Great reads

Ir­ish funny man and au­thor Eoin Colfer talks fan­tasy fic­tion and be­ing com­pared to JK Rowl­ing.

Friday - - Editor's Letter -

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

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