This is [really] what my books are about: they’re full of strange, unusual, weird ideas.
Passend zum Themenland Großbritannien der Stuttgarter Buchwochen 2016 sprach Jasper Fforde in einer moderierten Lesung über seine Bücher und speziell den vierten Teil der Thursday Next Reihe „Es ist etwas Faul“. In dieser Reihe wird die fiktionale Buchwelt mehrmals bereist. Einer von vielen Gründen für Sätzchenbäckerin Daniela, ihm und seiner Frau Mary nach der Lesung bei Speis und Trank noch weitere Fragen über das Schreiben und seine Bücher zu stellen. Wie entsteht ein Buch? Was sind seine Lieblingscharaktere und was hat „Shades of Grey“ damit zu tun? Das Interview erschien erstmals auf Deutsch in der 21. Ausgabe des Bücherstadt Kuriers. Hier nun das Interview auf Englisch.
Great Britain being last years Guest of Honour at the Stuttgarter Buchwochen 2016 one of the country’s popular authors, Jasper Fforde, took part in a reading and Q&A session of and about Something Rotten, part four of the Thursday Next series. As there are numerous trips to the fictional book world in this series, Sätzchenbäckerin Daniela had more than one good reason to ask the author and his wife Mary even more questions about his books and writing in general afterwards. How does a book come to life? What are his favourite characters? And what does Shades of Grey have to do with it?
BK: Your sense of humor is very British. Would you also consider yourself British in other ways?
JF: Yes, I think so. In many ways. I’m very polite. Even if the coffee is really bad, either way I’ll say ‚lovely‘. What’s strange and delightful about getting around Europe is that all of us in Europe seem to be intent on strengthening our stereotypes. You go to Germany and everyone is really German, you go to France and everyone’s very French, Spain and they’re Spanish, Italy and they’re Italian. Everyone really wants to be this very sort of strong identity, which I think is great and I want to think about this being Europe. That we can be this one joined, wonderful, huge, big, unified Europe and yet be all very individual and have this wonderful sort of national characteristics.
BK: Your books are full of creative ideas. What’s your secret?
JF: When you’re an author or if you’re working in any sort of creative endeavor you have to figure out your strengths. I think what I found out, and this is from very far early on, is that I can think up strange ideas. I can take very ordinary ideas, put them together and something new and unusual will come out of it. I think if I have a strong point – that’s where it lies. This is really what my books are about: they’re full of strange, unusual, weird ideas. What I had to learn was to be able to take the ideas and stitch them together into a narrative that kind of makes sense.
If I tried to write a straight novel, a literary novel about some issues that people who live in North London have, and nobody else does – it would be terrible. I think up weird ideas. That’s my sort of thing.
BK: Are there any good ideas that never made it into the books?
JF: A lot. I have a little ideas book. I’ll go ‚That’s a good idea‘ and I’ll just write it down. I’ll write a heading and just flash it out in a paragraph, just so I won’t forget. There are all sorts of ideas. Sometimes, when I’m writing, I think ‚I have an idea‘ and I go ‚Oh, that’s good‘ and I write it into the chapter. But then I think that this idea is too good. So I take it out and expand it into an entire novel later on or use it in another book. They get recycled.
When I was writing my first two books they had all sorts of ideas in them that I really liked. When I was writing my third book, I was thinking ‚Right, should I take those ideas out of those first two books, and use them to make the third book even better?‘ And I went ‚No, I’m going to keep these books, because I like them and I’ll just invent totally new ideas in this book‘. That works, because the first two books then got published and they were still in one piece. I have ideas but I’ll reuse them. I can’t think of any good ideas that I felt I couldn’t use,
BK: Your protagonist Thursday Next feels like a really realistic female character. How was she born?
JF: It’s a tricky one to explain, because a lot of writing is intuitive. I created Thursday without thinking about writing. I was just banging the words down and going ‚Yeah, that works‘. I like her a great deal. She knows her own mind. She does the right thing because it’s the right thing to do and that’s very much a guiding principle.
I think she’s modeled on female aviators like Bessie Coleman, Amelia Earhart or Amy Johnson. These women lived in an era not defined for equal rights between men and women. Not only were they doing something that society would not want them to do – they did something that even men wouldn’t do because they were so dangerous and so risky. Those kind of women did those things simply because they wanted to do them – not to make a statement.
Amy Johnson flew to Australia in 1930. She had basically just passed her driving test and had about 70 hours of flying time, which is nothing. She bought a secondhand aircraft, loaded it up with fuel and set off for Australia. The modern day equivalent would be putting yourself inside a skip on top of two thousand tons of dynamite and announcing you’re going to Pluto. It’s that kind of unbelievable sense of adventure. She took off on a very grey and rainy day from London. No one had believed that this girl could do this and when she finally landed in Australia she was a huge star.
Thursday was kind of based on that principle of really strong will, seemingly without a personal agenda. She just does these things because she feels they’re right and important. I don’t really know where she comes from. I see myself more like a “Landen”* character in the books, being sort of a/the nearest, very special person.
BK: She’s also a mother in the books. How do you think that fits together?
JF: I write by a principle I call the ‚less world troubling path‘: if there’s an obvious way of doing something I won’t do it. The obvious thing to do with Thursday is what everyone else is doing with their female characters: Have a parade of unsuitable boyfriends moving through her personal life. I thought ‚No, that’s what most people do‘, so I’m going to make her a ‚one guy gal‘. She and Landen are devoted to each other and it would only be natural at one point for them to have children. She is a remarkable leading lady but at the same time also sort of unremarkable. The domestic problems she has with her children are in her case a bit unusual** but still reliable. It makes her ordinary and takes off the edge of her being a superhero.
** e.g. one of Thursdays children has issues with the institution of time travel and the other one is a genius
BK: Every protagonist needs his villain. From all your books, who’s your favourite villain?
JF: I don’t know. Acheron Hades is quite a good villain but he’s a bit boring. Villains shouldn’t be supervillains, in a second look they should not be quite as evil as they seem. The Goliath Corporation is a good villain. I’m trying to think about my villains now.
MF: Jack Shit.
JF: Jack Shit is a good villain because he’s nasty through and through. Felix Seven is good because he’s amoral. It’s not a question of having morals or immorals, he’s amoral.
JF: Aornis Hades, she’s a good villain. I like her. She’s a mnemonomorph: she can change your memories. Because if you can’t remember something, how do you know it ever existed? The idea of an evil person who you can never remember because every time you meet them, they erase all memory of what they’ve been doing. How would you eventually defeat someone like that? That was quite a difficult task for me. Later on in the series the protagonists are trying to find Aornis and of course she is in the house and has been the whole time – they just cannot remember it. I think that’s quite fun and her name is good, Aornis Hades. She likes to shop as well.
And there’s Cindy who’s an assassin and that’s quite sweet because she’s married to someone who kills vampires and he can’t bring himself to tell her that and she can’t bring herself to tell him she’s an assassin. This is a little sort of friction within their relationship. It’s quite fun. Villains are great fun to write but Aornis is probably my favorite. I think she’s original. I don’t know anyone who has done that.
BK: You also have a book that’s called ‚Shades of Grey‘. Now everyone is talking about ’50 Shades of Grey‘. If you could name it differently now, would you do this?
JF: I wouldn’t have called it that if ’50 Shades of Grey‘ had already been written. But it is called ‚Shades of Grey‘ and changing a title of a book is like changing the name of the lead character. It’s very difficult to do. When I’m writing a book and the characters have had the same name the whole time I’ve been writing it and then I decide to change their names for some reason it all seems wrong and it just doesn’t work. I often change it back. I had a character that was called Scarlet and I decide to not call it Scarlet and then I changed it back because it just didn’t work with another name.
So calling ‚Shades of Grey‘ something else, wouldn’t work. Unless my publisher says to me ‚Look, we really have to change this‘, I would say ‚No, keep it as it is‘.
BK: Do you consider writing a second book of ‚Shades of Grey‘?
JF: Very much. It’s the book I’m most proud of. It’s a proper novel.*** It’s not using people from other people’s fiction. I do like it. It’s the least well of all my books. But people who like it really like it, which is wonderful. They really get it.
I will be doing a sequel eventually. But before a sequel, there will probably be a prequel first. I’ve got to finish the book I’m working on, then I’ll have the fourth part of the Last Dragonslayer-series and then there’s a stand-alone set in the ‚Shades of Grey‘ world. It will be set a couple of weeks before the event that happened in ‘Shades of Grey’. So we get to know how the world really came to be around and then we’ll go back to Jane and Eddie. But I don’t really know what’s going to happen in these books, I just make it up as I go along.
***It focuses more on the individual storyline of the characters.
BK: Can you imagine writing Thursday Next books in ten years?
JF: Yes, absolutely. I’ve been building up to another Thursday book which is called ‚Dark Reading Matter’****. The last book in fact was going to be ‚Dark Reading Matter‘ but I started writing and there was nothing about dark reading matter and so it didn’t work.
Maybe the next one will get the title because I love the idea that the visual book world contains only about ten percent of the amount of books that have been written and there’s this dark reading matter out there. All the things you can’t really get to anymore: books that have been erased, ideas that people have had when they’ve died, conversations that are no longer around. It’s all those moments and they end up in the dark reading matter. And if you can get into the ‘Dark Reading Matter’, it could be a potential gold mine for publishers. There could be all kinds of interesting, exciting things. I’m not a hundred percent sure what I’m going to do with it. But it’s an exciting idea.
We’ll eventually go back to Thursday, because I like her and there’s no reason why I should stop writing about her. But there’re a lot more projects I have to write as well. Maybe in three or four years we will get back to her. But I’ll have to reread a lot of my Thursday books to get back into it , I’ve almost forgotten how she feels like as an character.
****Allusion to dark matter: Dark matter is a predicted matter to explain the movement of visible matter in the universe and is yet not found.
BK: You’re writing many different series. Is it easy to switch between your protagonists when starting a new book?
JF: I think it is, actually. This perhaps needs an easier example. You can talk to your grandparents and you speak to them in another way. Then you can talk to your friend and you speak to them in another way. Then you talk to your parents or your siblings and you can talk to them literally within five minutes. You talk to all of them differently because the rules of engagement are different for all of them. I think it’s the same with writing. You know where you are, the rules and regulations. And then you just write it. So when I’m doing a Thursday book I know pretty much exactly how Thursday talks, her character and everything. When I’m writing a ‚Shades of Grey‘ or a ‚Last Dragonslayer‘ book it’s all utterly different but you just shift across. We know that different people have different rules and – imagine mixing them up. That would be quite a good comedy.
Humans can do it quite well. I don’t think it’s anything remarkable.
BK: Do you have a favourite protagonist?
JF: I think I always had a lasting affection for Thursday because she got me published for the first time. In a way I like all of them, you have to in a strange sort of way. You have to like the protagonist, even the baddies. All these characters have some little foible in them, some little problem that they are trying to get past. That makes them quite fun and attractive.
I have a lot of affection for Melanie who’s a gorilla and has this problem with hair and she has this little Coco Chanel dress. Somehow she wants to be more human but she happens to be a gorilla. Her husband Bradshaw is deeply in love with her and he doesn’t see it as anything he shouldn’t be. You can see that he’s very defensible. I think their relationship is very sweet, even though she’s a gorilla. But she’s a talking gorilla, so it’s okay.
This strangeness is what makes those characters unusual and bizarre. I have a great affection for Emperor Zark who is a god emperor of twelve star systems who would not blink to kill millions of people. But when he’s in an elevator talking to Mrs. Tiggy Winkle (who is a hedgehog from the Beatrix Potter’s books) they discuss laundry and we find out that Emperor Zark has a mother who he has to obey and do as she tells. He’s this immensely powerful emperor yet he has to do what his mother tells him. So there’s always something in the characters that makes me affectionate towards them. There are baddies but they are not really bad. There’s always some redeeming feature that makes them more human.
BK: You write your books as first person narratives. Could you also imagine writing your books as third person narratives?
JF: There’s actually two books [that already are third person narratives]: The ‚Nursery Crime‘ books which are not published in Germany because they’re with Humpty Dumpty and Goldy Locks and for some reason they felt like they wouldn’t transfer into German. I like first person and I think the readers like it as well because the protagonist is the proxy you. When you speak in first person, the protagonist isn’t just taking the readers hand and guiding him through the story. You are actually allowing the reader to be in the protagonist’s body. The reader becomes the protagonist. What is happening to the protagonist is what’s happening to you and you have very direct feelings. I think it works.
But there are problems with first person narratives. You can’t go away from the action if it’s not happening to the protagonist. Everything has to happen in front of the protagonist and that can be problematic.
BK: What’s your favourite time of the day to write?
JF: I need time. The thing about writing is that I have to do quite a lot of it. The minimum time that I need to spend writing is four hours a day. Otherwise I will never finish a book. It is really just: get down to it, get emails out of the way, clear the desk and just go.
MF: Switch the internet off, no eBay.
JF: No eBay, no checking e-mails. The internet is the worst thief of time. Not saying that if there wasn’t internet I would not be doing something else. Unplug it, shut everything down and you just get on with it.
MF: The other thing is needing it to be peaceful and quiet. Jasper ends up getting up very early and starting work at five in the morning because we have two small children. They get up at seven and leave at nine. So he has a quiet house from nine to three.
JF: A very quiet house and then I’ll have to pick up the kids. Sometimes I might try to get back to work. It depends on how things are going but in general I’m trying to get it done between five and three.
MF: He’s got a saying on his wall: ‚Four hours a day, is the only way.‘ You have to at least get that, it’s an unbroken law.
JF: Otherwise no book will ever progress.
MF: Other writers say that too.
BK: How many hours would you spend writing if you were not a full-time author?
JF: If I wasn’t an author I would probably spend more time writing. Because when you start something new and exciting and there is this huge passion for it than you can’t stop yourself from doing it. I must have been working quite hard to write the nearly seven novels I did in the twelve years whilst I was holding down a full-time job and having kids as well. That’s literally seven to eight thousand words a day which is a huge amount.
I’ve been writing for about 25 years now. The passion is still there but not the drive because I have other things I’d like to do. I get busier when it gets closer to the deadline. But eight hours, I should be able to use them. Some days are really great and I get a lot of work down and other days it’s extremely slow and I can spend all morning on a paragraph. I want something to happen in it but I don’t want to have it as a long paragraph. I want to have it quite short because I want to keep the pace up and I could keep working on it for two hours but it’s like rubbish. It’s not working. I stop for lunch, come back and in ten seconds I’ve done it. And I go ‚Now did this take ten seconds or did it take two hours and ten seconds? Was the two hours mocking around part of the creation of that paragraph?‘ No idea at all. But that’s how it works sometimes.
And then sometimes I sit down and write an entire chapter and I barely touch a word. Other times I write a chapter and then rewrite it. It’s up and down, feast and famine, agony and ecstasy. It’s all of them.
BK: Do you write on multiple projects at the same time?
JF: I work on one book at a time but often somebody says ‚Will you do a short story of so and so?‘ I don’t do it often these days but Mary and me used to do the website a lot. I’m writing a little short story every now and then. When people want some content because I’m going to a festival and I want my three favourite books of last year or something and then I write that. But it’s nothing big and I couldn’t do two books at a time. I never tried it but I don’t think so. I’ve got to concentrate on one thing at a time.
BK: Last question: If you were a book, what kind of book would it be?
JF: That’s a good question. I never had this question before. What kind of book would I be? I suppose it would be a work in progress. It would look a bit like a first or second draft and I’d probably feel like I could have done things better if I worked harder and concentrated more.
MF: I think he’ll definitely be a book with illustration in it. That’s something he has always thought of.
JF: And there would be illustrations in the books.
MF: And he would do them, coloured illustrations.
JF: I would enjoy that. In one of the Thursday Next books we have a fictional Thursday Next and she has to go into the real world. She’s so terrified. She heard about the real world and that it’s terrifying. She gets advised ‚Don’t worry about it‘ and she says ‚What do I do when people talk to me? What shall I say? I have no bluff experience. I’m written in a book.‘ They say ‚Out in the real world about eighty percent of talk is bullshit and ninety percent of life is spend mocking around, not really concentrating.‘ That’s why I’m saying a first or second draft. You could always look back at things and say ‚I could have done better.‘ or ‚What if I started writing when I was eighteen?‘ But you can’t do that.
BK: Thank you so much for the interview.
JF: You’re welcome. Thank you.
Foto: Sätzchenbäckerin Daniela