Interview: Jasper Fforde
by John Berlyne
Review by John Berlyne
Links: Author's Website /
May 7th 2002.
SFRevu: Jasper, let's start with the new book. Can you give us a little info on what it is about?
SFRevu: Your work seems really hard to quantify in terms of genre. I've recommended The Eyre Affair to many friends, but when they've asked me what it is about, I've found myself saying" Well, it's a kind of crime...er, time travel... er, fantasy with some horror stuff..." – It isn't easy to describe. I find I run out of language!
SFRevu: But would it be right to say that your work is being marketed primarily as fantasy?
JF: Yes. It's very interesting. Writing the sort of work that I do, for years and years, it's completely unsellable. This book [The Eyre Affair] had been hanging around since '93. It took a long time to get going. I'd been writing for ten years before it was picked up. I mean all my books (I've got five unpublished ones) are all pretty odd like this. And, of course, they always say to you, this is too odd to get published. Where would it fit? Everything has to be compartmentalised and pigeon-holed. But then finally, when I found an agent to take me on, the weakness became the strength. They said this is so odd that we don't know where to put it, but we think we can sell it on that basis. So when they try and sell it they don't say "This is fiction," "This is fantasy," or "This is SF," they just say "Read it and enjoy it." And that was the reason that when Hodder first took me on, they printed nearly three thousand of those proofs as they realised that this was a book that is word-of-mouth. Read it, enjoy and have fun and make up your own mind as to what you think it is. It's cross-genre. I wouldn't put it in any particular place at all. Actually, "nonsense" is what I'd call it. Silly nonsense. I write silly books!
SFRevu: Having given out all those proofs to the trade, where do they seem to be selling it. On their fantasy shelves?
JF: They don't know where to put it either! Generally it is in "Fiction" – sometimes it is in "Fantasy" – very rarely it is in "Sci-Fi." Mostly it is in "Fiction." Foyles [a major London book shop] had it in five different places!
SFRevu: So what is it that tempts you to include so many genres in these novels?
JF: I don't know really. I think it's fun. I've always enjoyed stories that have a lot of different threads happening in them. I think that's a very exciting, fun thing to do – whether you're writing books or whether you're making films. A big ensemble cast is always great fun to watch. Look at something like Gosford Park – a delightful film because there's so much going on. I greatly enjoy that – to play with all these different things going on here, there and everywhere. Introducing new little ideas, having chapter endings that turn things totally on their head and just sort of dragging the reader though this bizarre world where anything can happen – and probably will! Really keep people guessing right until the very end. Try and challenge the reader to second-guess what it going to happen.
SFRevu: Yet within all this genre switching, there remain some interesting constants. One that comes to mind is the fact that your work seems to be essentially "British" in tone. These books follow on from a tradition of fiction which you're clearly paying tribute to. I'm thinking here of the great British eccentrics – Lewis Carroll, Edward Lear ...
JF: Well, I'm British, so I'm going to write books that are very English in their feel. If you're my age, and you're brought up with the Pythons and Rising Damp and all the great sit-coms of the seventies and all the silly sort of writing – Spike Milligan – all those sorts of things that amuse and delight, then that tends to be the way that you look at things.
SFRevu: Do you see your work as part of that tradition?
JF: I think it is in the tradition of that sort of irreverence. In Monty Python there's a sketch where Thomas Hardy is writing his new novel and it's done like a football game – "And he's got his pen in his hand now," I think it's The Return of the Native, "Oh no, he's crossed it out, but now he's writing again and the crowd are going wild," – it was that sort of thing – taking people like Hardy, this high brow figure and then making low brow comedy with them. In the same show, they had Wuthering Heights by semaphore. It was that kind of irreverence yet respect of the classics which I really thought was a wonderful idea. So I thought take something like Jane Eyre which is a real icon both in Victorian literature and in feminine literature and play with it in a fun way – but not in an overly stupid way. In a silly way, rather than stupid (they're very different things). And then try and bring something new to that idea.
SFRevu: You've managed to do that, yet remain reverential to the source material. It is iconic in the world of your novels. But the new book takes that one stage further.
JF: Yes. This goes along with what I said about taking ideas and running with them and the way that I think of ideas and work with them. I basically have one idea, and that idea will "begat" more ideas and more ideas and more ideas. A good way to demonstrate that happening is the idea of the dodo in my novels. Originally Thursday had a pet cat – an Abyssinian cat called Elmo – for five or six years she had this cat, a default pet. But when I was visiting the Oxford Natural History Museum, there was a dodo there – a very beautifully stuffed dodo, which they had just recently restuffed as a sort of low, thin, mean, running, plocking machine. I thought that was kind of fun, you know - dodos! Again, they're very sort of iconographical because they represent lots of things about man's relationship with his environment and all that kind of stuff … Everyone knows dodos! Everyone understands dodos! So, when you can make a joke about bringing dodos back from extinction it is an idea that everyone can lock into very easily. I'm not actually creating a particularly new idea here – what I'm doing is putting two tags together - what I call mnemonic tags – in people's minds. Most of the work for my novels is already in people's heads.
SFRevu: Jurassic Park in Swindon?
JF: Absolutely! All I'm doing is putting in these little markers. That's the whole gag with Jane Eyre and coming out of the inside of a book. It's all there in the reader's head. You just have to put things together with these little flags, move things together. "This idea belongs over here, and this idea belongs over there" but if you just bring them together, then it's a new idea. And people go "Ah!" and that was the whole thing about bringing dodos back from extinction. If I'd said sabre-tooth tigers, it wouldn't have been so funny. But once I've established that you can bring things back from the dead, then you can run with the idea and this is what I'm getting back to. If you can bring dodos back, then why not sabre-tooth tigers? Why not woolly mammoths? (and now we're in the territory of book two) and why not Neanderthals? Then, once you hit upon the idea of Neanderthals, you think well, what would a Neanderthal be like? In the original draft of TN2, they were just very stupid, but I thought, no – that's too obvious. Everyone thinks of Neanderthals as stupid, but they were no stupider than us. But then it became of question of them being Neanderthals and not human beings, so they have no human rights.
SFRevu: Yes. You definitely explore the moral questions that arise of that in the new book.
SFRevu: So this stems directly from the idea of the dodos in your novels. It is (and forgive the pun) an evolutionary process?
JF: Yes. Totally.
SFRevu: So, when you were planning book one, you hadn't necessarily thought of including Neanderthals later on in the series?
JF: They do get a mention in book one, because I had the idea of bringing Neanderthals in, but I wasn't quite sure how I was going to do it. And because I like threads to move, I like threads to move from one book to the other, so there's always a reference …
SFRevu: So, how are these books conceived?
JF: The first one, I started on page one and then just carried on until I finished it! Then I just combed it endlessly. There was a plan. There were Literatecs – literary detectives, there was Jane Eyre being kidnapped and there was a baddie who was like the ultimate pantomime baddie who was a bit rubbish! Not a very good baddie! He's so obsessed with the fact that he wants people to know he's evil. What he really wants to do is to hear people say "Ooh, it's that Acheron Hades, the world's third most evil man!". He just wants all the attention. If he were a genuine real baddie then he'd just be making money hand over fist and wouldn't give a toss about anything. But then he wouldn't be fun, he wouldn't be interesting. So, yes, that book was written on a sort of page by page basis.
SFRevu: I find that quite extraordinary.
SFRevu: In so much as you pulled it off!
JF: It took a long time though. A lot of it is archaeology. If you look at the first draft of the book, it is very, very different from how it is now. Say the thing about the Goliath Corporation and the plasma rifle, that particular thread, and the Crimean War, originally that was the main thrust of the book. But then, you see, I added more sub-plots and more main thrust of the narrative, but instead of getting rid of the old main thrust of the narrative, I'd just relegate it to a sub-plot, so I kept it there. What you're seeing is a sort of strata of ideas all laid on top of one another.
SFRevu: The ongoing Crimean War is a very dark side to these stories? My original thought was to wonder why you tacked this on, but listening to you I see that wasn't the case. It's come from the other direction and has been buried deeper and deeper in the story.
JF: It started originally because I was reading a book by Cecil Woodham-Smith about the Crimean War called The Reason Why. I was reading that at the time and thought this was jolly good fun. Why not create my own Charge of the Light brigade. So I did! I had to update it a bit and so I ended up with this sort of attritional "Vietnam" for the English.
SFRevu: The alternate history of your world is very thought provoking and though its depiction seems very localised, it clearly has (within the framework of the fiction) global implications. You mention at one point that Britain was invaded by the Nazis.
JF: Yeah, they invaded England in Thursday's world, but I didn't want to make it too obvious. It's just part of past history. You and I talking in pub wouldn't say "It's a good job we knocked out the Nazi's in 1949" because then it wouldn't be real. In the same way, she doesn't really refer to her dodo at all. It's just there. You or I wouldn't refer to our dog or cat all the time. You have to know the limits of where you can throw an idea away. That's why I think the chapter headings are so important. Because it's in the first person, she wouldn't really talk about the Nazi's being pushed out of England in 1947 or whenever it was. She has no reason to do so. But if I can just make vague references to it, here, there and everywhere, you can actually bring up a picture from these very small parts. I think that's very important, otherwise you're just trying to tell people too much. Then it's info dumping. It's just putting small enough pointers in there to let people know what's going on without actually telling them. They can make it up for themselves. People's imaginations are so good, you don't really need to do a huge amount. If you think about books, you've got a hundred thousand words there but they're just squiggles on a page. Right? How does it work? You read it, and it creates pictures in your head. Now, how does that work? Some sort of imagino-transfero device? Now if books were invented tomorrow, and they said "You'll like this, it's a great idea. What you do, you see, is you look at these little squiggles, right? And they create pictures in your head!" And you go "Fuck off! Don't give me that. What are they going to think of next!" and they go "No, go on. Try it. It works." And so you try it and you read about a medieval castle floating in the air or something like that - or the Crimean War and the crump, crump, crump of the artillery shells and you think, yeah! How does that work? It's just a long tradition of story telling that links us all.
SFRevu: You're clearly obsessed by books.
JF: I'm obsessed by story, I think.
SFRevu: Is it an accident that you live in Hay-on-Wye? [NOTE – Hay-on-Wye is the book capital of Great Britain. This small town in the Welsh hills has more second hand bookshops per street than any other place in the UK. For more information visit http://www.hay-on-wye.co.uk/)
JF: I live about ten minutes outside Hay. I spent a lot of time here when I was a kid, my parents lived half an hour from here. So, when I could live anywhere I wanted to, which is one of the wonderful things about being a writer – you can chose where you want to live! – I came straight here. It's a wonderful place, just gorgeous. I spent a lot of time in the home counties, which is town and wide open spaces, but here it is actually genuine countryside, which is very nice.
SFRevu: But in terms of it being the book town, is there something subconscious in such a move? Just hearing you talk so passionately about books and stories and their power to manipulate and transport us. Even looking at your web site, there is tonnes of information on your books. Bibliographic listings and suchlike.
JF: That was for another reason. I was looking at eBay…
SFRevu: Ha! That's a whole different question. The prices your books are commanding ...
JF: Well, the prices are big, but the bids don't exist. They sell for a lot of money after publication.
SFRevu: People were going mental for proofs of The Eyre Affair.
JF: Yes, they did go a bit loony for them. They were on eBay before I got my copies! They get given out to booksellers and somebody flogs 'em. I'm firmly in favour of it. Fantastic! I rang up my editor and she said "Yes, darling. Isn't it wonderful!
SFRevu: That's actually how your book came to my attention. The fervour that was happening on eBay. I wanted to know what all the fuss was about.
JF: Going back to why I have the bibliographic information on my web site – people were going on to eBay and saying "Hardback copy of The Eyre Affair. Only 1000 ever printed. A once in a lifetime opportunity. Etc." and I think that's mean because it's not true. It was two and half thousand copies. And I wanted to set the record straight there so that anyone who came to my site would know exactly what the figures were – and their pretty accurate. So, whenever I have a new edition or a new this or a new that, I generally put it up there.
SFRevu: Given that through no fault of your own, you have become a highly collectable author, I think that is hugely useful to collectors. God knows there are enough spurious dealers peddling stuff on eBay.
JF: I emailed one dealer who I think had made a genuine mistake and he said "I'm terribly sorry. I'll put it right" And he did, so that was good.
SFRevu: Just to go back to stories and your love of them – this has definitely found it's way into your work. Particularly with the new book. In my research for this interview I came across the term "Recursive Fiction" - a sub genre which uses fictional characters from other works and takes them out of their own context.
JF: Well, it's definitely that! Everything has a name. The classic example is Alice in Wonderland. Somebody said "your books are Magic realism" and I said "Oh! Are they?" and I had to go and look at them, but really it's just names for things, isn't it? In Through the Looking Glass, there's a wonderful sequence where the White Knight talks about the names of names of things. Have a look at it. It makes totally logical sense.
SFRevu: Why are your books popular in America?
JF: There's a lot of anglophiles in America, I think. I think a lot of people enjoy English humour. All the letters I have received about the book were generally about how it was different from anything they'd read before. People who turned up at my readings and talks were sort of fifty plus, a lot of women readers. Why do they enjoy it? I'm not sure. I think they like maybe the freshness of the humour. I think generally they seemed to be saying that it was just different and new and unusual. They hadn't really come across anything like this before.
SFRevu: Do you think it's also to do with the British eccentric thing? You mentioned Python and in terms of fiction there are other British names who have made it big over there. Pratchett for instance, or Douglas Adams. It's a very British perspective that seems to be popular over there. I also wondered if it might also to do with the mish-mash of genres that you employ.
JF: There's a lot there that you can find interesting. Because it fires off in all directions, there'll be something there, some particular idea that you can lock into. It was interesting speaking to people who said "You know what I really like about the book?" and I'd say "What?" and then they'd mention some bizarre little plot point or something that somebody says and that was the little event that locked them into it. People would say "I love the dodo," or "I love the way that she never worries about her weight" – just little things like that.
SFRevu: You've certainly found a mix that extends beyond the normal genre readership though.
JF: The thing about markets – it's like film producers and publishers – they have an idea about what the public wants to read and to watch. In film you can have an eighty million dollar movie that everyone was watching last year and this year it falls dead. Why? The answer is you don't know. Yet a movie that cost one point five million can go on to make five hundred million dollars – and they don't know why people lock into these things. If it hits the right buttons, then people will enjoy the work. I think it is very difficult to quantify. And people always want to quantify things, they want to control things, to understand why things happen. This is true in business and it's true in our daily lives – we want to know why things happen. And I think sometimes they're just so complex that you can't really know and it's very interesting talking about the genres and why people are interested in the book – is it this? Is it that? – I don't really know! I write a book that I find amusing as a whole and in its individual parts. Hopefully a story that moves a long at a good pace and delivers at the end. As far as story telling goes, I think generally that's what we all want and that goes right back to when we were listening to stories as children. We want a good story, with people in it. Things happen to them. Good triumphs over evil and all the little threads that have been created during the telling of the story are tied up in the end, but probably not in the way you expected. If you can be wrong-footed a couple of times, if you can have interesting changes at the end of a chapter then it's all just very exciting stuff. But, generally, I think it's about story and pace and jokes rather than why is it selling because it is this or that particular genre.
SFRevu: Perhaps it is unfair to deconstruct it in that way. I suppose it is like saying "Why do you like cake?" – is it because of the fact that it has chocolate in it and flour and eggs? No. It is because all those ingredients mixed together make a cake!
JF: I just like cake! That's what I'd say. It's a very good analogy. Somebody might say "Well, why did you like the cake? Did you like the icing in particular? Did you like the sponge? It's interesting, because that icing doesn't generally go with that sponge, so is it a cross-genre cake?" and you say "No. That's just bullshit. I just like the cake!"
SFRevu: But this is what make you're books so difficult to quantify. I might say to someone "You must read this novel by Jasper Fforde. It's just wonderful." And they say "Well, what's it about?" "Erm. Well, it's …" and you lose the capacity to speak! I wouldn't want to be responsible for marketing this stuff!
JF: Well, that was the difficulty that Hodder had. To actually market the book. And that's why they sent out these three and a half thousand copies of the proof.
SFRevu: But their strategy has ultimately been successful, hasn't it?
JF: Yes. Word of mouth. Getting people to actually read it. The great thing about Hodder is they have this wonderful sales team. One of the first thing that my editor did when she got the manuscript is she thought "I do like this, but it's so unusual that I'm going to have to make sure that it's not just me!" So she sent it round to lots of people in the building and the reps got really behind it. So they went out there, to all the bookshops and the booksellers read it. That's how it was sold, on word of mouth.
SFRevu: Was it hard to actually get it into the hands of your editor? What's the story behind that?
JF: I finally managed to get an agent after years and years and years!
SFRevu: What had you published up to that point?
JF: Nothing! Nada! Not one word!
SFRevu: And were you writing this book over the course of these ten years with a view to eventually getting it published? Or was it more of a personal project. A diversion? A bit of fun? What?
JF: Well, I'd been writing short stories and stuff for a long time, but only as a hobby. And the short story eventually got longer and longer until it became a novel. I thought it was brilliant, of course! A fantastic work of genius! And I was convinced that the first agent or publisher I sent it to would say "Yes Jasper. Excellent. Come in and see me on Thursday to sign on the dotted line!" – Of course, they didn't. I thought, that's odd! So, I sent it to some other people and they not only rejected it, but they never read it! This wasn't The Eyre Affair, this was something totally different. So, I thought I'd better write another.
SFRevu: You never sent any of the shorts out?
JF: No. it's pointless. You can't get them published. So, I sent off a second book and again, no interest. After that I began to realise that this wasn't an easy way to make money, so I really just carried on for the fun of it. It was five books later that I managed to get a publisher.
SFRevu: What kind of books?
JF: Oh, similar sort of nonsense. Ridiculous.
SFRevu: Are these books that you will now rummage through for ideas?
JF: No, because they might get published.
SFRevu: So they're complete manuscripts in their own right, sat in a draw?
JF: Yes. Some of them have some great ideas that I really like. There's a lovely idea, wonderful fun, in the second book I wrote which is about a theme park called "Somme World" which is a first world war theme park. I love that idea. It's just the sort of thing you'd exists in the Nextian universe, but I thought I'd leave it in there because you never know! Somme World! Where you get dressed up in first world war gear and then you get an artillery barrage for eighteen hours and you get gassed and everyone comes out with streaming eyes going "Cor! That was great!"
SFRevu: So what happened with getting The Eyre Affair published?
JF: Well, I went to America to try and drum up some work as a cameraman – the day job! I was working on films and commercials and stuff like that. I used to do a big feature and then not work for three months and then I'd write and then do some commercials – that was the cycle of living for ten years. So, I went to America and I took my showreel to show to an agent out there. So I showed her the showreel and then we were chatting away (you know, she was bored and I was bored!) and I said, well, I do film scripts as well and some novels and she said, oh? You should call this friend of mine when you get back to England. So I did. She was just starting up an agency and was hungry for material...
SFRevu: So it was quite timely?
JF: Oh yes. Absolutely. Total luck. There's always luck, but I do think that you make luck for yourself too. So I sent it to her and she read it (she was reading everything at the time) and she rang me back and said "Wonderful darling! It's a work of genius – but it's going to be almost impossible to sell. Come and have coffee!" So, I went over to see her and she told me that she loved it but she said "I don't know who we're going to sell this to. I can send the manuscript to the "big six" and they're take one look at the precise and say "You must be joking!!" and they'll sling it right back at us. So I said, "Right! So, what's going to happen?" And she said, "Well, we need a bit of strategy here. What I'll have to do is lots of meals with people. Leave it with me for six months, maybe a year and I'll try and place it. Don't hold your breath." So I though fine. Not only are you the only person in about seventy-six rejections to have shown any interest, but you're the only person who's actually read it! No-one else had read it in its entirety, they'd only ever seen the first chapter, which, of course, bears no resemblance to what happens in the rest of the book at all.
So... I left it with her and she gave me a call four weeks later saying "Hodder want to meet you!!" And then three weeks after that Penguin came through and we got a sale to America.
SFRevu: So this agent really did the business! That's a great story. So what's the moral here – get the right agent?
JF: The moral is getting your book read and having someone to champion your cause.
SFRevu: So was The Eyre Affair heavily edited? How much work was done on what you submitted? How much trimming, rewrites etc?
SFRevu: Was that a difficult thing for you to deal with.
JF: No, not really. They'd say, "What do you think of this, Jasper?" and I'd say, "Well, I could make it totally different and do this." And they'd say "Yes, OK. That'd be fun!" Editing is a great process. The rewrites were nothing too major. Things like making the relationship between Thursday and Langdon slightly more obvious. My girlfriend is my first editor really. She reads it first. In the original version of The Eyre Affair there was no Socialist Republic of Wales. All that stuff with Acheron's hideout all happened on an airship! – because I love aviation. We don't have any satellites and there's no space travel in the Nextian universe, so to bounce around information by wireless you have these great big sort of ex-Zeppelin aircraft carriers which just drone around at about six thousand feet bristling with antennas and reflecting everything back to earth. So, Hades' hideout was high up in the huge great old aircraft carrying airship. So she reads this and she said "It's a bit tech-y Jasper! A bit of a yawn!" and I was terribly upset for about an hour and I said "Alright then. If you don't like that well make it ... erm " - she's Welsh you see! – "... in the Welsh Socialist Republic then!!"
SFRevu: I love the idea that a flippant remark could become such an integral part of the novel!
JF: Yeah. I thought, hmmm, this could work. In book two you'll find the Neanderthals. They're great fun but as they stood originally they were just very stupid. And one of them tries to hijack an elevator. He says "I'm hijacking this elevator – take me to Sheffield!" and, of course, everyone has to explain to him that you can't hijack an elevator because it only goes between the tenth floor and the sub-basement and in that version he was a suicide bomber. And I thought that because of current events (this was very close to September 11th) and the way that things were going in the world, a suicide bomber wasn't a really good subject for what's meant to be a nice, light entertaining read. And I though, how can I change this round then to make it much more sympathetic? And in that whole change of the character of the Neanderthal, in deciding what they actually mean and what they do, the whole thing was created and it's much, much better. Often you find that you go to change things and then when you work with it you change it to something totally different. And it ends up much better. That's what I like about editing, I think. If chapter seven doesn't work, we just get rid of it!
SFRevu: So you're very easy about that? Not at all precious?
JF: No. Absolutely. As long as the editor has the spirit of the piece at the forefront of her mind then when she says "This doesn't work" or "This slows things down." I'm quite happy to get rid of it.
SFRevu: How has The Eyre Affair done in terms of sales?
JF: I think it's done pretty well for a debut novel. It's on the sixth reprint so it's not too bad!
SFRevu: And it got pretty good coverage in terms of reviews. I'm talking of the "proper" press here.
JF: Yes. The Guardian were a bit sniffy but I kind of expected that! Time Out were wonderful and one always worries about the magazines which are the sort of zeitgeist but they saw that it was just for fun. Most of the reviewers – with a couple of exceptions! – saw it not as a serious searing sociological comment on British life and global events, but just as a bit of fun.
SFRevu: There are some elements in the books where you are alluding to something along those lines though. I'm thinking here of the Goliath Corporation being Rupert Murdoch at his best and you clearly have a thing about cheese!
JF: Yeah. Of course, every writer on the planet would like to be a sort of Jonathan Swift – a great satirist - and I suppose as I writer I sort of try to put these things in, but it's so broad that I can't be held up to account for them. But yes, the very expensive cheese levy – thirteen pounds forty on hard cheese – I suppose that's all about the tax on fuel, that sort of stuff. And if people get the gag, as they assuredly will, it might bring a smile to their weary lips as they rattle between Cockfosters and wherever they're going.
SFRevu: Now the new book is a sequel – indeed a direct continuation of the first one. And the third one you're working on is a direct continuation again. How far can you go with this. Do you want to turn into the sort of Leslie Chartris of mad fiction?
JF: I don't know really. I'll carry on until readers get bored and want to read something else. Although it is fairly new, you know new things have a habit of becoming old, very quickly and the last thing I want to be doing is churning out the same old rubbish year after year. As long as I'm interested, as long as I find it fun, then it's going to work. If you get bored as a writer then they will know. Readers know when the author is bored. It shows.
SFRevu: But are you going to run out of puns?
JF: No. Never!
SFRevu: Jasper, thank you. It's been great to talk to you.