Writing for grown-ups proves to be child’s play

Eoin Colfer graduates to adult fiction with his latest novel Plugged, and it’s obvious there’s a lot more where that came from, writes Caroline O’Doherty

Plugged

Eoin Colfer

Headline, £12.99

GROWING up first time around is hard enough but doing it a second time is, literarily in Eoin Colfer’s case, murder.

The creator of Artemis Fowl, the teen criminal mastermind whose fantastical escapades enthrall children the world over, has his first adult novel out and it’s a nervous time for the natural born worrier.

Even though most reviews are blush-inducing in their praise, Colfer adopts a serious expression — or rather a more serious one, as playfully deadpan is his default setting — and explains the perennial fear that people won’t get what he’s trying to do.

“It’s the inside of my head put down on a page so you feel any judgment on the books or misrepresentation is a judgment or misrepresentation of you, and you do take it personally.”

Even though the cover of his crime thriller Plugged boasts bestselling authors declaring his graduation to adult writing “terrific” and the graduate himself a “genius”?

Not wishing to sound picky, but he would really have liked it if they’d said they laughed till their britches burst.

“I’m hoping that when we get the next edition out, we’ll have someone famous saying, ‘I thought this was quite funny’ and we’ll put that in,” he says, maintaining deadpan delivery, “together with the genius bit.”

He needn’t worry. Plugged is funny – in spite of the murders and assorted other killings, torture, kidnapping, extortion, intimidation, sleaze and general unpleasantness that conspire to give the protagonist one very trying week.

Daniel McEvoy is the man at the centre of the largely unwelcome attention. A former Irish Army sergeant who found little peace in peacekeeping, he’s now a bouncer at a seedy New Jersey casino, successfully keeping his past at bay and obsessing about his hair loss.

Then one day he turns up for an appointment with the dubiously qualified doctor pal and drinking buddy who’s giving him hair plugs, to find the doc missing and a bloody encounter awaiting him with a goon sent by the local crime boss, plastic paddy Irish Mike.

Things don’t improve when he arrives at work later to discover his favourite hostess and occasional girlfriend lying murdered in the parking lot.

What follows is a frenetic romp across New Jersey’s underbelly and through Daniel’s mind as he tries to stay alive long enough to figure out what’s going on and why cops and criminals alike think he knows the answer.

Much of the comedy comes from his imaginary conversations with his increasingly demanding doc pal and his actual verbal sparring with a compromised police officer who reluctantly accepts that she needs Daniel to get out of the mess as much as he needs her.

After 16 books for children, including seven Artemis Fowl adventures, and just one unusual foray into adult titles — when Colfer was asked to pen the last in the whimsical Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy series following the death of author Douglas Adams — Plugged is a serious step into the world of grown-up writing — a cross-over few authors manage.

He says he thoroughly enjoyed it and didn’t have to keep reminding himself that he could indulge in sex and swearing this time.

“I wasn’t really conscious of writing differently. Once I find the voice that works, I find it easy to stick in that voice and stay there. In fact, I find it hard to get out of the voice at the end of the book.

“That sounds very Al Pacino but it’s easier than that — I don’t starve myself or not shave or not jog — I just keep writing and usually after a few chapters I find I’ve clicked into a mode.”

Not that he’s much of a jogger, for despite being born, bred, married, employed (as a national school teacher originally) and still resident in hurling-mad Wexford, he is far handier with the pen than the puck — or any other sporting endeavours.

“My son (13-year-old Finn, older of his two boys) once said, you only write books because you can’t play football, and he’s probably right.

“I was rubbish at all sports, so then I decided I don’t like sports. It’s a real kid’s decision — I’m not going to like sports before they don’t like me.”

Understanding how children think has been a big factor in Colfer’s success. As a teacher he was perturbed by his pupils’ disinterest in reading.

“I could see these kids in front of me and it was so alien to them — and for a lot of them to their entire families — to read a book. I thought maybe I can write a book that will engage them.”

The result was the 1999 bestseller, Benny and Omar, about an Irish 12-year-old, mad about hurling of course, struggling to adapt to life in Africa where nobody has even heard of hurling after his father is transferred there for work.

Artemis Fowl employed a different hook — this time the hero was a villain. “I knew these kids would like the bad boy character and the thing about readers is, once they’ve discovered reading they’re not going to say, well I’m not going to do that anymore. They’re going to move on to other books. Hopefully mine but other authors too — I’m benevolent.”

Benevolence really is one of Colfer’s qualities, although often unintentionally. For while his 25 million sales place him in the top five most successful Irish writers, he is securely in the number-one position for most stolen author.

“I’ve been told I’m the most shoplifted in the country. Terry Pratchett has that honour in the UK so that’s good company to be in. I think it’s great.”

He rethinks that last line. “I mean I don’t think it’s great that they’re stealing books — but it’s a nice title.”

In fact, he seems more comfortable with inspiring acts of criminality than breaking sales records, saying he doesn’t like to dwell on how well he is doing.

“I feel a little bump of pride occasionally but generally I tend not to think about it because it’s a little scary. I’m a worrier by nature.”

Going grown-up worried him too but once the idea for Plugged came to him, via a Late Late Show feature on hair transplants of all things, the urge to take the plunge was too strong to ignore.

But while the writing in the new novel is not for children — the murder count for a start places it firmly in post-9pm watershed territory — it does appeal to the child with a sense of absurdity and liberal doses of slapstick.

It also has parallels with Artemis Fowl. Daniel McEvoy is physically imposing, self-possessed and trained to kill — but frets over his receding hairline; Artemis Fowl is intellectually, psychologically and technologically invincible — apart from his slight dust mite allergy.

Artemis has a pesky fairy cop on his tail; Daniel has one of New Jersey’s finest on his, both viewing their opposite numbers with a mix of admiration and infuriation.

And both Artemis and Daniel were made for sequels. The next Artemis Fowl adventure will be the last but Daniel’s only starting out and Colfer reckons there are at least two more books in him.

A good detective will have guessed that from reading Plugged where Dan’s policewoman ally/antagonist laughs at his declaration that he’s returning to a quiet life.

“People like you and me, Dan, trouble sniffs us out,” she says. “Maybe you can hide out for a while, maybe even a few years, but eventually someone needs to be saved or someone needs to be killed.”

It looks like Daniel and Colfer will continue maturing in public for some time to come, but at least after this debut, the growing pains should be minimal.

Picture: Jason Clarke


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