Literature allows us to enter a different universe, to escape from everyday life, to have adventures alongside heroes and heroines, to weep and exult with them. The much-loved genre-bending writer Jasper Fforde, who tops the list of authors that fans want to interact with at literary festivals, does that and more, while straddling the genres of crime and the fantastic. Given this, it’s no wonder that the Fforde’s Fantastic Feedback sessions, part of the ongoing Emirates Literature Festival in Dubai, sold out two months before the event.
“Fiction writers are generally solitary creatures, sitting for hours with make-believe friends and enemies, throwing our hapless creations into ever frightful situations, adventures and challenges, so to get out every now and again is very welcome indeed. I greatly appreciate meeting readers who have enjoyed my books, gained an insight, a distraction from adversity,” says the writer, who has sold millions of books worldwide.
With so many book series on the go, Fforde fans are awaiting follow-ups and that is surely a hot topic at the festival. Will there be another book in the “Shades of Grey” world, set in a world in which the colours characters are able to see define their social standing, or the “Nursery Crimes” books where DCI Jack Spratt and Sergeant Mary work for the Nursery Crime Division in Reading, where characters from nursery rhymes are not only real and alive, but also enjoy celebrity status?
“There will be another book in the “Shades of Grey” world, and I’m thinking it will be a standalone project set in the “Shades of Grey” world, but without protagonists Eddie and Jane, who are yet to be born,” says Fforde, who received 76 rejection letters before his debut “The Eyre Affair”, published in 2001 when he was 40 years old.
In Fforde’s bestselling “Thursday Next” series, literature is not only an omnipresent feature of everyday life in his version of Britain, it is also taken care of by a veritable special force, led by agent Thursday Next, which polices the world of fiction by confiscating counterfeit manuscripts and patrolling the borders of reality and fiction. So when Jane Eyre is kidnapped from her eponymous novel in “The Eyre Affair”, the first of seven-book series, these literary detectives, aka SpecOps 27, naturally enter the limelight.
In “The Eyre Affair”, his breathtakingly original debut novel, Fforde, enormously knowledgeable about literary history, mixes up fantasy, crime, sci-fi and interplay with Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre. “‘The Eyre Affair’ was unpublished novel number three of six...I was writing for myself, hence the odd broth of time travel, literary themes, werewolves. Despite this outburst of strange ideas, I did still work to central fundamental tenets, at least in spirit, to any classical works I had borrowed from. I was still worried that fans of Jane Eyre might be annoyed, but as it turned out, the opposite was true. It was librarians and English teachers who gave the book traction.”
The novel garnered effusive reviews, and received high praise from the booksellers and readers throughout the UK. In the US, the book entered the New York Times Bestseller List in its first week of publication.
This came after Fforde spent 20 years in the film industry, as a camera assistant, working on such major feature films as “GoldenEye”, “Entrapment” and “The Mask of Zorro”. Pursuing his dream to be a novelist, he started writing in 1990, and spent 10 years secretly writing novel after novel as he strove to find his own style.
“I started writing screenplays to make short films as I wanted to be a director but the screenplays were no good at all, so I heard somewhere that Graham Greene used to write a treatment first in the guise of a novella, then adapt the screenplay from that. I thought I’d give this a shot, but then fell in love with the written word, and never attempted to get anything made.”
His literary spoofs are brilliant, a delightful mix of magic and absurdity. He says he has always been “good with ideas” ever since he was expelled from his first school, aged 8, for being “obnoxious”.
“The skill I had to learn was finding a way to stitch the ideas together. I’ve always loved comedy, but also liked ‘imaginative play’. I was always making up jokes, finding odd connections with things, and taking two ordinary yet disparate ideas and bringing them together to create something new,” says the British writer, who adds dollops of word play, irony, literary humour and satire in his writings.
He entered the realm of children’s novels with “The Last Dragonslayer” series in 2010, where the 15-year-old protagonist Jennifer Strange, as the acting director of Kazam Mystical Arts Management, rides herd on 45 “sorcerers, movers, soothsayers and other assorted mystical artisans”. For creating this series, an alternate world in which magic is real, Fforde has been described in the British press as a “grown-up” J.K. Rowling.
“The reference to J.K. is very flattering, but I think it is more journalistic shorthand than a genuine comparison,” says the writer, unbothered by what other writers and critics think.
“The Last Dragonslayer” was a book he wrote when he was trying to get published, “It was number four of six...it was sitting on my hard drive for over 15 years before my agent remembered it and thought ‘we could give it a whirl’. My adult books are for ‘children of all ages’, writing for children wasn’t so much of a change — just lower the age of the protagonist, remove some subplots and play down the allusion. I am writing more for a YA audience that existed when I was a kid. YA today, with lots of vampires, sex and death, is really not my thing.”
Oddly, Fforde’s books seem to take their own time to write, in much the same way as the tone, content and length. “I can do a sequel book in about 120 days spread over six months, but a standalone with a new world often takes me two years, although I recall “The Last Dragonslayer” took me only 26 days to first draft. I tend to write ‘on the hoof’; ideas are added as I go along, which often necessitates drastic rewriting. ‘The only thing that will slow this book down’, I say to my anxious publishers, ‘is a good idea in the last week of writing’.”
He always starts with a “narrative dare” and doesn’t stick to a genre or a plan, he says it is vital for writers to do their “own thing”.
“Genre is the measles of the writing world; it keeps writers writing the same old thing year after year, and worse, can often keep readers stuck in the same groove. I would sweep away all notion of genre when I achieve global leader status, and insist that books were instead categorised more arbitrarily — such as by the colour of their cover! Silly notion perhaps, but for me the most interesting place in any library is the oversized book section, where you can find a dazzling assortment of titles, all nestling up close. Clarice Cliff pottery next to Pop Art next to Great Railway bridges of the Edwardian era. It’s the place I head to first in a library,” says the creator of some of the quirkiest fiction being written today.
Fforde draws his characters from everyday life — names can come from anywhere, even the grocer, from which he derived his character Otis Fruitcake.
Any favourite character?
“I like all my principal characters, but the secondaries can be great fun. I’m particularly fond of a clockwork butler named Sprockett in one of our “Thursdays”, and Melanie Bradshaw, who is a gorilla.”
It was perhaps inevitable that Fforde, who has inspired a loyal fan base, that some readers have started an annual festival in Swindon, southwest England, the Fforde Ffiesta in 2003. It turns out that there have been marriages as a result of his fans meeting at the Ffiesta — and, of course, there’s been babies too.
“They have occurred sporadically since then and we are up for our fifth event this year. The turnout is modest, about 120 people, but at least 70 of those are the same people each year, so it’s more like a family reunion than anything else. Events are usually quite odd, with performance poetry competitions, “Hamlet” soliloquy speed trials and a fancy dress!”
Coming to Dubai for the first time for the literature festival, Fforde says travelling to new places is a “hugely enjoyable” experience for him. “Travel is always full of opportunities for ideas.”
A fan of Islamic art and architecture, Fforde is dismayed that during his visit to Abu Dhabi for the book fair years ago, he missed having a look at the Shaikh Zayed Grand Mosque. “I mistimed my visit to the mosque and only got to see the outside. When I was in Abu Dhabi we were shown the plans and models for the UAE Louvre and Guggenheim ... exciting stuff.”
Talking about his daily schedule — “get up, deal with the kids, start work, stop for lunch and to walk the dog, carry on working, stop for supper, put kids to bed, do hobby sort of stuff, read, go to bed. Repeat about 200 times until book is complete” — Fforde revealed his next project, a thriller.
“It is set in a world where humans have always hibernated, October to March every year. The skeleton crew, who looks after things while the populace sleeps, is an interesting mob of loners and outsiders who are attracted by the quiet solitude and the enforced loneliness. But mischief is never far away, and the sanctity of the sleep-state must be protected at all costs.”
With a powerful storytelling drive, Fforde, perhaps an anomaly, has a very strong awareness of his readers. “My readers give me a sense that my writing has greater meaning beyond my own narrow egotistical and financial requirements. Readers for whom my books have really meant something to them give my writing something I alone cannot give it: A greater purpose.”
Suparna Dutt-D’Cunha is a writer based in Pune, India.
Jasper Fforde is participating in the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature at the InterContinental Hotel in Dubai Festival City which concludes on March 7.