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Iain SHARP - The Sunday Star-Times
March 14th 2003
The mad world of fabulous Mr Fforde

IF you're the kind of movie-goer who stays for the end credits while others rush to the exit, you might have spotted Jasper Fforde's unusually spelt name listed as cameraman or focus puller on some of the big movies of the '90s, including Goldeneye, The Mask of Zorro and Entrapment.

Fforde worked in the movie industry for 17 years before the publication of his first novel, The Eyre Affair (New English Library, $ 24.95), in 2000 transformed him into one of Britain's hottest literary stars. He's been compared with everyone from Thomas Pynchon and Monty Python to Douglas Adams and Terry Pratchett.

But Fforde wasn't an overnight success. Though The Eyre Affair was the first of his books to make it into print, it was the fifth he'd written. It took him six years to complete--and he had a devil of a job selling it. "The cross-genre feel of the book put many publishers off," he revealed during a brief trip to Auckland last week after an appearance at the Brisbane Writers Festival. "I had 76 rejections before the manuscript was accepted."

The Eyre Affair is set in 1985--but in a parallel universe where Wales is a socialist republic and the Soviet Union has never existed. The Crimean War is coming to an end after more than 130 years of fighting. Dodos have been brought back to life through genetic engineering. Woolly mammoths are alive and thriving. You have to watch out for these great greedy beasts raiding your vegetable garden.

The book's narrator is Thursday Next, who works for the Literary Detective Division of the Special Operations Network. Literary crimes, such as the theft of manuscripts and first editions, are widespread in Fforde's world.

Thursday's father is a time-traveller who pops up at unexpected moments. She also has an uncle named Mycroft (after Sherlock Holmes' older brother), who's a mad scientist. One of Mycroft's inventions is the ingenious Prose Portal, which enables fiction fans to enter the imaginary realms of their favourite novels. Unfortunately, it also enables arch-villain Acheron Hades to kidnap Jane Eyre for a hefty ransom.

"My mother used to refer to 'next Thursday' as 'Thursday next'. As soon as I thought about it, I knew it would be an excellent name for a heroine," says Fforde.

"I chose Jane Eyre partly because it's always been one of my favourite books and partly because it's such a familiar piece of work. Even if they haven't actually read it, most people know it's a romantic Victorian novel. And they've probably seen one of the movie versions.

"Mycroft is partly based on Welsh actor Desmond Llewellyn, who played Q in the James Bond films. I got to know him a bit when I was working on Goldeneye. He was a lovely chap. I had a photo taken of us standing together and it's on the wall of my home."

Because of his fondness for giving characters joke names like Paige Turner, Jack Schitt, Millon De Floss and Bowden Cable (cyclists will recognise this as a sleeved wire used to control bicycle brakes), readers have wondered whether Jasper Fforde is itself an alias.

"I guess it does look as it's made up," he concedes, "but it's the name I was born with."

He's not the only Fforde who writes fiction either. Romantic novelist Katie Fforde (Life Skills, Thyme Out, Second Thyme Around, Highland Fling) is married to his cousin Desmond.

Born in London in 1961, Fforde describes himself as the least scholarly member of a family of academic high achievers. His father is an economist. His sister, Cressida, is a professional researcher with a doctorate in archaeology. She's working on a project at the Auckland War Memorial Museum.

Jasper left school at 18. Entranced by the movie business, he found work making tea and coffee (his official designation was "production office runner") on the set of the film version of The Pirates of Penzance, starring Kevin Kline and Linda Ronstadt. He caught the writing bug when he was 30. Since September 2000, he's been a fulltime author. In previous years, he would work late into the night on his fiction after the day's filming was complete.

He lives in Wales with companion Mari Roberts. She's a freelance photographer and production manager, who's also involved in the film industry.

Lost in a Good Book (New English Library, $ 24.95), the sequel to The Eyre Affair, is now available in New Zealand. In this adventure, Thursday meets Miss Havisham from Dickens' Great Expectations, discovers the deeper meaning of Beatrix Potter's Tale of the Flopsy Bunnies and continues her battle against the sinister Goliath Corporation, which controls everything from the arms trade to the price of cheese.

"I've signed a contract for two more Thursday Next books," says Fforde. "I'm about halfway through TN3, which will be called The Well of Lost Plots and should be published in July 2003. I've got an idea for the fourth book too. "After that, I'm not too sure. There are other novels I'd like to write. I might revamp the ones that are already sitting in my drawer. Or I might stay in the Nextian universe, which has lots of possibilities, but use a different narrator. As long as it still seems like fun, I'll keep going."

Iain Sharpe