Twenty years ago Eoin Colfer was a young school teacher in Ireland with three very short novels to his name. Now, as the third in his latest mind-blowing trilogy capturing the headlong adventures of The Fowl Twins is published, he is a multi-award-winning writer with a string of major trophies under his belt, a former Laureate na nÓg and the author of the book voted as the all time best Puffin title by young readers.
Although Artemis Fowl was identified as a winner from the beginning by Eoin’s agent Sophie Hicks and by Penguin Random House who were willing to bid big for the rights to it, Eoin could never have imagined that it would change his life entirely. Published with a loud and well-deserved fanfare, including being given the tag line ‘Die Hard with fairies’ which was eye-catching everywhere and especially on London buses, Artemis Fowl is a pacy story of a smart kid – Artemis Fowl – who moves easily through a riot of a story set in a world that is an original blend of mythology, magic and fantasy.
There was – and is – something arresting about Artemis Fowl that made it stand out in the midst of the welter of fantasy that was published around the same time as all publishers searched for a successor to Harry Potter. Comparisons to J K Rowling abounded; Eoin brushed them off deftly complimenting Rowling but pointing out that he never wanted to emulate her. Reactions from critics varied with most captivated by its wit and invention but none initially predicting just how successful it would be. Interviewing Eoin for the Observer in May 2001 Kate Kellaway praised the book for its originality and revelled in Eoin’s sense of humour but she was cautious, too, describing Artemis Fowl as ‘a smart, amusing one-off. It flashes with high-tech invention- as if Colfer were as much an inspired boffin as a writer.’
And now, here we are twenty years on. And Eoin says he is signing off on the world of Artemis Fowl. That’s something he has done before. Fans grieved at the ending of the eight book Artemis Fowl sequence, but Eoin added companion volumes, including graphic novels, to enrich the main stories. Then he wrote another series and some standalone titles before returning to the world of Artemis with The Fowl Twins in 2019 quickly followed by The Fowl Twins Deny All Charges a year later. And this year it is The Fowl Twins Get What They Deserve. ‘I always knew the Fowl Twins would only be three books,’ Eoin says. So this time it feels for real.
Having followed Eoin’s career since his very first books, through the success of Artemis Fowl which took him to another place entirely, an experience he summed up at the time in an interview with Publisher’s Weekly as ‘It’s just like a dream. A fellow from a small town gets a big break. You never think it’s going to happen to you’, it is a pleasure to be talking to Eoin now about The Fowl Twins Get What They Deserve and his writing during the past twenty years.
We started by going back to the beginning. Despite all the starry success, the massive sales and the international reputation, Eoin has a habit of batting away praise about his work – although he certainly knows its worth. When I ask him now about what is so special about Artemis he makes it sound very simple. ‘Artemis is really the retelling of an Irish story about a naughty boy stealing a crock of gold. I just wrote it in a new way. And it’s not just an Irish story. Ireland is a melting pot so we have a lot of stories from around the world. I incorporated a lot of them too.’ A massive fan of traditional stories, Eoin credits his easy access to all of them, and particularly the ones from Irish mythology and history, to his years as a primary school teacher where they were something he taught every day. His characters, too, owe something to his years as a teacher but more perhaps to his own feelings as a child. ‘You see all the types as a teacher but I wanted a “hero” character – not a jock. The jocks are in the books but they are not the main characters. Artemis is a very smart kid. I wanted him to be a hero with a super power of cleverness.’
With Artemis as a big brother it’s no surprise that the Fowl Twins are also super smart. Nor is it surprising that both the fairy magic and the high tech that explode around them have blossomed and frothed up over the twenty years. Myles and Beckett operate at the same levels of smart thinking and high physical energy that propelled their big brother. Having two of them gives Eoin the gift of being able to give what is essentially one character a much wider range of skills and tricks. And he makes brilliant use of it. ‘The adventures for the Twins are more quirky than in Artemis Fowl,’ he says. ‘You get more confidence as a writer partly from talking to readers. You get to realise that they will follow you so you can take more risks and write more unconventionally. I made the inventions more magical. They were no longer even close to something that might be invented. Apart from anything else you have to keep yourself interested as a writer.’ Although Eoin describes his inventions as ‘alternative science’ he also says he keeps abreast of science and technology ‘as much as I need it’. For example, needing to know about how to keep a brain alive, he looked up cryogenics to make sure that what he was proposing was not too far-fetched.
As with everything else about his writing, Eoin wears his science lightly but there is certainly still much of the inspired boffin that Kate Kellaway identified at the beginning of his career. Swirled around with Eoin’s humour, the science pervades the corkscrew plot as Myles and Beckett deal with their major enemy, Lord Teddy Bleedham-Drye. Eoin loves his baddy. He enjoys creating these arch villains while also being quick to say, ‘The baddies are baddies but there is no moralising in my books. The Fowl stories are like fairy stories. I don’t intend them to have a deep meaning.’
It’s a theme Eoin believes in passionately. ‘In The Fowl Twins and all my books, the adventures are very heightened because I want the reader to have a grand time reading. My only agenda is that I want people to read more books. It’s fun and I want kids to know they can have this amount of fun reading a book. I want them to become the kind of fanatical reader I was.’
With his millions of fans around the world Eoin has done exactly that. With his invention, his humour and his deeply held view learnt, he says, from Douglas Adams, that ‘you can write convoluted sentences into which I occasionally throw a humdinger of a word because I think working out new and difficult words makes you know you are in a special club of readers’. Eoin has created a couple of generations of readers. The final title in The Fowl Twins trilogy closes a twenty-year long chapter of writing for Eoin and leaves a treasure trove of reading for future generations of children.
Julia Eccleshare is chair of PLR and director of the Hay Festival children’s programme.
The Fowl Twins Get What They Deserve is published by HarperCollins Children’s Books, 978-0008475246, £12.99 hbk.