JEFF NOON: ON EXPERIMENTS IN WRITING
14 March 2013
By Bella Pagan
With our anniversary edition of Jeff Noon's extraordinary Vurt out next month, I wanted to post up something in advance to whet appetites. If it's not enough that this edition contains a foreword by Lauren Beukes and three original Noon short stories ;)
Vurt was published twenty years ago, won the Arthur C. Clarke Award and has attracted praise from everyone from William Gibson to Geoff Ryman and Lauren Beukes, with fantastic reviews also received from The Times, Independent and many others. Vurt is a powerful story set in a near-future Manchester, where the barriers between dream and reality are mutable -- and this leads its protagonists into more dangers than we could ever know. You can find the book blurb here.
Jeff is a true wordsmith and is known for his innovative approach to writing, so I asked him a few questions about writing, experimenting with prose and how he keeps himself fresh. Although as SFSIte.com says, ‘Vurt was a breath of fresh air at the time it was published and it remains so today’. So over to Jeff ...
1) You are known for your experimental fiction. Are there any techniques you used in Vurt that seemed quite different to you at the time, that you were playing with then?
Vurt was written in a kind of dream state. I was working at Waterstone’s bookshop in Manchester during the day and writing it at night, usually really late into the early morning. And I was fueled by wine and cigarettes. Quite a lot of both! In addition, I was writing the book for a tiny publisher that barely existed beyond a name on a scrap of paper: Ringpull Press. So there was very little hope attached to the novel, in terms of future success; it wasn't a book with a target beyond maybe entertaining a few of my friends. I wrote it a chapter at a time, completely improvising it from beginning to end, and my editor of the time, Steve Powell, would give me notes on each chapter as it was written, It was a very weird set-up; not at all like the usual way of writing a novel for a well-established publisher.
In many ways, Vurt is a typical first novel, in the sense of it being a depository for all the stray ideas that had built up over the previous years. At the time, I was passionate about becoming a playwright, and had a lot of rejection slips from theatres to show for that desire. Many of those very theatrical ideas went into Vurt, the novel. So, once again, a weird process. Over the subsequent years, I’ve realized that, at least for me, there is no one correct way of writing a novel, or even one easy way to do it. Every novel is journey in the writing. So, although in purely formal or thematic terms there is very little experimentation in Vurt as such, its creation was one long experiment; with no recognized or even hoped for result in sight. Vurt in so many ways was my indie-produced first album: my Slanted and Enchanted or my Murmur or my Surfer Rosa; that first blind leap into the unknown, driven by the urge to escape.
2) Have reviews, critiques or friends discussing Vurt or other works ever picked up anything that surprised you, in terms of the way it was written? Perhaps something you hadn’t realized or intended?
The novel got an interesting range of both good and bad reviews. I always have a good think about a bad review; I try to be honest with myself about the book and what it was that produced that particular reaction in a member of the public or a critic. There must be something in the text that caused the reaction. Some property. In fact, a couple of reviews have pushed me onto a different track, when I can see it as justified criticism. Of course, brilliant reviews are cool and life-affirming and all that, but a not so good review, if looked at with a certain eye, can be far more useful to a writer’s growth.
After the novel won the Arthur C. Clarke Award in 1994, this in particular triggered some really good reviews. And there have been a number of academic studies written of the novel and its worldview, which are always fun to receive, if a little strange: I hardly understand a lot of what’s being said! The number one strangest reaction to Vurt was the idea that the Dog Boys and Girls in the novel were meant to represent black people. I was shocked to my core when I heard that one. Shocked! Some reactions are so weird, but what can you do: people will see what they see, no matter what.
3) What has been your favourite or most enjoyable writing project or novel where you use experimental or slightly unorthodox methods and why?
My experimental phase proper began with the realization that I might be able to treat and manipulate words in the same way that a modern musician treats music: I can remix it, randomise it, slow it down, bring in samples of other texts, and so on. This process was explored in different ways in Nymphomation, in Needle in the Groove, in Cobralingus. And the latest novel, Channel SK1N, uses a similar technique but here concerned with radio and television signals rather that musical ones. I love to infect a text with noise, with interference, and then see what happens. This whole process started with Nymphomation, when I started to remix sections of the written text, and to present the new versions as an alternative way of looking at the story’s reality. So that book will always have a special place in my heart.
Really, I just see all these techniques as an attempt to uncover or invent new ways of telling stories. It’s all about the avant-pulp. Story is still important, no matter how far I might push the text.
4) What has been your experience of collaborating with others in writing, and what can this ‘bring’ creatively in your opinion? Can you name some of these projects and say a few words on them.
Oh, God, I love collaborating. I really do. It brings its own problems, of course, and it’s always difficult finding the right person to do it with, and a number of failed experiments have to be cast aside. But when two people click, it’s a brilliant feeling. Some of my very best times as a writer have been in the company of another person. Shared input allows an evolutionary process to take place.
My favourite collaboration process ever took place with the writer Steve Beard when we invented the Mappalujo Engine. It works like this: two writers choose a number of iconic figures, real or fictional. For instance: Batman, Princess Diana, Lady Gaga and Harry Houdini. Each of these icons will govern or influence a separate chapter of the work in hand. The first writer chooses an icon from the list, say Batman, and then writes a chapter influenced in some way by that character, be it parodic, thematic, poetic, surreal or whatever: there are no bound rules. So, Batman might lead to a piece about secret identity, violent death of a parent, revenge, masks, crime, creatures of the night, etc. This piece is sent to the second writer and Batman is crossed off the icon list.
The second writer reads the first piece, chooses another icon, say Lady Gaga, and responds with a chapter influenced in some way by that character. It’s best to keep chapters short: Steve and I went for no more than two pages each time. Lady Gaga is crossed off the list. This process continues until all of the icons are used up. Towards the end of the process - let’s say there are twenty icons altogether in the list – it becomes more difficult because there are less icons to choose from. The writers have to really be creative to make it work. We found it best to not talk about this process whilst it was happening, in order to allow full play to the random aspects.
When all the icons are used up, the first part of the method is complete. The writers now get together, preferably face to face, and talk about the generated material. Decisions are made about what the piece is trying to become, and the writers now work together as a team to push it in a fruitful direction, until the story is deemed to be finished. Another set of icons can now be chosen, if needed. The Mappalujo Engine is great fun. Of course, not everything will be a work of genius, but sometimes it really does produce the most startling end results. I recommend it as a process.
5) What would be your advice to new writers wanting to experiment with non-standard ways of writing (for example non-linear plot, unusual perspective or sentence structure etc.) in either novels or short stories?
Start small. Don’t try to write a giant experimental novel from the off. Use the internet to put work out there, whether on a blog or twitter and so on. Find like-minded people and work together. Have a goal in mind, a way of working, rather than just messing about and hoping for the best. Investigate the work of the Oulipo writers: they invented many new ways of organizing and creating experimental writing. Many of their techniques are used a lot in current poetry, for instance. Be prepared for a lot of failed experiments; that’s the nature of the beast. But nothing is truly wasted, because every word written is a step towards becoming a better practitioner. We all have our own vocabulary, the themes and tone and style and syntax that belongs to us, and us alone. Work to find that. It can take some uncovering, some digging around. Tell those who say that your work isn't 'proper writing' to take a running jump. Damn right, it is improper. Be proud of your difference.
6) Why do you like to innovate, whereas some novelists work to polish the mode in which they feel most comfortable? To keep fresh, to stave off boredom, for the fun of it?
I have a natural talent to draw and to paint, and I was lucky enough to meet some really great teachers at an early age who encouraged me in those endeavours, and who introduced me to the work of Modernist artists. So I was looking at and trying to understand really quite difficult works from my schooldays. The beauty and the danger of that work has kept with me over the years, and propelled me onwards.
I guess I have two muses: story and experimentation. They seem contradictory. In fact, they often draw me in two different directions, and yet over the years I've tried to find ways of working that satisfy both impulses. This is why I came up with the idea of the avant-pulp, the idea of marrying high art techniques to pulp storytelling, in various combinations. That basic drive is what keeps me going. I’ll never stop wanting to tell stories, and I’ll never stop wanting to experiment. The borderline beckons.
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Jeff Noon's novel Pollen, a standalone set in the same near-future world as Vurt, is also reissued.