After recently having had a chance to review Christopher Priest’s latest novel, ‘The Adjacent,’ I had a chance to grill him about the book, his view on film adaptations, and other aspects of his writing. While Priest’s work is mostly known to moviegoers from the film adaptation of ‘The Prestige,’ his own unique style is so much more in depth in the way he weaves his stories onto page. While magic and misdirection are a common theme in how he puts his words on paper, he does it in a way that can be truly surprising and makes you want to re-read his books to fully grasp the small hints and clues along the way.
ScienceFiction.com (SF): First if you could share with our readers a bit of what ‘The Adjacent’ is about for those who haven’t had a chance to read it quite yet?
Christopher Priest (CP): It’s set in the near future, when insurgent groups have laid their hands on a weapon with massive destructive capability. The central character’s wife has been killed in one of these attacks … at the beginning of the novel he is being rushed back to base to be debriefed by the authorities. That’s how it starts. That is not how it goes on.
SF: What inspired you to create the adjacency weapons? Are there any parallels to real life you were trying to convey with them?
CP: The whole subject of adjacency works not only in the practical world (an effect of applied quantum field theory), but also has metaphorical life in the triangular relationships of the characters.
SF: It is quite obvious from your work that you love to include the art of misdirection at the reader and the characters you are writing about (and it is an art form with how you use it!). Do you feel that it is one of the cornerstones you want to include in your writing style or does it just work its way in?
CP: I always say that unreliability and misdirection in fiction are attempts at realism! We are all unreliable narrators when we tell our friends something, when we repeat a story we’ve heard, when we describe an incident that happened to us. The intention is never to mislead the listener, but to gloss the story, present it, make it have a point. To do this, we have invariably to leave out or modify some of the facts. We want to make it seem relevant, funny, sad, shocking, whatever we intend – so we craft it. This is what all fiction writers do, all the time, in every book. The difference with my stuff, I think, is that I usually allow the reader another possible version of the story, or (and this is much more satisfying for the reader) I leave it to the reader to figure out, from his/her own experience of the world, that there’s something not quite right about the account, something not being said or admitted, something they know must be wrong.
SF: Your potential future setting for the UK and the world wasn’t explored in detail in the novel. Were any of the major changes in the governments or climate issues you want to explore further in the future or elaborate your opinions on?
CP: The ‘potential future setting’ isn’t really what the book’s about. If you set a story in the near future you can’t assume that everything will be exactly the same as it is now, so you have to suggest a few background details where events have moved on a bit. I don’t think there’s anything too contentious or original in the background of ‘The Adjacent,’ although a few people in the UK got all hot and bothered at the idea of Britain being depicted as an Islamic state. Most of people’s prejudices about Islam are actually reactions to extremist or undemocratic regimes interpreting things their own way, not to the tenets of a religion … ‘The Adjacent’ suggests that Islam in the UK would be different, milder, more comprehensible. But I repeat: this is simply a background to the real story.
SF: ‘The Dream Archipelago’ has now been included in a few of your works. Do you find it as a center that spreads through your novels? What inspired you to create and continue using it as a setting?
CP: It’s a landscape with many resonances, which I find stimulating and exciting.
SF: How would you say that your writing has evolved over the years?
CP: I hope it has! I’ve now been writing for more than 50 years, so I have probably picked up a few improvements on the way. I made a lot of mistakes when I was starting out … but I still make mistakes, so what else is new? Writing is an organic activity: what you learn as you work doesn’t have immediate cause-and-effect evidence to show for it. Other things change too: when I look back at ‘Inverted World’ (which I wrote more than four decades ago) I can see it is still mine, that it has my fingerprints all over it. I think in some ways I would write it better now, but against that, I have also collected so many inhibitions as a writer that I doubt if I would even be able to start it these days, let alone carry it off for a full-length novel. There’s some fabulously raw stuff in that book. I’m much too self-conscious now.
SF: You included H.G. Wells in the novel. As you’ve cited him as an inspiration in the past. Did you go into ‘The Adjacent’ wanting to include him specifically or did he evolve onto the page as you were moving forward?
SF: That particular sequence in ‘The Adjacent’ is based on a true event in Wells’s life. As in reality, Wells wants to see an ingenious idea of his put into practice, but he is not allowed to know what has happened as a result. He returns to London a disappointed man. It was only many years after Wells’s death that it was learned that his idea had not only been used, and had not only saved the lives of hundreds of soldiers, but that the military geniuses had slapped a Top Secret label on it, forgot to remove it after the war was over, and it remained confidential for the rest of Wells’s life. It’s still little known, except in the inner corridors of Wellsiana, so I deliberately put it in the novel to celebrate his work.
SF: How exactly has Wells inspired you and do you feel that any specific piece of your work has been a tribute to his influence?
CP: If you’ve read my critical essays over the years, you will know that for the last four decades (at least) I have been questioning and rejecting the received wisdom about the historical development of science fiction … the pulp tradition, the “Golden Age”, the influence of John W. Campbell, and all that jazz. I won’t repeat any of that here. But on a personal level, while I wanted to go on writing speculative fiction, I felt I had less and less in common with the genre and all its false arguments. I made a conscious decision to think my way back to the world of Wells, then think forward again so to speak, evolve mentally as a writer of fantastic literature who was not tied to the destructive old guff about pulp magazines, etc. Well, that was then, ages ago. I’ve more or less given up arguing this, because it makes people cross.
SF: For readers who enjoy your style do you have any particular authors that you’d love to suggest that they would also find enjoyable?
CP: I’m currently enjoying the books of the Chilean writer Roberto Bolaño, who is the real deal. His popularity crested soon after his premature death, then seemed almost at once to go into a steep decline. It seemed to me that the literary establishment belatedly caught up with the realization that he was NOT a magic realist (which they think is OK stuff, and which they therefore love without understanding), but a writer of the fantastic (which they know nothing about, but which on principle they traditionally loath), so they tried to dump him. Readers of SF and fantasy will understand his work with no problem. His masterpiece is a wonderful, massive novel called ‘2666,’ but a good place to start is a collection of stories called ‘Last Evenings on Earth.’
SF: After having plenty of time to digest a film version of your work on ‘The Prestige’ would you be open for another run of someone giving their spin to your work?
CP: I find film adaptation a bruising and somewhat discouraging process. The shitload of money which is, after all, the rationalization of the whole process, is more often than not a distant dream.
SF: Do you have any advice to upcoming authors out there?
Read as much as you can. Write as much as you can. Treat it as a profession: something you profess to be able to do, then try to live up to that high standard. Take it on as a lifetime’s commitment. Never sell yourself short. Never listen to people who say they know better than you what the “market” requires, or what the “audience” wants. Fifty per cent of writing is expression, an outflow of artistic sensibility. The other fifty per cent is communication, the telling of a story, the crafting of work well done. Always keep those two halves in balance: tip too far one way or the other, and you are going wrong. Take your work absolutely seriously, but never take yourself too seriously. (And so on – I have always tried to follow these. There are probably many more.)
SF: Thank you for your time. In closing would you like to say anything to your fans or those interested in learning more about your work?
CP: A commercial: most of my stuff has been unavailable in the USA for years, but with the internet dealers unavailability has become a false argument. Most of my stuff is on sale, not expensive, and some of it is in beautiful, collectible editions. Buy! Enjoy!