Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Jeff Noon Interview By Kneel Downe

(Thanks to the Cult Den for sharing this Interview)

In the late 80's and early 90's I was living in Manchester, spending my time between Whalley Range and Didsbury. Time spent pounding greasy rain soaked streets, recording and devouring any literature that came my way. Robert Anton Wilson, Dick, Thompson and all manner of cyber-punk novels were the flavour of the day. Then, at the end of 1993 I was bought a novel that had a profound and lasting influence on me. This rare and exciting gem ripped the future from far flung Tokyo and deposited it here, slap bang in an environment I knew and understood. It contained characters just a poetic inch away from people I knew and spent time with. It blended poetry and prose in a fashion that was both exhilarating and fresh.

The book was called VURT. The author was one Jeff Noon. An addiction spanning nearly two decades had begun.

Born in Droylsden, Lancashire, in 1957 Jeff Noon had been a book seller, punk musician and playwright. 1986 saw the production of his play Woundings but it was not until the release of Vurt in 1993 that his name became truly well known. Raised in Greater Manchester in a time of evolving music and youth culture, one cannot help imagining that his surroundings of age old factories, slowly being closed and left to decay whilst modern neon decked cafes and shops sprang up alongside, helped to play a major part in his depictions of futures gone wild.

VURT, his debut novel concerns the adventures of Scribble and his loose gang (The Stash Riders) as they attempt to retrieve his missing sister, Desdemona, from the alternate reality or drug fuelled realm known as Vurt. Accessed by placing colour coded feathers into the mouth, this reality shares much with the computer gaming experience and also works as a metaphor for a shared Hallucinogenic dream.

In typical Noon style we are placed directly into the action. Info-dumps are few and far between, instead we are left to ingest concepts at our own pace. Part poetry and part fantastical prose, the novel weaves it's reality around you until you become part of the narrative. A bit player in a much wider trip.

Despite the authors insistence that the book was not as popular as we all like to think, VURT went on to win the 1994 Arthur C Clarke Award and served to influence countless artists, writers and musicians.

Jeff Noon had arrived.

1995 saw the arrival of POLLEN, sequel to VURT and in some ways the Empire Strikes Back to the originals Star Wars. Concepts are bigger. The action is breathtaking and the budget seems to have been ramped up considerably. Telling the tale of one of the first skirmishes of 'the looking glass war', it concerns the attempts of the Vurtual world to conquer and infect our own by the means of pollination. This future Manchester is explored in much wider detail, giving us hints and views of the world beyond. The outskirts of Limbo. The Vurt universe is also given a more immersive back-story and hierarchy. As with the previous book, nods to past literary classics abound. Pop culture references are sprinkled throughout. A playful take upon Greek mythology forms the spine of the tale and for those of a Brit Pop bent we may even get to find out just what a 'Wonderwall' was all along.

Interestingly we also get the first real appearance of two Noonian mainstays. Spores and Pirate frequencies, concepts that still play a part in the writer's work today.

Much has been made of Noon's love and stylistic homage to Lewis Carroll, so it was with much anticipation that AUTOMATED ALICE was released in 1996. Tackling such a work must have been a touch daunting but here Noon echoes and channels Carroll's prose with consummate ease. The nonsensical wordplay is a joy , with Alice encountering such delights as, Civil Serpents, Newmonians and a vanishing cat named Quark in a twisted future version of Manchester. Still part of the much wider Vurt saga it is in fact chronologically the first, with Nymphomation being the second part. Further fragments and short stories would expand the tale and it is up to individual readers to place them in a timeline they are happy with.

Essentially a tale of normality fighting a pointless war against the forces of Randomness, AUTOMATED ALICE is an unabashed triumph and a pleasure to read.

Another year and another book. 1997 saw the release of NYMPHOMATION, a playful swipe at the National Lottery and yet another piece in the expanding Vurt universe. Domino's, curry, the introduction of 'blurbs' and a secret groups efforts to crack the lottery code all add up to produce another fine slice of futuristic fantasy. Lyrically Noon was still making advances and the flow of language is never less than enthralling but of all his works I would place this book as the nearest Noon would become to being a 'safe' writer. Beautifully visualised and full of evocative imaginings it was, however, perhaps the closest he came to being easily labelled as 'that Noon guy.' I understand that any piece such as this is entirely subjective and I bow reverentially to those reading who may share a different view.

Five years and four books in, it would seem that Noon had carved a subtle genre all of his own and was happy to spend his career playing and tweaking his own creations.

I was to be proven wrong in the finest possible way.

Make no mistakes here, PIXEL JUICE is an absolutely towering triumph of a book. The scope, audacity and sheer beauty of some of the concepts explored within would keep many a lesser author happy for their whole career. Here are 50 short stories that explore and expand the Universe in which Noon was dreaming. Many relate to and add to the Vurt mythology. Many do not. All, without fail are of the highest calibre. If anything is wrong with this book at all it is perhaps the way that many, groundbreaking visions are thrown our way to be digested and then apparently forgotten, never to appear again. Here is an author truly at ease with his own use of language and form, transforming, perhaps from one phase to the next?

Trust me when I say that should you only ever buy one book by Noon, please, for your own enjoyment, make it this one.

Imagination has rarely, if ever, been woven quite so well.


Two years now to wait but 2000's NEEDLE IN THE GROOVE proved to be more than worth it. Featuring the adventures of Elliot, bass player and ex junkie, stuck forever on the pub-rock circuit until his surprising invitation to join a new band that fuse DJ artistry, voices and rhythm section unveils a magical and futuristic method of music creation. Taking Noon's experimentation to even greater heights, this book is told in what can only be described as 'dub speak.'

There is an unstated sense of joy in this work as Noon plays and shifts words and meanings to create a particularly fluid and musical piece.

Surely such experimentation could only go so far?

COBRALINGUS, released in 2001 is a strange and dangerous beast. Part poetic anthology, part 'do it yourself' manual for prospective writers, it was either embraced by readers or met with a somewhat blank stare. Not a novel in any sense of the word, it is however a fascinating and slightly shamanic look beneath the hood of word creation. Any budding wordsmiths reading this should go and track this book down as soon as possible. The introduction of 'filter gates' and a cut and paste style 'engine'  are methods Noon has expanded upon and still uses to this day.

And so the end approaches and what better way to go than to go out on a high?

FALLING OUT OF CARS 2002 is my joint favourite of Noon's output and a staggeringly excellent vision of fractured reality. A road novel, set against a world where visual information itself is destroying all we understand and hold dear, the novel follows the journey of Marlene, Henderson and Peacock as they attempt to locate fragments of a broken mirror that may be the cause of the increasing illness.  The affliction is portrayed in a chilling and yet beautiful way, with the daily dose of 'Lucidity' slowly doing less and less to hold back the hallucinogenic tide.

Here is Noon at his fluidic best. Scenes unfold that will unnerve and stay with you for years to come. It is hard to conceive that an author so clearly at the peak of his talents could just so simply disappear...

The frequencies were dead. Rumours and snippets would often surface of Screenplays and Theatre work but the books had dried up and gone.

Monthly I would trawl the Internet and despite a brief appearance in 2008 with the BABEL STREET website it seemed as though Noon had lost all interest in a genre he had all but made his own.

Some weeks ago, dismayed at modern fiction I wrote a retro review of VURT for this very website, in the hope I could at least turn one person on to this missing wordsmith. The same night it was posted I received a random retweet that on closer inspection contained a familiar name. The Universe really does work in mysterious ways...

I love Twitter, it's the closest we have got to Spider Jerusalem's very own News Feeds but I was aware that many official accounts can be little more than self promoting blurbs. With trepidation I went searching and to my joy, and more than a little pride, I saw that rather than being a bland faceless account I had discovered a feed full of fragments and spores of new work. Even better, I discovered that Jeff was not only responding and interacting with his followers he was also using his own space to promote other writers and artists.

Tweets were exchanged and I was delighted to find an enthusiastic and friendly man, clearly enthused by life and future projects.

When I mentioned my article and fished ever so slightly for a few comments to use I was met with a "Sure. But lets keep it brief because I do tend to get carried away with interviews."

The results of this brief interview can be found below. I hope you enjoy.

Thanks Jeff....we missed you.

Cult Den interview answers - Jeff Noon, Feb 2012

 Hello Jeff. Thanks for taking the time to talk to us. I suppose the obvious first question is just where have you been? I understand you have been working on screenplays and there was the appearance of 217 Babel Street but apart from that the frequencies were silent… was a period of withdrawal necessary?***

 I wrote Falling Out Of Cars and that came out in 2002. I felt that novel represented a transition of some kind: I'd left my home town of Manchester, and moved to Brighton. The book also seemed to present a slightly more mature outlook at the world, and of  the possibilities of British SF in general. So I was ready for a change. I didn’t realise just how big that change would be, however.

It started when my publishing editor told me that my next novel, whatever it might be, had to reach a wider readership. They'd supported me for a good number of years, and I was probably, at the time, their most "left of field" author. But he said that he could no longer keep publishing me, unless I had a breakthrough book. After a period of feeling bad about this, I saw it has an opportunity. I thought I would have a go at writing a weird detective novel. I've always loved the noir genre, and in fact that task is still on my list of things to do. I made a few starts at this, but nothing came of it. Basically, I was now stuck.

I can't remember the exact sequence of events, but two things now happened. I started to get offers to write screenplays, and I wrote a theatre play. Theatre was my first love, so I was happy for that to happen. The play was called The Modernists, and it looked at the very early days of the Mod movement in England, and how ideals are diluted over time, by fashion, and by other commercial concerns, and how that dilution affected the original Modernists, the young men who had started the movement. The play was produced at Sheffield Crucible Theatre. Anyone interested can read an extract on the metamorphiction site. Now this doesn’t sound very science-fictional, but there are connections, especially with the construction and destruction of personal image, a subject I’ve been obsessed with for while now.

I also started work on a screenplay of Falling Out Of Cars for a London production company. Nothing came of this, because the company collapsed before the final draft was completed (the hazards of film production!), but the process taught me a lot about film scripts, and how to create them. I started to work for Dan Films, another London company, working on an adaptation of Creeping Zero, a story that originally appeared in my collection, Pixel Juice. I had, by this time, really fallen in love with the film industry, and with writing screenplays in particular. I'm the kind of person that, when they do something, has to do it completely and utterly, and so other kinds of writing were put on the side-burner, so to speak. Creeping Zero had a testing history, like all film scripts seem to have, but I'm hopeful that it will be made, one day. In fact, if things go according to plan, we may start filming this year. Fingers crossed on that.

Now, during these years, I would still write prose pieces now and again: stories, the starts of novels, remix pieces, but nothing that reached the public in any major way. The Babel 217 site was an experiment in collaborative writing, that came from this period. But for myself, I just wanted to be a screenwriter. So that's where I've been for the last eight years or so, seeking to establish myself in that world. I have another script, Apparition Park, that I'm currently writing. And I know I'll continue to seek out further film projects, as I go along.

But something happened. I won't go into the details, it's too personal, but it made me suddenly realise that I needed an audience once again. So I got in touch with my friend, long-time fan and general expert on my work, Curtis McFee. He’s a designer and coder, and together we created a website where I could bring together all my old pieces, as well as displaying new work. This became As you can imagine, I had a fair bunch of things to write about, after ten years of being lost in film!

I had novel called Channel SK1N, that I’d been working at, on or off, for a number of years, but which never seemed to get finished. I went back to that manuscript, and worked it through, to the end. I looked around for a publisher, almost went with one, but decided in the end to self-publish. The reasons for this are two-fold: firstly, they wanted to publish it in March 2013. That’s way too late for me. As I mentioned, I was in real need of connecting with an audience once again. And secondly, I really wanted to be free to put out what I wanted, when I wanted, including, alongside narrative based works, lots of more experimental stuff. Basically, I wanted to just write, and not have to wait. Just do it. See what happens. That’s my current attitude, and self-publishing gives me that freedom. I think you’ll see a whole bunch of works coming from me, over the next few years, each one placed somewhere along the avant-pulp borderline.

 I wonder how you feel about your previous work these days? Was revisiting them a joy or a shock? I worry that maybe with Vurt you created your own School’s Out or Anarchy in The UK. Was there pressure to constantly replay the same old song?***

 A writer’s relationship with older work is never easy. It swings between embarrassment, sadness, sheer incredulity that I managed to write that, and tetchiness. But with the self-publishing step, and reading all the things that people say about me online, and on twitter, I’m now happy to look at the old books once again. A number of those older books were written under the influence of a very heavy alcoholism, and so the pain of that tinted them, in my soul. But now, I’m like, okay, those works are still valid, they still have things to say, and also I think they might have an added retro value. Not that I’m interested in nostalgia or anything, but it’s always intriguing to examine the SF futures of the past, and the whole cyberpunk thing now qualifies for such a reappraisal. It will be interesting to see how they fare.

I think Vurt probably had less of an impact than people imagine, but it was an important book, I guess. I don’t think anybody had really tried cyberpunk from a British angle, and it also sprang from the Rave era, and all its attendant desires and concerns. I think if you add those two elements together, you get a book that needed to be written, at that time, in this genre, in this place. I’m certainly glad I was there to write it.

Regarding the dangers of replaying the same old song, I honestly don’t think it’s possible for me to do such a thing. Sometimes I get a little jealous of writers who manage to create these giant, seven part epics, you know, but on the whole I prefer to explore different pathways, to go off on tangents, to follows loose threads, connect wires to the wrong socket; basically, anything that will kick-start my imagination, and push me in a different direction That’s what I’m like. That’s the essence.

I was talking to a friend the other day, about whether all of my books are set in the same world. He claimed that they were, and that they all took place in the Unknighted Kingdom of Singland. Now I couldn’t remember writing that, but apparently I did. The phrase appears in one of the novels, I’m not sure where. So there we are, let’s say that everything I write takes place somewhere in that land.

 Many Authors are notoriously protective of their craft but with the release of Cobralingus I sensed almost an attitude of those old punk rock pamphlets or even the KLF’s pronouncements… here’s three chords, now go make your own art. Was this the intention and do you see the dub remix section of a natural progression of this?***

 A series of events led to believe that there is no fixed and final state for a piece of art, whether it’s painting, writing, music, or whatever. This stems back mainly to the convergence of punk music and dub reggae in the 1970s. Basically, dub turned my head inside out: here was a music operating on itself, revealing its own muscles and bones, and presenting that internal sound to the world, to be listened to. We’re used now to the concept of the musical remix, but back then, it was all strange and new. This was a tremendous influence on me. To this day, if people say: “Oh, you must be influenced by William Burroughs,” I always reply, “Actually no, it’s Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry.” He’s the wellspring.

The big breakthrough came during a night-club reading tour for the anthology “Disco Biscuits”. We were reading in one room, and techno music was playing in the room next door, and the music and the words intermingled, and I remember saying to the editor of the anthology, “I wonder of you could do a dub version of a story?” That was the start. I was halfway through writing Nymphomation at the time, and when I got home, I started to remix sections of the manuscript, just exploring the possibilities of what that might mean. Following that spark, I have, over the years, explored various ways in which writing can take ideas and processes from music, for the simple reason that music seems to get there first: years ago, it entered a liquid state, one that I envy. So much of prose, of writing, novels, stories, etc, is fixed within a basic 19th century form. I wanted to break that form, and studying and adapting musical techniques such as remixing, dub, segueing, sampling, scratching etc, helped me along that way. This research continues, the laboratory is still at work, still lit by fizzing bulbs and littered with weird things in jars. The new novel, Channel SK1N, springs directly out of this same impulse.

So yes, anything that allows change, that celebrates mutation and hybridism... bring it on! Let’s use this stuff. Collaboration is an important way to break the mould of yourself, to step outside yourself. It’s so easy to decorate your rut, you know: and we can cover it with the most beautiful paintings and wallpaper, but we’re still decorating the rut, the channel of ourselves, the comfort channel. Working with other people helps to put cracks in the walls.

The dub fiction technique, as laid out in the “Ghost on the B-Side” article, is just me saying, look, here are some ideas, some techniques I’ve developed over the years, do with them what you will, make up your own techniques, explore. Language is a fluid medium. This is sometimes lost to us because words are so tied up with meaning, and narrative. But they are a substance in their own right, like paint, and they can be manipulated as such, and new substances discovered. I can’t emphasise this enough: language is liquid. But it’s not a thin liquid, it doesn’t flow easily: it’s gooey, sticky, like treacle. It’s not watercolour, its oil paint. And that’s even better. It’s malleable, but it retains shape. It’s an organic fluid. Actually, I stumbled on a technical word for this: thixotropic.The property exhibited by certain gels of becoming fluid when stirred or shaken and returning to the semisolid state u

Meaning in a text is the semisolid state: but until that meaning is fixed, words can be. I guess Cobralingus is the most complex working out of these ideas. It’s a software that exists inside my skull, a way of manipulating text, of structuring transformation. Mappalujo is another writing technique, developed by Steve Beard and myself, to further a collaborative process. We’re hoping to publish the complete Mappalujo manual soon, with stories, instructions, lists, appendices, the lot. Science Fiction is a massive, ever-expanding experiment with content, and I love it for that, I really do. Nothing else comes close. But I’m always surprised by the way the genre tends (apart from some notable examples) to ignore the experimentation of form.

Form is the Host, Content is the Virus.

The content of a story can infect the way that story is told. What’s really important in all of things I’m talking about, is that these techniques are actually very similar to well-known tropes in science fiction novels: infection, mutation, liquid life-forms, info viruses, alien languages, hybrid entities, and so on. Science Fiction is unique in literature because of this porous interchange between form and content, between the way a story is told, and the subject matter of the story. For me, the relationship between form and content is almost sexual. God, that does sound weird! But I hope people can see what I’m trying to say. And SF should be pushing ahead, creating new kinds of stories for the way we live now. No other genre can do it as well. My motto? If you’re showing me a membrane, make it a porous one.

 Ahh... but now the future beckons; I understand that new covers are being made for an eBook re-release of your old work. Can you tell us more about this and also the twitter experiment that is Sparkletown?***

 Yes, new covers are being designed. Curtis McFee is doing this for me. He just gets my world, and what I’m after; at the same time he has a unique vision of his own. Somehow or other, he manages to fuse the two together. I really don’t know how he does that. I wanted a design that would work across all the books, to represent my fictional world, my style, and so on, but with strong individual images. And of course something a bit different than the standard SF fare. Also, there are new considerations since I was last in the publishing field: tiny thumbnail images, grey Kindle images, Amazon colour images. Modern covers need to work on all these levels.

Sparkletown is a series of stories all set in the same location, and all created on twitter. It’s the latest outpouring of a large-scale project I’ve been working on for years: Electronic Nocturne. This is the depository of all my ideas concerning the end of the digital age, and its immediate aftermath. So much near future SF, I find, seems to be trapped in a kind of extension of the digital age. I think this is at least partially the cause of all the current genre talk of the future being already here. It might well be. But there are possibilities of change we haven’t even considered yet, both for good, and for bad. And as soon as you start considering that one day the digital age will end, new vistas open up. Anyway, that’s the theory. In reality, I have more than 300 pages of notes, images, events, brand names, concepts, poems, maps, fragments of dialogue, chapter titles, etc. All set in the same location, a tower block estate, and all to do with making music, and writing, and singing and painting and broadcasting sound and vision after all the CPUs have burnt out. What then? How will we cope, what will we do? What will art look and feel like? I love this, because it allows me to do the near-future thing, whilst stepping out from the usual digital environment.

I channelled some of these ideas into a play for Radio 3 called “Dead Code: Ghosts of the Digital Age”. And so when I started on the twitter stories, I went back to that Electronic Nocturne datahoard and pulled out some more images. Sparkletown is the result. It will all become a novel one day. But at the moment I’m happy enough to use twitter as a kind of open door workshop, to experiment, improvise, nail and glue ideas together to see what works, what doesn’t. I’m loving that process, both for the Sparkletown tales, and for the smaller microspore stories. What’s brilliant about twitter is that I feel that I’m working in real time, to pick up on what people are tweeting, turning that into spores or even longer works, sending those back out, and then other people following on with their own tangents, images, offshoots, diaspora of many kinds. It’s a community spirit.

 Finally, whispers suggest that a new book is in the offing. What can you impart about Channel SK1N? Should we all be tuned to pirate frequencies?***

 OK, first of all a warning: I can’t talk about Channel SK1N without getting utterly excited. I got the idea a couple of years ago whilst listening to the song “All the Young Dudes”, written by David Bowie for the band Mott the Hoople. It was these particular lyrics that got me going:

“Television man is crazy,

saying we're juvenile delinquent wrecks.

Oh man I need TV, when I got T Rex.”

Television man is crazy. I kept thinking about that. Television man is crazy! Television man. And I suddenly got this image of a man who was a television. That was it. A human being who somehow or other transformed into a television.

So, I got round to writing a first draft, or the start of one, showed it to a few people. Put it aside. And then one day I just started writing again, and writing and writing. I hadn’t written a novel in a long time. I felt I was set free. I just couldn’t stop writing! My lodger came home, stared at me, said what’s wrong, you look like you’re in a trance. I was. I was in a trance. At times I would cover up the laptop screen with a tea towel, to stop myself from going back and checking things, from trying to get things right. To just let the words have their own say. And the story flowed out: a woman starts to pick up tv broadcasts on her skin, they take her over, transform her. She’s in pain, she’s desperate, on the run, everybody’s after her, they want a piece of her, they want to turn her into product. And then, one day...

Ah well, soon enough Nola’s story will be told. The old dot, dot, dot trick.

It’s a book of ghost frequencies, of static overload, pirate broadcasts, programmes that exist between channels, stray signals, noise, interference patterns. It’s all skin and blood and image-blur and transmission and fizz and buzz and screenflesh crackling in the night of phantoms. My word processor allowed me to make a list of words I had added to its dictionary, just for this novel alone. All these neologisms I had created to tell the story of this woman. There were hundreds of them. Hundreds of new words. At the same time, I hope it’s got a good old story to tell. Somewhere along the avant-pulp interface, Channel SK1N exists. The screen clicks on.

For those interested in learning more here are a few links to help feed your head:  The official Jeff Noon site. News, stories and Bios. The official feed...tweet tales and news, chat etc. The feed of Sparkletown, an ongoing twitter story. 50 short tales with art and creation from fans and admirers of Jeff's work.

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