On Making Magic: A Conversation with Eoin Colfer

Over twenty five novels, many of which are the recipients of Irish writing awards, a screenplay, and a spell in the world of Douglas Adam’s Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Eoin Colfer’s resumé is, like the topics of much of his work, steeped in fantasy and wonder. Yet, among the phrases that his novels have brought into popular culture in Ireland, “resting on your laurels” isn’t one of them. “At the moment I have two plays on tour, I have a musical opening in the States in December, and I’m trying to get a TV show off the ground”. With a non-stop schedule then, it was luck that I found myself in a lecture theatre back in October with a chance to speak to him before his evening talk with UCD’s Science Fiction & Fantasy Society.

Eoin is aware of the diversity of his upcoming work, as he never lets himself settle into any one thing for too long. “It’s not like, say Stephen King, where I’m going to write 500 pages of horror this year, and then next year do the same thing, it’s not the way I operate. I’m amazed I can write books at all!” Focusing on one style, be it young adult or otherwise, he again finds joy in variety. “I tend to write wherever I am at that point in my life, when I started writing for kids I was teaching kids, so that was my audience. I just kept doing that until I joined a drama group and then I started to write plays, because I was hanging around with actors. Then when I left teaching and I was travelling on tour, I was in New York a lot so I wrote two noir novels. I think ultimately you come back to what you love, and for me it was a kind of genre-bending exercise.”

Eoin evidently enjoys the task of combining elements from polar opposites. “It’s mostly creativity, but there certainly is this element of physics, where you say to yourself ‘I want to go into this genre and I want to bring this other thing that doesn’t belong to it and force it in there to see what happens’ and that’s what happened with Artemis. Artemis is really a noir fantasy book, so I really wanted to mix in detective elements.” He is quick to highlight his inspirations in the art of genre-bending: “I was greatly inspired by Douglas Adams because that’s what he did. He took Star Wars and said ‘well I’m gonna do Star Wars, but I’m gonna do Monty Python’s Star Wars.’ As a teenager I thought there were some kind of invisible rules to writing, but then you read Douglas and you read Terry Pratchett and you think ‘Yeah, that’s the way I want to go.’ So since then, whatever story pops into my head I try and twist around.”

When writing for theater, Eoin approaches the stage in a different light. “I think for plays you have to be a little bit less fantastical. Having said that one of my plays at the moment is about two seven year old girls who are both played by thirty-something actresses, and I didn’t know if it would be possible - because I’m a big skeptic myself when it comes to theatre - for two thirty-year old actresses to make you believe they were seven for an hour. But people are willing to have their disbelief suspended if the actor gives everything to it.” While nothing like Artemis will be on stage any time soon (he mentions a musical based on it was in the works for a time), he is amazed by the adaptations of his work by others. “I did a book called The Legend of Captain Crow’s Teeth and this children’s theatre in London did that, and they had a huge budget and it was the most amazing thing, and that was very gratifying, especially since when you’re not involved with a production, you sort of just go along with it. I’m from Wexford and therefore a real pessimist, but it was absolutely wonderful, and when that happens it’s a real gift, that something you wrote twenty years ago is now coming back.”

The influence of Douglas Adams on Eoin’s work is a two way street, with Colfer having been directly involved in the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy series as the author of its sixth book after the passing of Adams. “This was one of those things where I don’t know if it was the right thing to do. I think the book itself is a good book, but I could have done any other series. It was just, as soon as I started writing I thought ‘What am I doing this for? I love Douglas Adams.’” With a grin, he jokes how “A friend said it best to me. He said ‘you remember that Hitchhikers books you wrote? That is the best Star Trek book I’ve ever read.’ So I wrote a really nice Star Trek novel that unfortunately had Hitchhiker in the title.” Eoin is still glad to have been given the chance, however. “I learned a lot from writing that book, my whole style of writing changed because I reread all of Douglas’ books. They say in writing classes to ‘strip everything back, strip everything back,’ but with Douglas it was use as many words to give as little information as possible, and if you can, at the end of your sentence, have said nothing, amazing. I really like being able to do that now. It takes a while to get that point, I think if I had started to try and do that at nineteen, it would’ve been disastrous, so it took me until I was about forty-five to get there, but it’s been a nice journey.”

We delve into Eoin’s foray into cinema next, as after a rocky development cycle, a film adaptation of his award-winning young adult series Artemis Fowl was picked up by director Kenneth Branagh in 2015. The first trailers were released in December of 2018, and as is always the case for film adaptations, fans will inevitably voice concerns on the changes made from the source material, but Eoin is excited to see his work taken in new directions. “People ask me about the Artemis Fowl film and if I’m worried people like Kenneth Branagh will change it, and I say you can’t give art to an artist and tell them ‘don’t interpret it.’ That’s mad, of course he’s going to change it, and the more the better. When he said he was going to cast Judi Dench [who plays the fairy Police Commander Julius Root and who narrates the new trailer] as a male tough-guy character, I thought it was perfect, I’m all for it. So anything is up for grabs, because that’s what art is all about.”

Should Artemis do well, Eoin is open to more adaptations of his work, suggesting Airman as one of his personal picks. “As long as they stay a little subversive. My only worry about turning things into other forms of art is that they lose the subversion on the way, the slyness of them. All my books, on face value, are a big roller coaster of an adventure, and they are, but there is always that tongue-and-cheek slyness underneath that I hope is not lost, and from what I’ve seen of the Artemis Fowl film, they’ve really kept that.”

While Artemis and his story have been wrapped up neatly, Eoin is far from finished with the world he has built over eleven years, as he has plans to work on more stories featuring Miles and Beckett, the younger twin siblings of the criminal mastermind. “When I left the world of Artemis Fowl, I said that I’m not going back for five years, because at that point I think I had thought about leprechauns so much I legally couldn’t do jury duty. But always in the back of my head I was thinking “Artemis is done, but you have these two little guys who could be very funny”.
In Colfer tradition, he has plans to create a new series,“I want the book to narratively be more straightforward. The Artemis books had many strands of adventures and flashbacks and time travel and inventions, so these have to be much simpler and much more gothic in temperment. I’m imagining it as the lovechild of Terry Pratchett, maybe early Neil Gaiman, and Douglas Adams, that almost formal narrative, but with with Buster Keaton type of humour. So we’ll see how it goes”. As to what the future holds after, that has yet to be decided. “I've nearly finished the first one, and I’m really enjoying it having been out of that theater for a long time. For a while I just didn’t want to write anymore books, and after this book, we’ll see, but I’m extremely fortunate in that I can actually pick my projects.”