Q&A with Jasper Fforde

Jasper Fforde is a person who has written lots of books. The first one he had published was The Eyre Affair, and a little anecdote about that was that it was rejected 76 times before being published, and he can probably decorate his bathroom with the results of his efforts. Now, the whole Thursday Next series, which comprises six books so far with another one due out in July 2012, has something of a cult following. His other series for adults are his Nursery Crime Division books and Shades of Grey, and he has also written books for children, the first of these being The Last Dragonslayer.

One of his established characters is Pickwick, Thursday Next’s beloved pet dodo - in the alternative world, there are such things as home-cloning kits, and Pickwick is an early version, who has no wings, is worth rather a lot of money, says ‘Plock!’ and is severely lacking in the brains department.

We thought Jasper was just crazy enough to let himself be subjected to some questions from Brighton Plot Bunnies, and we were right. He was. This is the result.

PB: It’s been said writers need to write quarter of a million words before they can write anything that isn’t shit. Do you think that’s true?

JF: In general, I think that's actually an underassessment. Speaking to published writers, the general consensus seems to be perhaps five unpublished books and numerous short stories before one is picked up for publication. With rewriting this could mean up to a million words. But this isn't unique to writing. Playing a trumpet must require at least a cubic mile in puff before it sounds good, and welding takes a half ton or so of spitting metal and burns to the forearms to get right. What's important to realise is that writing isn't a calling or a gift - it's a skill that can be learned. It just takes a while.

PB: Has an idea for a new book or character ever bopped you on the bonce at an inopportune moment?

JF: Often. Ideas pop up when you least expect them. It pays to always have a pen on hand to jot them down. I had an idea last year that was a real zinger, but unfortunately, I can only remember I had the idea - not the idea itself.

PB: How many writers does it take to change a light bulb?

JF: None - unless your editor insist you change it, which after much whining, you eventually do.

PB: We set monthly writing challenges to get our brains working hard and to expand our writing skills. Do you have a challenge to set us for an upcoming meeting? (Feel free to make it as awkward as possible!)

JF: 2500 words on a story about the fruit in the fruit bowl, the various characters of the various fruit, and the existential questions that arise over the transience of their tenure within their small world. Where do they come from? Where do they go? And do grapes have anything on their minds at all, or do they just gossip like that all the time?

PB: If Wikipedia is the perfect procrastination tool, what gets you writing again?

JF: The notion that if I want to eat and pay the bills and feed my expensive child habit, I need to deliver a book from time to time. And it’s quite fun.

PB: Why did the dodo cross the road?

JF: To see Gregory Peck

PB: In your Thursday Next series, there is quite a lot of focus on genres in the Bookworld, with talk of an all-out genre war. What is your take on the concept of ‘genre’ in general?

JF: Genre is the measles of the Bookworld. Personally, I don't like it at all, and my tastes are very cross genre. I like books only because they are good. It doesn't matter if its a Western, or an SF or a Fantasy. The minimum entry requirement for me is that it must engage with me, and by that I mean good characters in a tale that is imbued with pageturnability, and is not boring. Seems obvious, but I'm always surprised by how bogged down contemporary books get with overt description. Alright already! I know what an Autumn looks like. Let's get on with the sodding story!

PB: What’s your opinion of writing manuals? Is there one you feel you can recommend and / or do you think most of them are crap?

JF: I think they are of help, certainly, but you can learn to write without one - and may find it easier to find your own voice and style without worrying about which page your 'first act break' should appear. Manuals may help your writing to [achieve] a greater readability and faster, but there is that indefinable 'substance X' that makes novels come alive. Charm, I like to call it, that dances across the page and invites a reader in to the author's world view. Figuring out how to add that mysterious substance is something that no-one can teach. It's just there within you, and comes out on the page almost subconsciously, in the same way as an engaging speaker can make their talking interesting. It's Essence of Human Spirit, I think, and you can't synthesise it.

PB: Do you ever come to a standstill while you’re writing, and how do you pick up a lost thread?

JF: Well, the interesting thing about this is that I... Oh, I mean, ... hang on - sorry, what was the question again?

PB: Do you make sure you write for a set number of hours per day or do you wing it?

JF: I try to do 2000 words a day when I'm writing, plus rewriting and combing the previous day's 2000. Once I've got a goodly lump on the page (about 70,000) then the wordage tends to drop and the rewriting increases. By the time I'm at 100,000 words, then it's nearly all rewriting. In fact, during the final-final phases of the book which involves tightening (author-speak for 'making it less boring’) I actually look to remove words, sometimes as many as 7000. There is far more skill in saying a lot with a little than there is by saying a little using a lot.

PB: When your family wants you to do stuff, how easy is it to make excuses to write instead?

JF: We work as Team Fforde to avoid conflicts. We try and keep weekends clear, but it doesn't always work out that way.

PB: We have recently addressed FanFic on our website. We decided not to allow it at Plot Bunnies for various reasons, one of which was that we feel FanFic devalues all the time and effort writers spend creating original characters and settings. How long did you spend creating Thursday’s world and the regular characters in it?

JF: The world in the TN books was created as I tried to make sense of the central narrative thread of Jane Eyre being kidnapped. The characters [popped] in as the need arose to have subplots, foils, gatekeepers, baddies and the rest. Characters grow and evolve with time. Thursday isn't the Thursday we knew when we first met her - she is older and wiser and a bit more weary, but still driven by a clear sense of moral justice.

PB: Have you ever been part of a writer's group? If so, did you get anything out of it?

JF: No, never. I wrote on my own for ten years, constantly improving and rewriting my books until someone thought them good enough to publish.

PB: Is there anything you’ve read or seen that’s made you say, ‘Bugger me, I wish I’d written that!’? What was it about it that made you wish you’d written it?

JF: Plenty. The litmus test of anything within the whole gamut of creative endeavour I believe is this: I enjoy watching skills I don't have, and ideas that I couldn't have. I think many people are the same, and it explains why modern art can be so annoying - because anyone could have done it. Being a writer doesn't spoil one, though, but it makes you appreciate good writing more. If I can see where a book is going by the first chapter, it means I can see the book being written, and I'm out of there. Same with movies. I worked for 20 years in the film industry, and a poorly made movie is excruciating because reality has not been sufficiently suspended. But when I can't, and I know I am in good hands, it actually makes the reading/viewing pleasure that much better.

And finally:

PB: We’d like to invite you to become an honorary Plot Bunny. Do you accept?

JF: Only if I can share this honour with the Cadbury's Caramel Bunny with the West Country accent that used to be on those adverts. If you can arrange a meeting, I'd be grateful. (Don't tell the wife.)

Thanks again to Jasper for giving up some of his time to answer our daft questions. You can find out more about his work at his website and if you found this Q&A session valuable, the best way to thank Jasper is by buying one of his books.