Many thanks to Jeff Noon for agreeing to take some time out of your busy schedule to answer a few questions.
An interview with Jeff Noon
1. How long on average does it take you to write a book?
There are two answers to this question: about nine months, and about five years. Although I can write a good first draft in nine months, so many times it can take a much longer time to get from the first spark of inspiration towards the point of writing. It’s different with every project: some ideas just work from the beginning, and then the process looks after itself. At other times the idea doesn’t lead directly to a book, but to a series of pathways or a maze that I have to travel along before the book itself starts to form in my mind. A Man Of Shadows came into being through this second process. Once I’d got the basic idea I wrote various versions of the story, sometimes getting as far as 70,000 words, which is three quarters of a novel, before realising that it wasn’t really working. So I’d go onto other projects, and come back to the idea a few months or even a year later with a new approach. This is a very natural pattern of working for me, the continual reworking and re-exploration of the same ideas. Subsequently, I have many half or quarter finished novels on my hard drive. And then one day the idea suddenly arrives, the big idea. And now the story makes suddenly makes complete sense, now I know what the story means. Once I reach that point, the book can be written quite quickly, and completed.
2. What’s more satisfying, seeing your words come to life or seeing your books on the BOOKS etc. website?
Most of all I love readers reading my work, so any method by which that might happen is good, including Books Etc. I’ve been selling part of my backlist as independently published eBooks for a number of years now, but I do love paper books most of all: I continue to read them myself, simply because they give the most reading pleasure. Writing novels can take a while, it’s a one-person job and that means staying in a room on your own for long periods of time and conjuring fantasies into life. So it’s great to get the story out there into the world, and to have people experience the characters and events that you’ve crafted. That’s the only goal that matters.
3. What environment inspires you the most, in terms of bringing out your literary best?
It used to be Manchester, my place of birth. Many of my earlier books grew out of my direct experience of that city, often transformed into a science fiction setting. But I left Manchester about eighteen years ago, and since then I’ve made a constant effort to not become the chronicler of any one particular area. So now my works ranges over different towns and cities, some real, and some completely made-up. The very first idea behind A Man Of Shadows was to invent a number of different cities, each with a peculiar or surreal nature, and to set crime stories in those cities. My private eye hero John Nyquist would move from one city to another, being affected in turn by each setting. Other stories of mine are set in real places, London, or towns on the south coast of England. I’ve never written about Brighton, my current place of residence; I’m not sure why. But Brighton is a constant source of inspiration. I walk down to the sea at least once a week, and around the shopping areas. It’s a joyful place, a creative place. I’m glad I moved here.
4. What did you edit out of this book?
That’s a very interesting question. I don’t think I’ve been asked such a thing before; most people are interested in the first spark of an idea, and the finished product, not the in-between bit, and certainly not the second draft, which is where most of the serious editing takes place. As I mentioned in the first question, A Man Of Shadows went through a good many phases in its long cultivation: whole chapters were cut out, characters were born, disappeared, and were maybe brought back to life on the page. At one point it was going to be a film script; at another point a much more experimental novel. Finally, it ended up as a science fiction detective story, a noir fantasy. There are a couple of mentions in the book of a “time crash”, which took place a year ago, when the city’s complex system of timekeeping collapsed into chaos. There was more about this event in earlier drafts, but it seemed to be getting in the way of the plot’s forward motion, so I editing it out. But I like the fact that the idea of the time crash is still there, just barely, mentioned in passing by one or two characters. A related question is: what was added? That’s an easy one to answer. The concept of Quicksilver, a very strange serial killer, was the final item to be put into the mix. And that was the one final idea I was waiting for: at that point the novel came alive. The story could then be told.
5. Do you read your book reviews? How do you deal with bad or good ones?
As a younger man I used to read my reviews avidly, good or bad. I would always try to take something positive from the bad ones, something I could use to make my work better in future. But as the years pass by, I have become less interested in reading reviews, so these days I don’t really look at them. People point them out to me, especially on social media, and they might tell me if it’s a good or bad review. If I know it’s a good one, I will skim read it, just to get a sense of the elements of the story that the critic likes. But my eye only skims over the words. I never look at bad reviews, not these days. I need to be able to write freely, without worrying too much about the things some people are saying about my work. So, my attitude to reviews has changed quite drastically over the years. I’m interested in people writing about my work, though, and I really like it when students write essays or theses about the novels and stories. That’s very refreshing, even if I don’t quite understand what they’re saying! I also like it when other writers take some influence from my books, just as I was influenced myself by other writers: the sense of ideas being passed on and modified by new authors. But the general reader remains my greatest focus: they’re the person I feel closest to when I’m in the middle of the creative process. I have a kind of vision in my mind of a reader reading the book, and that guides my hand as I write.