Eoin Colfer: High Flier
Eoin Colfer has earned a justly deserved reputation for working an audience like a stand-up comedian. His hilariously gruesome description of a childhood attempt to fly using a bicycle and ramp had adults and children alike rolling in the aisles during a performance at the Imagine Children’s Literature Festival.
He told the anecdote during a talk about his new book, Airman, which, as the title suggests, is a paean to flying. Born in a hot air balloon and brought up in the royal court of the Saltee Islands, young Conor Broekhart dreams of flying. He lives a charmed life: he has loving parents, his tutor is a genius in swordplay and science and he wins the love of his childhood friend, who happens to be the daughter of good King Nick.
But when Conor witnesses the murder of the monarch, the killer imprisons him in a brutal island jail and tells his parents that he died trying to save the king. In order to right the injustice Conor must escape. But the only way off the rocky outcrop is to fly and the airplane hasn’t been invented yet.
If the story sounds a bit like The Count of Monte Cristo, that was the intention. 'As soon as I realised I wanted to do a prison drama, that is the prison drama. So if you’re doing a love story it’s Romeo and Juliet and if you’re doing prison it’s The Count of Monte Cristo. And the thing is, how do you get him out of prison in a way that hasn’t been done before? That’s the thing I wanted to do. The Count of Monte Cristo, of course, is a genius. He hides with the dead bodies and is thrown out. So I had to do something different. But that was a big influence on me.
I loved the book and I loved the recent movie, which was actually shot near my home town in Ireland. So that gave it a special resonance for me. And I’m delighted that they compare Airman to The Count of Monte Cristo in a nice way and don’t say this is just a copy of it. I was very careful not to do that, because that would have been easy and obvious.
Although Colfer pays homage to the swashbuckler genre, he weaves elements of science fiction and comic books into his historical fiction. 'I tend to try to genre-bend and meld and mould,' he explains.
"With this one I tried to do historical fiction from the point of view of a sci-fi writer."
'I tried to do that with Artemis Fowl. I tried to take comedy and science fiction and traditional fantasy and put them together, and with this one I tried to do historical fiction from the point of view of a sci-fi writer. I was influenced by people like Jules Verne and HG Wells, Rider Haggard. It’s like an adventure, but I didn’t want it to sound like it was written in that time, so it’s not trying to be postmodern. I wanted it to be a story of that day.'
Although it certainly is that, it is also a story of today, with plenty of moral ambiguity. In prison Conor befriends Otto Malarkey, a thug who earns his living by beating or killing people, but whose quest for glossy hair reveals his softer side; conversely, the heroic Conor adopts a harsh persona in prison and for a time becomes a mercenary.
I like getting under the surface of characters. Malarkey is a violent man, he’s had a violent past, he’s violent to survive, but more than that, he’s violent for profit. But then in the next chapter they’re discussing his hair and how to get the best shine and you see a whole different side of him.
'The character Conor has a way of getting to people and changing them. He’s like Pollyanna or something. He can reach people. And Conor himself tries to go that way, he tries to be tough and violent but it doesn’t work for him. His good self will out. I like the ambiguity of it because nobody is perfect and it’s never too late to do the right thing. I know that’s a cliché but I think it’s true.'
'When I was reading Huckleberry Finn, I remember for the first time thinking, "This could be me," because he was so imperfect. 'Whereas before that, reading other books, the hero would be totally heroic and have one little tiny thing wrong that was supposed to make you think, "Oh, he’s got a crooked tooth, he could be me," or he has a grey streak in his dark hair – "Oh, that could be me." Whereas with Huck Finn I thought, ‘That really could be me.’
I’ve always liked the imperfections and the ambiguities, but when it comes down to something really important he will do the right thing.
Colfer feels that the courageous, intelligent, but not too saintly Conor makes a good model for readers, particularly for boys.
'Kids are smart, generally, and it should be shown in books that it’s good to be smart. Being smart can be as good as being strong or tough or sporty or whatever. When I was young I was a small smart kid and I wasn’t sporty. I’d have loved to have been sporty, but I wasn’t. I was the funny guy. But I knew I was smart. In school, being smart isn’t really valued by the other kids so much. It’s valued by the teachers and parents, but it’s not really a cool thing to be, to be too smart, and it’s because although some of the cool kids are bright, they play it down. So I like to write about kids who are smart and are successful because of their smarts.'
Because of its relatively sophisticated structure and vocabulary, Airman is aimed at an older readership than Artemis Fowl. In order to ensure that the flavour of the novel was in keeping with the period Colfer used slightly old-fashioned language.
'I had to really work on that. I was a big fan of books of that period and the language is always a little formal, and that’s not natural for me. You have to try and maintain it for four or five hundred pages. The one-liners in it are always in keeping with the flow. I had to really restrain myself – no scatological humour, which is kind of a staple of mine.'
The author found that the most challenging aspect of writing the book was maintaining the voice. “For me the tone of a book is always very important. It often takes me 100 pages to settle on the tone, at which point I have to go back and rewrite the first 90 pages because now I have the tone.
'With this book I found the tone pretty quickly, but then I had to maintain it. It’s quite a melodramatic tone. It’s all very grand statements. So to keep in that and almost to subjugate my own voice, I found that difficult, but also kind of liberating in a way. It was refreshing and very very enjoyable.'
The names of the heroes and villains contribute to the melodrama, but, incredibly, Broekhart and Bonvilain are not Colfer’s inventions.
'With books like this you have a great licence to give them good names, and names that mean something. When I’m writing modern books, if they’re factual you can’t really do that because you have a subject that you need to be true to and respectful of and you can’t really go around calling people Broekhart and Bonvilain and get away with it. But with books like this it’s almost de rigeur to have these wonderful names.'
'The names would have a history, and I enjoyed looking them up. So for example, the Broekharts: my own family would have been Flemish and come over with the Normans in the 1100s or 1200s, to Wexford.
'And so I presume that Conor’s family took the same journey. So they’re Flemish and came over with the Normans, with King Henry, and settled off Wexford. So I looked at the Flemish names of that period and found Broekhart and thought “Oh my God.” I almost had a seizure when I saw it.
Then I found Bonvilain and I thought, ‘This is just perfect.’ I really like a good name and I think it really helps to make a story memorable.
The names weren’t the only things he researched, of course. In order to make the story plausible, he had to do some research into the history of flight.
'People generally know a lot about the Wright brothers but they don’t know the 200 years beforehand, where scientists from all over Europe and the States were throwing themselves from the top of tall buildings covered with bird feathers. And that’s what I had to go into because I wanted it to be believable that someone could invent a plane ten years before the Wright brothers.
' And it’s very believable because it could have happened if two people had met, but unfortunately there was no internet then and these scientists jealously guarded their secrets. So it could have happened, but you also have to make it read like it could have happened.'
'You can get hooked on research and I got really hooked in, so I wouldn’t write anything without researching it. If a guy was smoking a cigar I would go off and research plantations in Cuba for a couple of hours.
'It would give me great satisfaction to write “he had a cigar with a red and gold band” and I wouldn’t have to say any more, but I knew that meant it came from this particular plantation and he probably had to get it smuggled in, and there was a whole back story to the cigar, which really appealed to me, but which of course never got into the book.”
The Saltee Islands, for which Colfer invented an alternative history, are a genuine place off the coast of Ireland. He can see them from his parents’ house and visited them when he was a young teenager.
He has maps pinned to the walls of his study, and took care to make the topographical descriptions true to life. His father, an academic, was able to help him navigate some difficulties posed by the geology of the prison island.
I went to him and said, “OK, Dad, I’ve got this guy and he’s on this island and blah de blah” and he said, “Well, geologically it’s not possible that there would be diamonds there.” And I said, “How could it happen?
And he said, “The only way would be if it was a glacial deposit. That’s the only way that could work” So he feels, and I feel, that he’s part of the book in a very real way, and he instigated the whole thing by bringing me out there in the first place.'
'When I told him I was going to write this book on the Saltee Islands he went upstairs and got this book about them. And inside the book, every kid who had been on that trip to the Saltee Islands had signed it and dated it. So it was my own signature from the day he brought me out around 30 years ago, which was the day the story started going around in my head. So it was like synchronicity, really.'
Eoin Colfer (pronounced Owen) was born in Wexford on the South-East coast of Ireland in 1965, where he and his four brothers were brought up by his father (an elementary school teacher, historian and artist of note) and mother (a drama teacher). He first developed an interest in writing in primary (elementary) school with gripping Viking stories inspired by history he was learning in school at the time!
After leaving school he got his degree from Dublin university and qualified as a primary school teacher, returning to work in Wexford. He married in 1991 and he and his wife spent about four years between 1992 and 1996 working in Saudi Arabia, Tunisia and Italy. His first book, Benny and Omar, was published in 1998, based on his experiences in Tunisia; it has since been translated into many languages. Then in 2001 the first Artemis Fowl book was published and he was able to resign from teaching and concentrate fully on writing.