Man is a storytelling animal

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Ein Gespräch mit dem Kultautor Jasper Fforde

von Susan­ne Gruß, Nadi­ne Böhm-Schnitker

Der als Kult­au­tor gefei­er­te Jas­per Ffor­de, der für sei­ne ste­tig wach­sen­de Leser­schaft Wett­be­wer­be ver­an­stal­tet, Taschen­bü­cher mit eigens ange­fer­tig­ten Stem­peln ein­zig­ar­tig macht und sogar sei­nen Schreib­tisch gewinn­brin­gend ver­stei­gern kann, steht dem Kon­zept Kult kri­tisch gegen­über. Mit Iro­nie und Witz par­odiert er mit sei­ner Wort­neu­schöp­fung des „post­kon­struk­ti­vis­ti­schen Demo­der­nis­mus“ den wis­sen­schaft­li­chen Theo­rie­kult, um dem gegen­über her­aus­zu­stel­len, dass das Geschich­ten­er­zäh­len eine mensch­li­che Grund­ei­gen­schaft dar­stellt. Im Schau-ins-Blau-Inter­view spricht er mit Nadi­ne Böhm-Schnit­ker und Susan­ne Gruß neben der Fra­ge kul­ti­scher Autoren­ver­eh­rung über sei­nen lite­ra­ri­schen Wer­de­gang, sei­nen Kon­takt zu Lese­rin­nen und Lesern, die Unter­schie­de zwi­schen lite­ra­ri­scher Pro­duk­ti­on und lite­ra­tur­wis­sen­schaft­li­cher Ana­ly­se und über gute Literatur.


SCHAU INS BLAU: Do you have a favou­ri­te ques­ti­on? If you do not, what is your least favou­ri­te question?

JASPER FFORDE: I don’t think I have eit­her, to be honest. I kind of think that the­re is actual­ly only one ques­ti­on you want to ask an aut­hor, and that is ‘Whe­re do you get your ide­as from?’, and in fact every sin­gle ques­ti­on I get asked is actual­ly a sort of varia­ti­on on that the­me. My favou­ri­te ques­ti­ons, I sup­po­se, are the ones which are about some sort of very small eso­te­ric part of one of my books; this actual­ly allows me to think about how I wro­te it, becau­se as coun­ter-intui­ti­ve as it may sound I lear­ned to wri­te wit­hout kno­wing how I lear­ned to wri­te. I just sat down and wro­te books but I have no trai­ning in wri­ting. I didn’t go to uni­ver­si­ty, I left school at the age of eigh­te­en with a gre­at C in art; the last time I lear­ned any Eng­lish at all was for my GSCEs at the age of six­teen, when I got a C in O‑level Eng­lish. I have got no trai­ning as an aut­hor at all so I just sat down to wri­te books one day, and ele­ven years later I got published. But sit­ting in a room on your own inven­ting all the­se plot devices in third-per­son nar­ra­ti­ves and things like that, I had no names for them at all. So when I beca­me published as an aut­hor and I said ‘Ok, any ques­ti­ons?’ when I was get­ting talks, and peo­p­le said ‘Why did you do this, why did you do that?’ – then all of a sud­den I had an oppor­tu­ni­ty to ques­ti­on how I wro­te the books that I had writ­ten, and it has been a huge edu­ca­ti­on for me. So actual­ly I’ve run my care­er on the rever­se in that I wro­te the books and then figu­red out how to wri­te after­wards through being asked bizar­re questions.

And that is why some­ti­mes bizar­re ques­ti­ons are the best and I get asked the­se very, very stran­ge ques­ti­ons about very small parts, very small sub-plots which have an inte­res­t­ing litt­le sort of twist to it that is slight­ly ambi­guous, and I get asked, ‘Why did you do this, why did you do that, it must be becau­se of so and so and so and so’. So, it is sort of rever­se engi­nee­ring with my books. This goes to show, of cour­se, that I am not a vast intellec­tu­al supe­ri­or or any­thing at all. What it says is that sto­ry tel­ling is cle­ar­ly inher­ent in human beings.

SCHAU INS BLAU: Man is a sto­ry-tel­ling animal…

JASPER FFORDE: Yes, and you don’t need to actual­ly go to school to learn any of this, you just have to be human and you have to have time on your hands and a key­board. It pro­ba­b­ly doesn’t sit well with aca­de­mics, but you can do it and all that ‘post­con­s­truc­tion­al demo­der­nism’ which my books are imbued with… if someone says, ‘Ah, tell me about inter­tex­tua­li­ty’, then I go ‘I have no idea what you are tal­king about’. I do now becau­se I have lear­ned what it means, my books are full of inter­tex­tua­li­ty. I had no idea what it was or whe­re it comes from or any­thing. I just thought it amusing and fun. So that is the ques­ti­ons I like get­ting, the ones that allow me to find out why I wro­te the books that I wrote.

SCHAU INS BLAU: Your work has most­ly been descri­bed as fan­ta­sy lite­ra­tu­re or comic fan­ta­sy or some­thing along the­se lines. Whe­re on the rela­tively broad spec­trum of fan­ta­sy lite­ra­tu­re would you situa­te yourself?

JASPER FFORDE: Again, I don’t know. I’m not someone who is behol­den to gen­re, I think gen­re is the meas­les of lite­ra­tu­re, I real­ly do. It allows peo­p­le to be nar­row in their book choices when they should be broad, I think broad book choices are far bet­ter. The thing about gen­re is it gives peo­p­le an excu­se to stay within one island in a vast archi­pe­la­go of fasci­na­ting con­cepts and inte­rests within the lite­ra­ry world. So, when I set out to wri­te I don’t par­ti­cu­lar­ly have any kind of gen­re or sub­gen­re. The good thing about my Thurs­day Next books it that they are cle­ar­ly fan­ta­sy, obvious­ly, but they can actual­ly encom­pass any num­ber of gen­res. In fact The Eyre Affair encom­pas­ses hor­ror, sci-fi, lite­ra­tu­re, romance, crime, that is five gen­res. I like to think of my books as mul­ti-gen­re. Even my dys­to­pia book, Shades of Grey, I regard as a social thriller.

SCHAU INS BLAU: I still think you do work with gen­re quite a lot becau­se if you think about the Nur­sery Crime novels, for exam­p­le, they work like rela­tively tra­di­tio­nal crime novels but with a comic twist.

JASPER FFORDE: Yes, they are. The Big Over Easy, the first Nur­sery Crime book, is very obvious­ly a crime book, but it real­ly takes some very well-aimed jabs at what I think is a very tired gen­re. In fact, in The Big Over Easy, we have all kinds of jokes at the expen­se of the gen­re, yet at the same time, being a mem­ber of its own gen­re, it does in fact – being its­elf – make fun of its­elf all at the same time, which is a kind of rever­se loop that I actual­ly like to use in a lot of my books. In the Thurs­day Next books and the Nur­sery Crime books the­re are as many sto­ries about sto­ries as the­re are sto­ries about how we tell sto­ries, how we under­stand sto­ries and the rules of sto­ry tel­ling, sto­ry tel­ling grammar, if you like, which seems very fixed – but the fact that it is very fixed also means that you can play with it in won­derful ways, and you can take the­se ide­as and make them very mal­leable and tell the­se sto­ries about sto­ries. I don’t know quite whe­re they sit for gen­re but it is cle­ar­ly fan­ta­sy, meta­fic­tion, fic­tion about fiction.

SCHAU INS BLAU: Would you con­sider yours­elf a cult aut­hor or does ‘cult’ mean any­thing to you?

JASPER FFORDE: Cult to me has nega­ti­ve con­no­ta­ti­ons against rea­ders. That might be just an Eng­lish thing. It tends to, I belie­ve, place what I call enthu­si­a­stic rea­ders who embrace the world that I have crea­ted… it’s slight­ly demea­ning I feel. So I tend not to, try not to use that word at all. It also makes rea­ders seem disci­ples, which I think is wrong. I do think that the rela­ti­onship bet­ween a wri­ter and a rea­der is quite basic, fun­da­men­tal. I regard mys­elf not as a lite­ra­ry aut­hor, but as working essen­ti­al­ly in the enter­tain­ment busi­ness rather than working in the lite­ra­ry world. We lea­ve that up to the big-name aut­hors with their human dra­ma books whe­re they tell long and slight­ly meaningful sto­ries. I tend to enter­tain. In that respect, I think the con­tract one has with rea­der­ship is very basic. It is that peo­p­le get out and spend hours ear­ning their hard-ear­ned cash and they hand it to me and in return it is incum­bent to me to enter­tain tho­se rea­ders for as long as it takes to read a book. And in that respect, I like to think of rea­ders as being peo­p­le essen­ti­al­ly part of that con­tract and I think per­haps the noti­on of cult it just slight­ly demeaning.

SCHAU INS BLAU: One could say, howe­ver, that you have a kind of dedi­ca­ted fol­lo­wer­ship. Your web­site, for exam­p­le, allows for the for­ma­ti­on of audi­en­ces and gives them opti­ons for exch­an­ge. The­re are forums, the­re are com­pe­ti­ti­ons, the so cal­led ‘Ffor­de fies­tas’. Recent­ly, you auc­tion­ed your desk which might have some cult sta­tus to someone incli­ned to bid a high pri­ce pre­cis­e­ly becau­se it is Jasper’s desk. Even if you are cri­ti­cal of the noti­on of cult, could you descri­be whe­ther your audi­en­ces are to some degree a fol­lo­wer­ship? And what role does the web­site play in that context?

JASPER FFORDE: I’m still sort of avo­i­ding this, I sup­po­se. Dif­fi­cult one to explain real­ly. I think the thing about my rea­ders, the peo­p­le who read my books is that they total­ly get whe­re I’m coming in. And I think when you are rea­ding a book that seems very, very rele­vant to how you feel, how you’ve run your life, your sen­se of humour, when you feel yours­elf in con­cordance with someone, in agree­ment with someone, then you can get along with him. It is like when you meet someone at a par­ty or whe­re­ver, and all of a sud­den you click and you gel. And I think when you are rea­ding a book which has a lot of dif­fe­rent the­mes in it which you might share with the aut­hor then you do feel a cer­tain degree of warmth, obvious­ly, towards the per­son and ever­y­thing else. I think when someone wri­tes the sort of books that I do, a lot of it is of shared expe­ri­ence and I am put­ting a lot of my shared expe­ri­ence on the page and peo­p­le are rea­ding it and agre­e­ing and say­ing, ‘Yes, yes, yes, this is total­ly how I see it as well’. I think that is the reason why I do have an enthu­si­a­stic fol­lo­wing but I’m still sort of wary of the who­le cult thing.

The inter­net, I regard my web­sites as a kind of after-sale ser­vice, real­ly. Becau­se I only bring out a book once every sort of nine months or so, or two books a year, and in bet­ween you may want to know what is hap­pe­ning in the Cast­le Ffor­de, and you can. I run com­pe­ti­ti­ons and give give-aways and all sorts of stuff like that. It is just a kind of way of giving a litt­le bit more and than­king peo­p­le real­ly for sup­port­ing me and my fami­ly for all the­se years – ele­ven years now, you know, I have been living off the gene­rous con­tri­bu­ti­on of peo­p­le who read my books. I think the­re are many aut­hors who for­get that and they put them­sel­ves a litt­le bit lof­ti­ly abo­ve the rea­ders and I think the­re is a litt­le bit of con­tempt. But I hear aut­hors say­ing, ‘Oh, I don’t do sig­nings, I won’t inscri­be names in books’, and I think ‘you mise­ra­ble bas­tard, that is so con­temp­tuous of the­se peo­p­le who are sup­port­ing you’. You should cer­tain­ly go on out the­re. You don’t have to tell ever­yo­ne about your pri­va­te life or any­thing, but you should cer­tain­ly go out the­re and meet peo­p­le. Unless you are phy­si­cal­ly unable to do so, then you should cer­tain­ly tour. If you sell lar­ge quan­ti­ties of books, I think you owe to your rea­ders to tour and speak to peo­p­le, meet peo­p­le, sim­ply as a way of just say­ing thank you. And the­re are a lot of aut­hors who don’t. And I think it’s con­temp­tuous, to be honest.

SCHAU INS BLAU: You do your web­site yourself?

JASPER FFORDE: Yes, I do, and it shows. It is quite fun­ny becau­se nowa­days lots of peo­p­le are web aut­hors and a lot of peo­p­le under­stand about html and ever­y­thing and they look at my web­site and they go, ‘Jas­per, you real­ly haven’t moved with the times’, and I say, ‘No, I haven’t’, becau­se I lear­ned html about ten years ago and apart from jus­ti­fied text as a sort of major tech­ni­cal breakth­rough in about 2005 not­hing else has chan­ged. But peo­p­le seem to like it becau­se of that, becau­se that is how web­sites used to look in the ear­ly days of the inter­net. When Jas­per Ffor­de went online, the­re were cer­tain­ly under a mil­li­on web­sites and ‘Jas­per Ffor­de’ only had one hit, and now it has any num­ber of mil­li­ons. And it is nice and easy to use, html is very easy to use and I can just chan­ge a page just like that, you know, very easi­ly. It doesn’t need bells and whist­les. All it is is text and pic­tures. It doesn’t need pull-down menus, why would it need pull-down menus and all sorts of that kind of non­sen­se. So I just lea­ve it as it is, very old-fashio­ned, and I can do it and debug it mys­elf, it is dead easy.

SCHAU INS BLAU: It has beco­me a work in its own right, becau­se it actual­ly com­ple­ments the books and allows rea­ders to upgrade their books, for example.

JASPER FFORDE: Yes, you can do all kinds of things. I mean it’s now vast. Every now and again we do an upgrade to the basic page and it is over a thousand pages, so it real­ly is at least two books’ worth the­re, and I know peo­p­le who have said to me, ‘I have read your web­site, it took me months to go through it’, and I say, ‘Oh, did you find the page the goes bla­dibla­di­bla’ and they went, ‘Ugh no, I didn’t find that one’ and I said, ‘Well, keep on hun­ting’, becau­se it is very spread. The index isn’t quite the­re so the­re are litt­le cor­ners at the Ffor­de web­site you can actual­ly hunt down just through cli­cking links and ever­y­thing. So it is quite an explo­ra­ti­on. And I also think the­re is a litt­le bit extra about it … and I think it is important – if you are going to have a link with rea­ders, whe­ther you are going to tour, whe­ther you do the post­card givea­ways I do, the book stamps I do, tal­king to peo­p­le is all very important, but if you want to have a link to rea­ders through the web­site you have got to wri­te it yours­elf, becau­se if you do it through your publishers then the­re is a dis­con­nect becau­se it goes through a third, a fourth or even fifth par­ty and it beco­mes cor­po­ra­te. But when I wri­te my web­site it is all me and I and we and it’s got a few spel­ling errors. I think you’d have to hunt to find a web­site which was run sole­ly by the aut­hor and did actual­ly reflect the aut­hor quite as well as does with all its foi­bles and pro­blems and old html. So I’m quite proud of it, I kind of like it. It is genui­ne­ly me and I think that is important.

SCHAU INS BLAU: Do you have an inten­ded audience?

JASPER FFORDE: No, and I think it is very important that one doesn’t. If you start wri­ting with peo­p­le in mind then you are not wri­ting for yours­elf. I think it is very important that when you wri­te a book you wri­te it pri­ma­ri­ly for an audi­ence of one. I’m wri­ting con­stant­ly to try and make mys­elf laugh.

SCHAU INS BLAU: You are the one who gets all the clues.

JASPER FFORDE: I’m the one who wants to be laug­hing and crying and all that sort of stuff. I want to do some­thing that real­ly works but I can only do that for mys­elf. I think it is important to do that becau­se once you start wri­ting what you think peo­p­le want to read then you might get into a sort of down­ward spi­ral of wri­ting rather for­mu­laic me-too books. Alt­hough I obvious­ly know the rea­der­ship is the­re, and you can play on what the rea­ders expect becau­se then you can wrong-foot peo­p­le; you real­ly want to wrong-foot peo­p­le in a good way when you are wri­ting crime books or my kind of thril­lers, you want to do twists and turns and ever­y­thing. But now I know the­re are rea­ders out the­re who know how I wri­te, and that is quite an inte­res­t­ing way of wrong-foo­ting rea­ders becau­se I can actual­ly do some­thing and they go, ‘Ah it is a Jas­per book, I know some­thing is going to hap­pen’. But of cour­se I know that they know that, so I can then do some­thing com­ple­te­ly dif­fe­rent. The­re is a cha­rac­ter in the last Thurs­day Book cal­led Red Her­ring. Now the ques­ti­on is, of cour­se: Is Red Her­ring a red her­ring? Now, if it was my first book, Red Her­ring would of cour­se be a red her­ring, but in the lat­ter books peo­p­le would look at Red Her­ring and think ‘Ah, that’s a red her­ring’, but the red her­ring is the fact that he is cal­led Red Her­ring, so he is a red her­ring but you thought he wouldn’t be. So that’s working – a bit com­pli­ca­ted – that is working on rea­ders’ expec­ta­ti­ons, not just becau­se of the book but becau­se they know my method of wri­ting and my style of wri­ting. So I know the rea­der is the­re but I think it is very important that aut­hors wri­te what they want to wri­te and not to be per­haps sway­ed into doing eit­her popu­lar sto­ries or easy solu­ti­ons to what they are doing or doing the same book again. The­re are a few aut­hors out the­re, I won’t men­ti­on any names, but they wro­te one book and then rew­ro­te it, that’s pro­ba­b­ly a bit of a cheat then.

SCHAU INS BLAU: You have a lot of cano­ni­cal refe­ren­ces in your books, Char­lot­te Brontë’s Jane Eyre or Shakespeare’s Ham­let for exam­p­le, but also very popu­lar refe­ren­ces. Would you say that dif­fe­rent audi­en­ces respond dif­fer­ent­ly to your books?

JASPER FFORDE: Oh yes, defi­ni­te­ly. Someone said to me, ‘I don’t read fan­ta­sy, but I read you’, and I go, ‘Well, this is fan­ta­sy’ – ‘No, no, I don’t read fan­ta­sy’. They’re obvious­ly pul­ling into the humour, the come­dy, the charm, the spark or wha­te­ver you have in it. I do get peo­p­le who buy my books for crime, I get peo­p­le who buy my books for the sci-fi, I get peo­p­le who buy my books becau­se they like Thurs­day as a femi­nist icon, all sorts of dif­fe­rent reasons. And that’s ter­ri­fic, becau­se ins­tead of one-cra­ckers you get many dif­fe­rent types of peo­p­le who read the books. When I go to the Sta­tes, the­re are a lot of inde­pen­dent book­sel­lers out the­re and they are very good at events – they’re get­ting bet­ter in the UK, actual­ly, I must say, there’s been a big resur­gence in the inde­pen­dent book sec­tor – and I can go to Hous­ton, for exam­p­le, and I’ll talk at a crime book shop, and then I go to San Die­go and I talk in a fan­ta­sy book­shop, and then I go up to, say, San Fran­cis­co, and I talk in a crime, fan­ta­sy, and sci-fi book­shop, all of whom embrace me as one of their own. But none of the­se, I can say, is the par­ti­cu­lar gen­re of my books. A lot of peo­p­le get a lot of dif­fe­rent things out of them and that’s the glo­ry of wri­ting a book that is much, much broa­der than the usu­al gen­re, you know, stick to this, we’re doing human dra­ma, it’s about a girl-man-pro­blem, father with can­cer, usu­al stuff.

But also, the­re are a lot of peo­p­le who won’t read my books becau­se they don’t like that kind of spraw­ling mess of mul­ti­ple plot strands, and sil­li­ne­ss, and peo­p­le who won’t read fan­ta­sy. The­re are many, many peo­p­le who will not read fan­ta­sy, sim­ply becau­se they think it’s goblins and wands, firing arrows. The­re are lots of peo­p­le who won’t read sci­ence fic­tion, becau­se they think it’s space tra­vel and thr­alls, you know, ali­ens, and crime has only recent­ly come out of the dust­bin to which a lot of the­se gen­res have been dis­patched, and I think it’s kind of unfair. And, cer­tain­ly, when I was wri­ting The Eyre Affair, I had this noti­on that it would be like a sort of train sta­ti­on with lots of dif­fe­rent trains in it and that you could come and arri­ve on a sci-fi train and then take the fan­ta­sy train out of it. Becau­se I was fin­ding that a lot of dif­fe­rent peo­p­le who were attrac­ted to it, coming in becau­se it was about sci-fi and then say­ing, actual­ly I real­ly enjoy­ed the fan­ta­sy aspect about it, so let’s look at fan­ta­sy books.

SCHAU INS BLAU: You also have a very broad aca­de­mic readership…

JASPER FFORDE: That sur­pri­ses me!

SCHAU INS BLAU: You do, and I read artic­les about your work which app­ly post­mo­dern theo­ry, or theo­ries of immersi­on, theo­ries of adapt­a­ti­on, of inter­tex­tua­li­ty, metale­vels etc. on your work. Are you inte­res­ted in aca­de­mic dis­cus­sions of your work?

JASPER FFORDE: Yes, when I can under­stand them. I have been chal­len­ged on seve­ral aca­de­mic panels who wan­ted to talk to me at length about my books, and I had to say that I didn’t under­stand what they were actual­ly tal­king about, and a lot of their refe­ren­ces I did not under­stand. And they see­med slight­ly bemu­sed by this, and wan­ted to know how I could wri­te books about inter­tex­tua­li­ty wit­hout kno­wing what inter­tex­tua­li­ty is. And my ans­wer to that is, much like phi­lo­so­phers who cla­im to be inven­ting a new style of thought, I tend to be more of the opi­ni­on that, in fact, that they are sim­ply map­ping the way thought hap­pens to be going at the time. It’s like wri­ting down rules of grammar. The rules of grammar don’t actual­ly tell us how to talk. Rules of grammar just explain the way that we do talk. So, I think, some­ti­mes, aca­de­mia stu­dies some­thing, and then belie­ves that it’s sort of crea­ting what it’s studying.

SCHAU INS BLAU: When it’s done badly.

JASPER FFORDE: When you sort of run ahead of yours­elf, and ins­tead of explai­ning some­thing, just adding new theo­ries to it and say­ing this is what’s hap­pe­ning, and per­haps it isn’t. I come from a total­ly non-aca­de­mic back­ground. But that point alo­ne shows you that someone who is non-aca­de­mic can wri­te books that peo­p­le actual­ly want to read, but can also talk vague­ly intel­li­gent­ly about them. Sto­ries are in us, they are part of us, and we are defi­ned by sto­ries as human beings, we couldn’t make a move wit­hout them. We learn by them, we are enter­tai­ned by them, we can con­ver­se by them. I am tel­ling sto­ries now, I am tel­ling a sto­ry about how I lear­ned to wri­te, and you’re inter­ac­ting with the sto­ry by brin­ging a dia­lo­gue into it.

SCHAU INS BLAU: I would like to bring in ano­ther aca­de­mic approach by a cri­tic who wro­te about the use of gen­re and the role of the canon in your books. You men­tio­ned befo­re that Thurs­day Next might be seen as a femi­nist icon. Now, would you say that the gen­res come­dy and romance might under­mi­ne Thursday’s femi­nism as both gen­res make cha­rac­ters end up mar­ried, thus rati­fy­ing the hete­ro­se­xu­al cou­ple? Might come­dy and romance – and pos­si­bly also the domi­nant refe­rence to Jane Eyre read as a con­ser­va­ti­ve text – actual­ly thwart the femi­nist point that you are making?

JASPER FFORDE: I can see the point. But you would have to accept first of all that mar­ria­ge is somehow not a femi­nist insti­tu­ti­on. That cle­ar­ly sounds to me whe­re the cri­tic is coming from; in the days when being mar­ried meant that you had to give up your cash and pro­per­ty and rights to your spou­se I think the cri­tic would be quite cor­rect. But nowa­days I don’t sup­po­se… I mean is mar­ria­ge to do with patri­ar­chy? It shouldn’t be. And I don’t accept that it is for one moment. My wife didn’t mar­ry me and say, ‘Ok, I’ll have to give up my inde­pen­dence now I am mar­ried’. She took my name becau­se I have a bet­ter name, you know, Ffor­de is a more inte­res­t­ing name than Roberts. If I had been cal­led Roberts and her mother’s name was Gray­tracks, which is a real­ly cool name, I would have taken the Gray­tracks. So I think from the very small thing you told me, my initi­al sort of thin­king about it would be that I think the review­er has a slight­ly ske­wed ver­si­on of mar­ria­ge, as being a domi­nant and pos­ses­si­ve thing for the male, and I don’t think a good mar­ria­ge is, it’s a part­ner­ship. That is the point I would make about it. But I’m a bloke…

SCHAU INS BLAU: It pro­ba­b­ly also depends on how you read Jane Eyre. I remem­ber you cal­led Jane Eyre a proto­fe­mi­nist heroi­ne yes­ter­day and if you see her start­ing from that stance, it’s a com­ple­te­ly dif­fe­rent view­point. When I read Shades of Grey, I felt that it is very bleak and grim at times, also tap­ping into dif­fe­rent gen­res apart from the romance, such as dys­to­pia for exam­p­le. Is that you going into a more serious direction?

JASPER FFORDE: I could talk for hours about Shades of Grey, Shades of Grey was a depar­tu­re for me as a wri­ter. As a book, it was not using other people’s cha­rac­ters, it was using my own cha­rac­ters, and it was also an expe­ri­men­tal book. The Eyre Affair and the The Big Over Easy, alt­hough not loo­king so expe­ri­men­tal now, were at the time when The Eyre Affair was published in 2000 very unli­ke any­thing that had come for­ward, you couldn’t mix Jane Eyre with were­wol­ves and time tra­vel in the same book, just didn’t hap­pen – not in a main stream book, published by Hod­der & Stough­ton, one of the lea­ding six publishers in the UK. It just wasn’t the sort of book that came out at the time. Nowa­days, it is pro­ba­b­ly fair­ly nor­mal.1 But the thing about Shades of Grey is that, like in The Eyre Affair, I was try­ing to mix dif­fe­rent strands of pop cul­tu­re that I think are of equal importance – see, I would put the Mup­pets as near­ly as important as Charles Dickens when it comes to cul­tu­ral tags and importance within humans. Star Wars is about as important to a lot of peo­p­le as … cer­tain­ly it would be abo­ve Goya but cer­tain­ly per­haps below Car­ra­vag­gio, I’m not sure. Do you see what I mean? Peo­p­le go like, ‘Oh Star Wars, it is just a load of rub­bish’, and you go, ‘No, actual­ly it is a cul­tu­ral mar­ker, it is of vital importance to a lot of peo­p­le’. A lot of very inte­res­t­ing thoughts and things have deri­ved from the who­le Star Wars cul­tu­re, in the same way that things deri­ve from pain­ting and archi­tec­tu­re and ever­y­thing else, Richard Rogers or wha­te­ver. They do have an equal weight­ing. So the­re is that aspect within The Eyre Affair that says, ‘no, I think sci­ence fic­tion values, lite­ra­ry values can go hand in hand, we can have high-brow jokes and low-brow jokes work together’.

So Shades of Grey, the­re were ele­ments of risk within wri­ting that book, and I was try­ing to put very serious sub­jects along­side with humour as well, so real­ly try­ing to mix the two as much as I could to see basi­cal­ly if it could be done and whe­ther it is going to work. When you wri­te a novel, espe­ci­al­ly one that is kind of expe­ri­men­tal like Shades of Grey is – when I start wri­ting it I won’t know for two years whe­ther it’s work­ed or not; becau­se I can think it works, it works for me, I like it, it has done pret­ty much what I set out to do. But until it is actual­ly out the­re and peo­p­le look at it and read it and go, ‘Erm, no, not real­ly, or, hm, yeah’, and even that might not hap­pen straight away and Shades of Grey may not hit its stri­de for ano­ther ten years or so, may­be when peo­p­le have caught up with it or socie­ty has chan­ged or wha­te­ver, but the major pro­blem, the stumb­ling block with Shades of Grey was that peo­p­le didn’t under­stand whe­ther it was come­dy or whe­ther it was very serious. And I am say­ing it is both and I don’t see any pro­blem with that. I can total­ly acquaint being very sil­ly with being very serious. Essen­ti­al­ly I think humans are very fun­ny, very bizar­re, very ran­dom; very fun­ny, but capa­ble of the most appal­ling sadism, and if the­re is a broad the­me within Shades of Grey it is that: yes, we can have come­dy, but the­re is tra­ge­dy as well, and some­ti­mes they are so clo­se that it is almost impos­si­ble to see. So the­re are a lot of very serious the­mes in Shades of Grey, things that peo­p­le don’t gene­ral­ly talk about like mar­ria­ge mar­kets, we may think we are free to mar­ry who we want, but cle­ar­ly we are not, we mar­ry within very clear socioe­co­no­mic boun­da­ries, repro­duc­ti­ve poli­tics again pop­ped into the flo­or in Shades of Grey quite a lot which no one real­ly now talks about. And all sorts of inte­res­t­ing social aspects, but again hid­den among this rather stran­ge sort of sto­ry which has a lot of slap­stick come­dy in it. Sor­ry, what was your ques­ti­on again?

SCHAU INS BLAU: Whe­ther you are beco­ming more serious.

JASPER FFORDE: The­re is an ele­ment of serious­ness in all the books. The­re are the­mes that run throug­hout all the books. Within the Thurs­day-world I try and pro­mo­te the­mes of tole­rance and diver­si­ty and social inclu­si­on, but you don’t want to preach it, becau­se then it is tire­so­me. The­re is not­hing more tire­so­me than having an aut­hor stand on a box, espe­ci­al­ly a fic­tion aut­hor, or any aut­hor actual­ly, to stand on a box and say this is how we should all behave becau­se I say so. I think the job of any aut­hor or anyo­ne within the crea­ti­ve indus­try like that is to give a small puff to that lar­ge cloud and hope that it goes in the direc­tion that you want it to go but your con­tri­bu­ti­on is mini­mal. But if you have enough peo­p­le you can just sort of push in that direc­tion, and you can hop­eful­ly make things turn out for the better.

SCHAU INS BLAU: One last ques­ti­on about the Thurs­day Next series. What I real­ly lik­ed in One of Our Thurs­days is Miss­ing is the idea of raw meta­phor and that the­re is a war about raw meta­phor, like a war about raw mate­ri­als. Would you say that meta­phor is the cen­tral thing about lite­ra­tu­re, is it an argu­ment about what lite­ra­tu­re is all about?

JASPER FFORDE: Yes, abso­lut­e­ly. One of the first things one lear­ns when wri­ting is that the first thing you don’t want to say is what the sto­ry is not about, what the sto­ry is about. If you have got two peo­p­le with dia­lo­gue the real sto­ry is not what they are tal­king about, the sto­ry is some­thing else. And that is infer­red nar­ra­ti­ve or wha­te­ver. The best sto­ries, I think, are the sto­ries that ever­yo­ne is dancing around, that are never men­tio­ned, but you know what is going on. And we do that all the time in real life, ever­yo­ne has an agen­da and when I am wri­ting I think, ‘What do the­se peo­p­le actual­ly want, and how would they couch their lan­guage in that par­ti­cu­lar area?’ I was kind of thin­king about the dif­fe­rence bet­ween meta­phor within fic­tion and non-fic­tion. Becau­se, of cour­se, in non-fic­tion you don’t want to have meta­phor, in sci­ence you defi­ni­te­ly don’t want to have meta­phor, but in fic­tion you want to have as much as you can and if the­re is a shorta­ge, of cour­se this would cau­se wars, and it is like when the­re is a shorta­ge of mate­ri­als to cau­se wars but it is a nice sort of sati­ri­cal jab. It is important.

SCHAU INS BLAU: Thank you very much.

JASPER FFORDE: You are very wel­co­me. Thank you.



  1. Ffor­de ver­weist hier mit den lite­ra­ri­schen ‚Mash-ups‘ auf einen aktu­el­len Trend auf dem ang­lo-ame­ri­ka­ni­schen Buch­markt. In Mash-ups wie Pri­de and Pre­ju­di­ce and Zom­bies (Seth Gra­ha­me-Smith, 2009) – der Titel ist eigent­lich Erklä­rung genug – wer­den Ori­gi­nal­tex­te belieb­ter ‚Klas­si­ker‘ von Jane Aus­ten oder den Bron­të-Schwes­tern mit Vampir‑, Zom­bie- oder ande­ren Mons­ter­ge­schich­ten neu kom­bi­niert und ver­mengt und so für einen popu­lär-kul­tu­rel­len Markt ange­eig­net. Liz­zie Ben­net wird so zur furcht­lo­sen Zom­bie-Kil­le­rin, wäh­rend in Jane Slay­re (Sher­ri Brow­ning Erwin, 2010) Jane Eyre zum vik­to­ria­ni­schen Äqui­va­lent von Buffy the Vam­pi­re Slay­er sti­li­siert wird. 

Nach einer Kar­rie­re als Kame­ra­mann betrat der 1961 in Lon­don gebo­re­ne Jas­per Ffor­de 2001 mit The Eyre Affair die lite­ra­ri­sche Büh­ne. Gefei­ert als „a born words­mith of effer­ve­s­cent ima­gi­na­ti­on” (C. Har­dy­ment, The Inde­pen­dent) wur­de Ffor­de schnell zum Kult­au­tor diver­ser Roman­se­ri­en. Die Thurs­day Next-Serie, die mit The Eyre Affair begann und mitt­ler­wei­le sie­ben Roma­ne umfasst – The Woman Who Died a Lot erschien im Juli 2012 –, folgt der Figur Thurs­day Next auf ihrer fan­tas­ti­schen Rei­se durch die (Parallel)Welt der Lite­ra­tur. Dar­über hin­aus ver­öf­fent­lich­te Ffor­de die eben­so hoch­gra­dig inter­tex­tu­el­le Nur­sery Crime Divi­si­on-Serie, eine Par­odie des Detek­tiv­gen­res, den ers­ten Band einer etwas erns­te­ren dys­to­pi­schen Serie (Shades of Grey, 2010) sowie die Last Dra­gons­lay­er-Tri­lo­ge für jün­ge­re Lese­rIn­nen. Ffor­des Werk wird häu­fig dem Fan­ta­sy-Gen­re zuge­rech­net, sei­ne Tex­te stel­len aller­dings hybri­de For­men dar, die sich unter ande­rem des Detek­tiv­ro­mans, der roman­ti­schen Komö­die und der Sci­ence Fic­tion bedie­nen. Ffor­de kann als Weg­be­rei­ter der so genann­ten mash up-Lite­ra­tur gel­ten und ver­bin­det mit wun­der­ba­rer Leich­tig­keit Geor­ge Eli­ot und Geor­ge Lucas, Dickens und Dodos. Ffor­de lebt mit sei­ner Frau und den gemein­sa­men Kin­dern in Wales.