Just out as an ebook, Channel SK1N is your first novel in ten years or so. The novel has already been highly praised by William Gibson, Cory Doctorow, Lauren Beukes, SFX and more, and it’s clear that your return to book-length fiction is long overdue. Tell us more about the novel.
Channel SK1N charts a few days in the life of a pop star called Nola Blue. She’s a manufactured entity, very much in the X-Factor, American Idol mould. I wanted to push that process to the extremes, to really have a good look at it as a subject matter. So Nola has lost her former identity, her name, many of her memories, and so on. She’s an artist who has given herself over completely to the pop machine. Now she’s starting to regret that decision. And her regret coincides with the appearance of a mysterious bruise on her stomach. This grows and starts to take on shape and colour and even sound; it turns out to be a TV broadcast. So Nola is picking up TV signals on her skin. That’s the basic theme: the body taken over by the media, for good and for ill. It’s a short novel, just a few days in the life of this incredibly troubled woman as she struggles to preserve her own identity. I follow her as closely as I can, like a handheld camera. I really wanted the book to have that “handheld” quality; so the prose is a bit jittery in places, and later on my word-camera gets infected with the same parasite signal.
Why the move to self-publish this novel, rather than take the traditional route? I believe there was at least one commercial publisher who wanted to publish this book.
We sent the book off to one publisher and they picked up on it, and wanted to publish it. So I really did almost go the traditional route. But they wanted to release it in 18 months’ time. Now, I’ve been out of the world of books for a long while – ten years since Falling Out of Cars was published – and I was really keen on connecting to a reading audience again. So I did a bit of research, and realised that the possibilities of self-publishing had changed a lot in those ten years. I made the decision to do it myself. This way, the book is already out, and reaching people, and that’s a really great feeling. Best of all, it allows a more or less continuous stream of creativity; I can write something and get it out a short time later. That whole waiting period between the creation and the publication can be very short now. This is brilliant: current thought and current work can move hand in hand.
Was it an easy decision to turn down conventional publishing and go it alone?
No. Not at all. But you know, I’ve always had an independent streak to me. I started out writing and producing fanzines in the punk era, and this feels very similar in many ways. And of course these days we see so many musicians going it alone; that was a major inspiration. It just seemed the right thing to do, at this particular time in my life. Of course, there are problems; for instance, the major print newspapers give very little review space to self-published eBooks. Thankfully, the world of the blog now exists. There are an amazing bunch of really well-informed writers out there, both at the centre and the edges of the SF genre. They bring a far greater individuality to their writing than a lot of professional journalists do, and they really get and support the independent spirit. They’re independent themselves, right? Publishing is changing in so many ways. We’re in transition, and I’m really happy to be part of that transition, that wave.
What lessons have you learnt along the way?
The initial set-up is time-consuming. You need some help along the way, even if it’s just a couple of well-informed friends. The biggest problem facing the independent author is visibility; how can I get people to notice my work? One approach is to place your work within the limits of a known genre pool, but it’s so easy to get lost that way. My personality forces me in the opposite direction: I like to write books that slip and slide between genres. But I knew that Channel SK1N was a simple, strong subject matter: a woman turns into a television set. There it is. A story. And I knew it would connect with the present-day world in various interesting ways. So I think I would advise people to really think about subject matter and style: make your work stand out from the crowd. At least then, you’ll have some chance of being noticed.
To many people, publication of Channel Sk1n will be seen as your return after a break of a decade or so. In reality, you’ve been working hard online, with a prolific output of new fiction, remixes, microfiction, poetry and much, much more. Not so long ago, it was easy to say that an author was someone who wrote novels, stories and/or poetry, for print, but now… what exactly is it that you do?
I’m a writer. That’s how I see myself, fundamentally. I manipulate words to create effects, stories, emotions and so on. But I’m not the kind of person who can just do one thing, forever; I need to change, to hit the REFRESH button on a weekly, if not daily basis. So I’m always experimenting, just trying to come up with new ideas for both subject and form. I do that every day. I have hundreds of little one or two page Word documents on my computer, that I’m constantly looking at, tweaking, remixing and so on. Eventually, one of these will grow into something larger, and maybe take on a public life. I’ve spent years perfecting things that nobody’s ever seen. It’s my nature. But now, with the self-publishing venture, I hope to get some of these works out, in front of people. For most of the ten years’ time I was hidden away in the world of screenwriting, which suited me at the time. I still love film, and hope to see some scripts given a visual life one day.
As well as your online output, and the publication of Channel SK1N, your backlist is now being made available for the first time in ebook format. Are there any titles in particular that you would like to highlight?
I couldn’t get hold of good digital copies of the older books, so I had to pay for them to be professionally scanned. I then had to check the scans for errors. So, in effect, I’m currently in the process of reading my own back catalogue. Which is a mighty strange, and somewhat scary thing to do. But it hasn’t been too bad. I have a particular fondness for Pixel Juice, because I can remember my imagination running on overload when I wrote it, and also for Falling Out Of Cars, for its extension of the Alice in Wonderland myth into a near-future scenario.
What are you working on now?
I’m doing the spores on Twitter, just these little packets of story and image. Eventually, I will collect these into a volume called Pixel Dust. I’m also looking at ideas for apps, especially for the spores and Cobralingus. This is all about finding new ways of presenting story, new narrative processes. I love all that. Also, I’ve just started a new film script, an inter-dimensional romance. And the usual array of experiments. I always have a lot of works on the go.
Describe your typical writing day.
I work best at night. So I tend to go to bed very late, around 3 or 4 or even 5 in the morning. I get up at 10am, mess about for a bit, do any admin type work, get all that boring stuff out of the way, you know? And then start thinking about the day’s writing. I’m quite organised; I have a to-do list, and all that. But, as I said, after dark is when I really start to feel creative. I must have some Vampire blood!
Which other authors or books do you think deserve a plug?
I don’t really read contemporary novels. I love magazines (paper ones), which I devour cover to cover. I adore poetry. Whenever I go into a bookshop, I quite naturally head for the poetry section. That’s my compass point. I like contemporary poetry most of all, so I always try to keep up with the latest volumes. My favourite poet is Pauline Stainer. I find her work endlessly inspiring. She has a very powerful visual imagination, which I really respond to. I think I’m actually a frustrated poet, in many ways. (When I’m not being a frustrated musician, that is!)
If you were to offer one snippet of writing advice what would it be?
Really concentrate on individual expression. Be bold. Take a chance on being strange. Of all the genres, science fiction will most readily reward you for this.
So… the easy one: what’s the future of publishing? How will writers be making a living and publishing in five or ten years? What will readers be reading?
I think paper books will still be around in five years. Beyond that, it’s difficult to predict. I imagine the big newspapers will go completely digital first, losing their paper editions. That will change people’s attitudes. We will see more and more digital books. I think the new media will change the nature of storytelling in some way, but as always, the novel will be at the back of the queue, desperately clinging onto its 19th Century status for as long as possible. At a certain point in history the novel and the story wedded themselves together. This never happened to the same degree in visual or musical arts, so those media have been free to progress at a far quicker rate than the novel. But there will be a number of writers exploring narrative on the new platforms. More power to them. Meanwhile, the publishing industry pats itself on the back because it successfully made money from the paper editions of Fifty Shades of Grey. I mean, what are the chances of that novel being taken up by a big publisher, just from scratch? Absolutely minimal. But what interests me the most is the growing number of “amateur” writers that the new media has brought to light. I read once that Britain has more creative people per square mile than any other country in the world. I think that figure will need to be seriously upgraded, because we’re just now starting to see the astonishing range of people who are taking advantage of digital culture to show their writing to the world. There is a terrible snobbery about this stratum of writers amongst the industry and the press (until of course one of them makes serious money). In fact, Shades of Grey is a perfect example; that was a seriously personal novel, emerging from the world of online fanfiction. It doesn’t get more grassroots than that! For myself, I welcome this new wave of writing. For sure, not all of it will operate at the “accepted” standards, but my God the people will speak out loud. We’ve all got a hilltop to shout from now. The question comes back to visibility. More than ever, artists of every stripe will have to really make themselves stand out in the market square. I think we’ll see an increasing number of highly individualised novels, stories with unique themes and styles. It’s survival of the strangest. And that can only be good. Maybe I’m being overly optimistic, but I’m keen to see the future of books, in whatever form it takes.
Jeff Noon was born in Manchester in 1957. He trained in the visual arts and was active on the post-punk music scene before becoming a playwright. His novels include Vurt (Arthur C. Clarke Award winner), Pollen, Automated Alice and Falling Out Of Cars. Pixel Juice was a collection of fifty avant-pulp stories. He also writes microfictional ‘spores’ via @jeffnoon on Twitter. His latest novel Channel SK1N is an experiment in independent digital publishing. He lives in Brighton, on the south coast of England. More information can be found at www.metamorphiction.com.Buy stuff: