‘SOME­TIMES YOU HIT THAT ZEIT­GEIST. YOU HIT THAT THING AND YOU’RE IN’

With 42 (and count­ing) books to his name, in­clud­ing pic­ture books, graphic nov­els and crime nov­els, not to men­tion his many plays, col­lab­o­ra­tions, even mu­si­cals, Eoin Colfer is an in­cred­i­bly pro­lific writer. But he’ll al­ways feel in­debted to Artemis Fowl,

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - BOOKS - NIAMH DON­NELLY

When I say Eoin Colfer, you, most likely, think Artemis Fowl. The epony­mous anti-hero cap­tured the imag­i­na­tions of kids ev­ery­where back in 2001, when the first of what would be­come an eight-book series was pub­lished.

I was a kid then. I show Colfer my dusty old Artemis Fowl book when I meet him in Kaph cafe in Dublin. We both like the cover of this par­tic­u­lar edi­tion. It re­sem­bles a rare and pre­cious old tome (pre­sum­ably “the Book” of the fairies, de­scribed within) and it’s eye-catch­ingly sparkly and golden.

It was cer­tainly worth its weight in gold for Colfer, whose ca­reer went into turbo-drive once it was re­leased.

“I’m lucky that I have this cen­tral thing of Artemis Fowl that was a mas­sive suc­cess,” he muses. “Now, I kind of don’t have to worry about chart po­si­tions, or whether I can af­ford to not make any money [on a given project]. I’m in a very nice po­si­tion.”

Sit­ting across from me, Colfer is more beardy and white-haired than the young au­thor pho­tographed on the in­side cover of my book. He de­scribes him­self as “a very small grey man, but funny”. I do find him funny, and friendly, too. Be­fore he’s even taken a sip of his Amer­i­cano, he’s said hello to about four people. As an au­thor, he’s “well-known”, but as a per­son he seems to be known; liked – a nice guy.

With the wide-reach­ing suc­cess of Artemis, it might seem like his ca­reer turns around this one cen­tral ful­crum. In Novem­ber, he pub­lished the first of a spin-off series, Fowl Twins. In May we’ll fi­nally see the re­lease of the Artemis Fowl movie, di­rected by Ken­neth Branagh, writ­ten by Conor McPher­son and star­ring Judi Dench and Josh Gad. The orig­i­nal eight-book series re­mains a peren­nial favourite. But the breadth of Colfer’s achieve­ments is much wider still. Now in his 50s, he has 42 books to his name, in­clud­ing pic­ture books, graphic nov­els, crime nov­els, and kids’ fan­tasy series, not to men­tion his many plays, col­lab­o­ra­tions, even mu­si­cals. He also served as Lau­re­ate na nÓg be­tween 2014 and 2016.

He’s cur­rently pre­par­ing to go to the States for a two-week tour. He thinks it might be his last. He has vi­sions of “semire­tire­ment”, mean­ing “just do­ing a book ev­ery two years”. I tell him that a book ev­ery two years would still be quite pro­lific for some, but like his LEPre­con fairy crea­tures, Colfer seems to have a mag­i­cal grip on time.

This month sees the pub­li­ca­tion of book num­ber 43: a fan­tasy novel for adults, called High­fire. Vern, a lonely, vodka-swill­ing dragon comes into con­tact with a young delin­quent named Squib who gets tan­gled in deal­ings with a bent cop in Louisiana. Colfer says the mis­chievous Squib is based on one of his sons, while he sees him­self in Vern, the grumpy dragon. “Ev­ery­thing in there is kind of me. You just can’t help that. It just comes out.” Per­haps it’s apt that as he pre­pares to meet hun­dreds of people on tour, he iden­ti­fies most with an iso­lated crea­ture whose main agenda is to keep him­self off the grid. Though he does claim the con­trary – that meet­ing people is the nice part of his job.

High­fire is a hi­lar­i­ous romp, and pre­sales are do­ing well, but Colfer is pen­sive about what suc­cess might mean.

“I mean, High­fire, it’s not even out and al­ready it’s get­ting bril­liant re­views and people are lov­ing it. But to me, I thought the last book was just as good. I never know which is go­ing to be the one . . . the book be­fore Artemis or the book af­ter . . . I thought they were all equally good. It’s just some­times you hit that zeit­geist. You hit that thing and you’re in.”

High­fire might hit that thing, like Artemis did, but Colfer’s at­ti­tude seems more like some­thing you might tell your kids: al­ways try your best, no mat­ter what.

“I think I’m prob­a­bly like one of th­ese ath­letes, you know, like Nadal who just

. . . it’s al­ways this game. It’s what­ever I’m work­ing on now. That has to be the best thing ever.”

An African boy and an Ir­ish boy

From his very first book it’s been the same. Benny and Omar was pub­lished by the O’Brien Press in 1998, when Colfer was work­ing as a school­teacher. It tells of a young hurl­ing ad­dict who is forced to leave his home­town of Wex­ford when his fa­ther gets a new job in Tu­nisia. “When I wrote that, it would be very un­usual to have an African boy and an Ir­ish boy hang­ing around but now it’s kind of rel­e­vant again. But it’s over here now. I think at last count my school had at least 24 dif­fer­ent na­tion­al­i­ties. So, it’s a dif­fer­ent world.”

Speak­ing of dif­fer­ent worlds, Colfer’s books of­ten take us away into other lands and realms. His char­ac­ters cross borders, both real and myth­i­cal. Does he write to en­ter­tain? Or does his work have a deeper pur­pose?

“As a teacher I al­ways found that telling sto­ries was the best way to teach be­cause you could sneak the in­for­ma­tion in­side an ad­ven­ture story. So, a lot of the Artemis books, for ex­am­ple, would have a very eco­log­i­cal mes­sage. My books tend to be, of late, a mix­ture of es­capism and try­ing to tackle is­sues head on. Last year we did the graphic novel, Il­le­gal, which was, just bla­tantly, a book about how tough it is to mi­grate from Africa to Europe. But be­cause it was a graphic novel, we got to people who wouldn’t nor­mally get that sub­ject. And we also brought a lot of people who do like that sub­ject into the world of graphic nov­els. And then the flip side of that is I like to do books like High­fire and Fowl Twins just so people can have a laugh and kids can go to bed smil­ing.”

The “we” he’s re­fer­ring to is Andrew Donkin, who co-writes graphic nov­els with him. The two are now work­ing on one about global warm­ing. “It’s our lit­tle way to have a so­cial con­science,” he says. The same goes for Noël, a mu­si­cal he wrote in 2016 with Liam Bates. That dealt with people liv­ing home­less in the city. “All you have to do is walk down the street here and you see them,” he ob­serves. Later it oc­curs to me that my meet­ing with him was book­ended by two sep­a­rate home­less people ask­ing for change for a hos­tel.

And kids are go­ing through as tough a time as any­one. “All day, for some kids, it’s hard. And a lot of the time they’re in a ho­tel room now.” Books like Fowl Twins, he thinks, can be a means of es­cape. “Ev­ery day on the TV [kids] are look­ing at people get­ting blown up, people drown­ing, the world war com­ing . . . When you’ve had that all day or maybe you are one of those kids [in a ho­tel room] and you just would like a lit­tle grin be­fore bed­time. That’s the book for you.”

‘‘

I’m lucky that I have this cen­tral thing of Artemis Fowl that was a mas­sive suc­cess. Now, I kind of don’t have to worry about chart po­si­tions, or whether I can af­ford to not make any money. I’m in a very nice po­si­tion

One way the world has im­proved, as he sees it, is it’s more in­clu­sive. He’s adamant that kids’ books have al­ways led the way on this front, and he cites some bril­liant writ­ers – Tomi Adeyemi, Da Chen – who have brought their sto­ries to the main­stream.

The power of hu­mour

With re­gard to hu­mour, kids’ books also lead the charge, he says. They oc­cupy an open space, where be­ing funny is seen as a pow­er­ful tool. Adult fic­tion lags be­hind in this sense, as do movies where the pre­vail­ing opin­ion is: “if it’s a funny movie that’s great, but ob­vi­ously you’re not go­ing to win any awards.” He thinks that some of his favourite comic ac­tors – Jack Black, Steve Martin – will never get the recog­ni­tion they de­serve. “They have to do an­other part where they die, you know.”

And when it comes down to it, hu­mour is where Colfer re­sides – where he has set up stakes and made a home. Even when he is deal­ing with dif­fi­cult top­ics – like his most re­cent play, My Real Life, which was in­spired by a friend who has mul­ti­ple scle­ro­sis – be­ing funny is in­te­gral.

“I think I’m ob­sessed with hu­mour, re­ally, and my point with that play was that when some­one de­vel­ops a con­di­tion, they don’t be­come that con­di­tion. They still are them. They can still be funny or an­gry or what­ever they were be­fore­hand. Like, my friend who got MS is the fun­ni­est guy I know and he’s still the fun­ni­est guy I know. So I wanted that to come across. And the char­ac­ter Don Wy­cher­ley played, even though his cir­cum­stances are very dire, he was still hi­lar­i­ous right up to the last sec­ond. And I re­ally liked that. Be­cause for some people, my­self in­cluded, hu­mour de­fines us. That is our trait, you know.”

The Artemis Fowl film will hope­fully be as funny as the books. He thinks the script has stayed quite faith­ful to his novel. One un­ex­pected el­e­ment was the cast­ing of Judi Dench in the, un­til now, male role of Com­man­der Root. Colfer thinks she’ll be bril­liant. “I will ad­mit I was a lit­tle puz­zled. But then they showed me some scenes that she’s in and I was like: ah I see what you’re do­ing. She’s just fan­tas­tic.”

Colfer has had lit­tle or no hand in the film’s cre­ation but ea­gle-eyed fans can look out for his cameo. He says he’s shot two sep­a­rate scenes, though he isn’t sure, yet, which one they’ll use.

The most ex­cit­ing thing, he thinks, are the two Ir­ish kids: Lara McDon­nell and Fer­dia Shaw who are play­ing Artemis and Holly. “It’s just great to see that lit­tle Celtic ker­nel at the cen­tre. And hope­fully it’ll help them on if they want a ca­reer in movies.”

The re­lease, this May, must feel like a home­com­ing, af­ter so many years of wait­ing (rights were first bought way back in 2000), and ar­riv­ing as it does, al­most 20 years af­ter he first wrote Artemis.

“It’s been so long com­ing that I had sort of writ­ten it off and stopped think­ing about it. And I’m kind of still in that mode. Whereas when it was first pur­chased I kind of felt: this is the cen­tre of my ca­reer now this movie com­ing out. And when it comes out, ev­ery­thing’s go­ing to be just great then. But over the years I’ve re­alised that books are the cen­tre, you know, what I do; and not to hang my peg on what some­one else does. So for now it’ll be a lovely, lovely, bonus when that comes out.”

PHO­TO­GRAPHS: NICK

Above: Eoin Colfer. Left: Judi Dench as Com­man­der Root in Dis­ney’s Artemis Fowl movie, di­rected by Ken­neth Branagh, which will be re­leased in May.

BRAD­SHAW; WALT DIS­NEY STU­DIOS

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