An interview with Jasper Fforde

Jasper Fforde

Jasper Fforde is a novelist living in Wales. He is the son of John Standish Fforde, the 24th Chief Cashier for the Bank of England, whose signature used to appear on Sterling banknotes, and is cousin of the author, Katie Fforde. His early career was spent as a focus puller in the film industry, and he worked on a number of films including Quills, GoldenEye, and Entrapment.

His published books include a series of novels starring Thursday Next: The Eyre Affair (2001), Lost in a Good Book (2002), The Well of Lost Plots (2003), Something Rotten (2004) and First Among Sequels (2007). The Big Over Easy (2005), which shares a similar setting with the Next novels, is a reworking of his first written novel, which initially failed to find a publisher. It had the working title of Nursery Crime, which is the title now used to refer to this series of books. The follow-up to The Big Over Easy, The Fourth Bear was published in July 2006 and focuses on Goldilocks and the Three Bears.

How would you best describe your books

They are a series of books based upon the notion that what we read in books is just a small part of a larger Bookworld that exists behind the page. A fantastical place populated by off-duty and sometimes mischievous bookpeople from the Classics to Fanfiction, and ruled over by the wheezing bureaucracy known as The Council of Genres. It is their task to maintain the pageant and integrity of the books within their charge, and these efforts are sometimes thwarted by the very evildoers and bizarre plot devices that give the Bookworld its appeal. Aided in this endeavour but sometimes disagreeing with them are Jurisfiction, the policing agency within Fiction. The adventures follow one of their operatives: A woman from the Realworld named Thursday Next, whose reality-based credentials bring a dimension of independent thought to the proceedings, something that is often absent in the mostly predetermined Bookworld. Confused? Excellent - turn to page one and start reading!

What do you think you would have become if you weren't an author?

Easy! An amateur writer. I wrote seven books in eleven years before I was published, and that was twelve years ago. So I guess right now I'd be doing the old job - in the film biz - but with, ooh, let's see - fourteen unpublished books on my hard drive. The point about this is that writers write. They do it because they really can't stop. It's a passion.

The Eyre Affair was first published in 2001. Do you think your writing has changed much since then?

I hope that it has improved. All writers I think should attempt one thing and one thing only: write better books. I'm still learning. By the time I get around to my twenty-sixth, they might actually be quite good…

The Woman Who Died A Lot is the seventh book in the series. Has everything turned out the way you planned it at the beginning of the series?

The original book, 'The Eyre Affair', way back in 2001 was a standalone, and there has been no overarching plan since then - I like to write series books but have little idea what happens from the one to the next as I write almost exclusively 'on the hoof', which seems to be the only way I can work - just let the ideas flow. This might come as a surprise as my books often read as though there are interconnected plot lines running though them. This is part of what I call my 'no plan plan' where I leave little jumping off points for myself to pick up later, or not.

This must be a question you get a lot, but how did you come up with the idea for Thursday Next, BookWorld and Bookjumping?

About 1988 or so, just when I was seriously into penning short stories that are the first step for anyone who wants to attempt writing novels. My Mother used to refer to next Thursday as 'Thursday Next' and the name not only has a 'dum de dum' ring to it but also is quietly mysterious. What sort of a woman would have a name like Thursday Next? Her partner Bowden is also an odd name that I liked, totally improbable but just possible. To those who know, a 'bowden cable' is one of those sleeved cables that are used on bicycle brakes. So I had two names and the notion that someone kidnaps Jane Eyre from her novel. The rest of the book grew from an attempt to make this notion believable, even possible, within the framework of the sort of world that Thursday inhabits. I tend to take ideas and run with them when I'm writing, and as I was trying to figure out a sequel to The Eyre Affair I mused upon what the Bookworld would look like, and what the population might get up to. Considering that everything devised by Mankind has error and mischief hardwired at inception, I thought it would be a place that needed a policing agency - I then ran with that, and see where it took me.

There is a lot of inventiveness in The Woman Who Died A Lot, mainly with the extraordinary things that Thursday manages to pull off. How do you come up with all those experiments, sequencing of dodos, home cloning kits, and the like?

It's like I've said: take ideas and run with them. I read newspaper stories, and if I read something about cloning mammoths, I think to myself: 'Ah, now how would that happen in  my off-kilter satirical world?' and before you know it, we're there. Ideas are associative, and very promiscuous - one idea can generate hundreds more. I started off with dodos, went to mammoths, then to saber-toothed tigers and then Neanderthals, which ended up as one my favourite plot lines.

There was a big advertising campaign launched by Hodder & Stoughton, with a Twitter “take-over” and Google+ hangouts. How has your experience with social media been, and will you be taking part in these initiatives for your upcoming book releases?

Impossible to say, really - I managed to get eleven books read without it, and one with it, and  I can't really see much difference but then I'm kind of established, so I guess I wouldn't. There is talk that Twitter and Google will help new writers get launched, but there is, in fact, only one thing that gets new writers launched - good writing. We should be wary of people who tell us marketing and sales is the product, when it isn't.

Outside of Thursday Next you have written three other book series - The Dragonslayer trilogy, Nursery Crime Division and Shades of Gray. The Dragonslayer trilogy in particular is a young adult series. Why did you decide to venture into the young adult books? Was this much different to writing the Thursday Next books? Did you encounter any difficulties with your target audience?

The Last Dragonslayer was written in 1997 and had been sitting on my hard drive for a number of years. I thought it might be a good time to give it a launch, and I'm glad to say that it has been well received. The reason I attempted a YA book was because at the time I was unpublished, so was experimenting with all sorts of writing.

All of your series have books forthcoming. Do you have any plans to start a whole new series or will you first finish up the four series and your standalone that you are currently working on?

I'm not sure the TN series actually has an end - it's a kind of ongoing series. The third of the NCD series will possibly not be written for a while as the whole 'retelling nursery stories' is a bit tired at present. The Dragonslayer series should finish next year, which leaves Shades of Grey for 2014.

If you were given the chance to rewrite any scene from any of your books, would you do it? If so, which scene and, more importantly, why?

I'd have made Thursday Next a librarian, rather than an operative for SO-27. Much funnier. I'd also have made the Bookworld geographic, as it is at present. Much easier to understand. Ah well.

If you could name your top three all time favourite fantasy books, which would they be? Do you have any special recommendations?

I have lots. Here are three in no particular order:

  • 'Alice in Wonderland' and 'Alice Through the Looking Glass' (Lewis Carroll)
    Nonsense of the highest order, yet to be surpassed. Extraordinary invention on many levels. Read it as a child and later as an adult - you'll get different things from it. Special Mention: The Jabberwock wearing spats and a tunic in John Tenniel's excellent illustration.
  • The Little Prince (Antoine De St. Exupery)
    Allegorical children's book that continues to enthral and delight. Oddly, St. Exupery wrote and illustrated this on a whim - the rest of his writing is good but does not reach the heights of 'Prince'. Perhaps because he wasn't trying and the door opened to his heart. Special Mention: The rose, the fox and the baobab trees. I never looked at one the same way ever again.
  • The Calculus Affair (Hergé (George Remi))
    I'm a long-time Tintin fan and he remains a big inspiration for story telling. 'The Calculus Affair' is one of the later books and probably the best. By this time Hergé's illustrations, characterisation and humour was never better. The story about secret inventions and kidnappings by foreign powers just snaps along at a breakneck speed. Tank, Helicopter and car chases - this book is like a movie on paper! Special Mention: The locations drawn in the book are for real. You can visit them.

What does the future hold for Jasper Fforde?

In the long term, death and obscurity. In the shorter term, more books - I'm currently writing the third in my YA trilogy called 'The Last Dragonslayer' about an off-kilter look at sorcery and dragons, and after that, a standalone I've been tinkering with for a few years. In the even shorter term, I might go and make myself a cup of tea. It's an exciting time.
Jasper Fforde, November 2012

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Thank you Jasper for taking your time to talk with us and good luck with all your future writing.

Jasper Fforde books reviewed

Professional Reader 10 Book Reviews