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."
- 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?
- 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.
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
Higher Intelligence Agency
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
- 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--
- 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).
- Do you paint anymore?
- 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--
- --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.
- Welcome to Boulder!
Noon introduces his 'Media Escort' Liz.
- 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).
- That's great--what is Manchester like for you?
- 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.
- 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?
- 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.
- This was with Ringpole? How does one go from a small
press like Ringpole to Random House?
- And there's a Waterstones tie-in...
- 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.
- Did you do no publicity at all? No strategy at all?
- 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!
- 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.
- 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...
- 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.
- I had heard or read that there were differences with the
American release of Vurt, but they must have been minor
- 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.
- You carry the outtakes with you wherever you go anyway...
- 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
- What has the response been here in America in general,
and how would you say it's differed from responses in
- Its been incredible, really. When I wrote the book, I
thought I wuz writin' a book for my mates in Manchester.
- It reads like that, which is great--
- 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
- That'll probably change...
- 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.
- 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.
- 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
- 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,
- 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?
- 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.
- 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...
- --they've got nothin' to do with it--they're like the new
- 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?
- 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.
- Have you heard of Avant-Pop yet?
- Avant Pop. No. It was an album by Lester Bowie.
- That's right! Exactly!
- 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--
- 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--
- 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.
- 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.
- 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
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!
- 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.
- So there's virus-genres, Vurt-genres.
- 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--'.
- 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.
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.