Earlier this week, my friend Jen Williams celebrated her book birthday. The Copper Promise, which I’ll be reviewing in a while, is the story of a group of thieves (Although they would dispute that definition), the job they take on and its consequences. Also fighting. And banter. And well drawn, clever character dynamics. And fun. Especially that last one, it’s a great book and one that continues the ongoing trend to drag heroic fantasy kicking and screaming into the 21st century.
It’s a hugely fun book from a profoundly smart, talented writer. But before you go and buy it, which you really should, here’s Jen talking about Ford Prefect, her favorite character and the effect he had on the book.
Ford Prefect has always been my favourite character. If you ask me that question – “Who’s your favorite character then? From any book?” he is the first one I think of, probably because he was the first – first favourite, first literary crush, first character who inspired me to buy a satchel (okay, technically my first literary crush was probably Aragorn, but it didn’t last thanks to his interest in flighty elfin types). I read The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy when I was about eleven or twelve, and it was an incredibly important book for me. I fell in love with it big time, becoming obsessed in that way that is only really possible when you are a teen or a pre-teen. Very quickly I sped through the books, and then all the other versions*, watching the TV series over and over again and conscientiously keeping a towel with me at all times. When I got my first pet goldfish I named them Ford and Zaphod, and I became a card-carrying member of the fan club ZZ9 Plural Z Alpha, gleefully poring over every issue of the fanzine Mostly Harmless (pre-internet fandoms, good lord!). I bought stickers and tiny, weeny metal figures of the main characters.
Most of this was down to Ford, who I unabashedly loved, and looking back it’s not difficult to see why. He was funny and clever, always one step ahead of Arthur (poor Arthur being somewhat wrong footed after his planet is blown up) and he had a deliciously dark sense of humour. He was a writer too, and a traveller, and he was sort of effortlessly cool. More importantly for younger me, he was an outsider making a casual attempt to fit in – his cursory pre-emptive research, of course, leading him to choose a name he thought would be inconspicuous on Earth. An outsider attempting to fit in, although not with any serious effort involved: this described me to a tee, particularly as an awkward teenager.
I suspect everyone feels to some extent that they don’t fit in as a child – it’s practically the main childhood experience – but I was always an introverted kid, more interested in books and stories than people, and I had a slightly wonky upbringing. Thanks to living with my grandparents for much of my childhood I grew up with some habits that were slightly out of step with the rest of my generation – I called the stereo the wireless, for example, and when asked by my teacher for my favourite pop act I gravely answered “Frank Sinatra”. I was also an enormous geek, an aspect of my personality that appears to have been with me from the start, and while my classmates were swooning over Take That and Boyzone, I was obsessively trawling HMV for any video cassettes of Star Trek: The Next Generation that I didn’t yet own. I was bullied at school but I was also lucky enough to have a good group of friends, and although we didn’t really share the same interests – I would gamely nod through conversations about Backstreet Boys and the Spice Girls – I knew enough to get on with people and coast by. An outsider making a vague attempt to fit in, but still keeping that Star Trek novelisation in my bag at all times.
These days I look at my own writing and see shades of Ford Prefect in the characters I love the most. Wydrin Threefellows, the reckless sellsword at the heart of The Copper Promise, has a similar tendency towards avoiding responsibility, and a similar tolerance for alcohol. I imagine that they would get on famously, actually, and my liver winces at the mere thought of the pub/tavern crawl they would inspire.
Ford, to me, was a personal hero. He wasn’t actually tremendously heroic – given a choice between saving the world and going to a really good party, Ford would already be over by the drinks cabinet – but I hugely admired his casual approach to responsibility and his pragmatic attitude, and it influenced me at a very impressionable age. I probably can’t quite blame him for my tendency to spend too much time in the pub (not quite) but I think Ford encouraged me to embrace that side of me that didn’t fit in – to be proud of being an outsider – and he will always be my favorite character for that. And I still have a thing for satchels.
*just don’t talk to me about the film.