Eoin Colfer and Andrew Donkin Talk with Roger

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After interviewing Eoin Colfer about Illegal I’m happy to welcome him back, joined this time by co-author Andrew Donkin, to talk about their follow-up, Global, again illustrated by Giovanni Rigano.

Roger Sutton: What brought the two of you back for more?

Eoin Colfer: A couple of things. The first and main thing is that the three of us — Andrew, Giovanni, and I — have been friends now for nearly ten years. We have a good time working together because from the very beginning it is always about the project. Nobody comes to the job with a big ego, thinking that he has to put his stamp on it. We’ve all written enough books to know a good idea when we hear one. The second thing is that after the success of Illegal — which is bittersweet because it’s a pity we have to write about that kind of thing — we actually thought...

Eoin Colfer photo credit: Mary Browne.
Andrew Donkin photo credit: Ed Simmons.

RS: Things might be getting better?

EC: Yeah, we thought by the time it came out that the European governments would have a handle on these folks forced to cross the Mediterranean, that the issue would be solved. But that’s still not the case. We also thought when we came to America on tour that we would be talking about a European problem; of course, we found ourselves talking about the people coming up through Venezuela, through Mexico, into the U.S. The book resonated in America too. Some of the best events we did were in Texas and California, where a lot of people either had made the journey north or knew someone who did. There was overwhelming support for the kids, especially, who were forced to walk, in the case of Europe, across the Sahara Desert or get on a dinghy and try and cross the Mediterranean or come through the mountains from Russia. We got in touch with migrant charities and invited people who had actually been through this experience to speak about it at our events. They would take time at the beginning and tell the real story.

Our books reach kids who like graphic novels but who normally might not read books about forced migration. And because Global is about climate change (both books are, really), people who normally might not read graphic novels might read it. Illegal is still getting attention (Andrew told me it was just nominated for an award five years after it came out), and we thought, what else do we care about? Global is an adventure story; the idea is that kids will be drawn into the narrative. At the end we explain that all this stuff is really happening; we’ve just smooshed it all together in an adventure story.

RS: When I first looked at the cover of Global, I wondered if this was going to be some kind of apocalyptic tale. But as you point out in the afterword, this is very much happening right now.

EC: This is not futuristic. In some ways we wish it were, but everything we’ve written about, even the more unlikely things like polar bears and grizzly bears crossbreeding, are real. We’re going to do more books together, at least one more, probably about war and how the children from the poorest nations especially suffer. It’s quite harrowing, when we’re reading about global warming or forced migration or children who are caught in war zones. But it’s a lot more harrowing if you’re actually living it. We have the easy job.

RS: A few months ago, I interviewed two biologists who did a book about the longest-living whale species. We got to talking about global warming, and I expected oh, global warming is terrible. They did say that — and of course it is — but they also said it’s opening up opportunities for some species. They get more room to roam.

EC: Some species can go much further out of their habitats, or their habitats grow. But always there are casualties. I think about the island people in the Bay of Bengal, for example, their whole habitat is disappearing. It’s true, the earth is not going to die. A lot of other species will be totally fine. But it would be nice to slow things down.

RS: Things will always change but they don’t need to change as rapidly as they are.

EC: We’re like Thelma and Louise, just driving toward that cliff edge. “Let’s never stop.” It’s not a great idea.

RS: Have you met any children who could have been in the circumstances in these books?

EC: For Illegal, we did most of the research online, but Andrew went to charities and interviewed people in person. Something that comes up when we do readings is how we’re two white middle-aged guys writing about an experience we didn’t have. We talked about this a lot. An English travel journalist was once challenged about that very issue: who are you to write these stories? His response was that if you see something happening, you have to be the Samaritan on the road. You have to talk about it, especially if you have a platform — as long as you’re not trying to appropriate it for yourself.

The nicest interaction I had was in Dublin when we were giving a school talk. Afterward, a teacher came up with a little kid, maybe six or seven, who was clutching Illegal. I presumed he wanted to get it signed, but he wouldn’t give it to me. I was surprised. The teacher said the boy had arrived from Ghana about six months earlier, just like the boys in the book. He spoke no English, and he’d been trying to tell the other kids what happened, but he couldn’t communicate with them. When they got Illegal in their school, he started to hold open the book, point to something, and then point to himself. This book helped him tell his story. As you can see, I’m sitting in my lovely office and just writing about this stuff. But this child had come across the desert, up through North Africa, across the Mediterranean, and survived. It’s incredible to think of. That’s another thing that made me want to keep going with this series.

RS: I like that in Global, we also get the point of view of a boy who helps the refugees, even though he’s not much better off than they are. The stereotype is of poor destitute refugees coming to these rich Western countries, and it’s mostly not like that.

EC: No, Mexico has more people from Venezuela coming into Mexico than ever get anywhere near the United States. It’s the same in Ukraine at the moment. Countries around Ukraine are taking in the vast majority of the refugees. In Global, people living on this little foreshore on the Bay of Bengal have nothing, and then Eritrean refugees — who are even closer to abject poverty — start arriving. It was a point of view we were eager to try and put across. And after the boy and his grandfather are themselves helped by the refugees, the story comes full circle. I hope it doesn’t seem too pat.

RS: But don’t we want that in our stories? Shape? The world doesn’t really have a form. It’s just this blob we move through every day. The job of storytelling is to structure that experience.

EC: It is. I suppose I’m suspicious of that when we’re trying to tell a reality-based story. But at the same time, we do want to put some order in it for young people. I know we’re supposed to want to live in interesting times, but it seems a little too interesting. In the States too. There’s so much politically going on in the States. I’d like it to be a little less interesting.

[Enter Andrew Donkin on the Zoom screen]

Andrew Donkin: I’m so sorry! My daughter Lexie had her first English exam today — first exam in her educational life — and she came home talking about it. I lost track of time.

RS: Andrew, it’s very nice to meet you. Eoin and I talked about your last book together five years ago. How did you two start working together?

AD: The first things I wrote were comics. When my friend Graham and I wanted to set up as writers, we looked at what it was likely that we could do. We’d grown up reading 2000 AD [British comic-book series], Marvel Comics, and DC Comics. The idea of being able to sell a twenty-two-page script — that seemed like something a twenty-two-year-old might be able to do. So we went into comics and wrote a lot of them over here in the UK. Our finest hour was probably when we rewrote Legends of the Dark Knight for DC Comics, which was run by John Higgins, the Watchmen colorist. And then there was a twist of fate: Graham passed away after a road accident, and I didn’t write anything for a bit. A children’s editor I’d been in touch with to get some work based on our comics background rang me and asked if I’d like to write a children’s book. I said, “Yeah, I’d love to.” It was writing, but different enough from what Graham and I did together, because it was writing books, a lot more prose based. I wrote children’s books for a good eight or ten years and was published by HarperCollins, Scholastic, Bloomsbury, etc. I met Eoin through our agent. At book events and parties everybody would be talking very highbrow literary this and literary that and children’s literature, and Eoin and I would go in a corner and talk about Batman and other comics we loved reading as kids. He said to me, “You love comics as much as I do. If I ever get a chance to do an Artemis Fowl graphic novel, please can we do it together?” That happened and now a lot of my time is spent on graphic novels, which I love.

RS: I think that’s one of the most interesting things I’ve seen in my forty years in the field. Children’s books, in America anyway, started because they were trying to wean kids off of comic books, those evil, evil things. For a long time, you couldn’t even get comic books in the library. But now it’s completely accepted. Every publisher is publishing graphic novels for young people.

AD: Do you know what I think changed that perception and made those accessible?

EC: No, Andrew, what do you think?

AD: Why, thank you, Eoin — that's what I like to hear!

RS: It started with the sixties, is what I think.

AD: I think the recent resurgence is due to social media, because most social media is basically comics. If you’re a teenager, and you have Instagram and you go out for the evening, you post a picture getting into your friend’s car, a picture outside the cinema, a picture coming out, one going yeah, a picture of you in the coffee bar afterwards, and a picture of you going home. So you’re basically making a six-panel comic strip of your evening, because social media is all about visual information. I think that has propelled comics to a new level of accessibility, because people are more used to it, especially my kids’ generation who has grown up with social media, unlike probably the three of us. Telling stories visually is not a strange thing to them. It’s what they do every single day on Instagram, on Twitter, on Snapchat, on Bee Dee Bop, on Doo Dot Dah Doo Dot, which is the new app I’m putting out next week.

EC: That’s very believable, very credible.

AD: I made that up, but keep it in, absolutely.

RS: What will you guys do next?

EC: We’re going to continue the series. We just signed our next book; we’re going to do another one.

AD: The publishers are really happy with Global. We have an idea for a third, but it’s still far away from coming out. And Eoin and I are always kicking around ideas for other graphic novels in the future, so there’ll be more stuff.

EC: Absolutely. We work very well. And there’s Chris Dickey, who does the lettering. He’s a very important part of the team too.

AD: We did the Artemis Fowl graphic novel adaptation starting in maybe 2004, 2005.

EC: That’s twenty years ago next year.

AD: Among the three of us — Eoin, Giovanni, and I — we’ve done about 1,300 pages together. We have a really nice working relationship. Everyone goes off and does their own projects. And then we come back together. It’s a very happy shift. Enjoy the collaboration.

RS: Do you feel, in writing these last two stories for a young audience, that you have a particular responsibility toward that audience, to give them hope?

AD: Both stories have hope, I think. When we were doing Illegal, in some places it’s quite a bleak story. We really wanted to get the balance right if we could, between showing what the real world is for migrants and refugees, and not doing a too-sugar-coated version of it, but equally, not being too grim, and traumatizing or retraumatizing anybody. Ebo, the main character in Illegal, does lose something toward the end that he cares about very much, but there’s an upbeat ending where he’s reunited with someone he cares about very much. It was very important to us that we get that balance of the two, of it being quite realistic but also quite hopeful.

EC: Sometimes we would disagree about that, and that’s one of the good things about the partnership. We always go for the best story. It doesn’t matter whose idea it was. In the end of Illegal, I was going for the bleakest ending. Horrible. Andrew said, “No, you need to add a bit of hope in there.” We lightened it up just enough that people would actually not feel too heartbroken at the end.

RS: Do you have a particular dynamic when it comes to decisions like that?

AD: All of us want to make the story and the book as good as it can be. I never understand when I hear about authors who have big egos, and their editors suggest an idea and they don’t want to take it, because it’s never anybody else’s name on the spine, apart from mine, Eoin’s, and Giovanni’s. So if there’s a good idea in the book, it doesn’t matter whether it came from the editor or my daughter or Eoin or me. We have a rule as well, where if one of us does idea A and it doesn’t quite work for the other one, the other one suggests idea B. Instead of arguing between ideas A and B, we’ll just chuck both out and sit together and come up with idea C. The ego’s out of it. You can always think of a better idea, and you’re just doing what’s best for the story. That’s always the way I’ve looked at it.

RS: Do you remember who did what, five years on?

EC: Some of it.

AD: Bits and bobs.

RS: Do you have any resentments that you’re still holding onto?

EC: I don’t want to say I did all the good bits, but —

AD: Exactly. I was going to say, when anyone brings up something they like, I remember writing that bit, whether I did or not. And whenever they bring up something they didn’t like, whether I wrote it or not, I remember advising Eoin that we shouldn’t put that in. That’s the way it works in my mind. And I’m very at peace with that.


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Roger Sutton
Roger Sutton

Editor Emeritus Roger Sutton was editor in chief of The Horn Book, Inc., from 1996-2021. 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 MA in library science from the University of Chicago in 1982 and a BA from Pitzer College in 1978.

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