Eoin Colfer’s latest novel, Airman (Hyperion), takes place a century ago on a pair of tiny islands just off the Irish coast. Bookshelf caught up with him to discuss his foray into historical fantasy.
Airman is another departure for you—a blend of historical and science fiction.
I was very determined to write something different and to sustain that style for the length of the book. I have a tendency to lapse into my own patois after a while and I wanted this story to have a more formal voice, as if it had been written in 1890. I wanted it to sound like a book you’d found in your grandfather’s trunk.
And yet, the comic book influences are definitely noticeable.
I’ve always been a huge comic book fan, because like those old novels, they are high adventure. I also love books with a very simple premise. Like The Invisible Man, where basically, a man turns himself invisible. It’s just a one line deal. So I wanted the central theme to be almost comic book in its simplicity. Boy invents plane 10 years before Wright Brothers—Airman. It’s all there in the title. A lot of this stems from my first ambition which was to write comic books but I couldn’t do it on the art side. I learned pacing from comic books, which I’ve been reading since I was eight years old. I still collect them.
Tell us about the real Saltee Islands—can you see them from Wexford?
You can’t see them from my house but you can see them from my parents’ house. And the story actually has its start in a boat trip my family took to the Saltee Islands many, many years ago. They are a bird sanctuary and they look straight out of a movie. High craggy cliffs. You can easily imagine pirate adventures on the Saltees.
Then, at some later point, I learned there was an actual prince of the Saltees. It’s quite mundane. He bought the islands from the government and declared himself a prince but, of course, I immediately thought, ‘What if there was an actual monarchy? Wouldn’t that be fantastic?’ So the original idea stems from that little visit.
When I started writing, I told my father—he’s an historian—I want to do something on the Saltees. What do you know about them? And he said, ‘You’re not going to believe this,’ and he went and got a little book that he had bought 30 years earlier on the day we visited. I had signed it. So that’s what I used to describe the geographical sights around the island.
It’s close enough to visit though, right?
Sure. It’s probably a 20 to 30 minute boat ride, depending on the conditions and the sobriety of the captain.
Are there buildings there?
Some very old ones, but it’s never been developed. It was used for farming, briefly.
But no diamond mines?
I’m afraid the whole geological thing was invented. There are no naturally occurring diamonds in Ireland, although they did find recently find oil off the coast of Wexford.
Does the prince know about your book?
Well, the original prince died a while back, but I suppose his family inherited the mantle. I don’t know if they consider themselves royalty. It was a local man, from the mainland, who was the original prince. A very unusual situation. It’s a world-famous bird sanctuary, that’s what it’s principally known for. A big tourist attraction.
Perhaps they can sell Airman in the gift shop!
Brilliant. I’m going to gate-crash the place and suggest that very thing.
For a story set in Ireland, there sure are a lot of French surnames in it. Have you been hanging out on the continent?
Wexford is where the first Normans came ashore so a lot of the names in town are French. I was, believe it or not, trying to be historically accurate. All of these names have been in Ireland so long, people think they are Irish, but we’ve a lot of French names, Viking names. Whenever I have the chance, I always like to have fun with names. I got Finn in there [Colfer’s 10-year-old son]. I get him or Sean in most of the books.
Are your boys old enough to read your books yet?
Finn has read [The Legend of ] Spud Murphy. Jackie [Colfer’s wife] is reading Half-Moon Investigations to Finn and Sean [age four] now. Then I’m hoping to start on Artemis Fowl. We’re working on it. I have the same problem as everybody else trying to get them to read.
Anything to report on a film version of Airman?
Not yet. I had a meeting with Jim Sheridan [the writer-director of In America] and he’d love to do it. We’re great friends so we’re hoping to develop a script. I wouldn’t hold my breath. The Artemis film is moving forward again but very, very slowly. [Colfer and Sheridan did a treatment for the film version of the first book in that series.] That’s seven years in development and now there’s a writers’ strike. But I certainly want the writers to get their due so I’m content to wait on that front.
Do you plan any sequel to Airman?
I do have an idea for another adventure but I’m reluctant to go back to it because it does feel very complete. Everything surprised me in this book. It’s hard to go back.
With Artemis, I have to work a lot harder with each book to make it interesting to me. A lot of the joy is in the surprise. Half-Moon, now he is the type of character, being a detective, whom you can return to, but I’ve sold the rights to the BBC and they’re making a children’s television series from it. I think, however, I will eventually write another book about Half-Moon. And The Supernaturalist, as well. I’d like to do another one of those. There was a lot of stuff there I didn’t explore.
You are an idea factory. What’s on your screen at the moment?
The next book up is the sixth Artemis, which I should have done in about a month. After that, I think I’m going to lie down in a dark room and not think about leprechauns for two years.
Airman by Eoin Colfer. Hyperion, $17.99 (304p) ISBN 978-1-4231-0750-7 (Jan.)