Jasper Fforde: Crimes and misdemeanours

Jasper Fforde's frenetic forays into literary time-travel are bestsellers around the world. He talks to Christina Hardyment about lost plots, cross-cuts and a pet dodo
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Tall, wiry and denim-clad, with an all-weather tan that sets off his blue eyes rather well and the kind of round-toed tan suede boots that are more often associated with backpackers than novelists, Jasper Fforde grins cheerfully across the steps leading up to the vast portals of the British Museum. The old home of the British Library had seemed a witty place to interview a best-selling author who packs more literary allusions into a paragraph than most people can manage in a lifetime and whose latest book is called The Well of Lost Plots (Hodder & Stoughton, £10.99), but suddenly I wondered if I shouldn't have chosen a steep mountain in Wales.

Wales is, after all, a bit of a star in the parallel universe of Fforde's books - a socialist republic since 1848 (when it really could have gone that way, Jasper assures me as we quaff cups of tea in the remotest possible museum tea room), and the lair of the notorious arch-criminal Acheron Hades, who is dedicated to character-napping from the world's greatest books. It is also where Fforde lives, "between Brecon and Hay-on-Wye", with Mari, his girlfriend. She shares his passion for vintage aviation (they have shares in a Tiger Moth) and is his most helpful critic.

"Wales only got into the books because she said the airship that Hades originally had was too obviously just me being fanatical about aviation technology. I said sarcastically, 'So where will he hide out - the socialist republic of Wales?' Then I thought, that's got a good ring to it. I did a bit of research and I discovered that in the 1840s there were plans for a three-pronged revolt that could have made it into my mineral-rich breakaway state with a President called Owen Glendower IV."

In Fforde's first book, The Eyre Affair, Hades was only defeated by the resource and sagacity of Thursday Next. Her job as a Literary Detective in Special Ops involves her in adventures as varied as entering Jane Eyre through a time portal invented by her brilliant Uncle Mycroft, not only saving its heroine but giving her a really exciting life with Rochester instead of Brontë's original plan to let her dwindle into a wife in India with soppy St John. She also traps the villainous Jack Schitt-Hawse, hitman for the ruthless and all-powerful Goliath Corporation, in Edgar Allan Poe's The Raven, ends the Crimean War (which is still being fought in 1985, when the story is set) nearly losing the love of her life, Landen Parke-Laine. Important, too, is cosseting her pregnant pet dodo Pickwick (don't ask).

The next novel, Lost in A Good Book, continues with much much more of the same crazy racketings about in time and literature. So too does the third in the series, The Well of Lost Plots. Woven into all three books are innumerable zany literary references, outrageous puns and imaginative somersaults - a cloned underclass of Neanderthals, Mrs Tiggy-Winkle, a rampant minotaur ("it should have been a Morlock, but the HG Wells Literary Estate wouldn't let me use the name in my book"), Shadow the Sheepdog (by kind permission of Enid Blyton Ltd), a race between Toad of Toad Hall's Rolls-Royce Merlin-engined limo and Miss Haversham of Great Expectations in Bluebird, rage-counselling sessions for Heathcliff, a vampire-slayer called Spike, plagues of grammasites wich maiak speling go dolallie (sic), and much almost convincing time-leaping and computeroid technology.

By now most of you will have assumed that Fforde is another of those bright young literary masterclass prodigies schooled in the University of East Anglia's Cleverclever Authors Programme. In fact, he never went to university at all: "I reacted against my parents, who were very academic and well-read indeed, and the idea of education didn't appeal. By the time I was ten, I knew what I wanted to do - direct films.

"I was inspired by a TV milk commercial which showed Roger Moore in a take from The Saint. The camera drew back and f showed all the cameramen and lights as he was passed a glass of milk, and I realised how much there was behind the scenes. I went to Dartington School in Devon, and we didn't have to do much work. But they did encourage my interest in photography and I made short movies on Super-8 - not that I ever finished any of them."

At 18, he was determined to go into the film business - not easy then, when the union ACTT had a firm closed-door policy. "They just told me to go away and forget it. But I got in as a production office runner, and was promoted to camera trainee, then to loading."

After 10 years as focus-puller (his name appears on the credits of The Mask of Zorro, Entrapment, Goldeneye and The Saint), Fforde deduced that he wasn't going to make it to director. He also understood what had attracted him to the industry in the first place: its stories. He began writing his own, first short ones, then one that grew and grew. When it ended at 100,000 words, he realised he'd written a novel. It was a tongue-in-cheek police procedural with Humpty Dumpty as a victim. "First I called it Who Killed Humpty Dumpty, then Nursery Crime - I was inspired by the way Lewis Carroll made characters from nursery rhymes like the Lion and the Unicorn, and Tweedledum and Tweedledee meet up behind the nursery rhyme, uncontrolled by the strictures of the poetry."

Nursery Crime was roundly rejected. So were Fforde's next books, The Fourth Bear (a missing persons case based on Goldilocks), The Solution of Edward Drood, It Was a Dark and Stormy Night, The Dragonslayer's Apprentice and The Eyre Affair, which he originally wrote as a gritty noir thriller set in London and played quite straight, only later rewriting it around Thursday Next's first-person memoirs of her experiences.

Now rising 40, Fforde decided it was time he gave up writing and got a proper job as a cameraman. At this point fate intervened. When he happened to mention to the New York film agent he was talking to that he had written six unpublished novels, she suggested he send one to a friend who had just set up in London as a literary agent.

"I suspect she was the first person who actually read one of my books," says Fforde. "She phoned to say she loved it, but it was so off the wall she needed to arrange a one-to-one with an editor - hopefully the sort who was on the hunt for a literary detective with a pet dodo." She struck lucky at Hodder, who immediately backed Fforde to the hilt.

Their faith has been amply justified. When The Eyre Affair came out in 2001, it was deluged with praise and is now translated into a clutch of foreign editions - including Chinese, Korean and Japanese. Its sequel was similarly acclaimed, and Fforde is now basking in the warm glow of fame.

The Well of Lost Plots is like a set of Russian dolls. Worlds open into other worlds endlessly, and there is a virtuoso firework display of characters, plots, storytelling devices and settings. Fforde's playful stop-start, backtracking, cross-cutting technique, and his skilled grasp of the importance of keeping a story moving, is surely inspired by two decades of working on films. There, hanging around on the sidelines of stories is all in a day's work and unused scenes litter the cutting-room floor.

Fforde's literary fecundity is explained by a lifetime habit of reading, coupled to his 15 years a-growing as a writer. "I have a mind like a driftnet," he says. "Facts catch within its filaments and start to rot down into a sort of ideamulch akin to the fungus that grows on refrigerator seals, ready for turning over and using."

Fforde gets e-mails from intelligent 12-year-olds who get a kick out of spotting the jokes and puns, as well as elderly readers who share his obvious affection for English literary classics. "I have no mission to educate or moralise," he says with another of his Great Outdoors grins. "I see myself as in the entertainment business first and foremost. I'm just having terrific fun - and getting paid for it." He strides away across the echoing space of the new domed courtyard of the British Museum, a born wordsmith of effervescent imagination.

Biography

Jasper Fforde was born in 1961 and educated at Dartington School. He worked in the film industry for 19 years, writing short stories and novels in his spare time. He received 76 rejection slips for these earlier novels before The Eyre Affair was accepted and published by Hodder in 2001. It quickly became a bestseller. Since then he has written Lost in a Good Book (2002) and The Well of Lost Plots (2003). He has been tipped for the top by Entertainment Weekly, the bible for media news in the US and The Eyre Affair has been translated into six languages. He lives in the Welsh border country between Brecon and Hay-on-Wye and has a passion for aviation.

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