‘I’m a bit elfin myself,’ say Eoin Colfer, as our conversation turns to fairies, leprechauns and other inhabitants of Irish mythological and legendary worlds. It is a statement for which his photograph on the blurb of his second Artemis Fowl novel, Artemis Fowl: The Arctic Incident, should have prepared us. The eyes are twinkling, the grin is impish and the overall impression is of someone whose wit will be lively and inventive, whose company will be engaging and entertaining. When we meet in the streamlined elegance of his Wexford home, even on an overcast September morning, he more than fulfils such expectations. The sense of humour which characterises so much of his writing is, clearly, a significant dimension of the man himself. But, in neither the life nor the literature, is it the whole story. There is a seriousness underlying his approach to his work, a clear sense of purpose and direction, a levelheadedness which keeps the hype well under control. Similarly, while the prevailing tone of everything he has written to date is light-hearted and the details frequently hilarious, the suggestion of an interest in darker themes is never far distant. The Wish List, already published in Ireland, and now available in Britain from Puffin Books, is, perhaps, the clearest demonstration so far of his moves between these dualities.
Second of a family of five boys, Eoin was born 37 years ago and with the exception of four years in Europe and Africa, has lived for all of his life in Wexford, an historic seaside town in Ireland’s ‘sunny South East’. At primary school there, particularly inspired by his father, one of his teachers, he soon decided that he too was going to teach. It was, he recalls with great affection, the fun-based and progressive ethos of his father’s classroom that appealed to him. Later, in his own time as a primary teacher, and, later still, in his role as writer confronting large groups of his young readers in many parts of the world, he would profitably draw on these happy memories. His first creative tendencies were in Art. His early enthusiasm for drawing was maintained while he was at College and remains with him in his fascination with the visual imagery of comic books and graphic novels, a fascination visible in the highly pictorial style of much of his prose. Where literary matters were concerned, he was attracted initially to the writing of plays. Again, there was parental encouragement and inspiration, on this occasion mainly from his mother, a teacher of Drama involved in local amateur theatre. ‘I loved the fun of rehearsals and the creation of make-believe worlds,’ he remembers, ‘and enjoyed the popularity and recognition that came with being writer and director.’ As an adult, he has continued to write plays, some of which have been successfully staged in amateur and professional productions, but he wryly implies that in such productions he misses his sense of being ‘in control’. These days, the outlet for his dramatic impulses is more likely to be found in the vividly realised set pieces of his fiction and in the quick-fire exchanges between his characters.
Always a keen reader and frequenter of libraries and bookshops, Eoin has vivid recall of some of the books which he first encountered at the primary school stage. ‘I can still remember books I read 25 years ago, but I couldn’t name the last five books I read,’ he says. Of Irish children’s literature, it was Patricia Lynch’s The Turf-cutter’s Donkey which first made a significant impression and which may well have sparked his interest in the possibilities afforded by a belief in magic. There are equally warm memories of Clive King’s Stig of the Dump, the book to which he attributes his continuing involvement – first as reader and now as writer with fantasy literature. Later, it was when he came to own a three-volume boxed set of The Lord of the Rings that the thought first came to him that one day he too might produce a fantasy trilogy. It now looks as if that trilogy might turn into quartet: the boxed set will probably follow!
As a teenager at the local Christian Brothers’ secondary school, Eoin was lucky enough to have the encouragement and support of ‘some excellent teachers’. But, he is quick to point out, he was hardly the ideal student. ‘I was more interested,’ he laughs, ‘in being the class comedian.’ His fondness for the slick one-liner, one of the most obvious facets of his writing, has clearly its secondary school origins. More seriously, these secondary school days also opened Eoin’s eyes to the perplexities of bullying, a subject which his books continue to address, whether in implicit or explicit terms. One of the most impressive sequences in The Wish List, for example, is devoted to an almost visceral reconstruction by Lowrie McCall, the book’s ‘helpless pensioner’, of an act of bullying to which he had been subjected as a 15-year-old. The subsequent reunion scene between victim and perpetrator affords the opportunity – well taken – to explore the nature and consequences of one particular manifestation of evil – and to reveal how, some 53 years on, it may now be perceived through adult eyes.
If such searing insights derive from Eoin’s own school experiences, so also, he acknowledges, do the more usual childhood and adolescent concerns which, usually with a telling mixture of humour and compassion, he reflects in his writing. Even in his three contributions to The O’Brien Press ‘Flyer’ series for younger readers ‘who can take on the challenge of a longer story’ he focuses, through his character Ed Cooper, on the fears and uncertainties of early childhood. Many of these, such as Ed’s problems with his ‘funny feet’, were, Eoin assures me, his problems also and the passing of thirty years has done little to diminish the intensity of his memories. In Benny and Omar and Benny and Babe he skilfully re-creates that male adolescent sense of embarrassment often seen in both social and tentatively sexual contexts. It is interesting to speculate on the extent to which the creation of ‘brilliant criminal mastermind’ Artemis Fowl, apparently always coolly in control, is an attempt to exorcise such doubts.
Eoin’s happiest memories of his time as a student at Carysfort College of Education in Dublin are of his Teaching Practice experiences. ‘I had a ball,’ he enthuses, though he was increasingly aware also of the need to reconcile his ‘rebellious idealism’ with the realities of classroom life. On graduation in 1986, he took up a teaching post in Wexford, staying there some seven years before fulfilling a long-held ambition to work abroad. By now married, he spent a four-year career break in Saudi Arabia, Italy and Tunisia. While in Saudi Arabia he had the inspiration for a still unpublished adult thriller – ‘Silence of the Lambs meets Father Ted’ is his tantalising summary of its theme – but it was Tunisia which was to provide the material for Benny and Omar. This, published in 1998 by The O’Brien Press, was an immediate best-seller in Ireland: its acceptance for publication constituted ‘an amazing moment’ for Eoin. Benny and Babe, the sequel, enjoyed similar success. Eoin’s years abroad, he feels in retrospect, brought him not only to his first published work: they also brought home to him (as they do to young Benny) the real potential of ‘education’ once it is divorced from the narrow strictures of curricular and classroom rigidities.
While the two Omar books, The Wish List and his ‘Flyer’ titles had earned Eoin recognition and a healthy readership in Ireland, it was not until his move to Puffin with Artemis Fowl (and subsequently Artemis Fowl: The Arctic Incident) that international fame came his way. Vast as the scale of this has been, he clearly remains in a state of almost boyish wonder and bemusement. There have been impressively large financial rewards, sales of well over 500,000 copies, translations into some 40 languages, numerous shortlistings and awards, promotional visits to every corner of the British Isles, to Europe, the United States, Australia and New Zealand: Japan and India are beckoning. Film rights for Artemis Fowl have been bought by Miramax Productions and the search for the Irish boy who will play the title role is now on. For Eoin, Artemis is in the tradition of such literary ‘criminal masterminds’ as Professor Moriarty, a villain, possibly, but not one totally without his own brand of sinister charm. Place this character in a supernatural Irish setting where human cunning confronts fairy guile, decorate the setting with a dazzling array of modern and futuristic technology and we are ready to embark on a determinedly contemporary variation on all traditional stories which feature leprechauns and – possibly – pots of gold at the end of rainbows. Given such a blend, it comes as little surprise when Eoin reveals that fan mail from young readers arrives almost daily from virtually every country where he is published – some of it even in the special ‘code’ language used as footers on each page of the texts.
A full-time writer since January 2001, Eoin describes his current working routine as ‘fairly disciplined’. On a typical morning, his wife Jackie will go out to run her business, their five-year-old son Finn will leave for school and by half-past ten Eoin will be ready to move to his computer. He will, generally, work until about four o’clock. At the outset of his career his first drafts were in longhand, but he nowadays tends to proceed directly to the keyboard, though he emphasises that he is still ‘a great reviser’. And as for work currently in progress? We can expect the third Artemis novel – provisionally entitled Artemis Fowl: The Eternity Code – in Spring 2003. And, he says cryptically, we can expect Artemis himself ‘to develop and change’. A fourth volume may follow. There is also the possibility of a further Benny story and – somewhere in the future – a work of science fiction. On the evidence of the eight books which have so far appeared, one assumption about whatever may come next from Eoin Colfer seems justified. As with his conversation, there will be much to make you smile – and much to make you think as well.
Robert Dunbar lectures in English and children’s literature at the Church of Ireland College of Education, Dublin.
Photograph courtesy of Puffin Books.
Benny and Omar, The O’Brien Press, 0 86278 567 7, £4.99 pbk
Benny and Babe, The O’Brien Press, 0 86278 603 7, £4.99 pbk
Going Potty, The O’Brien Press, 0 86278 602 9, £3.99 pbk
Ed’s Funny Feet, The O’Brien Press, 0 86278 650 9, £3.99 pbk
Ed’s Bed, The O’Brien Press, 0 86278 679 7, £4.50 pbk
The Wish List, The O’Brien Press, 0 86278 658 4, £4.99 pbk (Ireland)
The Wish List, Viking, 0 670 91385 5, £9.99 hbk (Britain)
Artemis Fowl, Viking, 0 670 89962 3, £12.99 hbk, Puffin, 0 14 131212 2, £4.99 pbk
Artemis Fowl: The Arctic Incident, Puffin, 0 670 89963 1, £12.99 hbk