Jeff Noon Interview by Gerard Earley at BSFA 27 January 2016
In the early 1990s, aspiring playwright Jeff Noon was working in the SF section of Waterstones in Manchester when he came across a non-fiction book detailing the technical aspects of virtual reality, a concept that had been explored with dazzling panache by William Gibson in his novel ‘Neuromancer’. Inspired by both books but uninterested in computers, Jeff began work on a play about an ecstasy-inspired British virtual reality culture that had an organic rather than a technological basis. Halfway through however, he was asked to write a novel by a colleague who ran a small publishing press.
The process of writing the novel that would become ‘Vurt’ was as original and intriguing as the story itself. Although a substantial amount of the dramatic narrative was based on people and situations Jeff knew, he had no idea where the story was going. So he approached the novel as a jazz musician would approach an improvised piece with his friend editing the book as Jeff wrote it.
The mantra was ‘just keep scribbling’, which is possibly why the protagonist is called Scribble although Jeff maintains that the character is not a self-portrait. He wanted instead to fully inhabit all his characters including the antagonists, writing them from the inside to maximise authenticity. The approach worked in unexpected ways; early interpretations of the novel suggested it depicted the speed-fuelled punk era rather than the ecstasy-inspired rave movement.
In his earlier youth, Jeff had been a bona fide Manchester punk; a self-confessed addictive personality whose early struggle with alcohol ensured that he was an observer of the burgeoning 90s drug scene rather than a participant in it. Describing himself memorably as the ‘Boswell of ecstasy’, Jeff took what he saw and turned it into art, realising he was onto something with ‘Vurt’ when he came up with the word ‘droidlocks’.
‘Vurt’s first review was not favourable but subsequent press improved and the book gained commercial traction when people in Manchester began to recognise themselves and their communities. The novel went on to win the coveted Arthur C Clarke award, while a sale of the film rights enabled Jeff to finally leave the bookshop and write full time.
Perhaps characteristically, Jeff’s next project was to be nothing like ‘Vurt’; indeed it wasn’t going to be SF at all. However, he was persuaded by his publisher to stay within the genre and wrote a ‘Vurt’ sequel called ‘Pollen’. This time it was ambient dub and British folklore that underpinned the narrative as Jeff delved deep into our classic mythology to forge something memorably strange.
This tendency to mash things together feels as much a creative process as a personal aesthetic. Jeff blends words (droidlocks, Nymphomation), epochs (punk/rave; mythical past/urban future) and biologies (sentient dogs, Automated Alice) to create a beguiling but uncomfortable symphony in the reader’s mind.
In the 90s, there was a trend for writers to do reading gigs in nightclubs, so accompanied by other luminaries of the chemical age like Irvine Welsh, Jeff would read his work in chill rooms as techno pounded through the wall. It was as if music was infiltrating, even infecting the words; an idea that led Jeff to obsessive levels of invention. He admits to a jealousy of musicians and seeks their power in his own medium. How, for example, could he remix prose as one did music? How could he depict reverb as a read experience?
He accepts that profound media differences make these challenges uniquely difficult. While music is an instant experience, words take time to set, like oil in a painting that can be manipulated or reformed before it dries. Perhaps the written sound is best expressed in one of the tiny stories, lasting a paragraph or even a line, that Jeff posts online. Or perhaps it is found in the unexpected error; the beautiful spelling mistake he admits is a secret goal.
In other respects, Jeff has completely succeeded in driving his narrative aesthetic through different media. ‘Vurt’ started as a play before it became a novel and has since become a play again in a student production in Manchester. The book is now being developed by some of Jeff’s US readers in a Kickstarter-funded role-playing game. Meanwhile, some of the tiny stories have been illustrated by Chris Riddle and the combined works may eventually be published as a book.
This sense of rapid evolution matches that of our culture at large, but where is it headed? Inevitably, Jeff has an idea about that and is busy exploring his concept of the post-digital age. Unconcerned with the usual binary choice between post-apocalyptic/faux-medieval and Apple-inspired décor, Jeff is more interested in British housing estates populated by digital fragments that have taken on a life of their own. He proposes that people will use traps to capture these fragments and turn them into new creations, perhaps even new life forms. This resonant, haunting landscape feels like both a fascinating new direction and also a metaphor for Jeff’s work as a whole, in which the world seems about to make sense just as it falls apart.