SFX Issue 109

October 2003

Profile

JASPER FFORDE

Author, Well Of Lost Plots

Literary classics of the world beware – anything could happen in the next Jasper Fforde novel…

“Bookworm shit!” laughs Jasper Fforde, wiping the dusty motes from his sweatshirt sleeve. We’re in the library of the Museum Of Wales in Cardiff, where the author of the Bookworld series is posing for photos. It’s packed to the roof with musty tomes bearing such titles as Bird Life Of Anglesey . It looks great for the session, but they’re not really the kind of books that are going to make their way into the next Jasper Fforde novel.

Fforde, you see, writes a unique brand of fantasy humour books that, in his own words, “have fun with storytelling conventions.” That’s a rather dry description which belies the amazing inventiveness and imagination that go into his books. They’re difficult to describe. The Sunday Express apparently gave up if the blurb on his latest book, The Well Of Lost Plots , is anything to go by: “Don’t ask. Just read it.”

What we’re talking here is postal-modern, a witty and wickedly clever series of books about books that explodes in your imagination like a literary depth charge. “In Well Of Lost Plots Thursday Next is hiding out in the backstory of one of my unpublished books,” Fforde explains, like it’s the most straightforward plot in the world. “So if it were to be published would I have to go back and rewrite Well Of Lost Plots ?”

Confused? Let’s try to explain. The series stars Thursday Next, a Swindon lass from a parallel universe 1980s in which the Crimean War is still being fought. She works for the literary division of SpecOps, who enter novels to right wrongs, such as getting an errant Jane Eyre back into her own novel. Thursday can book-hop between different novels, enabling Fforde to have fun messing about with all kinds of literary classics, from Shakespeare to Wuthering Heights to 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea . And she also has a pet dodo. Don’t ask. Just read it.

Fforde has rapidly become a phenomenon. His first book, The Eyre Affair , was only published three years ago, and now he’s being spoken of as in the same league as Terry Pratchett and Douglas Adams. But, like a struggling indie band that makes the top ten after years of gigging, his success was not overnight. A former film cameraman and focus puller (“I did 25 movies and most of them were rubbish”) with an imagination fuelled by a diet of ’60s and ’70s sitcoms ( Monty Python , Fawlty Towers and Porridge are among his favourites) he spent ten years writing before being championed by an agent and finally published. In that time he received no less than 76 rejection slips, but it never got him down.

“If you think about it, 76 rejections isn’t really that much. I wasn’t trying very hard, really. I mean that only comes to 7.6 rejection slips a year, ultimately. I thought rather than traipsing around the streets of London for six months I would be better off writing another book.”

That doesn’t mean, though, that after three published novels he only has three left. “No, five. Because Lost In A Good Book and Well I’ve written over the past two years. The others are still sitting around waiting to be published. In fact you’ll find, if you’ve read book three, there is a big arm twist in there to publish book one, which is called Nursery Crime , and is all about nursery rhyme characters being murdered. The first one’s all about Humpty Dumpty being murdered. It would have been about a load of bored characters who want a change from the humdrum routine.”

His experimentation isn’t restricted to the narrative. He also plays with the structure; characters communicate using footnotes and the cliché “and suddenly a shot rang out” is turned into a weapon. Fforde has plenty more ideas along this line still to use. “One idea I did have for either the second or third book – which I didn’t have time to use but I would still like to – is that I was going to have two pages that were a graphic novel, which Thursday could have walked into. There’s the Flicknoterphones as well – a different picture on the corner of each page. Flick the book and you get a message.”

Fforde has quickly built up a vociferous fanbase, with whom he communicates through a typically off-the-wall website he designed and runs with his girlfriend. It’s very handy for generating ideas, and Fforde namechecks everyone whose suggestions make it into his novel. The word “fictionaut” and (for a future book) the concept of irritable vowel syndrome both came from posters to www.jasperfforde.com.

“At the end of Lost Plots there are the Book World Awards,” adds Fforde. “I asked for nominations on the website, and people came up with all sorts of ideas and they were credited in the back of the book. Best Dead Guy In Fiction was an idea from the website.”

It’s a good job he doesn’t live in the litigious US, then, where people sue for having their ideas nicked. “I don’t know. There’s no copyright on ideas. The lawyers look for the litigants. The litigants don’t necessarily care. It’s the lawyers who say, ‘Look I can get you a million dollars… sign here.’ I suppose things might be different if I were a millionaire…”

You never know. The way his career is going at the moment, writ-bearing chancers may not be that far in the future…