Last night, I went to Foyles in London because I’d managed to grab a place at Jasper Fforde’s book launch for his latest release, Shades of Grey. He is a writer whose work has fascinated me from the day I saw him on a BBC interview, when he read extracts from his book, The Eyre Affair, the first in the Thursday Next series. To be able to go and hear him read and then meet him afterwards was a blast. I spent most of the time either laughing or taking mental notes about his writing process and working out how his mind works. After he’d finished his talk, he took questions and, for once, I had one to ask. Once upon a time, I got over-awed by people I admired, but I’ve long grown out of that and I had a burning question that I had to ask, so I did. I wanted to know whether Thursday tapped him on the shoulder and whispered in his ear or whether she yelled in his face and demanded he tell her story. He began by telling me that he will write a situation and plop Thursday into it, watching what she does. But what I actually wanted to know was how she had introduced herself before he started writing her story. Apparently, the book started as a third-person narrative, until it got to a point where Thursday’s character got stronger and Jasper felt the need to change it to first person, giving him the plot headache of how to sort out something that needed to be in there without changing the story but with the necessary viewpoint alteration. If you haven’t read the Thursday Next series, this will mean nothing to you, but in The Eyre Affair, Thursday is in hospital and sees herself on a different timeline and tells her hospital-bound self she must relocate (it does make sense, I promise – in the world of Jasper Fforde, anything is possible). In order to iron out this little crinkle, he used the art of flashback and I have to say, it worked out really well and no one reading it would notice the seam.
When someone else asked a question about his writing process, he informed us that sometimes (as all writers know) the story and characters will surprise him, no matter how much he’s planned in advance, and a scene will present itself and he’ll find he doesn’t yet know what to do with it. That’s fine, as it’ll work itself out in a later book which, as in the case of The Eyre Affair, the errant scene does indeed do by the time we reach book three, The Well of Lost Plots. I know all too well from my own writing that, at times, the story surprises you by filling in a plot hole all by itself or a character will say something unexpected and seemingly random, only to have it make perfect sense later on in the book.
Things such as these make me believe Stephen King has a perfectly valid point in his book On Writing: that stories have lives of their own and are floating around in the ether just searching for the right person to tell them. This theory is also lent weight by the fact that some stories are harder to write than others. My NaNoWriMo novel seemed to write itself and I have no doubt at all that this is exactly what happened. Other times, I find, as someone once said, it’s like wading through treacle and it’s a relief to get through it in one piece.
The queue to meet Jasper and have him sign books was long. I mean LONG. I haven’t seen a queue that long for a writer since Terry Pratchett (J. K. Rowling no doubt takes the prize for that one, but I’ve never met her and I’ve never read her books, either). When eventually it was my turn to speak to him, I told him about my little ‘incident’ with the second TN, Lost in a Good Book. I made the mistake of taking it to bed with me to read and, at around 2 am, I was helpless with laughter before I’d reached the end of the first chapter. I tried to tell myself I’d get to the end of that chapter and then go to sleep but, when I went to read the last couple of sentences again to make a smooth transition, that was it, I collapsed into giggles again and I had to clutch my belly to stop it from hurting. This happened several times, so it was ages before I could move on. Jasper asked me, ‘So you never finished the book?’ ‘Oh, yes, of course I did,’ I said, ‘but only after I’d managed to get over my fit of giggles!’
So, now I find my copy of The Eyre Affair signed by the man himself, stamped with ‘Civic Duty Have You Done Yours?’ ink stamp (relevant to the latest book, though that hardly matters) and the proud owner of one of his sought-after postcards. Looking on the website this morning, I discovered that usually only a thousand are printed, sometimes two thousand. The one I have is one of only a thousand and it’s always a good feeling to own something you know so many would kill for.
I do hope it’s not too long before I’m able to meet him again, as he was very nice and completely insane, which was what I’d fully expected. He’s also an inspiration and a fantastic writer. If you haven’t read the Thursday Next books, do it. Do it now. Go to Waterstone’s and get all five. Mr Fforde will thank you for it. So will Thursday.