Jeff Noon

interviewed by the Preston SF Group 11/4/95

Jeff Noon is the author of the cult novel VURT and its sequel POLLEN. However, asyou will see from this interview, he has been working in other areas for a long timebefore he started writing novels. Jeff started by reading the first chapter of Pollen stimulating the first question.


Was hay fever something you suffered from in childhood?

It was. It was bad when I was a kid. I haven't suffered for years now, but there werethese wheat fields higher up behind the house. So we used to play in it and camehome with eyes streaming. But I haven't suffered for ages now. Touch wood.

What were you doing before you started to write?

I was doing lots of different things. I was painting and playing music and eventuallyI ended up doing some stand-up stuff around the pubs in Ashton (in Manchester).They were more like one-man shows, really. This is going back to the late 70s. Justthe start of the alternative comic scene and all that. And I got this idea that maybe Iwas an actor. So eventually I ended up going to college and studying painting and drama combined arts. During which time I discovered that I wasn't in fact an actor. At the end of that course, I decided that I would stop doing lots of things and just concentrate on one, and I chose the most difficult thing I could do. Because I find it easy to paint and music; I can do it, but writing I found very difficult... but exciting.

So I started writing plays and had a lot of success with my first play, Woundings, which was put on at the Royal Exchange in Manchester. Which made me think that this is it. This is my life, this is what I am. But it didn't turn out like that at all. And for eight years I was really struggling after that. I had more or less decided that maybe it was time to change. That I wasn't a playwright, that I'd do something else, but I didn't know what. I finally ended up working in Waterstones in Manchester around that time, and I was there for about five years. And Steve Powell was also working there. We were always getting drunk and plotting our escape from this shop. One day he came up to me and said he was starting his own publishing company and would I write him a novel?

Steve had liked my plays so obviously he had some belief in me. So I just went home that night, turned on the computer and started writing. I didn't have anything in my mind at all which was different to when I did my plays because I planned them out very, very carefully. I just decided to start and see what happened. I sat down and wrote: "Mandy came out of the all-night... something... carrying a bag of goodies." I didn't know what that something was yet. Eventually it became an all-night Vurt-U-Want. That first page sort of flew out. It was weird. By the end of it I had these four characters being chased by the cops and there was dogs and robo-crusties and this strange nebulous creature that they were carrying about like a burden. And it just started from there and I finished the first chapter and handed it to Steve, and he said, "Jeff this is brilliant, I can't make head nor tale of it!" because Steve's not into that kind of stuff at all. He didn't have a clue about what I was doing. But then that's how the book was written. I'd be writing a chapter or two at a time, giving them to Steve and he'd come back, and I'd work on. So it grew in a very organic way. It wasn't the usual route for a writer which is to finish drafts and to send them to somebody in London, who says please try harder next time or whatever.

Did it continue to flow in the same way or did the nature of it change as you went on?

No, that's how it grew. I was making up the plot as I went along, and then going back and changing it so it worked as much as possible. It was more or less the same with Pollen as well.

Did the outside input from Steve change your ideas at all as you went along?

Yes, definitely. We worked very closely on it. If I've any skill it's the power of my imagination and I've always known that. `Cos I was making ideas up as a kid that the other kids didn't have a clue about. The way it worked with Steve was that he doesn't have an imagination (laugh), but he does have structure. And he was constantly saying Jeff you just can't do that. You can't say that. And occasionally I'd agree with him. So it became almost like a battle really. I'm mad, he's a scientist. So together we make a mad scientist!

How long did it take for you to write Vurt?

About a year. I was still working at Waterstones. Working at night, and we published it. We didn't have any money to publicise it or anything like that. And nothing happened, and Steve said; "Jeff don't worry, it's going to happen. This book is going to take off. Just be patient." He said. "You'll be out of this shop by March."

Then we started getting all this feedback from the SF community in Britain which we didn't even know existed. Groups like this, and going to conventions. I mean it's so strong! We didn't even know about that, but they started getting back to us Dave Barrett especially was urging us all the time. He was the one who said, "You've got to put this in for the Arthur C. Clarke award. If he hadn't told us we wouldn't have known about it. So we put it in for that and it got short-listed and then an amazing co-incidence happened. There was an American agent on holiday in Switzerland, and she went into an English speaking book shop and there was a single copy of Vurt on the shelf; spine on. I didn't even know it had gone to book shops in Europe. And something made her pull the book down and buy it. And she read it that night. She said it took her over basically. Then she spent a few days trying to find us, because Ringpull are based in Littleborough, a place in Lancashire.

Steve said, "This mad Jewish woman keeps ringing me up and going on and on about Vurt." She's called Barabra and she sounds like Ruby Wax on acid. She's mad, and she was demanding we give her the rights to this book. And we did. Within a week, she'd sold it to Crown, who are a big publisher, for a nice amount of money. And the next day I went into work and handed my notice in. And that was in February. So it was a month earlier than Steve predicted.

Do you feel it was an advantage not to have any contact with the SF community?

I wasn't conscious that I was writing Science Fiction because I wrote it in this very organic way. I just let my imagination loose and see what happened. There isn't any technology in the book for instance at all. If there is any, it's all gone organic. It's all in things like in flowers, in feathers and in pollen. There are no computers or anything like that. Although there is this very advanced piece of magic, if you like, which allows you access to other people's dreams. The people in the story are still trundling around in old transit vans and it's very definitely set in the present day Manchester I know. So I wasn't that conscious I was writing Science Fiction. I was trying to surprise myself.

Had you read any Science Fiction?

Yes, I'd read the usual amount. I wasn't a fanatic. Gibson had a big effect when I first read Neuromancer, obviously. J.G. Ballard was the main one. I discovered him when I was about 18 when I read The Atrocity Exhibition, I just went on from there and read everything he had ever written. But apart from that not a lot really.

Do you think you'll continue to write Science Fiction or go mainstream?

No. Whenever I try to write something which is more realistic it just veers off. I suddenly get a mad idea. I have no time at all for the great English novel. The novels about people with slight problems in their marriage. You know when you go into a book shop and there's this new novel which is being appraised and the first sentence reads something like; "Deborah looked at Brian who was standing there holding a tea towel in his hand.". I think, no. I don't think so, I'll leave that one alone.

If you look at the case of J.G. Ballard. Every so often you get people bemoaning the fact there are no great English novels. But someone like Ballard's been writing great English novels for something like 25 years totally hidden, until Empire of the Sun, when the Guardian suddenly discovers him. I mean the guy had written Crash for crying out loud. So it's good he can come out. I think it's slowly changing in Britain there's more of an opportunity for strange stories.

Do you think Vurt is SF? I picked up mine in the mainstream section and bought it on the strength of the first line.

Book shops put me in many places. I actually took the first supply of Vurt myself (laugh) because I was still working at the shop then. So I put it in the Science Fiction myself... natural history... sport... sex manuals... The manager was following me around saying, "You can't do that Jeff." I don't worry about labels or anything. Whatever people want to see it as. I don't sit down consciously to write a certain type of novel. I can only write what comes out. I spent too many years with plays trying to create something.

Is there anything in the technique of play-writing which you carry over to novel writing or did you start from ground-zero again?

No, I'd learned how to do dialogue by then so that was very useful. And structure. I think I got from that, and because of the way I wrote it I had to be quite tight about the structure of it. I was kind of conscious in my mind thinking; right I'd gone down this alley now, gone off at a tangent, I've got to bring it back. I've got to do this and that. But I was almost writing it on the run, and I think Vurt reads like that. Scribble is this innocent, naive bloke who rushes through the novel desperately trying to find something. And there he's a bit like me, rushing through the novel trying to get to the end. Pollen, I think is a slower read, and it wanders around looking at a certain subject which is this hay fever epidemic.

Would you go back to play-writing?

No. Writing novels is much better. It's freer. The way my imagination works it is anobvious medium, I just didn't realise. It took me 36 years to actually find it, but there is a tremendous sense of release. I felt like my head was exploding when I was writing Vurt. At last I can do anything! (laugh)

Do you have your own personal theory about how vurt works in its own level of nano-machines or what?

Oh, the technology? No, the interesting thing for me is that I don't have a clue about what vurt is. So writing these books is an adventure. I know as much about it as the characters do. There are four books planned so I'm half way through. And I'm not really carrying characters on, although they may turn up here and there.

It's really the history of vurt that I'm looking at, which is the history of dreams. If dreams were released from the confines of the skull, what effect would that have on society? So that's what I'm kind of looking at. And there are lots of characters especially in Vurt who've all got different ideas about what vurt is. Some of them quite contradictory. Some think it's a game or drug. Or to some it's like a kind of psychological tool and to others it's a religion; a way of knowledge. So it seems to be many things to many people.

I don't really think of it too much. People have said they're glad that things aren't explained too much. It's taken as read that this stuff exists and is fun but also dangerous. So maybe I'll look at it one day.

You've been compared to Philip Dick. Have you read any of his stuff?

I haven't actually read any Phillip K. Dick. I tried to once and couldn't get into it.

Which book was that?

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep. I'm an absolute fan of Blade Runner, so I was approaching it from that angle really. From the wrong side. But I know, Philip K. Dick introduced this idea that dream and reality can get mixed up, that's what he constantly went on about. So it's as if his idea has taken off. I know so much about that without reading it and I'm conscious I'm doing something similar.

Do you see any Lewis Caroll in there?

Yea, I'm actually mad about Alice. Alice actually appears in Pollen at the end she's very sick and she's dying because people aren't dreaming about her any more.

Like Tinkerbell. Perhaps we should all clap at this point. (laughs)

Yea. Lewis Caroll was an incredible man with a strange, unique imagination. I don't want to say too much about the third book I'm writing at the moment but it's not a vurt novel. I'm taking a rest from that, but it does have something to do with Lewis Caroll.

There are also elements of Green Myth in your work?

Yes, the Green Myth was picked up and obviously Orpheus by critics and readers have mentioned this. The strange thing about that was that I was three quarters the way through Vurt and it suddenly came to me that this was a bit like the Orpheus story. So I reached for the Larousse Encyclopedia of Mythology and looked it up and was amazed to discover that Eurydice his wife had died from being bitten on the ankle by a snake. And I'd already written at that point that Scribble had been bitten on the ankle by a snake and that allowed him to enter the vurt world. So that totally amazed me. It was like I was keying into something quite deep. But in Vurt it was totally unconscious. And then because so many people were going on about Greek myths and all that and by that time I was starting to work out this idea that vurt was a world of stories. A kind of story space. The dreams are released. Dreams are made up of all the stories we've ever known and it's very confusing. Once they're released and are out there they start to have a life of their own. And I was starting to think about Pollen and I wanted Pollen to be about this story world and how it was getting jealous, bitter and angry at reality. At the dreamers, the story tellers. I came up with this idea that this character we'd invented thousands of years ago called John Barleycorn, who is an English mythological character all to do with the crop cycle, the harvest and the fertility of the fields and so on. Would make a good person to be jealous and he would want to infiltrate reality in some way and the way, and he would do this through his natural power would be through the power of vegetables and plants. And that's what the hay fever epidemic turns out to be. So it's a vurt, a vurtual invasion if you like. I was getting very conscious that here I was doing another myth. I think it was Philip Larkin who put down the idea of the myth kitty which writers can dip into. What I decided to do was tackle it head on. Okay, it's another myth, I'm actually going to make it about myths. I'm not going to borrow it, I'm actually going to make this John Barleycorn very powerful. The myth is going to battle against the story-teller. So Pollen's almost a wrestling match between me and the idea, and I'm not sure who won. But it was a good fight.

Have completely excluded the play writing side of your nature? There's nothing you want to go back and say in that medium or any other medium?

No, I don't think so. I'm more interested in getting other people to take on what I do. So I'm very interested in the idea of comics and a film hopefully, and games and so on. Someone came up and said they want to make a record based on Vurt, like a sound-track to the moods of the book. So it's that way I want to see my work going.

Do you want to be involved in these projects?

I just want to give it away. One of the things I did learn from working in the theatre was that I lost the preciousness that a lot of writers have. Like, when you're putting a play on at the Royal Exchange for instance, it involves about 300 people including actors who have massive egos, writers with massive egos. You learn quite quickly in that environment to give it away and say, okay get on with it. So I'm interested now in people. If people come up to me and say `I'd like to do this.' I say great do it.

Is there any examples of that yet?

There is an audio-book of Vurt, read by Paul McGann. And it's very strange listening to him reading it because he reads it in a totally different way to what I do. When I was doing a three week tour in America I was reading the first chapter of Vurt, and I treat Scribble's voice as if he totally accepts everything that's in front of him as if its been there for ages. Like Bridget has smoke coming off her skin, he totally accepts that's what she is. The thing from outer space - he's totally accepted it. When Paul McGann does Scribble, he's totally surprised by it all the time. That was the main difference I picked up on. It is very strange hearing someone read something you've been reading in front of people.

America was great, there was such an incredible response to it. I was very nervous because originally I was writing a book I thought might excite a few friends in Manchester. But when I got to America they'd really picked up on it and they didn't get any of the references at all. To them it was totally alien. Manchester is an alien world!

What was the response in Manchester like?

When I was writing Vurt, it suddenly came to me that no-one has done this before. No one has done this in Manchester. They haven't actually written about Manchester in this way. And when we put it out there was a real feeling that people had been waiting for something like this to come along. This was the best response I was getting from people. I was just so grateful that no-one had done it in Manchester before. It seemed so obvious to me looking back. This city was there, just waiting for somebody to release it in a sense. there are very few novels written in Manchester. It's not a literary city at all it's a musical city. We're great at pop music but noone writes there.

[At this point Ramsey Campbell, who was in the audience shouted `I do!' and a free for all ensued with names of authors who wrote about Manchester flying like ticker-tape during the Wall Street crash. We will not record this riot.]

Some writers feel it is a bit easy to set their novels close to home and start off with exotic settings at first before realising it was their own back yard they wanted to write about all along. Dis you go through a process like that?

No, really. One of the things I was trying to do in my plays was to find a voice for Manchester. I knew there was this rhythm in the speech which not many people had picked up on. I wanted to do that. I wanted to invent a kind of language and a beat. It's a very musical novel I think. I listen to music all the time when I'm writing. So I was consciously setting out to put Manchester on some sort of map; a futuristic map. I mean Pollen is about maps. It's about the broken maps of love. As Sibyl, one of the main characters says at the beginning. All the four main characters in Pollen, totally isolated from each other at the start of the novel. They've all got maps of Manchester of some kind. As it says about Coyote; Coyote IS a map. But they're all totally different maps of the same city. Sibyl is searching for her daughter Boda. They're very close together but they're on different maps of the same city.

And one of the stories in the book is the mother and daughter merging their maps together in this very literal sense, towards the end. What made me nervous more than anything was putting down things like street names. I was thinking would people really be interested in this. Then I kept thinking about American novels set in small towns and it adds a kind of romantic feel to it.

So I was kind of taking it on trust that people would like the idea that the streets were there. I also knew that the story I was telling was so nebulous, this idea of this technology which can release dreams was such a fantastic idea that it would be easier to set it in a very down to earth place. So there's a real contrast in Vurt between the down and dirty mean streets of Manchester and the vurt worlds the characters visit. They play against each other I think.

Is there any connection between Vurt and the American Indians?

Yea. Just before, I was asked where I got the idea about the feathers from. I wish I had a great story to tell about this. It was very mundane. How would they take this stuff? I didn't want syringes or pills. I wanted something different, but I knew that nobody else could possibly have come up with this idea before. I mean no way! This has to be unique. I put the book out and it was actually the American agent Barbara, I was telling you about, sent me a present of an American Indian Dream catcher. I don't know if you've seen one before. It's this circle of material with twine netted with beads on it and ceremonial feathers hanging down. You put this above your sleeping quarters and then in the night your dreams escape and are captured in the feathers. So there was me thinking I had come up with something totally unique, only to find it had been around for thousands of years (laugh). Ringpull are still waiting for the Navaho to send their lawyers in.


The End


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