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Gorillas and Havishams
6:26 AM PDT, July 19, 2007
Sunday 15th July 2007
Odd things happen when I give talks. I'm currently on my UK tour and only yesterday I was up in Whitby, a delightful coastal town in Yorkshire. Once upon a time, before cheap air travel made holidays in the sun affordable and the sleepy Spanish towns of Torremolinos and Benidorm became noisy enclaves of Britain, the seaside towns of the British Archipelago were a Mecca for the holidaying Brit, eager to swap the hustle and bustle of city life for donkey rides, seafront amusements and half board and lodging for 5 shillings a head all in. Towns like Whitby, Scarborough, Skegness and dozens of others played host to a transient population of holidaymakers, hoping to snatch a few hours of sunshine from Britain's wildly unpredictable weather, and return if not tanned, then at least mildly rested.
When I told my mother where I was, she instructed me to visit what she described as an 'old, dilapidated fish smokery' that was 'battered, peeled and unlikely still to exist'. Once there I was to purchase a pair of kippers (smoked herrings) because the last time Mum went to Whitby was in 1958, a few years before I was born and with my father, whose memory always looms large around this time of year. I asked my mother where this smokery might be as Whitby was then, and still is, quite large. She replied: "Down a street - residential I seem to recall". Undeterred by either the vagueness of the directions or the randomness of the task, I simply asked the first person I met, repeating my mother's description of the smokery to the letter. "Oh aye," said my new friend, "it's right there, behind you." Incredibly, it was. A small shop of peeling paint and dusty panes of glass, the actual smokery behind the shop was belching forth large clouds of woodsmoke - something I had failed to sense due to the blanking effect of some gorgonzola I had rashly consumed at breakfast. The smokery, we learned, was indeed the very same smokery having been in operation for almost eighty years, and three generations of kipper-smelling artisans. We bought two kippers at the bargain price of £2.50 ($5), and posted them off the following morning, ignoring the post office's strict yet rarely enforced regulations on cross-county kipper transportation.
The smokery's name is Fortune's. It only sells kippers, is almost certainly the best in North East England, and it isn't on the phone or the internet. (Mind you, what would be the point? Even with an ultra-fast Broadband connection, downloading a kipper would almost certainly take years) The shop is open from ten until twelve most days, and if stocks run out, then they shut early. Now you might not think than any of this is frightfully odd, and you'd be correct - my mother's memory for fine fishy comestibles remains undiminished by the years. No, what was most definitely odd was what happened next - the gorilla at my signing.
I once saw a Miss Havisham at a talk I gave in Houston, Texas - a ghostly figure in rotting wedding dress and veil who flitted between the bookshelves disporting looks of utter hopelessness and betrayal. Off-putting, perhaps. Strange, definitely - so the appearance of a gorilla wearing an attractive blue-and-white flowered pinafore at the charming Whitby Bookshop in Church street that afternoon was something that I took in my stride. I should mention, of course, that this was not a real gorilla as Whitby has been generally gorilla-free for a number of years now, but a bookseller named Jack in a gorilla suit. He and the proprietress Sue were the reason I was here in the first place, as their pleas for UK tour inclusion had echoed across the North York moors and all the way to my publicity agent's desk in London.
Enthusiasm, as they say, is most definitely infectious and I was despatched to Whitby forthwith. In case you are thinking that Jack was dangerously insane and that Whitby is a town populated entirely by kipper-smelling loons dressed as gorillas, nothing could be further from the truth. Jack was merely dressed as Melanie Bradshaw, one of the more ape-like characters in my novels, and part of a Nextian-themed Whitby Bookshop welcome that included toast, cheese, and dodo-cosies. Such a welcome is rare indeed, and if you ever find yourself in Whitby, you could do a lot worse then to visit Fortune's for some kippers, spend a happy hour in the company of Sue and Jack at the Whitby Bookshop, then repair to Botham's tea-rooms for refreshments. Cancel Aspen - Whitby ahoy!
What's in a name?
1:06 AM PDT, July 13, 2007
I was asked yesterday whether Jasper Fforde was my real name because, the questioner observed, it seemed a bit, well, made up. Okay, here's the truth: It is definitely my name, and has been since I was born. The reason for the double 'Ff' is lost in the mists of time and not, as has so often been pointed out, the result of a forefather's stutter. Naturally, living with a daft surname does mean I have a few stock answers. When someone asks: "Ooh - Fforde, now that's an unusual name!" I generally reply: "Not in my house. Only the other day we had six people round the dinner table and they all had that surname."
The 'Jasper' is a lot easier to explain. I was born in the sixties and it was just one of those trendy names that modern parents gave their children. It could have been much worse. I was nearly called Tarquin. My sister also born in the sixties, was mercifully spared as well. She's a Cressida, which is a lot better than Jocquaminka, a name that was once a serious contender.
While we are on the subject, a 'Jasper' is the slang name for a wasp in Devon and Cornwalll, a National Park in Canada and also a brand of cookies. More irksome is the fact that a lot of dogs here in the UK are called Jasper, so I sometimes claim that I was only named thus because my parents wanted a dog. "I got off lightly," I explain, "if they'd wanted a cat I might have been called Tiddles."
Monday July 2nd 2007
3:23 AM PDT, July 3, 2007
The pictures of the Thursday Next-inspired-named housing estate in Swindon, UK, arrived back today from the labs. Okay, I admit it, I'm mildly behind the times when it comes to modern technology. I still prefer using film as I think digital looks a bit, well, *digital*, and since digi still can't touch the quality of medium format film, I'm staying with it. I still use my old Nokia 7110, too, built in those far-off happily remembered uncomplicated days when telephones were telephones and the only bells and whistles they had was the ability to text and send InfraRed messages at the speed of a glacier to something now obsolete. I still use my Psion MX5, too, which is a bit like a Palm (not the tree, the PDA) only it has a B&W screen, keyboard, and runs on steam. I bought my first Psion in 1994 which makes it the longest piece of technology in continuous use in the Fforde arsenal, aside from the Adler typewriter and my trusty Nikon F, which not only still takes cracking pictures, but can also be used to knock in tentpegs.
Where was I? Ah yes. The Thames Reach estate in Swindon. This is a housing development in the north of the town built by those frightfully nice Barrett people, and the streets therein are named after characters in the TN books. And if that's not a very large helping of honour, I'm not sure what is. I'm indebted to the good folk at the Swindon planning office for this. Click here to see Mycroft Road.
There is also Havisham Drive, Thursday Street, Braxton Road and Bradshaw Close. The estate is only just finished and the houses are yet to be occupied, so if you hurry you might be able to secure a holiday home in this desirable area of Swindon, with a themed Thursday Next address to match your extensive Fforde book, postcard and T-shirt collection.
Thursday January 180th 2007
4:40 AM PDT, June 29, 2007
I must speak to someone about the calendar function on this computer. I think it's the 29th June. Mind you, I bought a computer from a Shakespeare scholar once, and it would only display the date either side of the 'Ides or March', so today would be 'Ides 106', which isn't helpful at all, unless you're Julius Caesar, in which case 'Ides -3' would be a good time to have a break in your villa in Salerno.
Well, heigh-ho here we are again, the UK and US tours of 'First Among Sequels' are almost upon me, and there are just still a few trillion things to be done before it all kicks off. Special features for my website, interviews, questions from journalists, figure out who will feed the chickens when I am away, organize my mother's 80th birthday, and find out if the postal strike will delay the arrival of the postcards.
Postcards - As you may or may not know, I have giveaway postcards that I, well, giveaway every book launch, and the total has now reached eight thousand from seven designs. The final one to arrive was possibly my favourite. My partner Mari (who you may have seen at my talks over the years) had to dress as all three Thursdays for recomposing into one single picture.
"Three Thursdays" postcard on my giveaways page
Whoops! Did I mention there were three Thursdays? Giving something away, clearly. But it's true. 'First Among Sequels' takes place 14 years after 'Something Rotten' and in that time someone has written about Thursday in Thursday's world. Naturally, and quite unlike her books in our world, they are terrible - the written TN is dangerously violent. To counter this, Thursday insisted that the 5th in the series be all touchy-feely and full of hugs, and the TN in 'The Great Samuel Pepys Fiasco' turned into a bit of a drip. When the three of them get together, it's kind of interesting...
Penguin USA Blog
Blog one - July 23rd 2007, by Jasper Fforde:
I'm one of those people who feel inexplicably guilty when being questioned by anyone in a uniform, even when I haven't done anything wrong - and in all likelihood, never will. It's probably the coward in me. It makes me a pushover when Girl-Guides are selling me cookies at the door. They know me by now, and only have to insist I buy six tons of Brownies and I'm writing a cheque.
Anyway, a wonderful thing happened as I was being questioned, fingerprinted, cross-checked and photographed prior to entry at JFK yesterday. The immigration officer was a steely-eyed mega-serious woman of perhaps forty with a name tag that read 'Flint', which I wasn't sure referred to her name, or her demeanour. She asked the purpose of my visit and I gabbled:
"I'm an author. I write books. I'm on tour. Yes, that's it. An author .... on a book tour."
She stops what she's doing and fixes me with her grey eyes, which seem to bore into me like cork screws.
"You've written a book?"
"Several, actually," I reply, swallowing nervously. Her eyes don't leave mine for a second.
"What's it about?"
I suddenly feel like a startled rabbit caught in the headlamps of a massive 18-wheeler, horn blaring at 3:00 AM on a deserted forest road somewhere. My mind goes blank. What is the book about? What are any of my books about? I finally find my voice and answer in a strangled, dry-throated squeak:
"Um, er, well, gosh - it's a bit tricky to explain but...."
She stares at me and raises an eyebrow. Is it my imagination, or is she not buying the whole Author Book Tour thing? Irrational thoughts of deportation drift into my mind. Then, the wonderful thing happens. A group of school kids from Mexico had gone through before us in the queue, and one of Ms Flint's co-workers had been priming them in secret. They burst into a joyous heartfelt rendering of 'Happy Birthday to you!', the strains of their bright, clear voices echoing around the chamber, turning heads and raising smiles. It was, of course, Ms Flint's birthday, and all of a sudden Ms Flint wasn't actually a Flint at all, as a happy smile crept onto her face and she turned to thank the school kids and use that imperious eyebrow of hers on the guilty co-worker. She turns back to us.
"It's not my birthday," she smiles, because it is, and like it or not, when a colleague likes and respects you enough to have a party of strangers sing 'happy birthday' in the sober environs of the immigration Hall at JFK, then everyone suddenly becomes so, well, human. And her uniform is no longer there, and she's just like us.
"I write books for people who love stories, and stories for people who love books." I announce with renewed confidence.
"Sounds good." she says, still smiling and stamping my passport, "Welcome to America."
Meeting my publisher Penguin for the first time, by Jasper Fforde
I was invited to a business lunch at Penguin to pitch for The Eyre Affair in July of 1999, and that first meeting was mildly strange, to say the least. I'd heard the rumours, of course, but I just thought the stories were urban myths - wild fabrications invented by agents and authors who had had one too many pink gins before a meeting.
The first thing you notice upon entering the lobby at Penguin towers is a small man next to the elevators, who has a selection of outdoor clothes on a rack just beside him.
"Where are you heading?" he asks brightly, and when I reply 'Penguin' he gives a knowing nod and hands me a lined gore-tex jacket and woolly hat.
"You'll need this," he explains, helping me on with the bulky garment, "did you bring any treats?" I show him the dozen pilchards wrapped in an old newspaper and he nods approvingly. "Well, then," he adds as the elevator doors open, "you'll be fine. But if you want a word of advice, don't mention Killer Whales."
It wasn't the first time I'd heard the advice. My agent had briefed me not only on to avoid the unacceptable subject of orca-like carnivores cetaceans, but also that Leopard Seals could be a seriously poor topic of conversation.
The elevator doors opened and even though I was safely bundled up in the gore-tex coat, my breath still showed white in the cold air. I've heard it said that over 40% of Penguin's revenue is spent on aircon - keeping the offices down to a balmy zero degrees. I made my way to the reception area, noticing that the water cooler had frozen solid, and that a long icicle had formed on the tap. Motivational pictures depicting vast panoramas of empty Antarctic wastes were hung on the walls, the glass covered with a light frosting of ice crystals. As I stood at the receptionist's desk and stamped my feet to keep warm, a high-pitched nasal voice said:
"Can I help you?"
Startled, I peered over the desk. The snow had drifted into the corner next to the filing cabinet, and it was here that I met my first penguin employer.
The rumours were true Penguin was staffed entirely by penguins.
"My name's Jasper Fforde," I explained, casually flipping a raw pilchard at the receptionist, a gift that was rapidly despatched in a single gulp, "and I was invited to lunch." The small flightless bird - a King, if I recall correctly from my accelerated Penguin recognition class - told me to wait one moment, and chattered briefly into an intercom before smiling and leading me down the corridor in an odd shuffling gait that I had to try hard not to emulate.
"My uncle starred in Mary Poppins," said the receptionist by way of conversation, "The animated sequence, remember?"
"y-yes," I replied, my teeth beginning to chatter in the freezing temperature, "I'm a big fan of Dick Van Dyke."
The receptionist pushed open a door at the end of the corridor and stood aside to allow me to enter, It was a large boardroom on the seventh floor, and I could just vaguley discern the blue sky and hot city through the ice-covered windows. A wind machine was blowing from the corner, swirling the ice and snow about the room like a blizzard. Lined up around the table and staring at me with great interest were twenty-eight emperor penguins, sitting on high stools at a large table that seemed to have been carved from a solid block of ice.
"Come in, sit down, relax," said the Penguin at the head of the table, pointing a flipper at an empty chair, "Edgar, pass Mr Fforde the menu."
"Thank you," I managed to gasp as the cold air stung my windpipe, "I seem a bit overdressed - I didn't realise it was black tie."
It was a faux pas. My eyes, glazed over by the cold, had mistaken the black and white Antarctic seabird's usual plumage for a tuxedo, a mistake that I would not make again, as a series of clicking noises indicated their displeasure. I decided not to make it worse, and sat down at my chair to study the menu, wondering how I might regain lost ground, and wondering whether feeding the top editorial and marketing strategy executives at Penguin a raw fish each might be a way to do it. The problem was, I had only eleven pilchards left, and I had no way of knowing who best to feed them to - and the idea of a Pilchard riot in the boardroom of one of the most respected publishers in New York was not a happy prospect.
I looked at the menu, my eyesight blurred with my shivering, while all the time the penguins at Penguin stared at me with their small black eyes, blinking expectantly. It was some sort of test, that much was obvious, and I would need to use all my guile and intellect to see me through.
"Well?" said the CEO penguin impatiently, "what do you fancy on the menu?"
"I think," I answered slowly, my fingers growing stiff with the cold and every word an effort, "I think..." The twenty-eight penguins leaned forward expectantly, hanging on my every word. "I think," I repeated, "I'll ... go for the fish."
There was a wild stamping of feet and applause, and a contract was pushed in front of me. They've published every book of mine since, and we've had a great relationship. The downsides are few: I get paid in herring which isn't so bad since it became a convertible currency on the New York fish exchange, and contractually I can never write about Killer Whales or Leopard seals, but hey - it's a small price to pay.
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