Pop Culture of My Life: Eoin Colfer on The Princess Bride, Schitt's Creek, and the stories that inspire him
When Eoin Colfer conceived the first Artemis Fowl book, he started with one question: “If they faeries actually do exist, how would they have survived?” Now, he has applied that same logic to his his new brand new Louisiana-set fantasy novel Highfire (out Tuesday), which is about the surprising and unlikely partnership between a washed-up dragon who has seen better days and a young Cajun man in need of protection.
“When I was thinking about doing a dragon story, I asked myself the question: If a dragon actually survived [into modern times], how could that realistically have happened?” Colfer tells EW. “I reasoned that he would have to be hiding out with creatures that looked a little bit like him in a place that was either pretty remote or humans didn’t really go that much. I cycled through several places where that might work and I eventually found out there was a legend in Louisiana about the Honey Island Swamp monster. It was a little bit like Big Foot or the Loch Ness Monster in that people claimed to have seen this, [but] people don’t really give it that much credence because they’ve been talking about it for a couple hundred years now.”
He continues, “I thought, if there was a dragon down there now and he got spotted, nobody would believe the spotter and that would be very handy. So, I decided to set it in Louisiana. Then of course, I had to go away and research Louisiana for a while and get into the headspace of the accent and lingo just to see if I could write in that style and not feel like a fraud.”
In the same way that Colfer dug into Louisiana lore for Highfire, EW did the same with Colfer’s own pop culture past. We asked the Irish author to walk us through the books, TV shows, movies, albums, and more that have impacted him the most.
My favorite book as a child
Treasure Island, because it was the first time that I really felt transported to another world by the story. Robert Louis Stevenson’s writing is so descriptive that you feel like you’re almost back in the 19th century, [and] you’re on that boat with Long John Silver and Jim Hawkins.
The book that made me fall in love with reading
Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain, because that book was in the first person and had such a distinctive voice, and the character of Huck Finn. Huck wasn’t a good guy. He was a normal kid. He didn’t like Sunday school. Sometimes he used bad language whenever he could. He even smoked a pipe. And he hung around with a slave. In that time when that book was written by Mark Twain, it was almost revolutionary, which I didn’t realize until I grew up; it was quite a brave thing for him to make a slave character one of the heroes. I felt reading that book that if I was around on the Mississippi that those guys would let me hang out because they weren’t square-jawed heroes. They were just everyday people. That would be the first book that made me see how powerful could be in the lives of children.
The book that made me want to become a writer
I’m not sure what year The Princess Bride came out but I remember reading that book and thinking, “Oh, when you’re writing fantasy, you can be funny.” I thought you had to be noble and everybody had to have a destiny, but [it turned out] you can write a fantastic comic novel in that genre. These were the two things that I loved, fantasy and comedy, but I never realized that it was okay and not only that but welcomed if you could write a really good fantastical comedy. When I read William Goldman’s book, I was hooked and converted. Everywhere I go, I extoll the virtues of that book, especially to young writers because sometimes young writers can be very noble and very worthy, and that’s great, but I think everybody needs a little bit of a sense of humor, and that is the book to show you how to do it properly.
A book, movie, or TV show I’ve watched over and over
I’ve watched Highlander, I’d say, maybe 100 times. It is a movie with faults, but it is a master class in how to construct a fantasy story, and it has got the best bad guy ever in a fantasy movie. Of course, one of my favorite bands Queen did the soundtrack, so that is why I went [to see it] in the first place. I really just went to hear the music. In those days, you couldn’t really get the soundtrack on tape or vinyl, and so you had to go to the movie to hear the music, so that’s what I did. When the video tape came out, I bought the videotape and would just listen to the music. I really, really love it and it has really influenced my writing in that I’m really into my baddies and trying to find that perfect baddie is an ongoing quest for mine.
A classic that I’m embarrassed to say I’ve never read
Being Irish we’re all supposed to have read Ulysses, and I may or may not have lied in interviews when I was a younger man and said that I had read Ulysses. But the truth is I’ve read about 100 pages of Ulysses and I read some notes about the rest just to get me through the interviews, but I’m ashamed to say I haven’t actually read that. I’m hoping that by now saying it in public that I will be shamed into going to read it.
A recent book I wish I’d written
Last Ones Left Alive by Sarah Davis-Goff. It is kind of an Irish zombie book. I thought you can’t do anything else with the zombie book [because] it’s all be done, but this book is absolutely amazing. I think it’s going to be a huge worldwide hit and it’s already been a hit over on this side of the Atlantic. It’s kind of a feminist take on the zombie apocalypse. It’s a cross between The Road by Cormac McCarthy and The Walking Dead, which I think should be enough to get most people interested. I would have loved to have written that book, but I could never write it because it’s so intense and it’s unforgiving. I can’t sustain that. I have to put in a joke. I’d get nervous myself if no one was laughing, but Sarah just sustains that for the entire book and she ends it in a way that you never see coming that’s both optimistic and terrifying.
My favorite dragon in pop culture
I love Game of Thrones like most people, so George R. R. Martin’s dragons are great. I thought Benedict Cumberbatch did a fantastic Smaug [in The Hobbit movies]. I think he came so close to what people imagined his voice [would be]. It’s tough to follow that except just do something completely different, and that’s what I’ve heard: he’s a completely different kind of dragon. It took me a long time to come up with a new approach to dragons, but I think Highfire might surprise people.
My favorite use of faeries in pop culture
The Irish artist Jim Fitzpatrick did a book about the Irish faeries called The Book of Conquests, and he represented the faeries not as little creatures who flew around the bottom of gardens, but as warriors. I was really blown away by that, and his artwork is fabulous. It’s kind of like a literary graphic novel. When I was 14 or 15, I was laboriously copying all of these Celtic runes and pictures he did. It had a huge influence on me so that when I turned my own attention to faeries I thought, “You know what? I’m going to take a leaf out of Jim’s book here and try to do something different,” because so many people have done amazing jobs with faeries, [like] J.R.R. Tolkien, that there’s no point in trying to do better in that arena.
My favorite precocious kid or teenager in pop culture
Obviously, the one that I love and I suppose we all maybe grew up with now is Bart Simpson. What I really liked about The Simpsons when I was watching [it] early on is the [characters] that are most beloved are the most flawed ones like Homer and Bart, who are very flawed, very selfish. At the center, they have a massive amount of heart, and they cover it up with tricks and antics and bad behavior, but really when you get down to the nitty-gritty, they’re really emotional and heartfelt people. When I began writing Artemis Fowl, I was thinking, “Is anyone going to want the book about a kid who’s not nice?” The answer to that was The Simpsons and the answer was, “They will want it if, at his heart, he’s a good person.”
The last book that made you laugh out loud
The last book that made me laugh was a book called The Lammisters. It’s kind of a 1920s crime noir novel by a writer called Declan Burke where characters go on the lam, which is a phrase you don’t hear much anymore, but it’s absolutely hilarious. It’s all about the gumshoe, the golden age of Hollywood, and the starlet. It’s got a lot of the tropes of the noir books, but the characters turn all those tropes on their heads and it kind of makes you laugh more at how clever it is. I also wish I’d written that book.
My favorite show on television right now
My current favorite television show — and I think probably one of the greatest television shows [ever] — is Schitt’s Creek. My wife and I just devour every series as it comes out. And we love The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel as well. [I prefer] clever comedies and comedies that have real heart and that you really care about the people. When Schitt’s Creek started, we thought the aim of this show would be to just lambaste these ridiculous, out-of-touch, super-wealthy people, but actually the aim was to make you love them. So by the end of the first few episodes, you find yourself just thinking, “Is this possibly just the most perfect cast ever assembled for a television show?”
The last movie that I watched
The Gentlemen, which is a new Guy Ritchie movie. Primarily we went to see that because Colin Farrell is in it. I’m a huge fan of Colin Farrell and heard this was a Colin Farrell you hadn’t seen before, and [they were] totally right. He was absolutely fantastic in that movie, [playing] a very dodgy character. He was a boxing coach trying to get young guys on the straight and narrow and occasionally he had to do some nasty things. He’s really funny, [had] great delivery, and had a whole new look. Colin Farrell, I’d love to see him get some recognition for his acting in this movie.
The first album I bought with my own money
[It] was a Queen album and it was News of the World. It was a gatefold album with a very famous painting on the front. My brother and I were big Queen fans. We had a little record player and we had two little sofas, [but] they weren’t full-sized sofas, so we would point the sofas like an arrow toward the record player and lie on [them] with our heads beside speakers and just listen to the whole album. I don’t know if people listen to music like that anymore, but for us it was a wonderful part of our growing up.
A fictional world I’d like to live in
The Blade Runner world because that made a huge impact on me as a younger man. I remember watching the opening scenes and thinking, “I have never seen or read or heard about anything like this.” I mean, the imagination of cinematographer Jordan Cronenweth and director Ridley Scott was fantastic! Obviously, I’d like to be one of the guys living in the tall towers and not a replicant down on the street, but that was so immersive.
A book, TV show, movie, or album I revisit whenever I’m suffering from writers’ block
I would say it would be mostly music. When I want something to inspire me, I would very often listen to Kate Bush. Me and my brother Paul were huge fans of Kate Bush because she was just so different and we had never heard anything like that. When I was starting to write stories — so in 1978, I would’ve been about 13 or 14 — she was an icon to young creatives because she, at the age of 18 or 19, had already written one of the greatest pop songs [“Wuthering Heights”]. So you just felt, if someone that young could do it, there’s no reason I can’t be doing it. Of course you think like that when you’re young because you believe you have all the talent in the world, but even if you don’t, it certainly spurs you on to try.