Legends of the Fowl

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Eoin Colfer perches on sofa's edge in a swank London hotel, smiling. Of course. The Irish schoolteacher-turned-children's author has penned Artemis Fowl (Viking; 280 pages), a book many are calling this season's Harry Potter. He snagged a six-figure movie deal before Artemis even went to press. And marketing executives are no doubt fantasizing about merchandise tie-ins. But Colfer's smile has little to do with money, he says, since "we haven't even got any of it yet." The grin is one of bemusement over how the literary fantasies of the Wexford-born 35-year-old have turned into Hollywood reality.

Always a precocious reader, the young Colfer zipped through political thrillers by authors like Robert Ludlum and Jack Higgins. He followed his parents into teaching and, at 22, decided to write a book. He sent it to publishers "with visions of black sedans pulling up to the house the next day," he says. "I thought I was the best writer on the planet." The publishers didn't agree. Disillusioned, Colfer quit writing and left Ireland with his wife Jackie to teach in Saudi Arabia, Italy and Tunisia. Immersion in Tunisian culture inspired Benny and Omar, the tale of an Irish boy who moves to North Africa and befriends a local orphan. His first published novel, the book performed respectably in Ireland, as did a sequel and three other books for young readers.

All along, Colfer kept his day job — a canny move for an author of children's books. Working with learning-disabled kids, potential dropouts and those diagnosed as emotionally troubled, Colfer learned about young minds, from their undiplomatic attitude toward books to the jokes that tickle the young funny bone. "I owe a lot to all the kids I've had in class. Even literally," he says. "A kid would say something hilarious and I'd write it down."

In Artemis Fowl, Colfer combines youthful sensibilities with elements of traditional Celtic lore. "I think every Irish writer wants to write about fairies and leprechauns," he says. "But I didn't want to fall into the old rehashing-someone-else's-story trap." With favorite villains like Darth Vader in mind, Colfer created Artemis, his dastardly 12-year-old protagonist. He threw in dwarfs, fairies, comic book-inspired plotlines and James Bond-style gadgetry. The result seems tailored for the big screen, and Miramax has optioned the movie rights in partnership with Robert de Niro's Tribeca Productions. Colfer, who loves the 007 movies for their "classic atmosphere" and the Die Hard series for its tongue-in-cheek humor, is enjoying his brush with Hollywood. A trip he took with his wife to meet the film folks in Los Angeles left him "aghast and delighted," he says. They even had their own red-carpet moment at a film premiere, where a publicist tried to stoke photographers' interest by saying, "There's a farting dwarf in his book!" Says Colfer: "You just have to chuckle and go home."

Colfer knows that his international breakthrough — amid what he calls the Harry Potter-inspired "Oh my God, children can read! phenomenon" — is impeccably timed. But there's no hesitation when he's asked about the downside to all this jetsetting: he hates being away from Jackie and their three-year-old son, Finn. "You'd think it would be the other way around, since my little boy climbs into our bed every night and I get toes up the nose," he says. "But I can't sleep when I'm not at home."

He'll have to try. Teaching is on hold while Colfer embarks on a publicity tour through Britain, the U.S., New Zealand and Australia. He also has to finish Part Two in the envisioned Artemis Fowl trilogy. But first, some time back in Wexford. When early copies of Artemis came off the presses, Colfer grabbed one and headed home, having promised his students the first read. A few days with friends and family — plus nights with toes up the nose — were just what he needed. These people "are very good at keeping me humble," Colfer says. "I've been lucky." Ah, but there's more to Eoin Colfer than just the luck of the Irish.

A Magical Myth
Artemis Fowl, 12, plots dastardly acts with panache. Heir to an Irish crime dynasty, he hopes to restore family fortunes by taking a fairy hostage for a cut of that legendary gold. So Artemis and Butler, his lumbering sidekick, hunker down to await their prey. Enter Holly Short, the feisty first-ever female officer in LEPrecon, an élite branch of the Lower Elements Police. Artemis nabs her when she surfaces to perform a magic ritual. Bad move. As the fairies come above ground to rescue Holly by bombarding the occupants of Fowl's mansion, they have a couple of aces up their jump-suited sleeves. There's always Mulch Diggums, a "kleptomaniac dwarf" with a flatulence problem, and the troll: the ultimate predator, with tusks and rancid breath. The fairies and Artemis' allies slug it out to the golden end. Artemis has the last snigger for now, but everyone is intact for the promised sequel. Artemis Fowl is pacy, playful and very funny, an inventive mix of myth and modernity, magic and crime.

By Elinor Shields