Best known for his literary spoofs starring detective Thursday Next, and the humorous Nursery Crime series, British author Jasper Fforde dips into the YA pool with The Last Dragonslayer, first in a trilogy about 15-year-old Jennifer Strange, an orphan who finds herself in charge of a boarding house/employment agency for wizards and magicians. Fforde spoke with Bookshelf while in Atlanta as part of a month-long U.S. tour, about his inspiration for the new series.
I know you have a very young child, but like so many authors who write YA after successful careers on the adult side, do you also have a teen who asked for a story just for them?
Actually, I have six children – from age two to age 24 – but The Last Dragonslayer was originally written in the 1990s at the suggestion of my youngest sister. I had already written three novels that no one had the slightest interest in publishing when she made the suggestion. A certain book – let’s call it “HP” – was getting a lot of attention, and she said, “Why don’t you write something about dragons and magic?” She said this because she likes dragons and magic. At the time, my oldest child was about nine but, like my sister and me, had been drenched in Wizard of Earthsea, and the Narnia books, and I thought, “Why not?”
Jennifer Strange could be Thursday Next’s daughter – she has the same implacable demeanor. However, since Jennifer is an orphan, that would mean Thursday was dead – so surely this is just a coincidence?
I actually wrote The Last Dragonslayer before The Eyre Affair (the first book starring Thursday Next) but I do think the [main characters] are sort of similar. There is a certain strong female lead that I enjoy writing. I think what you could say is that Jennifer is like what Thursday would have been like if she’d been a young girl in the time of dragonslayers.
Is it true you received 76 rejections for The Eyre Affair? Seventy-six submissions is an awful lot of stamps.
That figure is actually for all the books I wrote over the 11 years before I was published. I queried all the proper big-time agents because I thought I’d have to get a big-time agent if I wanted a big-time publisher. So I’d get one rejection and say, ‘Right. Nevermind. I’ll write another book.’ I was learning my trade. You can’t just sit down and write a book. You have to figure out your voice. And The Last Dragonslayer might have languished on my hard drive for another 15 years had not my wonderful former agent, Tif Loehnis, who handed me on to Clare [Conrad] and Will [Francis], saying, “Get Jasper to show you The Last Dragonslayer.” When she Tif first took me on, everybody was submitting magic books. A new author with a magic book would have been laughed out of the market as a “me-too.” But by the time I showed it to [Clare and Will], they said, “Oh my goodness. We can so sell this now.”
Prior to becoming a published author, you spent many years working in film. Did you set out to be a filmmaker?
Yes, I think so. I started writing because I wanted to write scripts but I wasn’t very good at it. Then I started writing short stories, sort of as treatments for the film scripts, and I found I enjoyed writing short stories far more than I enjoyed writing film scripts. Then the short stories got longer and longer and suddenly, I had novels. Interestingly, I was thinking about writing The Last Dragonslayer while I was working on The Mask of Zorro, the Catherine Zeta-Jones film, in Mexico. I was thinking about it all through the making of that film and when I came back, I wrote the whole thing in two to three months.
Where does your sense of humor come from?
It’s probably an amalgam of having been brought up in the ’70s when there were some fantastically good sitcoms on TV, having a tremendously funny older brother, and having parents who were academics who insisted on dragging us off to see Shakespeare. So my humor, I’d say, comes from a mixture of lowbrow comedy shows and highbrow theater. It’s an interesting mix.
Have you always been drawn to absurdity? Were you class clown?
I asked this very question of a classmate once – “Was I funny?” – and he told me he didn’t remember me being funny. I think it more likely I was the “class annoying person.” Class clowns become actors. My sense of humor was something I shared amongst my friends: it was quieter, more internal, which is probably more typical of someone who becomes a writer.
How about your mother and father? Funny?
My dad was an economist and definitely not known for his sense of humor. [Fforde’s father, John Standish Fforde, was the 24th Chief Cashier for the Bank of England, the British equivalent of being the person whose signature appears on U.S. currency.] But we had some very strong traditions in our household. There was a lot of required reading – Three Men in a Boat, Diary of a Nobody, the works of Evelyn Waugh – and they were currency over the dinner table. Those satires, and the comedies on the radio, those were the things we had in common to talk about.
Tell us about the annual Fforde Ffestival.
It is great fun. Some very enthusiastic readers decided, “Why don’t we create some hijinks around the Thursday Next series?” and planned a series of events in Swindon, which is Thursday’s hometown. I think last year was the fifth annual and they’re planning another. It’s 130-140 fans of the series who show up in fancy dress for games and activities. They re-enact the game show, Name That Fruit, and stage the Hamlet Soliloquy Speed Trials. We’ve gotten the soliloquy down to 34 seconds, by the way, but we’re aiming to break the 30-second mark. It’s evolved into almost a large family gathering. There are 50 or so hardcore fans who come every year, some from Australia.
Do people in America constantly want to correct the spelling of your last name to make it conform to that of the car manufacturer?
It does look like it was made up but it was a birthday present from my father. I have gotten used to having to say, ‘Actually, it’s two fs and an e,’ every time I check into a hotel.
And do you really live in a place called Hay-on-Wye? That sounds like a sandwich.
I do. It’s a little town in mid-Wales whose claim to fame is the Hay festival, which is a celebration of books. We have 1,500 people who live in Hay-on-Wye and 32 secondhand bookshops. Even now, in the age of the Internet, it is a town that teems with bibliophiles. The Internet is terrific if you know what you’re looking for, but it cannot replace the pleasure of finding the little gem you had no idea was even out there. It keeps people coming to Hay-on-Wye.
The Last Dragonslayer by Jasper Fforde. Harcourt, $16.99 Oct. ISBN 978-0-547-73847-5