JEFF NOON AND LAUREN BEUKES: THE FIVE QUESTION INTERVIEW
This month we are very excited about the 20th anniversary publication of Jeff Noon’s Arthur C. Clarke Award winner Vurt. This gorgeous hardback edition also contains a prologue by Lauren Beukes, a more recent Arthur C. Clarke Award winner (her much anticipated The Shining Girls is also out this month). Plus, we've included three original short stories by Jeff set in the same vividly-imagined world as Vurt. So, what better to start us off than a joint interview featuring both Jeff and Lauren in our Tor interviewing hot seat?! So here we go.
1) What excites you about speculative fiction?
The genre’s ability to cross boundaries. To intermingle futuristic or alternative reality ideas with the everyday. To comment, to escape, to render visible the invisible (even if only for a moment or two), to build and map new worlds, to push beyond mainstream and middlebrow concerns in literature. Most of all, to explore ways in which language can not only reflect reality but also mutate and transform it.
That twisting reality can give you a clearer perspective on it. It can short-circuit issue fatigue. It lets you play with mad what-ifs that can reveal something of who we are in a deeply subversive and entertaining way.
2) Who would you list as your top five books or writers that have influenced you?
In no particular order ...
1) Lewis Carroll, especially Though the Looking Glass. This was my first introduction to Surrealism in written form. I always insert a reference to the world of Alice in all my books.
2) In Science Fiction - William Gibson’s Neuromancer. I was blown away by this one. I just read that first page and thought, 'At last!'
3) In Non Fiction – Douglas R. Hofstadter’s Gödel, Escher, Bach for its intense exploration of different realities, mathematical and logical and surreal. (Also it’s explicitly written in the spirit of Lewis Carroll. Another Alice connection.)
4) Jorge Luis Borges: Fictions. I picked this up second-hand when I was 20 years old and fell instantly in love with his work. Above all, his ideas. Borges and J. G. Ballard both taught me to respect ideas as a source of fiction. (Borges was also a big Lewis Carroll fan.)
5) Not a writer, but a musician. Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry. One of the prime inventors of the dub reggae technique in the early 1970s. He uses empty space to transform an already existing music. In many ways, this was the first use of the process we now know as remixing. I’ve been fascinated by that process of magical transformation ever since, not only in music, but also in words.
Also in no particular order, because the influence is all about equal:
1) Alan Moore’s The Ballad of Halo Jones. I grew up reading 2000 AD and I loved the social conscience to the bleak comic book stories about rogue soldiers and dystopian police states and mutant apartheid. It’s tough for me to choose just one influential Moore, because I think Watchmen is the perfect story and V for Vendetta was devastatingly political and amazing (and I stole the idea of including extra materials that help explain the world for Zoo City), but Halo Jones was my first love, my first role model. The girl who went out.
2) William Gibson’s Pattern Recognition. I came to Gibson late. I think I was too young when I first tried to read Neuromancer, but Pattern Recognition spoke to my experience of the world and added layers of depth and strangeness I couldn’t have guessed at, but that seemed absolutely true. I haven’t wanted to step into a book so badly since The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe.
3) Jeff Noon’s Vurt (you knew this was coming) which blew my mind, not just for the story and the characters which absolutely caught the mood of where we were, but pushed language in insanely playful ways and delivered a kicker of an ending. It was a shock re-reading it to see how much of Vurt is in Moxyland’s DNA.
4)Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. It was terrifying and true. The perfect example of a novel that has very important things to say, but does it through a brilliant, rich, harrowing story, rather than shouting on a soapbox.
5) David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas. It’s so ambitious and he absolutely pulls it off, apart from that one line where he’s a bit self-congratulatory for having composed a perfect six part symphony. The faultless switches in tone and style and story that all come together in the end was masterful.
3) In your works – Vurt or The Shining Girls – what are you hoping new readers will gain from your work?
I hope that Vurt, despite its occasional period detail, will come across as still being relevant, twenty years after its first release. To my mind, it’s a book that stands within a certain tradition of Science Fiction, reaching back through William Gibson to Philip K. Dick and Ray Bradbury, and so many others. I could feel so many connecting strands pulling at me as I wrote it, to other books and to films and records. The web vibrated. I hope those connections are still alive for new readers. A lot of the Manchester landmarks I used as settings have now vanished or are changed in major ways. Despite this, I hope the interconnected society I portray in the novel still excites with its cultural potential.
I hope they’ll come away reeling from a story well told. I aim to write surprising, inventive stories that you can inhabit for a while. With The Shining Girls, which is about a time-travelling serial killer and a survivor who turns the hunt around, I’d like readers to pick up on the fundamental ways the 20th century shaped us and all the resonances with history that kicks up again and again, from great depressions to women’s rights, how far we’ve come and how far we still have to go, and the true horror of violence that sends ripples out through society.
4) You are both known for experimenting with different writing forms other than the novel, whether this is graphic novels, journalism, screenplays, micro-fictions, collaborative projects etc. Can you pick one project that has really influenced your novel writing and say why?
My natural talent is to paint. However, I haven’t painted or drawn anything since 1984, the year I committed myself to trying to become a writer, so words are now the outlet for that initial impulse: I always try to bring a strong visual element to my writing. Also, music. Without doubt my favourite art form, and the one that saturates my waking life from morning till night. So, I always try to use techniques invented by musicians in my novels and stories, simply because musicians seem to get there first these days, in terms of an avant–pulp interface.
I made an album based on my novel Needle in the Groove with the musician David Toop. Watching him at work in the studio was my introduction to the wonders of modern music software. I was jealous when I saw how he could manipulate the music so easily on the screen, and I remember thinking to myself: why can’t I do that with prose? So, I’ve tried to do just that, in various books over the years. My main insight was to realize that words, whilst seemingly fixed in meaning, are in fact a liquid medium. They flow. The writer digs channels, steers the course.
Twelve years as a freelance journalist taught me that the real world is more inventive and surprising and heartbreaking than anything you could make up. It was a backstage pass to the world, it taught me how to write, how to listen, how to see other perspectives, to find the relevant, resonant details. I think the weird conceits of my novels (criminals with magical animals! Nanotech branding! Time-travelling killer!) work because I hang the credibility on real details, from intense research and location scouts and interviews and threading all of that through the fantastic stuff.
5) If you could see one aspect of the world you've created here in the real world, what would it be?
I’d love to see people picking up television signals on their skin, as described in Channel SK1N. That would be so cool. And will probably happen one day in the not too distant future.
I want a time-travelling house, dammit.
* * * * *