In Part Two of our exclusive interview with ONE OF OUR THURSDAYS IS MISSING author Jasper Fforde, he discusses his new novel, fanfic, his NURSERY CRIMES books, his novel SHADES OF GREY and more.
ASSIGNMENT X: When did you realize people were really responding to the THURSDAY books?
JASPER FFORDE: Well, [THE EYRE AFFAIR] did extraordinarily for the kind of book that it is, a fantasy mish-mash cross-genre book. In the States, we got onto the New York Times bestseller list, which was extraordinary. But it was very much a word of mouth sale, in the U.K. as well, so everything was helping and this buzz got going. So I suppose it was then, really, but the thing about being an author is, of course, you spend an awful lot of time trying to be published, and then when you’re published, you think, “That’s good, that’s great,” and I have this twenty-seven minutes of elation, and then I suddenly realize actually that now what I have to try to do is get established. So I’m still really working on that even now [laughs], and it’s been ten years and nine books.
AX: There’s a section about fanfic, which has its own little island – literally – in ONE OF OUR THURSDAYS IS MISSING. Is there THURSDAY NEXT fanfic out there?
FFORDE: I think there is, but I haven’t read any of it. The relationship between fanfic and [professional] authors is mildly strained, but slightly distant. And different authors have different reactions to fan fiction. My initial reaction to fan fiction was kind of negative, but then I had a conversation with someone who wrote fan fiction and then that changed my feeling about fan fiction, and I reflected, in the book, that it’s not copying, it’s actually celebration. And I think that is actually the right way to look at it. I’m still not interested in reading it, because I have no time to read anything really, at the moment, so if I’m going to read anything, I’ll read what I’ve got to read in order to write my own books, but if people are writing it for their own satisfaction, I shouldn’t worry. No one’s going to try and publish anything, because that’s not what fan fiction is all about. So it’s quite flattering, really – it should be seen as I said, as a celebration.
AX: There’s a riddle in ONE OF OUR THURSDAYS as to how Thursday gets off the fanfic island. Are we meant to be able to work out how Thursday does this?
FFORDE: You are, actually. Interestingly, this is an online competition that you find when you go onto the [jasperfforde.com] website. It’s a sleuthing competition that I actually set for each book, but it’s not part of the publication, it’s a thing between me and hardcore fans. All the questions are actually on the website, and one of the questions is, Number Seven, how did Thursday get back across the causeway to fan fiction.
AX: Did you design your own website?
FFORDE: It’s all written by either myself or my wife. We learned HTML in 2000, I think. So it’s very old-fashioned. It’s really a sort of classic first-generation website that hasn’t changed at all. I write in broad source code, and it’s so easy to do, that we do it ourselves. And I think it’s important that one does, because it’s very easy to have someone else do it and then it loses the directness. It is very much me writing it, and I think that comes across when people read it. Even with all the typos – there’s errors and all that sort of stuff – it’s very homemade, and I think people appreciate it.
AX: Is there any possibility you ever will write THE GREAT SAMUEL PEPYS FIASCO, which is mentioned throughout the THURSDAY series?
FFORDE: [laughs] I don’t know. I think we’re just going to keep on alluding to it throughout the series. After I’ve alluded to it so much that I’ve actually almost invented the plot, then maybe I’ll do it as a short story. It was an idea early on – I did actually put it in outline – because there is really two weeks missing from the [real Pepys] diaries, and I thought, during that two weeks, that could be something that happens with Thursday and Samuel Pepys. And it was a great failure – that was always the fun about it. Thursday is generally pretty heroic and gets things right, but this was one of her notable failures where it all just went completely wrong and they’ve had to delete the two weeks of the diary. So maybe one day.
AX: You’ve also got the Nursery Crimes books, with Detective Jack Spratt. Do those take place in the “real world,” as it were, rather than in the BookWorld?
AX: How did those come about?
FFORDE: Oddly enough, these were written before Thursday. Those two books [THE BIG OVER EASY and THE FOURTH BEAR] were the first two novels I ever finished. The central theme of them was that nursery rhyme characters are real, that when we hear the little rhyming couplet, that’s just a little bit of the full story, that’s not the full thing. There is much more behind that rhyme that meets the eye, as there always is. You just hear a little snippet about a news story, but actually, the real story is much more complex. So I thought, well, let’s do it as a murder mystery with Humpty-Dumpty. And that worked quite well, and then I thought, we’ll do another one, retelling the Three Bears, with the porridge and why Mama Bear and Daddy Bear were sleeping in separate beds, all those sort of questions that you should really be asking yourself about this.
So they actually came before the Thursday series and once I’d used up all the nursery rhyme characters and I started tapping into the classics in the used car salesman there, Dorian Gray is a used car salesman in THE FOURTH BEAR, then I thought, “Ah, yes, there’s a bit of fun here with the classics that I can actually play with, like sniggering in the back of English class,” and taking these much-hallowed and much-loved and much-studied texts and saying, we can actually have a lot of fun with these ideas, and see where it takes us. And that was the kicking-off point for THE EYRE AFFAIR.
AX: What is your novel SHADES OF GREY about?
FFORDE: This is very much an entirely separate notion to the Thursday books and the Nursery Crime books. Those are essentially mining the collective memory. I’m actually reaching into people’s heads and tweaking the little bit that says the Three Bears and there’s a great deal of fun there, because you’re sort of mucking with the familiar by turning the familiar thirty degrees. I think there’s a limit to how far you can do that as an author without feeling that you weren’t perhaps being a bit of a charlatan or really just sort of making your readership do most of the work, which is essentially what I’m doing. And I thought, “Well, now, I should try being a proper novelist and write a book with my own characters and situations. How hard could it be?” It’s actually quite hard.
I was actually trying to be a proper novelist and I wrote SHADES OF GREY. I like it a great deal and I’m proud of it, but it is unusual. It is different from the Thursday series. But as an author, you have to do different things every now and again. Otherwise, I think, you risk going stale and just giving readers what they are expecting. [SHADES OF GREY] is a sort of social satire/comedy/future dystopia. It takes place some years after the Something that Happened, and it’s about a society of people who have embraced visual color as the guiding light in every single part of their everyday lives. So if you can see purple, you become the top of the hierarchy, and if you can see no colors at all, you’re at the bottom. You can be healed by looking at various colors and you spend your entire time trying to find scrap color to be sent off and made into synthetic color, so you can enjoy your colorless world. If you can only see blue, if you can’t see any colors but blue, then you will pay a great deal of money to have a synthetic yellow banana, which is basically the theme of the book. It’s a bit of a hard one to explain.
AX: So it’s like THURSDAY NEXT – it all makes sense when you read it?
FFORDE: When you read it, you go, “Yes, I totally understand this.” And then you try to explain it to someone and realize that you can’t. And I used to think this was a failing as an author, but now I kind of feel I wear it sort of as a badge of honor, really, that you can’t easily define or explain my novels.
AX: Do you feel that your approach to writing has changed over the past ten years since you’ve embarked on it exclusively?
FFORDE: I hope it’s improved. I mean, that’s always what one hopes. I hope that the books that I’m writing now are perhaps a little slicker than the ones that I was writing ten years ago – that some of the idea behind them is slightly more complex, perhaps more serious, yet they are still silly novels as well, a mixture I like of absurd and serious.
AX: Will there be more books in the THURSDAY NEXT and/or Nursery Crimes series?
FFORDE: Oh, yeah. THURSDAY books I can write for almost forever, but obviously, I won’t do one year after year, because I want to do other projects. So next year’s project will be a standalone that’s very much under wraps at the moment. Then after that will probably be SHADES OF GREY 2 and the year after that will be NURSERY CRIMES 3 and then I guess we’ll be back to THURSDAY books.
AX: How are you enjoying doing publicity and having to discuss everything once it’s written?
FFORDE: It’s actually hugely enjoyable. The whole discussing the books is actually very useful as well, because my writing background is nil. Essentially, I have no qualifications to be a writer at all. I didn’t do any creative writing courses, and my last English lesson [would have been] when I sixteen. So I have no qualifications to do it, but I still sat down and did it. I’m not saying I’m self-taught, because all humans can tell stories. Stories are all around us, so you can get these skills from a series of osmosis, really, but what I did was, I sat down and I just wrote story after story after story after story, trying to make it function and work as a story, but I didn’t really know what I was doing. But when [journalists ask] or when I’m giving a talk and people ask questions about why did you do this, this and this, and I go, “Hmm, I think it was probably because of such and such,” and I go, “Maybe that’s why I did this.”
It’s a very strange dark art, telling a story. It’s like talking. I mean, we can actually express ourselves in really quite complex ways. We can do it seemingly instantly, when we’re actually thinking and engaging the brain and talking. We’re not actually thinking consciously about what we’re saying when we actually explain about thinking about consciously about what we’re saying. It’s the same with writing. It’s only when you stop and discuss it with other people that you find out how you did these things. So for me, it’s brilliant, because I can actually understand how it was that I wrote the book. Which is the odd thing, slightly, it’s a career in reverse – first you learn how to do something, then you do it. I did it, then learned how I did it afterwards.