An Interview With Christopher Priest: 3 July 2006
My top two favourites are A Dream Of Wessex and The Affirmation; which novel are you most proud of and why?
“Proud” is the wrong word for most things to do with me. For my books, I mostly feel a sense of relief at having been able to start something, keep it going for a year or two, then finish it. Also, as a lot of people have pointed out, books are a bit like children, insofar as you have feelings about them. You often have an irrational love for the one with the spotty face, etc., and in any event feel differently about them all because they represent different aspects of your life, different periods. I’m fond of Indoctrinaire, e.g., because it was my first one, but its face seems increasingly spotty with age.
The ones I like best are:
Inverted World, because it’s the closest I’ll ever come to writing a trad sf novel. Also, because it has opened so many doors for me. It’s not well known or well liked in English (especially in the USA, where it did badly), but in translation it has been a great hit. This is especially true in France, where I have dined out on it for years.
The Affirmation, because it was the first novel I wrote that I felt came out the way I wanted it to. It was also, for me, an experiment in a new kind of plotting, which I’ve been developing ever since. I think the last dozen pages or so are amongst the best bits of me.
The Prestige, because it has a great and devious plot. Buggered if I know now how I worked it out, but there you are.
The Separation, because it’s the closest to the most “achieved” novel. It’s well-rounded, serious, complicated and is a pure but neglected form of sf.
I came across the The Last Deadloss Visions (AKA The Book On The Edge Of Forever) purely by accident when I was searching for a full list of your novels. What gave you the idea for writing the essay? Do you think the book ever be released?
Who cares, any more? Everything’s out of date now. Most of the writers are dead. Even Harlan Ellison has put on a lot of saggy bits himself recently, and doesn’t look long for this world. He should have put his anthology on a multi-media CD or DVD when I advised him to, a decade and a half ago, but the chance is gone now. He’s lost the copyright to most of the stories.
The idea came not as Ellison claims (a hideous revenge for him rejecting one of my stories — because he never did), but because for a while back in the 1970s I was writing a mild form of literary investigative journalism for one of the left-wing magazines here. I enjoyed doing that, but the subjects were dull: the Arts Council literature funding policy, etc. Afterwards, I thought it would be fun to deploy the same journalistic techniques on something a bit more interesting. I was still casting around for ideas when I saw one of Ellison’s letters in an American fanzine, promising untruthfully for the umpteenth time that he had just delivered The Last Dangerous Visions. It took me less than half a second to realize I had found the subject I was looking for. The story has everything, and practically wrote itself: Ellison’s boastfulness, incompetence, emotional blackmail, laziness, threats, bullying, self-satisfaction … and his habit of uttering one provable lie after another. It was not intended as a personal attack: I’ve never met the great man and know little about him, other than what he has said himself. But as well as being someone who tries to lie his way out of every difficulty, he apparently cannot believe that objective criticism of him could be anything other than spiteful or malicious. By his own lights does he seem to see the world around him.
[NB to copy-editor, proofreader, etc: "provable", not "probable"]
With The Prestige movie being shot, did you have creative input into the screenplay adaptation?
Well yes, if you count writing the novel, without which the film would never have been made. Apart from that, no. The draft I read a few years ago was by Jonathan Nolan (brother of the director, Christopher Nolan), and it struck me as being an expert variation on the novel. The version of the screenplay I read had a few passages of weak expository dialogue (which I’m certain would have been cleaned up during Chris Nolan’s rewrites), and a rather chaotic ending (probably that too). It’s not the whole book — all the modern-day stuff has been lost. A lot of events have been compressed, and some of the characters combined too, but the two essential elements of the novel — obsessive secrecy and obsessive curiosity — are still there. I’m looking forward to it.
What are your views on having one of your novels made into a movie?
So far, it has all been a bit of an anticlimax. Life goes on as before. I wrote the novel more than 12 years ago, and a lot of water has flowed under the bridge since. I haven’t lost interest in the novel by any means, but you have to see these things in context.
Have you seen any promo clips of it yet?
Were you asked to play a cameo in The Prestige, so that the theme of the self referential aspects of your novels gets carried over to movie (the author of the novel appears in his own work)?
Are you currently working on a new novel?
If you had a choice, which novel/story of yours would you like to see a director tackle? (Personally, I’d like to see The Affirmation filmified, the director would weep.) Seriously though, I think the dream like world of the Archipelago would be a beautiful and mysterious setting for a film.
Those are the two books of mine that I think would, as you say, present a substantial challenge to any director, of Nolan’s stature or not. They would also create a new kind of filming ethic that would shake up people’s ideas a bit. But these things are not up to me.
Real ale or lager or neither? If neither, then what?
If I drink beer I generally prefer light fizzy stuff that comes in green bottles with foreign-seeming words on the labels. But I don’t drink a lot of beer.
If you hadn’t become a writer, what do you think you would have been professionally? (maybe you are, in another reality).
I was supposed to become an accountant, but I was so useless at it, so loathed the work, and was so loathed by real accountants, that I gave it up while I was still in my teens. After that, I kind of drifted until I started selling fiction. George Bernard Shaw once said that to him writing tasted like water … with which I
can only concur. I’ve done it for so long, to the exclusion of everything else, that I can’t imagine what else I could do or be.
What’s your favourite icecream?
Häagen-Dazs chocolate chocolate chip. A double portion, please.
Thanks for taking time from your busy schedule to answer these questions Chris.