Fakie Wilde : Interview with Jeff Noon

10.31.02 We met on an old rickety bus, somewhere on the boundaries of Turkey and Mindset. It was agreed that the interview should take place somewhere that didn't exist, and he was right on time. He boarded the bus and showed the driver his ticket. I saw he was wearing an old tatty pinstripe suit. He greeted me most politely and sat up in the back with me. By all accounts Mister Noon is one of the most polite people in the world. F: Hello Jeff, How was your trip here? J: Long and strange. Most of the time I didn't know where I was going. Just carried on. Gradually, as the days progressed, a kind of map formed in my skull. It was made out of sand. It kept drifting away, changing. It took a while to get used to. F: Have you been to many places like this? I've seldom gone any place. J: It looks kinda familiar. I get confused. There are so many destinations… F: Wanna do the interview questions? J: Sure. The bus began to ascend a mountain. Out of the window we saw women in rags and elaborate, conical striped head gear. The cabin filled with a strange red smoke and a sad slow song came over the old speaker system… J: Ah, John Dowland. The first great genius of English music. Flow my tears, fall from your springs. Such artful melancholy. F: It appears to me that as your books have been born , you have become less and less satisfied for the English language. That is to say, the limitations of it. Er, I mean like, how it's kinda dogmatic… As if language is now too narrow to express current trends… J: First of all, I have nothing at all against the straight traditional narrative. In fact, most of the books I read follow that convention. But I was concerned that the times we live in just now, they might be better explored through a different use of language, one that was more fluid. A liquid narrative. I started to break language down, to let it dissolve. And then to see what stories I could find in the debris. But you know, it gets lonely out there. There's only so far you can go, before the old need returns, to just get down and dirty with the human heart. F: Your last three works (Needle In The Groove, Cobralingus & Mappalujo) seem less concerned with a plot structure (which, let's face it, is something you do very nicely) and more concerned with texture and experimentation. A lot of people I know have been comparing you to Burroughs. Do you feel close to Burroughs and his cut-up techniques? J: Burroughs? No. I feel no connection at all. I have never read a Burrough's novel. Started a few, but never got very far. I'm a maker, more than a destroyer of language. In fact, I would disagree that the three works you mentioned are not concerned with plot. Certainly, I would suggest that Needle is my most carefully constructed novel. You know, in my early work, I was just jumping from one weird event to the next. These days, I try to make things unfold in more subtle manner. Mappalujo has a hidden story, a very good one, I think. One day, I hope to pull that story out and give it an easier route through life. Cobralingus is series of narratives, in which language itself is the main character. All this concern with liquid language started with my novel, Nymphomation. It's entirely influenced by certain techniques used in dance music, the remix, the dub, the segue, and so on. So, Burroughs, no. But there are four artists beginning with the letter B, all of which I discovered in my early twenties: Beckett, Britten, Borges and Ballard. I'm still following their influences through my work, in different ways. F: Do you still enjoy fine wine? J: Well… I produce a 1998 bottle of Penfolds 'Old Vine" from my bag and a couple of glasses. I have also prepared a selection of crackers and fine cheeses, meats and olives, so whilst Jeff contemplated my question, I opened the bottle to let it breathe and offered him something from the brass tray… J: I'll have to refuse the drink, I'm afraid. I had some serious trouble with alcohol a few years ago. I had to give it up. Haven't drank in about five years now. But please, you go ahead. F: I've heard that some Universities are putting your texts onto their reading lists… J: Are they? Good. Yes, I like to be studied. Is that a strange desire? Perhaps it goes back to my childhood, I don't know. What is it, this need to be acknowledged? People might well deny it, but it really is the prime fuel of artistic expression, the need to be loved, to communicate your feelings. F: The success so far of your works is partially due to your ability to be very inventive and radical with language, whilst maintaining an underlying 'coolness' some might say like Kerouac did with his books decades ago. Do you often get compared to him? J: I'm not aware of this comparison. Again, a writer I have never read. Funnily enough, my new novel is a road trip. The bus passed a little fishing village where old men wandered around barefoot with fishing poles. In the middle of the village, there was a wonderful little festival going on. The children arranged a hundred fish in a continually changing pattern upon a stone square. Through the smoke inside the bus, the pictures looked like black and white photographs and then the fish would be turned over and it was all different once again. Our bus stopped there for several minutes, and there was only the music and this strange spectacle. At length, I was able to pour myself some wine, then the bus lurched off up the track towards the sea, and I asked more questions… F: You've broken language down, not from flowing lines of traditional English page method text down into some sort of disharmonious, more like up into a more organic spoken form. I've found that your stuff, when read out loud translated into sound much more naturally because writing is not edited generally in the same spontaneous way as speaking. Do you agree? J: Classical musicians say that when you're playing a Chopin piano piece, you have to imagine you're singing the melody. It's the same with writing, I think. Writing is a form of singing. It's vocal music. When I write, I'm constantly saying the lines in my head. And I find that when I read a book these days, the lines are being spoken in my mind. So I'm looking for writers with this singing quality. There's not that many of them. It's funny, but with a lot of writers I get the impression they're not actually that interested in words. The words themselves. It's like a painter not being interested in paint. I don't understand it. F: Whilst we're talking about speaking, when listening to Paul McGann's reading of Vurt which was released a few years ago now, and I have to say that I've seldom heard a novel read out so well, one is given the impression that he may be quite close to you. He was certainly into the book. Is he a friend of yours? (If not, how did he end up being the one to do that reading?) Would he be doing anything else with you? J: I've never met Paul. The reading was done by an American firm. But yeah, it's good isn't it? A fine performance. F: Do you do many reading tours? What are Jeff Noon readings like? Do you have a DJ or is it just you sitting on a chair in a room? I hear you've done readings in dance clubs etc. Were any live recordings made? J: I've done hundreds of readings over the years, mainly just the usual thing in a bookshop, which can get pretty boring for all concerned. You know, some writer mumbling into their latest tome. I always try to just express the meaning of the words in a passionate way, and to lead the audience through the ideas that led to the story. I've done a few things with DJs, musicians. David Toop and I did a little tour with the CD we made of Needle in the Groove. That was fun. But I get the feeling I'll be cutting down on readings from now on. Certainly, I'm too old for all that dance club business. And it's not the kind of music I listen to anymore. Now, if Debussy was still alive, and willing to play the piano for me… F: Have you ever flown in a balloon? J: No. I'd be terrified. Much too fragile a transport. F: Despite the fact that you have become 'successful' you appear as a writer to have just got stranger and stranger. Have your literary victories changed you very much? If not, what has changed and why? J: I wouldn't qualify myself as a success, not in terms of sales. I feel that I'm on a journey, one which might suddenly take off on a tangent. The strangeness of the last few projects comes from my leaving Manchester, the city of my birth, and all that the city stood for in my work. I was cast adrift, rootless, and my writing set off along an unknown path. Also, a second leave -taking was made, away from science fiction. I was aware of stepping out a box, which was very invigorating, if a little scary. Here's the truth, I'm still waiting for the book I know I have inside me. I have a lot of things to explore, a lot more stories to tell. Some of them will be way-out weird, others will be straight down the line. Every story has its perfect structure and language, you have to search for these things. You have to stay open to all kinds of expression. No more boxes. As we came over a rise, we could see the ocean. The smoke in the cabin was clearing now, and the music had changed to an old country and western ballad. We were half way to Jeff's getting out point, and I still had half a bottle to finish. I was feeling quite tipsy all ready. Nevertheless, I topped up my glass as Jeff pointed out a series of curious little fountains set in the side of the road. These apparently purposeless items were designed to attract tourists like us. We pushed on… F: Did you actually have an invisible watch as a kid? J: Yes. That story in Pixel Juice is more or less true. It happened to me, I bought an invisible watch off another boy. I like to think that my career started at that moment, just that embrace of the imagined object. I really think I came off best in the con. F: Are you much interested in sport? It's a very English thing to have a football team, what is yours? J: No. No interest at all in sport. I like highly charged human activity, and there's just not enough skill in football. If I had to choose a sport to watch, it would be tennis, where it's one against one, and every mistake is punished instantly. F: Have you taken anything away with you from the experience of doing the collaboration with Steve Beard on Mappalujo? What was it like having to work with another author? Certainly a totally different mindset… J: I loved it. It was a struggle at times, but we soon learned how to move around each other's themes and techniques. And it's still going on, Steve and I are working on some other stuff, as and when we can find the time. Hopefully all of this will find its way into a book one day. It's good to collaborate with other people. I'm just setting off on a venture in the theatre, which was how I started out in writing, way back. I've written a play which is being put on next year. It's very exciting. But then the call is heard, to return to the darkened room with just the computer's screen to light the way. F: Now that Cobralingus is published, will you continue writing in the experimental vein? Where would you go next? I understand that the next book is more conventional. J: At the moment, I'm being drawn back towards a more conventional narrative. At heart, I'm a storyteller, I'll never lose that. It's a question of finding the right stories, and the best way of telling them. I will feed the stuff I've learned from this experimental period into the stories. The new novel is called Falling Out Of Cars. It's four people travelling around a seriously weird England in a beat-up old car. It calls on some themes from before, but moves into entirely different areas I hope. It's more real I guess, more concerned with the real world. On the other hand, it might well be my strangest book yet. It's got a certain atmosphere to it, a shimmering, a sense of not quite knowing what's really going on. There are a lot of damaged objects in the book: mirrors, clocks, photographs. There's a government health warning, that people must not look at themselves in the mirror. One episode takes place inside a horse's eye. I'm saying no more! The old bus pulled up at the seashore. It was time for Mister Noon to go. I thanked him for taking the time to have a chat and for letting me drink the whole bottle of wine on my own. I was completely drunk by this point. I watched Jeff climb out of the bus and wander towards a set of steps leading down to a sandy beach. The bus pulled away from the curb, and it occurred to me that I still had one more question! I thrust my torso out of one of the large windows and shouted back at the retreating figure… F: I forgot to ask you!!! What's your favorite sentence of all time? J: Surrounded by phantoms in the noonday, trembling under a breeze when the leaves were still... Jeff Noon waved happily and walked down the steps to the beach. He really is a very nice man, albeit, a bit odd. I opened a secret second bottle of Old Vine for the trip home… More on Jeff Noon http://www.jeffnoon.com http://www.mappalujo.com © COPYRIGHT Fakie Wilde/Jeff Noon 2002 |Photograph ©The Don(AKA www.RobbieShepherd.com)