intelligent, Machiavellian villains who want to be captured – Moriarty from Sherlock, for example, or Heath Ledger’s Joker,” Rudden explained. “See, it’s easy to circumvent someone with a complex motive. If an enemy’s sole intention is to hurt you… You can’t really stop them from doing so, can you? There’s no plan to throw a spanner into.
“The Clockwork Three essentially form three aspects of a childhood bully. The first monster relies almost entirely on verbal abuse. The second relishes in physical torture. The third is a scapegoat, a dumping-ground for all of the misery they’ve ever inflicted. Because that’s at the heart of every bully, isn’t it? A child who has been tortured, who needs to take his pain out on other people.”
I asked Rudden about his favourite fictional antagonist. “I think it must be Ambrose from The Kingkiller Chronicle. Again, he and Kvothe have a very petty rivalry– one that slowly escalates into something incredibly serious.”
Asked about the beginnings of his writing career, Rudden mentions fanfiction: the practise of writing original stories based on existing fictional universes. Fanfiction gets a lot of flak for the prevalence of poor writing and rampant sexualisation (see: Fifty Shades of Grey), but Rudden recognises it for the useful writing tool that it can be.
“The fanfiction community were always helpful with constructive criticism and encouragement. Fanfiction is like a starter tool for worldbuilding and language development. Worlds never appear fully formed, and neither does your distinct creative voice. You slowly develop your own by sampling the worlds and voices of writers you admire. Skill and originality will grow with time.
Coming of age
“Writing the first chapter of Knights of the Borrowed Dark as the thesis for my Master’s degree was the first time that I felt I was writing with a style that was uniquely mine. Now people tell me that they’re reading the book in my voice – that’s really nice to hear,” he laughed.
Rudden studied a BA in English in St. Patrick’s College, where he admittedly didn’t work very hard and “scraped a 2.2”.
“Look, college is a complete paradigm shift, especially when you’ve just come from a sheltered town in the countryside. If you’re the type of person who had a wide friend circle in secondary school, the sudden isolation is going to really hurt. If you’re the type of person who never quite fitted in, you’re going to have to make a huge effort to put yourself out there. I spent most of my undergraduate learning about friends and girlfriends and music and cooking things more complex than toast.
“It’s even tougher if you were struggling with your mental health through school – which I was. People tend to tell you that college will be easier, that you’ll flourish there, and you tend to believe them. But it isn’t that simple. Your problems will follow you, because that’s what problems do.
“Often, the ‘fantastic time’ that everyone is having is just a veneer over their true feelings. Everyone feels lost and confused and frightened in their first year of college, but nobody likes to admit it. The word homesick becomes taboo. These feelings are so normal, and colleges need to start treating them as such.
“There are mental health facilities on campus, but they’re almost always overworked and difficult to access. It’s pretty disheartening to be put on a six-week waiting list to see someone, when it takes so much bravery to contact them in the first place.
“Clearly the facilities we have in place in our colleges aren’t working well enough – the suicide rates on campuses are still increasing. There needs to be a massive conversation in Irish universities about what we can do to help students. Maybe a mandatory preparation course before college wouldn’t go amiss – so that you actually know what’s going to happen when you get to college, instead of being thrown in there blind.”
Rudden completed an MA in Creative Writing at UCD in 2013. Irish writer and winner of the 2014 Guardian First Book Award, Colin Barrett, is a graduate of the same course. There is an ongoing public debate about whether or not an MA can improve the quality of your writing, and Rudden is wary of giving advice on such an individual matter: “The MA was a good idea for me personally. It helped me with a lot of the technical aspects of my writing: with navigating the business end, with deadlines and self-discipline. But it depends completely on who you are and what you want out of the experience. Some people don’t need that.
“Look at it this way: publishers aren’t going to take a bad book just because you have a Master’s degree. But they’ll take a good book from anywhere at all.”
Rudden remains a teacher of creative writing and storytelling workshops around Ireland, which he thinks have distinct benefits: “Writing isn’t something that you can teach down to a fine art, but there are definitely some guidelines that people should know. Classes are good for getting rid of the mysticism around writing. It really is just a process of trial and error. I’m always happy to give my opinions, or to share things that have worked for me for other people to try.
“I’ll never forget one workshop at the Big Smoke Writing Factory, where I was asking a woman to elaborate on a plot problem she was having with her story. Halfway through explaining herself, you could see something click into place in her brain, and she just started frantically scribbling on her notepad right then and there. It was great. The rest of us were like, ‘Oh! It’s happening! It’s happening right now!’”
Towards the end of the interview, the obvious question to ask was how a debut novelist managed to secure a three-book deal with Puffin Books, with further publishers working on translations in Germany, France, Brazil, Russia, Turkey and Sweden – and rumours of a movie deal on top. Literary prowess and dedication aside, it’s quite an impressive feat.
“When it came to finding a literary agent, I used a website called litrejections.com – optimistic name, right? The website has an amazing database of literary agents from around the world. I researched them all and essentially started from the top down. I was rejected 24 times before I met my agent: the wonderful Clare Wallace. 12 rigorous manuscript revisions later – here we are!”
Rudden is the sort of man you can’t help but root for. He is consistently humble, genuine and as giddy as a child. Knights of the Borrowed Dark awakens the sense of wonder which every bookworm started out with: the longing for secret heroes to be battling unseen evils somewhere, the desire to see the world in a new and brilliant way. This trilogy promises to be witty, exciting and utterly terrifying. It deserves every ounce of success it has garnered, and more.
Knights of the Borrowed Dark is now available in most major Irish bookstores. You can join the conversation on social media by using #KOTBD. Illustration by Dearbháil Clarke