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|Review by Russell Warfield. For a link to the Grounded site, click HERE|
For over five years now, Jasper Fforde has been quietly influencing the literary world with his unique brand of lunacy and infectious storytelling. Whilst between promotional tours of America and Italy, I caught up with him in Hay to share a coffee and discuss his writing.
Whilst Jasper is the first to admit that he is "firmly in the entertainment camp - not the literary one", his latest Nursery Crime series actually holds a surprising degree of plot depth as he turns children's nursery rhymes into full blown, high paced whodunits. Fforde's newest book, The Fourth Bear, tackles some of the most pressing questions surrounding the infamous Goldilocks story that nobody except Jasper has even considered before.
"Why were Mummy Bear and Daddy Bear sleeping in separate beds?" he wonders, "To me this strikes of martial discord within the bear family unit. What was the reason for this? Was Mummy or Daddy playing away? And how does this relate to the porridge problem? If you recall, the biggest bowl is too hot, the medium bowl is too cold but the smallest bowl - just right. Clearly, from a thermodynamic point of view, this is impossible. Baby bear's bowl should've been the coldest. Along with Goldilocks, an enigmatic blonde that goes missing, you have all the ingredients of a great murder mystery."
As you may be able to tell, Jasper tends to "question the unquestioned". His knack for noticing inconstancies and the potential for humour is striking. "Humpty Dumpty had a great fall. Yes - but why?" he excitedly asks, "Pushed, suicide, accident? What?"
Jasper went on to explain that he "was always a precocious child, always asking those sorts of questions." Fforde forcefully suggested that "people don't ask enough questions! People stop asking questions in adulthood... the people who ask the most questions are children and they get answered the least. Adults should be asking more questions! I like doing it! Have an enquiring mind - ask 'why?'.
His inquisitive mind and hilarious observation doesn't end at nursery rhymes. "Mel Gibson only ever plays Hamlet", he suddenly declared whilst discussing Shakespeare. Sensing my confusion, he went onto explain that "The Lethal Weapon series is essentially Hamlet. It begins with the death of a loved one - just like Hamlet's father gets murdered. He doesn't know whether to shoot himself or not - that's the 'to be or not to be' speech. Then, everyone dies at the end! Just like Hamlet! Also, there's a subplot of how it's uncertain whether or not Martin Briggs, Mel's character, is actually insane or just pretending to be insane. It's Hamlet!"
He also takes a similarly side-splitting view on and old saying: "So, the early bird gets the worm - fine. Presumably, it teaches you that if you're early, you reap the rewards. That's all great, but it doesn't work so well if you're a worm. The early worm gets killed." The fact that these things even occur to him is mildly amusing - but the fact that so much thought had clearly gone into them was simply hilarious.
But Fforde isn't afraid of aiming his unique way of thought away from goofy observations and towards complex scientific issues such as time travel. "We're all time travellers" he suggests, "just moving forward at one day per day." Within Fforde's first series of books, starring the literary detective Thursday Next, travelling back in time is accomplished using a brilliantly insane yet wholly logical concept that gives another shining example of Fforde's brilliant approach to writing.
"The universe begins with a big bang and ends a hundred billion years later with a crunch. Then, it'll go bang again, then another crunch and so on. To go back in time, Thursday's dad actually has to go forwards at an incredibly high speed so he has gone through enough bangs and crunches until he arrives at a time when the universe has repeated a previous universe. If bangs and crunches continue infinitely, there must be a time which everything happens again exactly had it happens the first time. He must travel at about 20,000 bangs and crunches per second for about five minutes before he finds a world where everything happens all over again." After realising that he had thoroughly confused me, Jasper quipped "It's like a very large roundabout; you just have to know which exit to take." When asked if he ever gets bogged down in the consistency issues and paradoxes of such concepts he boasts; "I just don't make any attempt to explain them.
Jasper Fforde is arguably more famous for his firmly established Thursday Next series than for his new adaptations of nursery rhymes. The humour for his debut series is drawn largely from classic literature - "books for people who love books", as Jasper described the series. The series is based on the premise that there is a world within fiction and that books are entirely self governed by their own characters.
"The Thursday Next series is about allowing readers to do what they really wanted to do with the classics which is to sit at the back of the class and snigger when the English teacher is saying 'Now listen here, this is frightfully important'. The thing about the classics is that there is a slight air of pomposity that sort of lingers above them. I think you should be able to laugh at things like Wuthering Heights and certainly Shakespeare - he would have liked that. Yet, the classics still remain reverently irreverent."
Fforde's unique brand of humour translates into a lot of wordplay within the Thursday Next series. "I can have a lot of fun with the techniques used in storytelling. I can have fun with the techniques used with punctuation and even with things like the printed page and typesetting - these are books for people who love writing. I'm playing on what people expect to see or even don't expect to read... It's a lot of fun."
Whilst Fforde's two published series of Nursery Crime and Thursday Next are both very different animals in their own rights, they both fall under the same sort of umbrella of lunacy-humour. We approached the subject of whether or not Jasper would ever turn his attention towards something more 'serious'. "I won't do something really serious but I'd like to move into something a bit less silly. There's two ways to do comedy... There's the stand up, belly laughs comedy - that's difficult to write and maintain. But then there's something I call 'charm comedy' which is where something just feels good to read and the comedy comes out of the warmth of the charm. It's like under floor heating and everything in the book becomes funnier because of the charm - that's where I'd like to go."
He went onto fantasise that "maybe what I'd do, is I'd write the first chapter and play it totally straight and serious... readers would be sniggering at me until suddenly the main character opens a door and there's a moose behind it. Of course, there would be a very good reason for the moose being there."
Despite the fact that Jasper's humour has been "living off the proceeds of British cultural imperialism" for all of his books thus far, he has sold more books in the States than anywhere else regardless of the British references. "There are tens of millions of well educated Americans who love this sort of stuff. I'm read a lot in the German language too - that's my most successful foreign language after France."
But the Fforde family has made Wales its home since the 50s, according to Jasper. "My mother's uncle took a farm in the Black Mountains during the Second World War and my family have always maintained some sort of property of house in the area since then. I've been living here since 1999 which was when I got my publishing deal and I could live anywhere that I wanted. That's what's great about being a writer, you can live where you like because you don't have to go to work. I currently live near Clyro and I do actually get a lot of sun, at least 40% more sunny days than even just ten miles away in Talgarth. I find this area very peaceful and restful. I love it, I really do. I've travelled a huge amount and I can't really think of anywhere I'd rather live."
Before writing for a living, Fforde used to work in the world of film making. "I was only a focus puller but I did that for fourteen years... I eventually became a camera man but soon after became a full time writer so that never really developed." The idea of returning to the industry and translating his novels to the screen has crossed his mind, but has never really been a serious consideration. "I don't know that these books are popular enough for producers to actually open their cheque books. It would be very difficult to make a movie out of Thursday Next - I think you'd have to do a series for TV and construct a new Thursday story. I think The Fourth Bear would work quite well as a movie to be honest... It would be quite fun. I'd like to get back into the industry." But turning our attention to Fforde's definite future, he claims that The Last Great Tortoise Race will finish the Nursery Crime series. "It'll be based on fables. I thought that the tortoise and the hare could have a race every year - and every year the tortoise wins." He also tells of how he will be 'scribenating' this winter to get to work on his new Thursday Next novel due out next July. "I don't know what's going to happen in it" he admits, "I have some ideas and character names and stuff, but I just make it up as I go along really. That's how I write.
Russell Warfield, October 2006