'I'm the guy on the edge of the dancefloor just staring'

Jeff Noon was selling books in the Deansgate Waterstones when he had a strange encounter that changed his life

By Sophie Atkinson

Jeff Noon has a great laugh. There’s a low chuckle threaded through the recording of our call and at a few different points, he howls with laughter after I pose an entirely innocuous question. This — given that I’m not trying to be funny — should leave me feeling faintly ridiculous. Instead, I put down the phone spooked by a sensation that recalls The Before: the newly sci-fi premise of chatting to someone fun at a house party.

We’re on the phone discussing Manchester in the ‘90s, where he was living when he wrote his first novel, Vurt (1993). Vurt is set in a futuristic Manchester where anyone can buy or illegally procure feathers, the titular Vurts. If you suck on a Vurt, you experience something between a hallucinogenic drug high and virtual reality: access to a different plane. It’s been compared to A Clockwork Orange (something Jeff says was unintended — he had never read Burgess’s novel at the time of composition) and in 1994, it won the Arthur C. Clarke Award, an annual British science fiction prize.

Aside from the novel’s 120 mile-per-hour plot, what I find striking about the book is its geography. On the one hand, the Manchester of Vurt is a parallel world where humans live alongside and mate with robots, anthropomorphised dogs, telepathic shadows and hybrids of all four. On the other hand, Jeff is stubborn about reproducing the rabbit warren of South Manchester’s roads, which his characters spend most of the novel driving along, with meticulous realism. As in life, they drive past Alexandra Park and take a right onto Claremont Road; turn from Princess Road into Moss Lane East. 

“To this day, I'm really interested in anchoring fantasy in the world,” Jeff tells me. “I like to create one thing that's strange and then see how that changes society. So in Vurt, you've basically got this invention of the dream feathers — what does that do to people? What does it do to the city as a whole? So in that sense, keeping Manchester as real as possible is very important to me. Then I could layer this other world on top of it which is a completely bizarre fantasy, so one grows out of the other.”

The idea of fantasy blooming from reality is as good a description as any for how Vurt came to be written. Jeff’s family moved to Ashton-under-Lyne from Droylsden when he was four and up until he wrote Vurt at 35, Jeff had lived — with the exception of a single year in London — in and around Manchester. It strikes me from his stories that Jeff was a triple (quadruple?) threat in search of a calling: he studied drama and painting; played in various punk bands which played a couple of gigs before disbanding; wrote plays and had some success with his play about the Falklands, Woundings, which was put on at the Royal Exchange when he was in his late twenties.

Unfortunately, he “could not for the life of me get a second play on anywhere, I just got one rejection slip after another. So I was pretty despondent about all of that, after having a play on at the Exchange,” he says. “When you're young you think: this is the beginning. Of course, it's never the beginning. You're always waiting for the beginning. You learn, as you get older, that very rarely do you actually reach the goal. It's always ahead of you.”

By the time he landed a job in the Waterstones on Deansgate, heading up the sci-fi department, he had more or less given up on writing. He loved bookselling and “Waterstones back then was quite a bizarre, quite a wild place. It was a lot different than it is now.” Employees were given free rein; each section could order in the books they wanted since there was no central buying, something which led to each department developing localised expertise in their areas, putting up weird and wonderful displays.

His stint there coincided with what Jeff dubs “the golden age for events in bookshops,” with talks happening each night and Jeff introducing writers who came down to do events. This led him to meet and chat with literary royalty like the Canadian-American cyberpunk pioneer William Gibson and British sci-fi author Iain Banks, who he recalls getting drunk with. 

One day, a man came into the shop. His name, Jeff thinks (“God, my memory is so bad”), was Richard Dodgson, who claimed to be a direct descendant of Charles Dodgson, better known as Lewis Carroll. Richard was trying to become a theatre director in Manchester’s fringe theatre scene and he knew of Jeff from Woundings. Richard tried to persuade Jeff to write a play that Richard could then put on. (The man couldn’t have been a direct descendent because Charles Dodgson didn’t have any children. “I half believed him, because I wanted to believe him,” says Jeff.)

The only idea that came to mind was writing something based on Octave Mirbeau’s 1899 novel, The Torture Garden, which was stocked in Waterstones at the time. “There's not much story to it but it's about the bourgeoisie in France. There's this circular prison with a magnificent garden in the middle of it, a courtyard. One day a week they torture the prisoners in the garden and the bourgeoisie used to pay to go and watch them. It's basically a kind of satire.” 

The seed for an idea was planted: “The only plot I could come up with was that this guy's sister is lost in this virtual torture garden and he has to go in and get her. That was the basis for the play I was writing.”

Ultimately, Jeff says his attempt at writing the story as a play didn’t work. He lost contact with Dodgson and returned to bookselling. Four years into his time at Waterstones, Jeff and his friend Steve Powell, who was the assistant manager at the time, started plotting their escape from the bookshop. Steve decided he would set up his own publishing company, Ringpull Press, and asked Jeff to write a novel for him. Jeff had never thought about writing fiction before, so he went home and dug out his half-written play and started thinking about how to restructure it. “It changed a lot, obviously, but that was the beginning of how Vurt first came into being.”

During the day, he worked at Waterstones. At night, he sat in his bedroom in the Whalley Range flat he shared with three friends, typing away on his DOS computer. When Jeff started on the book, he and Steve worked closely: he would send each chapter to Steve; Steve would edit it and give notes; Jeff would write another chapter. “I always think, I was learning how to be a novelist and Steve was learning how to be an editor through that process.” About a third of the way in, Jeff found his momentum and started working on his own. As he made his way through the novel, he started to nurture a sneaking suspicion: this could be really good. He went part-time at Waterstones to try and give it his all.

After years of disappointment with playwriting, he thought “this might be a last chance to become a writer. I put my all into every word, trying to make it zing and fizz with new ideas, and bizarre events, and powerful feelings,” he says. “The book flowed along its own strange pathways. I was barely in control of it, at times. I was possessed by the need to write!”

There was an assumption when the novel came out — given the era; given where Jeff was based; given its club scenes — that it was a rave novel. Jeff stresses that for him, Vurt is first and foremost a punk novel. After all, it was during the punk era in the late 70s when he came of age as a young man and started to explore art and culture. 

“That energy from punk was still travelling through the city into dance music and I was able to follow that through the years,” he says. “Plus, there was very much a DIY aesthetic to it all. Steve started his own publisher, so that was like starting a record label, a thing that people used to do in the punk era. Then there’s the energy of the writing. First novels are like 15 years of frustration, so when you splurge it, it’s just like, wham. On the page, everything! All at once!”

On hearing from Steve that Vurt had made the shortlist for the Arthur C. Clarke Award, he was nonplussed — he hadn’t known it had even been submitted for the award. Jeff recalls a whole bunch of the staff from Waterstones heading down to London for the day. “Steve was going around before saying if it doesn't win, I'm going to beat someone up. Luckily, it won!”

Afterwards, he wandered around with his prize cheque tucked into his trousers: “I just remember thinking: I have a thousand pounds in my pocket.” A grand wasn’t enough to quit his job on, but the award changed his life all the same — shortly afterwards, an American publisher made an offer for Vurt that was generous enough for him to leave his career as a bookseller, go freelance and he’s been writing novels ever since. Vurt itself took on a life of its own — Jeff recalls seeing a graffiti slogan from the novel “Pure is poor” on a wall in Hulme. “That was very funny. It's like the novel incepted the world.”

Did he end up selling his own book to fans in Waterstones? “Not fans, no,” he says. “I didn't have fans, definitely not.” But he does remember one young man on ecstasy coming up to him one night after an event at the shop, “and he was doing that whole thing, ‘You're brilliant, you are, you're beautiful, you, you're lovely, I love you. Oh, that book, man — WOW. I love that book, it's so fucking brilliant.’ Giving me the whole ecstasy thing, you know.”

He still experiences encounters like that with readers. “These are the people who are so shocked when I tell them I've never taken ecstasy. They're like ‘Oh, man, come on, no man, no, you're doing my head in, you're ridiculous, you did do ecstasy.’

‘No, I'm sorry, I didn't.’

‘No man, you DID though.’

‘No, sorry, I didn't.’

‘But you MUST have done.’

‘No, I just made it up.’

Jeff turned 30 in 1987, and says he felt a bit too old to be part of the late-80s rave scene. “I was definitely an observer which is more or less what I've been my whole life,” he says. “I'm the guy on the edge of the dancefloor just staring at the dancefloor.”

Nevertheless, he felt like he was participating in the broader youth-cultural awakening of the moment. “I think there was a whole slew of stuff going on in Britain at the time where a new kind of art was arriving in different ways, a new kind of youthful expression that was very particular to the age and I think Vurt was part of that stream of effect,” he says.

I ask him to say more. “It's not a definite movement, more a sense of a new way of seeing the world, and dealing with it, and portraying it,” he says. “The Young British Artists first started to exhibit in 1988. Rave music and baggy culture in Manchester and other cities. The writers in the Disco Biscuits anthology. But for me, it was just a feeling, nothing that can be talked about easily. I felt I was part of something.”

While prepping for my chat with Jeff, I stumble across an interview with Jeff from 1995. In it, Jeff says “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 ask him why he felt that, and he recalls going to the pub with his best friend and talking about sci-fi and why there wasn’t a British answer to what William Gibson did. Why weren’t there any books coming into Waterstones’ sci-fi section that were “about that kind of contemporary urban experience of the city of the 90s”?

But also, he reminisces about how a few years ago, someone from Manchester University came to interview him. This man had been researching Manchester-based writers and he had noticed something strange. If you split the timeline of the city into Old Manchester and New Manchester — Old Manchester referring to the “build up to the industrial revolution through to the 70s when the factories started to be shut down” and New Manchester referring to after empty factories had been converted into flats and galleries — there were plenty of writers in both time periods. 

But when this man looked at the interim period between the old and new — after the factories had closed, but while they were still empty — “I could only find you,” he said.

“And of course, as soon as Manchester became ‘new’ I was gone,” says Jeff. “I'd left Manchester. I no longer wrote about Manchester so there was a very particular time in my life when I did that and a very particular time in the city's history when I was writing about it.”

These days, Jeff lives in Brighton. On entering his forties, he went there to do a reading and he and his partner fell in love with the place from that first weekend onwards. It was time to say goodbye.

“I knew that I was probably coming to the end of wanting to write about Manchester as a subject matter,” he says. “I was aware that I had other things to do, that that particular job was done and that it might be someone else's job to do it from now on.”

Jeff recently released House With No Doors a crime novel The Spectator calls a “deployment of the author’s clever, ranging talent to freshen up a great genre.” In May this year, the fourth book in his Philip K.Dick-nominated mystery series, Within Without will be released.

Given how important music was to Vurt, we asked Jeff to make us a playlist of songs he was listening to when writing the novel in 1992. He graciously agreed, and you can find his playlist on YouTube by clicking here.