The Big Idea: Jeff Noon

The famous saying is that “life is like a bunch of chocolates.” In author Jeff Noon’s case, it’s more like a deck of cards, and for the same reason: You never know what you’re going to get. Follow along as Noon tells you how total chance helped him write his newest novel, Within Without.


Theseus would be lost in the Minotaur’s labyrinth, and would probably have died in there, were it not for Ariadne’s skein of red thread. She gave him this clew (the Old English word for ball of thread) to use as a mapping device, and a pointer back to the exit, once the heroic deed was done. In Within Without, I used the red thread in a slightly different way – as a series of signposts pointing the way forward, deeper into the labyrinth. I am not speaking metaphorically: I actually used a red thread to create the novel.

I never plan. I get an idea that excites me, that seems to have potential, and then I begin to write. So, I had two things. The first a city, a city obsessed with borders, that would contain millions of borders, of every kind: physical, psychological, magical. Secondly, I had the notion that a famous person’s public image might be a sentient alien creature that lived in a symbiotic relationship with the host, increasing the star’s charismatic value. Imagine if Ziggy Stardust was actually a living entity that inhabited David Bowie’s body; that was the basic concept, to be explored. I had a feeling, not yet articulated, that the two ideas were connected, that the borderline between image and flesh was also a border in the city.

A few months before, a friend had gifted me a pack of cards. The pack is called The Red Thread. It consists of thirty-two cards, each with its own image and title. A red thread is printed on each card, arranged randomly, so that cards can be edged together, the thread connecting one image to the next in a patchwork effect, creating, in a sense, a narrative told by the cards. I decided to use these cards, and the thread connecting them, to tell the story of Within Without. So I shuffled the pack and turned over the top card… 

Hm. The Shoe. A Card of Utility. Not a very interesting way to begin a novel. Maybe this process would stall at the first signpost. But the pack also includes a separate list of all the cards, with a few sentences describing each one, and what they might symbolise. So I read the entry for The Shoe. “A journey. Protection on a rocky path.” Okay. We can work with that. My protagonist, Nyquist, is a private investigator. He’s about to enter Delirium, the City of a Million Borders. So I put him in a queue. A very, very long queue of people moving very, very slowly, squeezed into a very narrow corridor. And I started to write. A few pages later, I turned over the second card: The Pearl, a Card of Emergence. Right then: Nyquist will emerge from that queue and move towards the first border of the city. Here, something of importance would be found, or lost. In fact that “pearl” turned out to be a tiny black hole that the customs officer found in Nyquist’s suitcase. We were off!

And so it went on. Each start of a new chapter drew a new card, and often a chapter needed a further card halfway through. I never knew what was coming next. Sometimes the cards fitted the current episode very well indeed, and at other times I had to think laterally to make it fit. But all thirty-two cards were used, as they came up: The Twins, The Automaton, The Spectre, The Plumed Horse, The Owl. All found their place. Some of the cards led to major surprises, things that actually shocked me, when I worked out the hidden meaning. Things I would never, ever have invented on my own. As each card was used I laid it out on a tabletop, lining up the red thread with the previous card. Often the cards had to be nudged up or down or set at right angles, to make the threads connect. Slowly, throughout the first draft, the pathways twisted about, this way and that: my very own miniature labyrinth.

I came to the last few chapters, and the last card. Without thinking about it too much, I had allowed the thirty-two cards to fit, more or less, the novel’s length. And now this final card would end the story. I turned it over…. The Finger Post. A Card of Direction. I was astonished: after using the entire pack as a series of signposts, it all comes to an end with one last signpost. I envisioned Nyquist looking up at the place name written on sign. Here was the city’s final border, the most mysterious of them all, the reason why Delirium had been built in the first place. The journey, and the novel, moved towards its exit point.

Within Without: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

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5 Comments on “The Big Idea: Jeff Noon”

  1. This is good news indeed! I had an intense love affair with Mr. Noon’s work in the 2000s and devoured everything I could find. I am really looking forward to reading this. Thanks, Scalzi!

  2. Off topic, but…I always thought that Forrest Gump quote was stupid. I mean, with a box of chocolates, you always know exactly what you are getting, right?

  3. Ordered this. Loved Jeff Noon back in the day, as I come from Manchester – though moved to SoCal to avoid the rain.

    Loved the piece, just wandering along until, BOOM ” I had the notion that a famous person’s public image might be a sentient alien creature that lived in a symbiotic relationship with the host” Yep, that’s the wild imagination I expect!

  4. Jeff M.

    “I mean, with a box of chocolates, you always know exactly what you are getting, right?”
    Tell that to the characters in an Agatha Christie novel.