If you don’t know much about Jasper Fforde, let me bring you up to date. Born in London in 1961, Fforde spent his early working career as a focus puller on films such as ‘GoldenEye’ and ‘Entrapment’, and eventually, in 2001, after being rejected 76 times, got the first Thursday Next book, ‘The Eyre Affair’ published. And so it began.
Now the author of the Thursday Next series (we’re reviewing the seventh), the Nursery Crime stories, the Dragonslayer trilogy and the Shades of Grey book, Fforde has carved himself as the niche writer for intelligent, smart and witty fantasy with a satirical edge. As ‘The Woman Who Died A Lot’ is published, and we head into 2013, in which Wikipedia reliably states that THREE of his books are to be published, here’s a review of the eighth in the Thursday Next series, and some questions from the webchat we took part in last week.
‘The Woman Who Died A Lot’ picks up a few months after ‘One of Our Thursdays is Missing’ left off – with Next recovering from an assassination attempt, she is forced into semi-retirement. But as we’ve learnt, Thursday Next doesn’t really do ‘retirement’. With an array of personal and professional and end-of-the-world issues surrounding her, Next is thrown back into action, in a thrilling and ticking-clock-style adventure.
What’s great about being seven books into a series is how we know what we’re getting, we know the backdrop and Fforde gets right to the action from the first page. This book, like the others, mixes the surreal with the concrete, the silly with the serious and the funny with the heartbreaking. ‘Everything comes to an end. A good bottle of wine, a summer’s day, a long-running sitcom, one’s life, and eventually our species’ runs the book’s first line. The book is a countdown, from Monday to a pre-determined set of events on Friday. The question is, will Next let events happen as she believes they should, or intervene?
The tight plot structure gives ‘The Woman Who Died A Lot’ a different feel to the other Next books, a more concentrated plot, but what we revel in, in a Fforde, is I think a luxurious wander through a well-realised and fun-loving world. The book fails to feel as carelessly comedic as its predecessors, and I believe it struggles through being entirely void of any visits to the Bookworld. The Bookworld is where we’ve had the marvellous scenes of the Wuthering Heights cast attending anger management classes, Hamlet having an identity crisis, and Harry Potter being unable to attend meetings due to ‘Copyright Infringement Laws’.
Following on from ‘One of our Thursdays is Missing’, a book set entirely in the Bookworld, this seventh tome was bound to feel like a letdown in terms of literary allusions, but this installment seems to have slightly missed the mark in what we expect from a Next book.
But Fforde’s worst is still pretty good. In what other book does a stand-off include the threat ‘Make a wrong move and you’ll have more holes in you than a lump of Emmenthal’? The book has a great and genuinely surprising ending, and with an exploration into ‘Dark Reading Matter’ on the cards, Fforde has set the scene for a great ninth book in the series.
So whilst not one of his best, Fforde still provides a Thursday Next novel that is funny, warm and smart and ‘The Woman Who Died A Lot’ is still an essential part of a great and different series. Get into Thursday Next from the start - you’ll regret it if you don’t.
Now, the lovely people at Hodder & Stoughton and from Google+ Hangouts did a webchat with Fforde and allowed me to get involved! I asked Fforde two questions about his writing, and here’s what he said:
Every time you start a new book in each series, how do you make sure you stay in the rules you’ve already created in previous installments?
'It’s interesting because I’ve basically got sort of three or maybe four series going and all of them happen in subtly different worlds. At the moment I seem to be able to keep it in my head; if I were to a write a Last Dragonslayer book, then I know pretty much how that functions. Then if I’m writing perhaps something from a Thursday Next book in the afternoon then I can subtly switch over to how that world functions.
When I write a book I don’t actually do that, I don’t do one book in the morning another book in the afternoon that would be insane. I actually sort of place myself in that world; very much with this latest book, with ‘The Woman Who Died A Lot’ I just put myself in Swindon and I looked around and I flicked through the books and looked at what was actually happening and I said right well this is happening we’ve got all these different plot points – who’s in power? Who’s the political party? Is the stupidity surplus problem still on?
And in the same way, when I write the next book, which for me will be the last in the Dragonslayer series, I’ll just flick through the book, have a look at it, I’ll probably re-read at least The Song of the Quarkbeast so I know exactly what’s going on, and then, I’m in!
I don’t know how to explain it really but I can actually shift between… It’s like, if you’re having a conversation with your granny, you have a completely different conversation to one you have with your best friend, because all the rules and regulations and subtle uses of language are different. You wouldn’t even think that you are actually consciously changing between talking to your granny and to your best friend. So it’s the same sort of thing really – you go, right I’m in this book and this is how it works, and that’s basically how I do it.'
Of each series you’ve got on the go, how much of each one do you have planned out in full? Obviously, with Shades of Grey, you’ve said it would be a trilogy, do you think Thursday Next could just go and go or is it finite?
'I mean, I kind of pretended I have a plan, sometimes, when I’m really trying to impress people, I say oh yes I’ve got the whole series mapped out – I haven’t at all. I have vague ideas where it’s going to head, but I tend to write best, what I call, on the hoof, and I literally will start writing and see what happens.
With the Shades of Grey book, my Shades of Grey, not the other one, mine, which we’re calling 49 Fewer Shades of Grey, not 49 less, 49 fewer, I had a vague idea where it was going but I just really started writing and then it’s as fun for me hopefully as it is for people reading the books. If you’re reading a Jasper Fforde book and you have no idea how it’s going to turn out, neither did I. I just started it and tried to figure out where it was going to go as I was writing it. I write a bit by what I call ‘narrative dares’ – which is something I’ve done ever since I started writing back in 1988 when I was doing mostly short stories, and a narrative dare is me giving myself a dare to write my way out of. For instance, in ‘The Eyre Affair’, it was ‘Jane Eyre has been kidnapped and somebody has to get her back’ and you have to deal with that. Then you have to create a world in which this could actually happen and then someone to get her back – Thursday – and someone who did it – Acheron Hades – and everything starts popping into place, and then I pepper it with more and more detail here and there until I kind of like it and my publishers tear it out of my hands.
So I don’t really have too much of a plan, but because I know I don’t have a plan, I use my no-plan plan, which is a very sneaky little thing. So I leave little, what I call, off-ramps – on-ramps and off-ramps – which are little plots, plot ideas, that I introduce and then don’t follow through, then a book later or two books later, I’ll go ‘okay, now I’m going to use this one now’ and of course then it’s a familiar in the reader’s mind, and it doesn’t seem as though it’s come from left-field. So though I make it up as I go along, I actually have a plan where I can actually exploit the fact that I don’t know what I’m doing.
But you asked me also about Thursday Next, and that’s a series that can run and run, because there’s nothing I can think of that can’t fit somehow into Thursday’s world. If you imagine, there’s Thursday’s world, then when she’s in the Bookworld it’s a world within a world, and then when she goes into a book in the Bookworld, it’s a world within a world within a world, and each of them have subtly different rules and regulations. So if I want Thursday to do something bizarre and unusual that can’t fit into the Bookworld or her world, I’ll just put her into a book in which that can work.
And I’m writing books about books and books about storytelling and because there’s a huge array of stuff I could talk about, I don’t think – I think it’s a canvas without edges if you can imagine that – a flat plane - I could pick just one subject from a Thursday Next book, and exploit that almost into a full-length book, so yes I think Thursday will run and run, just not every single year.'