Transmission > Reception
The Modern Word interviews Jeff Noon
The following interview was conducted in early September 2002 by Ismo Santala.
Ismo Santala: Jeff, what were you up to before the release of Vurt, arts-wise? You wrote a full-length play entitled Woundings: does it have links to your other works, or is it more of a separate thing?
Jeff Noon: I was passionate about theatre in those days, just after I'd left college. Woundings was a play set on a distant island, modelled on the Falklands, after a major conflict had taken place. It was a story about a peace-keeping force, a bunch of soldiers, and their relationship with the island people, and with a group of women who come over to the island from Britain, on a government sponsored scheme. It all goes wrong, and one of the British women gets killed, shot by one of the soldiers. So it's a very political piece, but concerned with people's lives, rather than making any broad points. On a thematic level I see it as being about the price that we pay in order to become individuals, a theme I see running through more or less everything I've written since then. It's funny because my next work will be a play, The Modernists, about the early days of the Mods. I'm going right back to my roots, and with the same theme firmly in place.
IS: You attended Manchester University during the 1980s studying Painting and Drama. Was it a rewarding time for you?
JN: A dreadful time. It was a very low level course, apart from one or two really good tutors, and I found myself out on a limb most days. I was a bit older than many of the other students, so I could just get on with my own work. But I really missed out on a proper education, all round. I've had to teach myself most things. But it was at college that I first seriously thought about becoming a writer. Nature made me a painter; I gave all that up when I left college and decided to concentrate on writing plays. I had this need to tell stories to people, I've always had that.
IS: How closely did you work with illustrators Harry Trumbore (Automated Alice) and Daniel Allington (Cobralingus) on those books? Alligton's illustrations particularly seem to form a sub-narrative of their own.
JN: Not very closely. Harry lives in the States, so I could only send him a few notes on early drafts. With Daniel I had a brief chat before he started work. He read the book and came up with the illustrations and that was that. Nothing needed to be said, they were so good.
IS: Was the use of certain Gothic archetypes (i.e. large house with mysterious cellar, the vampire variation, the pit) in Nymphomation unconscious?
JN: Hardly anything was planned back in those days. I would just write and see what happened and then try to make it work, make it fit in with the narrative. So I was dredging stuff up from god knows where. My knowledge of Gothic comes only from watching far too many Hammer horror movies when I was younger, and I suppose that must have filtered through in some way. I do know that one of my little rules back then was that a labyrinth should appear in every novel, so that would've led to the construction in the cellar. I always knew that Nymphomation was going to be a somewhat sick and squalid work, in keeping with the theme of sexualised knowledge. The Gothic would seem to plug straight into that feel.
IS: Jorge Luis Borges is a major influence on your work. When did you discover his works, and what is it about his fiction that makes it so special to you?
JN: I was in my early twenties. I was visiting Leeds with a friend and we discovered a little secondhand bookshop. There was a book in there, Ficciones, by Jorge Luis Borges. I'd never heard of him before that moment. I opened it at the first story and read about mirrors and sex being equally abominable because they both multiplied the numbers of Man. I was hooked from that moment. It was just the sheer quality of the idea itself that got to me; the imagination on view. Later on I came to appreciate the prose style and the melancholic nature of the work, and the fact that the stories seem incredibly human despite the fact that hardly any emotions are described. But again and again it's the bank of ideas I come back to, and use freely as I see fit, trying to keep Borges' spirit alive in a new, contemporary way. He is far and away my favourite writer.
IS: I take it that your collaboration with Steve Beard on Mappalujo was an enjoyable one. Is there a book version of Mappalujo in the works? Are you planning any future team-ups?
JN: Enjoyable, yes, but very difficult. And very time consuming. Working with a partner doesn't half the time, it doubles it. Just trying to work out how to work together, constantly moving into new positions, searching. All this is good of course, it leads you into new pastures, but it takes some getting used to. We are trying to do some more pieces, with a view to a book and all that. Mappalujo's natural home is a book, I think, rather than the Web. The structure and process of the work becomes much more obvious on paper, with the ability to flip through the pages. I'm a great believer in books, as being the perfect hardware for the software of a story. And they give you overview that's very difficult to achieve in the Web. But I am still interested in the Web as a medium. It's early days as yet. A lot of research needs to be done, research in the form of people creating stories just for that medium. There's a lot of theory being passed around at the moment.
IS: What's the premise of your new novel Falling Out Of Cars?
JN: The starting point was the idea of noise levels rising, like a sickness. In communication theory, noise refers to anything that gets in the way of a message being passed successfully from transmitter to receiver. I look around and see all the layers of information we're supposed to move through these days, and the complex web of images that surrounds us. On the one hand, it's all very exciting; on the other, sometimes I just feel like I'm being submerged by it all. So that was the basic premise; to allow the noise levels to rise and keep on rising and to see what effect that would have on people and on society. How would people even talk to each other, if all they were hearing was nonsense? What would be the point of writing, if nobody could read the words? These and other questions were thrown up by the idea. I needed some device that would enable a certain level of communication. So I came up with the idea of a drug called Lucidity, which acts as a temporary noise suppressant, and has to be taken three times a days. The novel started to get interesting then, for me. I started to see it in very human terms, in the sense of what people would go through, even to get close to each other. I started to see that the noise might even seep into the act of touching another person. Just from that very simple idea a load, a rich seam of imagery came into being. So, it's about a group of people who are travelling around this diseased Britain, trying to find a scrap of meaning in the barrage of infected images. It's about the final days of the Empire of Signs.
IS: How does Falling Out of Cars situate itself with your other works?
JN: I see it as the first work of my third period. It's me moving away from the experiments of Needle and Mappalujo and Cobralingus, and trying to apply what I've learnt from those works, into a more narrative-based structure. I'm trying to find ways in which my experiments with language can be used to illuminate character and emotional development. So the language of the book changes as Marlene, the narrator, succumbs to the noise sickness. The journal she's keeping becomes infected. Of course there are the usual Carroll and Borges elements in there, and the theme of the broken family is ever present in everything I write. But I'm hoping people see it has being a more mature work, a novel that deals more with the real world, whatever that might mean these days. It's not as fanciful, much sadder to my mind. And because of that I found myself able to allow Marlene an unresolved ending, a coming to terms with loss, and then a moving on. The novel remains in a state of flux at the end; a realm of possibility.
IS: Vurt was largely written listening to Nirvana and The Pixies; various electronica artists (e.g. Mouse on Mars, Microstoria) featured heavily in the creation of Needle in the Groove, etc. What kind of music were you listening to while working on Falling Out of Cars?
JN: There are various kinds of music that stay with me; classical, electronic, jazz, and free improvisation. I move through a strange cycle where a period of obsession with one music will gradually move into another kind of music. The soundtrack of Falling Out of Cars is definitely Free Improv. Evan Parker and Derek Bailey are the two I come back to, time and again. In an earlier draft of the novel I had Marlene looking at some graffiti on the wall, which namechecked Derek Bailey. She didn't know who he was, but that kind of free, mad, dancing, courageous expression is the sound of human beings exploring the limits where music meets noise, and finding beauty and truth in that porous boundary. And that's what the novel posits; that out of this chaos of noise, and by very strange channels, a meaning is drawn together.
IS: When you lived in Manchester, that city became a massively important aspect of your work. Since moving to Brighton, have you felt the place seeping into your newer stuff?
JN: Inevitably it will do, but I'm determined that I won't be so tightly bound. I found the Manchester connection great for a while, but it became more stifling that liberating, by the end. So it was time to move on. I'm a different person now; it's a different world. And time for a different kind of writing.
IS: How do you write? Was there anything peculiar about the writing process of Falling Out of Cars?
JN: I write on a word processor, but I hate it. I'm seriously thinking of buying a typewriter. The ability to go back and change everything is far too tempting on a processor; I find myself constantly checking my work and redoing it. It's very time-consuming. I work long hours, late into the night. I have a little sleep in the daytime to compensate. It's a very strange lifestyle, all told, with periods of intense life-affirming creativity, brought down by bouts of depression and fear of failure. Falling Out of Cars is unique in my work because I started it in the middle, with the scene in the hotel room where Marlene has the serious attack of the noise sickness. I then worked forward and backwards from that moment. After I'd done about a 120 pages in the way, I then unfolded the narrative into a more linear expression. It certainly threw up some surprises. But a large part of the process is about surprising yourself; suddenly deciding to change the tense, or the viewpoint, or the gender of a character. I do these things a lot. Just games, really. But they help to push the mind into a new pathway. Searching, searching...
IS: Let's end this one with a confession. Which classic work you haven't actually read, but always say otherwise when the book crops up in conversation?
JN: Oh, I'm so not well-read, it's stupid. There are serious gaps in my knowledge of literature. I hope to put them right one day. But my main area of interest is 20th century art, up to about 1980. Other than that, I have a lot of secondhand knowledge. I've sat on panels being an expert on a writer's work, and not having read anything by that person. In my early days as a novellist I used to say I'd read Philip K. Dick and Burroughs and people like that, just because people kept comparing my work to theirs. But I came to realise it was actually more interesting to tell the truth. My interest in playing with words as a medium in their own right, for instance, is nothing to do with the influence of drugs, as it was for Burroughs, but entirely to do with my love of dub reggae and the mysteries of the remix. I've arrived at a similar place by an entirely different route. Most of the time, I don't even know I'm walking a particular route until I'm well down the way. There's no theory involved. Slowly, over the years, book by book, a map comes into being. It's a map of smoke.
27 December 2002
More on Jeff Noon
Main Page Back to the Scriptorium's main Jeff Noon page, which contains a biographical sketch and Noon-related links.
Works A detailed bibliography of Noons published works, with summaries and commentary.
Blurbs The UK publishers blurbs for Noons major works.