Tuesday, 19 July 2011

"Fiction in No-man's Land:" a talk by Jasper Fforde

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Stuff and Nonsense by Amy Cockram is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 2.0 UK: England & Wales License.

On Wednesday 13th July I took an afternoon off work - which never works well, as you always get away later than you hope - to go to Dartington for the Ways with Words Festival.  The Ways with Words Festival has been an annual event in Dartington for the past 20 years - 2011 is its 20th anniversary - but this is the first time that I have attended an event.  I hope that it will not be the last. 

The event that tempted me to lose my Ways with Words virginity was a talk on fantasy by Jasper Fforde.  If you haven't read any of his books, I would recommend them if you are interested in fantasy, comedy and literature in general.  He has written a few series of books, of which my personal favourite is the Thursday Next series (starting with "The Eyre Affair").  They are not easily described - most of the best books defy easy description - but, as a keen bibliophile, I was attracted to its central conceit of a bookworld.  Jasper Fforde's irreverent attitude to the classics - with its alternative take on figures such as Mr Rochester and Miss Haversham - is entertaining fun and startlingly, inventively detailed in its ideas and execution.

Jasper Fforde started his talk by explaining his background.  He started off working in films, but realised that the role he played had less interaction with the act of storytelling then he wished; his analogy was of being the printer who sets the type and facilitates the story, rather than the storyteller him/herself.  He turned to writing as an alternative.  He began by writing short stories (which sound interesting, and I would love to see these get published so that I would have the opportunity to read them), and moved to novels - although it took him 10 years to get his first novel published.

Effectively this time trying to get published was spent honing his craft, learning by experience what works, to reach the point where he had taught himself how to write.  By his own admission, however, when you learn to write as opposed to being taught to write, sometimes you don't quite know how you did it.  Early in his talk, he said that speaking to audiences and answering the questions of his readers serves to help him define consciously his process of writing.  This interests me, and has since returned me to a previous train of thought about creative writing courses: despite having done a creative writing module at university, taught by the excellent Patricia Duncker, I am still undecided about how much writing can be taught.  I can't resolve in my own mind whether I believe that there can be a universal definition of what constitutes good or bad writing, or whether such a thing is purely subjective (which makes assessment difficult, if not impossible).  The issue of marking and assessment aside, Jasper Fforde's experience bears out that one of the most important things is to keep writing, judging yourself critically, and establishing through practice and persistence what works best for you.  According to his talk, you can think of yourself as an author if you are able to go from a rejection for your 4th book to writing your 5th book with no loss of face (so I should get started on my first pretty sharpish). 

It was especially fascinating to hear him talk about his method for writing fantasy.  There are many things that I admire and like about his writing, but one of the things that I am most in awe of is his ability to imagine, describe and sustain an intricately detailed and elaborate entire fantasy world.  Very few fantasy writers that I have found are able to do this so entirely and entertainingly.  So I was interested to find that he doesn't plan his novels, but prefers to start with one or more "narrative dares" and some themes that he wishes to include.  A narrative dare can be a central idea or conceit and, around this, he creates the imaginary world in which this narrative dare can exist and have some veracity.  One of the things that he admits to finding hardest, as a writer of comic fantasy, is to recognise the boundary between something which is silly, and something which is stupid.  Silly is a good thing, stupid is not.

Following the talk there was a question and answer session with the audience.  A question from a lady sitting in front of me highlighted one of the other aspects that I admire in his novels: his ability to create a strong female character.  In my post on "Smokin' Seventeen" by Janet Evanovich I wrote a little about how I selfishly would not like to see a Stephanie Plum film, as I cannot countenance that someone other than me might get to play her.  I similarly covet Thursday Next.  In response to this question, Jasper Fforde said that he started to write "The Eyre Affair" in the third person, but the novel only started to work when he changed to write it in the first person.  It's hard to know what a member of the opposite sex is thinking; I know the trope about how often men think about sex, but I'm sure they must think about other stuff as well.  I'm fascinated by how difficult it is to bridge that gender gap - how hard it is for a man to write as a woman, and vice versa - and few writers do that as well as I feel Jasper Fforde does.  Candour also compels me to admit - which I might come to regret - that there is something quite attractive about a man who is "new" enough to write with empathy and understanding as a woman.

After the talk there was the opportunity to get a book signed.  I had come prepared with a flipback of his novel "Shades of Grey," which I thought would be an unusual thing to get signed.  He did seem quite impressed to get a flipback book to sign for a change.  Mark asked him if he shared Douglas Adams' dislike of deadlines ("I love deadlines.  I like the whooshing sound they make as they fly by").  His response was to say that he has 6 children, which tends to motivate him to keep to deadlines.  He told us that, as his youngest is one year old, he is likely to be writing for quite a few years yet.  As a fan, I am pleased to hear that we have more of his books to look forward to, and he did give the impression during the talk that, unlike Douglas Adams, he actually quite enjoys the process of writing and storytelling.

I'm aware that I haven't written much before now on Jasper Fforde and on Thursday Next in particular.  At some point in the future I intend to read all the Thursday Next books in continuous sequence - so far I have read them sporadically when another is released - and write a post about the series.  "Shades of Grey" also shows another strong female character in the figure of Jane, and I look forward to reading the next in this series when it is published.


  1. It was a really pleasant afternoon, Mr Fforde was very generous with his time, and very entertaining to listen to.

    I was one of a handful of people there who hadn't read his work, but after hearing him speak, I would definitely give his books a try.

  2. I've only read The Eyre Affair. My husband bought it, and is yet to read it, but I loved it. Your posts about his novels have certainly made me want to read more.

    Equally I've only ever been to one Lit Fest event - even though I'd love to be going to them every week. Mostly, I don't realise they're on until too late. I'm glad you enjoyed it. Are there any other authors you'd like to hear?

    And finally, re being taught to write, I think you learn as you go along, from your own mistakes and fumblings, but you cannot be taught by someone else. You just end up learning how to write their way.

  3. My mom got me onto the Thursday Next series, I haven't read the most recent one but I am surprised he doesn't plan them as moments from the first novel being central to the fourth and so on. I have to say todo that so elegantly with out prior planning is impressive.

  4. In answer to Annalisa, I would certainly recommend the rest of the series - and Shades of Grey also.

    I'm intrigued to know which Lit Fest you attended and who you saw? I do have favourite authors who I'd love to see - but the main one has to be Howard Jacobson. I love his books, and whenever I have seen him interviewed or presenting a programme he has come across as being funny, hyper intelligent, witty and thought provoking.

    And, Wayward American, the most recent in the series is well worth catching up with!