The Eye of Zoltar is best-selling author Jasper Fforde’s 13th published book, but he actually dreamed up the idea for the Chronicles of Kazam series (of which Zoltar is the third volume) back in 1997 when he was still an unpublished novelist. (Fforde famously received 76 rejections before publishing The Eyre Affair). Wondering whether he was writing for the wrong audience, he decided to “try a book for younger eyes,” he says. “I asked my sister, and she, too, had always been a fan of Ursula Le Guin, so she suggested writing ‘something with dragons and magic.’ So I did, but with my take on it—a modern world, where magic is real but no longer powerful, and insanely despotic leaders rule the Ununited Kingdoms.” The book was “roundly rejected” again; it lived on his hard drive until his agent asked to see it again in 2010.
At the center of the Chronicles series is teenage foundling and nonmagician Jennifer Strange, who in the first two books, solves the kingdom’s dragon problem and helps save the noble powers of magic in the realm. In the third, she’s commanded by Shandar, a powerful sorcerer, to undertake a perilous quest in order to bring him the titular Eye of Zoltar, a gem with unfathomable powers. Fforde calls the series a “mashup of all the familiar magical storytelling tropes (TV, movie and book) but seen in an entirely different way.” He says he doesn’t approach genre writing by merely refreshing the old tropes. Instead, he “exaggerates” those tropes and “transplants them into the real world.” That means a nation where there is an “orphan-based economy, where magic is governed by bureaucracy, and where instead of magic being all-powerful and dragons to be feared, magic is pretty weak, and dragons are inconveniently changed to rubber for the entire story.”
With The Eye of Zoltar, Fforde says he wanted to break out of the Kingdom of Snodd. “Book 2, The Song of the Quarkbeast, seems to me now a little too domestic and didn’t really expand the richness of Jennifer’s world. In Book 2 we got to fly up to the Troll Wall, and I wanted more of that—something to explore, people to meet, unexpected stuff around each corner—a ‘quest-y’ sort of book.” The adventure of creating Jennifer’s quest to discover the Eye of Zoltar offered a “huge amount of imaginative fun,” he says. “We could meet new characters, have them battle new foes—devise Jeopardy Tourism—and put together a team of girls who can go on to defeat Shandar.”
The author, who has four series “running in parallel,” appears to enjoy developing long-term relationships with his characters; critics have particularly admired his knack for creating strong, quirky female leads such as Thursday Next and Jennifer Strange. “I like Thursday and Jennifer a lot. I see myself very much in the Landen role [Landen is Thursday’s husband] supporting a strong and remarkable woman, and Jennifer would be a daughter about whom one would worry constantly but be infinitely proud.” The differences between the two characters are “fundamentally of reluctance,” Fforde adds. “Jennifer does what she does because she sort of has to, but I get the feeling that she’d like to put her feet up of an evening and order in some pizza. Thursday would hear gunfire and run toward it. Jennifer would avoid trouble—unless her friends were involved, and then she’d wade in without hesitation.”
Writing a series for younger readers may allow Fforde to indulge in the flights of imagination and silliness he’s known for, but he considers them tough critics and never writes down to them. “Children understand very complex ideas: betrayal, loss, happiness, camaraderie, jeopardy, danger, unfairness—normal school life, in fact,” he says. “So I tend to make characters as complex, plots as complex, but simply cut down on the number of subplots and allusion. I make the protagonists younger, too.” If anything, children may be the more demanding audience: “Children don’t want weighty prose or long tracts of exposition. A story for children needs to crack along at a fair pace. They get bored far more easily—and will have no qualms in telling you so.”
Since his publishing debut, Fforde has maintained his own extremely brisk pace; though he sometimes fantasizes about taking six months off to rest and recuperate (he says he’d indulge in flying and photography, of which he is “inordinately fond”), that vacation never seems to work out. He finds himself in front of his computer five days a week, “constantly chasing deadlines, writing, rewriting….It takes constant, constant working on and maintaining this strange and eclectic beast. If I didn’t sit down every day and work like this, I would not get a book done in a year.”
Kirkus praised The Eye of Zoltar for its “[w]ell-plotted, intelligent hilarity,” but Fforde says his writing process is not marked by a use of detailed plans or outlines. In fact, he tends to take a “Gung-Ho Full-Ahead Both” approach to writing. “That is doubtless the wrong way to go about it, but it’s all that seems to work for me, so I’m not in a hurry to change it.” He starts with “broad ideas” and a “vague notion of where things might end up but not a lot more,” he confesses. “Sometimes when I start a book, I have only a sentence or a narrative dare I have set myself. Much of the detail that gives the world its charm arrives as I am writing—and those ideas are added to the series story arc as we go. Having little or no idea where the book will end up does allow one a huge amount of freedom. I really can go pretty much anywhere—and I do.”
Jessie C. Grearson is a freelance writer and writing teacher living in Falmouth, Maine. She is a graduate of The Iowa Writers’ Workshop.