Irish funny man and author Eoin Colfer talks fantasy fiction and being compared to JK Rowling.
A collective sigh of dismay arose from young adults the world over as the eighth and concluding volume to science-fiction fantasy series Artemis Fowl hit bookshelves in 2012. Its creator Eoin (pronounced Owen) Colfer had put an end to the escapades of the eponymous protagonist and teen criminal mastermind, Artemis, and his fairy-folk mates. Colfer, however, bid adieu to his boy anti-hero on a happier note. “I felt satisfied that when the final book was written the series felt complete and Artemis’s story was told,” says the softly spoken Irish author. “I couldn’t do a follow-up now without diluting the original books. I may, however, return to the fairy world.”
And why wouldn’t he? Unearthing secrets of the fairy underworld placed Colfer in the revered echelons of young adult fantasy fiction, along with the likes of The Lord of the Rings and the Harry Potter series. Although not yet having matched their impressive numbers (The Lord of the Rings has sold 150 million copies and Potter a whopping 400 million), over 10 years Colfer’s series sold an impressive 20 million copies and won numerous awards – success self-effacing Colfer is still trying to get his head around. “It is always surprising to me that with the millions of books available a child would choose mine,” he says modestly.
In the first book, 12-year-old Artemis, captures a fairy, Holly Short, and holds her for ransom to exploit the magical Fairy People and restore his family’s fortune. The series introduces Artemis as an anti-hero and the fairies’ enemy. But as he matures into a young adult with every book (along with his readers) he decides to help the Fairies resolve their conflicts, with Artemis Fowl: The Last
Guardian rounding off the story in 2012. It’s an eclectic genre-busting narrative of sci-fi, Celtic mythology packed with James Bond-esque action and gadgets. Colfer sums it up simply as, “Die Hard with fairies”.
But it’s no wonder the fantasy aspect garnered comparisons to tales about a certain four-eyed wizard. But Colfer, 48, hadn’t read any Harry Potter books when he wrote the first Artemis novel. In fact, it was reported he was walking through Dublin airport to board a flight
when he spotted a newspaper headline: “Is Artemis the next Harry Potter?”.
“I thought, ‘Oh no, they’re similar in some way.’ So I bought the first Harry Potter book and read it on the plane,” he told British newspaper The Independent at the time. “I enjoyed it immensely, but I was very relieved that they weren’t the same. I mean, there’s a 12-year-old boy and magic and that’s about it.”
N ow, Colfer’s got used to being compared to JK Rowling by critics and readers alike. “I have never minded,” he says. “In fact I am flattered as she is a really great writer. But I do feel that it is a superficial comparison based on genre only as our characters are very different.” While Rowling’s boy wizard has had all of his tales turned into Hollywood blockbusters, Colfer’s Artemis has been road-blocked in production hell, even though he sold the film rights to triumvirate Disney, Miramax and Tribeca before the first book came out.
“It can take years, I am not holding my breath,” he says, after confessing he would have loved Irish actress Saoirse Ronan to play the fairy hero, Captain Holly Short, although she’s probably a bit too old for the part now.
But this is not his only hope – two of his other books, Airman and WARP, are being developed for the silver screen too, “I am hoping one makes it,” he says.
He’s appreciative of his other contemporaries, naming fellow funny writers Philip Ardagh (Eddie Dickens series) and Francesca Simon (Horrid Henry series) as two of his favourites, albeit not necessarily his literary muses. “Inspiration can come from anywhere,” he explains. “From a person you meet for the first time or from a place you have known your entire life. The places I have been lucky enough to travel to have popped up in my books, that’s why Artemis is such a globetrotter.”
Working as a primary teacher for 14 years after leaving Dublin University saw Colfer teach in Saudi Arabia, Tunisia and Italy. His first children’s book
Benny and Omar (1998) was based on experiences he had living in the Middle East, swiftly followed by a sequel Benny
and Babe (1999) and Going Potty (1999). His first few youth-market books had sold only moderately in his native Ireland – it was with Artemis Fowl that he broke out of his home market and into an international arena. The first Artemis Fowl book was so successful that in 2001 he took up writing fulltime. But he sees teaching as a valuable stepping stone.
“Working with children has definitely opened my eyes as to what they find funny or interesting,” he says. “The main lesson I learned was never patronise young people as they’re very smart individuals who will not stand for being written down to.” Colfer’s refusal
to patronise his readers means the appeal of his work has spanned generations. “Adults read my books because I don’t make any attempt to accommodate children,” he says. “I trust in their intelligence, and so grown-ups can read the books, too, without getting too bored.”
B orn in May 1965 in Wexford, Ireland – where he still lives with his wife Jackie and sons Finn 16 and 11-year-old Sean – Colfer’s early life set him on the path to story-telling. His mum and dad were teachers, too, but also a playwright and historical writer respectively. “It was very natural in our house to write stories or plays,” he says. “I grew up thinking all kids wrote in their spare time, but I realised as a teen that most kids played soccer or watched TV.”
Colfer says growing up as one of five boys helped unlock his brand of homegrown Irish humour. “The humour I use is family humour,” he says. “It was learned around the kitchen table at home. Perhaps that’s why so many people identify with it, as it reminds them of their own happy family moments.”
But he enjoys expressing darker undertones through his comedic smatterings. “Irish humour can be quite wickedly dark and laced with sarcasm,” he smiles. “That sets it apart from English humour known for its absurdity and observational US humour.” Colfer momentarily stepped away from young adult fiction and towards a slightly older audience with sci-fi comedy And Another Thing ( 2009) and crime-comedy Plugged (2011). The move was a deliberate one says Colfer, who enjoys challenges, “I write for every age group and in as many genres as I can. I like to test waters outside of my comfort zone.”
In And Another Thing he took on writing a sequel to cult classic
Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. “That was a scary project and I probably should have worried a bit more about the fans’ reactions,” he admits. He was commissioned by Jane Belson, widow of original author, Douglas Adams, to write the sixth book in the series. “It was a nerve-wrecking undertaking, who would happily go to extent of “editing published books” if he could, it’s obvious he’s grappling with his success. “I still think every time I send in a new book that it won’t get accepted,” he says.
His productivity (one book a year in the past decade) is a direct result of a deep love for his work. “I never feel that I need to motivate myself, in fact I get upset if I can’t work enough,” he says. This seems unlikely. When he’s not writing, Colfer has been enjoying headline festival appearances (Dubai’s 2014 Emirates Literature Festival included) has taken a step into the world of stand-up comedy with Artemis
Rocks! Tour Show in 2010 and Fairies, Friends and Flatulence (2008) in the US.
Back to literature, his latest youth adult fantasy series is already in full swing, WARP:
The Reluctant Assasin (2013), which deals with a top-secret FBI witness-protection programme, is out now, while the sequel WARP: The
Hangman’s Revolution will be out in June. And there’s the third in adult crime fiction series ( Plugged and Screwed being the first two instalments) to write.
He confesses he does have one literary bug bear – time travel. “It’s a pain,” he says. “I swore after Artemis
Fowl: The Time Paradox that I would never do it again, and yet here I am giving myself a challenge trying to join the temporal dots in an entire series with WARP. I must be mad, as I tell myself every day.”
Mad or not, the versatile novelist, who has mastered most genres going (there are even romantic elements within his novels) is not short of fans (16,000 Twitter followers and counting) who devour his new releases within days of them hitting the shelves. His children are a little harder to please though. “They don’t read my books much,” he laughs. “I suppose for them their dad’s work is not that interesting.”
As parents Colfer and wife Jackie took a tactical approach to getting their children into the reading habit. “You have to be very careful about how you try to infiltrate kids’ time with books,” he says. “You want them to come to reading as a gift.”
‘Time travel is a pain. I swore after Artemis Fowl: The Time Paradox that I’d never do it again’
but I decided to write exactly the story that I wanted to write,” he says. “My logic was that I was invited to take part because they wanted an Eoin Colfer story. So that’s what I gave them.”
In his eyes he “did OK”, but the critical acclaim he received spoke volumes. Adams’ widow said there couldn’t have been a better person to carry forward her husband’s literary legacy. But even after such praise Colfer remains self-critical. And from the man
GREAT READS Colfer likes to test the waters by writing for every age group in many genres