In search of the feather – an interview with Jeff Noon

It is sometimes hard to believe that Jeff Noon‘s Vurt was published twenty years ago. A madcap adventure in the dreamscape, chasing the Vurt feather, it is a book that was very much of its time and place but has grown beyond that now. His second novel, Pollen, brings us back to a similar landscape but Noon takes the reader somewhere else with the world. After several novels and collections, including Automated Alice (1996), Nymphomation (1997), Pixel Juice (1998), Needle in the Groove (2000),  Cobralingus (2001) and Falling Out of Cars (2002),  he was fairly quiet until the publication of Channel SK1N (2012). He publishes micro-spores of story on Twitter and micro-fictions of Sparkletown. He has also written for television, radio and the theatre. Jeff Noon was gracious enough to answer a few questions that I had after re-reading Vurt and Pollen.

Q: What did it feel like coming back to the world of Vurt and Pollen after twenty years?

J: It was strange. I always like to look and move forward, so revisiting old work was an unusual task for me. But I got into it eventually. SF futures always move on and die, and then we create new futures to suit our present day hopes and fears. Vurt and Pollen represent an older idea of the future, if you like, when the dream of a true cyber culture was still alive. Plugging back into that worldview and mindset and writing three new Vurt stories allowed me to re-examine those times, the good and the bad, in the light of what we’ve gained since then, and what we’ve lost. I’ve tried to weave these feelings of loss and hope through the new stories. They are me looking back, in order to look forward once again.

Q: In Vurt and Pollen, you take the idea of remix from dance and also folk music. What got you interested in this approach?

J: I’ve always loved the British folk tradition, ever since John Peel used to play tracks on late-night radio when I was a young teenager in the early 1970s. I can remember writing or trying to write theatre plays influenced by the old ballads. I just loved them as stories, as narrative, as catalogues of weird practices and magic and bloodletting and desperate love and transformation (women into swans, blood into roses). So it was exciting to link that to a contemporary technological storyline, especially in Pollen. The dance music craze in the rave era fed directly into Vurt. But the idea of remixing prose didn’t arrive for a few years later, in my work, around the time of Nymphomation. I’ve been following that pathway in various ways ever since. I just love music, more than any other art form. I’m always listening to new things all the time, exploring new genres. It’s a natural thing for me to feed that love of music into my novels and stories.

Q: In Channel SK1N, you describe the girls who follow Nola as having ‘their names and dreams jotted down on numerous talent show waiting lists’ in opposition to her change from manufactured to manufacturing. I always get the sense in Vurt that the only people who might survive are those who go to the edge. Is this the only way that you see art making a difference?

J: Interesting question. Yes, I think so. I tend to write about people who live on the edges of society or of normal behaviour, and are trying to forge a new understanding, a new life for themselves on the margins. A lot of my stories take place on borderlines, both in the world, in politics, and inside the body, the mind. I see art, especially SF, as an exploration of the possible (and the impossible.) We can’t always do that ourselves, in any safe way, so the novel and the film make that journey for us. We become both more individualistic, and more a part of society as a result. I’m not a “political” artist, in any obvious sense of the word, but I hope I bring some kind of poetic edge to that struggle, that tension between belonging and exploration.

Q: Alice in Wonderland features heavily in your novels, from the wonderland itself to the character of Alice (and the question of who is the dreamer in Vurt echoing Alice’s own question). What is it about Alice that interests you and brings you back to it as an influence, or even taproot text?

J: I see the Alice books as the expression of a very English kind of surrealism, which I hope to key into, and to channel into a science fictional landscape. The way the books trip between dream and reality has always fascinated me. I didn’t plan to have the books influence Vurt; it just happened quite naturally during the writing process. But once Alice arrived, she has been a consistent presence in almost all of my books, usually mentioned by name, or as some kind of effect or magical process. Without a doubt, the Alice books are a source code for so much of my subsequent work. And of course, the wordplay is spectacular, and the ideas still shine after all these years. Remarkable works.

Q: I remember the impression of there being a terrifically energetic scene in Manchester, with the Madchester scene. Was this something that you were plugged into or was it largely on the periphery?

J: I was on the periphery. I’m usually found out there, to be honest; it’s my natural place. Edge of the dance floor, and all that. I hope to speak for other peripheral beings, to tell some stories from the edges. But it was fascinating being in Manchester at the time, even as an outsider. So when I started to write Vurt I was conscious that here was a scene that could very easily thrive in a science fictional atmosphere. I used lots of the stories and characters I had seen and heard about, not in any direct way, but as metaphors, as dream events.

Q: Rather than being the medium is the message, is it now the case of how to become the medium as Nola does?

J: More and more so. I’m not saying this is a good or bad thing, necessarily, just that the process exists and seems to be speeding up. But, nevertheless, we remain analog beings in an increasingly digital world; out of that tension a different kind of future might yet emerge. SF is the number one prime medium to chart the transformations.

Q: What influences you in choosing form for your writing, such as the sentences that break down? Is this where the Cobralingus engine came from?

J: Almost all of the experimental work that I do comes from the world of music. I am basically taking musical processes such as the remix, dub, segueing, mash-ups, bootlegs and so on, and attempting to find their prose equivalents. We might call this Dub Fiction, as a short cut. Cobralingus came about when I first saw musical software devices at work, such a Cubase and FL Studio. I was listening to a lot of fairly advanced electronica at the time, and I was fascinated by the way in which the musicians pushed musical material through a series of effects, to mutate and extend and break down the original in various ways. So I created a series of similar gates or filters for myself, but ones that could affect language rather than music. Of course I did all this inside my head, not in a machine. Digital software cannot replicate that process for language. Cobralingus is both a self-contained book, and a first-draft manual for that kind of experimentation.

Q: What influences the genre(s) drawn from in the novels, such as psychedelic, almost Irvine Welsh style, in Vurt or road trip in Falling Out of Cars?

J: I’m trying my best to match story with form, events with mood. Each story has its ultimate form and expression; we hardly ever find that form completely, but the journey towards it is more than half the fun of writing. So, I always ask the question: what is being told here, and how best can it be expressed? How can what is being talked about affect the way it is spoken. And vice versa. So each book has a different language, sometimes drastically as in Needle in the Groove or Channel SK1N, where the subject matter seems to have directly infected the book itself. I love that sense of infection; it’s probably for me the most exciting part of the creative process.

Q: You have been publishing short fiction on Twitter. Does its character limit pose challenges for writing fiction, or a new freedom to explore its potentials?

J: Both. It challenges and offers freedom. I have recently been writing even shorter pieces, some of them as small as one word. The word EXI(s)T, for instance. It’s asking me to leave, and to stay at the same time. I’m into really peering at language under a microscope and seeing how words can be joined together, pulled apart, merged and mutated. I see the work on twitter as a laboratory of language.

Q: Do you have any new work in the pipeline?

J: Yes. A few things. I’m still very interested in writing screenplays, and have just started a script based on my short story “Super-Easy-No-Tag-Special”. I’m also talking about a pilot for a TV series. There are always various things on the go, but not all of them come to fruition. It can get very frustrating at times, but we cross our fingers and persevere. Novel-wise, I am exploring some new pathways. Which of these I will walk down, and what I’ll find there, well then, let us see…

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