Interview with Jasper Fforde

January, 2010
Jasper Fforde London-born writer Jasper Fforde likes to play fast and loose with history. His first novel, The Eyre Affair, imagines a whimsical parallel universe in which the Crimean War is still waging, England is a police state, and literature is everyone's favorite pastime (wouldn't that be nice?). This absurdist fantasy spawned a five-book series and a spin-off, the Nursery Crime series. For his new book, Shades of Grey, Fforde took even more creative license. In the distant future, following a never-discussed disaster, people live in an autocratic black-and-white world, where those who can see purple are the elite and those who can only see shades of gray are the lowest peasants. Fforde talked with Goodreads about his favorite colors and why post-apocalyptic novels must always feature the Statue of Liberty.

Goodreads: The future civilization in Shades of Grey is a "colortocracy," a class system based on what one shade of the rainbow a citizen can see. What inspired you to use the ability to see color as a divisor?

Jasper Fforde: I love the notion that color only exists in our heads. The real world has no color; red is only red because we make it so. It's an abstract notion that we have in our brains, and yet we regard it as an external force. This all added up to make me think, "I've got to write a book about color." But not the sort of boring book that says, "In the 17th century, they gathered together the Cochineal beetle to get a crimson color" or "They boiled down snails to make indigo." All that sort of stuff is very interesting, and there are several very good books about it. Instead, I wanted to put color at the forefront of our experience—dominating society with visual color. That was the starting point of the whole book. I don't think we realize quite how substantial color is in our lives, and just how much we would miss it if it wasn't there.

Color is an underappreciated sensation. We talk about cookery: "Smell this; it smells wonderful." But when it comes to colors, the only time you'd say to someone, "Oh my goodness, look at that beautiful color!" is for sunsets. You don't go into someone's room and say, "Terrific shade of green!" Color is such a huge, dominating factor in our lives, but it is very subtle. I think you notice when it's gone—when it's a gray day. I began by deciding to have a black-and-white world, but one where you could buy colorized bananas for more than ordinary gray ones. This idea evolved into the notion of different color visions. Then everything dropped into place.

GR: What is your favorite color?

JF: I have a sneaking regard for yellow as a coquettish mistress. But if I were to be surrounded by color, it would have to be a green. There are all kinds of interesting colors. Once you start looking at Pantone shades or color chips from high-end paint manufacturers, you go, "Ooh, that's rather nice. That's a mauve. I never thought I'd like that." It's an odd thing.

GR: Shades of Grey takes place in the future following a never-discussed disaster. Why did you choose a post-apocalyptic setting?

JF: The way I write books, I tend to have five or six subjects that I want to try to fit in. I'll say, "Right, I want to have this color thing, but I also want to write a post-apocalyptic book, so hey, that's perfect, let's pop them all together." You put things together and see what comes up in the brew. I'm very much a writer who just starts off with several ideas and then sees where it all ends up. I think it is much more exciting that way. There is a randomness in real life that, I think, is extraordinary. You get very odd kinds of consequences from very disparate inputs.

Playing with it as I did, I like to take the less well-traveled path always when writing. Rather than take the usual aspect of just post-apocalyptic, where everybody has to deal with the fall of society and all that, I thought I'd go 700 or 800 years into the future when the "Something That Happened" is still capitalized when they talked about it, but is generally not discussed very much. We don't generally talk about the "Dark Ages." That's an important part of the story: These people don't really care what "Happened." They're incurious. This incuriosity is one of the singular most damning aspects of their society. They are not willing to ask questions, or those who want to ask questions have been shuffled out of the equation early on by a series of demerits that indicate they are not the "right" sort of people to exist in this world.

The world is going to be here in a million years. What's going to happen to us? There might be a few remnants of us around, but not much. I like this idea.

GR: The genre of post-apocalyptic storytelling is very deep and rich. Do you have any particular favorites?

JF: Not really for novels, but perhaps in film. Planet of the Apes, the original one. Post-apocalyptic novels always have to feature the Statue of Liberty. There is a rule somewhere. So I sneaked the Statue of Liberty into this book—in a snow globe there is a "woman" with a pointy hat.

So no post-apocalyptic favorites. I just tend to think about all these ideas, and sometimes it is just best to start swimming [alone]. Before anyone jumps into the swimming pool, it is flat like a mirror. There is something nice about jumping into that mirror, rather than jumping into a pool that is already choppy. I don't necessarily look at what other people are doing but just make my own way.

GR: At the beginning of Shades of Grey our hero Eddie is very accepting of the status quo. And then he falls in love with Jane and begins to think like a revolutionary. Is there something about falling in love that makes one feel especially rebellious?

JF: The strong thing about falling in love is that some things with humans will never change. That part of the story is very traditional—that's the Jane Austen part of the book. It is post-apocalyptic Jane Austen with 1984 thrown in.

When one falls in love with an unattainable partner, that is the most exciting thing from my point of view. Eddie is slightly rubbish, and that's what I like about him. He falls in love with someone who is clearly several notches above him, which he understands straightaway. So he wants to be a better person. That's important: When you fall in love, you want to be a better person for that person you love. He falls in love hopelessly with her nose to begin with, and apart from the fact that she tries to kill him on numerous occasions (and almost succeeds), she is extraordinary. He wants to be a better person, and I think right at the end, he steps up to the plate, understands what he has to do, and he has to do something frightful. So he has to be a better person and a worse person in order to be with this woman he loves. He realizes that her cause is a cause that perhaps he wants to join in as well. There is a lot of ambiguity: Is he doing the right thing or not?

GR: This book is very different from your past work. The Thursday Next series is set in an alternate-history version of the 1980s and is immersed in references to classic literature, with characters like Jane Eyre and Uriah Heep sharing time with your own characters. Now the world of Shades of Grey is set hundreds of years in the future and the characters are all your own. Why the abrupt shift in gears as a writer?

JF: It was hugely exciting and hugely frightening all at the same time. It is a vast departure. For the Thursday books, I tap into the very extensive shared knowledge and shared memory of books—the whole literary gamut. Writing this book, I found that novel writing is difficult when you have to make your own stuff up! But I think it was something that I had to do. I know that sounds rather pathetic. "I had to go on a journey"—it wasn't like that. I had to stretch myself. This is a horrible cliché, but writers must go out of their comfort zone and experience something new, even if that means being shot down in flames. Readers may say, "Jasper, you were great with Thursday, but novels? Leave it to the professionals." It was important for me to do—having a go with my own characters who have to stand on their own two feet and live or die on the life that I can give them. For jokes [in the Thursday Next series] about the Heathcliff Protection Society or Miss Havisham driving a fast car, half the gag is already there. I'm sitting very firmly on the shoulders of giants. But with Shades of Grey, I'm on my own. I had to do some serious writing to pull this off. Also, I'm not writing a novel that is in any way conventional. There are risks, but writing without risks is not writing at all.

GR: Goodreads member Bob says of Shades of Grey, "This story takes Fforde's craft further than anything he has written to date." Do you feel that your writing has evolved over the past 10 years since your first book, The Eyre Affair?

JF: One always hopes, I must say. I'm heartened when I read the first chapter of The Eyre Affair and I go, "Ooh, if I'd written this now, I would so improve this." When I look back at my early books and think I could have done better, it does show that I am improving. Or I'm just getting more critical of myself? I hope I'm not getting too serious. Someone said to me the other day, "Jasper, I really like Shades of Grey, but I think you've written a very serious book by accident." And I said, "Really? I was trying to make it a silly romp."

GR: Is Shades of Grey the first of a new series?

JF: Yes, there's far too much to tell in one book. Once you get to the end of the book, you realize that these are not humans like us. There is something very odd going on, and that will be revealed in later books. The society has been designed to stop people like Eddie and Jane from changing it. It is designed to last, so it will move against those who desire to change it.

GR: With two robust series under your belt is your approach to a new series any different? Do you plot multiple books at once?

JF: I have a better idea of what's going to happen in the next two Shades of Grey books than I do in a Thursday book. In a Thursday book I tend to have everything happening at once and then talk my way out of it. For this one, I have a slightly better idea of what's going on.

GR: Describe a typical day spent writing. Do you have any unusual writing habits?

JF: The writing gets more intense as the deadline looms closer. At the moment, I'm actually trying to change my writing style. I am, for the first time, putting down a plan for the next Thursday book: chapter headings and writing exactly what happens in each chapter. I have to change my writing style if I'm to have any hope of having a day off any time between now and 2032 when they nail me into a coffin. Once I have all that planned out, then I can start writing away.

GR: What authors, books, or ideas have influenced your writing style?

JF: I pinch and steal from everywhere. And that doesn't just mean books—it's TV, it's radio—I tend to really blur the distinctions of storytelling. For this book there is quite a lot of Brave New World, 1984, and a bit of Flatland all taken into the mix. But from a constructional point of view and a narrative point of view, it is a simply told story. There are no bold narrative devices, really. Boy meets girl. Girl meets boy. Girl tries to kill boy. Several times. Fairly conventional, really. I take influences from everywhere. The Model T Fords, for instance, which feature in the book quite heavily—that was a very strong narrative thread in Brave New World. I wanted to have a nod to those kinds of books. Brave New World is a very exciting book. Unique, really.

GR: What are you reading now?

JF: I'm rereading Flatland, which is an extraordinary book. It takes place on a two-dimensional plane, and it was written about 1870. It is a love affair between a square and a line, which is quite sweet, but it is also a satire on Victorian values. I'm rereading that because it will feature in the next Thursday book.

I'm also reading Bomber, by an English author called Len Deighton. It takes place on a bombing raid during the Second World War. I'm an aviation person, and I managed to find a copy. It is difficult to find these days.

GR: What are some of your favorite books and authors?

JF: I don't like lending books, because you never get them back. So whenever I see a copy of certain books, I buy up those copies and keep them. Then whenever anyone asks for a good read, I say, "Right. Here you go." There are three books. West with the Night by Beryl Markham, which is a beautiful story with philosophy and aviation together. It is hard to get good aviation writers. Pilots don't make very good writers, so when they do write, they write extremely well. The Reason Why by Cecil Woodham-Smith, which is all about the charge of the Light Brigade, but also about Britain and the rigorous class societies that we had—even more than we have now—in the 1850s. It is a fantastic read. And Three Men in a Boat [by Jerome K. Jerome], again written in the late Victorian, which is just hugely funny, fresh, and new, even though it was written over 140 years ago. So I always try to get a copy of those three books. Don't lend books. Just get several copies of ones you really like and send them out.

GR: What can you share about upcoming books in the Thursday Next and Nursery Crime series?

JF: I'm working on the next Thursday book, and it is quite fun getting back to it. The first Thursday book was about a real person finding a rather curious and bizarre world inside the book world and getting to grips with that very strange world. In the latest Thursday book, which is called One of Our Thursdays Is Missing [Thursday Next #6], I've got the written Thursday trying to get the real Thursday back from the real world to help with problems in the book world. When you have a fictional person within the real world, then there are all sorts of bizarre problems that she might encounter. Encountering gravity for the first time, for instance. Or that in the book world there's light everywhere, and you don't know where it comes from. But in the real world, of course, if you walk into a room and the light's left off, it's all dark and you bump into things. We take that sort of stuff for granted. But if you're written, it's a big problem. What do you do on an escalator? I'm having fun with that.

For The Last Great Tortoise Race [Nursery Crime #3], I'm not sure when that's coming out. It depends, I suppose, really on whether I want to write Shades of Grey #2 or another Nursery Crime. But The Last Great Tortoise Race will be taking place in the mean streets of Reading once again with the annual Tortoise v. Hare and all the shenanigans that go on with betting scandals. In the last 34 years, although the Hare has been tipped to win, for some reason the Tortoise always wins, and the bookies are bankrupted every time. This time they hope the Hare can finally win the race, but there's a lot to happen before the race is over.

Comments (showing 1-14 of 14) (14 new)

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message 1: by Riley (new)

Riley "You don't go into someone's room and say, "Terrific shade of green!""

Actually, haha, you do if you are a designer. But I see his point and am glad he's highlighting color! Just from this interview, the concept reminds me a bit of The Giver, which is definitely cool.


message 2: by Jeni (new)

Jeni I can't tell you how much I enjoyed reading both the Thursday Next series and the Nursery Crime series. My husband doesn't read often, but he is also addicted to the Thursday Next series. So, when I heard about Shades of Grey I couldn't wait for it to be released. I am excited to see Fforde's take on a post-apocalyptic novel, and how it compares to his previous novels.
I was also pleasantly surprised to hear that there would be another Thursday Next novel. I was under the impression that the series was over.


message 3: by Madeline (new)

Madeline I had the same response, You do if your an artist! :) I'm also very excited about the color focus and will snatch up the book as soon as I see it. I also thought Thursday Next was finished. So happy Thursday and the Nursery crimes will continue. Always wonderful to see that a favorite author is going strong.


message 4: by Desiree (new)

Desiree I read Shades of Grey in two days, it was so great! I've been a book nerd for quite a while and it's great to feel that there are others (like Fforde) who love books and seem to write for the book nerd in all of us. If I'd had Thursday Next in my lexicon as a child she would have been my costume every Halloween.


message 5: by Celine (new)

Celine If Mr. Fforde is having fun finding problems for his fictional characters set loose in the real world, then I'm going to have fun reading about them. I'm looking forward to One of Our Thursdays is Missing.


message 6: by Leeannafar (new)

Leeannafar i read the book last month (living in SE Asia, it was already released here). you can read a review on my blog at www.agardenwithoutafence.blogspot.com. didnt quite live up to my unfairly high expectations after the next series, but an interesting take. and if youve read flatland, you'll see some similarities.


message 7: by Mirian (new)

Mirian I have been trying to explain to my husband forever about colors only being in your head! Maybe the sky is only blue because we were told it's blue, but if we switched brains, it would suddenly appear yellow in my eyes and pink to yours. Maybe my green is your purple, and everybody's favorite color is actually the same because it's simply the best one, but we've all labeled it differently because we see in different colors. We'll never know! But this makes me very curious about Shades of Grey!


message 8: by Jaymie (new)

Jaymie Hoping to read Shades of Grey soon, but I am really excited to hear about The Last Great Tortoise Race! I love the Nursery Crimes series.


message 9: by Beverly (new)

Beverly I was ecstatic to read that there will be another Thursday novel and another Nursery Crime novel. I love those series! I am also hoping that Mr. Fforde will write more about the psychotic Gingerbread Man.
I haven't read Shades of Grey yet, but now that I know about it, I will plan on reading it.



message 10: by Laura (new)

Laura I had not heard of Jasper Fforde until the interview. His comments about color are what drew me to read the entire interview. Yes, I liked the interview very much. I am now interested in reading "Shades of Grey" because of his comments (my email is rainbowheart7--7 colors in the rainbow, not all visible in each rainbow). Also, I wonder how color-blind people get along in our "colored" world. And yes, Jasper, there are non-designers--albeit with SOME artistic talent--who DO go into a room and comment on the owner's choice of color, contrasts, trim, how it fits with the rug, the couch and pillows, etc.,. etc., etc. Then I am told, "gee, noboby noticed!" And they worked hard to get that scheme JUST SO. So: note a color next time you go into a room. It might be the owner's pride & joy.



message 11: by gkbowood (new)

gkbowood The nicest thing my hubbie ever did for me was to stand in line for eons waiting for Jasper to autograph The Fourth Bear for me as a B-day gift. I have enjoyed all of his books; the audio-books are great too. His inevitable puns are a particular favorite...the lengths he will go in a chapter just to work one of these silly zingers in... it's shamefully funny. I have always enjoyed Fairy Tales and Nursery Rhymes, so I can't wait
for #3's take on The Tortoise and The Hare.


message 12: by Meghan (last edited Jan 26, 2010 01:53PM) (new)

Meghan Kristan wrote: ""You don't go into someone's room and say, "Terrific shade of green!""

Actually, haha, you do if you are a designer. But I see his point and am glad he's highlighting color! Just from this intervi..."


The first line of 'Goodnight Moon': In the great green room.
Also my daughter's nursery is painted 'Putting Green.' So, I totally agree with you.



message 13: by Liz (new)

Liz I've always wondered how Jasper Fforde wrote and this makes it just a little clearer...

From this interview, he sounds like he'd be an awesome friend to have :)


message 14: by eden (new)

eden Pilots don't make very good writers, so when they do write, they write extremely well.

...Huh?


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