Fiction’s Grand Illusionist: An Interview With Christopher Priest

Christopher Priest titles

Everything’s coming up roses for vaunted science fiction writer Christopher Priest. Today is a double-whammy book release from the man who brought you The Prestige, among many, many others, with The Adjacent and the paperback edition of The Islanders both hitting the shelves.

The former is a time-hopping tale of loss and love, featuring the twists, turns, and puzzles we’ve come to expect from Priest—as well as a cameo from a certain legendary sci-fi writer. Alternating between the near future—one ravaged by terrorism and climate change—World War I (where we meet a wartime H.G. Wells), and World War II, Priest weaves together three narratives with three avatars of the same protagonist, and manages to introduce the perplexing weapon of adjacency. The Islanders returns to Priest’s Dream Archipelago, the exotic array of islands that has been the setting for some of his previous complex and mysterious narratives, in a book that takes its shape as an entirely unreliable gazetteer for the islands.

We caught up with Priest ahead of his stupendously productive month. Here’s what he had to say about writerly misdirection, the impressive mind of H.G. Wells, and all of that “naughty misbehavior” in his books.

The Adjacent, much like The Prestige and your other works, uses misdirection (and the presence of a stage magician or two) to great advantage. What’s your particular fondness for that technique?

Magicians and novelists use similar techniques! An illusion is a story, it has a plot, it has surprises, it’s inventive, it’s a form of entertainment—and none of it is real. Magicians misdirect by playing to the audience’s assumptions.

A novelist misdirects the reader with plot: it’s a contrivance, a way of telling the story. Details are leaked out one at a time. Some things are not revealed or discussed until later. The reader knows from the outset that it’s fiction, it’s not real. But (like magic) fiction can seem real enough, can contain elements of reality that the reader will recognize. The book might be set in New York, Geneva, Caracas…all real places, and the reader will have some kind of pre-knowledge of them, sometimes a close knowledge, sometimes just a vague knowledge. But the novel will do something different with the setting, something made up. The reader is misdirected.

To answer your question, when I was researching The Prestige, I realized I had been doing this sort of thing instinctively for years (as do all the other writers), and I thought it would make the fiction more enjoyable if I put a little extra emphasis on the technique.

Part of The Adjacent‘s narrative takes place in the near future, and it is one ravaged by the effects of climate change, among other developments. How do you make that alternate reality believable?

I think the answer to that is: watch this space. Climate change is real and it is already kicking in. One day in January this year, every state in the U.S. had temperatures below freezing: the first time ever…the climate has changed. Between mid-December and the end of February, Britain experienced one violent storm after another, usually with a two- or three-day interval between them. Gales in excess of 100 mph, huge seas, endless heavy rain. Many sea defenses were destroyed, towns were submerged, and large areas of the countryside were flooded. Never happened before…the climate has changed. It’s going to go on changing.

The problem for a novelist at the moment is: should you ignore climate change, pretend it’s not happening? (That’s the easy way, but like all pretense it will let you down in the end.) Should you try to suggest ways of solving it? (That’s the hard one, certainly beyond my own powers.) Or should you try to describe what you think might genuinely be happening? In The Adjacent I took the third way. Without trying to sensationalize it, or exaggerate it, I simply depicted a time in the very near future when the weather has become consistently awful. Not just very hot or very cold, but awful. And it’s not the main part of the story. It’s a setting…like New York, Geneva or Caracas.

I particularly like the appearance of H.G. Wells as a character. And so I ask the Vice President of the H.G. Wells Society, why did you choose to include him here?

The incident described in The Adjacent is based on a true story. During the First World War, H.G. Wells invented a way of transporting munitions to the men in the trenches. He devised a system of high-strength aerial ropeways. Until then, the troops had to carry the ammunition themselves. Once the system was adopted and seen to be working, the British government made it top secret, and even Wells himself was not allowed to be told it was in use. (Wells never found out—it was still classified at the time of his death.)

I have always loved Wells’s writing, but in a general sense he was a lively critic of authorities, highly intelligent as a political commentator, extremely sociable, and an endlessly inventive thinker. He predicted the use of battle tanks, of warplanes, of the atom bomb. He campaigned for the rights of ordinary people, he lobbied all his life for the creation of the United Nations.

So there is much more to admire in the man than just his books. He’s a great character, and when I was writing the sequence in The Adjacent about the application of science to the problems of war, it was natural to include him.

Now, The Islanders returns us to the Dream Archipelago, explored throughout your other works. Could you describe the process of building an expansive world like that, especially one still shrouded in such a level of uncertainty as the Archipelago?

I am still exploring the Dream Archipelago, so I tend to think of it as a work in progress. It is a sort of shadow world for me: it has no physical reality, it isn’t a metaphor for something else, it’s not a fantasy. It’s just a place with its own rules, society, language, customs, problems, scenery, heroes, and so on. There are many similarities with our own world: they have the Internet, for example. They have drones (but not military ones). They have writers and artists and dancers and filmmakers, and they have inspirational thinkers and leaders, but they also have murderers, cheats, hypocrites, religious fanatics, etc.

I first devised the Archipelago some thirty-plus years ago, thinking of it then as an endlessly adaptable background for some short stories. Those stories were broadly about immorality. But more recently I have become interested in the condition of neutrality: all the islands in this world are politically neutral (some more neutral than others) in a larger world that is riven by an endless and catastrophic war.

Before we go any further, with your extensive use of unreliable narration and misdirection, how do I know I’m actually speaking to you right now? This could another sleight of hand, or a you from an alternate reality.

We have ways of knowing The Truth. Be careful what you say.

With that settled…based on your experience with The Prestige, would you like to see more of your titles adapted to film? I would myself love to see a director trying to wrap his mind around bringing either The Islanders or The Adjacent to the screen effectively. On that note, there has been buzz about an adaptation of The Glamour—any news on that front?

The film adaptation of The Glamour is still live, although at the moment there is a delay. Outside my control. I think the most likely outcome will be that it is shot next year, 2015…it’s a summer film specifically set in Europe, so a summer shoot is ideal. Probably too late to expect that this year. I have a live option with some filmmakers in Los Angeles, who want to make a feature based on one of my short stories, “The Stooge.” There is no lack of ideas or skill or enthusiasm there, but lack of money is holding things up. It is ever thus, but in the end it can be solved. The weather in California is not a problem, or at least not the same problem.

Because I’m essentially a novelist, I sometimes find it difficult to “see” a film in anything I’ve written. I believed at one time it would be flatly impossible to make a film of The Prestige, for example, but just look what Christopher Nolan came up with! The same is true of The Glamour. The intricate details of that plot seemed to me to be a permanent bar to adaptation, but when the director Gerald McMorrow turned in his screenplay, he got the whole story in—it was complete, faithful to the book, and under 120 pages!

You mention The Islanders. I should love to see a film of that. More to the point, I’d love to go on location with them when they’re shooting it. All that sunshine, the scenery, the naughty misbehavior…

But the one I think would make a really terrific film would be The Separation: it has cities on fire, Nazis, Olympic Games, hundreds of warplanes, naughty misbehavior…

Finally, any sneak peeks of your next project? What are you working on now?

I’m working on a new novel, provisionally titled The Section. (My titles often change before I deliver the book, so do not commit that to memory.) I have another novel part-written, called The Late—another provisional title you should forget. That one is on hold for a while. I have a nonfiction work in mind, which will require a huge amount of research and travel, so that is also on hold until I have the next novel finished.

Are you inspired to pick up Priest’s books? We definitely want to visit the Dream Archipelago…

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