Interview: Jeff Noon talks about A Man of Shadows

A Man of ShadowsHi Jeff, and many thanks for agreeing to take some time out of your busy editing to answer a few questions.

Your latest book, A Man of Shadows, is the first traditionally published work you’ve written since 2002’s Falling Out of Cars. Why did you decide to publish it in this way rather than only as an e-book?

Jeff: After Falling Out Of Cars, I vanished into the world of screenwriting, or at least I tried to break into screenwriting. That didn’t work out as well as I hoped, so years later I returned to novel writing, with immense relief, it must be said. In the interim the whole eBook phenomenon had taken off, and I thought it might be an interesting experiment to put out a new novel myself, along with a good chunk of my backlist. That new eBook novel was Channel SK1N, which I enjoyed writing and publishing. It was good to be back. However, after a good few years of promoting and publishing myself, I really wanted to get back into a paper existence. I really love paper books, and I was missing seeing my work in the bookshops. My first venture was Mappalujo, a collaborative novel written with Steve Beard. We published this through a small publisher, which was great, but it still wasn’t reaching the bookshops. So when Angry Robot Books got in touch, I was more than pleased to write A Man Of Shadows for them. It’s so good to see the book on the shelves. I do feel now that my self-publishing experiment is over, and from now on I’ll be seeking publishers for my work. I hope to find a publisher for my backlist.

Concepts of time and what it means to an individual feature strongly in A Man of Shadows. What does time mean to you?

Jeff: Time is the landscape in which a narrative is played out: I see it, in story terms, as a kind of geography. Events move through it. Once I’d created the setting of the novel – a city divided into areas of strict light and dark, where the sky is hidden behind a vast canopy of lamps – I realised that time would have a very different function for the people who lived there. Cut off from the natural cycles of day and night and the seasons of the years, I thought that time might become more liquid for them, more personal, in the sense that everyone would be free to create, or to buy, their own time scales. This concept really excited me, and was a major force in the writing process. In a sense, the citizens are going back to a period in human history when time wasn’t so regimented, and more localised. I was interested in how this concept of liquid time would affect my characters, for good and for ill: how some would revel in it, and some would rebel against it, and how for others it might cause psychological problems. My protagonist, Nyquist, is severely and increasingly affected by a broken sense of time as the narrative progresses. My job as a writer was to chart his disintegration. I really felt scared for me at certain points.

Nyquist has classic noir-detective traits. Did any noir fiction or films inspire you?

Jeff: I love crime novels, always have done ever since I was a young teenager first reading Agatha Christie. I have a passion for all murder mysteries: hardboiled, traditional, or avant-garde. I really like the puzzle aspects of the narrative. So writing in the genre seems a very natural step to me, especially combining it with science fiction. I also remember reading with delight Isaac Asimov’s SF detective novels, The Caves of Steel and The Naked Sun. The actual plotting of A Man Of Shadows is influenced by the work of Ross MacDonald, my favourite of the American noir writers. He dealt with the twisted, darker side of family life, and I explore that same area in this book. Film wise, I really like The Long Goodbye, an amazing 1973 adaptation of Raymond Chandler by director Robert Altman, although that’s not really an influence. It’s mainly novels that I’m inspired by, especially older ones. I suppose my favourite contemporary crime writer is Jo Nesbo. But I feel that I’ve delved into his books so deeply and so many times that I can now predict his plotting. It’s a curse!

Your writing is often very evocative of place or culture. Do you go out and about observing and note-taking?

Jeff: Surprisingly, no. Not really. I write from my imagination, rather than from the outside world. I’m a bit of a recluse, I guess. But it suits me. I used to write about Manchester, my home town, but since leaving there about 18 years ago, I haven’t really depicted the real world that much. I’m going through a phase where I prefer to create realms of my own imagining. The initial idea behind the Nyquist mysteries was to have my private eye resident in a different weird city for each case, and to let the peculiar properties of that city create the case he has to solve. In a similar question, people often ask me if I’ve taken lots of drugs, and again the answer is no. I just make it all up!

Does your writing infect your dreams or do your dreams infect your writing?

Jeff: Not so much. These days I very rarely remember my dreams anyway. I do recall that the end of my first novel Vurt came to me in a dream. And recently, working on the follow up to A Man Of Shadows I dreamt that Nyquist was dead. I got up very early that morning and wrote a chapter exploring that possibility, and what it might mean in terms of the novel’s structure and narrative. Was he really dead, or had some other kind of reality taken him over? This is the kind of question that very often possesses me. But usually, I wake up without any dream memories. I do keep a pad and pen at my side, in order to jot down ideas. That’s very useful. If I don’t write them down, the ideas vanish after a few minutes.

Vurt is one of my favourite novels. As a debut, were you surprised by its success and longevity?

Jeff: I’m very happy that a good number of people love the book, and it’s very exciting these days, as I get older, meeting younger writers who have been influenced by the novel. That’s very gratifying to hear. It’s strange, because the book came out on a tiny publisher, and was really aimed at a few of my friends in Manchester: I wanted simply to write a book that they might enjoy, that was the main drive behind it. That, and the dream of escaping the day job!  So it’s quite incredible to me that the novel grew from that very personal impulse, to have a wider influence in British science fiction circles.

Finally, when can we expect your next book?

Jeff: If all goes to plan, I should have two novels out next year. The first will be The Body Library, the continuing adventures of private eye John Nyquist in a new city, with a new group of characters, a new crime, a new predicament. The second book will be my first ever proper crime novel. No SF or fantasy elements, just straight down the line murder mystery set in 1981: real people, real events. That’s a big change for me, a departure in a new direction. But the story itself is still concerned with my usual themes: I can’t escape those, now matter where I go in genre terms. I haven’t given up on SF, but I really want to explore some different approaches and themes as I get older. To never settle into one pathway.


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