The Big Over Easy
by Jasper Fforde
Published by Viking
400 pages, 2005
It's hard to recommend one of Jasper Fforde's novels without laughing to yourself. Plus the novels themselves are rather complicated to describe. It's best just to hand them over and hope your friends share Fforde's jubilance for poking fun at some of our most revered "classic" books. For anyone who has ever suffered through the agonies of dissecting Shakespearean plays, Jane Eyre, or any book by Dickens under the guidance of an uninspired teacher, these novels are an amusing reminder that a good story is what is most important when it comes to reading.
Fforde's first book, The Eyre Affair, was published in 2001 and introduced readers to a memorable heroine, a resourceful literary detective named Thursday Next. She is Jasper Fforde's kick-ass version of a female detective, the Sherlock Holmes or Hercule Poirot of literary investigation. Her moniker comes from Fforde's mother who used to refer to next Thursday as "Thursday next." On his Web site, Fforde writes that he felt the name "not only has a 'dum-de-dum' ring to it but also is quietly mysterious."
Thursday tackles crimes in a world parallel to our own where books are paramount, the Crimean War still rages and Wales is a socialist republic. Like many of us, she has a beloved pet, though Thursday's is nothing as mundane as a cat or a dog, but a dodo named Pickwick. In The Eyre Affair, Next unravels the case of a Shakespearean forgery while pursuing a villain, Acheron Hades, who is traveling through great works of literature and holding literary characters for ransom. At first, Hades is stealing characters from individual books, which only changes that particular book. Soon, he starts to steal from the original manuscripts and that changes all editions in print. Thursday Next and the Special Operations Network Literary Division are racing to stop Hades before the title character of Jane Eyre is no longer in her own book.
Three more novels have followed The Eyre Affair : Lost in a Good Book (2002), The Well of Lost Plots (2003) and Something Rotten (2004). All rousing tales from an author who received 76 rejection letters before The Eyre Affair was published and who has been described in the British press as a "grownup J.K. Rowling."
Fforde is an ebullient reminder of the joys of the printed page -- both in his novel and in many others. He democratizes the "classics" for many of us scarred by school encounters and those who shudder with boredom at their very mention. One wonders what terrain Fforde could wander if he did not have to worry about copyright laws. We talked recently Fforde's forthcoming book, his ideal cast for a film of one of his Thursday Next novels and why Pickwick goes "plock."
Who or what inspires you when you write?
Personally I have a great deal of fun doing it, which is an inspiration in itself really. It really allows me to daydream, as in "schooldream" which is daydreaming with ink and get paid for it which is something I don't say to schools when I go in and talk to them.
The inspiration comes from everywhere, from what I grew up with. There's so much silliness and nonsense in the world that we regard as normal working procedure. The satirical point of the view may be to counterpoint that. The way we look at classics has been hijacked by the intelligentsia -- Shakespeare is highbrow and seen as something clever people do, which isn't right at all. I basically pull inspiration from everywhere ... I'm interested in lots of stuff.
Aside from Thursday, who's been your favorite character to write?
I have a great deal of affection for a lot of them. Bradshaw is sort of totally English and very fun to write as is his wife, the memsahib. Little conversations between Emperor Zhark and Mrs. Tiggy-winkle comparing starching on cuffs. The ones I don't like make an appearance and disappear forever. Acheron is like Zhark -- perhaps he's just gone through the character generator.
What characters do you get the most feedback on?
Oddly enough, the one that people seem to ask quite a lot about is Pickwick. He remains a firm favorite for many people. That pained me for a while because he's quite dense really, he walks into furniture. The reason people show huge affection [I think is that] when I write about Pickwick, I write about every family pet I ever owned. When people read him, they read into him every family pet they every owned, which tells you a lot about how reading works, since what I'm doing is highlighting things and throwing out mnemonic tags. In fact, people turn up at talks with little stuffed dodos they've made themselves. When I get questions at end of a talk, often people say "why plock?" [the sound that Pickwick makes].
Why does Pickwick go "plock?"
That seemed right. That explains writing: if it seems right, write it. There's a lot of instinct about writing. Human experience is infinitely subtle. I write a lot of stuff that I don't know really works. It's strange writing, it really is. There's stuff that's almost unlearnable.
What can readers expect out of your next book -- The Big Over Easy: A Nursery Crime?
It has a departure I think. It's less like the Thursday Next series, where the thing I most enjoy is that it's a big canvas, I can write whatever I want and as long as it fits together in a "Nextian" logical way, then it works. The Big Over Easy is a crime thriller so it has to fit within stricter narrative rules of crime thrillers. I had all these bizarre ideas and they didn't fit within the rules of writing a crime thriller. So it's different in that way. It uses characters ... it imagines nursery characters
Investigating the crime of Humpty Dumpty's fall?
Was he pushed? Suicide? Accident? The idea is [that] it's based in a small town outside London called Reading. There's a small police department called "Nursery Crime," run by a bunch of social misfits who no one wants to work with headed by Jack Sprat of "no fat" fame. And here, you have fictional detectives who are more important than the crimes they detect because, in crime fiction, they are. The most important thing in Miss Marple books or Morse books is Marple or Morse. But, we find out who killed Humpty Dumpty and why.
Why divert to the "Nursery Crime" series? Why not another Thursday Next book?
I can't do Thursday Next forever and a book a year is hard work. Look at The Well of Lost Plots . The density of ideas and concepts is very very tight. A book a year is very hard, so I thought: Let's have a break and move on to something else. You can get reader fatigue as well as writer fatigue. So I thought: Let's get a break and take something I've already written. As soon as I looked at [The Big Over Easy], I realized why it was not published when I wrote it in 1993, 1994. I'm returning to Thursday next year with another idea which I'm working on at the same time.
A book a year?
For an author just starting out, you've got to deliver the goods every year or sooner or people will forget you or you will lose momentum. There is a contract that exists between author and reader. With Thursday Next, there were subplots left dangling. Plus it's good for me to keep writing and writing.
You were a focuspuller and very familiar with the world of film. Why not go inside the world of movies?
It's a good point. I think the right medium for that would be movies. And I think there would be a movie there where you actually, with CGI, where you actually would be behind famous movies and then behind the scenes there is something else going on. I think there's potential there for a really good film. This was partially done in The Purple Rose of Cairo and again in Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid. I think if you could merge the two, it could be made. You would have to use some mainstream movies so if they were not owned by the same studio, you would be in trouble.
Who plays Thursday Next in your ideal movie version?
I don't know ... I won't sell the rights. I don't know whether it's filmable. I'd like to have a go at doing it. If it was the actress, you'd have to have an unknown, probably from theater because no one is famous from theater. The point with the Thursday Next books is you have to suspend all disbelief so you would need an extremely talented unknown. That would be cheaper, too.
Four novels with intricately plotted details from famous and obscure works ... must be a lot of research. What stands out?
The thing about research with me ... I think about which book to attack, in a reverential way of course. Then I look for the angle. I read it and get angry reading it as I do. I decide I'm using Wuthering Heights and then I read it and get angry and decide Heathcliff needs rage counseling. I make the policy decision first and then go into books. The books have to be ones people know and have read. There's quite a lot of research.
It's time-consuming to spend two days reading a book. That's half a week, a lot of time. But it's quite nice.
Your bio says you wrote for yourself for a while. What's it like having so many faithful readers?
It's very nice. To a great extent, I still write for myself, write what amuses me. Fortunately, I have a quirky sort of strange sense of humor that appeals to other people and that's good. I still sort of write for myself though there are some areas of the book I feel I have to put in and I feel I have to deliver. I think it's very important that at the end of Something Rotten everything is pretty much explained and that dangling subplots from two books back, like why was she in the motorway, are explained. It's important to deliver the goods and not cheat readers.
I like to have all the clues there: the whole Granny Next thing, that Granny Next is here. Some people who e-mailed me and rather rudely called the house, people got it because there were enough clues there for people to guess it ... that is the sort of the thing that I have to think about the readership. It's kind of tricky with crime thrillers as you have to button the killer at very end so you have to have enough clues.
In the first book, you focus on Jane Eyre. Why did you end up choosing that book?
It was never anything else, it was an instant choice. I think it's perfect because not only is it a cracking good read, but because what I think I was doing is having fun with perception of classics. Fun to mix highbrow and lowbrow humor. What's important for me with Jane Eyre is that even if you have not read the book or seen the movie, you still known her. She is already there in people's minds. If The Eyre Affair was about obscure characters in a babbler novel, there's no gag. The fact that it's Jane Eyre, like Dickens, is kind of rock solid and when you go through the looking glass, when you start shifting them and wobbling them, then that's the gag. It's in public domain so Charlotte Bronte cannot sue me.
Tell me about influences on your writing. The ones that perhaps are not so obvious in the books?
Well, gags from radio and TV sitcoms of the 70s. There's a lot from modern TV, reality TV. Even lines I've picked up from people that you meet when they say something interesting. Just stuff taken from everywhere which is what writers do. Steal from everywhere. I suppose a lot of influences come from comedy radio shows. I love radio, it's a marvelous medium.
What's on your bedside table now?
I'm reading Agatha Christie. I have to give my talks. I try and make my talks at bookstores as interesting as possible. I've been doing the Something Rotten tour and they have a theme to them. At the moment, I'm reading crime thrillers by notable crime thriller writers to formulate my new talk. I think there's Adventures of Jarrod of Wales, the 11th century chronicler of Wales. He went on tour of Wales and then wrote about it. He lived 10 miles from me in what he describes as a beautiful house. Now it's just a mound of grass near here. There's usually a flying book as well.
You maintain an unusually large and rich Web site. Why?
It is a helluva lot of work. I may have to cut down slightly because there's so much I need to do. It just sort of goes. Every year I add more to it. The Web site when it was launched, it had perhaps 14 pages. I thought it was big then. But it's changed over the years. I learned HTML [Hypertext Markup Language] to do the site. It's actually very easy and I have an idea and I add it. It's not hard, just takes a long time to do. I have spent one or two days a month on it over five years.
You've explained the Thursday Next and Bowden Cable names elsewhere. But what about Landen Parke-Laine?
If it had been translated for an American audience, it would be Landen Park Place. Landen Parke-Laine is what you get on the monopoly board in the British edition at the very end. And Landen Parke-Laine just sounds like a name.
One of the most interesting devices that comes up is timeslipping. If you were a member of Chronoguard, where would you travel in time?
The meteor hitting the earth 72 million years ago, that would be quite a show. That's always the argument that time travel would never be invented because there would be crowds and crowds of tourists at the sermon on the mount. There's a very good argument there for time travel never being invented. Though it would be fun to go around and see all these things. How does it all turn out? It would be fun to go into future and see.
You pilot a 1937 DeHavilland biplane from time to time.
I love aviation. I'm a huge fan of airplanes. I've loved them forever. There are all sorts of aviation references. The DH 82 that belongs to Thursday's mother is a reference to a Tiger Moth. Miles Hawk (a character in the 3rd book) is in fact a racing aircraft made by Miles Aircraft in the inter-war period. There are all sorts of sneaky references.
You do a thorough job posting all the questions you have been asked by interviewers. Are there any you wish people would ask you?
Not really. Whenever I'm giving talks, I always ask people to think of the most obscure questions because I enjoy those the most. I always get the same questions: Why does Pickwick say "plock" and will there be a movie? I like the really obscure questions because there's so much in the books. There are tons and tons of references and I like when people get the little ones and ask me about them. It's good for the audience [and also] they realize there's more there. | June 2005
Simone Swink is a television producer and writer in New York City.