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'Jasper, Are You Writing?': Fforde silently triggers a mnemonic marker.

Emotional Shorthand

Jasper Fforde's fiction gets into reading as his characters travel from 'Jane Eyre' to 'Hamlet'

By Rick Kleffel

Jasper Fforde burst onto the scene in 2001 with The Eyre Affair, a wonderfully quirky, intelligent and hilarious novel about "Literary Detective" Thursday Next. Set in a 1984 where novels and literature have the influence in society that movies have in ours, Fforde's heroine found herself with the ability to actually enter novels and rescue characters who might otherwise be lost to literary history. Fast, funny and farcical, Fforde's fiction is a literature lover's dream. This summer sees the release of the fourth Thursday Next adventure, Something Rotten, in trade paperback, as well as the start of a new series in hardcover with The Big Over Easy.

As anyone who has picked up his books might expect, Fforde himself is a funny, witty, one-man Monty Python of literature. Fforde will be in town on July 30 to bring his unique form of fiction to local readers. Get there early, or else you'll have to read yourself, Thursday Next-style, into the scene using this article. Metro Santa Cruz caught up with Jasper via email, prior to his arrival here.

METRO SANTA CRUZ: The density of the language and the puns in your novels are quite amazing. Does it all come out like that the first time round? Do you prep for your plunge into fiction? Do you revise until the cows come in?

FFORDE: My writing technique tends to separate into two distinct areas. Firstly I have "scribblage days" where I am just writing raw story. The elements are mainly there and the dialogue pretty rough, but once it is down and the "story putty" is sitting there on the screen, I can have something to work with--a bit like a potter starting with a dollop of clay to mold however they see fit. The second area of my writing technique I call "combing," which comes from an old saying that "prose is like hair; it improves with combing." This is where I start to make the story work and make the dialogue work, and change the elements so they all make sense. The first section is really the broad brush strokes--writing with a paint roller, if you like, then I switch to gradually smaller brushes to do the detail work. Even so, I have been known to take the roller to finished prose if I have a better idea late in the day and will quite happily start all over again. Along the way I do research and find all manner of interesting facts that begin to fit together like a jigsaw; it's a lot of fun, really--sort of like narrative gymnastics to try and get all the disparate strands to fit together. But it's very time-consuming. If I could plan my books beforehand I could write three in the time it takes me to do one.

Tell us how you go about visualizing the reading process itself. You've managed to turn what was once an entirely interior mental experience into a wonderful Rube Goldberg device.

The one thing I've learned from writing is just how bizarre, extraordinary and infinitely subtle the reading/writing process actually is, and I wanted to somehow get that into my books. "Reading" is a word that should actually be quantified further. Reading in its most basic form is what we do to signposts or VCR instructions. The sort of reading that happens in novels is entirely different--we should invent a new word that adequately expresses just what is going on here. It's not just the writer telling you everything that is happening; no, that would take eons--what writers are doing is using a form of emotional shorthand by the use of well chosen words or phrases, all of which mean nothing in themselves but trigger mnemonic markers that in turn fire off emotional responses, essentially because readers and writers share so many similar experiences. It's the closest thing to telepathy that we have, and I believe goes to show just how similar we all are--I think it is only our ability to see those subtleties in one another that makes us appear as individuals when to all intents and purposes we are almost completely alike.

The Thursday Next novels--'The Eyre Affair,' 'Lost in a Good Book,' 'The Well of Lost Plots' and 'Something Rotten'--for all their wildly imaginative goings-on, have a pragmatic feel to them. How do you wrap your brain around these two seemingly opposite approaches to fiction?

I have found that readers have an almost limitless acceptance of what is possible--as long as the framework surrounding the bizarre events is stable and has a continuity of logic running through it. This is of vital importance and was the one thing that worried me about the whole series. As long as you can buy into this world, then anything that comes along is believable, as long as it fits the pattern. Perhaps the reason it is acceptable is because it contains such recognizable elements from our own--bureaucracy, dopey pets, multinationals, the media, poor-quality TV, lying politicians--we all share them both.

As mysteries, the Thursday Next novels, with a woman in the lead role, have a feminine approach to the mystery genre. Is your new novel, 'The Big Over Easy,' with Jack Spratt in the lead role, going to offer readers something more hard-boiled?

Probably not. Jack is not a Chandleresque figure at all--he's more of a sympathetic character--much more of an underdog than Thursday is, and a good deal less confident. He's pretty much of a plodder with inner strength when required. I like him a great deal.

When you're writing, do you act out the parts you write?

I often speak the words, trippingly on the tongue. But it happens away from my desk, too. If I'm thinking about a line of dialogue or fooling with a scene in my head during dinner or driving the car, or going on a walk, my girlfriend notices my lips moving and says: "Jasper, are you writing?"

Tell me a bit about the research you undertake for your writing. For all the fun you have and all the wild imagination you exhibit, everything is grounded--in literature.

This is an area in which my girlfriend Mari is invaluable. I have no Internet access in my office as I find it too distracting and it's so easy to waste valuable time, so she does all my surfing for me from her office. I tell her I need such-and-such and so-and-so and she goes and either finds it on the web, or out of a book. So I don't waste her time, I generally grade the importance by telling her how many pages I need on a certain subject. "Give me a page about Huntley and Palmer's biscuits" or "I need three pages on Austin Allegros." I also write lists of single-line requests for information, such as, "Could Angkor Wat be described as 'Ancient Khmer architecture'?" or "How many series of Porridge were there?" or "What happens when you are released 'on licence' from a British jail?" It's all to make up a general and vaguely correct-sounding picture. At the same time I am also reading what I call "featured books" so I can hopefully misunderstand my target characters on a much deeper level; for someone like Hamlet I attempt a multipronged attack to see what different people think about him--in this manner I mix highbrow literature with comedy and, in this instance, watched all the movies I could lay my hands on. It's as important--if not more important--to know how Hamlet is perceived rather than how he actually is.

Tell me about your very extensive website at www.jasperfforde.com. The website has grown considerably since the early days; every year we tend to add a large chunk to coincide with the release of the latest book, and update the website several times during the year. I'm not sure how long I can keep this up as it eats considerably into what would otherwise be writing time, but I'm very glad that people enjoy it--I've always looked upon it as "after-sales service" for my books.

What about your vision of turning literature into something more suitable to compete with the movies.

I've never thought of this as a vision, and despite the pre-eminence of the visual medium in our world, it is always gratifying that people are still buying books and listening to the radio. If TV and movies continue their downward spiral, we could be heading for a boom in book sales!


Jasper Fforde will appear on Saturday, July 30,.at 2:30pm at Capitola Book Café, 1475 41st Ave., Capitola; 831.362.4415.

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From the July 20-27, 2005 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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