Jasper Fforde | "It's like having a jigsaw where the bits don't quite fit, and then all of a sudden you find them fitting"

Jasper Fforde | "It's like having a jigsaw where the bits don't quite fit, and then all of a sudden you find them fitting"

Jasper Fforde has delved into the depths of his offbeat imagination to come up with the premise for his fifth novel about literary detective Thursday Next, First Among Sequels (Hodder, July). The UK's Stupidity Surplus is at a dangerously high level and to use up the excess, the government comes up with the most stupid idea it can: Reality Book Shows.

Pride and Prejudice will be renamed The Bennets "and serialised live in your household copy". The family will be given typical reality show tasks—starting with the construction of the best bee costume ("I'll dress as a bee!" Lydia trills, while Jane is more interested in finding out if Mr Bingley will join in).

Fforde rouses from his usual good-humoured demeanour to denounce the "Big Brothers" and Alan Sugars of this world. "I hate reality TV. If it comes on I just throw things at the telly and if my kids [he has four] watch it, I try to shame them into doing something else," he says. "I can't stand it, it drives me insane."

He's returning to Thursday Next's universe of Chronoguards, LiteraTecs and dodos after a two-book break in the world of Nursery Crimes ("I really thought people would want to know why Mummy and Daddy Bear were sleeping in separate beds"). He's propelled Thursday 16 years into the future—largely, it seems, to force her to cope with the demands of sullen teenage son Friday, in whose hands the fate of the world rests.

"I felt that Friday as a two-year-old [as he was in prequel Something Rotten] was not really going to work. I wanted him as a grunty teenager. I've got one grunty teen myself and I like that idea—that teenagers are so grumpy that if you told them the house was on fire they'd go back to sleep. I thought to have Thursday tell her son "the world is going to end if you don't get up" but have him say: "Oh, do I have to, Mum?" was great."

Success and stalkers

It's six years since his début The Eyre Affair was published and Fforde admits that life as a writer has "been a bit of a roller-coaster". He had been working as a cameraman's assistant on feature films for 10 years previously, writing in his free time (and receiving 76 rejection letters from publishers) before Hodder picked up The Eyre Affair. Most authors "are heading for this pinnacle, this Mount Impossible—to be published—and then suddenly you're published and you think 'Oh my God, the second book has got to be readable'. So you carry on with a book a year until the whole thing catches on and you sell lots of books."

He's not doing too badly on this front. The last two Thursday Next novels have sold approaching 50,000 copies in all editions, and sales of his hardbacks are growing year on year, to more than 16,000 for his latest, The Fourth Bear. Fforde has also created the position of "official stalker" for his biggest fans ("they get a little badge and a T-shirt with 'stalker' on it") and last year there was a weekend-long fan party held in Swindon, the "Fforde Fiesta", where everyone dressed as characters from his books.

His own life contains its own elements of the unusual, such as a penchant for flying. Fforde has his own aeroplane—which has, on occasion, been wheeled out for a book tour. "I've done it once because we had to get to Southend, and Southend's a schlep from Wales [he lives near Hay-on-Wye]. But coming back, all of a sudden the winds started to freshen and we were flying into a head wind, barely doing 40 miles an hour. It took hours and hours and hours."

The unexpected piano

Madcap but strangely appealing ideas in First Among Sequels include the Schroedinger Night Fever principle—that, like Schroedinger's Cat, which is simultaneously dead and alive, so "Saturday Night Fever" "is crap, but also quite good as well". Kathy Reichs' forensic anthropologist Temperence Brennan also makes an appearance, after Reichs expressed a desire to meet Thursday Next herself. "I tend to write all these ideas down and then slowly they fit together with narrative gymnastics—narrative contortions, perhaps. It is very satisfying when they interlock but an awful lot of jiggling goes on before they do."

Just before he finished First Among Sequels, for example, he was struck by a brainwave that had to be fitted in: "There are lots of -pianos in Victorian fiction, and I thought: 'what if there were only seven or eight -pianos in the book world, and a special piano squad to move them around?'." Mischief, of course, ensues, and a piano is dumped unexpectedly into the middle of Jane Austen's Emma. "I went back through Emma—[where a pianoforte arrives unexpectedly for Jane Fairfax] and everyone does say 'Where did this piano come from?'."

"It's like having a jigsaw where the bits don't quite fit, and then all of a sudden you find them fitting—and oh, my God, it's perfect." He recalls a sequence from Something Rotten where Hamlet and Emma Hamilton are flirting—and discover they both have a best friend called Horatio (Fforde has a tendency to talk about the characters as if they actually exist). "It's perfect. You come across things like that and think: 'this is meant to be'."