Shouldn’t he be preoccupied by the much-mooted filming of his fantasy series about the criminal child genius, with Kenneth Branagh lined up as director, Conor McPherson writing the screenplay and casting under way? Isn’t he meant to be riding a wave of acclaim for And Another Thing, the concluding episode of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy series?
But no, Colfer is the kind of writer who follows his instincts and what caught his imagination in October 2014 was none of the above. Rather, it was the idea of writing a one-man play, My Real Life, for an adult audience. Did he worry about confusing his market?
“It was an issue a few years ago when I did a couple of adult thrillers but what cured me of that was when I did The Hitchhiker’s Guide,” says the 52-year-old author who recently completed a two-year term as Ireland’s children’s laureate. “I got so much abuse up front, pre-emptive abuse, that by the time the book came out the backlash to the abuse had started and it went really well. My skin got hardened.”
He continues: “I don’t mind now; I’ll take on anything. I’ve done musicals, plays, novels. If I want to do it, I’ll go and do it. Sometimes ten people buy it and sometimes 100,000 people buy it. If people have a good experience and they’re not thinking, ‘That guy should have stopped at leprechaun books,’ I’m happy with that.”
My Real Life started with a chat with an old friend over a pint. This friend, it transpired, had developed multiple sclerosis and it struck Colfer that, whatever constraints his friend’s body was putting on him, he was still the same man he had known for 25 years. “He hasn’t become MS, he’s still a really funny guy,” he says. “He’s gregarious, loves a pint, loves his drama and he’s still the same fellow.”
This was the idea he wanted to explore when Ben Barnes asked him to write a 20-minute monologue for Wexford Arts Centre. It would be staged as part of WexFour, an evening of short pieces by him and fellow Wexford authors John Banville, Billy Roche and Colm Toibín. Performed by actor Don Wycherley, it struck a chord. Would it be possible, asked Barnes, for Colfer to write some more?
Initially nervous about holding an audience’s attention for a whole evening, Colfer ploughed ahead, working closely with Wycherley on extending My Real Life to a full-length play. What emerged was a bitter-sweet study of a man recording his final thoughts on two sides of a cassette tape as he looks back on the stupid mistake that led to him losing the love of his life.
“I like that it’s hilariously funny in places and also it’s dealing with MS, although that’s not the biggest worry in his life,” says Wycherley when we meet in Cork, just before he gives a masterly performance at the Everyman theatre. His portrayal of a semi-paralysed man, right side frozen, words quavering at the end of sentences, captures in funny and wistful detail the character’s wry sense of humour even at the point of greatest despair. That night, the audience gives him a standing ovation.
“Eoin is a wonderful writer for an actor to work with,” says Wycherley. “He respects you and is totally open to whatever you say. He’s one of the busiest guys and one of the most down to earth. He captures a small-town character telling ordinary tales of his youth – and he does it in a funny, universal way.”
Despite fictionalising his friend’s experience, Colfer was no less nervous about him seeing it on the opening night. “It was very emotional bringing him to the play,” he says. “He gave it his blessing. People with MS could feel like you’re appropriating their illness for theatre, but so far it’s been very positive and I think that’s because I tried to get into my friend’s head.”
What strikes you too is the fluidity of Colfer’s writing. There’s none of the clunky dialogue that novelists can be prone to; rather it is a sustained piece of theatrical storytelling, lively and compelling.
It turns out Colfer has theatrical form. The son of a drama teacher, he wrote amateur plays in his 20s and had a professionally staged musical, The Lords of Love, put on in 2010 although, despite its popularity, he’d sooner people forgot about it. “It was incredibly rude, incredibly non-PC and I really don’t want it to go back out,” he laughs.
Theatrical pedigree or not, it took Colfer some effort to make the transition back to the stage. Collaborating with Wycherley was key. “It wasn’t easy for me,” he says. “But Don was instrumental. He transformed it into his own speech patterns. We went through every sentence forensically and he would say, ‘Well, I would put the “and” there.’ And not only in the rhythm of the dialogue, he was also instrumental in some of the plot points. I can’t imagine anyone doing it now except Don. I just hope people understand his Wexford accent!”