Greetings from Swindon

Jasper Fforde's fictional heroine, Thursday Next, battles giant corporations, aliens and genetically modified beasts, using a wind-up computer. Charles Arthur met her creator to find out why she will never enter the electronic age
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Jasper Fforde's books have got everything. Well, almost everything. The world of his heroine, the civil servant and champion croquet player Thursday Next, includes mammoths, dodos and Neanderthals recreated by genetic engineering, plasma rifles, and fictional characters who come alive, and duel with real characters, who take refuge in fiction. His upcoming fourth book, Something Rotten, also includes a minotaur bedevilled by slapstick, the ruthless planet-destroying tyrant Zhark (whose unexpected arrival in a spaceship intervenes rather unfortunately in a pulp Western novel) and a prime-time TV quiz show for politicians called Evade The Question Time. It's a world of Douglas Adams-style not-quite-sense which has won a devoted and growing fanbase.

Jasper Fforde's books have got everything. Well, almost everything. The world of his heroine, the civil servant and champion croquet player Thursday Next, includes mammoths, dodos and Neanderthals recreated by genetic engineering, plasma rifles, and fictional characters who come alive, and duel with real characters, who take refuge in fiction. His upcoming fourth book, Something Rotten, also includes a minotaur bedevilled by slapstick, the ruthless planet-destroying tyrant Zhark (whose unexpected arrival in a spaceship intervenes rather unfortunately in a pulp Western novel) and a prime-time TV quiz show for politicians called Evade The Question Time. It's a world of Douglas Adams-style not-quite-sense which has won a devoted and growing fanbase.

There's everything, in fact, except computers. They don't exist in Thursday Next's world, except in the form of ponderous library-sized electromechanical machines. Why construct a world bereft of computers, yet one in which genetic engineering is a high-street commonplace?

"I think it's because, on TV and in movies these days the internet and mobile phones are God's gift to screenwriters," explains Fforde. "Watch TV now and whereas you used to have to get people together to speak, now you get someone just walking along the road speaking on their mobile. You can carry on the narrative too easily.

"I thought - we won't do that, I'll have different technology. Although Thursday's world is very behind ours in some ways, it's vastly superior in others, and I think that's possibly the joke. The computers that do exist in Thursday's world are all electromechanical, like Babbage's." (Charles Babbage invented the Difference Engine, a mechanical computer, in 1822.) "And they never crash, unless a tooth breaks off a cog. But it's really about choosing the less well-trodden path and not going for the obvious answer."

Despite not having electronic computers, Thursday Next has plenty of websites: Fforde has set up an alternative world on the web, where her reality is illustrated with uncomfortably persuasive photographs of her home town, Swindon. They include such sights as the giant statue of the film star Lola Vavoom, and the Tomb of the Unknown Canoeist. You can buy (real) T-shirts from the Goliath Corporation, which wants to dominate the world through commerce, and read about Jurisfiction, the arm of the civil service that sorts out continuity lapses in published books - such as the strange inability of Dr Watson to recall just where the shot struck that invalided him out of the Afghan wars: in one Sherlock Holmes story it's his shoulder; in another, his leg.

So why, if computers are inelegant in books, has Fforde turned to them in such depth to bolster his written words?

"When I was doing the first book someone at my publishers, Hodder, said, 'We have our website madaboutbooks.com and we always have a mini website for our authors.' I wasn't into the internet in a big way but I suddenly realised, because I had been creating logos and adverts to go within the books [such as 'Wales - Not Always Raining'] that this would lend itself quite well to a quasi-serious website which gave a vision of her world." So, at the end of 2000 he and his girlfriend began considering how to do it. Time was short: the first book, The Eyre Affair, was due to come out in July 2001.

"We thought, should we look at what other authors do? Then I thought - nah. Let's just design it, see what happens. The trouble with getting someone else to do a website for you is that something will get lost in the translation. I wanted a direct link between the author and reader."

The other obstacle was that Fforde didn't have any particular internet experience; formerly a focus puller (the person who adjusts the film camera's focus) on films such as The Mask of Zorro and Goldeneye, he taught himself HTML by trial and error, altering bits of the code to see what happened. "It was a bit like trying to learn the offside rule by watching TV," Fforde recalls.

Now, the sites are huge, and growing fast. "Every year I spend at least a month writing new pages and adding them to the website." That's besides the six or seven months that each book - so far, one each year - takes. When we spoke he had just been taking pictures of Swindon to doctor for the site. "We've got rather good with Photoshop," Fforde remarks. The photographs confirm it.

The sites also offer that essential link back to the reader: forums (or, as they're inevitably called, "fforums"). Thousands of posts testify to people's love of Fforde's style of linguistic juggling. He also uses them for light research (into the common clichés of Western novels for the latest, and people's reactions to a high-street genetic engineering emporium). Fforde is delighted. "I think it's changed the relationship between the author and readers, especially because they can go there and see what things I'm doing... It's a very useful tool, and, with books that come out once a year, it's nice for people to have after-sales service."

Which brings one to his other online offering: "upgrades". In line with his novels' precept that the text of books is malleable, even after it's printed - a borrowing of sorts from the way that modern software is never finished - the sites also offer "upgrades" to his books.

"They came about because I'd made some mistakes. I'd said [in The Eyre Affair] that daffodils bloom in the summer - but they don't, they bloom in the spring. I was giving a talk and someone pointed this out, so I said, 'The problem is you're reading an un-upgraded version. If you read un-upgraded books, well, you belong to a technological underclass'." The corollary was he had to offer "upgrades" on the site - essentially, a list of instructions for how to get your copy of the book up-to-date. "Earth the book by lightly touching it against a dictionary...," it begins. So, not completely serious - although he did find himself tied in knots by reader feedback pointing out that "the" is not a preposition, a mistake on which a plot point turned. "Upgrading" the Eyre Affair text for that took some doing.

But he rails at the reality of software upgrades. "It's part of these ridiculous concepts that we have from computers, that you'll pay for an upgrade to a system you've already bought. Where's the logic in that? They should be giving you money and apologising."

Indeed his third book, The Well of Lost Plots, can be seen as a satire on computers, with a plot about a planned "upgrade" to the entire Book Operating System (BOS). "The BOS, that's how we read books; it was upgraded from Tablet to Scroll, and then to Book, and utilising SpineTitle technology and the third-party ancillary known as Shelf, you can create something called Library. In The Well of Lost Plots, they're upgrading from BOS 8.3 to UltraWord™, which offers all sorts of fantastic utilities like PageGlow for reading in the dark, ReadZip if you're in a hurry, PotPlotPlus to bring you quickly up to date, and an upgrade to the number of basic plots from eight, which they've been stuck with for ages, to 32."

But UltraWord™ turns out to have some rather serious bugs, and what could be called "verbal rights management" issues, which are slow to surface. So does this all reflect his own frustrations? "My computer's fine - I've got a Macintosh. We don't have these problems, and I don't run anything complicated. But all these nightmares I hear about Microsoft, I thought, there's good satire in there. Then people read it and say 'Is this about Microsoft somehow?' and I say, 'Nooooo'."

The websites are, he believes, an essential part of staying in touch with his readers. But he's not tempted by the idea of trying e-publishing as Stephen King briefly did for his chapter-by-chapter novel The Plant. "If you're at home looking at a screen you're probably watching TV, and if you're reading you're probably curled up with a book. They're the greatest invention - if they came up with them yesterday they'd be hailed as the greatest technological advance: no batteries, no operating system, and when your eyes fall on the page and read it creates images in your head." A pause.

"Actually, they'd probably ban it as potentially dangerous. Inflammatory. Could give people ideas. Hmmm."

'Something Rotten' is published by Hodder & Stoughton, £12.99, on 26 July

www.jasperfforde.com

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