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AUTHOR INTERVIEW: A Conversation with Jasper Fforde

Bibliophiles and classics buffs are well acquainted with author Jasper Fforde [1] and the erudite lunacy of his wildly popular Thursday Next [2] and Nursery Crime [3] books.  With worldwide sales reaching into the millions, reviewers and fans alike have hailed Fforde for his inspired satire and viciously funny observations on institutions and popular culture.  His first book, THE EYRE AFFAIR [4], became an instant bestseller and earned his heroine Thursday Next a place in the pop culture history she gently mocks.

After a two-year hiatus from the alternative reality of 1980’s Swindon and the Jurisfiction unit to write his Nursery Crime titles, Fforde returns to Thursday’s world in his latest, FIRST AMONG SEQUELS [5], which releases July 24, 2007.

Recently I had the great pleasure of interviewing Jasper via phone.  To this American’s ears, he sounds exactly like his books: self-deprecating and observant, yet with a wickedly funny wit.  I had a tough time stifling my giggles so I didn’t sound like a gibbering idiot during the interview.  God only knows if I succeeded.

With no further ado, Part One of our interview with Jasper Fforde.

Kathleen: Jasper, thanks so much for agreeing to this interview.

Jasper Fforde: It’s my very great pleasure.

KB: You were rejected 76 times before selling your first book. Can you tell us a little bit about how you got the big break?

JF: I was writing seriously for about 10 years. I wrote six novels and 30 short stories, none of which were published. So the 76 rejections only equates to 7 ½ rejections a year. Which is only one every two months. So you can see that I wasn’t actually trying that hard. Or not hard enough. But I realized that I wasn’t actually good enough yet to be published. I’d write a book, it’d take me a year and a half or whatever, then I’d send it off, get a huge amount of rejections back, and then I’d leave the book alone and carry on and write something else. Part of me was wary of rejections, while the other part of me was thinking this is me learning my craft. So if the book was rejected, it was them telling me I needed to learn more about writing.

After 10 years of this, still no one had read any of my books at all. As you know, you submit a proposal and if it tempts someone they ask for more. No one ever asked for more. So I had none of my work read for 10 years. Quite by chance, someone gave me the telephone number of an agent who was just starting out. So she said yes, send me your stuff because she needed clients. So I sent her THE EYRE AFFAIR and she thought it was terrific. She was actually the first person to actually read it. And she was able to sell it to the first publisher that she tried. So at least I knew then I was barking up the right tree. But breaking into publishing was a slow quiet thing. The 10 years that I spent knocking on doors was me learning my skill as a writer. So I don’t think it was a waste of time.

KB: Did you ever get any feedback or encouragement on your submissions, or were they the dreaded form rejection letter?

JF: No one ever gave me comments or feedback on anything I’d written. They were terse one-line form rejections. If someone had said to me “Jasper, drop this or that and we’ll see,” then of course I’d do it and then I’d go, “OK I did what you said, now will you publish this?” and they’d say, “no, we were just passing you off.” You see, publishers and agents never tell you anything, whether or not you’re on the right track. They just want something they can sell. As a writer, you’ve either got to trust in your own judgment like I did, or take your work to readers’ groups and get feedback that way. But if you’re the sort of person who’s not sure of what you’re writing, that feedback is very important. If you ARE sure of what you’re writing, then perhaps it’s not necessary

KB: Were you sure enough about your own work to continue writing the stuff you were writing? How did you keep hope alive through an admittedly discouraging process?

JF: That didn’t worry me, because I loved the process so much. Of course, one always thinks ‘wouldn’t it be great to be published?’ But I was always thinking ‘oh, it’d be great to be published but it’s not likely, but I’m having fun, so I’m going to write what I want to write.’ So when I did actually speak to people about my project, they thought it was a pile of rubbish. But I liked my silly ideas, Humpty Dumpty murder mysteries and so forth. But you have to have faith in your material. It was never a question of stopping. If I hadn’t been published, I would now be an unpublished author of 15 unpublished books. And maybe my ship would come in now, or two years ago or five years from now.

It’s a long term thing. Whenever I give advice, when people ask me “how can I be a published author”, I tell them “if you want to be a published author, just pay for it yourself. If all you want to be is a published author, then go for self-publishing. But if you’re looking at it as a paying career in the same way you want to get into plastics or aluminum siding or something, you’ve got to learn your craft. There’s so much to writing, even if you want to do more mainstream stuff. I always feel that if you don’t believe in your own material, then it will show. And no matter what you write about, across all the different genres, one always respects the passion even if what you’re writing about is—to me—totally ludicrous. The passion about what you’re writing, because you love it, will shine through and make it that much better. So I always say, go for the long term angle. If you tell yourself “ok, it’s going to take 10 years and I’ll sell the 7th novel,” then you can lock into that and say, “cool, at least now I’ve got a plan,” then you’re well on your way. If you say, ‘oh, I was hoping to spend a year then give my book to Doubleday and they’ll give me an advance,” then I say to them, “Well, unless you’re a genius, it ain’t gonna happen.”

KB: It certainly separates the men from the boys.

JF: And the girls from the women. People in this day and age want gratification instantly. You can learn some things fairly quickly, but writing is harder. It’s something you can’t bullshit your way through. It’s like being a musician. Those are two careers you actually can’t bullshit. You can’t be a good musician if you are not, and it’s the same thing with being a writer. You can’t claim that you’re a writer if you’re not. But if you’re a film director or something like that, there are lots of people who can cover for you if you’re mediocre.

KB: Do you think that the long process, through the waiting and the revisions and the books, do you think it honed your voice and your skill to a publishable level?

JF: Yes. You have to have two things to be an author. The first is the dogged determination to sit down and write a book that will probably not get published. That dogged determination has a certain degree of obsessiveness which I think is very important. In any creative walk of life, a certain obsessiveness to your craft is absolutely essential. The second thing is to have a withering sense of self-criticism and an inability to settle with what you feel is second best. If you’re committed to writing a book and you’re sitting there thinking, ‘something’s not working,’ the character or situation or whatever, you’re probably absolutely right. It isn’t working, and you’ve got to work on it again and again and again until you get it the way you want it.

You need that self-criticism, because if you have absolutely no qualifications to write, as I didn’t, what got me through was that I was always very self-critical. So I wrote the books, and then when I got published, I went back to my second and third novels and totally re-wrote them. These are the NURSERY CRIME novels, which are actually the first few books I wrote. So I dusted them off and I was appalled to find out how awful they really were. But I was grateful they’d never been published, and it showed that I’d actually learned something about my craft. The 6th book I wrote, which was THE EYRE AFFAIR, and the one that actually got published, was a much better book than the ones that came before it.

Links to parts 2 and 3 below.

Photo credit: Mari Roberts.

About Kathleen Bolton [6]

Kathleen Bolton is co-founder of Writer Unboxed. She writes under a variety of pseudonyms, including Ani Bolton [7]. She has written two novels as Cassidy Calloway [8]: Confessions of a First Daughter, and Secrets of a First Daughter--both books in a YA series about the misadventures of the U.S. President's teen-aged daughter, published by HarperCollins, and Tamara Blake, for the novel Slumber [9].