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

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Why is Alan Dein so good at getting his interview subjects to talk?

The presenter of BBC Radio 4’s Aftermath never traps or exhausts his subjects – he just gets them to open up.

“I like to feel like I’m a conduit, an enabler – does that sound soppy?” After listening to a couple of episodes of his exceptional new series, Aftermath (23 January, 8pm), I wanted, not for the first time, to know what drives the oral historian Alan Dein to keep making the sorts of radio programmes that he has made for the past 20 years. These include the award-winning Lives in a Landscape and Don’t Hang Up – ostensibly uncomplicated exchanges with people going about their daily lives, sometimes revealing very little, sometimes more than you can bear. (Landmark radio initiatives such as The Listening Project owe a great deal to Dein.)

In Don’t Hang Up recently, a woman mentioned that her grandmother had flown herself across Africa in a biplane in the 1930s. Dein always seems to have the same sort of response to any such information: lightly intrigued sympathy, shot through with an implacability, like a ship’s figurehead battling into the elements.

In Aftermath, he explores what happens to a community after it has been at the centre of a nationally significant event: Hungerford; Hyde in Manchester, post-Shipman; Morecambe Bay. Some of the most memorable parts of the first programme involve Dein simply driving around the streets of Hungerford with a resident. As the car’s indicator softly clicks, the interviewee points out the plethora of yew trees in that pretty Berkshire town. A great place to make cricket bats, the man thinks out loud, as Dein unhurriedly steers the conversation back in the vague direction of the shootings.

Dein never seems to set traps for his interlocutors, never exhausts them. And yet unhealed wounds are frequently bled. Has he always been good at getting people to talk? He tells me that when his dad took him as a kid to watch Arsenal play in the 1970s, he found he was always more interested in the crowd than in the match, in “looking at faces and wondering about how they spoke to each other”. He says that one question guaranteed to get someone talking is, “Why do you live where you do?” All things will unfurl from this: personal circumstances, family history, work. Communicated in that quintessentially undramatic Dein way, like puddles gently drying in a courtyard.

Antonia Quirke is an author and journalist. She is a presenter on The Film Programme and Pick of the Week (Radio 4) and Film 2015 and The One Show (BBC 1). She writes a column on radio for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era