By Brooke Schultz
What happens when you can literally get lost in a book? Jasper Fforde answers that question in his debut novel “The Eyre Affair.” Thanks to Professor Brendon Fox, that novel is coming to the stage at Washington College for the first time ever.
It was 2007 when Fox first entered the world Fforde had created. He was driving from Los Angeles to Utah for a Shakespeare Festival, listening to the audiobook of the second novel in the series as he drove.
“I was riveted the entire time,” he said. “I remember not wanting it to end. I pulled up to my hotel and I wouldn’t get out of the car because it was just fascinating.”
Fox said that as he was listening to the second novel, hearing it aloud helped him create the images in his mind. “I started to picture scenes in my head, and I felt like there were so many great scenes and great dialogue.”
After listening to the audiobook and returning to the first novel, he began to translate the text into scenes off and on for about five years, tucking them away into his desk drawer.
Last year, he was presented with the opportunity to do something with it when the department was planning the upcoming year. “I was excited to do something, but not a full production. And this is what come to mind.”
“The Eyre Affair” takes place in a parallel universe, set in England, 1985. Cloning, time travel, and literally getting lost in a book are all possible.
The novel’s protagonist, Thursday Next (played by Rachel Dilliplane, class of 2015), is a literary detective who is charged with solving a mystery when her former English professor steals the original manuscript of “Jane Eyre” and threatens to change the whole story.
“Fforde cares deeply about literature; he creates a world where literature is enormously important. The books are full of literary allusions, jokes, and puns,” Chair of the English Deparment Dr. Moncrief said. “Anyone who loves literature and loves reading knows what it is like to get lost in a book. Jasper Fforde exploits this idea — what if you could actually go inside a book? What would that be like? What are the characters doing beyond the story we know? What would it be like to meet with and interact with them? What if we changed the story?”
The premiere on Thursday, April 28 at 7:30 p.m was in Hotchkiss, which Fox said they chose intentionally as a nod to sound and music. The production features nine current students, three alumni, and a faculty member. While the play is based off a text, that doesn’t mean the audience has to be exclusive, Fox said. The goal of the performance is to bring “The Eyre Affair” to anyone interested, with or without knowledge of the source text, “Jane Eyre.”
Freshman John Leslie is playing Landen Park-Laine, a veteran who served in the Crimean War alongside Next and was romantically involved with her.
“It is a bit surreal to be acting in a play and to have the opportunity to meet with the author behind it,” he said, referring to both author Fforde and adaptor Fox. “There’s a new layer added to performing a show when you’re very conscious of its source.”
There’s a “lot of plot” in the novel, Fox said. “One thing I’m working on — I’ll be working on it until the performances — is what to keep of the plot, and what to take out. There’s so much to include and it’s all so wonderful. But I have to find ways to not be precious with it and say, ‘This is not the book.’ That means I have to make hard choices.”
Despite that, Junior Kaitlyn Fowler, who plays multiple roles in the script, believes that the adaptation is very loyal to the book. She said, “There are some details or scenes that are switched around to make the play run smoother and quicker. Most importantly, even when small details are switched around, the play is very loyal to the tone and feeling of the book, which is so tongue-in-cheek and wry, but still heartwarming.”
Fowler said that she’s excited to be a part of the adaptation and enjoys that the cast is working with a live script, which is constantly being edited and changed.
She is especially excited to meet Fforde. She said, “I really love the book and I’m excited to meet Fforde and both see his reaction to his novel coming to life in front of him, as well as get his opinions and input on our characters and choices. It’s not often that you get to talk to an author and hear their thoughts on your work. I know we all plan to soak up every second of this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity with him.”
Fforde will be traveling from England to Chestertown to attend the last rehearsal and talk to the cast. On Wednesday, April 27, at 4:30 p.m., Fforde gave a talk about the difficulty of getting into the publishing world.
“Jasper Fforde is a very successful writer. He’s the author of 12 novels and is a New York Times best-selling writer. The talk he’s giving at the Lit House is about his bumpy journey as a writer, about how it took him many years and many rejections before finding success. I think aspiring writers will benefit from the chance to talk to him about this,” Moncrief said.
After the performance on Thursday evening, Fforde will join the creative team and cast to talk about the book and the performance.
Fox said that it’s both exciting and nerve-wracking that Fforde will be present for the production. The two have had some correspondence as they set up his visit, and he’s been fairly open-minded to someone taking on his work. “It seems like he’s coming in with an open mind,” Fox said. “I’m excited to see what he thinks of this other animal – a theatrical version of what he’s written.” Fox also just wants to meet the creator of this complex world.
“I think the book, and hopefully the play, is a valentine to literature,” Fox said.
Aside from the debut Thursday, there will be additional workshop performances on Friday, April 29 at 7:30 p.m. and Sunday, May 1 at 1 p.m. in Hotchkiss Hall in Gibson Center for the Arts.
By Brooke Schultz