As Per VURT

Nile Southern and Mark Amerika go Vurtin' with British novelist Jeff Noon, author of a fantastically successful first-novel, just released in The US this February by Crown.


He forced my mouth wide open; the fingers of one hand squeezing my cheeks, the other hand pushing the feather home, deep, to the back of the throat. I could feel it there, tickling, making me want to gag. And then the Vurt kicked in. And then I was gone. I felt the opening advurts roll, and then the credits. The pad went morphic and my last thoughts were; Why are we doing this? Skull Shit? It's so low-level, it's even got advurts in it. We should be going higher, searching for lost love. Instead we were just playing, just playing at--


"When I think of The Vurt, I see it as like a collection of every story that's ever been written or ever imagined by human beings --almost like a planet of stories. My relationship to all this is as an explorer of this world that I don't have much clue about."


Nile:
Your writing is very musical, and Vurt features aspects of the Club-scene and Dub--how influenced is your writing by what's going on in music today?
Noon:
Totally and utterly influenced by music. Just briefly how I came to write the novel--I was actually asked to write it by a friend of mine--so it's a request in a way... I 'd been writing plays for about nine years, and this guy I'd known for a long time started his own publishing company and asked me to write a novel, and I had never thought about this before, so I literally went home that night, turned the computer on, and started writing. And it just came out. So it was improvised. It was very closely worked with Steve, the other guy, who was the editor and publisher--so it was almost like I was a musician, improvising--just making it up as I went along, and then he was kind of every so often saying 'let's take this bit' and 'let's go back to beginning now', and 'let's push it in this direction' and so on.

I listen to music all the time when I write--I almost can't write without music--and what I'm listening to affects the way that I write. Some parts of Vurt, we're ultimately to do with The Pixies--whom I was mad about at the time--and I listen to a lot of like Dub--anything with Dub in there--anything that's got space in it--that uses the bass to play and stuff like that, and everything comes back--and the way Vurt's written its a bit like that, cuz' its big paragraphs and these little words--just single sentence paragraphs--you know, and its kind of like that--its got this rhythm to it. I listen to a lot of modern jazz stuff--you know?--loose rhythms, and that again gives you a different kind of writing. So that whole concept is very close to me.

Music Listened to While Writing VURT

Pixies
Ambient Dub
Higher Intelligence Agency
Original Rockers
Guerrilla in Dub

I'm not really influenced by other writers. Manchester is a very musical city--but it's not a literary city--I mean there's lots of book readers there, but hardly any writers--and certainly not writers who are tryin' to like paint a new map of the city--I think literally I'm the only one--and I wasn't aware of it at the time, cuz' I never really thought about it, but as I wrote it it came to me, 'Good God, I'm on my own here'--which is quite scary.

Nile:
I had this feeling when I was living in England of being able to see things in large brush-strokes--for instance this idea of 'inpho' being something that's shot at you, and sort of reading you, rather than you making sense of it and it being something you bring something to, and I got that especially from the surveillance cameras on the roads and in the buses--
Noon:
They are actually eating knowledge out of you--surveillance cameras--that's what they're doing, yeah. It's just a symptom, isn't it, of the way we live now--some people are scared of that--but I'm not scared of that--I like it--I like the chaos of all that, and I think that what people like you are doing on the Internet is great, because on this tour of America what I've really noticed--I've met loads of different people--you know the people that turn up to my readings are usually a bit strange--but they're strange in different ways--like some of them are hippies, and they're into this whole holistic business, and UFOs and stuff like that--and I get a lot of people that are into techno music and organizing raves, and I get thrash-metal kids--you know, Beavis and Butt-head types--but they all say to me, "will you give me your Internet address"--they're all on it! All these different people are on the Internet--and it's like the Internet is The Underground--I mean metaphysically--it's become the underground. A lot of these people don't realize how close they are to each other--these different tribes--these fringe tribes--they don't realize just how close they are--so there's a bit of antagonism between them--which is interesting. I'm in a position to observe this because I'm going around--but I'm not on it--I'll have to get on The Internet, obviously. (laughs).
Nile:
Do you paint anymore?
Noon:
I don't. I was more or less born a painter--that's my natural talent--is to paint and create images, and I studied that--but I gave it up--in 1984 it was, I decided to give up everything else that I did and just concentrate on writing. So I was playing music but I stopped it--I just play for myself now. I just found that in my paintings I was constantly trying to tell stories, and I just felt like I'm a storyteller, you know, so I've made myself one--and became one.

Writing VURT was the real breakthrough, because it just seemed like this book had just been waiting for me to write it, you know. What you said before about text and images and the stories you're working on--and you'd mentioned broad strokes--one of the real big influences apart from music is American comics. When I was a kid, you know, I was hooked on them! There was a group of us in Ashton, which is a small town in the North of England--we were hooked on them--Spiderman, Daredevil, Fantastic Four and we thought we were these characters--in the summer holidays, we'd all go to somebody's house and pretend to be Spiderman and Doctor Octopus--and our fights would wreck the house. (laughs)

Writing Vurt, especially writing Pollen--that's the next one--it's almost like an American comic fleshed out...I love the way that the story is arranged on the page, you know, like you get like six images of Spiderman, and you turn over and it'd be one BIG one of 'em! Wkheew! Like that...flyin' though the air...and it's just that shock--and you don't really get that from reading books when you're a kid; you know that 'turn-the-page--WHAM! something's happening'. And I think that when I came to write Vurt, I was messing about with that quite a lot, I mean; I've described Vurt as a Spiderman-novel, and Pollen as a Fantastic Four-novel. (laughs) Also, I think that in the way I write--and this is again totally accidental, there's a certain naiveté about it--a certain clumsiness even. I'm not interested in being a 'Great Writer'--in writing well-written novels, because they bore me. And the kind of music I tend to listen to has an edge to it--I especially like music that sounds like its going to collapse at any minute--

Nile:
Right!
Noon:
--the only thing that keeps it together is the force of the personality of the musicians--and I think that when you write novels the way that I do, like on the fly, you know, you can work with that.

Mark arrives.

Mark:
Welcome to Boulder!

Noon introduces his 'Media Escort' Liz.

Noon:
It's tiring--you know--this is the last week of the three week tour, so I'm kind of feeling it, yeah, but I'm on my way home now. For the first time I'm actually flying towards England now (laughs).
Nile:
That's great--what is Manchester like for you?
Noon:
Manchester is quite a strange city--I've lived there all my life or in the outlying regions of it--and it's a very industrial town--or it used to be--that's all starting to die out now, but it used to be a very staid kind of conservative place--but in the last twenty years it started to change in a massive way--and it's very kind of young now, lots of music going on, and lots of people with projects of various kinds--so that's great--there's a lot happening--and you know the nightclub scene is brilliant--uhm, but as I mentioned earlier, I do feel quite lonely there in terms of writing, cuz there's not a lot of that going on.
Mark:
What about in England in general? Would you say that there's an emerging scene of sorts? or is it just different individuals kind of coming out of the woodwork?
Noon:
Yeah, in novels, if you're writing about the subjects I'm interested in, people tend to write quite difficult books to read--you know--quite experimental books. I just want to grab the reader and drag them along, you know, so, there was when Vurt came out, a sense that people had been waiting for something like this--which is gratifying, and, I mean it just spread by word of mouth--people passing the book to each other.
Mark:
This was with Ringpole? How does one go from a small press like Ringpole to Random House?
Nile:
And there's a Waterstones tie-in...
Noon:
I was in Manchester writing plays on the fringe scene--quite kind of weird stuff--and there was a guy there called Steven Powell who was producing plays and directing them--so I knew him then, and I've known him for about ten years. Eventually, I ended up working at Waterstones bookshop, and he was there as well, so the both of us kind of met again after a number of years. We we're both in the shop then for about five years, and we'd reached the end, you know, we had to get out--constantly there were like lots of drunken agreements where we say 'right, we're going to be out of here within twelve months' and we'd shake on it, you know, wake up the next day, and then back in the shop...One day he came up to me in the shop and said, "I'm starting my own publishing company. Write me a novel." So I went home, started to write a novel. And we put it out--didn't have any money for publicity--we just published it.
Mark:
Did you do no publicity at all? No strategy at all?
Noon:
No, we didn't really know what to do! (laughs) Then people started to come back to us--especially from the science fiction community in Britain, which is strong--not as big as America, but it's that same feel. They advised us to put it in for the Arthur C. Clarke Award, which we did. Before it won the prize, Barbara, an American agent on holiday in Switzerland, saw the book--one copy--in an English-speaking bookshop, and I didn't even know it had gone to Switzerland. She spent a few days trying to find Ringpole press, you know, in Lancashire, (laughs) you know, and eventually found us, and persuaded us that she could sell this book, and within five days she sold it to Crown.
Mark: (laughing)
Five days!
Noon:
Yeah! So the next day I handed my notice in at Waterstones. And that's how it started. And now, like, at the end of March, when Pollen comes out, my next book...Waterstones do lots of readings...and they put this little pamphlet out; 'who's on this month'--and there's always a picture on the front--somebody famous, you know, and low and behold, on the March edition it's my face! (laughs) We're doing the launch party there.
Mark:
So the second book, Pollen, is coming out in England in March, but not here, cuz you need time for this book to have it's play...
Noon:
Yeah, it'll come out here presumably in twelve-months time--I think it will be a different book than the one that comes out in England, for various reasons.
Mark:
I had heard or read that there were differences with the American release of Vurt, but they must have been minor differences...
Noon:
There wuz lots of minor differences because Ann Patty, the editor at Crown, had a slightly different take on the novel than Steve did, and the way I work with editors is quite unusual as far as writers go, because I tend to do what they tell me to do--I'm not precious about my work--this is mostly comin' from workin' in theater--where you quite quickly lose your ego--otherwise you just argue with actors all day long, you know--it's just not worth it.
Mark:
You carry the outtakes with you wherever you go anyway...
Noon:
Yeah, the major difference between the English edition and the American is that the English edition has two pages at the end that the American edition doesn't, but Pollen will be quite different for the American edition--and I'm excited by this, cuz it's like a remix version.
Mark:
What has the response been here in America in general, and how would you say it's differed from responses in Europe?
Noon:
Its been incredible, really. When I wrote the book, I thought I wuz writin' a book for my mates in Manchester.
Mark:
It reads like that, which is great--
Noon:
It reads like that, but its been translated into twelve languages, so, it's weird. I haven't really been around England yet with it--this is really my first major tour--I've done a few readings in Manchester, but that's it.
Mark:
That'll probably change...
Noon:
Yeah, well, I'll be doing a lot with the Pollen book, so what I started to notice in going around America is that I've been meeting the people that are totally in love with the book--and they always turn up--even if nobody else turns up--they're always there. They're all kind of fringe characters--interested in fringe activities of various sorts--fringe technologies, if you like.
Mark:
Speaking of fringe technologies--one that's no longer that fringe, of course, is the Internet--this interview will appear exclusively on Alternative-X, on The Internet.
Noon:
It's the underground made flesh, almost. What I've noticed going around America is all these different tribes; they've all got different beliefs, but they're all slightly out of it somehow and they're all on The Internet, and I think its going to be really important. It's also gone through its unfashionable patch: a lot of things, you know, you come out and everyone's into it, or the originators are into it--those in the know--and then the Sunday supplements get a hold of it--and then it kind of dies, as soon as they do it--but The Internet has already worked through that, and come out the other side, and it's like everybody's on it now--rock stars are on it.
Mark:
Being a published novelist myself who's very aware of what my cultural influences are, I occasionally try to read into where other novelists are coming from. I remember when Larry McCaffery interviewed William Gibson and asked him about his influences, and Gibson immediately went into this talk about, uh, music. And talked about Lou Reed...
Noon (laughing):
We've done that one--that's what I said really, that's what influenced me rather than other writers--oh yeah, much more!
Mark:
OK, so since you've already covered that, maybe you could cover this too--I mean I'm just curious--why are writers, who are emerging now, whose work seems to be having more appeal to a younger audience--why are they more influenced by music than writing--I mean, what is it?--and how does that influence show itself in writing?
Noon:
I think we have certain expectations of excitement these days--especially young kids--and they want that pulse and energy they get from music, and the old-style novel with the linear narrative, you know, and everything's in the correct place, you know--it's become, because of culture--or whatever we live in now--it's become quite a task to read that. I personally have trouble reading a well-written novel these days--I can appreciate the language, and appreciate that these are great sentences and interesting characters and so on, but by about page fifty I'm startin' to get bogged down in it, you know--because it's actually too well-written.
Mark:
Exactly.
Noon:
A lot of music isn't to do with that at all--it's to do with like pickin' up the guitar and playin' or pluggin' in the sampler, and you know, 'let's make some sounds--let's get some of it down'--against that you've got the whole other set of people like Dire Straits and Simple Minds, who are...
Mark:
Overproduced.
Noon:
--they've got nothin' to do with it--they're like the new novels.
Mark:
Who are the writers you see emerging right now who are breaking away from this well-written narrative and are really capturing the spirit of our age?
Noon:
I don't feel the spirit of the age has come about yet. I personally see Vurt as a transitional novel, between cyberpunk and something else--I don't know what it is yet. One of the things about Vurt is there's no technology in it. It's organic--it's almost like magic. That was one of the things I wanted to do is to envisage a society where machines had become natural things. I think there's a lot of writing going on--people you could place into the mediatory phase of things.
Mark:
Have you heard of Avant-Pop yet?
Noon:
Avant Pop. No. It was an album by Lester Bowie.
Mark:
That's right! Exactly!
Noon:
I love Lester Bowie. The Art Ensemble of Chicago--the way that they put music together, you know, that's to look at the whole history of jazz and take which bits we want--and that was like post-modern jazz--and then in the middle of all that you've got Lester Bowie--who can play!--who can blow, man!--You've got all this madness, and then this guy comes on and just...does it. Yeah...So, Avant Pop--
Mark:
Avant Pop is something that developed in Japan and in The States--it's taken from the Lester Bowie album, exactly--trying to track the dual lineage of avant-garde art & writing and digital pop culture and the way they converge into this new phase. The avant-garde lineage of writing that we associate with Rimbaud, Artaud, Dadaism, Surrealism, Situationism--all these things, as well as the introduction of an electronic, pop-culture--and its effect--the density of information and the way it affects our attitude--the way music affects our attitude--and how when you get these two lineages converging--you start seeing all kinds of wild, hybridized forms of writing emerging as well. It's not an attempt to categorize you, but--
Noon:
I think it's great--those things are coming together--one thing it leads to, I think, is an experimentation with subject matter. The Avant-Garde art movement is the experimentation with form--which reached its peak with the blank painting, you know, and that's really over then...it's like James Joyce did it with Finnegan's Wake--that was the end--no one's going to better it--so--not that I've read it. Anthony Burgess has read it--he's like the Jesus of literature--did it once for all of us. I see art as an experimentation with subject-matter--that's what The Art Ensemble of Chicago were--they treated the history of jazz as a subject matter, and took bits, and produced a collage out of it--and I think that's what Vurt was trying to do was to excite people with the subject matter, rather than the weirdness of the language. Any games that I have with the language is all to do with promoting the subject matter--which is different than Burgess was doing with Clockwork Orange--his primary concern there was language--which is the form of it.
Mark:
 
Right.
Nile:
 
I think these two streams that Mark's talking about converging--and the way that you've been able to express it, comes out of a context of being faced by arbitrary Modern-Times systems of control now becoming more and more apparent. Art, it seems to me, has always been a reaction to certain systems of control: societal--or certain formal things--and then you break away from it through various ways of thinking about them and questioning them. I wonder if you feel that these systems of control are in the background and not too bothersome, or that they are now more than ever things to grapple with and express in metaphorical ways.
Noon:
 
It's a difficult question, you know, how much control is there in society--I don't know--nobody knows. I'm a very strong-willed person, but I know people that are very weak-willed--and I see them bein' like bombarded by pressure and succumbing to it. I'm the kind of person who just pushes it off and says just 'hey, I'm my own man' you know, I go my own way. If anybody tries to control me I get angry.

There's a fluidity in Vurt; in the way it's written, in the subject matter, and in the society. The authority figures are worried about it--but they just can't do anything about it--it's too late. It's almost like an extension of what started with The Internet, with rave culture, ecstasy, and all that--hallucinations and so on--it's produced this world in which everything's getting mixed up--everything's getting cross-bred--and that's what the dog people are about and what the shadowgirls were about, and the robovurts and so on--everything's havin' it off with everythin' else and producing kids, and because of this, the people who really survive in this world are those who accept the fluidity.

That's what this whole thing about "pure is poor" is about, you know, the Nazis have this thing about purity of race, and all that--in Vurt they celebrate the exact opposite: the impurity of race, or the impurity of being; the more mixed-up you are the better it is! The authorities try and fight this--clamp down on it...In Pollen society's much worse--Vurt's seepin' through all the time--people are gettin' much more mixed-up and everything. They're trying to put rules and laws on this, you know, but it doesn't work--and what you said with the Dub DJs being better than the News people--How can the Government control the Internet? All these guys they've got in lab coats in laboratories--some sixteen year old kid out there in a room now, he knows it!--He hasn't learnt it--he IS it!

Mark:
 
Vurt-reality, it sounds like, from the way you're describing it now, is really happening today. You've fictionalized the form, and it has these cyberpunk, sci-fi elements to it, but in a way...if you really want to be in touch with what's going on now as a writer, genres are starting to mix, aren't they? There's no clear distinction between genres anymore.
Nile:
 
"Hallucinogenre"
Mark:
So there's virus-genres, Vurt-genres.
Nile:
I notice that you're leaving yourself in the Vurt--which is a great place to end up in your first novel as an author--a literal statement of where you are 'I'm in the Vurt--I'm committed to it--I'm there forever, so--'.
Noon:
So yeah, Scribble's journey is the acceptance of the Vurt within him. He starts out thinking he's pure--that's the overall arc of the novel--and he accepts it finally.

I'm writing four novels at the moment: they're not following individual characters, they're following the story of the Vurt--which is the human dreams released from the skull--what would happen when you do that--how would it change society--what would happen to those dreams?. Gradually, through the four novels, they're taking on a life of their own--they're becoming physical and they're getting better at their job--they're also getting jealous and angry and bitter about human beings--because they're tired of just being stories.

The interview with Jeff Noon was conducted at the Hotel Boulderado, in Boulder, Colorado, on February 23rd, 1995.



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