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.”
It’s not only the kids who get it. As with all great young-adult novels, the not-so-young adults have been reading too. “I know that there are going to be mums and dads who are going to have to read these books with their kids,” he says, “and I do love to throw in little gags for them. Like the dwarf’s name, Kolin Ozkopy. The kids won’t get that, possibly, but the mums and dads will. I think of it as almost subversive, that you’re dropping in these depth-charge jokes. And if the kid gets it as well, all the better. It’d almost be like a private joke between me and that kid.”
Despite the awards and the glowing reviews, Colfer remains a cautious man. “I’m not very flaithiúlach, as we used to say. I want to have my house, I want to be sure there’s a site set aside for the kids to build on if they want to. I think it’s because we grew up in the first recession, which had lasted 700 years: we were always taught to get a job, make sure you save some money, and all this.”
HE’S ALSO VERY happy to remain as far from the limelight as the business will allow. “When Hitchhiker’s came out I had a taste of what it might be like to be a public figure, because it got a lot of press, especially in the UK. And I found it totally exhausting. I know there are people who would love to do it, and I don’t want to be disingenuous in complaining about how hard it is to be a public figure, but I’ve found that you can do from Wexford what you need to do.”
Doesn’t he resent the fact that his huge popularity around the world isn’t rewarded with a higher profile in Ireland? “Not really, no. I think if I was maybe 25 I might have that young man’s need to be recognised, that need to be the peacock. But when this all started I was already 35, with a young child and a mortgage, and I had been married for 10 years. I was already quite settled, and I still am.
“I mean, occasionally you’ll see Cecelia Ahern on the front of VIP magazine and you’re thinking, That should be me, I should be getting a makeover. But I don’t really like having my photograph taken. I’d much rather they just used the book covers. Mind you, if [the people at] VIP want to give me a makeover, and if they think they can do something with my hair, I’d be very grateful,” he says with a laugh.
Colfer seems content that the Artemis Fowl series has run its natural course, with Artemis moving through an arc from “evil genius” to self-sacrificing hero, but the Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein seems determined to breathe new life into the phenomenon. “The movie seems to be moving a little bit now, just in the past couple of months. Harvey Weinstein has said he wants to produce it, and he gave me a call, and he assures me that it is definitely going ahead. The upsetting thing was that they had asked Jim [Sheridan] to do it, so we had spent a lot of time working on the script with his daughter Naomi, and then it just seemed to die for no reason. We’re optimistic, and Harvey says he wants to make a really good movie that will do really well. I don’t really get my hopes up any more, because we’ve been at this point a lot, but I’m quietly optimistic.”
Either way, Colfer won’t be resting on his laurels. He has lined up another series of young-adult novels, in which a young FBI agent in London encounters a time-travelling Jack the Ripper-style character. He is writing a sequel to Plugged, his crime novel for adults. There are also plans to take the stage musical The Lords of Love to Dublin, and then to New York. Isn’t it counterintuitive for a man who claims to be low in self-confidence to be dabbling in so many forms? “I know,” he says. “Like, you don’t want to be judged, but you’re putting yourself out there more and more to be judged, and at a higher level.” He shakes his head. “And then you complain when people judge you.”
One last question. If, as The Last Guardian suggests, Artemis Fowl “is one-point-five Mozart, and three-quarters a da Vinci’, what’s Eoin Colfer? A long chuckle. “Oh, I’m about point-five of Artemis Fowl. No, wait – that would make me Mozart, wouldn’t it? Put me down for a quarter Fowl.”
Spoiler alert Artemis Fowl: the story so far
* Artemis Fowl is, according to Eoin Colfer, the Rolling Stones to Harry Potter’s Beatles. The
eponymous antihero established his credentials in 2001, when the 12-year-old evil genius and his faithful bodyguard, Butler, kidnapped Capt Holly Short of the LEPrecon fairy police force, demanding a ransom from “the People”, the tribes of fairies who have gone underground to escape from humanity’s predations.
* In The Arctic Incident, from 2002, someone supplies “Class A illegal human power sources” to a goblin rebellion led by Opal Koboi. Holly Short suspects Artemis, her nemesis.
* Such were Artemis’s dastardly deeds in The Eternity Code (2003), in which he designed a
supercomputer using fairy technology, that the fairies wipe his mind at the end of the novel.
* Opal Koboi returns to torment the fairies in The Opal Deception (2005). In the process he kills LEPrecon commander Julius Root and frames Holly Short for his murder.
* With Opal defeated, again, The Lost Colony (2006) pits Artemis against No 1, a warlock who attempts to rescue an entire demon island from “Limbo”.
*In The Time Paradox (2008), Artemis faces his most powerful enemy – himself – when he goes back in time to steal a cure for hismumfrom his evil self.
* By now a fully-fledged hero, Artemis again explores his evil side when The Atlantis Complex (2010) invests his huge ego with paranoia and multiple personality disorder. The winner? Artemis. But which Artemis?
* In The Last Guardian (2012), Artemis and Holly again come face to face with Opal Koboi. But for that ending you’ll need to pick up the book.
Multitasker: Would the real Eoin Colfer please stand up?
* On writing crime fiction for adults“I knew I was going to write another one, no matter how Plugged went, because I really enjoyed writing it. And I also wanted to push the style farther. The first was a bit zany, but it was still conventional. This new one is just totally mad, as mad as I can make it and still be credible. I want to see how far I can go with this character and the situations he gets into.”
* On writing children’s picture books“There’s an artist from Belfast called Oliver Jeffers. I’d love to do something with him. And PJ Lynch is terrific, too, so I’d like to work with him at some point. I already have the ideas, so when I meet them at some awards show I’ll be pushing them up against a wall and making my pitch.”
* On writing without humour“I’ve written one book, Airman, that’s quite serious. And that’s my favourite book of mine. It’s very much like one of the old legerdemain books – full of swashbuckling
and all that – and it has a more formal style; it’s very melodramatic in the style of those books . . . But I still think that as an example of what I can write when I’m disciplined enough not to joke around, that’s the one. I’d like to write more books like that, and I think I will.
Artemis Fowl and the Last Guardian is published by Puffin