When I say Eoin Colfer, you, most likely, think Artemis Fowl. The eponymous antihero 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 café 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.
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 plays, collaborations, even musicals
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 “semi-retirement”, 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.”
Colfer's attitude seems more like something you might tell your kids: always try your best, no matter what
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?
Tales as teaching
“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 cowrites 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.”
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.
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.”
‘Funny or angry’
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.”
My friend who got MS is the funniest guy I know and he's still the funniest guy I 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.”