Many readers have wished they could physically visit the settings of novels they love, interact with the characters, and wander through the background details the author suggests. In his best-selling series, comprising The Eyre Affair, Lost in a Good Book, The Well of Lost Plots, and Something Rotten, British author Jasper Fforde makes physical travel into the worlds of novels the basis of his books, all written in a style reminiscent of Monty Python and Douglas Adams. The protagonist of the novels is Thursday Next, an intrepid “literary detection agent” in an alternate-reality Britain where dodos are cloned as pets and the Goliath Corporation dominates society. In the course of Thursday’s adventures, she encounters many literary characters and settings, including the Great Library, a wonderfully depicted environment so large that it literally stretches for 200 miles in every direction, with dozens of floors above and below ground. It is in the Great Library that the ingredients of all fiction can be found and novels are created and maintained. Fforde’s series is both a humorous and thoroughly modern adventure story and also a deliberate homage to classic literature. He recently shared some of his thoughts on books, libraries, and reading.
Let’s start with the Great Library, a setting that takes the concept of the universal library to its ultimate extreme. How did this concept develop, and how did you decide that a library was the natural setting for not only the storage of books but also their creation?
It’s all about metaphors, really. But first, a little history: Eager to set a standard, the U.K. Metaphor Association agreed in 1926 that the river should be the standard measure of metaphorical power, thus giving us a “RivMet” value from which we can gauge all other metaphors. On the RivMet scale, the Congo in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness would be close to metasaturation at 96 RivMets, although not all rivers are so blessed. The river in The Lady of Shallot gains only 71 RivMets, and the Thames in Three Men in a Boat, barely 26. Bridges rank around 60 RivMets, depending on context, as do towers, multinational corporations, forests, mountains, oceans, the Titanic, the Apollo ;moon project, decapitation. In fact, almost everything has a potential RivMet value that far exceeds its own literal meaning.
Libraries, you will be unsurprised to hear, ;enjoy a far higher metaphorical rating than all other public buildings. Even a musty-smelling Carnegie will never fall below 68 RivMets. There is something unbelievably special and valuable about collected knowledge. Something that transcends mortality. Walk into a library eager to confirm a fact, and you are confronted with the undeniable feeling that you are not alone in wanting to know more. Thousands of humans who are now dust did exactly the same before you. Libraries are a metaphor for the pursuit of knowledge, the thirst for innovation. Libraries are the physical projection and result of something we have that sets us apart and makes us do extraordinary things: an inquiring mind.
You have mentioned that the famous Long Room at Trinity College in Dublin is the model for the physical arrangement of the Great Library. What is it about the layout of the Long Room that inspired you, and have you had any particularly memorable experiences in libraries that have influenced your writing?
The Trinity College Long Room is the library from which all other libraries should be judged. Not for content, of course, because much of the knowledge stored in the Long Room itself is either obsolete or grindingly dull. What makes Trinity special is the feeling you get when you visit. Individual features are not enough on their own. Trinity ticks all the boxes.
It’s the last feature that adds a certain drama to the proceedings. The unseeing eyes stare at you as you walk past, adding a somber and mortal note to the library. The Long Room is not somewhere to laugh out loud or have improper thoughts. This is a serious learning deal. You’re not even allowed to take pictures. It’s the genuine article in form, function, and feeling. Whenever I am in Dublin, I have to go there—my dad was a Book of Kells groupie, so you can take a decko [look] at that before pausing to think deep thoughts about nothing to yourself in the Long Room. Then you can go to the gift shop downstairs and buy a postcard or a Guinness-themed pen or something. I think the truth is that I just love all this weird human stuff we get up to, and libraries have lots of stuff about stuff. I have a small, upwardly mobile collection of books that hopes one day to be a library. It is not really big enough and doesn’t have a copy of Newton’s Principia mathematica or Galileo’s Dialog Concerning the Two Chief World Systems, but we all have to start somewhere.
You have created a library so vast that it literally stretches for miles. Are there elements of libraries you have visited that inspired such a feeling of vastness?
As you can see above, Trinity was the model for the Great Library, but the reading room in the British Museum is equally impressive, although, strictly speaking, a bit daft. Who had the bright idea of using a dome as a library? (It was the unlikely named Sydney Smirke, that’s who.) Actually, the dome isn’t really the library at all—it’s the reading room—but any reading room or library that is less than 3 percent book does seem like a lot like wasted space to me, hence Fforde’s Third Dictum, which states: “A building is worthless as a library if you can hover a JetRanger helicopter inside it.” However, the opposite is true of railway stations, where the more ;JetRangers you can hover within it, the better it is. Where was I? Ah, yes. The Great Library.
I like the high ceiling idea and the ornateness, but I wanted to make the Great Library really, really big—so I gave it hundreds of miles of corridors, twenty-six floors above ground for published novels, and twenty-six subbasements where novels are created—the “Well of Lost Plots.” I also think it has a large entry lobby where you can hover a JetRanger or two, plenty of polished brass, marble, and ornate lifts that look like they’ve been pinched from the Waldorf-Astoria. In fact, the library has a little bit of all the great public buildings I have ever been into, from the museum at Cardiff to the Buenos Aires post office to Saint Paul’s Cathedral in London. There is something awe-inspiring in these sort of large-scale building projects. A metaphor for teamwork, perhaps. By the way, if anyone is interested in seeing if your local library conforms to Fforde’s Third Dictum, a Bell JetRanger’s rotor disc is 33.3 feet wide.
The Well of Lost Plots is a particularly vivid setting within the Great Library, where the raw materials of novels are stored as they are formed into texts. The Well houses shops and storefronts selling plot devices, characters, and grammatical situations. Where did the inspiration for the Well come from?
Making the depository of all known stories into a library is not a huge leap. I never thought it could logically be anything else. I wasn’t sure about the Well of Lost Plots. What would the place where all books are created look like? In the end, I thought it should mirror the staidness of the library upstairs; a library that has had all the rules, regulations, and quiet orderliness stripped away from it—a mixture of a Dickensian London street, a bustling Far Eastern market, and some postapocalyptic world where law and order has broken down. And in this way, I suppose, I am commenting on the rare freedom writers afford themselves. In writing fiction, the limit is really your own imagination; you can do what you want as long as it fits within the long-established conventions of storytelling. Writing, for me, is pretty much as you see it in the Well: a chaotic fiction factory.
When researching the Thursday Next novels do you primarily use books that you are familiar with from your own collection? How has your library grown during the years you’ve been writing your novels?
For the jokes to work, the “featured” novel has to be as familiar as possible to the widest range of people, so the list of potential classics to reverently attack becomes smaller each time. After I have chosen a story, then I generally start to amass books on the subject. I like to try to get the book’s spirit and meaning clear in my head before I start to debase it. I try to put in a few esoteric jokes for the scholars, so I have to get it right. Every time I write a book, my library increases by about ten books…and that doesn’t count the gradual increase that occurs naturally!
You recently auctioned your working copy of Wuthering Heights for charity, which includes annotations that indicate your thought process as you used that text in your own novel. How much do you tend to annotate and personalize your books while writing? Which books in your collection will you never part with?
I often write in books, which is a practice many people frown at, but in books that I am studying, it is better than making notes that I can lose. My scribbling copies tend to be the cheapest paperbacks anyway, so no real harm done. The books I probably wouldn’t like to part with are any of my old friends that I have had for a long time—the Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland that I can’t remember not having, first editions, that sort of thing. Plus the copies of my own books, of course. I like to keep at least one of every edition that has ever been printed.
In addition to your novels, you have also created an extensive range of supplemental materials such as postcards and a large, detailed web site that expands upon many of the settings and themes in the books. Do you have a complete collection of all the materials that you have created for the Thursday Next books?
Yes, I have created a lot of extra stuff to make my books spill out into the real world. I kind of like the idea that you can fuzz the edge of make-believe and reality. This Thursday Next–ian ephemera ranges from downloadable entroposcopes to Swindon Library bookplates (with “consign to furnace” stamped on them); from T-shirts to “advelopes” to a series of postcards that I give away with signed copies. I’m a keen archivist, so I have an example of most things.
How has the success of the Thursday Next novels affected your reading habits? Do you get a chance to read for pleasure or are you reading only things that might affect the novels you are writing?
Success means pressure to do at least as well next time, and it also increases tour dates and festival appearances, all of which are fun to do but eat heavily into reading and writing time. I have to pick and choose quite carefully any book that isn’t part of my research. I usually have at least three on the go at any one time, but I’m quite ruthless. If a book hasn’t pulled me in by the third chapter, then it’s finished and I move on to the next.