Forthright but quietly spoken, understated but unambiguous, Eoin Colfer, the self-deprecating creator of the Artemis Fowl phenomenon, is a bundle of contradictions, writes DECLAN BURKE
IT COMES AS no surprise to learn that William Goldman is one of Eoin Colfer’s favourite writers. “I think Marathon Man is one of the best thrillers ever written,” he says. “And Goldman also wrote The Princess Bride, which is one of the best fantasy books ever written. It’s amazing that the same guy wrote both, but he also wrote Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.”
Colfer is no slouch himself when it comes to dabbling in different genres. Whether it’s selling 20 million copies of the Artemis Fowl series of books, being shortlisted for the Los Angeles Times Book Prizes with his debut crime-fiction novel for adults, or collaborating on musical theatre before writing the sixth instalment in the “increasingly improbable” Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy series, Colfer has an endless fascination with new forms.
If there is one constant in his work, it’s humour. “I find it very hard not to write humour,” he says. “I feel uncomfortable when no one is talking at a dinner table. I always feel like I’m the one who has to jump in and fill the gap. It was the same when I was writing plays. I was always worried when the audience was silent. Because I wasn’t getting the affirmation, maybe, that it was good. So I would invariably jam in as many jokes as I could. And it’s the same with the books. I’m just afraid that if people don’t laugh all the time they’re not enjoying themselves.”
He’s a strange and endearing bundle of contradictions. Forthright but quietly spoken, he is engagingly self-deprecating when we meet to talk about the publication of the eighth and final Artemis Fowl novel, The Last Guardian. Married to Jackie, with two young sons, Colfer is understated but unambiguous when he says he is very happy in his life and with his career. Yet, despite the millions of books sold, his doubts about his writing might never go away.
“You never have any confidence in what you’re working on,” he says with a shrug. “Well, I never do. I’m always second-guessing myself. You would imagine that it might be the opposite. ‘You’ve written a book for the Hitchhiker’s Guide, and now you’re tell us you’ve no confidence?’ But that’s the thing when you’re in a room for eight months, alone with the peaks and troughs, where one day you think, This is genius! It’s so funny! And then the next day you read over it and you go, ‘Was I drunk when I wrote this? What was I thinking?’ But then I think every writer suffers from that . . . Or most writers do. And the ones who don’t are probably the ones who should.”
The 47-year-old has been writing for almost 44 years. He didn’t lick it off the stones. His parents were teachers, and both were creative in their own right. “Dad was a primary teacher, and now he’s a historian; he writes coffee-table-sized academic books. And Mam was a drama teacher, and she had a woman’s group, and they did plays about the lives of great Irish women. She had a radio show for a while, and she was very active in drama circles. She was All-Ireland Best Actress at one point.
“The environment we were living in was incredibly artistic. Dad was an artist as well. He gave art classes on a Saturday morning, and we’d always have art materials available to us. I remember being slightly dismayed and offended that everybody couldn’t read and write when I first went to school. I mean, it was basic, but we could read and write the Peter and Jane books. And when I went to school and they were only doing the alphabet I was almost insulted. Of course, after three weeks everyone had caught up.”
Colfer’s own experience as a teacher was fundamental to the success of the Artemis Fowl novels, not least because he never made allowances for his young-adult audience. The first chapter of The Last Guardian, for example, opens with references to psychiatry and the theory of relativity. “It was like that from the very beginning,” he says, “because I was teaching these 12-year-olds and I knew, and I still believe, that most kids are as smart as adults are, they just don’t have the worldly experience. Those kids were sharp and funny. When I was that age I was reading Wilbur Smith, Jack Higgins, Frederick Forsythe, Alistair MacLean . . . I felt myself that I was too old for kids’ books. So when I started to write Artemis I thought I was writing for that little bracket of kids who were tired of kids’ books. One of the first editors to read it said, ‘There’s a lot of talk about computers in this book. Kids won’t get this.’ And I was thinking, No, you don’t get this. The kids will have no problem.”