Interview with Christopher Priest

Christopher Priest is the author of ten novels and two collections of short stories. The Glamour won the 1988 Kurd Lasswitz Best Novel award and The Prestige won the 1995 World Fantasy Award, the 1995 James Tait Award for best novel and was shortlisted for the Arthur C.Clarke Award.

Hello Chris. Thanks for joining us.

We’re quite excited about your new book, The Islanders. What can you tell us about it?

Not a lot. It feels to me like the kind of book that is best discovered by the reader. The Islanders more or less defies description, but I keep worrying that if I say that it might put people off trying it. There is no main plot, for instance. The central character isn’t. At its simplest, it’s a kind of “Rough Guide” to the islands of the Dream Archipelago, a place I have used in several stories and at least one novel. The islands are described in alphabetical order. But then the people who live on the islands slowly emerge, and so do their stories. The islands themselves are really important. I’ve already said too much. It’s got a great scene with a big hairy insect.

Your last fiction book was The Separation, in 2002: almost ten years. Has this book taken so long to write? What have you being doing?

The Islanders took about a year to write, so nothing unusual about that. I think the ten years amount to a “fallow period”, a phrase writers sometimes use when they’re stuck on the next book. In my case, I believe it’s a genuine description. I spent most of the last ten years not actually wanting to write much. The Separation was a major effort, two and a half years of research and writing, and after it I wanted a long break. Took one. Then everything was buggered up when they made the film of The Prestige. Although I wasn’t directly involved with the making of it, I found it distracting: every day brought a stream of emails, some (from people in the real world) asking what was going on, others (from people in Hollywood) telling me what was going on. That’s all in the past now, but it used up quite a chunk of time. A year or so ago I started work on a new novel called The Adjacent. It went well, but about 100 pages into it I had the idea for The Islanders. I did a few days on that, trying out the idea, loved what I found and made a decision to put The Adjacent aside. I finished The Islanders about a year ago, and after a few weeks’ rest I went back to The Adjacent. I’ve been working on that all through 2011, it’s gone well and the first draft is coming to an end. Maybe another couple of months should see it completed, and then maybe another two or three months for second and final drafts. (Yes, I still do drafts.) After that, I have yet another novel in mind. This one will be called something like The Mariners, and is a kind of wet version of The Islanders. This is why I think the idea of the fallow period after The Separation is a true one: I have never been so productive as this before. By the way, I’m also currently writing my first stage play.

You’ve said in the past that you grew up reading science fiction. Would you say that what you write is science fiction?


Are you happy with such simple genre definitions? Should we be trying to delimit your work?

I’m against all genre definitions. Some writers (perhaps a majority) love them. They provide a comprehensible route to a known readership. Booksellers, libraries and publishers also love genres: it helps them decide where to place a book. But I believe the genre outlook means having to adopt an orthodoxy. I’ve always been too restless for that. Take The Islanders, since I know it well at the moment. It’s emphatically not a ghost story, but there’s at least one ghost in it. It’s not a love story, although an epic romance runs through it. It’s not a murder mystery, although there’s a murder. It’s not science fiction, although there’s stuff about a non-conductive alloy. It’s not a horror story, although there’s a great scene with a big hairy insect. The Islanders is all of these, and none of them. If copies of the book are placed in any particular genre section of a bookstore, the people who want the usual genre satisfaction are going to be really disappointed. It’s just a novel (although there are some purists in the world who insist that the “novel” is a genre). Take it as it comes. Enjoy the ride. (But check inside your shoes before you put them back on.)

Much of your work involves puzzles or things that are not quite real. The Dream Archipelago is such a place, and The Islanders is not the first time you’ve written about it. What is it that you find attractive about this area of ambiguity in your work?

As you’ve probably worked out, The Islanders constitutes something of a puzzle. (The publishers even call it that in the blurb.) All my books are ultimately about the nature of fiction. The Prestige (e.g.) is a story about two magicians, but at the heart of it is a long and serious meditation on the process of writing. Most of my novels have “found” texts. People write things. The Islanders has some of this stuff, as does The AdjacentThe Separationis almost nothing but found texts. The Glamour IS nothing but. All fiction is a lie, all fiction is the truth dressed up, or made into a version. People who write things down tend to simplify, or they get muddled, or they misremember something, or they angle it to make themselves look better. All written material is to one extent or another unreliable. Ask anyone who has done something that is then reported in a newspaper, and they will say, “They got a lot of it wrong.” The Guardian interviewed me when I was on that “Best of Young Brits” promotion many years ago. The journalist described me as a drummer in a rock band — what I’d actually said was that I once shared a flat with a drummer. Examples of this kind of thing are legion. Most of us tend to ignore this unpalatable fact, but I latched on to it years ago and I find it endlessly interesting.

You’ve been published since 1970: that’s over 40 years! What do you wish you knew then what you know now?

The same as now, I think. Life is full of productive uncertainty.

Apart from your new tale, which book/s are you proudest of?

I don’t think (or claim) it’s my best book, but I always believe The Affirmation is a key book.

You are, perhaps, most famous for The Prestige.  I think it is your most awarded book. Do you have a view about Awards? Are they of value, in your opinion?

I’ve come to the conclusion (some may feel it is cynical) that awards are of most value to the people who give them, rather than those who receive them. It’s undeniably nice to be given a prize (also horrible to sit and wait for it to be announced), but I can say in all truth that I never give them a thought when writing something. Nor do most of the other writers I know.

In some ways, the film of The Prestige is quite different to the book. How do you feel as a writer about film directors altering your work?

They do their job and I do mine. I deliberately did not involve myself with the adaptation of The Prestige, because I was interested to see what Christopher Nolan would do with it. At the time I thought he was a serious and interesting talent. (He’s gone downhill a bit since those days. Too many Batman films, and all that.) Also, I wanted to see what Hollywood would do with something I thought was highly unlikely as a Hollywood project. With hindsight, I wish I had known what Nolan was going to do with the ending (he takes a huge chance with it), and would have said a few things to him about that. But on the whole, I feel it is “his” film, just as the novel is “mine”. The only thing that seriously irritated me was Nolan’s attitude that the book hadn’t existed before he came along and made the film. In fact it had been in print for twelve years, and was in translations around the world. In several interviews he urged people not to read the book, as it “ruined” his film. You don’t feel warm to someone like that.

Given a free rein, if you had to choose one other book of yours to be made into a film, what would it be?

Well, The Glamour is extremely likely. It’s being developed now by Gerald McMorrow, who made Franklyn … a great little film that few people seem to have seen so far. The Affirmation is more or less unfilmable, so I’d like to see someone have a shot at that. I’d also like to see one particular sequence ofThe Islanders shot as a “Dogme” film, a bit like Festen.

If readers have read that, and wish to try another Priest book, what would you suggest?

I really don’t know. To me, my books are like children: they’re all favourites, but they tend to stay up late at night playing loud music.

Advice for new writers in the field today, please.

Just do it. My non-fiction book Ersatz Wines (which I self-published in 2008, still available through my website) is a discourse on what I did, starting from scratch. Not intended as advice, but more of a straightforward example. Notice, then avoid, the errors of others. Marry someone rich. Don’t drink too much, don’t do drugs, don’t shave your head, don’t take too much exercise. (They’re all bad for you.) Work every day. Always think of writing as a profession — people sometimes say, “Once I retire I’m going to write some bestselling novels.” OK, but would they say, “When I retire I think I’ll turn my hand to a spot of brain surgery”? I’ve found it’s a life’s work, a real profession, and one that gets more interesting and challenging as you go along.

Who would you suggest they read if they were to learn the craft of writing?

Read widely and adventurously and with an open mind. Everything is guidance of one sort or another, even crap. But not too much crap. Read instead the essays of George Orwell for the clarity, beauty and simplicity of his language. Read Graham Greene’s A Sort of Life for the best possible account of what exactly it is a writer does. Read poetry: a Shakespeare sonnet a day works wonders. Read James Joyce’s Dubliners, which contains probably the finest short story ever written, ‘The Dead’. Read as much non-fiction as fiction, even if you aspire only to fiction. Don’t take any notice of the literary pages in the newspapers. Always turn off Melvyn Bragg when he’s on the radio. Ditto Martin Amis when he’s anywhere. Keep up with what new and young writers are doing.

Thank you, Chris.

Mark Yon –

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