Jeff Noon Interview – A Man of Shadows
Jeff Noon is the Arthur C. Clarke Award Winning author of novels including Vurt (1993) and its sequels, Pollen (1995) Automated Alice (1996) and the prequel Nymphomation (1997), many of which are set in a vividly realised alternate Manchester in which people can access a dream realm known as the Vurt through sucking on feathers. His latest novel, A Man of Shadows (2017) will be released by Angry Robot in August. He has also written plays, short stories, poetry, and music. Jeff Noon kindly agreed to talk to Fantasy-Faction about his writing and his art.
Your new novel A Man of Shadows is being released by Angry Robot this August. It’s part noir murder mystery, part surreal SF cityscape. Can you tell us a bit about it, and about working in the noir tradition this time?
I’ve always loved SF and I’ve always loved crime books and I’ve read many books in those two genres in my life. And I think in the last few years I’ve found myself thinking about combining them in various ways. A Man of Shadows is a very natural outcome of that desire. And I know there is a tradition in SF of detectives and that and I’m quite happy to plug myself into that tradition and see what I particularly can do with it in my own particular style.
The basic idea of the book is that it’s a city which is divided into three sections. The main section is called Dayzone which is an area that is never dark, where the lights are always on. And this original idea came from reading about these gaming zones in Tokyo, and they’re just lit really brightly 24 hours a day, and people just stay there, and the whole idea of the natural cycle of day and night just starts to disappear. So that interested me and I thought, I’ll extend that in my usual science fiction way, which is about exaggeration and exploration and pushing things through and further on, until it’s an entire city. But then I thought, well what do you do then when you want dark? OK, there’s an area of the city where it’s always dark. And that’s Nocturna. So it’s almost like they’ve changed time into space, where you have to walk or drive towards night.
Then I thought OK well between the two I need Dusk. And I didn’t really know what Dusk was, to be honest, but it grew into this kind of strange, mysterious surreal area that nobody ever knew what it was, it was meant to be very dangerous and there were lots of rumours about it. And so with these three areas in mind, I could see how a kind of traditional private eye narrative might work in terms of a guy who’s following a case, who has to travel from this really bright lit area to this area that’s incredibly dark, and enters this mysterious, half lit, mist-filled area in between. I was really interested in the idea that I would have to write about three specific areas that were very different to each other, and have a different kind of style to them.
The book plays with the idea of time as a kind of currency, with the corporations manufacturing multiple timelines and causing a time crash. Were you intentionally wanting to write about the financial crash of 2008, or did that sort of arise out of the setting?
It just arises. I very rarely consciously know what I want to do when I start writing. And I never like to make big political statements or messages; that’s not really what I’m about. The original idea for that I think was when the government sell off parts of the radio spectrum. People can buy parts of the spectrum and put their own TV channels or radio stations and so on. That fascinated me, the idea that those frequencies were actually real estate.
So in this novel, I could see that once you’d got this Dayzone, that’s always lit, time would start to dissolve in a certain way. The 24 hour clock doesn’t necessarily have to apply anymore. They have to apply their own time values. And so you get this idea that almost everyone in the city has got a different time scale they’re moving to and people come together at certain times when their time paths cross. Business Time and Leisure Time are actual physical things that you have to negotiate and walk along in order to live your life, and the people of this city actually like this. They become obsessed with it, and you become very skilful at it the more you live in the city. But of course it can cause psychological problems, chronostasis being one of them, for instance, where the body clock can’t cope with the switching from one time to another. So I think that was the original idea, of selling off portions of the radio spectrum, which I think I make quite explicit when I say they’ve got 25 new timelines are available, apply now!
Your novels have a running theme of the subconscious encroaching into the real world, whether it’s Dusk in this book or the Vurt in the Vurt sequence. Is this an important theme for you?
I think this goes to my discovery of J. G. Ballard, when I was about 21. I became absolutely obsessed with his work and I read everything, including all the interviews. One of his basic ideas that always stuck with me is that as the 20th Century progresses, more and more our subconscious mind is projected out into the world. And that we are moving and living within it. When you come to write your own books, you don’t think, oh I’m going to do that now, things just arrive, I’ve found over time that, now that I’ve done enough novels and stories, I do have these obsessive narratives to which I return. I’ve spoken to other writers who have the same idea, where you write a book and you think, oh it’s that story again! So I’m obsessed with sending my characters into these imaginary lands.
It’s a really strange thing to do! I mean I’ve just finished this strange crime novel, no science fiction elements in it, and exactly the same thing’s happened, though obviously in a more realistic way. And there’s no way you know where that story comes from, and I wouldn’t really want to know. It’s not like you can really go back into my biography and go, oh he’s doing this because of that, but it is an obsession.
Music plays a huge part in your work, from the Manchester rave scene in Vurt to 60s psychedelia in Pollen to the whole plot of Needle in the Groove (2000) and “Fur Elise” in A Man of Shadows. You’re a musician yourself as well. Can you talk a bit about what music means to you?
I have a really kind of strange relationship with music. I used to be in bands in the punk rock era when I was a young man. But I was never a natural musician. It was always difficult, and I haven’t got perfect pitch, I struggle with that aspect of it. But I like to write songs, because that’s an imaginative act. The actual playing of it I always found quite difficult, so I gave it up eventually.
I have this acoustic guitar, and when I moved to Brighton 18 years ago I brought it with me from Manchester. But since I’ve come to Brighton, that guitar’s not been touched. And it sits in my living room on its stand and it’s covered in dust. And then about, two or three years ago, I did a play called The Modernists (2003) which was about the Mods, and it was on in Brighton. I wrote some lyrics for it, because we were going to put music in, and I ended up writing the songs, and so for the first time in like 18 years I picked up the guitar and I started to write songs. And I found that I could write songs again. Even though playing the guitar was very difficult because my fingers weren’t used to it. And after that, I went back to the guitar, and I don’t know how this has happened, but I’m much more skilful at the guitar than I ever was back then!
I don’t understand it because it goes against the whole idea that you have to practice every day. I haven’t played for 18 years, and I can do things I would never think of being able to do, fingerpicking and stuff like that, and I can’t explain it at all.
But music has always fed into my work, sometimes very explicitly and other times in more subtle ways. For a good number of years I was obsessed with writing in the same way as musicians remixed, a big obsession of mine. It’s not my obsession any more but a good number of works came out of that. And even now I still use some of the techniques that I devised back then, when I want to come up with an idea. Especially for short stories I find remixing and sampling and so on is are good ways to get started on an idea.
Speaking of that, you write fiction across quite a range of mediums. As well as novels, you also write plays, short stories, poetry in Cobralingus (2001) and micro-fiction on Twitter. How do you decide which medium is best suited for a given idea? Do they all creatively feed back into each other?
I get a lot of ideas, that’s one of my talents, and I’ve had that ever since I was a kid. It’s big decision to make about what an idea is. My work is on a spectrum. Some of my work is quite mainstream, and at the other end you have something like Cobralingus which is very experimental, and so one of the decisions I have to make is where to place it on that line. And sometimes a story you just get it, and you think, that’s just a straight down the line story, I just have to move, you know. So that’s more towards the mainstream end of that spectrum. And others are like well OK that’s a really weird idea so that can best be expressed in a more experimental way. But that’s like the first decision I make.
A lot of it comes out of a process of just messing around and seeing what something is and writing things down. I find that part of the process very fascinating, that initial exploration of an idea to see where it’s going to take you, what medium it’s going to be and so on. With the Spores, which are the micro-fiction on Twitter, they’re more specifically written for it. The medium is only 140 characters, so that’s me trying to find a way of telling stories in that tiny amount of space.
Recombination seems to be a theme running throughout your work, from the mixing of humans with animals, plants, and the dead in the Vurt books to your hybrid approach to mixing pulp fiction and avant garde cut up techniques of William Burroughs with the whole concept of Dub Fiction. Can you tell us a bit about this and where it comes from?
Well one thing is, I’m not influenced by Burroughs. I’ve never really been into his work, to be honest. Although I am aware of it obviously, what he stands for and what he does, I don’t think there’s any conscious influence there. That side of my work comes very specifically from the music, from dub reggae, and dance remix processes. It’s a very different approach to what Burroughs was doing. That’s me applying techniques from one medium to another, from music into prose. I’m trying to think back to things like discovering the poetry of Ted Hughes when I was young, which is a very powerful expression of a natural process where things are all mixed together. It goes back obviously to Greek mythology, Ovid’s Metamorphosis and those kind of stories that I would pick up when I was a kid. Also like the Lewis Carroll aspect, which is a kind of very English, very playful version of surrealism. So I was picking up a lot of stuff when I was young, so that by the time I came to write Vurt, all that was happening. Vurt’s a very typical first novel in that sense, in that it took me thirty odd years to write, but it’s thirty odd years of material.
It’s a bit strange because in my own life I’m not really like that at all. I’m very average kind of guy, I have very strict routines, I don’t mix anything up at all. It’s me expressing a certain part of my psyche, if you like, that isn’t seen anywhere else, it’s just on the page and on the screen. I like the idea where things meet and mingle, like borderlines, and between genres. And also I think in science fiction it’s a very natural medium for exploring that idea, where human and machine meet, where human and alien meet and so on.
I mean in the case of A Man of Shadows it’s where landscape and character meet. It’s very much a book about landscapes for me. The city came first, and then the character, and then the story. It doesn’t always happen in the same way but that’s how it happened with that particular one. Do you know Invisible Cities (1972) by [Italo] Calvino? That was the other initial idea behind it, that’s a book about imaginary cities, and they’re very short little sketches, like a page long each. And I was reading that and I thought, what would it be like to be a private eye in some of these cities? So the idea in the Nyquist series is in the second book he’s not in this city. He’s in a very different city, with very different fantastical or science fictional aspect to it. This one is time and light and dark, the next one is words, it’s a city of words and language. Each case would take place in a very different city.
Your writing has an incredibly strong sense of place, from the alternate Manchester in the Vurt books to Dayzone and Nocturna in A Man of Shadows. Do you find the setting really important when you come to write a story?
I do, and I think well one obvious big change in my work in terms of that is me leaving Manchester. I used to write about a real place, and I don’t do that anymore. I don’t know quite why but when I left Manchester, I didn’t want to write about Brighton, which is where I now live, for instance. All of my work since then, although they’re all kind of set in Britain, they’re set in these fantastical places that I’ve made up, and I’m not quite sure why that is, but I guess I just felt with Manchester that I’d done what I could do, that I’d exhausted it in my own way, as a subject and location. So when I left I was interested in exploring other things that weren’t so much reality based, in which my mind could travel a bit more freely.
I think that location is so important in a novel. I do like to create interesting things for the reader to experience, and for my characters to experience. I like novels where you’ve got a location and the character just exhausts that location, they visit every area in the city. Not just in my work but when I’m reading crime books, or historical crime books, they’re usually very good at exploring every aspect of something. So, in the Nyquist books, he does tend to travel in the city, because I wanted him to experience that. I wanted him to experience the dangers of each area, and the delights of each area. And then there’s the other, more difficult aspect to talk about, which is using the city as symbolic of a character’s mind. But as I say it’s almost impossible to talk about that, like you’re describing fog. It’s best to let that just happen throughout the process rather than forcing it.
Your work frequently has mythic overtones, such as the Persephone myth and the Underworld cropping up in Pollen, and Vurt has hints of Orpheus and Eurydice. Were you reading a lot of these stories when you were starting to write?
Yeah I was. When I was young, before I was writing. I think it’s Philip Larkin who was very dismissive of writers like Ted Hughes at the time, and came up with the phrase, “They’re dipping into the myth kitty.” He saw that as a really easy thing to do. So even as I am addicted to doing that I am aware that there is a danger to it. I do try to approach it in a certain way. I think Pollen is probably the most explicit book about that, but even there I’m trying to bring in the very British idea of the Green Man, and there’s a lot of English folk music in Pollen, as well, which is another fascination of mine over the years. So I do try to combine things up so it’s not just someone trying to do a version of the Minotaur in a modern city, which might be quite interesting but I want to combine some things together and give it a twist.
Alice from Alice In Wonderland (1865) is a recurring motif throughout your work, to the extent that you wrote a third Alice book as part of the Vurt sequence with Automated Alice. Can you talk a bit about your love for the character, and what it was like channelling Lewis Carroll?
I reread that when I put my own ebooks out a few years back. I had to check the scans, so I was forced to read my own work, which is not something you really want to do with your own work, because it’s a past you can’t go back to, and it just funny. But I was really surprised at that book. I couldn’t imagine how I did it! I couldn’t locate the person who’d written that book in me, now. I thought, did someone else write that book? And in a sense they did, of course. Someone else did write that book. I think it’s a fun book, the whole playfulness of it. Where did all these puns come from? So, I think something must have happened when I wrote that book. I was really intensely into it. I remember at the time I really felt that I could do this, and that writing that book is one of the things that I was put on the planet to do. Occasionally you get that little inkling, that little idea that this is an important one. And I still get that to this day. I remember that was one of those times. I enjoyed writing that book.
Lewis Carroll is a big, big figure in my life in terms of influence and again that just crept up on me when I was writing Vurt. It just crept up on me and crept in. So, you know, over the years I’ve made it a little bit more explicit. You’re waiting for these things to happen, for these things to approach you and drop into place, and then you’re surprised by it. OK well let’s run with that. Let’s see where that’s going to go.
Automated Alice and Nymphomation reveal a fascination with mathematics and weird physics. Was it a conscious choice to write about these subjects in a fun, playful way rather than a traditional hard science fiction way?
Yes. At school my two favourite subjects were art and mathematics. I always loved maths, even now I read articles online about it. I don’t get it all but I like the idea of it, I like the imaginative aspect to it, I like the beauty of it and the elegance of it and the surprise of it. I love all that. And I struggle to understand the higher levels of it, but even that struggle fascinates me.
A big book for me, and I don’t know if you know of this, you know Godel, Escher, Bach [by Douglas Hofstadter] (1979)? It was a Penguin book, came out quite a while ago. Escher is M. C. Escher and Bach is obviously J. S. Bach. Kurt Godel was a logician and mathematician at the turn of the century, and he’s the man who devised the theory of incompleteness. And I was just fascinated by that. And this book attempts in a very playful way to explain something that’s incredibly difficult, the theory of incompleteness. And it’s got illustrations and everything. If you ever get the chance, just have a look at it. And Lewis Carroll is all the way through that book. All the way through. He’s the presiding spirit of that book. And so I think that was a big influence.
It’s a difficult book to read, it’s one you have to really sit down and want to do. And when I do reread it or even just look at it I can see ideas that led to Vurt in it. The whole idea of nested realities. You know, boxes of realities nested inside each other, I can see it going in there definitely. So I think a lot of it comes from that love of maths, I want to express that in some little way, yeah.
When I first heard about fractals, I was at college, I was studying painting and drama. But I used to hang around in the library, I used to look at the mathematics books. And there was this mathematical magazine, this will be in 1982 or 3, and I looked at it, I opened it up and this article on this thing called fractals, I’d never seen this word before. It’s a dimension somewhere between one and two, and it just blew me away. I mean just the imaginative power to come up with that kind of idea. I remember thinking at the time as long as I continue to create art I won’t ever come up with an idea as good as that. And you know of course I haven’t. It’s an impossible idea. It’s something that a scientist would have to come up with rather than an artist. They’re very imaginative, in a different way but they are very imaginative, mathematicians.
The motif of mirrorings or doublings crops up a lot in your work, from Alice and Celia in Automated Alice to the sisters in A Man of Shadows. Is that related to the same fascination?
Oh yeah, definitely. A fascination, a fear, it’s fair to say. Have you read Falling Out Of Cars (2002)? In that one, all the mirrors are covered up or destroyed. Cause it’s very dangerous in that book for people to look at themselves. It’s quite a difficult thing for me to talk about because it’s very personal, and I don’t want to go into it too much but the whole idea of self-image I find very difficult. The current obsession with selfies, it’s beyond me! Like, madness, what are people doing!
But the fascination with this goes back to again another writer I discovered in my twenties, which is Jorge Luis Borges. I love his work so much, and he’s absolutely fascinated by mirrors. All that really comes from him, he was the wellspring for that. And mirrors as doorways, mirrors as fearful, the fearful nature of mirrors, and the fact that it replicates man, the doppelgänger and all that. Seeing yourself as others see you or as you see you, I’m fascinated by that. But I think my characters have quite a difficult time with mirrors. They’re often looking at themselves, but they’re not very happy with what they see. And I noticed that it usually takes place in dark rooms. And again it goes right through to the second Nyquist book, where he wakes up and looks in the mirror and has a really nasty time with what he sees.
Your work focuses a lot on outsiders, people left behind by society. Do you feel this is something speculative fiction could be doing more of?
I don’t think there’s any rules about what SF should do. I think it comes out of personal desire for me rather than political motives or anything like that. I think that my characters tend to be very busy in the sense that they’re caught up in something that they can’t escape from. Nyquist obviously is doing that. But I think all my characters are. So they don’t have a lot of time for anything other than escaping, or finding their lost love, which a lot of them seem to be doing. There’s a very strong romantic aspect to my work. And, the outsider figures, yeah. I guess you want a character that is capable of engaging in the most exciting possible way for the reader with the material.
When I got the city for A Man of Shadows, when I came up with that idea, I thought OK who’s the worst guy for this, who’s going to have the most trouble in this city? And so I started to develop him from that, from that really simple idea that was the seed for Nyquist, the private eye. And I tend to be cruel to my characters, and some people have said this, I do really push them into situations that are quite difficult for them and quite nasty sometimes. But I always give them the hope, you know they always battle, they always just keep going.
I think that they tend to be outsiders, through no fault of their own, they’re not wilful outsiders, let’s put it that way. They’re not people who think of themselves as being different, they’re not thinking of themselves as being rebels, or anything like that. They’re probably quite normal people, quite average but they’ve just taken a wrong step at some point, or a side step, and suddenly found themselves in this situation where they can’t quite fit in anymore. I think that interests me. And of course once they’ve taken that step it can be quite difficult to get back. And then they engage poorly with the world that’s in front of them. And I think my main characters tend not to be the most rebellious. You know if you think of Scribble in Vurt, you go all the way back to that, he’s not the most rebellious of characters. He’s bit scared of stuff like that. But he’s forced, of course, by circumstance, to become a man, if you like, thinking in those simplistic terms.
There’s also that core of pain to them, that longing for a lover or family member who’s been taken away from them or disappeared, or who’s been killed.
Yeah, they do have trouble with families, I’ve noticed that! A lot of them, they’ve rejected or they’ve walked out of the family, and a lot of them have created alternative families for themselves. Not Nyquist cause he’s a loner but a lot of the characters in a lot of my books, they do find themselves in these weird little groupings, with all the strange people who have drifted together for no good purpose really. They don’t really belong together except that they’ve all left something behind and they need some kind of simplicity. Some kind of social group. But it’s probably not the best group for them to be in, but there they are, and they get on. So they do create alternative families. They probably are like brothers and sisters and mothers and fathers but in a symbolic ways, within these groups.
Drugs frequently crop up in your work, often with the ability to alter reality, from Vurt to Kia in A Man of Shadows. It’s reminiscent of Philip K. Dick. Was he an influence on how you approach the subject?
Not specifically, I don’t think. I discovered his work quite late, I can’t remember when, but I started reading him when I was working at Waterstones, so that would be late 80s, early 90s, so I might have read him while I was doing Vurt.
That starts with Vurt, which was quite explicitly referring to the world I saw around me, which was the rave culture of Manchester at the time and people taking ecstasy. Which wasn’t me, I’m not a drug taker at all. I kind of observed this stuff as an outsider, as a writer does. And I was interested in that. But again I never sat down and went, OK I’m going to write a book about ecstasy now but it’s going to be science fiction. I just wanted to write a cyberpunk novel set in Manchester because no one else was doing it. But the world seeped into it.
Then over the years I have found myself fascinated by this. And I do keep coming back to it again and it’s not based on anything in my own life. But I like the idea that drugs force change on people because I like my characters to change. I like them to change quite a lot, to be forced to change. And this is how a science fiction drug can work, it can change you physically, psychologically and so on. It can change your whole sense of reality and I’m interested in exploring what happens to character once those effects have taken place.
Again as with the mythology thing there is a kind of danger involved in this. It’s like someone describing their dream to you, it’s not actually that interesting. And you have to write it in a certain way, you have to be aware that a drug trip isn’t necessarily the most exciting thing in the world, unless you actually take it. So I try to develop ways in which I write about it that I hope are interesting. But yeah I think that’s what it is to me, it’s ways of forcing change on the characters.
I’m glad you brought up cyberpunk! Along with William Gibson, you’re one of the few speculative fiction writers who write about a branded future – I’m thinking in particular about the blurbflies and the blipvurts in the Vurt sequence.
I seem to be being blamed for inventing drones, quite a bit. Which I mean you have to admit they are quite similar! At the time of course I was just having fun and inventing stuff, but you couldn’t have predicted a time where there would actually be something quite similar to that some years in the future. So there it is: be careful what you write; it might just come true!
Yeah, cyberpunk, I absolutely loved it. I was of that generation who just read Neuromancer (1984) and fell in love with it and thought, this is it. This is what it’s all about. You know, Gibson was the man. Very very happy to take some ideas from his work and run with them in my own particular way. I think as you get older as well, you become more emotionally accepting of those things, the old stuff. And not in a nostalgic way but, yeah. I’m glad that it happened.
Your themes of recombination and an exploration of the darker side of existence have been picked up by writers like Lauren Beukes, and China Miéville. How do you feel about your influence on a generation of more recent writers?
Such a strange subject to talk about! It’s only happened quite recently, I’ve only become aware of it recently, to be honest. For many years, I was out, I was just like, in the dark. My career has not been a super successful career or anything like that. I’ve struggled at times, really struggled at times with finances and so on, try to keep going. And just like the last few years I’ve noticed that my name’s been referred to in this very particular way and it’s pleasing I must say. To come through and to realise that your work is having an effect. You want to know that what you’ve done is worth something. A novel is like 100,000 words, and it’s not like working in the mines, or being a soldier, but it is quite difficult. It’s not trivial. You have to really sit down and do it, and no one can help you, and a lot of time you’re on your own in a room, and you’ve just got to do this stuff. And compared to a lot of other art forms, there’s a lot of work involved. And you’re inventing worlds, you’re inventing characters, you’re inventing events, emotions and all that.
A lot of the time, and lot of the writers I know feel this, you know you put your work out, and you think well OK it’s done, and it’s out, and it feels like it’s floating away. So when somebody comes back just say something nice to you, like that really affected me. You just get it. You think, all the years in the dark are worth something. It’s important for writers to feel that, it really is. It’s what keeps you going.
I got involved in the film script world for a while, I stopped writing novels, trying to break into that, and it didn’t work, and you know it’s very difficult to break in. In that time, by the end of it, I hadn’t had an audience for years. I was really missing that. I was missing that reaction, and this sense that you’re having an effect. That it means something to somebody somewhere. Even if it’s like a thousand people you know it still means something.
Your most recent book released before this one, Mappalujo (2016), in collaboration with Steve Beard, was quite an unusual project. How did it come about?
Steve and I were working on that for a long time. I really get on with Steve, he’s the closest person to me artistically so we make a very good team. That was the kind of project that when we first met, we were both really into experimental stuff, and it came out of that. We were really happy with the book and I’m glad it came out eventually. And as I say you know at the beginning, some of my work is going to be straight stories and some of it isn’t and I hope that I can keep that going.
Your new book is being released by Angry Robot. I heard there’s a bit of a story to how you got signed by them?
Yeah it just happened through Twitter. I went on Twitter one day and this guy, I didn’t know who he was, but, he said, “I wish that Gollancz or Angry Robot would publish a new Jeff Noon book, I really want to read one.” A typical modern tale! And Marc Gascoigne from Angry Robot got back almost straight away and said, “Yeah I’d be interested!” A Man of Shadows wasn’t called that at the time. But I sent him that, because that was the story I’d been working on and off for a number of years. I have a good number of unfinished ideas, stories and novels and that was one of them. It was something I’d always wanted to go back to, you know and bring to fruition so glad I’ve done that.
And I understand you have a second book coming out with them as well?
Yeah, I’m just writing that at the moment. Nyquist 2: The Continuing Adventures! A new city, a new case, a new set of problems.
What’s next for Jeff Noon?
Well I’ve got this straight crime book, I can’t talk about too much at the moment, but I’m doing a deal for that. Which is something I’ve really wanted to do for a long time because I do read a lot of crime novels. And there’s no science fiction or fantasy elements in this at all, just real people in the real world. Murder. Intrigue. All that. But I hope I bring my own particular style to it. Give it a good lateral twist.
I enjoyed writing it though. It’s set in 1981. So it’s very much a portrayal of Britain at the time as well, which is interesting to look back on. Lots of music and politics. Riots. The novel starts in the middle of the Brixton riots. Right in the middle of it. That’s the first chapter. So that’s the next thing.