Fforde’s first book for younger readers, The Last Dragonslayer (Harcourt), tells the story of Jennifer Strange, a 16-year-old foundling in an alternate United Kingdom called the Ununited Kingdoms. She manages a group of fading magicians who perform mundane tasks for hire – rewiring electrical circuits is a popular demand – and is unexpectedly tapped to become the sword-wielding heroine of the book’s title.
At the Word event, part of a recurring salon-style series focusing on young adult literature, which the store calls YA Not?, Fforde answered questions posed by Gabrielle Zevin, author of, most recently, Because It Is My Blood (FSG). The conversation covered a lot of ground, from the somewhat expected (the differences between writing for adults and for children) to the less-so (possible lyrics for a new musical version of Titanic, gamely sung by Fforde).
Zevin opened with a query that earned laughs of recognition from the audience: “What is it like to have written a book called Shades of Grey that isn’t Fifty Shades of Grey?” It seems Fforde is one of a few authors (Ruta Sepetys is another) getting a bit of a bump by having a book out with a title similar to that of the mega-selling erotica series. “Booksellers are quite a mischievous lot,” Fforde responded, “and when they get asked for Shades of Grey by a customer who clearly means Fifty Shades of Grey, [they say,] ‘You want Shades of Grey? I have Shades of Grey.’ And then they sell them my book. Way to go, booksellers.”
Had the discussion continued down an R-rated road, few in the audience would have blushed – only one member appeared to be an actual teenager. That could be due to Fforde’s greater fame as a writer for adults, but it also speaks to the no-longer-secret attraction many grownups have to YA literature. Word launched its YA Not? series about three years ago, events manager Jenn Northington told PW. “The idea is that, since both teens and adults read in the YA genre, why not make a virtue of that fact and tailor our events to both audiences?” she explained. “It's a lot of fun to see both people who read and recommend to kids – teachers and librarians – as well as adults who love the genre and the teens the books are aimed at all coming together to celebrate the authors they love.”
Fforde is definitely among those who have inspired a loyal fan base, so much so that some readers have started an annual festival in southwest England, the Fforde Ffiesta – echoing, Fforde was quick to point out, the name of “a very bad Ford motorcar.”
Notes of self-deprecation recurred several times over the course of the hour-plus chat. When the conversation came around to The Last Dragonslayer, Zevin mentioned how characters in the book confer accolades on themselves – Jennifer Strange’s mysteriously disappeared boss, the Great Zambini, is one such example. “Do you have an accolade for yourself?” Zevin asked Fforde.
“No, I’m British. We don’t do that,” he said. “We would call ourselves ‘the slightly OK.’ ‘The mildly good-in-parts Fforde.’ ”
“I would call myself the midlist,” she countered.
Later, when asked about his work in the film industry as a focus puller, or first assistant camera, Fforde answered in typically wry fashion: “Basically it was my job to turn the camera on and off, which is very important. If the camera wasn’t switched on, there’d be no movie. My job was also to stop major Hollywood stars from going out of focus. So I was paid quite a huge amount of money to stop Sean Connery looking like a great, big, pink bath sponge.”
His lack of self-importance pervades his philosophy as a novelist, too. “I don’t want to be preachy,” he said when Zevin brought up the theme of conservation, which is touched upon in The Last Dragonslayer. “There are some authors who get on their soapbox and start finger-wagging, which I think is a bit boring. But if you’re an author, there is a responsibility, and when you write something, you put that worldview out into that cloud of collective consciousness. And one hopes that people will pull things from that cloud that you generally agree with.” He’s especially careful, he said, not to hammer his point home when writing for a younger audience. “Children will pick up on being patronized. I think I’m primarily an entertainer. That’s my end of the literary spectrum.”
Though The Last Dragonslayer has just been published in the U.S., its sequel is already out in the U.K., and Fforde says he’s currently working on the third volume: The Return of Shandar, in which Jennifer Strange faces the wizard who was supposed to rid the world of dragons, but didn’t. “Shandar doesn’t do refunds,” Fforde said. “That’s the tagline. He’s back. He’s the most powerful magician the world has ever seen. And he doesn’t do refunds.” Based on the warm response Fforde received throughout the evening, it’s unlikely that the audience at Word – who, fair enough, attended the event for free – would have asked for refunds either.