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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Will they, won't they: Freya’s ambivalent relationship with plot

Like the heroine, the narrative feels becalmed and slightly wrong-footed in Anthony Quinn’s Freya.

Freya is a portrait of a young woman in her time (post-Second World War through to the 1950s), place (London and Oxford) and social class (upper middle). Her father is an artist, Stephen Wyley, one of the principal characters in Anthony Quinn’s last novel, Curtain Call, which was set in 1936. We meet Freya on VE Day, assessing her own reflection: dressed in her Wren uniform, leggy, a little flat-chested, hollow-cheeked, with a “wilful” set to her mouth. And even though her consciousness is the constant centre of this novel, the feeling that we are standing outside her and looking in is never quite shaken. Quinn invests intensively in the details of the character’s life – the food and drink, the brand names and the fabrics, the music and the books around her – but he can’t always make her behave plausibly in the service of the story.

In fact, the novel has an altogether ambivalent relationship with plot. For the first two-thirds of the book there’s not that much of it. Freya is one of those young women for whom peacetime brought a tedious reversion to the mean expectations for her sex. When she goes up to Oxford, she realises that, despite her accomplishments in the navy, “she was just a skirt with a library book”. Like the heroine, the narrative feels becalmed and slightly wrong-footed. Quinn makes heavy use of elision – telling us that something is about to happen and then jumping to the aftermath – which would be an effective way to suggest Freya’s frustration, if it weren’t so schematic.

Granted, it’s preferable to dodge the obvious than to have it hammered home, but at times Quinn can be remarkably unsubtle. When a character mentions a fictional writer, he glosses this immediately afterwards, explaining: “He had named a famous man of letters from the early part of the century.” Presumably this clunking line has been inserted for fear that we readers won’t be able to draw the necessary conclusions for ourselves, but it’s superfluous and it jars. Quinn also has his characters make self-conscious asides about literature. Arch observations such as “The writer should perform a kind of disappearing act” and “It’s unfathomable to me how someone who’s read Middlemarch could behave this way” make me wonder whether students of physics might not have more intriguing inner lives than those studying English literature.

And then there is Freya’s sexuality, which is set up as the animating mystery of the novel, but is laid out quite clearly before we’re a dozen pages in. She meets Nancy Holdaway during the VE celebrations and the attraction is instant, though also unspeakable (a critical plot point hinges on the repression of homosexuality in 1950s Britain). The will-they-won’t-they dance extends through the book, but it’s hard going waiting for the characters to acknow­ledge something that is perfectly obvious to the reader for several hundred pages. It’s not as if Freya is a fretful naif, either. She takes sexual opportunity at an easy clip, and we learn later that she had flirtations with women during the war. Why become coy in this one instance?

Nor is she otherwise a reserved or taciturn character. Forging a career in journalism as a woman demands that she battle at every step, whether she would like to or not. “But I don’t want to fight,” she says, later on in the narrative, “I only want to be given the same.” However, she rarely backs away from confrontation. At times her tenacity is inexplicable. In one scene, she is about to pull off a decisive bargain with a figure from the underworld when she defies the middleman’s warnings and launches into a denunciation of her criminal companion’s morals, inevitably trashing the deal. It’s hard to swallow, and makes it harder still to imagine her keeping her counsel about the great love of her life.

When the plot at last springs to life, in the final third, there is almost too much to get through. Quinn introduces several new characters and a whole mystery element, all in the last 150 pages, with the romance still to be resolved besides. After the languorous pace so far, it’s an abrupt and not quite successful switch. Quinn hasn’t got the Sarah Waters trick of mixing sexual repression with a potboiling historical plot, nor Waters’s gift for scenes of disarming literary filth. (Freya announcing that “she finger-fucked me till I came” is unlikely to join ­Fingersmith’s “You pearl!” in the fantasy lives of the bookish.) Freya is a novel about intimacy and honesty, where telling the truth is paramount; but it doesn’t seem to know its own heroine well enough to bring us truly close to her.

Sarah Ditum is a journalist who writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman and others. Her website is here.

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