Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Wherein Jasper Fforde Provides His Autograph and Advice for Writers

 On Monday night of this week, I had the distinct privilege of going to a Jasper Fforde book signing at the local Barnes & Noble. I went with a couple of friends, my mom, and my little brother (who was coerced into coming for lack of a babysitter). It started at 7pm; we got there an hour early, and just managed to get seats in the second to last row.

Jasper Fforde, in case you have not been introduced, is a Welsh author famous for his literary satire/fantasy. His current United States/Canada book signing tour is in honor of the recent publication of One of Our Thursdays is Missing, the sixth installment in the Thursday Next series that began with The Eyre Affair. Other series that he is in the process of writing are The Nursery Crime books and the Shades of Grey trilogy. Fforde writes like a quirky, modern P. G. Wodehouse, and the clever--but bizarre--nature of his characters, settings, and plots afford hours of entertainment. I have reviewed two of his books on my blog Read Room, The Last Dragonslayer and Shades of Grey: The Road to High Saffron.

The event at Barnes & Noble was billed as a reading from the new book and a book signing, so when I arrived there, I didn't realize that Fforde would actually be giving a forty-five minute talk on how his writing career started. Not only was his talk fascinating for all the readers interested in his back story, but it was also enlightening for aspiring writers.

The loudest message that I came away with was "Don't give up on getting your work published." Fforde was writing for ten years and had completed six books before any agent or publisher would touch his work. He mailed out dozens and dozens of query letters with first chapter included and received just as many rejection letters in response. Some of those queries are for the same books which are now receiving worldwide acclaim. Readers love them. He just had to get past the threshold guardians of the publishing houses before he could reach his audience.

When Fforde finally found an agent who would market his work, it was an agent who had just started up her own firm and had no clients--the perfect agent for new authors, Fforde says, because a new agent is willing to actually read submissions without rejecting them out of hand. She liked Fforde's book The Last Dragonslayer, but feared that in the current climate people would see it as a Harry Potter rip off. "Have you got anything else?" she asked. He sent her The Eyre Affair. Within three weeks she had found a publisher willing to put it out, and one of the publisher's first questions for Fforde was, "Can you write a sequel?"

Besides talking about his experiences of breaking into the publishing industry, Fforde also gave some anecdotal tips on writing itself. Everyone, he says, has the ability to be a writer; writing is simply telling a story, and humans are natural born storytellers. It's all about practice, Fforde says, just like any other skill you want to master.

One of the ways that Fforde honed his writing skills was by coming up with a problematic plot situation--a "narrative black hole," as he called it--and then "writing his way out of it." He gave the example of a short story that he had written where a man wakes up and finds a gorilla in the tree in his front yard. That was the narrative black hole. The subsequent story he created sounded like a brilliant farce, and I wish I had a copy of it to read. Using his creative ingenuity, Fforde resolved the gorilla situation and took the reader for an interesting ride along the way.

Another plot problem he gave to himself was a man finding that he has turned into a banana--except that the author banned himself from using the word banana throughout the whole story. Fforde created a Bronte-esque short story with a Gothic flavor as he told this man's tale of woe. He hopes that the reader's response shortly after finishing the story would be to slap themselves on the forehead and think, "I get it! He was a banana!"

This delayed realization that leads to hilarity is a reaction that Fforde often tries to generate. Throughout the talk, he mentioned several places in his books where the readers will be "punned by stealth." For example, in one of the Thursday Next books, he has a character named Page Turner, except he never refers to the character by her first and last name together -- until the final chapter of the book. The readers, seeing the two names in conjunction after all this time, finally get the joke. They've been punned by stealth.

While fielding questions from the audience, Fforde talked about his writing timetable for the next four years. He plans to release a book a year: one standalone, and one from each of the three series he is working on. The one I'm most excited about is the next Shades of Grey installment. The first book in this series, The Road to High Saffron, could be described as a humorous version of Orwell's 1984 (if that's possible). Interestingly, Fforde says that the Shades of Grey books are the most difficult for him to write since he's not "mining" the collective work of previous literature as he does in the Nursery Crime series and the Thursday Next books, but instead, is developing all the characters and plot lines on his own.

Above you have a picture of what Jasper Fforde looks like (right before he signed my copy of The Road to High Saffron). But what the picture doesn't convey is how amusing Fforde is in person (not just in writing) and how delightful his Welsh accent is. Below is Jasper Fforde in an interview he did with AM Northwest on one of our local news stations. It gives a brief impression of his mellifluous voice, but doesn't really express his wit as well as his talk at the book signing.

Next time Jasper Fforde comes to town, you should come out to hear him talk! I can guarantee you won't be as bored as my little brother Zane was....

Mom throws Zane a bone by buying him the next book he needs in the Boxcar Children series.


  1. Wow, I really wish I could have met him. Sounds like a pleasant fellow to chat with. Maybe I'll look into his books soon.

  2. Yes, he was incredibly amusing. If you want to read him, I would start with The Big Over Easy from the Nursery Crime series. Be advised that there are a few risque scenes in some of his books.

  3. Alright! Yeah, I'm getting used to reading a few risque books now, thanks to Guliver's Travels. Yuck...


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