Bundling up, ignoring the world to write

British author Jasper Fforde has coined a new portmanteau - "scribernation", which describes bundling up against the elements during winter, ignoring the world and sitting down to write.
British author Jasper Fforde has coined a new portmanteau - "scribernation", which describes bundling up against the elements during winter, ignoring the world and sitting down to write.PHOTO: COURTESY OF MARIE FFORDE

British author Jasper Fforde sees winter as a time to spin his dystopian worlds. In his latest novel, Early Riser, humans hibernate while a few brave souls stay awake to face the dark forces of winter

British author Jasper Fforde has coined a new portmanteau - "scribernation".

A mash-up of scribe and hibernation, it describes bundling up against the elements during winter, ignoring the world and sitting down to write.

"I regard winter as a time to write," says the best-selling author of the Thursday Next series, in which the eponymous heroine is a literary detective who jumps into books to fix errors and pursue criminals.

In The Eyre Affair (2001), Thursday changes the conclusion of Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre from one in which Jane does not marry Rochester, to the happy ending that is canonical today.

Fforde, 57, put the Thursday Next series aside for a while to create new worlds.

"I could write endless sequels to Thursday Next - they're books about books - but I want to write new stuff too," he says. "I try to mix the two."

The latest world he has come up with is the dystopia of standalone novel Early Riser, in which the winters are so long and terrible that most of the population goes into hibernation, with modest expectations of waking come spring.

This infuses their lives with a prevalent sense of doom that Fforde says is absent for most people in the real world, except the very elderly and terminally ill.

"They must go to bed at night going, 'Let's see if we last until morning', and then wake up and go, 'Ah, brilliant.'"

One appreciates life all the more for its being a bonus, he supposes. "You would say goodbye to all your friends before you went to sleep, just in case."

The novel centres on the handful of brave souls who choose to stay awake to face the dangers of winter - zombies, mythical monsters, bandits and, above all, freezing to death.

"Making your way through the winter for the first time - it's like staying up late at night," says Fforde, who often did night work during his 20 years in the film industry.

Before The Eyre Affair beat 76 publisher rejections to jump onto bestseller lists, he kept odd hours as a focus puller on blockbuster films such as the 1995 James Bond thriller GoldenEye and The Mask Of Zorro (1998)

"Driving in the dark through the city at 4am on a Sunday morning is a very peculiar experience," he says. "The fabric of the world is there, but there's nobody in it."

Fforde set his novel in Wales, where he lives with his wife Mari. They have six children aged eight to 30.

His world-building process begins with a "narrative dare", for example: "What if humans had always hibernated?"

"World-building is a thought experiment gone wild," he says. "You just ask question after question.

"What are the mechanics of sleeping for months? How would a technological society deal with high mortality during winter? How would Shakespeare have written Romeo And Juliet if he had hibernated?

"I write the world first, then I find the plot."

Fforde says his goal was to have 20 books published in 20 years, although he is somewhat behind schedule at 14 books since 2001.

Besides the seven Thursday Next books and two spin-offs on nursery rhyme crimes such as the murder of Humpty Dumpty, he also has The Last Dragonslayer fantasy series and Shades Of Grey: The Road To High Saffron (2009), the first in a series set in a dystopia where social class is decided by one's ability to perceive colour.

Next up for Thursday Next is Dark Reading Matter, for which Fforde has made rough notes. It is a toss-up, he says, as to whether that or the Shades Of Grey sequel will follow the fourth Dragonslayer book next year.

Dark Reading Matter is "about what happens to the books, plays and poetry that are in the minds of writers when they die or when every copy of them has been destroyed", he says.

"They exist in this ethereal world. You can't see them, but they're there."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 07, 2018, with the headline 'Bundling up, ignoring the world to write'. Print Edition | Subscribe