Meeting a childhood idol is a daunting prospect, even more so when the hero in question is an author whose work is far better recognized than the person behind it.
There’s the definite possibility of shattered illusions, of learning that the genius on whose word you hung is really just a tedious — or worse, conceited — person. Fortunately, Eoin Colfer is neither.
Growing up, I loved how the Artemis Fowl series was, as Colfer describes it, “subversive in a small way, not in a big way, but in a little way.” The fantasy story of a boy genius discovering and attempting to outsmart a secret species of people was an alternative to the straight-laced good vs. evil plots of Harry Potter.
When the opportunity arose to interview Colfer, I was thrilled. The ostensible reason was the launch of Plugged, the author’s first “book for grown-ups,” which recounts the story of Daniel McEvoy, a former soldier, who loses his love interest, his best friend, and (briefly) his clothes in a series of increasingly extraordinary circumstances.
Early readers of Artemis Fowl, like myself, are now adults. With Plugged’s tagline reading ‘If you loved Artemis Fowl … it’s time to grow up,’ it appears that Colfer was quite conscious of this shift in generations.
“It was my tagline … for two reasons. One, I didn’t want children to read it, so I wanted to be very clear it was a book for grown-ups. But two, I thought, well, maybe if you read my [first] book when you were 12, you’re 22 now and maybe you’d like something else of mine to read.”
The Artemis Fowl series is slightly mature for children’s books, so writing a ‘real’ book for grown-ups was not much of a stretch for the author.
“I’ve always believed that you shouldn’t try and make things dumb for boys because they want it to be fast, fast-paced. And I think I’ve held onto that style with [Plugged].
“I think the Artemis Fowl books are kind of crime books with fairies and leprechauns, [and] this is a straight crime book. So the execution was pretty similar, but it took me a while to find the right voice, just the style, to write it in. But once I found that, then it was the same process.”
Colfer was aiming for the noir genre when he wrote Plugged, yet there’s also an undercurrent of humour, common to all of the author’s works, which serves to brighten the novel’s bleak setting of Cloisters, New Jersey. Colfer, though, was not looking for humour when he set out.
“Initially I wanted it to be very grim,” Colfer explained, “but it’s just not in my personality, I suppose, to allow a moment [to go] past when you could put some humour in … I wanted it to be very bleak and very much like the ‘50s noir books, where there’s not much humour and it’s quite depressing. But in this book, it’s a little uplifting at the end, and it gives it a little bit of soul maybe.”
The book deals with the usual themes of violence and sexual undertones of noir fiction. However, Plugged has only one sex scene, and it’s a bit of a cop out.
“I’m not good at [writing sex scenes],” Colfer admitted. “I mean, initially I was not going to have anything. [Sex scenes are] something I’m not comfortable with. But in a way, I feel like doing it like James Bond, a big lead up and then ‘next morning.’”
There’s another factor to consider, too. “I cannot help thinking that my mother will be reading this, and my wife, so I get a little bit embarrassed about talking about it. Even the little [scene] that’s in it, it’s a little embarrassing,” Colfer said.
The passage in question includes an almost meta-literary acknowledgment of this embarrassment; it’s not the only self-reference in Plugged. It’s something that Colfer says he enjoys seeing as a reader.
“Sometimes if I’m reading that, I feel, well, ‘this is actually the writer telling me something about himself ‘through his character,’” Colfer explained. “I look to do that, and sometimes it is me and sometimes it isn’t me and as a reader you have to interpret that. ”
“I think it’s an interesting way to communicate with your audience. So there’s a lot in what Daniel says that actually someone said to me or I said to somebody. So it’s more autobiographical than you would think, actually.”
Another part of Plugged that reflects the author’s own experience is McEvoy’s inability to disconnect from his Irish roots.
“I think it’s more a reflection of the people that I meet [than of myself],” Colfer said. “A lot of expatriate Irish people come to my readings, and they talk about Ireland all the time. And sometimes they have an idealized vision of Ireland in their heads andnd sometimes they have never been to Ireland; they’re second generation, but they still consider Ireland as their homeland.”
One such more-Irish-than-Irish character is Mike Madden, a small-time mobster and one of McEvoy’s adversaries. Colfer uses Madden’s out-of-proportion identification with his Irish roots as something of a punch-line, contrasting it with the real Irishman McEvoy’s distaste for his own birthplace.
“It’s a little judgmental I suppose,” Colfer admited, “but I do poke fun at that idea … that [people believe they] can be Irish without ever having been to Ireland. But it’s really a game. I don’t think it’s a real thing for them — it’s a persona to adapt, so you can be Irish or you can be Italian and that’s who you are in society.”
Plugged has an interesting first-person narrative device, and it’s sometimes hard to tell whether McEvoy is talking to the reader or his missing friend Zeb.
“I think he’s telling you about the conversation he has with this guy [Zeb] in his head,” Colfer said. “I always imagine he’s sitting in a bar, with you, telling you the story. It’s meant to be a little disconcerting, and you almost wonder, ‘does he have a spiritual connection with this person?’
“I never cleared that up, so maybe he does, maybe it’s just his imagination. It’s left open. I think it’s a theme if I write more of these books — I really enjoyed the conversations in the head and I think I’d keep that going.”
But as Colfer continues to write fantasy, he is well aware of the dangers that come with the genre. “I think the best writing is probably very realistic and doesn’t involve fantasies at all,” Colfer said. “People like James Joyce and Samuel Beckett and Roddy Doyle: it’s very, very factual and realistic — very invested.”
Whether Colfer’s characters are the fairies and humans of Artemis Fowl or the gangsters and bouncers of Plugged, they’re all still wonderfully believable. No worries on that score, then.