Oh yes, we've had four marriages now, and two babies," mentions Jasper Fforde blithely towards the end of our interview. Were this a regular author, it would be safe to assume they were talking about recurring characters, or perhaps, at a stretch, a literary relative. But Fforde isn't like other authors: he's talking about his fans. It turns out that there have been four marriages as a result of his fans meeting either in queues or on online forums discussing his novels – and, of course, there's been the two babies.
So how did a man who never set out to be an author, never went to university and thought that being a focus-puller on Bond comeback vehicle GoldenEye was his career high end up with UK sales of half a million – and a brace of growing families – under his belt? For someone with a reputation for such imagination and whimsy, the answer is surprisingly pragmatic: he worked really hard.
Fforde started out, aged 20, as a runner in the film industry, doing the photocopying "in the days when photocopiers only did one copy at a time", and worked his way up to being a cameraman. But for the last 10 of his 19 years in the industry, he was writing in every spare moment. Rather than giving up the day job, he'd just go home and write, receiving a total of 76 rejection letters before his debut The Eyre Affair, a literary detective story that sees characters from key works being kidnapped, was published in 2001 when he was 40 years old. What took him so long?
"I got into movies because I loved the ideas of story and make-believe, but I thought that writing was something intelligent people did. I hadn't been to university – I thought writing wasn't for the likes of me, a failure at school. At the back of my mind I always saw that time as learning a trade. Those 10 years of writing were just training. It's a craft like any other." With characteristic chirpiness, he adds: "Seventy-six rejections sounds like a lot but when you consider it was over 10 years and five or six novels, it isn't actually very much at all." It's a number that would have broken many "better-qualified" writers.
But it doesn't take long in Fforde's company to realise that despite the fantastical nature of his books – which feature iconic literary and nursery-rhyme characters as semi-pastiches of themselves – he actually has an enormously practical approach to his job. For a start, unlike many writers, he actually sees it as a job.
"Oh, absolutely, my job is to entertain. There is a contract between the reader and the writer. The readers give me their hard-earned cash and I have to entertain them. It's my role to come up with the goods. I work in an entertainment industry. I tell stories, people read and enjoy the stories, so I get paid, and get to write more stories."
Uncharacteristically for Fforde, the wait for his latest novel, Shades of Grey, has been over a year. Set in a world in which the colours characters are able to see define their social standing, it is slightly different literary territory for him. Our everyman hero, Eddie Russett, is a mid-level colour who finds himself falling for a plucky nobody named Jane. Nothing but a "grey", she is considered of lower social standing than Eddie, which gives Fforde plenty of scope for a sweet romance, but also for some satire that flirts with the political.
As he sees it, his previous seven books have "all used other people's characters, which have been alive in the collective memory. I didn't do anything, I was just mining people's memories for jokes. This time, I am making everything up. It's proper novelling." He admits that it was time to step out of his comfort zone and try something new, but is less keen to discuss the more literal reading one could take of the novel: it's largely about racism.
"I saw the risk of people reading it that way, but I don't feel it's something I can comment on. It's about social hierarchies. I took as my basis late Victorian/Edwardian England. The purples are the dukes, the greys are the scullery maids... Once I'd put it into that context, it's actually all about class." Either way, it works along the same lines as any classic British sitcom – both the pathos and the jokes only work if you understand the clearly defined hierarchy that the characters are working within. In the case of Shades of Grey, there is rather a lot of setting up in the early part of the novel, but Fforde's sense of fun with wordplay and his lightness of touch with the romcom element are undeniably winning. Above all, it's a romance. "Of course!" he seems surprised that I'd pointed it out. "Every book should have a romance. Romance and humour. You can't get away from either in the human experience, so they have to be in decent books."
This seems an extraordinarily simplistic way to look at every book, but part of Fforde's charm is that he genuinely seems unbothered by what other writers, critics and even his own publisher think. He professes not to seek the company of other writers ("I don't regard myself as part of a literary world") and says he largely ignores both editor and agent until a book is finished ("I tend to tell them to leave me alone and then they just get a huge wodge of paper in the post one day"). His readers, however, he is hugely committed to, becoming noticeably more animated when I bring up the fun he has with them, and ask whether he lays specific traps or treats for regulars.
"Oh yes! The wonderful thing about having a regular readership is that people know how I write, and I know they know how I write ... so I can lead them up a garden path. In my next book I am introducing a character called Red Herring. Because this is a Jasper Fforde book, readers won't know if it is a red herring, or if it's the fact he's called Red Herring that is, in fact, the red herring. It's this double-bluff feedback loop, reader-writer relationship that I enjoy immensely. You can play on it and the magic works that little bit extra."
Some – myself included – find the punning a little tough on the palate, though. When I confess this to him, he remains chirpy. "But I only use really good puns. 'He believed marmalade was the preserve of breakfast' is a current favourite. Having a character called Paige Turner in The Eyre Affair was a bad pun, so I made sure I never used both of her names together until the very end. Ha ha! The reader was punned by stealth!"
As I mentioned, he is a very chirpy man. Confident that he enjoys his connection with readers, and that he would take it in good grace, I set about asking him a few of the questions that my Twitter followers asked me to ask him...
Is he related to the author of popular women's fiction Katie Fforde, and if so, do they talk about writing? "Yes, she is my cousin's wife. She is wonderful, even when I wasn't published she told me not to stop, to keep writing, that it would be terrific. She's totally normal as well."
Which of his characters would he like to be and why? "Probably Landen Parke- Laine. Because he's married to Thursday, and she would just be such a kick-arse wife. All you'd want to do is support her. And she'd be loving you, which would be fantastic."
Why are there two 'f's in Fforde? "We are actually related to the 'single-f Fords' in Ireland. For some reason, we added an 'f' at some stage, but we're not sure why. We suspect it was affectation. The 'real' Fords must call us the 'double fs'."
I cannot imagine what might depress Jasper Fforde. And this in turn slightly depresses me: it's hard to believe in such relentless gaiety. But whether or not you choose to enjoy the games, the puns and the romance, it is fair to say that many authors could do with a slice of his pragmatism and lack of vanity. And it is impossible not to admire his commitment to writing books that readers will honestly enjoy – as he tells me, a 17-year-old at an event recently thanked him for "giving him a grandmother". The teenager admitted he had previously had nothing in common with his 96-year-old grandmother, but now they share a love of Fforde's capers. After a year of cynicism and panic in the world of books, Fforde is an anomaly – but it is still infuriatingly difficult not to like either him or his books.
Shades of Grey By Jasper Fforde (Hodder & Stoughton £16.99)
'...Living in a Green Sector as a Red had never endeared the Hue to my father. Although the spectrum was well represented in Jade-under-Lime, there was a predominance of Greens that tended to push a pro-Green agenda, and Dad was only a holiday relief Swatchman because he'd been pushed from a permanent position. It was rather exciting, seeing him defy those further up the Spectrum'Reuse content