Scriptwriter and author Derek Landy, a softly-spoken Irishman, has spent the day learning to play with fire when we meet to talk about his first children's book, Skulduggery Pleasant. He snaps his fingers and, after a few fumbled attempts, a small flame does indeed appear at the end of his thumb. It will take a lot of practice, but Landy has a determined look about him.
The trick will form part of the act Landy is planning for his UK tour in April, when Skulduggery Pleasant is launched by HarperCollins Children's Books. The publisher is using pre-launch online marketing that aims to get young people interested in the character before they realise he is in a book, not on screen.
Landy was a full-time scriptwriter before turning to children's books. He started writing while living and working on the family farm just outside Dublin. "I must have created havoc around me because I didn't pay attention to anything I was doing," he admits. "I would spend eight hours picking cauliflowers and then sit down and write everything that I'd been planning in my head. I remembered everything word for word."
After two successful film scripts, he decided to try writing for children when the name Skulduggery Pleasant presented itself. "The character popped into my head exactly as the name suggests—a detective who is urbane and pleasant. Within half an hour I had conceived him and 12-year-old Stephanie, who takes us into this magical world."
Skulduggery is also a skeleton—albeit a very lively one—who has learned some handy magic tricks, hence Landy's performance with fire.
Landy wasn't sure if he would be able to sustain an entire book, and started with a stretch of dialogue between the two main characters. "The book was basically a great excuse to write really fast dialogue," he says. In film scripts, speech has to be slowed down to make it more realistic, but he has always loved fast dialogue. "I've also had a stammer since I was four, so it's a bit of wish fulfilment, too."
He drew on everything around him for the setting and storyline. "That's why I set it in Dublin, where I live. I like taking something I have always known and suggesting that when night falls, it becomes something you wouldn't expect.
"It's also got everything in it that I love—the supernatural, fighting [he taught karate for 10 years] and magical powers."
Landy attributes these tastes to many hours of boredom as a child and growing up on a diet of film. "As a kid, when I got really bored, I'd have to add something. So I'd be sitting in church imagining terrorists abseiling down the stained glass windows and I'd be the one to stop them.
"I think we all wanted to have some kind of special powers as children, and my characters get to enjoy the things I wanted to experience as a kid."
Landy is signed up for three books, but he has a series of eight or nine in his head, and has plans for each of his characters. "Most of them will end up in a really bad way—which is so much fun!"
He rubs his hands gleefully. "Being a writer is like being a god; you can just say, 'I feel in a smiting mood today', and you just pick your characters and decide what's going to happen to them—and often it's horrible. I am having such a good time writing these books. I do hope I get to write more than three."