When I met Jasper Fforde, he was promoting his Shades of Grey novel. He didn’t do a very good job, as he left me with the impression that it would be dull, compared with his previous work.
Having since spent a summer holiday in the Lake District, hooked on the book and bereft by the end at the thought that there was no sequel, I now consider it the height of his canon so far.
He may have left the borrowed characters behind, but this new world of his own making retains his imaginative streak and is even more colourful.
The thing that makes his earlier series so appealing is the surreal wit, which must have been fun to write. I wondered if he has enjoyed writing this as much as the others?
“I’ve had different fun, because this one’s more of a pure novel,” he explained. “As an author, it’s of vital importance to stretch yourself now and again. If you do the same thing year after year, then you may become tired and stale.
“It’s a bit of a departure for me in that I’m making up my own characters, rather than stealing them wholesale, I mean borrowing, I mean homaging them wholesale from other quarters.”
He described the plot, which is set several world orders into the future, likening the setting to Eton run by the Khmer Rouge.
“The hierarchy is based on the colours that you can see, and visual colour is an obsession of the population, to the point where you want everything in your life to be brightly coloured. It’s a colour-based economy, and it’s severely localised.
“If you can see purple, then you’ll be at the top of the stack; if you can see red, you’re at the bottom of the stack. That is how the hierarchy of the whole system works. If you can’t see any colour at all, you’re an achromatic, a faceless drone of the collective.
“Colour is piped to the park to make the grass green; you can buy colourised bananas for an extra five cents; so would you like an ordinary banana, which you can’t see, or a yellow coloured banana, which you can, so you can impress all your friends at your dinner party with properly coloured food? It’s a very strange world.
“My story covers four or five days in the life of Eddie Russet, who is a medium level red perceptor, who is moving to a little village in the outer fringes of the collective in Red Sector West because he’s done some bad things, and he has to show some humility and reassignment.”
Fforde may have said that he borrows no characters for this story, but there are some hints of previous works.
“Essentially, the whole story is actually about someone getting married, trying to get the right wife. In that respect, it’s like Jane Austen. But also, the two lead characters are Jane and Edward, and there is a mad woman in the attic. So in that respect, it’s a bit like Jane Eyre – in a slightly Orwellian post-apocalyptic sort of future.”
When I ask Fforde about formulating the idea, he takes off, enthusing about how colour doesn’t exist, but is merely a perception (hence colour-blindness, where some people confuse greens and reds).
“When you start thinking of that, you start saying, ‘OK, what if you could put a value on colour, and build an economy around colour, so that the people in my book spend their waking hours collecting scrap colour, which has been left by The Previous, to be ground down, enriched and made into synthetic colour for everyone to enjoy?’ A sort of uni-visual red, you could paint it on a wall, and everyone would stand around and go, ‘Aaah!’
“In the book, there’s no alcohol, but you get drunk on a bit of lime. So you have lime in a compact and you look at it, and you can get a bit squiffy. If you go on the hard stuff, you get some lincoln and then you really get rat-arsed. If you want to reverse the effects of being seriously over-lincolned, you just look at a bit of red, then you get a bit of reverse discordance, because red is the complement of lincoln. So you could have a very painful, but instant sobering.
“You start off with those kinds of concepts and then you think, ‘Where’s it all going to go?’ Then it all starts tumbling out and the logic starts frame-working. You think, ‘No, I can’t do that… yes, I can; that’s going to work!’ If you’re a purple and you’re at the top of the pile, and you’re a head prefect, you want your daughter to be purple as well. If your daughter is at the very blue end of purple, you’re going to have to have a very red son to get the purple back on line, otherwise, if she were to marry another blue, then she’d end up with blue kids and that’s the end of your life as a head prefect and your dynasty is dead. So then there’s an awful lot of marriage politics involved.
“Books have a life of their own. You start off with one idea and all of a sudden, I’m writing about narrow marriage markets within small, fixed communities.”
This is where issues can enter the writing. Fforde’s approach is too light to get bogged down in moralising, but he does sneak in the odd tongue-in-cheek teaser. Setting the story in a far distant time lets him suggest that things that are assumed or politically correct now might be derided later.
“It’s just playing with ideas, basically. I’m saying ‘What if it all went terribly wrong?’ Everyone was saying that capitalism was a fantastic ideas 70 or 80 years ago, ‘Great! Capitalism, absolutely! Let the private individual sort it all out and the government will just be there to sort out a few laws and it will be brilliant!’ Now we’re all realising that maybe it’s not really so good. So everyone’s talking about localisation, but what if that turns out to be not quite right?
“So yes, there is a bit of social commentary, but I don’t want people to look upon it as a serious social commentary; it’s a satire, really, a satirical stab at us as humans and our relationships.”
Satire implies making judgements about how people live, so his personal views must colour the plot.
“As a writer, you can’t stop yourself. I generally try to promote themes of social inclusion, tolerance of diversity and those sorts of things. I regard it as giving that cloud of zeitgeist that gathers above us all a little puff in the right direction – but it’s not my place to tell people what to do.”
His social observations came over earlier, when I asked him how he ended up with the Greek god Prometheus as a character lodging in the Thames Valley in The Big Over Easy, one of the Nursery Crime novels.
“I dunno, odd that,“ he replied. “I just thought I’d throw it in. I just liked the idea of Prometheus. It might have been someone in the news, who was being extradited back to somewhere and it just fired off my interest. I thought, ‘Yes, Zeus is saying, “You have to be extradited and get back into the role, and get your liver pecked out,” and he’s saying, “No, I’m a refugee, an asylum seeker,” which is essentially what he is.
“When I wrote it, real asylum-seekers used to be refugees. Isn’t it interesting how you change a name? A refugee is someone that you need to look after, but an asylum-seeker is someone who has come here wanting something, and they have to prove it. So it’s a very subtle difference, but in fact it’s the same thing. Change the name of something – they always do it. Genocide has more names than you care to mention (ethnic cleansing) but they all mean the same.”
Fforde may not be able to do anything about these big issues, but as his popularity has grown (a film based on his The Last Dragonslayer novel was a Sky feature on Christmas Day 2016) he has impacted the real world in small ways that he never expected.
Swindon, which features in his parallel universe, is a town he used to live near. Its housing authority office, in charge of naming streets, had one of his fans working there. Now one of Swindon’s housing estates has roads named after characters in his books, such as Thursday Street and Havisham Drive.
As he said, “How cool is that?”