Jasper Fforde first worked with stories as a focus puller for films. He didn’t realise for many years that that the hook – why he loved the film industry – was his love of story. He began writing in earnest aged 27, after one attempt at a script of which he says, “It is important to be able to recognise when your work is terrible.”
Playwright Dave Armstrong was a fantastic choice of chair for the warm and entertaining Jasper Fforde. He drew Fforde out effortlessly, and they clearly clicked, which is important in an individual event. The crowd was large and appreciative, and I don’t think there was a single person there that didn’t want to go to a Fforde Fiesta in Swindon by the end of it. (more on that shortly!)
While Fforde began writing novels at 27, it took 12 years for him to finally have something accepted by a publisher, aged 39. By this time, he had written 20-odd short stories, 6 and a half novels; and had 76 rejections over 10 years. To Armstrong’s suggestion that he was tenacious, he noted that the rate was only one every 7 weeks, not really that determined at all! Fforde said rather than tenacity, it was the joy of writing that kept him going. “I came from no education in writing, discovering it as I went and educating myself that way.” The worst advice he had during this time was to “write what he could see on the bestseller shelves” – he worked out that his weirdness was his thing. “The best thing about you is that you have a unique view of the world.”
The first book he had accepted by an agent was The Eyre Affair, the beginning of the cult classic series of books about literary detective Thursday Next. By chance he had connected with a new agent Tif, who had nobody on her books, and was just setting up a satellite office for an agency in New York. She liked it and managed to place it within two weeks, in 2000.
When I read his books in my early 20’s, I hadn’t read anything quite like them. The way he pulled characters from classic literature and subverted the forms completely, and took the mickey out of established literary tropes was exciting to me. Fforde himself calls it the ‘narrative dare’ category of books – “I gave myself more and more outrageous narrative dares and there’s no idea so stupid you can’t write it.” He was inspired to write in this vein by the Monty Python sketch about semaphore-signalled Wuthering Heights from a flagpole. And his writing was his attempt to regain the classics for the people for whom they were written: his way of being “irreverently reverent.”
They moved on to discuss inspiration for writing. Fforde says, “The best lines come to you on the bus,” saying that though he is the most stringent enforcer of the ‘quiet carriage’ in London trains, he nonetheless loves eavesdropping on phone calls and conversations. As this is a fairly organic way of getting inspiration, Armstrong asked whether people who want to be writers should do a degree – does this blunt your individuality as a writer? Fforde thinks that perhaps the person who comes out of university and writes a brilliant novel was always a great writer – the best way to meet odd characters is to work with customers in a shop.
While Fforde’s fans are legion, they are extremely broad in demographic, and their common ground is a shared love of allusion. He has been known to sign the odd dodo – the dodo having been brought back from extinction in the Thursday Next novels. Fforde doesn’t mind weirdos – “what’s weird, anyway?” He likes to dream of a world where everybody has strong opinions about literature – where there are Hamlet hooligans, Capulet & Montague fans. At this point I was thinking Mallory Ortberg and he would get along very well, something an audience member noted during the Q & A.
As I mentioned earlier, Fforde has his own literary festival, called the Fforde Fiesta – it was started by fans in 2005, though he did have input into the naming, and he is an essential part of proceedings. He says, “The fancy dress gala is like walking into my own head.” People dress up, and play all sorts of games, such as a Hamlet speed-soliloquy, Name that Fruit, Avoid the Question-time (based on what politicians do to avoid the question in parliament.” He is working on the eighth Thursday Next book at the moment, called Dark Reading Matter.
“Genre is the measles of the book world,” says Fforde. He thinks the world would be a better place if bookshops organised their books by colour or size. His favourite part of the library has always been the ‘Oversized’ category – it is where all genres meet. Fforde reads extremely broadly, and the only genre he is interested in is that of “good stories, well-written.”
Fforde published a book called Shades of Grey in 2010, and the phenomenon of the other Shades of Grey we know about has proven to him just how important booksellers are. “I was hoping for a good percentage of “accidental sales.” He has had stories told him by booksellers of people asking them for ‘Shades of Grey’ and walked out with his book, despite the clerk knowing very well that wasn’t what they meant. They reasoned, “It was what they asked for, and it was better!”
The worlds that Fforde builds in his books are richly detailed and fascinating, so it was unsurprising to hear that the minutae of world-building is one of the reasons he enjoys writing so much.
This session reminded me why it was I loved Jasper Fforde’s work so much: I am greatly looking forward to catching up once again with Thursday Next and Pickwick, her dodo. I highly recommend you do too.
Attended and Reviewed by Sarah Forster
Jasper Fforde: Lost in a Good Book
5pm, Friday 11 March at The Embassy
Part of the NZ Festival Writer’s Week
The Eyre Affair
Published by Hodder Paperback
Shades of Grey
Published by Hodder Paperback