Eoin Colfer, author of the Artemis Fowl (25 million copies and counting) series for young adults, will be at the Free Library of Philadelphia on Monday, Feb. 3, to talk about his new novel, Highfire.
Colfer, author of more than 30 books, including his own contribution to the late Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy series, will be in conversation with novelist Jon McGoran at the 7:30 p.m. event held at the Parkway Central Library. Admission is free.
We spoke to Colfer about Highfire and his thoughts on the long-awaited May 29 release of the Disney adaptation of Artemis Fowl, based on the first two books about Fowl, a young mastermind who navigates a treacherous world of goblins, elves, and other beasties.
What’s it like, after 20 years and many false starts, to see Artemis Fowl finally brought to the big screen?
The process recently has been terrific, mainly because I’m not really involved. So it’s been very stress-free. I could have tried to be more involved, but I know the screenwriter (cowriter Conor McPherson) and we had coffee two or three times, and I got the sense that the movie was really in good hands. I haven’t seen the whole thing, but I’ve seen a good bit of it, and it looks fantastic. And for me the real pleasure, already, is seeing how the movie has created a renewed interest in the books. There is a new generation of kids getting to know them.
Your books, especially Highfire, are peppered with references to movies and pop culture, evidence that you’re a movie nut. What is your favorite film adaptation of a novel?
I think my favorite would be The Princess Bride. That’s an excellent fantasy book, and [Rob Reiner] made a delightful movie, very much in the spirit of the book. Another would be Marathon Man, the movie that put the fear of going to the dentist in the minds of so many people. They were both written by William Goldman, who is also a screenwriter, so that may have explain why they work so well on screen. Planet of the Apes was a great book, and even though the original movie is substantially different, it captured the essence of the story, and the same message. I thought the Coen Brothers’ adaptation of True Grit was really good.
Highfire is the story of a Louisiana boy named Squib who runs afoul of a corrupt and vicious cop, but acquires a lifesaving ally in a swamp-dwelling dragon named Vern, who smokes and drinks. The way Vern is roused from his cynicism and isolation to help a vulnerable kid reminded me of Chandler’s Philip Marlowe, and the novel’s funny, irreverent voice reminded me of Elmore Leonard.
When I talk about the book, I’ve used the term “dragon noir.” I’ve taken what can be seen as a classic noir story element — the grumpy PI — and made him a dragon. I find that it’s really interesting to go into a genre and subvert it a little bit. I’ve read the classic noir books, and I know I’m not going to do any better, so I figure I might as well do something different. Why not put a dragon in there?
Squib is a wild and independent kid who plies the bayou waters as a delivery boy, making money under the table. He’s a rascal, he doesn’t like school, his father was abusive, he’s on the wrong side of the law, his best friend is a social outcast. It’s hard not to look at Squib and think of Huckleberry Finn.
Huck for me was the first time that I really escaped into a book, and the reason for that was very simply Huck himself. Tom Sawyer didn’t have the same effect on me. It was the first-person voice of Huck that instantly drew me in. It’s so familiar and easygoing. And accessible. Especially if you’re a young boy who’s not perfect, who’s not an athlete, not really a standout at anything. My takeaway was if you were a scrawny little guy like me, with no discernible talent, if I were on that raft with Huck and Jim, I would have been welcome.
Huck was somebody who would have been seen at the time by society as very imperfect. He didn’t go to church if he could help it, he didn’t like school, he smoked cigars, and hung around with a slave. At the time, [the book] was seen as revolutionary.
You were able to capture the unique vernacular of bayou culture without spending much time there.
It was tough. Because I’m very conscious that if you are going to write about a specific place, it has to feel authentic. And if you haven’t visited for any length of time, you’ve got to put a lot of research into it. I spend a lot of time on the internet looking at things, reading books about it, just to get the flavor. There’s a lot of material online, but I was also lucky that (publisher) HarperCollins has a copy editor who’s from there, and she would keep a sharp eye on the dialogue.
You’ve named your Hellfire villain Hooke, and you’ve made him twice as mean as Captain Hook, one of J.M. Barrie’s original YA bad guys.
A good villain like that is always fun. Hooke knows he’s the bad guy, and he really leans into that identity. I think he knows he’s going to come to the end of his rope at some point, but until that time, he’s very lethal, and he’s fully committed. I think that’s important. The point [in The Empire Strikes Back] where Darth Vader loses me is when he turns into a nice guy. I’m just not interested in that third movie. He takes off his helmet and you think, The Force has definitely left that guy. I prefer [the Peter Pan villain] Hook. He was committed right until he jumped into the crocodile’s mouth.