What if most of humanity hibernated instead of braving an annual Polar Vortex? How would the economy function with most people only working part of the year, and how would you stay asleep for so long? We’d need to find some way to stay alive for that long without eating, and of course there’d need to be a small group of people who volunteered to stay awake and keep an eye on things; no one wants to wake up to anarchy! But most importantly, what does the Tom Jones song “Help Yourself” sound like when played on the bouzouki?
Jasper Fforde’s new novel may answer all these questions, but there’s even more to Early Riser than the intriguing premise that most of us hibernate four months a year. It will be no surprise to the fans of Fforde’s work that this stand-alone work is just as detailed and rich as his previous books. The world bursts out of the story and into illustrated ads (including one for a mammoth-watching trip in Talgarth, Wales) and colorful footnotes (like the helpful reminder that Bunsen Honeydew works at Muppet Labs). Chapter headers give readers extra doses of context from sources like The Handbook of Winterology and Surviving Snowball Earth.
But Early Riser focuses on Charlie Worthing, the rookie Winter Consul—entrusted with keeping the sleepers safe until spring—who soon finds that the business of staying awake all winter is just as wild and dangerous as he’s heard. The extreme winter weather is the least of his problems. For one thing, there’s nightwalkers—people who suffered an occasional side effect of the hibernation drug Morphenox and end up like zombies. For another, there’s Villains–roving gangs of faded English aristocrats looking to kidnap potential servants. And that’s not even considering Charlie’s actual coworkers, who don’t seem remotely trustworthy (or even sane). The only thing Charlie doesn’t need to worry about is the Wintervolk—a category of bizarre creatures like the Gronk, which has “a strange mix of a love for Rogers and Hammerstein musicals and obsessive domesticity”—because they’re just myths. Probably myths, anyway. But Charlie has to keep his wits about him, because there’s a deadly dream going viral, and a mysterious force wants to keep him from finding the truth.
As to how Fforde keeps all these parts moving, his answer is simply “practice.” One might imagine an intricate system of notes of spreadsheets, but writing every day and staying present in the world is the best method of keeping track of all the creatures and characters and bits of history. He likens it to booting up a computer. And, just as with a computer, there’s a risk of the power shutting off.
Fforde’s power shut off during a recent “creative hiatus,” his term for a period of 12 years when his normally prolific publishing schedule shuttered to a halt. It had never been a problem for him before; he’d even scoffed at the idea of writer’s block.
“This is probably because I viewed my writing and the creative process as more like building an engine,” says Fforde. “But sadly, that is not the case with a creative endeavor, and I had not realized this. Very few of the words for Early Riser came out right for at least two years, despite working on the manuscript every day, and I think it was because things were just not quite ‘right’ in my life or ‘too distractive’ to enable me to focus sufficiently. The fog just kept creeping in, and obscuring the goalposts.”
Fforde never did figure out how to remove his distractions or clear out that fog, but he did learn to see through it. Once he accepted that he wasn’t going to be able to make his life perfect in order to write, he was able to develop the ability to get the work done despite imperfect circumstances. This ability to focus through the fog is a skill he believes all writers need.
Reading the finished book is such tremendous fun that one would never know Fforde had such a hard time developing it. As ever, Fforde’s prose is full of absurd whimsy and more of the wordplay fans will remember fondly from his Thursday Next series. Fforde says that reminding himself to slow down and enjoy writing was key to seeing through the fog. “I have to like the book I am writing,” he says. “If I’m having fun, hopefully, so are you.”
Chelsea Ennen is an editorial assistant at Kirkus Reviews.