The Books Interview: Jasper Fforde

The author of the <i>Thursday Next</i> novels in conversation.

Have you ever spoken to any of the 76 people who rejected your first book, The Eyre Affair?

No, not really, and it doesn't matter. Speak to any editor and ask them what they turned down and they'll have long lists of books. My first editor passed on [Alex Garland's bestseller] The Beach. It's not bad form, just unlucky. And with the kind of work I do, I'm not surprised -- in précis, it looks like batty nonsense that wouldn't sell a single copy. It took me ten years to get published and I realised then that it would take me ten years to get established.

How do you begin writing a novel?

What I tend to do is give myself a narrative "dare" and challenge myself to write my way out of it. In the Nursery Crime series, it was: "Humpty-Dumpty is a large egg who's murdered" -- OK, make that believable. With The Eyre Affair, it was: "Create a world in which Jane Eyre can be kidnapped." One of the short stories I wrote back in the 1980s was all about a world that was black and white and you had to have the colour synthetically piped to plants. That was the jumping-off point for Shades of Grey.

What's your writing routine?

A standard Thursday Next book takes 100 days, typically spread out over six months, and that brings forth about 100,000 words. Having a two-year-old and a baby, I find it hard to closet myself away and write. My wife understands that sitting in my office and staring into space is actually work but we're rebuilding the house so I can't closet myself away at the moment. I find myself working until 4am -- so that I have time when the phones aren't ringing and there are no emails or builders asking me what shape roof I want.

You worked in the film industry before writing novels full-time. Did you ever consider writing a screenplay?

I did [write one] -- I thought it was good but it completely failed to light anyone's fire. Everyone in the film industry wants to be a director so I was trying to write scripts for years because the one thing you can do is write your way in. I heard that Graham Greene used to write long treatments, which were short stories of 8,000-10,000 words, which he then used to turn into film scripts because it allowed him to get to grips with the characters and situations. He did this famously with The Third Man -- the novel is in fact his elongated treatment, which he then changed into the film script.

So I started writing short stories which were supposed to be treatments . . . but then I found that the short stories were far more enjoyable and one of them turned into a novel -- and here I am as a novelist, when all I wanted to do was direct movies.

The Toad News section on Jasperfforde.com is bitingly satirical. Are you a political person?

When you're an author, you're always two people. Jasper the writer is different from Jasper the person at home. I don't want to be preachy but with Toad News I can vent as much as I want and it doesn't matter. I hope that in my books there's an undertone of politics, basic tenets of how we should live.

Do you have a favourite author?

Not really. I like non-fiction. I don't have a favourite author and I think that's healthy because I tend to regard genre as the measles of the book world. People do tend to stick to fantasy, or science fiction, and there's something wrong with that. I was hoping, deep down, that my books would end up as a Grand Central [Station] for readers -- you'd arrive on a fantasy train and go out on a science-fiction train. I get emails from people who've come to the books from sci-fi and they're now working their way through Austen.

Are there any classics you've alluded to in your work that you haven't read?

Oh, lots! That's the problem: I read but I'm not fantastically well read. So once I've used up the very obvious ones, such as Alice in Wonderland -- and my books are very hungry for ideas -- I have to start searching around and pulling up précis and looking up references. We were a Brontë family rather than an Austen family (it's like Asterix and Tintin -- you can be one or the other but not both), so I'd never read any Austen until quite recently. Now I get to read all these classics that I didn't have time for earlier.
Interview by Helen Lewis-Hasteley

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 07 February 2011 issue of the New Statesman, The New Arab Revolt

KEVIN C MOORE
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Notes from a small island: the fraught and colourful history of Sicily

Sicily: Culture and Conquest at the British Museum.

When a gun was fired a hundred metres or so from the Sicilian piazza where we were eating, my reaction was to freeze, fall to my knees, and then run for cover in a colonnade. As I peered back into the square from behind a column, I expected to see a tangle of overturned chairs and china but I watched instead as the freeze-frame melted into normality. I retrieved my shoe from the waiter.

I should not have been surprised by how coolly everyone else handled what I was inclined to call “the situation”. The Sicilians have had 4,000 years in which to perfect the art of coexistence, defusing conflict with what strikes outsiders as inexplicable ease, rendering Sicily one of the most culturally diverse but identifiable places on the planet. Still, having visited “Sicily: Culture and Conquest” at the British Museum, I feel vindicated. There may be no Cosa Nostra in this exhibition, which charts the island’s history from antiquity to the early 13th century, but that doesn’t mean there is no simmering conflict. Like Lawrence Durrell, who described Sicily as “thrown down almost in mid-channel like a concert grand” and as having “a sort of minatory, defensive air”, I felt the tension beneath the bliss that has characterised Sicily for many centuries.

The “barbarians”, wrote the Greek historian Thucydides, moved to Sicily from Iberia (Spain), Troy and Italy before the Phoenicians and Greeks settled there in the 8th century BC – the time of Homer, whose Odyssey provided a useful guide to some of the more threatening features of the landscape. The giant, sea-lying rocks off the east coast were the boulders that the one-eyed Polyphemus hurled at Odysseus’s ship; the phrase “between Scylla and Charybdis” referred to the Strait of Messina that divides Sicily from the mainland; Lake Pergusa, in the centre of the island, was the eerie spot whence Hades snatched Persephone and carried her down to the underworld.

It is a delight to behold the British Museum’s case full of terracotta figurines of Persephone, Demeter and their priestesses, some of thousands uncovered across Sicily, where the Greeks established the cult of these goddesses. The Phoenicians introduced their
own weather god, Baal Hammon, and the indigenous Sicilians seem to have accepted both, content that they honoured the same thing: the island’s remarkable fecundity.

The early Sicilians were nothing if not grateful for their agriculturally rich landscapes. As early as 2500 BC, they were finding ways to celebrate their vitality, the idea being that if the soil was fertile, so were they. On a stone from this period, intended as a doorway to a tomb, an artist has achieved the near impossible: the most consummate representation of the sexual act. Two spirals, two balls, a passage and something to fill it. The penis is barely worth mentioning. The ovaries are what dominate, swirling and just as huge as the testicles beneath them. We see the woman from both inside and out, poised on two nimble, straddling legs; the man barely figures at all.

Under the Greeks in the 5th century BC, it was a different story. Although many of Sicily’s tyrants were generous patrons of the arts and sciences, theirs was a discernibly more macho culture. The second room of the exhibition is like an ode to their sporting achievements: amid the terracotta busts of ecstatic horses and the vase paintings of wild ponies bolting over mounds (Sicily is exceptionally hilly) are more stately representations of horses drawing chariots. These Greek tyrants – or rather, their charioteers – achieved a remarkable number of victories in the Olympic and Pythian Games. Some of the most splendid and enigmatic poetry from the ancient world was written to celebrate their equestrian triumphs. “Water is best, but gold shines like gleaming fire at night, outstripping the wealth of a great man” – so begins a victory ode for Hiero I of Syracuse.

But what of the tensions? In 415BC, the Athenians responded to rivalries between Segesta and Syracuse by launching the Sic­ilian expedition. It was a disaster. The Athenians who survived were imprisoned and put to work in quarries; many died of disease contracted from the marshland near Syracuse. There is neither the space nor the inclination, in this relatively compact exhibition, to explore the incident in much depth. The clever thing about this show is that it leaves the historical conflicts largely between the lines by focusing on Sicily at its height, first under the Greeks, and then in the 11th century under the Normans – ostensibly “the collage years”, when one culture was interwoven so tightly with another that the seams as good as disappeared. It is up to us to decide how tightly those seams really were sewn.

Much is made of the multiculturalism and religious tolerance of the Normans but even before them we see precedents for fairly seamless relations between many different groups under the 9th-century Arab conquerors. Having shifted Sicily’s capital from Syracuse to Palermo, where it remains to this day, the Arabs lived cheek by jowl with Berbers, Lombards, Jews and Greek-Byzantine Sicilians. Some Christians converted to Islam so that they would be ­exempt from the jizya (a tax imposed on non-Muslims). But the discovery of part of an altar from a 9th-century church, displayed here, suggests that other Christians were able to continue practising their faith. The marble is exquisitely adorned with beady-eyed lions, frolicsome deer and lotus flowers surrounding the tree of life, only this tree is a date palm, introduced to Sicily – together with oranges, spinach and rice – by the Arabs.

Under Roger II, the first Norman king of Sicily, whose father took power from the Arabs, the situation was turned on its head. With the exception of the Palermo mosque (formerly a Byzantine church, and before that a Roman basilica), which had again become a church, mosques remained open, while conversion to Christianity was encouraged. Roger, who was proudly Catholic, looked to Constantinople and Fatimid Egypt, as well as Normandy, for his artistic ideas, adorning his new palace at Palermo and the splendidly named “Room of Roger” with exotic hunting mosaics, Byzantine-style motifs and inscriptions in Arabic script, including a red-and-green porphyry plaque that has travelled to London.

To which one’s immediate reaction is: Roger, what a man. Why aren’t we all doing this? But an appreciation for the arts of the Middle East isn’t the same thing as an understanding of the compatibilities and incompatibilities of religious faith. Nor is necessity the same as desire. Roger’s people – and, in particular, his army – were so religiously and culturally diverse that he had little choice but to make it work. The start of the Norman invasion under his father had incensed a number of Sicily’s Muslims. One poet had even likened Norman Sicily to Adam’s fall. And while Roger impressed many Muslims with his use of Arabic on coins and inscriptions, tensions were brewing outside the court walls between the
island’s various religious quarters. Roger’s death in 1154 marked the beginning of a deterioration in relations that would precipitate under his son and successor, William I, and his grandson William II. Over the following century and a half, Sicily became more or less latinised.

The objects from Norman Sicily that survive – the superb stone carvings and multilingual inscriptions, the robes and richly dressed ceiling designs – tell the story less of an experiment that failed than of beauty that came from necessity. Viewing Sicily against a background of more recent tensions – including Cosa Nostra’s “war” on migrants on an island where net migration remains low – it is perhaps no surprise that the island never lost its “defensive air”. Knowing the fractures out of which Sicily’s defensiveness grew makes this the most interesting thing about it. 

Daisy Dunn’s latest books are Catullus’ Bedspread and The Poems of Catullus (both published by William Collins)

“Sicily” at the British Museum runs until 14 August

This article first appeared in the 28 April 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The new fascism