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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Britain's diversity crisis starts with its writers. Here's why

What happens on the casting couch draws the headline, but the problem starts on the page, says James Graham. 

I’m a playwright and screenwriter, which – pertinent to the issues we’ll be discussing in this enquiry – still feels weird to say. I get embarrassed, still, saying that, in a taxi or hairdressers. I don’t know why I still carry that insecurity about saying I’m a writer, but I do, because it sounds like I’m lying, even in my own head.

Obviously I’m completely biased, and probably overstating the influence and importance of my own profession, but I think so many of the problems surrounding lack of representation in the performing arts start with writers.

If we aren’t encouraging and generating writers from certain communities, classes or backgrounds to tell their stories, to write those roles, then there’s not going to be a demand for actors from those communities to play them. For casting agents or drama schools to prioritise getting diverse actors on stage. We need to create those plays and TV dramas –like the ones that I grew up with. I didn’t have any access to much theatre until I was fifteen, but I did have Boys From the Black Stuff, and I did have Cracker, and I did have Band of Gold. I think the loss of those regional producing bodies – Central, Granada – now all completely centralised into London, means that we just tell less of those stories. I remember a TV show called Boon – anyone? – which was set in Nottingham, and I would see on the TV streets I’d walked down, and think, Oh my God, that actor is walking down a street I’ve walked down. That sounds like it’s insignificant. If you’re from a town that is deprived, that feels ignored, it isn’t.

I was very lucky that at my school (which was, at the time, the largest comprehensive school in the country), from the headmaster down to the drama teachers, everyone just believed that working class kids should do plays. Be in plays, read plays, perform plays to the community. Both inside the curriculum of the school day, and outside it – drama teachers dedicating their time to staying behind. Our head of drama identified a group of us who clearly had a passion for it. We weren’t likely thesps. One lad’s entire family were made unemployed when the pit closed. Many lived on the big council estate. My parents and step-parents worked respectively in warehouses, the local council, or as the local window cleaner (incidentally, my first real job. Which I was terrible at).

Our drama teacher was encouraged and determined enough to launch the first ever Drama A-Level in our school. Based on that, about 10 or 12 of us got the confidence – or arrogance – to take our own show to the Edinburgh Festival. We were 16 or 17, and the first people in our community to ever go to visit the festival. We did a play up there, and after that, a psychological unlocking happened, where I thought: maybe I could do a degree in drama (it was the first time I had ever thought to do so) at university (the first in my family to go. Well, joint-first. My twin sister went on the same day, but I walked into my digs first).

I enrolled in drama at Hull University. A high proportion of my peers were middle class. A higher proportion from London or the South East. They talked often about institutions I had never heard of. They were talking about the National Theatre: I didn’t know we had a national theatre that my parents had been paying tax for that I had never been to. Many had performed with the (again, apparently) ‘National’ Youth Theatre, also in London. Paul Roseby, also on this panel, has made such leaps forward in getting the NYT producing in regional venues, and making auditions possible for people across the UK, but unfortunately, at the time, that wasn’t the case for me – and I was the ideal candidate to be in the National Youth Theatre.

I started writing because I had the confidence after I read texts by people like Jim Cartwright, Alan Bennett, John Godber, Alan Ayckbourn: Northern writers, working class writers that made me think it wasn’t just something that other people do.

After returning home, and working at local theatres, I moved down to London. I had to. The major new writing producers are there. All the TV companies are there. The agents are there. I was lucky to find support in a pub fringe theatre – though the economics meant there was no money to commission, so I wrote plays for free for about four years, that would get produced, and reviewed in the national press, while I worked various jobs in the day and slept for a time on a mate's floor. The first person to ever pay to commission me to write a play was Paul Roseby of the National Youth Theatre. I’m now very lucky to be earning a living doing something I love. In a way, compared to actors, or directors, it’s easier for writers who don’t come from a background that can sustain them, financially, in those early years. Your hours can be more flexible. Yes, it was annoying to miss rehearsals because I had a shift in a call centre, but it was still possible to do it. If you’re an actor or director, you’re fully committed. And if you’re doing that for nothing, there starts to be cut-off point for those from backgrounds who can’t.

I’m sure that local and regional theatres are the key to drawing in talent from less privileged backgrounds. But the range of national arts journalism that cover work outside London has been so significantly reduced. In our little echo chamber a few weeks ago, we theatre types talked about Lyn Gardner at the Guardian. Her coverage has been cut, which is very directly going to affect her ability to cover theatre shows outside of London – and so the self-fulfilling cycle of artists leaving their communities to work exclusively in London takes another, inevitable, turn.

I am culpable in this cycle. I have never done a play at the Nottingham Playhouse, my local producing house growing up – why? Because I’ve never submitted one, because I know that it will get less national press attention. So I just open it in London instead. That’s terrible of me. And I should just bite the bullet and say it doesn’t matter about the attention it gets, I should just go and do a story for my community. And if I, and others, started doing that more, maybe they will come.

I also want to blame myself for not contributing back to the state schools that I come from. I really really enjoy going to do writing workshops with kids in schools, but I would say 90 per cent of those that I get invited to are private schools, or boarding schools, or in the South of England. Either because they’re the ones that ask me, because they’re the ones who come and see my shows in London and see me afterwards backstage, or because they have the confidence to email my agent, or they have the budget to pay for my train ticket. Either way, I should do more. It would have helped the younger me so much to meet a real person, from my background, doing what I wanted to do.

I don’t know how to facilitate that. I take inspiration from Act for Change, creating a grassroots organisation. I know that there is a wealth of industry professionals like me who would, if there was a joined-up structure in place that got us out there into less privileged communities, we would on a regular basis go to schools who don’t get to meet industry professionals and don’t unlock that cultural and psychological block that working class kids have that says, that is not for me, that is something that other people do, I would dedicate so much of my time to it. That’s just one idea of hopefully better ones from other people that might come out of this enquiry.

James Graham is a playwright and screenwriter. This piece is adapted from evidence given by James Graham at an inquiry, Acting Up – Breaking the Class Ceiling in the Performing Arts, looking into the problem of a lack of diversity and a class divide in acting in the UK, led by MPs Gloria De Piero and Tracy Brabin.