'I have had a really nice life and I think my books reflect that'
THE SATURDAY INTERVIEW:The witty and self-deprecating Eoin Colfer puts the success of his Artemis books down to a happy childhood and his time as a primary teacher in Wexford
EOIN COLFER steps out of his titanium pod, its underside charred black after its journey from the earth’s core, and blinks as he emerges into the blinding morning sun. He lifts the night-vision goggles to his temples and sets down his Hummingbird Z7, an elaborate whisper-silent solar-powered wing pack. A wry, knowing smile reveals itself. There’s a Sig Sauer in his shoulder holster, a derringer two-shot up his sleeve, garrote wire in his watch and three stun grenades concealed in his pockets.
Always two steps ahead, that’s Colfer. From his pocket he takes a vial of spring water from the fairy well 60 metres below the ring of Tara – possibly the most magical place on earth – and lays it on the dry-stone Provencal wall. “Ah, The Irish Times,” he says darkly. “I’ve got a proposition for you.” Or at least you might let yourself imagine this is what meeting Eoin Colfer might be like, if you were to prepare for your encounter by immersing yourself in the dazzlingly inventive pages of Artemis Fowl, the series that made his name. As it turns out, there’s not a trace of the dastardly villain in the man. He rolls up to a quiet café in the hilltop village of Tourrettes-sur-Loup not in a titanium pod but in a Mini Cooper convertible, smiling broadly, and installs himself at a table with a sweeping view over the valley below. “You found it okay,” he says cheerfully.
It’s a glass-clear Bastille Day morning, the sun already splitting the rocks and the market nearby alive with the murmur of stall-owners setting up shop. Fish are unloaded from the backs of lorries and slammed down onto the ice trays. Wine bottles clink and cicadas sing and honey jars are piled precariously high.
“We spent all our holidays as children in a small village called Slade in Wexford, another one-street town,” Colfer recalls as we take in the view. “It has that feel about it.”
The Colfer family – Eoin, his wife Jackie and their sons Finn (12) and Seán (7) – have had a house here in the hills north of Nice for seven years. In 2006 they stayed for a year, enrolling the boys in the local school while Colfer ensconced himself in the basement working on the manuscript that would eventually become Airman, an historical adventure novel which he thinks is his best book. Now they spend their summers here.
“I do regret a little bit that we didn’t stay for another year, but we might come back again when the boys are a little older,” he says. “I would love to be a French speaker. I would consider that a great achievement.” Yet another one? The author of more than 20 books for children and adults, Eoin Colfer’s Artemis Fowl titles – Die Hardwith Fairies, as it has been described – have sold 20 million copies across the world in the nine years since he published the first one.
WHEN COLFER INITIALLYsent the manuscript on spec to a literary agent in London, she took him on immediately, and within a few weeks he had an advance of €40,000 and Miramax had bought the movie rights. It’s been a prolific decade for the former primary school teacher, but his success seems only to expand his appetite for work, not shrink it. Here’s a throw-away line: “I’m doing a screenplay at the moment, I’m doing a story with Jim Sheridan as well, I’d really like to see the musical take off, and I’m doing a crime novel in May and I’d like to get a series out of that – maybe five books.”
But surely his publishers wish he’d just keep cranking out more Artemis? He laughs and nods in agreement. “When I say I’m off to do a musical, everyone says ‘Great!’ but, you know, their pitch is a little high. They’re thinking, ‘why can’t you just write a book about fairies? Would it kill you?’ “When people in London say, ‘why don’t we visit you in Wexford’, you know it’s time to write a fairy book.” The seventh fairy book, Artemis Fowl and The Atlantis Complex, was published this week, and Colfer, a self-professed worrier, admits to being a little nervous. Children’s authors generally don’t have press reviews to fret about, but that doesn’t make it entirely painless, he says. “No matter what people in the circle tell you – they’ll all say, ‘oh, fantastic book’ – you do get a feeling of what people think the book is like.”
Colfer is terrific company; witty, self-deprecating, alive to the comic value of the situations in which a children’s author finds himself. He becomes agitated only once, when describing the terror that gripped him during the “very weird time” last year when he put his name to the sixth instalment of Douglas Adams’s cult favourite The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy,released on the 30th anniversary of the series debut. He may have managed to pacify and – some feat, this – please the most ardent Adams fans, and it was an honour to be asked, but he was clearly rattled by the experience.
“I didn’t realise when I started,” he says. “I thought, okay, they’ll be a bit hard, but I’m charming, I’m Irish, no problem. But I realised then, after a month or two, these guys are serious.
“As I was writing it, the internet started to go mad, and people were being really nasty and intense, and I started to get very worried about that and I started to think I wouldn’t be able to do it.” For five months Colfer closed himself off from the chatter and wrote the book from start to finish. By the time it appeared, “it was just at that natural point in the media swing where it was for me”.
“I was so relieved, because I had myself convinced that the best thing that could happen was that I’d just get a major pasting and that the worst thing was that my career would be ruined.”
Writers of adult fiction have the luxury of being able to write for themselves, or at least for people like them. But children’s authors can only succeed by become skilful ventriloquists for their younger selves. How to intuit that you’ve given this tech-savvy leprechaun a voice that a 12-year-old boy will find convincing? Would a pre-pubescent criminal mastermind reallythink this? “When the first Artemis came out, I thought, this could really not fly,” Colfer recalls. The only strategy open to him was to write for the 12-year-old boy named Eoin Colfer, sitting at home in Co Wexford – a “loudmouth, smartarse reader” who devoured Tolkien, Wells, Dumas and Conan Doyle. His father and mother, a historian and a drama teacher and actor respectively, were accomplished storytellers who gave him his taste for fantasy and Irish mythology.
“We had a Renault 4, and my Dad would drive us up to see the Rock of Cashel or whatever. We had five boys in the car – three in the back and two in the boot. And when we started bickering and fighting, as we did, Dad would start telling us these stories, which he’d just make up as he went along.”
HIS OWN BOOKS,Colfer remarks later, are “the product of my happy childhood, my happy upbringing, the childhood sweetheart and everything. I’ve had a really nice life, and I think my books reflect that.”
Led Zeppelin, Kate Bush, Pink Floyd – Colfer the teenager had a phase for each of them. He went with the heavy metal camp in school, and was a long-haired face in the crowd when AC/DC came to Dublin for their first Irish gig in 1982. There was a vague ambition to write, but when the time came to leave school, he opted to take teaching in Carysfort in Dublin.
Colfer is well aware of his debt to his first chosen career, not only for the store of material it gave him for his writing life but for how it opened the world to him. He and Jackie – they had met as teenagers and went to college together – married in their mid-20s, but couldn’t raise the 10 per cent, or £6,000, they needed to buy a house in Wexford. So when they heard that the money was good in Saudi Arabia, they both took career breaks and moved to the Gulf.
“We had an okay time,” he says. “Some parts of the culture we didn’t like – mainly Jackie having to cover up and the restrictions on women. That was quite difficult. But at the same time there was an Irish community there, so it was party central really in Jeddah.” Party-central in Jeddah? “I don’t mean alcohol-wise – there was some drink flowing around – but it was just good crack . . . So I made a lot of really good friends there and had a great time. And we made our six grand.” Stints in Italy and Tunisia followed, and after three years the company he worked for offered him a generous salary to take up a post in Chile. They decided not to go, and he sees it as something of a turning point. Jackie was pregnant with their first child and they wanted to raise him at home.
Eoin had written his first book – Benny and Omar– in Tunisia and wanted to try and find it a publisher in Ireland.
Colfer feels certain that he couldn’t have written children’s books so convincingly if he hadn’t been a teacher. “Your attitude towards kids changes. We’ve all had the school visit from the guard or whoever, who comes in and goes [he adopts a chirpy, sing-song voice] ‘now boys and girls’, and the kids are just thinking, ‘ah, Jesus’.”
Colfer’s first book was published when he was 32, but it wasn’t until the deal for Artemis Fowl was signed that he finally gave up the day job. So for years he would come home from school at 3pm and spend the afternoon in his shed, playing with expressions and ideas and scenarios he’d picked up during the day.
“I really like the attitude children have towards adults – how they see you. You’re almost this necessary evil at a certain point, where they accept that you have to be in their lives but if you could try not to impinge on them, that would be great. I really like that.”
While Colfer has enjoyed success with several titles, it was Artemis that brought him into the big-time and made him one of Ireland’s most popular authors. Set partly in Ireland and centered on the eponymous 12-year-old criminal anti-hero and a team of technologically adept fairies who live deep in the earth’s interior, the novels blend the classic leprechaun-and-fairy stories with a hyper-modern world of gadgets and electronic wizardry, borrowing from Irish mythology and infused with whimsy and a deft, mischievous humour you recognise immediately when you meet the author.
THEY’RE PACY, INTRICATELYplotted and sprinkled with concepts and preoccupations that are decidedly modern and grown up: global warming, the extinction of species, environmental degradation. To account for the latter, Colfer explains that he first envisioned the fairies as not unlike native Americans, “and they looked at us the way native Americans looked at the white man”. Within weeks of the first book being bought by Penguin, “my life started to radically change”. After years working between the classroom and the writing shed, Colfer found himself on tour, in demand and in relative financial security. He was also recognised by strangers from time to time. In the south of France, he’ll sometimes drop into a café with his laptop and do some writing; he’s not sure if they’d put up with that sort of thing in Wexford, he jokes.
“I remember the best put-down I ever had in my life was in Wexford. I was walking down the street, I think Artemis had been accepted and I was getting a few thumbs up and handshakes. There were these two heads standing in a doorway, and one of them goes, ‘Will you look at him. And his books.’ It’s genius. You can’t come back from it.” But he clearly cherishes Wexford; the people, the landscape, the life he has there. “What I do like about Wexford is, people will just call to your house and say, ‘sign that’. Half eleven at night. ‘Sign that for Frank.’ And off they go.” It cracks him up.
Colfer receives fan mail from around the world, of course – at the moment he’s two years behind on his replies, but he tries to do a bit every week. And his demographic can be surprisingly wide. There was the American man who used to post his letters in pink envelopes with pony stickers on them. His first letter explained that he had a couple of machetes and let Colfer in on his “fairy name”. In the second one, he got a little annoyed that Colfer hadn’t replied. “And the third one was a photograph of him bare-chested, wearing a PLO scarf, RayBans on, and ‘God Bless America’ tattooed on his chest. ‘Check the pink envelopes’, I said to the publisher in America. ‘Check the pink envelopes.’”
We’ve been talking for nearly two hours, and the village has come to life by now. The market has filled with shoppers and the traffic is crawling along the main street. You wonder whether it must tempt someone in Colfer’s position, after the decade he has had, to withdraw to the hills of Provence and take the foot off the pedal. Not a bit of it. He has one more Artemis Fowl book in him, and he’s mulling over how he’s going to tie it up without “killing everybody and sending them to heaven on a golden stairway”.
Then there’s the screenplay he’s co-writing, the musical that debuted to great acclaim in Wexford recently and which he hopes to develop, and the adult crime novel due out next year.
The Artemis Fowl film was badly delayed by wrangling between studios, but it’s now in the hands of Jim Sheridan’s daughter, Naomi, and Colfer is hopeful it might soon make it to the big screen. He’s even thinking of gambling on an adult love story, in full knowledge of how well that will go down with his readership of 12-year-old boys.
Oh, and he’s always liked the idea of living in a beach house in California. “Yeah, that would be nice,” he says with a grin. A sceptic might think these sound like the plans of a man who’s away with the fairies. And Eoin Colfer might happily concur.
May 14th, 1965
Wexford CBS; Carysfort College, Dublin
Taught at a primary school in Wexford before he and his wife took a four-year career break to travel to Saudi Arabia, Italy and Tunisia. When the first book in the Artemis Fowl series found a publisher, Colfer left the classroom and turned to writing full time. He has written more than 20 books for adults and children, and Artemis Fowl (20 million copies sold) has made him one of the best-selling children’s authors.
Married to Jackie. They have two sons, Finn (12) and Seán (7)