JEFF NOON: THE FIVE QUESTION INTERVIEW
01 November 2012
By Bella Pagan
With VURT and POLLEN just published in ebook for the first time, and a fabulous 20th anniversary edition of VURT due next year (where has the time gone?!) we thought this would be an apt time to have a chat with Jeff Noon himself. We asked him how it feels now his iconic book is reaching its 20th birthday amongst other things and he's given us below some facinating insights into the writerly mind ... It's an interesting thing for an author to realise that their work has acquired a history, and new avenues of creativity have opened up for the writer over the last twenty years. Jeff is throwing himself into these new areas with vigour and energy, so has an interesting perspective on the development of these new outlets and social media opportunities, plus the changes that experience can bring to a writer's outlook. Without further ado, I'll now hand you over to Jeff.
1) A reviewer remarked that VURT seems as fresh now as it ever did, so how does it feel to know that its 20th anniversary of publication is next year?
Well, of course, it’s difficult to imagine that twenty years have gone by. I mean, how did that happen, right? To me, it seems like only a few years ago that I sat down to write the book. I’m glad that readers still find it fresh, because one of the urges behind Vurt was to really capture that particular time, the rave era, in that particular city, Manchester. So I definitely did not have the future life of the book in my sights. I observed what was happening around me and pushed it through a Science Fiction filter, and captured the results as best I could. Also, the first edition was brought out by a tiny independent publisher, Ringpull Books.
People didn’t really use the internet back then, so it was very difficult for small publishers to reach wide audiences. So I expected the novel to reach a limited number of people, and really I would have been happy enough with that. But then the book won the Arthur C. Clarke Award, and that was the start of it finding a larger audience, and indeed a deal with Pan. So I’m eternally grateful to the Award for giving the book a proper chance in the world. Like many a first novel it came out of a weird Venn diagram of influences: Gibson, Ballard, Borges, Lewis Carroll, techno music, dub culture, Mondo 2000, graphic novels, 1970s punk, and everyday life in the North of England in 1993. It’s amazing to think that VURT is still on its journey, still travelling, and still finding new readers.
2) What was it like to revisit the world of VURT, and to create new short stories set in that world for the anniversary edition next year?
To begin with, it was very difficult. The world has changed in those twenty years, and God knows, so have I. And Manchester itself is a very different place. A lot of the original locations mentioned in the book have transformed beyond measure; some have simply vanished. So I had to make a decision about when the stories should be set: in the city as it now is, or in the past version of the city. I decided that I wanted the action to continue on from the original novel in some way, so I would have to set the stories in this past that no longer really exists. Now that’s a strange undertaking for a Science Fiction writer, because, well, we’re supposed to be the ones with our eyes set on the future. In the end, I realised that the book had always been set in a 'fictional' Manchester anyway, and that imagined world could still be visited. So, I went back there. I revisited the old nonexistent places after all these years. Once there, the stories could start.
The other problem I had was to do with age. I was in my mid-thirties when I wrote the book; I’m now in my fifties. So my first attempts at these new Vurt stories were all imbued with the sensibilities of a man of my age, in the sense that they seemed overly melancholic, and a little bit worried about the effect all this illegal dreaming was having on the characters! I had to stop that, because the novel is, in many ways, a celebration of being young and having adventures and getting out of your head, and so on. So the last thing you need after finishing the book is for some old geezer to start saying, 'Actually, I’m not sure if this is such a good idea, taking so many feathers.' That would have been terrible, so a number of early drafts were thrown away. But then again, I didn’t want to pretend that I was thirty-five again; I have to write from the heart of what I currently am. In the end, I hope I’ve found a balance between the two states; between the older eye and the younger vision.
Another consideration: I didn’t want to write directly about the characters in the book. But I wanted the stories to be linked to the original narrative in some way. So there are three new stories; one taking place during the same time-frame as the novel, the second about a week after the novel ends, and the final one about a year after that. Scribble is mentioned or seen in each one. So the stories are tangents to the main action. Each one concerns itself with a different new feather, and the consequences of those dreams on different people.
3) Do you think that we have caught up with the future, in terms of speculative fiction or is there still plenty of future to play with for storytellers?
There will always a future. And people will always speculate upon it. As long as there’s one person left on the planet, they will look ahead, and make plans accordingly. Science Fiction metabolises that basic urge into a body of words, a fictional message of hope or despair, or any combination of the two feelings. My personal take is that SF allows the future to infect the present day in some way. I track that infection in my work, in various ways, using various approaches, sometimes experimental, at other times more mainstream. Writing is not just about storytelling, it’s also about research, about discovering new ways to write, new forms, new subject matters. That search will continue. The future is a vast, barely explored landscape, with many possibilities of strange encounters.
4) Social media wasn’t around when VURT and POLLEN were published. You seem to relish these new tools and how do you think it adds to the experience of connecting with readers?
I’m quite a private person and so I don’t look to social media just for chatting purposes. For that, I much prefer face to face, one on one. I think the key thing to remember is that there is not one proper way of using these tools; there are as many ways as there are people on the planet. So it’s an exploration. What do I want to say? How do I want to say it? Start from there. For me personally it’s about three things, in this order of importance:
1) Connecting to people, sharing ideas and images online.
2) Making it as easy as possible for potential readers to view my work for free, to sample it, to see if it’s their kind of thing.
3) Marketing. This last one is tricky, because I hate to see too much self-advertising online. Obviously, you have to stand on the hill and blow your own trumpet on occasion, because we all need to make a living, but I think it needs to be kept to a minimum. Or best of all, invent ways of pointing to the work that somehow comes out of the work itself: signal and object as one system. That way, social media can flourish and change and exist on the level it needs to exist on: as a means for people to communicate with each other, and pass on the news, the good stuff, the info, the gossip, the danger signs, and so on.
5) Again on twitter: a time-sink or an engine of creativity?
For me, definitely an engine of creativity. I use it mainly as a means of expression. I started writing spores, a while ago. This is my name for tiny stories of 140 characters or less, which I see as signals, or messages: I send them out and hope that people will respond, whether privately or by sending me a message back. When I first started doing them, I wasn’t really sure what it was I was creating. I mean, it’s a tricky thing to do; what are the precedents? Well, apart from haiku, there are very few guidelines for storytelling at this micro level. So, again (and I keep coming back to this, I know) it’s a question of exploration: what can I, personally, uniquely, do with this media? At first, I thought I’d manage about 100 spores or so, and then run dry. In fact, the current tally is around 1,200. And counting. So, twitter is now part of my everyday process of creativity. Some of the spores even visit the world of VURT. For instance...
Last night’s dream feathers drift across the streets. A tramp scours the used-up flights, hoping that a fleck or two of bliss might remain.
Reading that now I’m reminded of myself, going back to the novel, to see if I could still make a connection to it. And yes, hoping that some bliss still remains in that city of dreams.