In 2008, when Chris Colfer was offered a part written specifically for him--that of openly-gay teen Kurt Hummel on the FOX series Glee -- there were very few characters like his on network television. It was a risky role to take. "I was terrified, I was very, very scared," Colfer told host Ophira Eisenberg. He continued sarcastically, "But then I thought, 'oh, but what about the award potential?'"
These days, an openly gay character isn't as shocking. "It's crazy how different the world was back then," Colfer said. Indeed, a lot has changed since Glee, including Colfer, who's acting less and writing more. In fact, he's now a bestselling young adult fiction author. After the fast-paced and exhausting schedule of the show, becoming a writer seemed like a great idea. "A career where you can do most of it in your pajamas is very, very appealing," he conceded.
"I was so uninterested in reality," he said, recounting the early days of his writing when he'd act out elaborate stories with his action figures. "I used to try to play with my friends and they would always go off-book." Perhaps this is why Colfer chose to adapt beloved fairy tales in his young adult novel series, The Land of Stories.
Now in its sixth and final installment, the series was a long time coming. Colfer started writing The Land of Stories, or something like it, when he was just seven years old. However, he didn't "know enough words to make it happen." Luckily, he had his grandmother to give him constructive feedback. "Every time I'd finish a chapter I'd take it, I'd ride my bike over to my grandma's house and I'd give it to her. She'd grammar-check it, she'd spell-check it, and if she liked it, she'd put it on a pile on her table. But if she didn't like it, she'd [crumple] it up in front of me, toss it in the trash can, and say 'Christopher, you can do better.'"
The popularity of The Land of Stories series has only grown Colfer's devoted fan following. These interactions partially became another YA novel entitled Stranger Than Fanfiction, about a young celebrity who goes on a cross-country road trip with a group of his superfans. Inspired by this, Ophira Eisenberg led a game where she read our very own fan fiction. Colfer guessed with amazing accuracy what it was written about.
JONATHAN COULTON: This is ASK ME ANOTHER, NPR's hour of puzzles, word games and trivia. I'm Jonathan Coulton, here with puzzle guru Art Chung. Now here's your host, Ophira Eisenberg.
OPHIRA EISENBERG, HOST:
Thank you, Jonathan. Before the break, our contestant Aeriel won her way to the final round at the end of the show. We're going to find out a little later who she will face off against. But first, let's welcome our special guest. He starred as Kurt on the show "Glee." Now he's a YA author. And the last installment of his Land of Stories series, "Worlds Collide," is out now. Please welcome Chris Colfer.
CHRIS COLFER: Hello, Joe's Pub.
EISENBERG: Welcome to ASK ME ANOTHER. Such a pleasure to have you.
COLFER: Oh, thank you for having me.
EISENBERG: Now, I have to ask you right from the beginning - you auditioned for "Glee" right out of high school. But, technically, you didn't get the part.
COLFER: No, I didn't. No, Kevin McHale got the part that I was auditioning for - bastard.
EISENBERG: So how did you get on the show?
COLFER: No, I - you know, they just thought I was so awkward. They thought, we need that in our show.
COLFER: And so they wrote me a part.
EISENBERG: They wrote you a part.
COLFER: Yeah. Yeah.
EISENBERG: And the part they write for you - I mean, I don't know how much pressure you felt because your role, Kurt Hummel, was a openly gay character in high school.
EISENBERG: And that was very groundbreaking - 2008 television - even groundbreaking.
COLFER: It's crazy how different the world was back then.
COLFER: Really, it's nuts. Yeah.
EISENBERG: So did you hear that and go, oh, my God, this part was written for me? I'm jumping at that chance?
COLFER: You know, I was absolutely terrified because I come from a place where gay kids are used as pinatas. So I was very, very scared. But then I thought, oh, but what about the award potential?
COLFER: And then I felt right at home.
EISENBERG: (Laughter). So, I mean, the series ends and - right - I'm sure you were flooded with offers for other television, movies perhaps. But you really wanted to go deep into the writing.
COLFER: Yeah. You know, it was - after six years of - you know, the best way I could describe the "Glee" schedule was like being in a constant tech rehearsal. You know, it was just like dance rehearsals, singing this, this. Sometimes, we'd get calls at 3 o'clock in the morning, saying, hey, your call time is at 6, you know? So after that, you know, a career where you can do most of it in your pajamas is very, very appealing.
EISENBERG: And have you been writing your entire life? I mean, you're very prolific. So do you remember when you first started writing?
COLFER: Yeah. I was a little kid. I was very, very detailed in my storylines with my action figures. And...
EISENBERG: (Laughter) OK, wait, wait. What action figures?
COLFER: Oh, it varied. Sometimes, it was Batman. Sometimes, it was Spider-Man - whatever the mood was that I was going through.
COLFER: And I always, like, would always get one of the little Barbies from McDonald's. And she'd be, like, the damsel in distress...
COLFER: ...Which is completely anti-feminist now.
COLFER: But yeah. I think that's - that was, like, my first experience writing. And I'd try to play with other - my friends. And they'd always go off-book. And I'd get so fussed. Like, no, Spider-Man is not doing that. I told you what the storyline was.
COLFER: So I think that was my first taste of it.
EISENBERG: So this best-selling series The Land of Stories centers on Alex and Conner, twins who enter the fairy tales kind of by accident after receiving a book from their grandmother.
COLFER: Yes. Yes.
COLFER: They inherit a magic storybook that sucks them into the fairy-tale world.
EISENBERG: What was the appeal of writing fantasy and diving into fairy tales?
COLFER: I think I just was so uninterested in reality. I was like, there's got to be something better than this. And as a kid, my sister was sick. So it was a really great way to escape. And yeah, I'm so glad I did it (laughter).
EISENBERG: What do you think the importance is of retelling these fairy tales that we all know in so many different incarnations?
COLFER: Well, we only think we know them. I mean, so many people don't know the original Brothers Grimm versions, which were meant to terrify children.
COLFER: Right, dark. Like, in "Snow White," like, the evil queen tries to kill her three times. Like, first the poisoned comb - then with the corset and then with the apple, which - I mean, after the comb, I probably would stop answering the door myself.
COLFER: But that was, like - you know, that was the lesson. It was, you know, if you meet a stranger, and they cause you harm, don't go near them again. And, you know, like with "The Little Mermaid," in the original version, the Little Mermaid doesn't, you know, marry the prince. She kills herself because the prince marries someone else. And it was supposed to teach young women, don't throw your lives away for the first guy that, you know, picks you up off a beach.
COLFER: So - thank you. Thank you, Hans Christian Andersen.
COLFER: But no, it's not like - if we just incorporated those more into life, I think kids would be lot better off.
EISENBERG: Now, I know this is all fantasy. But the character of the grandmother that gives the twins this book - that, I feel like, is a little bit of reflection on your life because your grandmother plays sort of a pivotal role in your writing career.
COLFER: Yes. Yes, my grandmother was my very first editor. And when the Land stories first came to me, I was about 7 or 8. And I would - I tried writing the novel then, and it was very hard.
EISENBERG: You tried writing this novel when you were 7.
COLFER: I did. Yeah. And I did not know enough words to make it happen.
COLFER: And every time I'd finish a chapter, I would print it out. And I'd take it - I'd ride my bike over to my grandma's house. And I would - I'd give it to her. And she'd grammar check it. She'd spell check it. And if she liked it, she'd put it in a pile on her table. But if she didn't like it, she would crumble it up in front of me, toss it in the trash can and say, Christopher, you can do better.
COLFER: Yeah. But I think, I mean, she still was the toughest editor I've ever worked with. But I think it really kind of set me up for real life.
EISENBERG: That's amazing. Did she read, you know, the books that we now know as part of the series The Land of Stories?
COLFER: Oh, yeah. She reads them on her iPad, or she waits for the large-print. And she reads them quite a bit.
EISENBERG: Does she give you feedback?
COLFER: Oh, of course. Of course, yeah. Yeah, she - well, she's always very particular about how I portray grandmothers in my writing.
EISENBERG: So now we have the final book in the series, "Worlds Collide." You've decided that this is it. We're ending the series, even though I'm pretty sure that if you just - I don't know - decided, I'm going to write another 20, people would read them. Why end it?
COLFER: You know, I didn't want to stretch it out, you know, until it was just, you know, so thin there is nothing there. So I wanted to end it at the right time when, like, I felt like it was a good time within the story. I think that's now.
EISENBERG: But it's going to another life...
EISENBERG: ...Because there is going to be a movie.
COLFER: There's going to be movies. Yes, I'm very excited about...
EISENBERG: All right. I said movie. You said movies.
COLFER: Yeah. Moving pictures, see?
EISENBERG: Yeah, yeah, yeah.
COLFER: It's great.
EISENBERG: You wrote these - the screenplays?
COLFER: I'm writing it now.
COLFER: And I'll also be directing, which I'm so excited and terrified - but in a good way - in a good way.
EISENBERG: Yeah. Is your grandmother going to be involved in casting in any way?
COLFER: No. It's funny because it's, like, the biggest news of my whole life. And I call her up, and I tell her. She's like, yeah I knew it would happen. I was like, all right.
EISENBERG: Right. It's like you can't get the full, big praise.
COLFER: No, no. But then she, like - she gets on her Facebook and just brags and brags and brags.
COLFER: I'm like, where is that to my face? Like, gosh, all this time, I don't think you loved me.
EISENBERG: And then she's like, I got 2,000 likes.
COLFER: Right. Right.
EISENBERG: Very popular.
COLFER: From various tea parties.
EISENBERG: (Laughter). Now, I watched a bunch of clips of you, preparing to talk to you.
COLFER: I'm sorry.
EISENBERG: No, it was fantastic. But it gives me great joy to be able to say this on the show because I've never met anyone before that I could say, so it seems like you're a pretty good ninja.
COLFER: Thank you. Yes.
COLFER: That is the first time I've ever been complimented about my ninjutsu.
EISENBERG: Yeah, I mean...
COLFER: So thank you.
EISENBERG: ...You're skilled with the Japanese sai swords. Is that...
COLFER: Sai swords.
EISENBERG: I'm sorry.
COLFER: Sai swords, yes.
EISENBERG: Yeah. You spin them and...
COLFER: I spin them. I catch them. I drop them on my foot. I do. I do. I'm actually very, very good at it. So look it up and...
EISENBERG: Very good. OK, so how did that particular hobby of yours begin?
COLFER: I was a really big fan of "Xena: Warrior Princess" when I was a kid.
COLFER: Looking back now, it all makes sense.
COLFER: You know, I didn't - I never wanted to, you know, be with her or Gabrielle. But I wanted to be them.
COLFER: So - and Gabrielle had the sai swords. And I was like, I want to do that. And Elektra - and I think Raphael - Ninja Turtles. And so I just really wanted to learn. And so with the first job I ever got - was - it was called - it was this little student film called "Russel Fish: The Sausage And Eggs Incident," where - I used that paycheck, which was about $20. And I bought me some swords.
EISENBERG: Where do you buy these swords?
EISENBERG: OK. Of course.
COLFER: I don't think it was legal. But, you know, it's eBay. Yeah, I mean, what's done is done.
EISENBERG: Chris Colfer, are you ready for your ASK ME ANOTHER challenge?
COLFER: I don't know if I'll ever be ready. But yeah, I'm here. So let's do it.
EISENBERG: That is, I believe, the mantra of the ninja.
EISENBERG: Chris Colfer, everybody.
EISENBERG: So, Chris, you have a, I would say, complex relationship with fan fiction.
COLFER: Yes, I do.
COLFER: I do. It's an abusive relationship.
COLFER: Oh, gosh.
EISENBERG: There's a lot that has been written about you.
COLFER: Yes, there has. Yes.
EISENBERG: And you wrote a book called "Stranger Than Fanfiction," which is...
COLFER: I did, yes. I'm part of the problem, yes.
EISENBERG: ...Which is not about you. But it's sort of - you use, I guess, your own experience as a jumping-off point?
COLFER: Yeah, exactly. Yeah, it's about a really uppity (laughter) actor who gets invited on a road trip with four mega fans. And he shocks them when he shows up. And they think it's going to be a dream come true. But it's just the biggest nightmare ever.
EISENBERG: Because reality is rough.
COLFER: Yeah. Right. Exactly.
EISENBERG: So in this game, we have written our own fan fiction. You just have to tell us the original works they are based on.
COLFER: OK, OK, OK.
EISENBERG: And if you do well enough, Tory Atkins (ph) from Saratoga Springs, N.Y., is going to win an ASK ME ANOTHER Rubik's Cube.
COLFER: Oh, no - the stakes.
EISENBERG: Yeah, I know.
COLFER: Yeah, OK.
EISENBERG: We warned you.
COLFER: All right.
EISENBERG: If you need a hint, our puzzle guru Art Chang is standing by to help you out.
COLFER: Oh, great. Thank you.
EISENBERG: All right. Let's give it a shot. Without her glasses, Velma could barely make out the figures standing before her. The person was blurry but familiar and unmistakably sensual. Velma, it's me, the figure said. It's Daphne.
COLFER: Oh, I'm sorry. I just got wrapped up in it.
COLFER: That was definitely Scooby Doo.
EISENBERG: Yeah, that's right.
COLFER: Yes. Yeah.
EISENBERG: It was the eve of revolution. Aaron Burr and Hercules Mulligan...
EISENBERG: ...Hated each other. But tonight, they were lonely.
EISENBERG: And they were ready to raise more than a glass to freedom.
COLFER: The British are coming. The British are coming.
COLFER: Well, if it's fanfiction, is it "Turn?"
EISENBERG: Just think, like, the most popular incarnation out there right now.
COLFER: Oh, duh. Yeah, "1776."
EISENBERG: The musical.
COLFER: You know, I keep forgetting that there is fan fiction about musicals, too. But yeah, "Hamilton." That's what it is.
EISENBERG: Yeah, yeah, yeah. There's fan fiction about everything.
COLFER: Yeah, yeah.
EISENBERG: Everyone said a water type and a fire type could never fall in love. But Squirtle and Charmander didn't care about society's rules.
COLFER: Well, Pokemon.
COLFER: Yes. I was going to say, like, "Orange Is The New Black." But I didn't.
EISENBERG: Yeah, it's true. Don't Google Squirtle.
EISENBERG: My mind races as the host approaches my team my brothers and uncles jump and clap. I stand frozen but in my heart the survey says Steve Harvey, you're my father.
COLFER: Oh, my God. Please tell me it's the sequel of, like, "Slumdog Millionaire"...
COLFER: ...And not like - "Family Feud," obviously. Oh, my God. "Family Feud" even. Even Steve Harvey isn't safe.
EISENBERG: OK, here's your last clue. When he heard the show was doing a segment about couples yoga, Matt Lauer expected to be paired up with Savannah Guthrie. But now as two strong arms caressed his own, Matt gulped. He never knew Al Roker like this before.
COLFER: Oh, my God. I'm seeing these people tomorrow.
COLFER: Oh, God. That's "The Today Show."
EISENBERG: Yeah, sure is.
COLFER: Oh, God. Wow.
EISENBERG: Yeah, I think you did pretty smashing on that.
EISENBERG: Puzzle guru Art Chung, how did our special guest do?
ART CHUNG: Chris got them all right. Congratulations. You and our listener Tory Atkins each won ASK ME ANOTHER Rubik's Cubes.
EISENBERG: You're amazing. Thank you so much for being part of our show.
COLFER: Oh, thank you so much for having us - having me.
COLFER: Thank you. Appreciate it. Thank you, guys.
EISENBERG: The final book of Chris' "The Land Of Stories" series, "Worlds Collide" is out now. Give it up one more time for Chris Colfer.
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