Message From The Author
The Fforde Affaire British Novelist Jasper Fforde's Quirky Take on the Fictional Famous Leaves Book Lovers Laughing
By Diane Snyder
To say that Jasper Fforde's fictional world is slightly off-kilter is like observing that Barbara Cartland was just a moderately productive novelist.
An understatement of epic proportions.
After all, in some of the five novels -- part fantasy, part mystery, part satire -- that comprise Fforde's popular and hilarious Thursday Next series, the title character leaps back and forth between BookWorld, where literary characters literally come to life, and an alternate 1980s England, in which the Crimean War never ended. A literary detective, Thursday accidentally "changes" the ending of Jane Eyre in her quest to capture a notorious criminal, seeks anger-management counseling for Wuthering Heights' Heathcliff and looks after Hamlet when the melancholy Danish prince needs a vacation from Elsinore.
It's as if the Monty Python gang took a wrong turn and ended up lost in J.K. Rowling's universe or a season's worth of Doctor Who episodes. The fun is in the details, in seeing familiar characters from classic literature rethought and reconfigured in a world where the classics are as well known as today's celebrities. Even Fforde finds his work hard to describe to the uninitiated. "The biggest hurdle I had was getting people to read it and getting an agent," he says by phone from his home in Wales. "It's very much 'don't ask, just read it.' "
But the length of time it took before Fforde saw publication was actually a plus creatively. The 47-year-old has been churning out manuscripts for the last 20 years but wasn't published until The Eyre Affair in 2001. "I started writing my books stranger and stranger because I thought, I'm not going to be published, so when I was finally picked up by a publisher I was surprised that it happened."
British publisher Hodder and Stoughton initially signed Fforde to a two-book deal, so although he'd intended The Eyre Affair to be a stand-alone, he had to come up with further adventures for plucky protagonist Thursday Next, a brave and brainy 30-something heroine who gets her man, Landen Parke-Laine, at the end, only to lose him when he's eradicated in the sequel, Lost in a Good Book.
"I had no particular idea about what was going to happen in the series, so I left all these dangling plot devices and hoped for providence to provide me with a payoff."
It did. Pregnant, Thursday hides out in an unpublished detective novel in The Well of Lost Plots while trying to stop the release of a dangerous new program designed to alter the reading experience. In Something Rotten Thursday has son Friday to look out for as she tries to save the world and stop a Shakespeare cloning ring.
All four books were published in consecutive years, but for his 2005 and '06 releases Fforde time-warped back to his first manuscript, a mystery in which Detective Inspector
Jack Spratt and Sergeant Mary Mary investigate the suspicious fall of Humperdink Stuyvesant Van Dumpty III, aka Humpty Dumpty. The result, The Big Over Easy, was the first of his two Nursery Crimes titles, soon followed by The Fourth Bear. (Jack and Mary also appear in The Well of Lost Plots, as characters stuck in an unpublished manuscript.)
With such a cornucopia of high-concept characters, plots and subplots, Fforde admits it's a challenge to ensure that his books don't become style over substance. "The problem is not having ideas but trying to make sure they all fit together in terms of the plot," he explains. "You don't want to just have empty cleverness. The major ideas hopefully are going to actually mean something by the end of the book. There has to be a reason why we need a cloned Shakespeare."
The paperback edition of Thursday Next: First Among Sequels (Viking), set 14 years after Something Rotten, hit stores in August. As Thursday deals with her slacker teenage son, she must also contend with an apprentice who's turning classic literature into reality book shows.
Since Fforde has won such admiration from readers and critics, his continuing challenge is to consistently surprise them, and to do that he has to keep pushing the envelope. "Now that my readers know the way I write,
I have to use double cleverness
to try to trick them out," Fforde explains. "Before, if there was
a character named Red Herring, then he would be a red herring. But a character called Red Herring wouldn't be a red herring now, and that would be the red herring."
Fforde plans to write another Thursday novel, tentatively titled One of Our Thursdays Is Missing ("I thought it might have resonance to anyone who ever went on a drinking binge on a Wednesday and woke up Friday wondering what happened.") But for now he's scribbling away at a novel called Shades of Grey, set in an entirely new world -- Britain three thousand years in the future -- where hierarchy is based on what color you can see. "The purples are very high up, and the reds are at the bottom," Fforde explains. "The point is to get as much synthetic color in their lives."
Beyond a person's single color, their world appears grey, unless they pay to have it artificially colorized. Protagonist Eddie Russett, who works for the Color Control Agency, is a red who ends up on a quest that may change the world as he knows it.
"There are all kinds of interesting ideas that you can have with color," Fforde concludes. "It's one of the most underrated of our senses. No one can say what the sense of red is, and why we can see over 20 million different shades of color is tricky to explain."
And tricky to write about because none of the characters are familiar literary figures living in plots of someone else's creation. Originally scheduled for publication this year, Shades of Grey has been pushed back to next summer, making 2008 the first calendar year of the last eight not
to have a new Fforde title.
"I've been working on it twice as long as a Thursday book," he admits. "With the Thursday series I was using characters that were in the reader's imagination already. There's a shorthand when you're using the Three Bears. Now I'm creating a new fantasy world with characters of
my own and making them sustain for over a hundred
Not an easy task, especially with a six-month-old daughter at home and four older children. Fforde's own reverence for books and literary figures began when he was growing up. While some families discussed television shows, a remark in the Fforde household might be met with the comment, "That's just what Piglet would say."
The cousin of romance novelist Katie Fforde, he's even inspired a fan gathering. The Fforde Ffiesta, which unfolded this past May in Swindon, England, attracted 140 readers who gathered to meet the author, dress as characters from his books and take part in a variety of games and contests, including the Teenage Angst Poetry competition, judged by
a panel of teenagers. "For the '09 Ffiesta we're going to have Grey Angst Poetry," he promises. "The most elderly members will come and give their opinion on grey angst."
Even though Fforde comes from a movie background – he was a cameraman on such films as Quills and GoldenEye -- he has no plans to option the film rights to any of his titles. To him the industry is more about making money than making movies. But, "if someone came to me and said they were genuinely interested in making the movie, I might take them seriously."
For now Fforde is enjoying the sumptuous feast of life as a successful author. As well he should. But even though he saw 76 rejection letters before he found a publisher, Fforde downplays his endurance
as just part of the journey a writer should be prepared to take.
"[Those letters] were over 10 years, so it's not that much," he says. "I wasn't terribly good at pleading with people to publish me, so I used to send the books off to a targeted group of agents and publishers. If they rejected them, I just started writing the next book.
"When you're writing all these books, it's actually learning a craft, and you have to practice to get better at it. It took almost as long to rewrite The Big Over Easy as it did to write it, so I clearly showed that I'd improved. I meet quite a few writers who have just written the first chapter of their award-winning novel and want to know who to hawk it to. I think if you rise too fast there's a risk that you'll hit a ceiling of your own making."
Jumping through novels. Keeping fiction safe for readers. Saving the world from evildoers. It's all in a book's work for Jasper Fforde's intrepid heroine, Thursday Next. Here's a recap of her adventures thus far.
The Eyre Affair (2001)
Thursday Next must foil the kidnapping plot of Acheron Styx, an evildoer whose crimes escalate from kidnapping minor characters in Dickens to swiping adored leading lady Jane Eyre. In her quest to rescue Jane, Thursday accidentally alters the ending to Charlotte Bronte's classic. But don't worry -- before she did, it ended with Jane going to India to marry St. John.
Lost in a Good Book (2002)
When an evil corporation eradicates Thursday's husband,
the pregnant detective joins the ranks of Jurisfiction, a police force that keeps the peace within works of literature. Thursday's apprenticed to Miss Havisham from Great Expectations and gets embroiled in the discovery of a lost Shakespeare play.
The Well of Lost Plots (2003)
While hiding out in an unpublished detective novel of questionable quality, Thursday must try to stop the release of a dangerous new program that's supposed to "enhance" the reading experience, in time for the annual 923rd Annual BookWorld awards.
Something Rotten (2004)
Now a mother, Thursday is still trying to uneradicate her husband when she's called on to investigate a Shakespeare cloning ring. Oh, and she has to look after Hamlet, who's
taking a much-needed vacation from his play.
Fourteen years after Something Rotten, Thursday must deal with her slacker teenage son, contend with an apprentice who's turning classic literature into reality book shows and
figure out why humor has suddenly disappeared from
Thomas Hardy's novels.
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