Interview: Jasper Fforde

Jasper Fforde will be in New Zealand in three weeks to attend NZ Writers Week in Wellington. I caught up with him to ask a few questions about his work.

Jasper is the author of several wildly amusing and brilliantly conceived books, creating some of the most original ideas since Douglas Adams. His literary heroine, Thursday Next, works in the book world for an organisation known as Jurisfiction, who ensure that the plot of a novel runs smoothly from one reading to another. In this wonderfully conceived world the members of Jurisfiction leap from one book to another to maintain the status quo, such as by preventing the minotaur from putting in an appearance in an American western. Fforde now has four brilliant series running; as well as Thursday Next there is the Nursery Crime squad led by DSI Jack Spratt, Shades of Grey and a YA fantasy starting with The Last Dragonslayer.   

At the moment you have four series simultaneously on the go – Thursday Next, Nursery Crimes, Shades of Grey and Dragonslayer. How do you manage to balance all those?

The different series have different rules, so I kind of just switch into a different driver’s seat when I’m tackling each. It’s not so hard to do. After all, almost anyone can speak – and often in rapid succession – to a child, a parent, a stranger and a partner – yet instantly change the complex social interactions required for each.

Do you ever find ideas for one series pop into your mind when you are writing another?

I’m usually thinking a couple of books ahead, and often have an idea for one book that doesn’t work and that I will then take out and keep for another. I make a quick note for myself as these are easily forgotten, then move on.

Is it hard to keep a series going after a while? Do you have all sorts of future plot ideas or do you have to wait for them to come?

Oddly, ideas I find easiest of all – the difficulty lies in threading all those wildly different shaped beads on the same string of thread. An idea on its own has no real fascination for me, but if it can be weaved into a complex plot – double hoorah!

You have lots of other interests outside your writing – such as photography and flying. Do you find it distracts you from your writing to be able to share your wonderful photos so quickly with lots of people and get instant reactions?

I think it’s important to not just be a writer. Everything I do and the interactions I have with people while I am doing them inform my writing. A diverse interest base is vital to refill the ‘internal well of ideas’ that is so often emptied by a book!

And I have to ask – where did the idea for photos of Ceilings of the week come from?

It’s thinking sideways, really, and looking at subjects from a different viewpoint. Stand on a chair in your kitchen and see how quickly the ordinary becomes defamiliarised. A writer looks, I think, for the quirky in the ordinary – concentrating on ceilings is actually a good way at looking at something in a completely new way. Conversely, if I visited the Sistine Chapel I would take pictures of the floor…

Since the first of the Thursday Next stories came out in 2001, you have published 13 books. That is a very impressive output by anyone standards (except perhaps George Simenon). Do you see yourself being able to maintain that pace, or perhaps needing to slow down slightly?

Writing a ‘world building’ book, the first in the series, always takes longer. ‘The Eyre Affair’ and ‘Dragonslayer’ and ‘The Big Over Easy’ all took at least two years each  to develop during the twelve years I spent learning my craft – writing series books in that world is much easier. Notably, the two new series I’ve written while being a published author, ‘Shades of Grey’ and now, ‘Early Riser’, have all taken me two years – it takes that long to get the pieces of the puzzle together. After all, fantasy for me is to make the very bizarre utterly mundane and totally normal to the people who live in the books – and that can take quite a bit of honing!

I’d like to keep the pace up if I can.

Can you give us a little back-story on the ideas behind Shades of Grey? Did the idea come to you fully formed or did you have to put a lot of work into developing it?

It took me almost 450 man-days when a series book takes me about 120. The central idea – the ‘narrative dare’ if you like – was to create an entire social order based on visual colour. I started off with social hierarchy, then moved on to economics and health care. As the world gained in complexity, the plot threads and characters loomed out of the murk..

You have said that Shades of Grey took a long time to write. What was it about this particular book that made it so hard to write?

It is a very complex book, and the internal logic took a lot of jiggling to become sound enough to hang the characters and the action upon. World-building – if it is to work – is an infinitely subtle enterprise, as each small quirk has a knock on effect upon the next.

Can we expect a sequel? The idea is too good for there to be just one volume.

Oh yes – possibly in 2018.

Someone else stole part of your title and added a number to it. Has this led to any problems or embarrassing confusions? Or has it helped sales?

I call MY version ’49 fewer shades of Grey’. We had a few accidental sales, and yes, I expect it might have been confusing for some people who bought my book in error. I’ve spoken to a couple of booksellers who sold my book when customers asked for ‘Shades of Grey’ meaning the other one, on the rationale that they preferred my book, it was what the customer asked for and they didn’t want to sell them the other one!

Your readers are a very impatient bunch and always looking for news of the next title to come out.

Given the proliferation of social media channels, do you find it difficult to deal with demands and make predictions concerning your forthcoming books?

I tend to just ignore it all and just get on with the project in hand. Quite often books have their own length and their own schedule, much to everyone’s frustration – including mine. But books can’t be forced or hurried. It always shows.

If I look on GoodReads I see that there is something listed on there called The Last Great Tortoise Race, a third volume in the Nursery Crime series. Is this actually true – can we expect more from DCI Jack Spratt?

Yes indeed – at some point. I’ve even got some plot points sorted out.

On your website I read a little about a forthcoming title Early Riser. This sounds like lots of fun. Can you tell a little more about what to expect from this new title?

It’s a thriller set in a world where humans have always hibernated. And it’s the ‘always’ in that line that is most important. It’s very normal, and humans have adapted over the years both physically and socially to allow them to sleep out the harsh winter. But there are those who have to stay awake to maintain law and order as mischief is never far away. The action takes place during the first Overwintering of a probationary Sleep Marshall. Hibural politics, big business, frostbite and petty personal vendettas all conspire to make his first winter one he will never forget – So long as he lives to survive it.

Is it easier to have fresh ideas when you break away from your other series?

I love new ideas – especially ones that then begat a whole host of little idearettes. And they do. Start off with a single idea like humans hibernating, and all sorts of other notions drop into place. If we hibernated, we’d need to gorge to survive the winter, so every human would have wildly different seasonal body shapes. One’s driver’s licence would probably have two pictures on it, and those with a large BMI would be looked upon with envy as the winter approached, and those who were thin, with pity – they’d be unlikely to survive. They’d be faddy quick weight gain diets, too.

Jasper Fforde is attending Writers Week 2016. His appearances at include being one of five literary judges on the Literary Idol panel (Sun 13 March) and an hour-long a session in conversation with playwright and columnist Dave Armstrong at the Embassy Theatre on Fri 11 March at 5pm.

Photo credit: Mari Fforde


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Marcus Hobson Marcus was until recently a businessman but has given all that up to follow his lifelong passion to be a writer. With a varied career behind him, including a degree in Ancient and Mediaeval History (and archaeology) he has wide ranging literary tastes from popular fiction to Viking sea burials. He is currently working on his second novel, a mix of fact and fiction set in the First World War (and crossing his fingers about getting his first book published). Marcus lives near Tauranga with his wife and their daughters, and is the Literary Editor of ARTbop, a local online magazine .

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