Risingshadow has had the honour of interviewing Christopher Priest.
Christopher Priest was born in Cheshire, England. He began writing soon after leaving school and has been a full-time freelance writer since 1968.
He has published thirteen novels, four short story collections and a number of other books, including critical works, biographies, novelizations and children's non-fiction.
His novel The Separation won both the Arthur C. Clarke Award and the BSFA Award. In 1996 Priest won the James Tait Black Memorial Prize for his novel The Prestige. He has been nominated four times for the Hugo award. He has won several awards abroad, including the Kurd Lasswitz Award (Germany), the Eurocon Award (Yugoslavia), the Ditmar Award (Australia), and Le Grand Prix de L'Imaginaire (France). In 2001 he was awarded the Prix Utopia (France) for lifetime achievement.
He has written drama for radio (BBC Radio 4) and television (Thames TV and HTV). In 2006, The Prestige was filmed by Warner Bros. Directed by Christopher Nolan, The Prestige went to No.1 US box office in its first week It received two Academy Award nominations. Another novel, The Glamour, is about to be filmed in the UK by director Gerald McMorrow. The Prestige has been adapted for the stage, with productions in preparation in London, France and Moscow.
His new novel, The Adjacent, was published in June 2013.
He is Vice-President of the H. G. Wells Society. In 2007, an exhibition of installation art based on his novel The Affirmation was mounted in London.
As a journalist he has written features and reviews for The Times, the Guardian, the Independent, the New Statesman, the Scotsman, and many different magazines.
Click here to visit his official website.
AN INTERVIEW WITH CHRISTOPHER PRIEST
Could you tell us something about yourself in your own words?
I've been writing ever since I left school. My first novel, Indoctrinaire, was published in 1970, and since then I have completed and published 12 more novels. The Islanders and The Adjacent are the 12th and 13th. I see my work as being positioned solidly within the SF genre as I found it and understood it when I was in my teens and early 20s. Once I started writing, though, it didn't take long for me to realize that the genre had real limitations, at least for me. I have always felt restless, and by about my fifth book I was pushing at the edges of the genre definitions. However, the speculative idea, the fantastic notion, always has me in its grip. I feel stifled if I can't stretch myself and the reader with something that hasn't been tried before, or an idea that's new.
Titan Books will soon release two of your novels - The Adjacent and The Islanders. Could you tell us about these novels? What kind of novels are they and what can readers expect from them?
The Islanders began as a sort of "Lonely Planet" guide to the Dream Archipelago. (See next answer.) I thought it might be interesting to produce a helpful gazetteer for anyone intending to visit the islands or sail around them. I began listing which islands had the best beaches, the tallest mountains, the cheapest hotels, the largest cities. Where surfers could find the best waves, where the nightlife was the hottest, where families could safely take vacations. Which islands produced wine, or which had appalling wildlife that can kill you in seconds, where the historical sites were, who the novelists, poets, painters, musicians were, and so on. As the characters started to emerge, so too did a story. The format is of course unusual (like all good gazetteers the entries appear in alphabetical order), but the reader soon gets the idea, and starts looking for the clues about what really went on.
The Adjacent is a straightforward speculative novel (beginning, middle, end -- in that order) but told in a series of connected passages where the connection is not immediately obvious. The connections emerge as the story develops. The story itself starts with the death of a nurse working for a humanitarian aid organization in Turkey in the near future. The central character is her bereaved husband, who is brought home by the authorities because of the manner of his wife's death. It turns out that certain terrorist cells have gained access to a new and terrifying weapon, used in recent attacks on large cities, and this was what was used on her. They seek information. (I think that covers roughly the first 5 pages!)
The events in The Islanders take place in the fictional Dream Archipelago. You wrote about the Dream Archipelago in The Affirmation (1981) and The Dream Archipelago (1999). How would you describe the Dream Archipelago to readers who haven't read The Affirmation and The Dream Archipelago?
The Archipelago itself is an imaginary world with two main continental masses -- north and south. Between, straddling the equator, there is a vast ocean containing hundreds of thousands of small islands. The islands are politically neutral. They have become a haven for all sorts of exiles: draft dodgers, artists, religious fanatics, criminals, etc. This is the background for all the stories.
The simple description of the stories is that every story about the Archipelago is complete and self-contained. Read one, read them all ... makes no difference. As the sequence has grown more complex, there are inevitable backward references to earlier stories, but I have always written these with the intention that the reader should neither know nor care that it is a reference. (If anyone spots it, that's OK too, but there is no hidden meaning, no extra message.) For the record, the Dream Archipelago began in the 1970s as five novellas, which were then followed by the novel The Affirmation. I intended the novel to close the sequence for good, and in fact I did not return to the Archipelago for many years. When I did I realized what a rich and complex construct it was, one that both enjoyed and undermined the standard SF "world-building" format. The Archipelago is certainly a built world, but you venture into it at hazard. The book called The Dream Archipelago contains the eight main novellas to date; The Islanders contains (in effect) four more; there are more to come.
The events in The Adjacent take place in the near future, in the past and in the present day. Was it challenging to create and write this kind of a novel?
Writing The Adjacent was a long and complex process, involving a great deal of research ... but I don't see anything particularly unusual in that, as every novel I have written has involved much the same. All novels are difficult to write ... speculative novels are no more easy or difficult, but present special challenges to the writer. I love all that.
The Islanders won both the BSFA Award and the John W. Campbell Memorial Award for Best Science Fiction Novel. How did it feel to win these awards?
It's always pleasant to be given an award, and usually makes you appreciate the amount of largely thankless effort readers and judges have gone to in coming to a decision. But the real and total truth is that when I'm writing I never think for an instant about awards. Another factor about awards is that they often come late in the day. It can take up to a year to write a book, another few weeks or months to get a decision from a publisher, another year or so waiting until publication, then another long period during which the book is being considered. In other words, by the time they come around awards are almost completely irrelevant to the writing, but (eventually) much appreciated by the writer.
The Campbell Award was a good surprise. One of my early novels (Fugue for a Darkening Island) was a contender for the very first JWC Memorial Award -- the prize went to Barry Malzberg, but Fugue received a mini-gong as "Best British" novel. So in one sense it was great to come back some forty years later and bag the main prize.
You have used an unreliable narrator technique in several novels. What inspires you to use this narrative technique?
It's an attempt at realism. We are all unreliable narrators. Every time we talk about something that happened to us or we tell an anecdote about someone else (etc), we tend to fictionalize it. This is not lying, but simply trying to shape the story best in order to make a point. Firstly, we tend to forget or brush over details. We might change names. We will simplify the story to make it more comprehensible. Sometimes we will fudge the truth a little, perhaps to put ourselves in a good light. We will try to give it a good ending, so that whoever is listening gets the poiint, or is fired up with indignation, or just has a good laugh. All this makes storytelling unreliable.
The narrative in most conventional fiction is therefore not at all naturalistic, as it more or less implies that everything you are told is reliable and accurate. I believe true naturalism reflects the interests of the reader: if someone tells you a story (as above) you tend to make your own quiet judgement about how true it is, or what it reveals, or how well it was told. When I'm writing fiction I like to feel the reader is joining in, making quiet judgements about what might really be happening, where the story really might be going. I think of the unreliable narrator as one who always tell the truth, the unarguable truth, but who also leaves out a few crucial facts. Why he or she might do this (deliberate concealment, psychological weakness, pressing background concerns, and so on) gives the story an extra edge of interest for the reader.
Do you have time to read novels? What are your favourite novels?
I tend to split my reading about 50/50 between fiction and non-fiction. I do read other people's novels, but I am usually dissatisfied with them. This is not for what might seem the obvious reason (i.e. my presumed feeling of superiority), but usually the opposite. Other people's novels often remind me of my own weaknesses as a writer. And if I should have the bad luck to read a brilliant novel by someone else, then I get depressed all over again, although also uplifted. A few years ago I discovered the works of the Chilean writer Roberto Bolaño -- great excitement! great self-concern! On the whole I prefer non-fiction.