A Conversation With Jasper Fforde

by Claire E. White

After twenty years in the film industry working on such major feature films as Quills, Goldeneye,
Photo of Jasper Fforde
Entrapment and the Mask of Zorro, Jasper Fforde decided to leave the film industry to pursue another lifelong dream: to be a novelist. His first book, The Eyre Affair, a literary detective thriller set in an alternate history Great Britain, has just been released in the United States.

As a young boy growing up in Mid-Wales, Jasper had a vivid imagination, and says he spent most of the time he was supposed to be listening to history lessons staring out the window dreaming up imaginary worlds. His creativity helped land him a job in the film industry, where he was a focus puller and cameraman. But he never gave up his love of writing, although he loved working in the film industry -- especially the chance that it gave him to travel the world over. In 1988, he got the inspiration for Thursday Next, the fascinating heroine of The Eyre Affair. While working on a short story and thinking of names for characters, he remembered that his mother used to refer to next Thursday as "Thursday Next". He thought that the name not only had a good sound to it, but was also quite mysterious. This set him to wondering: What sort of a woman would have a name like Thursday Next? Perhaps a detective? He decided that her partner would be named Bowden Cable, which was "just an odd name that [he] liked, totally improbable but just possible." (A "bowden cable" is one of those sleeved cables that are used on bicycle brakes.) He now had two names and the notion that someone kidnaps Jane Eyre from her novel, and says that "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."

And what a world it is. Picture Great Britain in 1985. But picture a Great Britain in which the Crimean War is still raging, Wales is very dangerous place indeed, time travel is common and one of the most popular pets is the dodo (cloning is also commonplace.) The populace is absolutely obsessed with Great Literature: the true authorship of Shakespeare's plays is hotly debated, Will Speak vending machines dispense speeches from the Bard for a small fee, and children swap Henry Fielding bubble-gum cards with all the enthusiasm that children in our world reserve for the works of Britney Spears or P. Diddy. When the Third Most Wanted Criminal in the world, Archeron Hades, finds a way to step into the original manuscript of Jane Eyre and to kidnap Jane, suddenly everyone's copy of the book goes blank -- without its first person narrator, there is no story. With the country in hysterics, literary detective Thursday Next, Special Operative for the shadowy secret service known as SpecOps, is called in on the case. Things get considerably more complicated (and entertaining) after that, as Thursday encounters a range of seedy characters, both fictional and real, attempts to sort out her love life, and save Charlotte Brontë's masterpiece from total annihilation.

The Eyre Affair is garnering rave reviews. Salon calls The Eyre Affair, "smart, frisky and sheer catnip for former English majors" and Otto Penzler says that the book "makes for delightfully hilarious reading." Publisher's Weekly calls The Eyre Affair, "Surreal and hilariously funny." Already a bestseller in England, The Eyre Affair is the first book in what will be a series starring Thursday Next. Thursday's next outing is entitled Lost in a Good Book.

When he's not working, you might find Jasper spending time with his family, flying his beloved 1937 DeHavilland biplane over the hills of Wales, or dipping into a good book. He spoke with us about his move from working in the film industry to being a novelist, and discusses how he created his unique new series. He also gives some great advice to people who want to start a new writing career in their thirties or forties.

When you were growing up, was there anyone in particular who encouraged you in creative pursuits, such as film and writing?

Not really. I come from an academic family, and my apparent disinterest in school was, I think, a matter of some concern. The best thing my parents did for me was to take me out of an academic school and place me somewhere which allowed a more "progressive" attitude to learning and growing up. I was about twelve when I decided I wanted to work in the film industry; the writing bug came a decade later.

How did you get your start in the film business?

I was working as an odd-job man in 1981, earning $4 an hour. I knew I wanted to get into films but didn't know how. I found myself painting and decorating in a producer's house so I told him how much I'd like to get into films; I started with him on his next production three months later -- the screen version of Joseph Papp's Broadway show of The Pirates of Penzance. My first film -­ a musical! I spent the time making tea, coffee and photocopying -- in those days the Xerox machines took about a minute to do one copy. Whenever I could I made some excuse to go down to the set and listen to Linda Ronstadt sing or Kevin Kline camp it up as the pirate king. And then there was Angela Lansbury -- Always remembered my name -- what a star!

What did you love most about the movie business?

Everything. The people, the magic, the one-sided sets, the make-believe, the teamwork, the travel. Most of all, I think -- the people. You get some serious eccentrics in the film industry, from the grip who dismantled and "liberated" a full-size snooker table to the producer who used his tie as a napkin. There is rarely anyone in the film industry without a sense of humor, so I spent a lot of the time giggling -- which is a wonderful way to spend one's adult years. Also, there is a great excitement around a film set. True, it could be mind-numbingly tedious at times, but when a shot or a scene is going well, the camera has nineteen moves, I have fourteen focus positions, the loader has to zoom out at just the right moment and the actors are performing their little hearts out -- yes, it¹s very stimulating -- I should imagine only theatre, live TV or a carrier deck during aircraft operations might be more exciting.

So, you're getting ready to head off on a U.S. book tour. Any worries about flying in the current heightened security climate? Are there any places you are especially looking forward to visiting in the States?

Life has to go on, doesn't it? We should never be cowed by threats. Despite recent events the West is still the safest area of the world in which to live -- many people who live in less stable countries have to go about their daily chores with a far greater element of danger. You may recall in the Balkans a few years ago when citizens had to run the gauntlet of sniper fire just to go shopping.

I always enjoy visiting the States. Every trip brings new sights and experiences. Like many Europeans, a lot of America is familiar to us through films and TV, but even so I am always struck by the contrasts. New York is a wonderful and electrifying place to be yet America also has huge wildernesses of outstanding beauty. Deserts, mountains, -- even a rainforest. (Puerto Rico, in case you're wondering) I could spend years visiting and never be bored. And the distances! The US is vast! I come from a tiny island where a journey of almost staggering proportions requiring weeks of advanced planning is less than the distance between exits on an interstate...

I'd like to talk about your first book, The Eyre Affair, which has just been released in the United States. What was your inspiration for the book?

Cover of The Eyre Affair by Jasper Fforde
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Everywhere and everything. Books, radio shows, newspaper reports, 70s sitcoms, films, plays. The Eyre Affair has tons of ideas compressed into it; if something amuses or grabs my attention then I try to attach it leech-like to the story and then let it grow. The continuous linking of disparate strands is something that I find very enjoyable and quite challenging. In The Eyre Affair I link the Charge of the Light Brigade, Jane Eyre, the biggest corporation ever, an explanation of spontaneous human combustion, the notion of catching a meteorite with a baseball mitt, arguing about who wrote Shakespeare's plays, driving through a time warp and a police department that deals with werewolves. I suppose the idea is to keep the audience from falling asleep. In many ways SpecOps is really only there to link the unlinkable; and what easier way to include everything than devise an organization that deals with everything? And then there's the Welsh Socialist Republic. And Porsche Speedsters. And audience participation Richard III. And dodos.

Although many writers resist the idea of being categorized, bookstores and publicists generally insist upon it. Although I see the book as a detective thriller or perhaps mainstream satire, in the United States this book could be placed in the sf section of the big chains, because of the alternate history and time travel aspects of the story, which Americans tend to associate solely with sf or fantasy books, although this is changing. (Even romance novels here are always labeled as "futuristic" or "paranormal" if they include those elements.) What genre do you see yourself writing in? I think of Terry Pratchett, for example, as primarily a satirist -- the genre of his books is really incidental.

What genre am I? I really don't know. I'm not a great one for looking at what everyone else is up to -- I read very little contemporary literature. If I had stopped to do market research on current reading trends than I don't think The Eyre Affair would have turned out anything like it did. I write what I want to write in the way I choose because it interests me, and also, I hope, anyone who wants to be entertained. Disturbingly, one of the most abundant and wholly useless pieces of advice I received before I were published was:

"Well, Mr. Ford (they never could spell my name) perhaps you should look at the bestseller lists and base your writing on that?"

Truly the worst advice one can give, but in all fairness most agents and publishers are inundated with material and have to say something. The Cross-genre feel of the book put a huge amount of publishers off (76 rejections) and the précis itself condemned the manuscript to be unread by everyone I approached -- until my agent, hungry for material, read the whole thing, loved it and sold it to Penguin seven weeks later. In many ways I think it is probably better for me to steer clear of categorizing; I just write silly books and hope people enjoy them.

One of the very funny plot points is the continuing argument over the authorship of Shakespeare's plays -- and the resolution of the question is quite funny. What's your opinion on this all -- important issue -- Did Shakespeare write his own plays?

Yes, of course he did. The whole question about the authorship was just good old-fashioned Intellectual Snobbery. The intellectuals of the 18th and 19th centuries thought the idea of a Warwickshire nobody writing the finest works in the English language an affront to their own educational standards and authority within England, and started hunting around for anyone else (usually educated and titled) who must have done them. In truth, the only person who could write comparably at the time was Kit Marlowe, but he died before most of the plays were written. (Think what Kit might have written, had he lived!) No, I'm afraid it was Shakespeare all the way. In fact, maybe Shakespeare wrote all the works usually attributed to Bacon and the Earl of Oxford!

In the book, the villain kidnaps Jane Eyre and Thursday Next actually steps into the world of Jane Eyre. Did you feel any trepidation putting words into the mouths of such characters as Jane and Rochester?

The book stalled for about three years as I grappled with the (I thought) literary heresy of putting words in Jane's mouth. As originally drafted, Jane actually had quite a large part in The Eyre Affair but giving her lines just didn't seem right. In the end she gets barely two -- and since her own book is written in the first person, I used this as an excuse for her not to say anything. Rochester, on the other hand, I felt I could do more with. He always struck me as being genuinely in love with Jane (ignore all those unromantics who proclaim otherwise!) and has a great sense of humor and the dramatic -- witness all that nonsense dressed up as a gypsy. I should imagine he used to play practical jokes on Mrs. Fairfax, too. Trick spiders, whoopee cushions, that sort of stuff. I felt Rochester was really only putting on his gruff and glowering manner to front his affections, so he speaks less guardedly to Thursday when he is "Off-duty" from the book. But I think Rochester comes quite well out of it -- his fan club can sleep easy at night.

The lead of the book is Thursday Next. What was the greatest challenge in creating Thursday?

The greatest challenge in creating any character is trying to make them
"New technology changes the way we do things but not who or what we are. Being told stories is one of Mankind's most enduring fascinations and technology might change the ways in which we are told them (video, streamed images, etc.) but not the need."
real. More lost sleep over this than anything else. Because she is something of a fearless heroine who will risk everything and anything to take the right and just course of action, her almost teenage infatuation with her erstwhile boyfriend Landen brings her down, I hope, to a more human level. She makes mistakes like the rest of us, is a little too headstrong at times, has a demanding pet dodo, a mother with dreadful cooking and an elder brother who calls her "Doofus" and slaps her on the back of her head. All heroes or heroines need weaknesses and romance -- where would Superman be without Kryptonite and Lois Lane?

Thursday has a rather complicated love life. When you start a series with a single heroine, do you have any concerns about foreclosing future plot opportunities if she gets married?

I always write with the idea that I have no control over what my characters do. I usually end up writing myself into a corner but then it's quite good fun to try and get out again -- without resorting to the "And with one bound she/he/it was free" ploy. The marriage question was important to the plot because it mirrored Jane and Rochester. I suppose I am also keen about Thursday going "against type" and having one man whom she is love with. In Thursday's world there is a lot she can get up to with her husband -- in book two Landen is eradicated by the ChronoGuard and doesn't exist; he died in a drowning accident 40 years ago. The need to get Landen back is one of the major thrusts of TN-2 -- and opens all kinds of new opportunities for drama and silliness when she is in love and married (sort of) to someone who no one else remembers anything about.

A very entertaining character in the book is Thursday's Uncle Mycroft, who is quite the mad scientist. How did you create the character of Mycroft?

Like many of my characters Mycroft is an amalgam of characters from all over. Since The Eyre Affair has an air of "reverse explanation" about it I planned Mycroft to actually leave the book and turn up in a book of fiction himself, which kind of explains his sudden appearance as Sherlock Holmes' smarter elder brother. He's one and the same person, of course. Mycroft is partly Norman Hunter's Professor Branestawm and partly Q as played by Desmond Llewelyn in the Bond series. I worked as Focus Puller on Goldeneye so actually got to meet Llewelyn and he was every bit as wonderful in the flesh as he is on screen. The "Mycroft laboratory" or "Q-scene" chapter was great fun to write but changed many times as Mycroft's devices became more and more outlandish. The Prose Portal was originally a computer but was so painfully pat and obvious that I wantonly eradicated all computers from Thursday's world and replaced them with differential engines a little like Babbage's computer, but a billion times more complicated. Explaining how the Prose Portal worked always seemed a weak link -- and curiously, the odder the methodology the easier it is to accept. As soon as I thought of bioengineered bookworms all the rest fell into place.

The Great Britain in which Thursday lives differs from our world in a number of aspects: not the least of which is the general public's zeal for great literature (I especially liked the Will-Speak machines that quote Shakespeare on command). Do you find that the popular culture of television, MTV and the like has almost extinguished young people's love of great literature? Will the love of great books endure in the age of high technology and lowbrow entertainment?

I don't think Shakespeare or Great Literature is in any risk of disappearing at all. Trends cycle and return all the time. The young audience don't stay young for ever and pretty soon the need for more gravitas brings an audience back to the "Classics". It is imperative that the groundwork is still taught in schools of course, but on the plus side we do have the "De Caprio" factor that will always bring a younger audience to Shakespeare; how many juveniles would have gone to see Baz Luhrman's Romeo and Juliet without De Caprio in it, or (in another generation) Hamlet without Mel Gibson?

New technology changes the way we do things but not who or what we are. Being told stories is one of Mankind's most enduring fascinations and technology might change the ways in which we are told them (video, streamed images, etc.) but not the need.

The Goliath Corporation is certainly quite scary, perhaps because there is a grain of truth in its depiction. When reading a book of this type, it is tempting to read into the work the author's own views about society and life in general. What opinions of yours about our modern society are really reflected in The Eyre Affair?

I suppose The Goliath Corporation exists in the book as an omnipotent baddy because it's quite easy and writers are on occasion a bit lazy. "Large Corporation = Bad" is something that we can all understand. There are very few "universal baddies" that can be seen as wholly evil in this day and age. Only ugly aliens intent on world domination and Nazis really come close to a sort of unquestioned universal baddy. Today, multinationals are seen as being wicked and undesirable; faceless boards of directors making decisions over the way we run our lives. Well, the very worst excesses of the most corrupt organization would be standard business practice for Goliath. The thing I like about Goliath is that they are completely shameless over what they do -- and in that way perhaps a lot more honest. But is this a reflection of my own feelings about globalization? I'm not sure. Speaking as a foot soldier for the industrialized West myself, I too offer my tacit approval to large companies because I don't really do much to stop them -- perhaps the existence of Goliath is more a comment on the way in which we accept conglomerates rather than the morality (or otherwise) of large companies in themselves.

The world of SpecOps is a complex and shadowy one, full of conspiracies, double games, secrets and spies. Do you have a fondness for spy novels? Would you have made a good spy, do you think?

I always found spy novels a bit slow and tedious in my youth but enjoy
"My years in the film industry makes me think visually and I construct the scenes in my head before putting them on paper. There are some scenes in The Eyre Affair which would work better on film.... Timing of dialogue is sometimes tricky on paper."
them more now. When aged ten I always wondered why anyone was interested in politics but now I find the whole delicate power argy-bargy absolutely riveting; the best soap opera on the telly. I prefer to read non-fiction spy dramas as they are always far more incredible and relate to things that actually happened in the bigger theatre; The political nonsense and petty squabbling surrounding The Charge of The Light Brigade regarding the British Army and Lords Raglan, Cardigan and Lucan is fascinating stuff given greater gravity due to it a) actually happening and b) being almost unbelievable and c) having a profound and shocking effect upon the nation at the time. As for me being a spy, I think I would have been fantastic -- but in reality would have been dreadful.

The very nature of Thursday's job will lead her to experience different times and places (some real, some imaginary). As a writer, how do you keep it all straight? Do you use outlines, or have a system for which you can reference plot points in future books in the series? (You know how picky dedicated fans can be about these things!)

All subplots regarding time travel open a huge can of worms to any writer as the whole time travel thing is full of ludicrous paradoxes that tie one in knots. Thursday's father was eradicated before he was born so never existed yet Thursday was born. Surely this wouldn't happen? Well, why not? Since time travel is still in the theoretical arena, I think I can make up the rules as I go along. The simple way to get round all these problems is to blatantly flag them as a hole in the plot -- and allow the reader to carry on, having left the nonexplanation as an explanation in itself. Example: In book two there is an exchange between Thursday and her Father where we learn that the world is about to have another Armageddon (In SpecOps they get two or three a week). Trouble is, Thursday's Dad has already been into the future and seen a non-armageddoned world. Problem? Well, yes -- unless I put in this sort of flag to deflect the obvious paradox:

"Hang on!" I said, slightly confused, "you've been beyond 1985, Dad - you told me so yourself!"

"I know that," replied my father grimly, "so we better get this absolutely right!"

I like this sort of exchange because it moves the goalposts of time travel grammar. Look out for hole-flagging in books and (especially) films; it happens more than you think. There is a great one in Casablanca where Victor Laszlo and Elsa, eager to get hold of the exit papers to Lisbon, are told by Ugarte where to find them. But he wouldn't do this of course, as we already know that Ugarte is a trafficker in human woes. So he prefaces his advice with the words: "I don't know why I am telling you this as there is no benefit to me, but..." Hole flagged. (By the way, I'm only quoting from my memory, so forgive me if I've got the words wrong!)

To keep track of events and people in my books I have a profusion of notes to explain who everyone is and what they do, and I leave stopping off points in my books to fit in with plot points in future volumes -- but usually only with the vaguest idea of how this might work. But I like the interlocking because it not only allows me to start a subplot and finish it several years later in another book, but also give the attentive reader something to find; Narrative Easter eggs, if you will. If it all sounds a little haphazard, you're right. It is. When I start a book I have only the merest notion about how it is going to turn out. But I enjoy the journey!

As one reads the book, it is quite easy to visualize the scenes and the characters. Do you consider yourself a very visual person? Do you visualize your scenes before you write them?

My years in the film industry makes me think visually and I construct the scenes in my head before putting them on paper. There are some scenes in The Eyre Affair which would work better on film -- The car chase is one of them and Landen and Thursday playing the piano duet is another. I know the piece they would play and the scene would be much stronger with the music. Timing of dialogue is sometimes tricky on paper -- it would be nice to write overlapping speech and two people shouting at one another at the same time...

The dialogue in the book is fast-paced, and very funny. How did you hone your ear for dialogue?

Is it? I have no idea. I always think that whatever my characters are saying are just different versions of me. The master of dialogue was Dickens; he manages to make all his characters sparkle with an individuality that stops me in my tracks. A true genius.

After reading The Eyre Affair, I felt like rereading Jane Eyre. What will I feel like rereading after the next book in the series -- Lost in a Good Book -- would it be Great Expectations? (The rumor is that Miss Havisham makes an appearance.) What is it about Great Expectations and Miss Havisham that you find compelling?

The problem and delight of using characters from classical novels is that
Publicity still of SpecOps Operative Thursday Next.

Special Operative Thursday Next.

they have to be familiar. If I started stealing people from obscure novels then there would be no familiarity, and consequently no joke. It is because Jane Eyre and Shakespeare and Dickens are so familiar that I can have so much fun with them. In many ways, half of my work is done when a reader has completed their first twenty or thirty years of life. I take things from their memory and how they perceive them and then merge them together in new and unexpected ways. In book two Thursday meets Miss Havisham from Great Expectations and the Red Queen and the Cheshire Cat from Alice in Wonderland. They are, I think, pretty well known, and the gag is that they are quite different out of character -- or in the Cat's case no different at all.

What is your opinion of ebooks? Will print books even be in existence (except as a collectors' items) in twenty years?

If books and reading were invented tomorrow they would be hailed as the greatest technological advance known to mankind. No batteries, simple, portable, durable. Why bother building sets or creating convincing computer effects when the images are already there in the reader's mind? Think about it. A collection of letters and figures barely 1k in computer terms inputting images direct to the reader's own imagination:

"....The mediaeval castle was suspended in the air, barely a cable's length above the moonlit sea, the towers dark, the silence only broken by the raucous call of a lone raven as it wheeled close by the only lit window..."

Get the picture? Yes, but how is it done? By following a simple Imaginotransference protocol? When a reader praises an author, they should reserve 75% of that praise for themselves...

What is your advice to those who are thinking of starting a writing career in their thirties or forties?

Do it for fun. Do it for yourself. Do it because you want to write. Writers write because they can't stop. They scribble notes in books, write poetry, jot down good snippets of dialogue and generally exist in their own little world. Write, write and write some more. Write what you want to write, no matter how daft it seems. Don't be frightened of dumping a sentence, character, chapter or book and starting again. When you've finished one book, write another. You'll be surprised how much better the second one is to the first. Above all, enjoy it. Even if you never find a publisher, you'll still have been on a wonderful adventure.

What are your pet peeves in life?

"[Write] for fun. Do it for yourself. Do it because you want to write. Writers write because they can't stop.... Above all, enjoy it. Even if you never find a publisher, you'll still have been on a wonderful adventure."
Pompous people, dishonest people, people who are spiritually mean and people with self-serving agendas. Everything else is pretty much okay as far as I'm concerned. Although purely as a harmless vanity I would like to have sounded more like George Sanders.

When you're not writing, what are your favorite ways to relax and have fun?

I have a pilot's license and when the day is fine there is nothing quite so sporting as taking the 1937 DeHavilland biplane for a flight above the green fields, rivers and mountains of Wales, the engine burbling healthily, the wind blowing a delicate symphony through the bracing wires. Flying -- it's the reason birds sing.

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