This interview first appeared in Magpies: Talking about Books for Children in 2003
Artemis Fowl has brought international success for author Eoin (pronounced Owen) Colfer. But before Artemis there was Meg, dead heroine of The Wish List, and before Meg there was Benny, rascally hero of Benny and Omar and Benny and Babe. A great fan of these earlier novels, I was scheduled to interview Eoin when I was in Ireland last year, but by then Artemis fever had taken hold and Eoin was on tour in Australia — so a year and several continents later, with Eoin back in Australia for the release of Artemis Fowl and the Arctic Incident, I finally had the chance to sit down with him for a chat.
I read your piece in Inis, the Children’s Books Ireland journal (Summer 2002), and I was interested to read — you had your eye on the prize didn’t you, you wanted the success that came with Artemis Fowl.
For me, if I wanted to be a writer I had to make money. I’d written six books and they did really well in Ireland but it’s a small population and it was either make a few bob or stop writing. A lot of writers in Ireland don’t do anything else but we had our house on mortgage, and so I couldn’t just stop working. That’s why I decided to get an agent.
Did that conscious decision to be successful so you could keep it going, did that influence the writing of Artemis Fowl?
No, I didn’t even decide to get an agent until I was finished Artemis. My wife Jackie said, this can’t go on, you’re spending five hours a night writing and I come home from work and then I have to mind Finn as well, and I make the dinner because you’re writing… you have to get an agent! And so I did.
Artemis is a bit of a change of pace from your earlier books.
It’s a change from the Benny books, but I think if you look at The Wish List you can see where it’s going. That’s like the link if you like. It has a bit of the magic in it and so The Wish List was the first step towards the Artemis books.
I really enjoyed the Irishness of the Benny books, the language, the hurling…
I remember someone saying to me in the publishing world, you know, you’re just trying to minority yourself out of an audience. You have an Irish boy playing hurling in Tunisia with an African boy. I mean, who’s going to want to read that? But I think it’s the story and the characters that are important. It will be interesting to see, because Benny will be coming out here over the next couple of years, so it will be interesting to see how that does go down.
Benny is a wonderful character — there’s a line from Benny through Meg to Artemis…
There’s a darkness in the books even though they’re very funny, and the action’s fantastic, but Benny’s a… I wouldn’t want him in my class, I wouldn’t want him in my house! He’s a tricky kid…
He’s a tricky kid but he’s a real kid.
And he’s a really attractive kid too, you like him and you’re on his side from the start, but that scene when he starts school in Tunisia and he deliberately sets out to sabotage himself, to make himself the hard man…
But that is so typical of Irish children — not just Irish kids, I think most twelve year old boys when they move to a different environment. I was watching that happen as I was teaching in Tunisia. Irish boys have a hard time accepting sincerity. If someone says to them you are very good they think there’s something behind it; I know he’s telling me I’m lovely, but what does he mean by that? And Benny had a bad case of that. And like many twelve year olds he has a bad case of the world has to fit into his order. But what I like about Benny is in one way he does learn and in another way he never learns. He’s a real kid. I had no interest in writing about a fella that’s kind of saintly and lovely. I wanted what 90% of 12 year olds are really like, and that is they’re a bit mischievous, scamps, and you know, get away with what they can get away with. I think that’s what a lot of boys like about Benny — he is a bit of a lad and he does get in trouble, but at the end of the day when he has to make the important decision he does, he makes the right one. There’s a line in The Wish List; “There’s a line between bold and bad” and he’s not going to cross that line.
Meg has crossed it, kind of — yeah — eternally.
Yes indeed. That’s shocking, to kill your main character off in the first chapter, that was very audacious. Not many people would do that.
I have no interest in writing the same book someone else has written. I mean, I don’t think I’m that different either. If you take Huckleberry Finn for example — we read that now and think, great book, but that was completely revolutionary for the time where this boy was smoking and drinking and swearing and his best friend was a black guy. That was unbelievable and Twain was banned and booed.
Still is in some states of America.
Exactly, they still not appreciate it in some places. So compared to that kind of thing my little trouble makers are very, very small players indeed. But at the same time I’m not interested in bland. You may like my books, you may not like them, but I don’t think people would say I’m bland.
Has The Wish List attracted many complaints? It opens with a violent criminal act, you’ve got a dead main character, and then an uneasy alliance between Heaven and Hell to see where Meg will end up.
It hasn’t, no, but I think it could. I think there’s definitely potential there for people to be offended. There’s always people waiting to be offended. And I think if you put the devil in a book there are people who are going to be offended. Once I’m satisfied myself that it is not immoral or harmful or graphic — I mean, I think the scenes with the devil are very funny. They’re very light-hearted. I can see where if you wanted you could say well, it’s disgraceful, there’s an alliance between Beelzebub and St Peter, but people were offended by Elvis, so what can I tell you?
So you haven’t had any complaints?
Not many, I’ve had more over Artemis.
Is that the violence?
No, it was the fact that he was a bad guy. And I’m trying to say, well have you read the whole book? Oh no, we’ve just read the first six pages and that’s enough. And I’m saying, well if you read the whole book you’d see that he has to make some very difficult moral choices and he makes the right ones and he’s changing. He’s evolving through contact with other people and that was his big problem, he never had friends, the only person he had was Butler, and now his family are coming back to him and he’s making kind of alliances with the fairy people and he’s learning. I think the most important thing is he’s seeing the effect of what he does has on other people. Before that it was all in his mind; well, I’ll kidnap this person and that’ll be easy, but then he actually feels their pain.
There’s a film deal. How far along is it?
It’s pretty far along. At the moment, the director has been picked, a guy called Larry Guterman is being contracted and he’s working on the storyboards. They’re in Ireland at the moment scouting locations and there’s talent scouts in the schools looking for Artemis and they’re supposed to start filming in September (2002) and that’s all they’ll tell me.
So is it complete live action?
I suppose it’ll be like Lord of the Rings. It won’t be on that scale — I wish — but it’ll be some live action with computer graphics.
It’s sort of begging, really, to be filmed.
That’s what people say. I don’t think you can sit down and say I’m going to write the book for a screenplay, it’s just the way I happen to think. Maybe it’s as a child of the media. Our generation would have been the first to grow up with cinema and TV in the house, so maybe it’s that. I actually tend to think in comic book form, because I always was a big comic fan, so maybe that sort of wham bam thing transfers easily to celluloid.
Artemis Fowl has been huge, of course, it’s had a massive marketing campaign behind it. Your other books have found their audience more quietly…
I really like that way of building an audience because that’s the way I always did it before, the book comes out very quietly, there’s no press and it builds. That’s why (the marketing behind Artemis Fowl was) so worrying, but obviously it worked out well. But when it came out first I was, you know, not terrified, but I was very worried, because when something comes out with that amount of hype you’re just waiting for it to be chopped down. But I was lucky.
There’s a third Artemis book, I suppose it’ll be out early next year, so I’m looking forward to that, although I haven’t finished it yet. I’d like to do another Benny book in the future. I have an idea for one. I’m glad the Bennys are kind of hanging in there, because I’m really proud of those books, you know. I’d like to do science fiction, I’d like to do thrillers and mysteries and so on. Some of the great writers, the prolific writers do a book every year for forty years, so if I don’t smoke and I can stay out of car wrecks I should have time to do another ten or twelve books at least.