Tuesday, 9 December 2014

‘Blow Your Own Trumpet’ – Jasper Fforde in conversation with Jane Williams

Jasper Fforde handles rejection well, having been turned down more than 70 times before he began his published odyssey in 2001 with The Eyre Affair – the first in a series of seven books to feature the character Thursday Next. In the 13 (yes thirteen) years since, he has become one of the UK’s most well-loved cult-authors - with annual fan conventions dedicated to his books - and is a bona fide New York Times Bestselling Author. So why was there so much resistance from the publishing world to begin with? Because his books were 'weird' – or so those publishers thought… There was not anything really like them (although he now gets routinely mentioned along with Sir Terry Pratchett) and so that meant risk, which publishers of fiction do not like.

Jasper Fforde photographed by Mari Fforde
Now, with 16 novels (that is 13 + 3) and more on the way, he has become the leading light of the genre… what genre? Ffordean novels are set in a parallel world that overlaps with ours, but is also very different – Thursday Next operates her detective agency from Swindon, in the Britain of the 1980s, where George Formby is President and the Crimean War is still on - actually that is sort of true in our real world right now! She is involved in ‘policing’ characters and unrealised plot threads from the literary world. In the first novel, she has to rescue the denouement of Jane Eyre and make sure we get the right ending to the story in our world. The world of books comes alive and creates a complex, overlapping world of imagination. Thursday has a pet Dodo.

So what genre is that? Well, as it can potentially involve any book in the 'Great Library' that is hard to pin down. Fforde’s books have been referred to as metafiction, fantasy-parody, fabulist, satire, comedy… and they are all those things. The books fit most comfortably into the emergent genre of parallel-histories – where authors work with alternative versions of how our world might be if certain historical events had taken different turns, or where the fiction of our history is treated with the same integrity as academic history. Fforde is a leading proponent of this approach, along with the likes of Alan Moore, Jonathan Stroud, Mark Frost, and steampunks like Liesel Schwarz - writers who have an unabashed sense of fun and adventure, who are not afraid to treat fact and fiction in the same inventive, irreverent and entertaining way. After all, ‘real’ history has often been shown to be a thinly veiled fiction.

Jasper Fforde's debut novel...
but not his first!
The Scrawl editors had an idea that it might be interesting to get writers to talk to creatives from other disciplines, so to test out this theorem, we put potter Jane Williams together with author Jasper Fforde... and they talked about America, Wales, children, cheese… and writing.

Jane: Thank you so much for speaking to me, is now a good time?

Jasper: Yes, I have just finished my supper actually.

Jane: Do you need to digest or anything?

Jasper: Why? What have you got planned for me? No, now is fine!

Jane: I believe that you are off to America, you have been to America before…

Jasper: Oh yeah, I’ve been going to America for the past 14 years.

Jane: Do you find that there is a difference between American readers and audiences and British readers and audiences?

Jasper: No not really…. In the UK, audiences tend to fill from the back forwards, in the US the audiences fill from the front to the back. Americans are a much more forward sort of people “I’m going to sit at the front…” whereas the British, “Well, I’ll sit at the back, just in case there are any questions….”

Jane: ...the British are terribly reserved?

Jasper: Yes, but apart from that, they are very similar.

Jane: So, you are promoting The Eye of Zoltar - the third book in The Last Dragonslayer series. I have two quite young kids and my son asked me yesterday whether dragons really exist, and this question is an extension of that really… what kind of age, or what type of audience, is the Last Dragonslayer series aimed at?

Jasper: It’s a good question really. The audience that I aimed it at was an audience that existed when I was that age, because young adults in my day - ha ha, ‘cause I’m so old! - Young adults, back in ‘my day’, were still kind of ‘Tolkein-esque’. Although my work is not 'Tolkein-esque', it IS funny and serious and all that, but nowadays YA - the young adult audience that I would be aiming at - is much more vampire orientated, a lot more sex and a lot more violence, and I’m not doing that. So, I’m now put in the ‘middle grade’, which is 12 to 15-ish.

Third in the Dragonslayer series
Jane: There are some quite adult themes, I’m thinking about Jennifer being an orphan and this idea that ‘orphans’ are a disposable commodity... and she does like boys! So those are some themes which tick the ‘teenage’ boxes aren’t they?

Jasper: I’m hoping to find a very sophisticated twelve-year-old reader - well, not very sophisticated - but I’m hoping to find a twelve-year-old reader who understands that this is a genre, but a genre which could be subverted. Which is a modern thing, I think - a very fashionable thing at the moment. In the same way as the retelling of nursery rhymes, with a different take on them. They are hitting the screens at 12A, which is the age that they are aimed at. Also, perhaps the older teens that don’t really want to go down the route of the vampires and stuff… who just want a bit of fun, really.

Jane: I don’t know what camp I’m in really, as I’m 40.  I would cite those three books (the Last Dragonslayer series) as being the books that I am most looking forward to sharing with my kids, who are tiny at the mo. For me they tick all of the boxes - they are ‘wholesome’, yet subversive, funny, yet sad at the same time, and I cannot wait to share them with my children...

You have strong female leads in your books, Thursday Next and Jennifer Strange, have you always thought about strong female leads?

Jasper: No, not really, I sort of moved into that area. The first two books that I wrote are my ‘Nursery Crimes’ books - The Humpty Dumpty book and The Fourth Bear. They had a male protagonist, ‘Jack Spratt’ but I found his side kick, Mary Mary, and his wife, Madeleine, much more interesting characters. So after I couldn’t get those published I moved on to write the Eyre Affair and that is the first time that I have used a female protagonist, which is much more interesting to me. I don’t know why, but it is. Strong, yet slightly vulnerable, driven women, I think are very interesting… What was it I said the other day in another interview? …Oh I know: Remarkable women are more remarkable than remarkable men.

Jane: Oh I like that!

Jasper: Oh good, you like that do you?

Jane: Yeah, I do like that, though I’m not sure that I whole-heartedly agree - there are exceptions to every rule.

I found it very interesting, in that you write in the first person and the narrative is very much a female voice. I just wandered how difficult it was for a male writer to do that with real validity - although I think that you pull it off really well!

Jasper: Thanks. That’s nice!

Jane: What was the first book that you can remember reading which had an impact on your life when you were younger.

Jasper: Well, this might have some bearing on it. The first book I remember reading when I was young - and remember, when you are young you are told to read 30 or 40 books - in my day it was the Ladybird books, 1B - John and Jane, and you are told to read these. Then, as your skills develop as a reader, all of a sudden you can choose to read a book! I can remember this moment and I was quite young, perhaps five or six, and I remember thinking that reading doesn’t have to be something that you do in school, it can be something that you can do on your own. You can choose to read a book. In the same way that when you can ride a bicycle you can choose to go to ‘Tommy’s’ house. When you’ve get your licence you can drive wherever you want and it is a wonderful empowering fantastic moment. Walking might be the same, for those of us that are lucky enough to walk - that sudden sort of amazing leap.

I remember going to my parents’ house and looking at their bookshelf to see if there was something suitable for me and I pulled down a copy of Alice in Wonderland. I took it into the living room and curled up onto the sofa and read it and loved it. It’s not a long book, so I finished reading it, and read it again. It kind of stuck with me, that very strange subtle humour. It is very funny and very clever. The characters are very real and strange and the whole world is very, very weird. I think that stayed with me and Alice - this very gentle and accepting, understanding character, who all these weird things keep happening to and she remains unfazed by it. She’s not girly about it, a squealing girly who says, “agh!” She says, “now I’m as big as a house so let’s deal with it!” So I think that might have had something to do with it.

Jane: I’ve done some background research on you. I was tentative about going onto your website as it is fantastic and filled with all the information that I may need and I did not want to sound trite or worry about asking you questions that you have been asked before. However, one of the first things that I read was the fact that Alice in Wonderland was one of your favourite books and everything sort of fell into place. Because there are so many bizarre and obscure story lines in your books , yet all of your characters take it in their stride... It's fine for Mrs Tiggywinkle to be a supercool superhero. [ Editor's note: Mrs Tiggywinkle is a ‘Bookworld’ character in the Thursday Next stories. ] There’s so much about your storylines that are hyper-real and obviously as soon as I read that Alice in Wonderland was a favourite book, I could completely and utterly see that… it was fantastic.

So, do your children read your books?

Jasper: Usually. The two smallest are too small really, the two eldest are too grown up really, but generally they do. My second son reads everything I write, so in general they all do. When my two eldest girls were teenagers it was quite funny really, as their friends used to read me and say, ‘Your dad is really cool, he rocks’. They would reply, ‘No he doesn’t, and you know nothing about my father, how dare you! He is completely unfunny and rubbish,’ although I think that they were secretly proud.

Jane: Your father was a banker which I would not have imagined, reading your work. I mean some of your storylines are fairly ‘out there’ and I just imagined this incredibly bohemian, literary upbringing acting as  inspiration for some of your ’crazy’ ideas, I mean, is this how you grew up?

Jasper: No, we are not bohemian at all. I mean dad was an economist. I think escapism was important in my childhood and teens. My family are fairly ordinary, we did not have a bad childhood at all by any stretch of the imagination, it was just very ordinary. I think that for escapism in the 1970’s and early 80’s there was a lot going on - some good sitcoms and very funny movies and I did a lot of reading. Most authors you find are fairly solitary people - I think that is because we have spent a lot of time on our own over the years. Within that vacuum, if you are not going out and shouting and jumping up and down with your mates, you are actually doing something - usually that means drawing, painting, reading, writing or anything like that. There is a strange duality in being a writer, you have to give up this ‘socialness’ to actually put in the hours for this bizarre sort of input.

Jane: When people meet you and know your background, and perhaps know your books, do they expect you to be the funny man at the dinner party?

Jasper: Yeah, they do… They say, ‘Jasper you seem fairly ‘ordinary’ to me,’ meaning, ‘I find you fairly dull,’ and I say, ‘Yeah, I make up silly ideas and that’s where my skill lies’. If something happens over the dinner table, I will make some ‘silly’ connection. But mostly my family know me and it’s not anything remotely unusual.

Jane: There are so many things about Wales in your books that make me laugh, and they are so true! You have a strong personal connection with Wales...

Jasper: I’m not actually Welsh, but spent all my childhood holidays here in the Wye valley, which means my connection to the area goes back to 1966. My favourite river swimming spot has remained unchanged and revisited for the past forty four years. My Great Uncle farmed the Olchon Valley and is buried in Llanveynoe. My parents were married there in 1953. I have a Welsh wife, and two Welsh daughters.

Shades of Grey parallels Wales
With such strong connections to Wales - quite apart from having lived here since 2000 - it would seem obvious to feature Wales, in some part, in nearly all of my books. Some feature Welsh plotlines, others - Shades of Grey, Early Riser, Eye of Zoltar - are entirely set here. The Elan Valley is featured as a location in three of my novels, each Elan subtly different. The Elan is a particular favourite. We call it ‘The Empty Quarter’, an area of Wales that is magnificently desolate - upland moorland where little happens except drainage and sheep. It is not visited in any great numbers, but it seems to have an almost magnetic hold on me.

Further up North, we have Cadir Idris, a mountain that is once again heavily featured in Eye of Zoltar, but reimagined by me as a vast pinnacle of rock with stairs hewn into the stone, and on the top, the carved stone chair of Idris. I also made it permanently swathed in cloud due to the fact that even after three treks to the summit, I have yet to see the view.

Jane: As much as anything it is cheese that really makes me laugh. I work in Dolgellau and I have read, with childlike glee, that the strongest of your cheeses come from Machynlleth and Dolgellau...

Jasper: The cheese subplot was great fun - but the choice of place names random - I just liked the idea of Wales being a place in which super strong cheeses could be made in an unregulated way and then smuggled across the border to England, or ‘Poundland’, or ‘East Wales’, as we call it.

I often put adverts in the back of my books - the strapline to my unofficial Welsh Tourism plug is: ‘Visit Wales. Not always raining’.

In short, I write about Wales because I really love it, despite the rain, despite the fact that I don’t understand rugby, or watch Doctor Who, or can speak Welsh, or sometimes feel that a Welsh winter is like living in Tupperware. But if, as I once heard, that, ‘you can be Welsh if you love it,’ then I can indeed boast Wales as my nationality.

Jane: Do you have a routine to writing? Your themes and plots are so complex, how do you keep a handle on it all?

Jasper: I don’t, although I think that I need to start having a routine, because it takes me a long time to write, literally. I have several ideas at a time and I think, ‘right, what is going to happen with this next book’. The one that I am working on at the moment is called Early Riser. It is a crime-thriller set in a world in which humans have always hibernated. And you think, ‘ok then,’ this is a really interesting concept, because if we have always done it, it becomes second nature. How does this mechanism function and where can we find the crime and all this kind of stuff. So, in general, I just start off with these kind of ideas, then I put in a few characters, you know male or female. What kind of person are they? Then I just start writing and I see where it goes. But of course often this can lead you up a blind alley, and you have to re write it and then I have to try out something else... So planning would work a lot better! But I’ve tried it and it doesn’t work for me! I tend to get my best ideas literally ‘on the hoof’.

Jane: I’m fortunate to work, and be friends, with some really fantastic artists and very creative people and I have found that there are two schools of thought, either you plan, plan, plan or you ‘wing it’.

So when you have these ‘crazy out there ideas’, do you have a little Jasper that reins you in? How do you know if your ideas are working? Do you have someone that you can run your ideas by?

Jasper: No. I’m really on my own. All authors are basically on their own, unless they are working in close collaboration with someone else. There is a ‘little voice’ - the little Jasper that you mentioned - that says, ‘this is really too stupid’. For example in this new book, which is slightly more serious, every now and again I keep putting in silly jokes, which would make total sense in any of my other books, but in this book they don’t quite set the tone… and once you’ve played around with the character, set them up in 20 or 30,000 words, you know how he or she is going react in a given situation. Once everything starts coming together the book starts writing itself in an odd kind of way and the tone and the atmosphere all slot in to place.

So although the first 20 or 30,000 words may be difficult and may lead you down blind alleys, the rest of it can pop into place. There is always that little voice that says if this is working or this isn’t working. When the little voice says, ‘this is not working’, and you’ve just spent a week working on it, it can be fairly frustrating. But you have to listen to that voice. Ninety percent of writing skills can be taught to someone, and then they could be writing for ten years and gain another five percent, but the remaining five percent is the stuff that you can never, never teach – that’s the magic sparkle and the charm that brings a novel alive. It’s that last five perent that makes a novel, if you could put in that five percent, and the rest was pretty ropy, it wouldn’t really matter.

Jane: When did you discover that you had that five percent then?

Jasper: I dunno… when people buy the books! You get emails from people from the other side of the planet saying, ‘your book really spoke to me and I really liked it and it really made me laugh out loud on the bus!’ And you think, ‘OK, that’s really great,’ because you are communicating these bizarre ideas and then it kind of makes sense.

Jane: So was this fairly early on in your career?

Jasper: I wish…

Jane: Because I discovered you fairly later on… its only been in the past three or four years that I have been reading your work, and you got me through some particularly difficult all-nighters with the sprogs.

Jasper: Oh good, I’m glad of that... No, I spent the first eleven years of my writing 'career' not being published. I wrote seven books in eleven years. I’d been trying to figure out how to make it work - it’s only been through constant experimentation and merciless self-criticism that you finally think, ‘yes this is kind of working now’. Then you can hand it out to the publishers or agents and they say, ‘yes, we can sell this, this is pretty much there’.

Jane: So would this be your tip to an aspiring writer then, to keep plugging and to keep pushing…

Jasper: Yes, my tip to an aspiring writer is wholly counter to today’s way of working really. For example you can be a fantastic photographer with two clicks of a mouse, and you can do everything really quickly and really easily, unfortunately writing is not one of them. I equate it to playing the trumpet.

You can buy the best trumpet, buy the best books on how to play the trumpet. You can listen to the best trumpeters, you can talk to the best trumpeters, you can do all these things - join the trumpet players club, but really when you put the trumpet to your mouth can you play it? The answer is no. You have to put in ten-to-fifteen years of solid graft and practice.

There are no short cuts to writing. Of course, being human is part of that experience, but distilling what it is to be human on the page is something that you cannot do straight away, unless of course you are brilliant, as some people are. So, my tips for writers are: think long term, if you can move from the rejection of your fifth novel to the starting of your sixth with no loss of enthusiasm, then you have what it is to be a writer. But if after writing your first two chapters, you send it off to an agent and when they say, ‘no,’ you give up, then you are not a writer.

Jane: That is what I say to students that I teach in the visual arts. Funnily enough, fifteen years is how long it has taken me to be able to throw a pot on the wheel. Maybe it’s something about that magic fifteen years.

Well, thank you so much for your time, and really have a fantastic time in America. And thank you very much again, it’s been very enjoyable reading your work.

Jasper: Thanks.

- Jasper Fforde was talking with Jane Williams

There is a wealth of Ffordean information at 

Jane Williams is a potter who lives and works near the coast in North Wales, where she also appreciates cheese and teaches in the arts department of a local college.

A pair of Jane's jugs attracting one of her 'mad birds'

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