If ever there was a man who could afford to play it safe, it’s Eoin Colfer. The bestselling Irish author’s “Artemis Fowl” series of books for young adults has brought him a level of international literary superstardom and financial freedom that most of us can only dream of.
But this month Colfer, 44, has put his hard earned reputation on the line to write “And Another Thing,” his completely unexpected contribution to the best-selling sci-fi satire “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” series.
Luckily it’s a creative gamble that has paid off for him. The book is already a critical success, inching its way toward the New York Times best-seller list.
Nowadays days Colfer lives at home in County Wexford, spending his free time in his writing shed -- a converted horse stable -- where he finds time to enjoy daily hour and half long lunches with his wife. In true Irish fashion he still socializes with the friends he grew up with in the local community, and he finds the leisurely pace of Irish life ideal for his work.
“For my wife the biggest and most welcome change in our fortunes is that she now has flowers about the house at all times,” Colfer tells IrishCentral’s sister publication the irish Voice.
“Add to that the fact that we can have hour and a half long lunches together in the middle of the day. That’s something so small but I’m really grateful for it, you know?”
“The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy”, as Colfer is only too aware, is one of the most revered satires of the past 30 years. Written by the irascible Douglas Adams, a Cambridge graduate who had previously written scripts for the BBC’s “Doctor Who,” the book was an instant international bestseller that spawned sequel after sequel (to the point where the writer himself got so weary of the saga that he finally blew up every one of his characters in the fifth installment).
But like many successful writers before him, once Adams found a winning formula and a hardcore fan base (his books have sold 15 million copies worldwide to date) he found it impossible to walk away from his most successful creation. Pretty soon he returned to the epic for another episode. Sadly, however, Adams died unexpectedly before it was completed.
“Being given the chance to write a book like this was incredible,” says Colfer. “I mean, I was a fan of the series and for years I’ve been finishing the story in my head. I never dreamed I’d have the opportunity to actually write it.”
Unknown to Colfer, Adams’ widow Jane Belson (and her daughter) were fans of his “Artemis Fowl” series, and it was she who actually suggested him to Adams’ agent for the job. For years the publishers of the “Hitchhiker’s” series had discussed commissioning a new episode to introduce a new generation to the classic series.
All they needed was the right author. After Belson suggested Colfer he very quickly became their go-to man.
“I was a fan of the books myself,” says Colfer. “I read them back when I was a teenager in Wexford. At that time where I lived you were either a mod or a rocker – this was just before the New Romantics, thank God.
“I was into Monty Python and Douglas Adams. Adams taught me that anything could be funny. His books made our brains explode.”
If Adams’ books are about anything, Colfer says, they’re about the terrifying randomness of existence, and its total indifference to all your best plans. Spectacularly awful things happen in the stories without so much as a pardon me -- the earth is blown up, for example, to make way for a hyperspace bypass, which turns out to have been unnecessary, but it leads our heroes on to their great adventures.
Adams is also particularly good at satirizing petty office bureaucracy. The universe may be a vast and majestic place, but if you don’t have the proper visa in your suitcase expect to hear about it from the Vogons (intergalactic bureaucrats who need everything signed in triplicate and who in their spare time recite poetry so awful that listeners have died from internal hemorrhaging upon hearing it).
“Anyone who has ever dealt with an Irish county councilor has been in the presence of a Vogon,” says Colfer. “They won’t find it hard to make the imaginative leap at all. I know I didn’t. There are bureaucrats in Irish life who could easily be replaced with Vogons.”
“The Hitchhiker’s” main hero is a bumptious, mildly grumpy English everyman called Arthur Dent, who travels throughout the entire universe with the bathrobe, towel and slippers he was wearing when the earth was destroyed.
“In England they really like Arthur, they have a soft spot for him, they see him as this comfortable familiar figure. But being Irish, I see another side to his character that isn’t quite so attractive, and for that reason he’s not in the book as much,” Colfer said.
Colfer was massively relived when the book’s early reviews were enthusiastically positive to outright glowing.
“I think the first four big reviews tend to set the tone for everything that follows, and so my publishers and I were greatly relieved when they turned out to be so good I could have written them myself,” says Colfer.
But not everyone was or is thoroughly pleased with Colfer’s results. One fan of the series took him aside to warmly congratulate him, with one memorable caveat.
“You have Arthur call someone ‘Matey,’” said the fan. “Arthur would never, ever call someone Matey. You got that wrong.” Colfer was bemused by the man’s certainty.
“He didn’t say you were off the mark a bit, or that was unlikely, or that was a stretch or that didn’t ring true. He just said you got that wrong. Flat wrong. I was amazed by his certainty, and it tells you something about the level of scrutiny this book will be under from diehard fans.”
Colfer doesn’t need to worry, though. The book is a triumph. His achievement is all the more when you realize that he has been faithful to Adams’ sense of humor, his rhythm, and the unique descriptive style that made the original books so memorable.
In the process Colfer has also found room for his own brand of wit and wordplay. He can echo Adams’ with ease, but he also introduces his own unique elements with gusto.
“I undertook ‘And Another Thing’ to break up the writing cycle between it and the next ‘Artemis Fowl’ book. I like to do that to keep things fresh,” he says.
In the meantime, between all the positive reviews and the next eagerly awaited installment of his own series, Colfer is turning his hand to something completely new -- he’s writing the songs to a new swing musical about a hapless big band partnership that never quite hit the big-time.
“I thought writing song lyrics would be the same as writing poetry, but it’s not at all. The theme of the show is about two aging singers who had one number one but could never repeat the success.
“It’s hilarious and heartbreaking and if it never gets out of Wexford I won’t mind. I’m having a ball writing it.”
“And Another Thing” is released by Hyperion in the U.S.