To The Last Word An Interview With Christopher Priest

UK novelist Christopher Priest’s most recent novel is The Islanders (published by Gollancz on 22 September, 2011). 

The Islanders, Christopher PriestHis previous novel, The Separation (2002), was honoured with the Arthur C. Clarke Award, the British Science Fiction Association Award and France’s Grand Prix de l’Imaginaire. His 1995 novel, The Prestige, won the World Fantasy Award and the James Tait Black Memorial Prize. The following interview was originally published in Interzone (issue 207) in 2006, coinciding with the cinema release of the film version of The Prestige. The film starred Hugh Jackman, Christian Bale, Scarlett Johansson and Michael Caine and was directed by Christopher Nolan (Inception, The Dark Knight, Memento). It has proved one of the most acclaimed films of recent years.

Using ideas such as immortality ( The Affirmation), invisibility (The Glamour), alternative history (The Separation) and virtual reality (A Dream of Wessex, The Extremes) Priest’s novels explore the limits of his character’s perceptions. The world is never what it seems, and The Prestige, the story of two Victorian stage magicians whose careers depend upon fantastical deceptions, is perhaps the definitive Priest novel.

Gary Dalkin Talks to Christopher Priest

Gary Dalkin: When The Prestige came out in 1995 it initially seemed surprising in that it returned to the period when SF was just forming as a genre, which you explored in The Space Machine back in 1976. You also wrote about the Edwardian period in ‘Palely Loitering’ (1978). Does the late Victorian, Edwardian era have an intrinsic interest for you, or was it simply the necessary period in which to set those particular stories?

Christopher Priest: Those three stories are all from different times in my career, approached for different reasons. The Space Machine is of course related to H. G. Wells, so it had to be in an exact period (the cusp of the 19th and 20th centuries). In Palely Loitering I was trying to evoke the summery feeling of the Edwardian period as it might occur in some future time. (Retro fashions come and go all the time … but I think it was John Brunner who pointed out that the stovepipe hats in the story were a bit much. I’ve come to agree with him.) Christopher Priest - The Prestige As for The Prestige, I wanted to write about “pure” stage magic, in an age when it was popular, exciting, able to take advantage of scientific and engineering developments, but not in the present day. TV, videos, the internet, etc., are transforming the way magic is performed. So, it had to be the Victorian era. Incidentally, I don’t see The Prestige as a period piece. I was consciously trying to write the story as if it was happening in the present day. So I tended to play down the horses and carriages, the more formal language, the frock coats, the architecture, the Doré engravings. Borden and Angier were just living their lives. They didn’t know it was a “period”.

Gary Dalkin: If Borden and Angier didn’t know it was a “period”, did the publishers know what sort of book The Prestige was?

Christopher Priest: The Prestige is a good example of the kind of thing that happens. While I was working on the book I simply wrote it. I sent it in, the publishers accepted it. They started the process of editing, typesetting, choosing a cover, and so on. The question of which category it might fit into never arose. Then one day not long before publication I had a phone call from one of the designers. She said she had been speaking to a bookseller, and he had asked her if The Prestige was science fiction. She asked me: “Well, is it?” So I said, “I don’t know. What do you think?” We sort of scratched our heads and came to the conclusion that it probably wasn’t, but because of the stuff with Tesla towards the end, you could possibly argue that it was. This was the ONLY conversation I ever had with the publishers about that subject. It went through production quickly, with no snags that I remember.

Gary Dalkin: How do you feel about The Prestige today?

Christopher Priest: The Prestige was my ninth novel, and I finished writing it about twelve years ago. I’d had a hard time while writing it, but it came good in the end. By the time I delivered it to the publisher I was more “high” than I had ever been over one of my books. Ho w do I feel about it now? The general rule is that after I’ve finished a book, I tend to feel cool towards it. The Prestige is the exception. I’ve grown away from it as the years go by, but I still love the book. I don’t love everything in it (see my several past references to the cold warnings handed out by Graham Greene), but overall it still works the way I intended it to. I think The Separation is probably the one novel of mine I feel strongest about, but The Prestige is a favourite child.

Gary Dalkin: You’re probably way ahead of me here, but are you aware of the film just coming out in America called The Illusionist? It looks like The Prestige has a twin…

Christopher Priest: Yes, I’m aware of it … and have been for some time. The Illusionist was made a couple of years ago, and has been on the shelf, seeking a distributor ever since. It seems pretty obvious to me that when they heard The Prestige was coming, the producers, or the distributors, felt they could cash in on it.

I like Steven Millhauser’s work, but the story of his on which this film is based is not his best. Like a lot of recent fiction about stage illusions, it describes an illusion so wonderful that no one can explain it. Then it turns out to be supernaturally derived. The problem with the supernatural is that once you accept it as a real event, anything can happen, anything does then happen … and after that nothing matters. For me the essence of The Prestige is that the illusions described in the book are real illusions, built on traditional stage-magic principles. The book contains all the information the reader needs to work out how things are done — there isn’t a trace of the supernatural anywhere. Anyway, in the novel it’s not the illusions that matter: the book is about obsessive secrecy and insatiable curiosity. At the time of writing this I haven’t seen Christopher Nolan’s film, but I think, expect and fervently hope that he has taken a non-supernatural line too.

Gary Dalkin: This intrigues me because the central illusion in the book – In A Flash – is not accomplished by either traditional stage craft or by ‘real’ science, but by pseudo-science so fantastical it might as well be supernatural. Yet there is clearly a difference here for you. Am I missing something, and can you explain how you differentiate Tesla’s device from fantasy?

Christopher Priest: This touches on the essential difference between science fiction and fantasy. SF is in the end about human responsibility: actions lead to consequences, and the fiction describes, discusses and evaluates those consequences. Those actions can be couched in reality, or they can be speculative in nature. Thus it is a moral fiction, and the highest forms of it can be accepted as literature. Fantasy is the opposite: it is about the intrusion of irrational and uncontrollable events, over which man has no control, or only nominal control. Once fantasy attempts to grapple with reality it ceases to be fantasy, so the generalization holds.

In The Prestige, a speculative novel, it seemed to me entirely legitimate that one could invoke Tesla’s experiments (which were fantastic and lurid in his lifetime, and many of which were patented but never demonstrated in public). What you say is true, but it is a given in the novel that Tesla is a scientist, not (e.g.) a witch or a mage.

Incidentally, an early draft of the novel was read by a friend, with a scientific background. He rejected the Tesla equipment in the novel as completely impossible. “This would never work,” he said. “It would take the output of 5,000 nuclear power stations working at full capacity for a thousand years.” I thought about that for a bit, and then decided, on balance, that it sounded as if it could after all be made to work.

Gary Dalkin: Almost all your work is concerned in some way with your characters struggling to understand the nature of the world they find themselves in, and either discovering they are not the person they thought themselves to be, or the reality of the world is something other than they suspected, or both. Can you give some insight into why these themes have such an enduring interest for you?

Christopher Priest: It might sound like a flip answer, but what other theme is there for a writer of fantastic or explorative literature? The traditional novel is usually written by writers who seek approval by confirming the reader’s assumed view of the world. In other words, they presume that what they perceive as ordinary reality is something that is shared by everyone else. The imagination is deployed at a consensus level. So you get the story where everything turns out comprehensibly all right in the end (i.e. things are as we like them to be, or which everyone promised they would be), or else where everything goes comprehensibly wrong in the end (i.e. you’d better watch out because you’re going to find out that everything your parents, teachers, etc., warned you about is really true). This is comfort literature, where risks are applied only to characters (not to the readers), where surprises are sprung only on the characters (not on the readers), where you can put the book down for a day or two, and find you can pick up the story without any problems.

I have always believed that readers are made of sterner stuff. I dislike obscurity in fiction. I always try to write in plain language, so that the meaning (or at least, one of the meanings) is clear. Beyond that, the reader is on his/her own.

Christopher Priest - The Affirmation I see my early novel, The Affirmation, as a kind of template for this sort of thing. The idea of that novel was to question assumptions, not confirm them. Everything in the book is straightforwardly told and factually described, but almost nothing in it can be trusted as being “true”. Mind you, the reader doesn’t know this for a while, but the clues are there from the start, almost from the first line.

Gary Dalkin: At different times, perhaps starting around the period of The Affirmation, you have distanced yourself from the SF world. What sort of writer do you consider yourself today?

Christopher Priest: I try not to think about this when I’m writing. I just write Christopher Priest novels — I’m the only one who can do that. I know it sounds like I’m trying to evade the issue, but it is in fact the only true and exact answer to your question.

Gary Dalkin: Does being thought of as a science fiction writer bring advantages, or problems, given the wide misconceptions about the field in the wider world?

Christopher Priest: No, being called a science fiction writer does not bring advantages, or if it does the advantages are small ones. In my experience it brings more problems than anything. I just feel that SF and I have both changed over the years. When I started writing, the kind of work I wanted to do was identified with the “upper middle” of the SF category. I admired J. G. Ballard, Philip K. Dick, John Sladek, Brian Aldiss, Ursula Le Guin. But as the years have gone by, the genre of SF has been progressively and persistently dumbed down, with the result that work like mine is seen as marginal. I’m sometimes accused of writing “challenging” books, or people seem to suspect that I want to be a literary writer. Although from time to time I’ve said, “I’m fed up with science fiction!”, this is a little like the occasional outbursts of “I’m fed up with seedless grapes!” or “I’m fed up with the Green Party!”, or other temporary outbursts accompanied by the sound of a door slamming. Emotionally I still feel I’m part of the SF world: it’s my background, many of my friends are involved with SF, I go to SF conventions, and so on. I feel sentimental about all that, and anyway the SF world is like family to me.

Gary Dalkin: Back to the screen, is there any realistic likelihood of any of your other books or stories being adapted for film, television or any other medium that
you know of at the moment?

Christopher Priest: Likelihood is not up to me. I assume The Prestige, if it works well as a film, might interest other producers in the rest of the books. Over the years there has been consistent interest in my stuff, but until The Prestige none of the options led anywhere. At the moment, Fugue For A Darkening Island is being developed in Australia. There has been continual interest in developing The Glamour ever since it came out, but surely it presents insuperable problems to all but the most innovative film-makers? Christopher Priest - The GlamourA Dream of Wessex has had several scripts adapted from it, at least one of which was hysterically lousy. There’s a guy in Los Angeles who wants to film Inverted World (but who goes silent whenever I pop the age-old question about the dosh). And so on. All writers with more than a couple of books in print receive these enquiries and options, most of which go nowhere.

Gary Dalkin: In an ideal world which of your books or stories would you most like to see adapted for the screen, and which film-maker(s) would you most like to see do the job?

Christopher Priest: The one thing of mine I’d love to see filmed is ‘Thank You, Girls’. Not many people know it. The Dream Archipelago is a film waiting to be made, in my view … but then I’m prejudiced. After that, I’m not fussy. Who to do the job? As of this day in early September, before I have seen The Prestige, Chris Nolan seems to me an ideal director, as we clearly have so many ideas and approaches in common. However, he has this odd interest in bloody Batman that I can never understand, other than in terms of his career positioning. I’ll reserve judgement on Nolan until I see The Prestige. I’d like to see one of the younger Spanish or South American directors have a go. There’s a lot of tremendous stuff coming from those parts of the world. Korean directors scare the shit out of me, but some of the most thrilling movies of all are Korean now. Kim Ki-duk’s 3 Iron is one of the best slipstream movies in years.

Gary Dalkin: Finally, how do you feel about what you know of the film of The Prestige so far, and what has your experience with the film-makers been?

Christopher Priest: I’ve been content throughout to let Nolan get on with it. I’ve written two long novels since Newmarket bought the option, and I’m currently on another. Film-making is his racket, not mine. Neither Nolan nor his production team has shown any interest in what I think: they took the book, adapted it and filmed it. I take the pragmatic view that if you’re spending $40 million on making a film, you have a right to be a bit proprietorial. (I have to swallow a bit, though, when I keep seeing references to something called “Christopher Nolan’s The Prestige“.)

I was sent a copy of the screenplay a couple of years ago, but not on a consulting basis. Apart from that, I know in fact very little about the finished film. But from the screenplay (since revised, incidentally) it’s obvious that Nolan and I think alike about stage magic. I was never very interested in magical secrets, or how tricks are done — neither is he. I’m much more interested in the almost insane levels of secrecy that magicians get up to, and the concomitant curiosity that that sort of thing arouses. So it seems is he. The script (originally credited to Nolan’s brother Jonathan, but now apparently a collaboration between the two of them) deftly and with great ingenuity converts several of my complicated metaphors into vivid visual images — wait till you see what David Bowie does to Pike’s Peak. The plot works out differently from the book: the ending is different in detail, but Nolan has come up with a new ending that carries the same kind of wallop, but in a cinematic rather than a literary way. While I was reading, I was delighted to be taken by surprise several times (and I’m supposed to know what happens). All I can say is that if Nolan has worked at the same level of intelligent creativity he showed in Memento, and if he has drawn on the cinematic skills he used in his Batman film, then we are in for a terrific movie. However, many a slip …

We wait and see. I am agog to see it — I am about as agog as it’s possible to be.


Christopher Priest - The MagicIn 2008 Christopher Priest published The Magic: The Story of a Film. The book is described as “a unique insight into the way a major film is developed from a novel, recounted in detail by the original writer.” For those interested in Priest’s work, the film version of The Prestige or the process by which a novel becomes a film it is essential reading.

Other titles from Christopher Priest’s own GrimGrin imprint are available here.

Visit Christopher Priest on-line.