Some established writers are a byword for their genre. Agatha Christie is to whodunits what Barbara Cartland is to romance; while Terry Pratchett is to fantasy what Jasper Fforde is to… well, to what, exactly?
This dilemma has made Fforde’s journey as a novelist as simple and straightforward as that of a mountaineer scaling the Matterhorn in the dark and wearing slippers.
The first thing an agent, editor or marketing person wanted to know was, “What is it about?” Trying to explain the plot, however, was likely to elicit pained expressions and questions like, “But how can Jane Eyre be kidnapped out of Jane Eyre?” and “Why is the Greek God Prometheus claiming refugee status, while sitting in the lounge of a Thames Valley detective, who investigates crimes among nursery rhyme characters?”
Apparently, I am far from alone in accidentally finding his books and spreading the news by word-of-mouth. Fforde reckons that his book sales have to grow that way, because there is no literary shorthand that describes how his novels work; they fit no genre easily and have no direct comparisons. Ask Forde what genre he works in and he might tell you that it is just, “This silly, silly nonsense that I do.”
The result is that people say to others, “I can’t explain it – just read it!” and that person enjoys the book so much that they do the same to others and so his reputation grows exponentially.
Speaking as he was promoting his Shades of Grey novel, Fforde told me that his work is popular, “because it’s a celebration of quirky pop culture connections that we all share” and “the very bizarre connections that I make. If there is this big tree of popular culture that is everything from Austin Powers at the bottom to Shakespeare right at the top, I pluck fruit from all over that tree, and I think people enjoy a mix.”
With Fforde, it is not so much the variety of fruit that he picks as what he does with it once he has picked it. Shakespeare may be at the top of the tree, but it does not earn the bard any respect. In The Eyre Affair, Richard III is a pantomime that has been playing in Swindon for some fifteen years and when the king comes on stage, he calls out, “When is the winter of our discontent?” The crowd shouts back to him, “Now is the winter of our discontent!”
You could imagine that in a Fforde version of Macbeth or Hamlet, as soon as a would-be murderer approaches his victim, the crowd would shout out, “He’s behind you!”
Fforde particularly enjoys playing with Hamlet’s character, “For years, intellectuals have been trying to figure out his inner motivation, when in fact he doesn’t know either, which I think is rather sweet. He comes to the real world, because he thinks he’s been misrepresented as something of a ditherer, when in fact he knows that he’s a rapier-sharp wit, a philosopher-poet.
“The thing about Hamlet is, he’s delighted that Mel Gibson plays him in the movie,” Fforde said, explaining that the plots of Hamlet, Lethal Weapon and Mad Max all basically start with the death of a loved one, involve suicide and end up with everyone dead (apologies for any spoilers).
His brain clearly has many little corners where strange things breed (in his books, Heathcliffe from Wuthering Heights takes anger management classes) but his heart houses a more straightforward inverted snobbery. Objecting to the classics being used as teaching aids, “when they should just be a good fun read,” he declared, “I always like to read the books that I subvert, so that I can misunderstand them on a deeper level.”
Fforde began with his Nursery Crimes series, in which characters like the Three Bears and Little Bo Peep live among ordinary people, as if there’s nothing odd about them being there. Humpty Dumpty did too, until he was found scrambled.
When he had run out of nursery rhymes, Fforde started to plunder the classics, turning Dorian Gray into a used car salesman.
His most famous streak is the Thursday Next series, named after his female detective, who works for the literary crimes agency Jurisfiction. The first book, The Eyre Affair is based on the premise that “Jane Eyre is kidnapped out of Jane Eyre for a ransom and, because it is told in the first person, every page after 200 will be blank unless the bad guys can be stopped.”
Because this cannot really happen, he decided, “Instead of changing the plot to fit the world, let’s change the world to fit the plot. So what I did then was create the Nextian universe, which is this very bizarre, very human, very warm, off-kilter world with human foibles dressed up in literary terms; like our world, but exaggerated and satirical.”
This universe includes the BookWorld, where characters exist independently outside their books, which Fforde found himself creating as he looked for a sequel to The Eyre Affair.
“Some ideas are narrow seams and they get taken out really quickly,” he said, “but other ones are really rich. Writing books about books and a BookWorld has a huge, huge potential. There’s an awful amount of fun to be had here!”
He explained the concept, whereby “books are blank when they’re sitting on your shelf, but on page 28 there’s a caretaker, sitting round a brazier and he’s got a thermos flask and a Tupperware box with his sandwiches in. He’s waiting for you to reach to the shelf and as soon as your fingers are around the spine on the book, he’ll hit this red button on the floor, all the klaxons go off and all the characters have to drop what they’re doing – there aren’t that many characters in fiction; they’re generally the same sort of people with different hats –and dash into the first page that you open, and fill it with all the humour and pathos and drama.
“As you turn over the pages, the book is constructed in front of you, and the bit of the book that you’ve read is being dismantled and being taken off to be read somewhere else, because there is a certain economy that runs through the Bookworld. There’s only about seven pianos, and there is a division in Jurisfiction that looks after moving pianos around, book to book; it’s very hectic…”
Fforde spent his early years in the film industry, but doesn’t like to think that this influences his writing. However, he does concede that there may be a subtle effect.
“I tend to imagine a situation and then write down what I’m observing. So in that respect, it’s quite cinematic. But I think what the film industry really gave me was the opportunity to meet a lot of very, very strange people. It’s packed full of real oddballs and egos and petulant hissy-fits and all that kind of stuff – but also an opportunity to travel, which has been brilliant, and twenty years of going on location to places in Britain, the world, everywhere – which is hugely beneficial to an author.”
As he tried to get a book deal – and he had written a few novels before he could get one published –the only advice he could get from the trade was, “See what’s on the best-sellers list and write something similar.”
“That is the worst piece of advice I’ve ever heard and it was genuinely given to me,” he said. “It won’t be yours, will it? You could spend six months writing a book and it won’t get published, and it’s not yours, so it’s a lose, lose, lose situation. It’s important to state your own voice, if you’re a writer.”
There are many readers overjoyed that he stuck to his principles, because no one is going to write these books if Fforde doesn’t. They are that original.
Part Two of this interview looks at his chromatically dystopian Shades of Grey novel. And Swindon.