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The Fforde Ffenomenon

  

 

 

 

  

    Lost in a Good Book by Jasper Fforde, New English Library, 375pp, $20.95  

 

 

   JASPER Fforde’s first book had a soft launch last year because (a) he was unknown and (b) his publishers were uncertain    how to categorise The Eyre Affair. It was definitely fantasy. Trouble is, it was also sci fi, romance, thriller, crime, gothic    horror ... and it dealt intimately with classics of literature. So Hodder distributed 3500 pre-prints to “just about anyone who    could read” and hoped. The breakthrough was gratifyingly quick. Word of mouth ensured respectable sales in Britain, and a    well-subscribed release in the US. When the sequel, Lost in a Good Book, was published in Britain recently, it sold out its entire    hardback print run by 4pm on Day One.

 

   It’s been an apparent Boy’s Own breakthrough into the literary limelight for Fforde, who starts an east coast literary tour of Australia this week. Except overnight success came only after a decade of disappointments. The Eyre Affair was the fifth novel he had written, accepted after 76 publisher rejections in ten years of trying. “I’d write a book, take it to the publishers, they’d look at it briefly and say ‘very funny, now go away Jasper’. I’d go home, write another, take it in, they’d say ‘very funny …’

      One literary nabob gave him the “very worst advice”, telling him to study the bestseller list and use it as a recipe. He chose instead to follow an “absolute no surrender course, just writing what I wanted to write. That way, if I were to end up with 28 unpublished novels at 82, so what? at least I’d have enjoyed the process.”

 

  He would work at his “real job” as a focus puller in movies, save the money to write a book, then do a movie. (“I was only working in film to feed my writing habit.”) He was lucky eventually to strike a neophyte agent who “actually read past a few pages. She took my manuscript to an editor, who also read it in totality. That’s what I’d been waiting for.” In an industry at saturation point, he says, you need luck to crack it. Besides, his literary milieu requires an imaginative suspension of disbelief beyond many execs.

 

    His hero is a 36-year-old detective called Thursday Next, a tough cookie with very human doubts who inhabits a 1985 England without the microchip but with dirigibles for international travel. Time travel is accessible to some, an Orwellian corporation controls life from “cot to coffin”. Mastodons roam the landscape. Wales is a socialist republic. Britain and Czarist Russia have fought the Crimean War for 131 years. And literature has the cultural sway of sport and pop music in our world: fans change their names to John Milton and dress up as Shakespeare, “football hooligan” gangs of surrealists rumble with French impressionists.

 

 It’s postmodernism with panache, an irreverent extension of territory pioneered by Tom Stoppard's Rosencrantz and Guildernstern are Dead, George MacDonald Fraser's Flashman series and Peter Carey's Jack Maggs. Fforde’s books are Douglas Adams meets Lewis Carroll and Jonathan Swift in a kaleidoscopic mix with Woody Allen, Sara Paretsky, James Bond, Brave New World and English Lit I.

 

  In his own one-sentence description, The Eyre Affair is “a literary detective thriller with romantic overtones, mad inventor uncles, aunts trapped in Wordsworth poems, global multinationals, scheming evildoers, an excursion inside the novel of Jane Eyre, knight-errant-time-travelling fathers and the answer to the eternal question: ‘Who really wrote Shakespeare's plays?’ ”

 

   Lost in a Good Book is more of the same. Thursday Next is apprenticed to Dickens's Miss Havisham in a special Jurisfiction force that, among other things, monitors inappropriate fictional activity (an excess of pilgrims appears in Canterbury Tales, a socialist uprising gives every character equal time in Sense and Sensibility, renamed Confusion and Conviviality), repairs plot flaws and repels malicious intruders (would-be assassins of Heathcliffe, etc). There’s also a discovered Shakespearean play, a “trial” in Kafka’s court, her husband’s eradication since shortly after his birth. And much more. Oh, and the world’s about to end, someone is trying to kill her, and both she and her pet dodo Pickwick are pregnant.

 

    Neither book is flawless – the plot and sub-plots can get messily entangled, action can clunk into black holes of inertia, the dialogue can touch on the breathless - but the whole is an excellent adventure of cross-generational fun. Idiosyncratic action will enthral 15 year-olds, fifty-somethings will be beguiled by the sub-plots, historic subversions and in-jokes.

 

 

SCHOOL WAS NEVER A COMFORTABLE FIT for Fforde, the South Wales-based son of academics majoring in window-watching, listening as mastodons called across prehistoric landscapes. “With those hearty bellows came the clash of cutlass and the death cry of Blackbeard, soon drowned out by the screech of tyres as I drove the mighty 58-Litre Fforde Special to a new lap record at Brooklands …” That life lived imaginatively is why he was “exiled” to a progressive non-academic school in south Devon, why he had a twenty-something year career in filmmaking, why he writes some of the more original books now on the shelves.  

 

Now 41 and the father of 13-year-old twin girls and two younger boys (“the girls are into horses, the boys into noise”), the speed-speaking Fforde and his partner Mari live some 16 km from where he was brought up. His has been a full-circle return. Filmmaking tied him to England even as it took him to 23 countries on four continents – he started as a gofer and was for 13 years focus-puller on such movies as Mask of Zorro, Goldeneye and The Saint. Writing was always the ambition, however, and three years ago when he was able to do it full-time, he hightailed back to the Black Mountains region near the book-based town of Hay-on-Wye. “I love its beauty,” he says. “Plus it’s not England, and everyone’s very polite.”

 

 In another time, Fforde could have been a wandering minstrel, entertaining visited villagers with tales tall and true. He lives surrounded by stories, and he immerses himself willingly and totally  in the realm of story. “I’ve always told stories, especially to my children. They think it’s normal, and I suspect they are quietly proud of me.”

 

So what now, with his new status as cult success? “There’s no adulation, let me tell you, although enthusiasm is quietly smouldering away. I do get frightfully polite emails, however, saying ‘loved your book’.”  Fforde (“That’s my birth name you know, I’d never make up a nom de plume like that”) was relieved when the “intellectual press” treated The Eyre Affair as fun. “They understood it was not an attack on literature but just a silly book with boffo laughs and a spanking plot line delivered at pace. It was written as fun, and it was fun to write, like putting together a huge jigsaw with word pieces.”

 

            Success has brought a book-a-year contract, which means 10-hour days at the desk. “There’s a huge amount of information in the books,” he says, “and the more I write, the more quickly I exhaust my memory and knowledge. So I have to research widely, reading for information and to stay ahead of the game.” Modern novels are of no use - he can only take his eccentric liberties with titles in the public domain, which means their authors have been dead at least 100 years.

 

            The upside is he gets to lie around a lot and read literature, science and history books under the guise of work. “I’ve always enjoyed making bizarre connections between one idea and another, weaving disparate strands together, tying them up with jokes. I have a boy’s factoid head - I love collecting intriguing facts and snippets in every field from nature to vintage cars to philosophy. It means I can scatter little in jokes through the texts just for fun …”

 

     And puns, and humour asides from which even undergrads would recoil. American pianist Oscar Levant once said "a pun is the lowest form of humour- if you didn't think of it first.” Fforde’s puns are plentiful, many recycled. Characters especially get the Dickensian touch: SpecOps agents include Messrs Phodder and Kannon, Dedman and Walken, the baddies include Jack Schitt and his half-brother Schitt-Hawse, Thursday’s love interest is Landen Parke-Laine, her colleagues include Paige Turner and Victor Analogy, her love rival was Daisy Mutlar (the floozy fiancee in Diary of a Nobody), the SpecOps historian is Millon de Floss

 

 Does he get home-groan criticism of his pun-making? “I never pun in public or at home because my children would just pelt me with sticks and hard rocks,” he laughs. “But it’s not so long since puns were considered high humour – in Shakespeare’s time they were grounds for rib-breaking laughter. My puns are pretty awful but used in overkill as they are, they’re accepted. It would be far more dangerous to use them only casually.”

 

   And why Swindon as the base of action? “Swindon, which I used to live near, is amusing in the same way that Rutland and Chipping Sodbury are amusing. It’s known as a provincial town where not a huge amount happens. It grew because of the railway but the railway vanished; it’s not near the sea or mountains or anything really … I thought it would be fun to make the Swindon in my books a place where not a lot doesn’t happen.”

 

      In what free time he has, Fforde flies his beloved 1937 De Havilland biplane over the Welsh hills, or sits admiring his Biggles collection – he has 68 of the 72 W.E. Johns titles published, although “I haven’t read them all” and he assembled them in the “spirit of the collector when they were two pounds or so, not the 70 or 80 pounds they cost now.”

 

 Both the plane and Biggles are classics of their kind, looking back to eras when craftsmanship counted. It’s a theme reflected in his own work. “My books are within the range of the classic narrative,” he says, “with each explained by the end … mostly. They don’t cop out on the reader. I believe a writer has a contract to deliver to readers entertainment. You must never be dull or too tangential, and only a few red herrings are allowed.”

 


This article appeared first in The Weekend Australian. Copyright (c) Murray Waldren


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