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The Powells.com Interview with Eoin Colfer

Eoin ColferEoin Colfer is best known for his bestselling Artemis Fowl series, which inspires fanatical devotion in its fans. Entertainment Weekly raved: "The world that Colfer creates is as vivid and fantastical as any shire, Gotham, or galaxy far, far away in recent memory. (Grade: A-)"

And Another Thing..., his most recent novel, is in an entirely different world. Colfer has written the sixth and final volume in Douglas Adams's beloved Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy series. Powell's own Tom L. proclaims: "Like a Pan-Galactic Gargle Blaster on a school night, it's a great rare treat to be able to revisit the galaxy as presented by Douglas Adams."

Whether you've enjoyed Colfer's previous work, are a fan of Douglas Adams, or just love irreverent science fiction, And Another Thing... is a perfectly absurd, hilarious, and delightful read.

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Jill Owens: How did this project begin?

Eoin Colfer: It was a strange project to get involved in. It was something that came completely out of the blue, out of left field. I wasn't expecting it. I don't think it's something you could ever expect to prepare for. I actually think if you went looking for this project, then you're probably not the person to do it.I actually think if you went looking for this project, then you're probably not the person to do it.

Basically, Douglas Adams's agent, Ed Victor, who's quite famous — he's kind of a celebrity agent — thought that it would be a nice idea for somebody to do this to mark the 30th anniversary of the first book. He had been thinking about it for quite awhile, but he had almost given up on the idea because he couldn't find anybody he thought could do it. Then he had a meeting with my agent, Sophie, and she said, "What about Eoin?" In his words, it was a scales-dropping-from-the-eyes moment, but that sounds a bit melodramatic. [Laughter] I think he just thought it would be a good fit.

My agent came to me with the idea, and Doug's agent went to the estate and to Doug's wife with the idea. Initially I was reluctant, because I didn't know what the motivation was for the project. If it was just a money deal, then I wasn't interested. But it was really for Douglas that people wanted to do this, to finish the story and also maybe to bring the Hitchhiker books back to a certain level of prominence that had been fading a bit in the past five years. With that motivation, which I thought was pretty good, I said, "Okay. Let's go."

Jill: How old were you when you first read the series?

Colfer: I think I would have been 15 or 16. A friend's sister brought it home from London to Wexford and it was passed around in our little reading group. We were all blown away by it, as is everybody who reads it as a teenager, I think. Although I do think that people either get or don't get it. There were a lot of people who were mystified by the Hitchhiker and why it's so popular. They'd read a couple of chapters and say, "I just don't get that. I don't think it's funny." The rest of us, we're the ones cracking up in the corner. We're bearing the puzzled looks of the people who don't get it.

I was a teenager, and I followed the series as the books came out, every five years or so. The first two came out pretty quickly, and then after that we were drip-fed the Hitchhiker for the following 15 years. Then, of course, I rejoiced in the news that there was going to be a sixth one, and then five years later it still hadn't arrived, and then the year after that, Douglas died.

It was a shock to have started my Hitchhiker career as a fan and then to finish it as a part of the Hitchhiker family.

Jill: What did you like best about the books when you first read them?

Colfer: On first read of the first one, I liked being surprised. That's what always gets me. If I'm reading a book, and there's something that's unexpected in a good way, then that's always very pleasant. It's what I try to do in my own books, to merge genres in a way that people don't expect.

When I read Douglas first, I remember thinking, "I didn't think you were allowed to be funny in science fiction!"I remember thinking, "I didn't think you were allowed to be funny in science fiction!" I thought there was a rule somewhere that you had to be very grim, and have to have survived a planetary holocaust, and then you had to be on a revenge mission. Arthur Dent seemed to have survived his planetary holocaust and just want a cup of tea. He wasn't interested in tracking down anybody or taking out the people who killed his family.

I remember laughing a lot, and being very refreshed and fascinated. It was only later that I realized how clever the philosophy was, and the technology, and how finely drawn the characters were. On first read, it was just for laughs.

Jill: I was impressed by the tone. You manage to somehow keep Douglas Adams's tone and yet also still sound like you. How did you balance that?

Colfer: That was the most difficult thing, and possible the most important thing. They had asked me to do the book because they liked my style. That's fine for anybody coming to it from my work, as that's what they expect. But if you're coming to it — as a lot of people were and are — from Douglas's work, you've read his five books. You don't want to read the sixth book and think, "Well, I don't even feel like I'm in the same universe here. This doesn't feel like a part of the Hitchhiker; this is a totally different thing." They would not feel any nostalgia or fondness for these characters, and would think, "That's 20 bucks I could have spent in another way and been more fulfilled."

I wanted to walk the line between my usual stuff and then throw in some Douglas stuff as well. What I tried to do was use my own voice but use a lot of his joke set-ups. For example, he called one of his characters Ford Prefect, which is a car joke. I called one of my characters Hillman Hunter, which is another car joke. Little tiny things like that are littered throughout the book, which will bring people back to the originals, I hope, while not totally submerging my own style.

It was a difficult one, and I had to find a new voice, which was about halfway between me and Douglas, and then try and stay on that voice right until the end of the book.

Jill: I think that was very successful.

Colfer: Thank you.

Jill: You invent some interesting new characters and expand upon old ones. How did you think about character in this book?

Colfer: I wanted to have the favorites, definitely. Again, it was walking that line between new and old. There's no point in doing it if you're not going to bring something new to it.There's no point in doing it if you're not going to bring something new to it. I felt that if I just stuck to Douglas's characters and situations then there wasn't a whole lot of point, and there would be nothing fresh. If he was writing the book, that's not what he would do. He would introduce new characters and bring them to different places.

But I wanted to have the old characters. One of the things I did, and I did it in a few different places, was that I took one of Douglas's very minor character that hadn't been used very much and expanded on that character. Wowbagger was one of those. He was only a couple of pages in one of the books. Because he was already in the pantheon, the Hitchhiker fans could accept him readily. But he wasn't very finely drawn, so there was a lot I could do with him. I did the same thing with Thor. He had shown up at the flying party, so I brought him back.

I also brought in a few new characters, yes. Once I had established the universe, and what was going on, and the tone, then I found that it was okay to bring in my own characters in the latter half of the book.

Jill: Separating out the guide notes, and adding more of them than were in the original series, was a structural change you made. Why did you decide to structure the book that way?

Colfer: I think I stole that from Terry Pratchett, that style of a little aside at the foot of the page. Also, it's a little bit from the style of the Hitchhiker movie and TV show; when the guide spoke it would be typed up on the screen, as a little aside. I always liked the way that you could put in interesting facts about the universe that you were in that didn't necessarily relate to the story, as a way of getting in a few more jokes and a little more atmosphere.

I always imagined, when I was writing those, Arthur Dent's voice. I imagined that Simon Jones, who played Dent in the TV series, would be reading them. That gave me the tone of the guide notes. Then, of course, he did end up reading them for the audiobook, so that was very nice. He said it exactly as I imagined it.

Jill: It's rare that that happens.

Colfer: I know! Nothing ever comes together like that, so I was so happy when that happened. I didn't know what kind of a reaction I would get from the original cast, because I thought some of them might be mortified or offended, and others might welcome the chance to come back. But he was so nice and gracious, and everybody was very helpful and generous, so we had a great time.

Jill: The related reading articles were a nice touch. Were those fun to make up?

Colfer: There's an awful lot of punning in there.There's an awful lot of punning in there. [Laughter] You'll get some, and you won't get others. Then there are a lot in there with no puns, so it's a mixture. I always love to go to readings where people say to me, "You know this here, this guy? The author of this article? Is his name 'Make Your Own Fun'?" And I would say "Yes, yes it is." I really enjoy that. I like the idea that someone on the far side of the world spots a thing like that and gets a little giggle. And I like the idea that most people won't spot it. There will be a few people who say, "Oh, I see this one." They will realize what it is, and it's like a private joke between the two of us.

I spent an inordinate amount of time on them for a grown man. [Laughter] It's terrible.

Jill: Did you ever play the Hitchhiker's computer game?

Colfer: I never did. I believe it's quite complicated. I'd like to try, but I don't know if you can play it on a Mac now. Wasn't it on the very old computers? I don't really play any computer games. I mean, I have an iPhone, and I have a few dozen apps on it for my kids to play, but the only one I ever play is that eight-ball pool game, which I'll occasionally play on the train. I'm not very good at video games and they tend to frustrate me, to be honest, so I leave them alone. I never had the patience for those puzzle games where you have to figure out something. If you just shoot something, that's fine.

Jill: How was writing this book different from your other books, including the Artemis Fowl series?

Colfer: I felt strangely liberated. It varied. At first, I was very wary of the legacy and not messing it up. After awhile, I got used to that burden as such, and I just took off. I wrote really quickly for about the first two-thirds. Generally, with every book I write, I have a crisis when I'm coming into the last third, because I can see the end in sight. The crisis is, "This whole thing is terrible. Nobody will want to read it. Oh my god, what have I done?" [Laughter]

It was even greater with this one, because it wouldn't be that nobody would want to read it; it would be that a lot of people would want to read it and want it to be bad, and be kind of vindicated when it was bad. I stalled, then. So I had three or four great months where I really enjoyed myself, and then I stalled for awhile, and I couldn't get the flow back.So I had three or four great months where I really enjoyed myself, and then I stalled for awhile, and I couldn't get the flow back. I think it was basically my wife and a couple of my friends and my parents who gave me a lot of encouragement, and my agent, Sophie, was great. They got me back on track again. Then I got my second wind, and finished really quickly, and that's what tends to happen with all my books.

As regards the actual writing of it, when I was in the zone, I really, really enjoyed it. I felt light and happy. I knew even then that when I look back on it in a couple of years, the time spent writing it will be the best thing about this experience.

Jill: Do you think you felt liberated because it was such a different universe?

Colfer: I think it was because it was someone else's universe. I do change up a lot. Every third book I write is Artemis Fowl. I'm also involved in other things from theater to movies, and I try and always keep it so that I'm very interested myself in what I'm doing, which is very important to me creatively. To be at the top of my game, I have to be really into what I'm doing. I think that's true of anybody. If you're interested in what you're doing, you do it better. Luckily for me, because I have a successful series, I can afford to go off and work on a play with a friend of mine or something else that's not going to make any money. I can do that for a few months. I like to keep my energy up by doing something different.

When I went to the Hitchhiker's universe, it was all so fresh and new and yet nostalgic. I was very nostalgic for it, so I went ahead and listened to a lot of the music I would have been listening to around then — a lot of Pink Floyd. I think The Wall came out the same year as Hitchhiker's Guide, so I listened to that a lot. Kate Bush. David Bowie, the albums he did in the '70s. I tried to immerse myself in the culture of my teen years, and it was really a pleasant experience. I totally enjoyed it.

I was recapturing my own youth, in a very real way. I was trying to write a lot of the time for the boy I was at 15 or 16. I was a very sarcastic, sharp, dismissive person in those days, so it was a good critic to have.

Jill: How did you become a writer in the first place?

Colfer: It started off when I was very young. Both my parents are artists. My dad is a painter and a writer, and my mom is a playwright and an actress and a drama teacher. I was in a play in the womb, my mother says.I was in a play in the womb, my mother says. She was pregnant with me and she was acting onstage. When I was born, we were immediately painting and drawing and writing; I was reading lines with my mother. It wasn't bohemian as such; it sounds a little bohemian, but it wasn't really, because Dad was a teacher as well. But they were definitely liberal arty folks.

When I went to school, I was surprised that I was the only one writing stories. That's what I did, and I was encouraged to do that. They weren't very good stories, they were very simple stories, but still, writing down words… it wasn't something I really thought about, I just wrote stories for myself. Occasionally my parents would read them. It's like someone who sings. They don't think, "Why singing? Why do I want to sing?" They just have a voice and they sing.

I did that for a long time. It was not until I was about 16 that I thought, "You know, maybe I'd like to get a book published some day." Again, I never thought I was going to be able to be a professional writer, because they were mystical creatures who lived in England on estates and wore tweed jackets. [Laughter] I thought that couldn't happen if you lived in Wexford. I didn't know any writers. But when I was 15 or 16 I had the idea that maybe I could get one of my stories published someday, and I went from there, really.

Jill: Who are your influences, or some writers you admire? The Supernaturalist made me think a bit of Dickens, not in style, but in vision and subject matter.

Colfer: That's very nice; I will accept that! [Laughter] I do love Dickens. I think A Christmas Carol is one of the finest examples, because it's easy to digest. It's a novella, really. Dickens can be quite dense with his characterization and descriptive passages, and while those are beautiful, they can be difficult. But I think A Christmas Carol is a perfect example if you want to read something simpler before you move on. Once you read A Christmas Carol, of course, you're hooked, and then you'll go on and read all the rest.

I was affected a lot by the big swashbuckling stories like Robin Hood by Roger Green, the [Rafael] Sabatini books, pirate books like Captain Blood — I love that kind of thing. And Dumas, of course, the swordfighting books, The Three Musketeers, and H. G. Wells, which were swashbuckling in a more modern way, and Conan Doyle as well, with The Lost World. I love the adventure yarn classics. They would be seen as books for boys, really. They were all from towards the middle of the 20th century back to maybe the end of the 19th century. I love all those books.

A lot of people don't like the classics when they're young; they feel they're forced to read them. But I absolutely loved them. I loved Robert Louis Stevenson, Kidnapped and Treasure Island. Also Mark Twain. If I had to pick one book, I would say Huckleberry Finn would have been my favorite book as a youngster. I think all of these grand adventures influenced the kind of books I write today.I think all of these grand adventures influenced the kind of books I write today.

Jill: Your Wikipedia entry describes you as a comedian in addition to being an author.

Colfer: I know what happened there. I did a stand-up show — well, it wasn't a stand-up show. I'm even calling it that myself now! I did a one-man show. I've been doing it for three or four years now. I did a tour around the U.K., which was really successful, so I ended up on the West End in London, which is unusual, I suppose. It got a lot of press at the time, even though it was just a small theater. I guess "Kids' Writer Does One-Man Show" was a nice little story for the theater page.

But in a couple of the reviews, it said it was a stand-up show, because it was quite funny in places. You can tell from talking to me now that I'm not much of a natural wisecracking guy, so this was all really scripted. It was made to look natural, I suppose. People often said that to me, even good friends. They'll say, "Ah, that was great, when you thought of that line just when that kid said this thing." I said, "No, listen — the kid says that in every show." I have the script and I show them where the line is written down. But the trick is to make it look as if you were just wisecracking off the top of your head, though that's not something I do really.

So a couple of reviews said it was a stand-up show, which did perhaps help the audiences. But I don't do stand-up. I don't go around to my readings and do stand-up. They can be quite funny, but I'm no Jim Carrey, so…

Jill: People shouldn't raise their expectations.

Colfer: Well, that's the thing! If you go to a book reading, and it's funny, that's a bonus. But if you go to stand-up, and it's not that funny, then you feel like, "I've been sold a bummer here. I expected to be laughing hilariously and I'm only chuckling politely." So I'm very wary of describing it as stand-up; it's just a one-man show, and if you get a few laughs, that's a bonus.

Jill: What's your next project going to be?

Colfer: I'm working on the seventh Artemis book at the moment, and I hope to finish that within the next month. I'm also working on a musical with two friends of mine in Wexford, which is one of those boutique projects of mine I was talking about. We're going to put it on in a small theater here in town in May. Hopefully that will then travel to Dublin, and maybe even farther afield, if we're lucky.

Jill: How's the film for the Artemis books going?

Colfer: It's in the works. I'm just back from New York; I was there last week meeting with the Disney executives. They're hoping that it will really start going into production in spring. Also, there is a movie of Airman, a motion-capture movie, and I think that's pretty advanced now, going into character sketches, and once they have the script finished they'll start casting, so I'm very excited about that.

Jill: What are you reading right now?

Colfer: I'm looking at my bedside here. At the moment, I've got several books — I'm one of those people who has a book everywhere. I'm reading the new William Boyd book, which is called Ordinary Thunderstorms, which I'm hugely enjoying. I'm also reading P. G. Wodehouse's The Jeeves Omnibus. I've never read Jeeves and Wooster before — shame on me! I'm finally getting around to that.

Eoin Colfer spoke from his home in Wexford, Ireland on December 8, 2009.

Books mentioned in this post

  1. And Another Thing... (Hitchhiker's... Used Hardcover $3.50
  2. The Ultimate Hitchhiker's Guide to...
    Used Trade Paper $11.00
  3. Artemis Fowl
    Used Trade Paper $2.95

  4. Artemis Fowl: The Arctic Incident
    Used Trade Paper $3.95
  5. The Supernaturalist
    Used Trade Paper $3.95
  6. A Christmas Carol (Bantam Classic) Used Mass Market $2.95
  7. The Adventures of Robin Hood
    Used Trade Paper $2.95
  8. Captain Blood (Penguin Classics) Used Trade Paper $8.95
  9. The Three Musketeers (Signet Classics)
    Used Mass Market $4.95
  10. The Lost World (Dover Thrift Editions)
    Used Trade Paper $3.00
  11. Kidnapped (Modern Library Classics) Used Trade Paper $6.50
  12. Treasure Island (Aladdin Classics) Used Trade Paper $3.50

  13. Airman Used Trade Paper $4.95
  14. Ordinary Thunderstorms
    Used Hardcover $8.95
  15. The Jeeves omnibus Used Hardcover $13.50



4 Responses to "The Powells.com Interview with Eoin Colfer"

  1.  
    No Tea December 15th, 2009 at 3:13 pm

    I like that you mentioned the Hitchhiker's computer game (read: text adventure). There are many of us who have beaten our heads over trying to figure that thing out!

  2.  
    M. Acosta December 17th, 2009 at 1:54 pm

    I was lucky enough to attend one of Mr. Colfer's book events last year. The man is LYING to you. He is seriously funny. Tears were running out my eyes from laughing too hard while he told stories about his childhood in Ireland. Anytime someone in our house even mentions Eoin Colfer, we all break out into silly grins. Thank you, Mr. Colfer, for continuing to inspire laughter.

  3.  
    Mos G December 27th, 2009 at 8:12 pm

    I got And Another Thing as an iPhone app - it is very versatile and easy to read - a lot of fun! I liked the blend of old and new and will read it again (a sure sign of a good book)

  4.  
    Mr_Meow_Meow December 5th, 2012 at 8:18 am

    Great blog and interview, but I don't like the color of the website and the font. It seems to bright and I keep losing my place while reading.

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