An Interview with Jasper Fforde about writing Shades of Grey

A picture of Jasper aged 2

Jasper not yet thinking of becoming a writer

Shades of Grey is an unusual novel. What is it about?

Boy meets girl, girl meets boy. Girl then tries to kill boy - twice - the boy can see a lot of Red, and the girl can't see any colour at all, and that's something of a problem.

Welcome to the colour-obsessed world of Shades of Grey, which is set at least two world orders into the future. Visual colour has become commodified, the social pecking order and levels of authority are not based on intellect, cash, ability, or the best liar, but which colour you can see - Purples are at the top of the heap and Reds at the bottom, with the Greys who see no colour at all as the lowly drones of the collective.

Power is decentralised with village Prefects meting out local punishment, and national collections have been dispersed - every village holds at least one Picasso, and often a Vermeer and a Chagall, too. The land is lush, semi-tropical, teams with wandering megafauna, antelope, and Bouncing Goat - but not many humans. The trappings of the previous civilisation are now covered in a soft blanket of leaf mould, soil, and the annoyingly invasive rhododendron.

The occasional building still stands wrapped tightly in ivy, but for the most part only the iron postboxes, street lamps and telephone boxes serve to remind that there was someone here before. But echoes of the gone-away civilisation do still linger on, such as strictly mandated politeness, compulsory dance lessons, postcodes, and tea at four o'clock sharp.

As the story begins, Eddie Russett arrives with his father at the village known as East Carmine. It is a temporary assignment and at first Eddie finds it all horribly unsophisticated. There is little synthetic colour, and only a linoleum factory for income. Intending to marry the upmarket Constance Oxblood back home and inherit the family stringworks, Eddie wants to leave just as soon as he can.

But there is something about the quirky Grey named Jane that intrigues him. Perhaps it is her retrousee nose, perhaps it is her contempt for the strict order of their world. Perhaps it is because she is everything Constance isn't. In any event, Eddie soon finds himself drawn into a sequence of events that lead to the one place that the citizenry were never intended to go: The truth.

The dominant factor in your book is visual colour. How did this aspect of the story come about?

The most remarkable thing about colour is that it doesn't exist - it is a property of the mind and the mind alone. When you perceive orange your mind is simply interpreting light that is vibrating at a specific frequency. An orange isn't orange at all - colour has no colour in the real world - an illusion in order to help us make better sense of the world.

So I thought: 'what if I extended this illusion and tried to run an entire society based on visual colour? Could we commodify colour for commerce, use it for health, abuse it for thrills and even distort its function for a system of social structure? And could we also have a few laughs and a few satirical jabs along the way?'

Social Division based on the colours that you can see? Was this a tricky concept to write?

Oddly enough, it was surprisingly easy, and that became a bit frightening all on its own. Humans, like all social mammals, have a natural propensity to sort themselves out into hierarchies that range from vaguely sensible (rare) to insanely arbitrary (common). Once I had allocated the social groups in East Carmine a colour from Purple down through Blue, Green, Yellow, Orange, and Red to the Achromatic Greys, all the usual rules of social conduct seemed to fit rather cosily into the model. Those who saw more Red were above those who saw less, and a citizen might marry a stronger colour in the hope that their offspring might rise to the post of Village Prefect, a post not dictated by intellect or ability but by the best colour vision.

I started off with a few simple rules to try and create a new order based on something other than the strong dominating the weak, but once I injected a whiff of ambition and mischief, it all started to look dismayingly familiar. It allowed me to play with notions of narrow marriage-markets within the spectrum, so in that respect I owe a debt to Jane Austen. I used Edwardian society as my model for the hierarchy, with Dukes as Purples, Greys as domestic servants and all the other Colours strung out in between.

Who are National Colour?

National Colour are the Chromatic elite who supply the synthetic hues available - at a price - to the citizens. Although one might be Red and never able to witness 'the alleged splendour of a bluebell spring', you can see a synthetic blue, as supplied by National Colour. Although a poor copy of the original, the Univisual shades do permit a tantalising glimpse of what the world might actually look like if you could see all the colours. Synthetic hues, however, are limited in scope - mock-hued daffodils, lemons, bananas and melons are all the same shade, and cost a lot more. Mind you, they do impress at dinner parties, unless one of your guests is a Yellow, in which case it would probably give them a headache.

The communal colour-gardens, the boast of any village, are fed by an intricate network of capillary-beds beneath the ground which are supplied from the CYM feed-pipes that crisscross the country as part of the National Colourisation Programme. It is the fervent wish of any village that they will be connected to the Grid and thus have an endless variety of hues on tap - full gamut, full pressure. Needless to say, East Carmine, the village our hero finds himself in, is neither on the grid, nor particularly wealthy. And that's a cause of much consternation.

The book is set in the United Kingdom an unknown time in the future. What made you decide on this approach?

Most post-apocalypse novels take the failure of order as the dramatic event. I wanted to look at what happens when the event - in my book, the 'Something that Happened' has receded so far into the past as to have no relevance. Or at least, no apparent relevance. Society has calmed, and seems peaceful - until difficult questions are asked by those still curious enough to want to ask questions. The forces of tradition, habit and social inertia are very strong, so the idea of two people trying to bring down a regime designed specifically to be sustainable, with all other considerations secondary, sounded like a lot of fun indeed. There will be two more books in the series, with a lot more surprises in store.

Readers may approve of the politeness in the book - everyone agrees that people should be more polite!

I agree - in any regime there is always something that one should agree with, and in Shades there are quite a few notions that, on the face of it, seem like a good thing - the strict adherence to good manners, the fact that learning a musical instrument is compulsory, as is dancing, performing musicals and an hour's Useful Work every day in order to properly discharge your duty to society. But a cage is still a cage irrespective of the nature of the bars.

What is a Chromaticologist?

Eddie's father is a Swatchman, or Chromaticologist. In Eddie's world, health issues are dealt with by the viewing of 'healing hues'. If you have a skin condition, a bald patch or tuberculosis, the cure can be accomplished by the viewing of a colour specifically blended to engender the necessary effect. In fact, there is only one fatal illness: The Mildew, and if you catch that, there is nothing but The Green Room, a chamber of soothing shades that lead you comfortably, painlessly and euphorically to a place where you are no longer a burden.

Institutionalised mercy-killing is but one subject the reader may find mildly disturbing. Are these included for shock factor?

Not really. Aspects that we consider normal today could very well be repugnant in the future - eating animals, for one thing, or abundant choice, or invasive surgery. I was simply trying to demonstrate that what is acceptable today may not be acceptable forever - and vice-versa. Social mores change with time, like fashion - who knows where it might all end up? I especially like the idea that waste, impoliteness and overpopulation become 'abominations', although I'm not sure recycling one's aunt will ever truly catch on.

Did the story change at all as you wrote or did you map it out ahead of time?

My first draft was pretty much a travelogue - Eddie wandering around East Carmine and being introduced to Technological Leapbacks, the Janitor, the Apocryphal man, the lack of spoons, Mildew, barcodes, the Fallen Man, the Chromogencia evening, High Saffron, the Caravaggio and Violet deMauve - not to mention the linoleum factory. The main thrusts of the story I added later. It's an odd journey, and a complex one, but one that I hope readers will enjoy.

Did you have any worries about writing such a bizarre world?

Of course. But I've never been averse to a little risk - after all, writing without risk is not really writing at all. Sometimes one has to just let fly with a high-concept piece and see where the pieces fall. As it generally turns out, the central story is familiar, but just with different rules of engagement. Whether it is Eddie's quest to side with Jane when what he really wants is to have a quiet life married into the Oxbloods, or with Jack Spratt in my NCD series trying not to be a boring stereotypical detective, or even with Thursday Next trying to have her husband reactualised from non-existence, my approach to writing has always been that of telling a conventional story, but in a wholly unconventional setting.

Did the format of the novel present any particular difficulties? 

Many problems. It is told from Eddie's first person, and since he - and everyone else - don't know very much about their world, then the reader can't know anything either. You share his excitement of discovery. Add that to the fact that seven or eight hundred years into the future most great cities will be nothing more than tree-covered grassy lumps, it was a difficult world to try and pepper with anything we might still recognise. The notion of Perpetulite, a sort of self-maintaining and partially living organic concrete - a sort of cross between a sea-cucumber and asphalt - was actually very important to show what had been before.

What character do you feel most attached to?

Eddie. He's a reluctant hero, someone who wants to lead a normal life but is called to step up and be counted. Without Jane he would have simply returned to his home village and Constance. But Jane changes all that. I think it is that sense of unrealised potential in all of us that I find most interesting. Ordinary people do exceptional things in exceptional circumstances.

Is it problematical writing about future technologies?

Very - and for obvious reasons. I'm always drawn to Blade Runner when people talk about the 'look' of the future, and in many respects the film shows a future that continues to appear uncannily prescient - except in one, major point - mobile phones. The film was made in 1982, and no-one even thought for a second that mobiles would dominate the landscape as much as they have. Hand portables were around as early as 1988, so it could have been foreseen - but wasn't. So I thought it important to feature future technologies, but not something that is an adaptation of what we have now, but a logical progression of innovation.

The previously mentioned Perpetulite takes intelligent building material about as far as one could go, but I was also keen to adopt wireless power and a self-maintaining power grid with a constant and limitless source of electrical power. The notion of the internet still being around - even without any simple way to view it - also appeals, and I feature small shards of computer screen (known in the book as remote viewers) that function without apparently any source of power or input device. There are also 'Floaties', which, like the name suggest, float in the air about a meter from the ground, presumably drawing what power they need from the source that still runs through the land.

What were the literary influences upon the work?

1984 and Brave New World, to go back to primary sources. In both the above mentioned books, there are large cities with a centralised government that is very much the dominating force. In Shades I wanted the forces of oppression to be much subtler and internal, so everything is more localised, but no less oppressive. The citizenry are dispersed, with communication and transport limited, and idle and seditious thoughts banished from the head by a cocktail of the compulsory staging of musicals, tea-dances, and the minimum of one hobby.

There is the fear of the dark to keep people bound to home village, and the ever-present possibility of Riffraff, lightning, and swan attack. Keep them amused with ballroom dancing and entertainment, but keep them in line with fear.

What are you working on now?

The sixth in my Thursday Next series, which will be titled One of our Thursdays is Missing. In the first book of the series I had a real person attempting to find their way around the fictional world, but here I will have a fictional person attempt to find their way around the real world - potentially a much harder proposition.

Jasper Fforde
November 2009