Wednesday, April 23, 2003

Adventures in Wonderland
Jasper Fforde’s mysteries are delighting readers - thanks to feisty female superhero Thursday Next and a machine that transports humans into the pages of classic books
By Dan Cryer

April 22, 2003

Call it the third-son syndrome. After the arrival of two brilliant and talented boys, pity the little guy who turns up next in the family cradle.

What's the poor kid to do? Struggle to duplicate his older brothers' achievements? Search out his own path? Give up the race altogether and drop out?

If you're Jasper Fforde, you run away and join the circus.

The third son of an Oxford don in economics who rose to executive directorship of the Bank of England, brother of a member of Parliament and two academics - including his younger sister - Jasper Fforde never bothered with a college education. He joined the circus that is the movie industry.

For 19 years, he labored by day as a lowly assistant cameraman - on films such as "GoldenEye" and "The Mask of Zorro" - by night as an amateur writer scribbling away with little hope of publication, let alone fame.

But today Jasper is the Fforde sibling basking in the spotlight. He's author of a best-selling novel, "The Eyre Affair," and now a sequel, "Lost in a Good Book" (Viking, $24.95), expected to be equally successful.

Part mystery, part science fiction, part satire, part lit-crowd entertainment, these hard-to-classify books cross genres with abandon. Consider what Fforde is juggling: Time-travel, newly discovered Shakespeare plays, a machine enabling people to enter classic works of fiction and interact with characters, Ice Age mammoths and 20th century Orwellian bureaucracy - all these elements coexist in the same fictional universe.

Think of Fforde's work as Harry Potter for adults, although the brightest of young readers probably will join in the fun, too.

What makes it all work is the author's storytelling verve and admirably light touch. Whatever else Fforde is up to, he's clearly having a ball.

At the heart of the stories stands Thursday Next, the feistiest and wittiest of sleuths. A droll combination of Nancy Drew, Bridget Jones, Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Xena: Warrior Princess, she's as likely to nail the bad guys with a bon mot as a bullet.

In the first novel, Thursday faced off against a wicked enemy - her university mentor, no less - and dove into "Jane Eyre" to invent a happier ending than Charlotte Bronte ever would have countenanced.

"Lost in a Good Book" teams up our heroine with Miss Havisham, the jilted-at-the-altar spinster of Dickens' "Great Expectations." Now that Thursday is married and pregnant, Goliath, the corporation that owns nearly everything, has spirited off her husband to parts unknown. Meanwhile, an unidentifiable sludge threatens to engulf all life on Earth.

Fforde's fiction scrambles time, helter-skelter, making for delicious comedy. In the Britain of 1985, for example, the Crimean War (1853-1856, according to historians) still grinds on, and Neanderthals have been resurrected from extinction.

"How you managed to become the dominant species we will never know. So full of hate, anger and vanity," observes a Neanderthal.

"It's our evolutionary edge," replies a smirking human.

Fforde is an unassuming 42-year-old who appears incapable of smirking. He lives in rural Wales with his companion, Mari Roberts. Making his U.S. book tour, he is as genial as one can be in the face of a seemingly endless round of interviews.

Weren't John and Marya Fforde upset, he is asked, when their third son told them he wasn't headed for college, let alone an elite university? After all, John was an Oxford graduate and Jasper's two older brothers were enrolled there as well.

Fforde laughs, replying that their presence at Oxford actually made it easier for him to skip out on the family tradition. "One of them was at Brasenose [one of the university's oldest and most prestigious colleges] by that time, so I'm sure that more than made up for my absence." (All of his siblings went on to earn doctorates.)

"I think maybe the expectation drops, perhaps, with the third son," he adds.

At any rate, there was no keeping 20-year-old Jasper from what he had always wanted to do. He broke into the movie business in 1983 as a gofer on "The Pirates of Penzance." Within a few years, he was promoted to "focus puller," the position he would hold for the rest of his career.

The U.S. counterpart, he explains, is called first assistant cameraman. The focus puller assembles the camera, makes sure the lenses are functioning properly and, most important, adjusts them during filming.

"It's a bit trickier than it sounds," Fforde says. Focus shifts from closeup to mid-range to panoramic involve "a lot of guesswork. You don't know whether you've got it right until the following day, when you watch the dailies."

Fforde's camera work on "Quills," "The Saint," "Entrapment" and other feature films, plus numerous shorts and commercials, took him to 23 countries. The travel was enriching, he says, the camaraderie among movie technicians delightful.

"But I don't miss standing in a muddy field at 3 in the morning when it's raining and a director's going, 'I think we'll do that shot one more time and we'll know we've got it.'"

All the while, Fforde's previously hidden writerly impulse began to express itself. It was first manifest in "jokes and funnies and pretend articles" he pinned on crew bulletin boards during the making of "Penzance."

By his late 20s, he was writing "tons of" short stories. But none of them were intended for publication.

Aside from a two-day workshop in story structure with the famed screenwriter Robert McKee, Fforde has "no training in literature at all." He argues, in fact, that further education can sometimes stifle creation of a writer's distinctive voice.

As Fforde's competence and confidence grew, one story grew so fat that it became a novel. Even in this maiden effort, a police procedural, his fantasy- based imagination fed off other writers' characters.

In this version, Humpty Dumpty doesn't merely fall off that wall; he's been shot. Jack Spratt is the investigating detective, with Captain Nemo of Jules Verne's "20,000 Leagues Under the Sea" and Prometheus of Greek mythology playing subordinate roles.

Fforde is a dogged exemplar of the power of persistence. In between submitting that first book to publishers and acceptance of "The Eyre Affair" in 2000, he received 76 rejection letters. Bookselling being all about marketing, publishers couldn't picture a niche for such a genre-hopping book.

"I thought, well, they obviously don't know what they're missing," Fforde says. "I have a sort of arrogant, stubborn streak that keeps me going when people say no.

"I just carried on in my own sweet way. Which I think was a great help, because I realized I could just write whatever I wanted. There were no limits."

So he dashed off another Jack Spratt-centered mystery about Goldilocks and the Three Bears. And then he returned to a book about Jane Eyre that he had started and put aside, out of fear that his work was committing a kind of literary crime against a classic heroine.

Once emboldened, however, Fforde let out all the imaginative stops. His marvelous inventions for the Thursday Next books include the Prose Portal, a machine for transporting humans into fiction; the Boojum, the eradication of a word, character or subplot from a book; the Pagerunner, a character from one book causing havoc in another.

The author can't pinpoint what exactly inspired his Superwoman of a detective, though he does allow that he finds women in general more interesting than men.

In the end, "The Eyre Affair" was five years in the writing. The fifth novel he completed, it was the first available to the public.

Sadly, John Fforde died in May 2000, just three months before a British publisher accepted his son's book and transformed him forever from focus puller to novelist.

In a way, John and Marya Fforde deserve some of the credit. "My parents always had tons of books in the house," Fforde says. "I mean, just acres, every wall was covered." (By 1992, John Fforde's own 881-page tome on the Bank of England would take its place on the shelves.)

And one of those books, "Alice's Adventures in Wonderland," with the original John Tenniel drawings, "created this wonderful make-believe world where anything can happen, a talking sheep or flowers that argue. ... Its complete and utter nonsense was probably the spark that started it all."

Other influences Fforde cites include darkly comic novels such as "Catch-22" and "Slaughterhouse Five"; the pioneering science fiction of H.G. Wells and Jules Verne; the classic mysteries of Agatha Christie. But he makes no pretense of being widely read in contemporary fiction.

Although acknowledging the impact of Harry Potter for enlarging the audience for escapist fantasy, he says he conceived the Thursday Next books without reading any of J.K. Rowling's work.

Like Potter, Ms. Next will have her life extended beyond the existing books. Fforde is contracted to write at least two more in the series. Again like Potter, she will continue to age, beyond her current 36 years.

When not keeping company with the intrepid Thursday Next, Fforde enjoys piloting a 1937 DeHavilland biplane over the Welsh countryside. It's a hobby his father would appreciate. During World War II, in the battle against the Japanese, John Fforde also was a pilot, flying Royal Air Force bombers into Burma.
Copyright © 2003, Newsday, Inc.

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