Talking to Eoin Colfer

With the publication of the kid-lit hit "Artemis Fowl" in 2001, Irishman Eoin Colfer morphed from school teacher to full-time author. The five books in the Artemis Fowl series have sold 8 million copies in the United States alone, and book six comes out in July. Meanwhile, this month Hyperion Books for Children (owned by Disney) comes out with Colfer's latest offering, "Airman,"  about a boy who's wrongly imprisoned--and builds a flying machine to escape. Colfer talks with NEWSWEEK's Karen Springen about "Artemis Fowl" and "Airman," Colfer's personal favorite book so far. Excerpts:

NEWSWEEK: OK, how do you pronounce your name?
Eoin Colfer:
It's just Owen. It's a silent E at the beginning, the old Irish spelling.

Is this your own favorite book yet?
I think it is. I think I stepped it up a notch. I just worked a lot harder on it, and I tried to rein in my natural scatological humor.

"Airman" combines your love of adventure stories like "Treasure Island" and "Robin Hood" with your love of old sci-fi (Jules Vern and H. G. Wells) with your love of superheroes who used their brainpower. And you've said we should imagine "Zorro" crossed with the "Three Musketeers," thrown in with "The Invisible Man," to come up with the idea for the kind of story you were trying to create. How long have you been thinking about creating this kind of book?
Since I was about 12, I've wanted to write something like this. To find that simple idea takes a long time. I always knew I wanted to set a book on the Saltee Islands [in Ireland] because they're very close to where I live, and they really look like something out of a 1940s, 1950s swashbuckling movie. If someone was on that island and they needed to get off, how could they get off? It has to be a way that hasn't been done before in "The Count of Monte Cristo" and "Escape from Alcatraz." The only thing I could think of was they could fly off.

Have you been to those islands?
Oh, yes. It's a very famous bird sanctuary. My daughter told me about this guy who in 1956 bought the islands and declared himself the prince. But in my imagination, there were pirates trying to take over. That's the nice thing about being a writer. Other people can't sit around thinking what would happen if my shoe turned into an elephant.

The sixth "Artemis Fowl" title comes out this July. You've said you may take off a few years. Is that still true?
At the moment, I'm undecided. Definitely I'm going to take a few years away from "Artemis." I'm not going to stop writing. I'm just going to give him a break. I think I will shelve him for a few years and enjoy some of the other ideas I've been dying to get to.

I've always wanted to write an alien book, so I think I'll write one of those. And I'd like to do some serious kind of social books—novels. I have an idea for a kid who is on his own and ends up on the street. Of all the tragedies of the world, the saddest thing for me is when the kid is on the street, be he in South Africa or Ireland or wherever. It's very difficult to be a kid these days in urban areas. I'm working on a few screenplays with my brother, Eamonn. And I'm working on the lyrics to a musicale with two friends from home.

How do you come up with names like Artemis Fowl and Conor Broekhart?
I really am a sucker for a good name. It doesn't have to be a weird name. It can be something like Tom Sawyer--or Captain Hook. I know where the character [in "Airman"] would come from. His family would have been either Flemish or Dutch. I looked through Web sites of old names from the Flemish Dutch. And my own family is Flemish Dutch. I found the name Broekhart, and I thought oh, my God. It's a hero, but also it hints at broken heart. I have a cousin whose name is Conor. I think he's 14, 15, so I used that name for him. Artemis was originally Archimedes, because I wanted a classic Greek name that would have an air of intelligence and genius about it. But I thought people would think it's a book about Archimedes. Artemis was the goddess of hunting. But the name was sometimes, very seldom, given to boys as kind of an honorific if their fathers were great hunters. Fowl was because there's an Irish name Fowler, and fowl sounds like foul. Because he's nasty, or he was in the beginning. It's the nasty hunter basically.

You and your wife are former teachers. You taught fifth and sixth grade for 15 years! How did teaching help you learn to write a good story that kids like?
I used storytelling as a teaching method a lot. If I taught a history lesson through storytelling, there was much more chance that the kids would hang onto a few of the facts. If you're giving a lesson, you could liven it up. You could have a battle. You could dramatize it. I learned quickly what kids like and didn't like. They didn't like it if you were trying to ram home the moral message. You just kind of hint at it.

What are your own favorite books to read--then and now?
One of my childhood favorites was "The Princess Bride." Read that to see how I was influenced by his pacing and the swashbuckling tone he set there while being quite humorous. That's one of the finest examples of a high adventure book. I loved "Holes" by Louis Sachar. [Jerry Spinelli's] "Milkweed" was very good--very touching and dealing with real issues. I love Mo Willems. I like the Peter Pan books by Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson.

Did you try to make your own flying machines as a kid?
All the time. Build a better glider was one of our standard pastimes. We lived beside a Norman castle, which now is blocked up, but in those days those kinds of restrictions didn't exist. We were daily up there firing off gliders. We would fire these poor dolls off the top of the castle, so they didn't have a long life expectancy.

"Artemis Fowl" and "Airman" both star characters who use their brains. Are you trying to communicate that message to kids?
It's a natural message for me because that's the kind of person I am. It's not all about how many grenades and guns you have. Often in big blockbuster movies, the message is that if you've got a gun, then you're going to win. I would much prefer to see smart people. [In] all my books, the hero's always someone who tries to stop and think about what's happening and follows up their theories with determination.

What else should I have asked you?
Was I ever in a pop band?! No! But last year I was a backup singer with Frank McCourt, and Stephen King was playing guitar. I agreed to it in a weak moment.

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