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Thursday After Next:
Jasper Fforde
interviewed by Cristopher Hennessey-DeRose
Following a childhood in mid-Wales, Jasper Fforde began with a career as a focus-puller for such films as GoldenEye and Quills before going on to pursue his dream of full-time author with his first work, The Eyre Affair, a kind of cockeyed SF/slipstream story taking place within an alternate history take on Great Britain, where the Crimean War is still going on and cloning dodos for house pets is the order of the day. And that's the more linear of the topics. Others include the heroine and literary detective Thursday Next rescuing Jane Eyre from those who have kidnapped her from her own book. When not writing, reading, or spending time with family, Jasper can be found flying his biplane somewhere over Wales.
Jasper Fforde photo by Mari Roberts

Were you concerned that The Eyre Affair would be difficult to market because its eclectic nature?

I had no market strategy at all. My first four novels were written for me and no-one else. I wrote because I enjoyed it and although I thought they might have broader appeal, I was met with earth shattering indifference every time I approached an agent/publisher. I wrote five books before someone expressed an interest - my second book was even a sequel to my first book, which I couldn't get a publisher for, so perhaps that gives you some idea of the lack of intelligent strategy!

What motivated you to pick first-person narrative?

Thursday Next was third-person up until about a month before the first draft was finished. Thursday seemed a bit cardboardy and distant to me so I thought I would go into her head and find out what she thought at close quarters. I converted the whole book from third to first. Small errors and idiosyncrasies still survive like flies in amber - most notably the flashback format for the chapter in which she meets Hades for the first time - as originally drafted the action moves between Snood and Thursday and Buckett and Styx with a good pace, but once first person she can't know what's going on so flashback seemed the best way to tell it. The chapter with Mycroft sending Polly into Daffodils was also a problem - Thursday doesn't appear at all. Solution: the old Mycroft was to tell me later... ploy. Once I had moved to first-person she had a lot more warmth - I don't think she would be half as likeable without it - from other people's point of view I'd think she'd appear hard as nails and pretty cold.

Your work reminds me a bit of Grant Morrison's. Are you a reader of his work?

Not at all. I'd never be so rude as to suggest I'd never heard of him, but then he's not heard of me, either. I tend to sit in a bit of a contemporary fiction hermitage, really - my modern SF read list pretty much composes of The Sentinel, Slaughterhouse-5, Tiger, Tiger, - and all of Wyndham - is he contemporary or classic? Anyway, I'm more a Wells and Verne man - I just love the Gothic appeal, the low technology and passionate plot-lines, superb characterisation, high drama. I've attempted two pure SF books written in the last decade but couldn't get beyond page eight. Dense, very dense (me, not the book - or perhaps both). In fantasy the list is even smaller. Wizard Of Earthsea is the only one I can think of, apart from the Narnia series (required reading for my generation!) and Mervyn Peake, T.H. White.

Did the plot of The Eyre Affair come first, or the character of Thursday Next?

About neck and neck. The plot was vaguely there but Thursday was equally as important. Without someone you care about to guide you through the bizarre world, then it's just a huge heap of wacky ideas cobbled together. I've always been at pains to make the odd world in which she resides nothing more than wallpaper to what is important to her: Truth, justice and Landen, although not necessarily in that order.

Do you write from an outline or just let the story un-spool, as it will?

I used to just let the story unspool but now I have to write a book a year I take more care over outlines; that's not to say I follow them, but at least I know the main thrust of the story and the two major subplots; I like to improvise and ideas, I find, beget new ideas as I write them, so I like to keep my plans fairly loose. I think it counts for the complexity of the plots and subplots; if I have an idea I tend to lay it over the top of the others and just stitch it in. It's misdirection, really - keep the pace and action tight and all the errors are glossed over - like rocks beneath a fresh fall of snow.

Did you originally intend the world(s) of Thursday Next as ongoing, or did Thursday's universe end up demanding it?

The existence of this world came about through absolute necessity. I wanted Thursday Next to be the person she is and do the things she does but she didn't really fit into the way we did things in our world. Instead of modifying her to fit in with us I thought I would modify our world to fit in with her. It started simply enough with everyone having an increased interest in things literary but her world grew even weirder every day and before I knew it I had 30 different SpecOps divisions policing everything from recapturing werewolves to looking after ripples in Spacetime. I had the Crimean war still raging, an all-powerful Goliath Corporation, Czarist Russia; reverse engineered pet dodos and Wales a Socialist Republic. It's a bit like eating Pringles - difficult once started to be able to stop.

What makes a cinematographer want to become a writer?

I think it's the other way round. From an early age I knew I wanted to work in story but saw movies as the only way to do it - writing was something that intelligent people do - not for the likes of me. By the time I was in my late twenties I realised that I could write for fun and no-one could stop me, but carried on working in the film industry to pay the bills. I wrote for 10 years as a hobby; staying in the grade of focus puller for far to long to enable me to do it. In the perverse way that the universe works, I had decided to slow down the writing and concentrate on lighting - when I get published. Funny how things turn out.

When writing, do you miss the excitement of a movie set?

I miss the people, yes - and a movie set is an exciting place to be - but in my own little way I've got a huge movie set of my own, right in font of me - and I get to design sets, cast who I want and can do as many retakes as I want - within reason!

The Eyre Affair has multiple levels in its storytelling - how did you know when to stop the story from expanding where it did?

The multiple levels are there through an accident, really. I started with the original story, which was only with Jane Eyre, then added subplots as I tinkered with the plot. The Crimean War and the plasma rifle came first, then Landen, then Goliath, then Hades in bed with Goliath and finally the Spike Interlude and her father is dealing with the French Revisionists and the Shakespeare authorship. It looks a bit like a strata in rock - you can tell the oldest subplot by the proximity to the end - the closer it is, the older it is - TN has about four endings, I think!

Were you concerned at all about how your work would be received by American audiences?

Of course - nervous as hell - who wouldn't be? I had no idea whether they would love it or hate it. But my US publisher thought it would so I was kept buoyant by their enthusiasm. I didn't think it would sell beyond the UK and now - quite apart from the deal in the States - Thursday will be translated into Japanese, Korean, Hebrew, Chinese, French, German, Dutch and Croatian. I have a healthy following in Australia and New Zealand, too - and recently went on a tour in Singapore. Books, I have found, are a very global thing - but they would be - story is one of the human fundamentals.

In works like The Eyre Affair, where the plotting is especially complex, dialogue can become a casualty, with lines between characters becoming interchangeable. How did you manage to retain the unique voices of your characters?

You mean I got away with it? (Big sigh of relief) All my characters by definition have to be different versions of me, and I suppose that's the trick although dialogue itself is only half the game. When I set up a character (I hope) I set them up so the reader fills in the blanks - to be honest, most of the hard work is done by the reader; I just throw up a few flags to guide them down the course.

Can someone who has not read Jane Eyre still enjoy The Eyre Affair?

I hope so - I considerately put in a précis of Charlotte Bronte's work for anyone who hasn't read it. Thursday explains it to Bowden on a car journey - hopeless exposition, I admit, but for the different ending plot device to work, the reader had to know what was going on.

How did you know you had a passion for writing rather than more a love of reading?

Difficult to say. How do you know that you enjoy anything? Writing, despite the great deal of fun I have with it, is still very much agony and ecstasy - agony when things don't work out well, but ecstasy when the pieces start to interlock; it's an odd experience - and the fact that you do it on your own is even odder. Painters and sculptors must go through a similar thing, I should imagine.

Your first book started as a script, went to short stories, then became a novel - will readers see any of your short fiction in print?

Eventually, I hope. The early ones were a bit ropey but they can be de-roped and served up as a cold buffet in between main courses.

Why did you make Acheron Hades the third most evil person in the world? Why not higher or lower in the rankings of evildom?

What is the fun of having a character who is the most evil man on the planet? It's a cliché. But Acheron being the third points not only to him being a bit crap as an evil genius, but also to a larger world outside the boundaries of the book. Who, given Hades obvious homicidal tendencies, is the first and second? And what do they do to achieve such a ranking? And who keeps the rankings? Do they have a self-help group with people like Blofeld and Moriarty?

Do you have any plans for stories outside Thursday's world?

Plenty. Thursday is one facet of a writing style that I hope to develop over the years. I've been only doing this two years. I am a fledgling author. I have much to learn.

Has there been any interest by filmmakers to bring Thursday to the big screen?

Plenty. But it's like selling your house with all the furniture, books and knick-knacks that you've accumulated over the years, handing the keys to someone who can burn it down if they want and never turning back. I've been in the film industry for a long time and know what a hopeless mess even well intentioned filmmakers can make out of even half decent material. That's my job. No-one is going to screw it up except me. Besides, if I make it and it turns into a hopeless piece of crap, I can always claim that this was the effect I was looking for - and who can argue?

You've said that when all was said and done with The Eyre Affair, you managed to get your 'Own mammal out of the fish at the very end - even if it is a duck-billed platypus.' What sort of animal would Lost In A Good Book be?

An echidna. Lays eggs and suckles it's young. Weird. Must have been a genetic resequencing experiment in a parallel universe.

You steered away from Jane Eyre having too much dialogue in The Eyre Affair, but in Lost In A Good Book, you take more liberties with Miss Havisham of Great Expectations and the Cheshire cat. Were you apprehensive of how you would go about this?

Not really - the Cheshire cat is such a very clear-cut character that he is relatively easy to appropriate - his non-sequitars are wonderful and it is a joy to carry them on. Miss Havisham I wanted to add a bit more to - take the cranky, sad old man-hater and give her a new direction - hunting down bad guys or schooling the impetuous new girl, Thursday Next. Thursday is quite tough and I wanted someone who bullies and browbeats her in almost every line of dialogue - but even Havisham has a weakness - anything with an engine. I liked that. Feisty old girl, really.

What other literary figures will you cover in the next two Thursday Next novels?

I'm not sure. TN3 features a lot from Wuthering Heights but quite a few others. There is a limit to how many new people I can introduce; many characters carry on from one book to the next - and new characters always have to be introduced for a good reason - they have to be actually part of the plot or the joke wears thin very quickly. I have a problem using anything in copyright, too - so when I want to pastiche contemporary novels I tend to make up writers and novels - Daphne Farquitt is a terrible romantic fiction writer, for instance.

Ron Hogan asked you if you could step into any book, which would it be? You answered him (The Little Prince) but said you'd have to think about it in case someone asks. I'm asking.

Ideally, I'd like to travel around in books like Thursday does, but doubt I'd find them as I had expected - perhaps it would be better to stay away. How many people have you looked forward to meeting and then been disappointed? Anything created by a human will always have our frailties and faults inbuilt into it - although The Little Prince looks fantastic from the outside, perhaps inside it's not all it seems. Mind you, that's probably only the storyteller in me saying that!

Jasper Fforde photo by Mari Roberts Books by Jasper Fforde:
The Eyre Affair (2001)
Lost In A Good Book (2002)

Well Of Lost Plots (July 2003)
Visit this author's website.

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