Eoin Colfer Talks with Roger

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Photo credit: Mary Browne.

While we think of Eoin Colfer mainly as the author of highly improbable but highly entertaining adventure novels, and of Colfer and Andrew Donkin as the co-authors of the graphic-novel spinoffs of the Artemis Fowl books, in Illegal, the two stay very much in the real world — even if it is a world from which too many look away.

Roger Sutton: I see that your co-author is Andrew Donkin, who worked with you on the Artemis Fowl graphic novels. What was the process here — who did what?

Eoin Colfer: When Andy and I finished with the Artemis books, we wanted to keep working together, because we'd had a good time, basically. We pooled our ideas to see what we would work on. I had some lame thoughts about superheroes, and Andy said, "We have a hundred thousand readers around the world; could we do something I really care about, which is the problem of migration from Africa?" So of course that made me feel ashamed of my idea!

Andy gave me clippings he'd been collecting about these boats going missing and sinking and turning up in Italy. When I started to look into it maybe five years ago, I was quite horrified that it was so underreported. Since then, it has become front-page news around the world. Andrew's point was that our readers will not necessarily be reading the Observer or the Times or watching CNN, and this was a way for us to reach them.

So we set about constructing a story. There's so much sadness in even one of those news photographs that it's very hard for the mind to process it — you've got three hundred people crammed into a boat that then sinks within sight of the Italian shoreline, and it's just so sad that the mind kind of flies away from it. What we wanted to do was take two of those people and make them very lovable, so that you would really like these kids when you're reading about them, and you would really be rooting for them to survive. We both are aware, having written for child readers for a long time, that no matter the topic, they won't read to the end if the story is not interesting and entertaining. We wanted to address this real-life topic and also have an exciting adventure story.

RS: That's always the trick, isn't it? When you're dealing with a real-life tragedy, but you want to tell a good story, how do you not let one thing overwhelm the other?

EC: We had more or less that exact discussion, because we also didn't want to be preachy. What we decided to do was to make sure everything in the story had really happened to somebody, either someone we interviewed, or something I saw when I lived in Africa. It was horrible, because we'd be working on the story, and we'd see another article from the newspaper about something even worse than what we had planned. It was a strange way to write a book. You hear about books that are ripped from the headlines, and our book was kind of like that.

RS: How do you control the horror within the framework of a graphic novel for ten-year-olds?

EC: We did shy away from some horror, but other times we went too far and our publisher would pull us back. A few times that happened, and we would try and argue our point and they would argue theirs. Sometimes we kept what we wanted, but twice in particular I remember they said no, if you put this in, we just can't publish it for that age group. For example, we had one scene in the desert where the boys came across a Jeep full of skeletons. They were like, You can have the Jeep. You can hint at the skeletons. But you can't have a full-frontal view of six skeletons in the Jeep. We had to give that one up. My argument was always that kids are resilient. They can handle it. Kids make this journey on their own, so they can certainly read about it. In retrospect, though, I think it was probably right to take it out. And luckily we had a fantastic editor who really kept us on track for our audience.

RS: Whether a person is writing straight narrative fiction or a graphic novel, it seems to me you're always trying to decide: what do I need to convey, and what can I trust the reader to understand?

EC: Right. But if this were an Artemis Fowl novel, there would have been zero problems with six skeletons in a Jeep, because nobody would believe it. One of the frustrations — a very small frustration — of Artemis Fowl was that I would sneak in little environmental messages, but no one ever believed they were true. After the breakup of the Soviet Union, nuclear submarines were left to rot on the shores of the Bay of Kola. Families used to live off them in horrible, dangerous conditions. I put that in a story, and people thought, Wow, that's like something out of a Bond book. That would never happen. But it totally was happening.

RS: You put it in Artemis Fowl, and people don't realize it's true.

EC: Right. Illegal is a new direction for Andrew and me. We can keep our fantasy writing going, but our side project, our graphic novels, has kind of taken over and become our main project. We're going to focus on certain things we don't think are going very well in the world, whether it's the environment or socially.

RS: In writing this graphic novel, did you ever get frustrated that you weren't the master of the whole ship, so to speak?

EC: No. I was worried that would happen, because we hadn't written an original graphic novel before — they had always been adapted from my own books, so I was my own source. With this book, Andrew was an equal partner. We've been friends for twenty years, and in a way, this project has brought us closer. I would make the effort to go to London, and he would make the effort to come to Dublin. It would always end with dinner and a few glasses of wine. In spite of the subject matter, it was a very pleasant time for me, and I'm looking forward to the next.

RS: What did you have to learn differently about storytelling in writing a graphic novel as opposed to a text-only story?

EC: In fairness to Andrew, he carries most of that burden, because he's an expert in comics. I would write my sections and he would translate them into comic-book speak. All the dialogue would stay the same, but I tend to get a bit flowery with my descriptions, whereas Andrew knows that you have to lay it all out in bullet points for the artist. He's also very good at indicating figures and objects in the script so that the eye will naturally follow the art in the direction that it's supposed to. Our illustrator, Giovanni Rigano, will even accept horrible little sketches from us. But at this point, our collaboration process is kind of all shorthand. Andy and I work so well together — we've done more than a thousand pages of graphic novels and comics together and we've never had a fight. I presume there's going to be one at some point, but so far so good.

RS: The Artemis Fowl graphic novel [2007, Hyperion] was one of the first graphic novels expressly published for young people, and now it seems like graphic novels are everywhere.

EC: We never really wanted the adaptations to be companion pieces. We wanted them to be a standalone series, so you could still read them if you'd never read the novels, or after reading the graphic novels you could then move over to the novels. Giovanni is such a perfectionist, it takes quite a while for him to complete the art. We were anxious when we started about whether the publisher would give us what we wanted in terms of time and space and production values, even to the kind of paper they're printed on. Graphic-novel adaptations are very popular now, and we were one of the first to do it, so we're very proud of that.

RS: You think you're not going to see anything new at our age, and then there's this whole shift in literature that we have to keep up with.

EC: Exactly. When ours was called a gimmick, I was already a big graphic-novel fan. I had been saying for years, "Let's do a graphic novel. How expensive would it be to do a graphic novel?" Eventually they sent me over to Milan to meet Giovanni, who was working in the Disney studio there. And then I brought in Andrew, because I knew he knew how to structure a graphic novel. It was a very organic process, me saying to three friends, "Would you do a graphic novel?" It was a bit like Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland saying, "Let's put on a show!" To me, art is like magic. I don't understand how it's done. Whenever the pages come in, I'm just like a little child poring over them and really enjoying it. Even though Illegal is a brutal subject, the artwork is absolutely beautiful.

RS: What kind of effect do you think a book like Illegal has on a reader? I know that's a really big question, but it's a book designed to help change the world, I think.

EC: There are different kinds of readers for this book. There are those who have seen the images in the news, but have a negative understanding of them. We've shown groups of children pictures of the ships, for example, and said, "What do you think is happening here?" A lot of them would say stuff like, "Well, these are people who are sneaking into our country to get money from the state." While that may be true of some people, it is not true about the ten-year-old boys and girls who are there without their parents and just want to survive. That's why the book's title — Illegal — is kind of ironic. These children are referred to disparagingly as "illegals," but they can't understand how they can be illegal just for being alive. "I'm a human being. And I'm illegal. How does that happen?" So we're hoping to inform people who don't realize what's happening. It's not a political book, really, in that we're not asking you to judge your country's immigration laws. We're just asking you to think: would you want these kids to survive or not? And hopefully your answer will be yes.

Secondly, if you have refugee kids in your classroom or neighborhood, which many of us do now in Ireland, and you might have some understanding of what they have been through, you may still complain of not having had any milk for your cornflakes this morning, but this kid has walked across the Sahara.

Thirdly — and this is one I didn't anticipate — Illegal has become kind of a touchstone for the kids who have made the journey, who may not have the vocabulary to describe what they've been through. Andrew and I have met a lot of these children during our talks across the UK and Ireland — some of them will come up, clutching this book, and they point to a certain section and say, "This happened to me." It's very emotional for them, because up till then, they might not have had the words to tell the guy sitting beside them what had happened, but now they can show them a page in the book. One kid was so emotional he wouldn't let go of the book for us to sign it. I don't think he really understood that we wrote it. He was just saying this happened, and then he wrapped his arms around the book and wouldn't let us touch it. I know people are always on Twitter saying "hashtag humble" but this actually is very humbling. Andrew and I put together a story, but these kids have actually lived that journey.

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Roger Sutton
Roger Sutton
Roger Sutton has been the editor in chief of The Horn Book, Inc, since 1996. He was previously editor of The Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books and a children's and young adult librarian. He received his M.A. in library science from the University of Chicago in 1982 and a B.A. from Pitzer College in 1978. Follow him on Twitter: @RogerReads.

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