Aldous Huxley, Arthur C Clarke, Bob Shaw, Brian Aldiss, Christopher Priest, Ed Bryant, Eric Frank Russell, Eric Rohmer, Gardner Dozois, George Orwell, George R.R. Martin, Graham Greene, Graham Swift, H.G. Wells, Ian McEwan, J.G. Ballard, Jack Dann, Jerry Pournelle, John Clute, John Fowles, John Jarrold, John Sladek, Kazuo Ishiguro, m john harrison, Martin Amis, Olaf Stapledon, Peter Ackroyd, Philip K. Dick, Rebecca West, Richard Cowper, Roz Kaveney, Thomas Huxley, Thomas M. Disch, William Boyd
I’ve written a lot about Chris Priest over the years, and most of it has ended up in What It Is We Do When We Read Science Fiction or Call And Response, but there is one major piece that hasn’t been reprinted. It is this interview I did with him in 1999, not long after the publication of The Extremes and The Dream Archipelago. The interview was first published in Vector 206, July-August 1999.
THROWING AWAY THE ORTHODOXY
A conversation about sex, innocence and science fiction
Paul Kincaid: Let’s start at the end. You have just brought out all the Dream Archipelago stories collected in one volume. Why have you gone back to that?
Christopher Priest: Well, there’s a bad reason and a good reason.
Let’s have the bad reason.
The bad reason is a commercial one. John Jarrold suggested buying my backlist for Earthlight, and I thought all those books are 20 or 30 years old now. It’s a bit depressing how long ago it was. Inverted World was 25 years ago. So I said, through my agent: ‘I can do you a new book quite easily, The Dream Archipelago. It has never been published as a collection, and I’ll re-write it and bring it up to date.’ He liked that, so he bought it.
The good reason is that they had never been brought together, and I was really dissatisfied with some of them. Two in particular I was unhappy with and wanted to re-write.
Ah, erm, that one and that one.
The thing is, I’m usually dissatisfied with all my stuff. The two… One is ‘The Cremation’, which brought me out in a cold sweat when I read it again. It’s unpublishable now. It wasn’t unpublishable then, but the world’s moved on. As originally published it was a kind of revenge drama on a woman rejected; I’ve changed that, what happens between them now is different.
The other is ‘The Miraculous Cairn’, a short story that, at the time, I thought would become a novel. I couldn’t get it together as a novel so I published it as a short story. Twenty years go by, and I think I should have done it properly. It’s the same story, just a bit tighter, a bit better.
And I’ve written a new short story. Well, it’s not really a story, it’s linking material, a bit like The Illustrated Man. It’s called ‘The Equatorial Moment’ and it’s just a description of a natural phenomenon on the Dream Archipelago, then through the other stories it’s introduced or referred to.
You say ‘The Miraculous Cairn’ was intended to be a novel. Was that before you wrote The Affirmation?
I think it was, yes. I felt the Dream Archipelago was over. When I did The Affirmation I thought there’s only one way to finish the Dream Archipelago, and that’s to knock it on the head completely, which is what The Affirmation does.
It reminds me in a way of M. John Harrison’s Viriconium stories, where he ended with Viriconium becoming like Manchester or Leeds.
I can understand: you kill your baby. For a long time, the Dream Archipelago was a backdrop, a useful tapestry. One of the things people don’t ask me about is the cinema, but films are a big influence on me and at the time, in the ’70s, I was watching a lot of films by Eric Rohmer who did these films called ‘Contes Moraux’, Moral Stories. That gave me the idea of doing an alternative version, Contes Immoraux. All the stories in the Dream Archipelago are about sexual perversion. Putting them into that backdrop was a way of making them cosy. But you grow out of these things, I finally got fed up of watching Eric Rohmer movies.
I wasn’t going to ask about the cinema, but I was going to ask about sex. There is a strong sexual element running through all your stories, really from A Dream of Wessex onwards. This perversion is particularly strong in The Quiet Woman, and I wonder how comfortable you were writing that, because I thought The Quiet Woman in particular looked like a story you weren’t very comfortable writing.
Sex in books is actually a sort of cause and effect. What people see is the effect and they never find out the cause, which, with people like me, is quite often simple boredom. I get fed up doing the story, so one morning I think ‘I’ll put in a bit of cunnilingus,’ or something.
The Quiet Woman is not a book I’m very interested in, I don’t really want to talk about it. I wrote the book and it’s over; I don’t feel very strongly about it. I don’t like it myself, but I know quite a lot of people who’ve said it’s the best thing I’ve ever written.
With the exception of possibly Indoctrinaire, I think it’s the weakest story you’ve done.
I agree with you. It’s not intended to be, but it didn’t work out. I finished it, enough, and the publisher was glad to have it, but I look at it now and I’m cold on it. It’s like somebody else wrote it.
The sex stuff in there, I felt it had a reason, a place in the story, but it was largely attempting to inject some life into the whole thing. You have to remember that The Quiet Woman came out of a very bad period of my life. This is not an excuse. I hit a roll with The Affirmation and The Glamour, and then the year The Glamour came out my life took a major change, which we needn’t go into, and I was completely unable to write for several years. On top of that there was that endless bloody debate about my role as a science fiction writer and whether I wanted to be associated with science fiction any more. That period, from ’85 to ’90, which is the period between The Glamour and The Quiet Woman, is the period when science fiction publishing went bonkers. It’s when the spoof fantasies took over, and the Star Trek novelisations, and the stuff we have to put up with today. As a serious genre in which writers like Ballard and Sladek and Philip K. Dick could find a voice, it’s gone now. Gone forever. So I was feeling less and less inclined to write.
I want to talk about your attitude to science fiction later on, it’s something I think we should clear up.
Oh you can never clear up that one.
Let’s go back to the sexual thing. What runs through so much, from A Dream of Wessex, is the triangle.
There’s no sex in The Prestige.
But there’s a triangle.
There’s a triangle, yes.
A sexual triangle, sexual tension.
It’s a quadrilateral, actually.
Go on, ruin a nice theory.
The thing is, certainly in The Glamour, The Affirmation and A Dream of Wessex, it’s very clear: one person of one sex, two people of the opposite sex.
It’s there again in The Extremes, except that two of them are dead.
Yes. I think you can keep The Prestige out of this because it works on such a different level.
It feels like it’s part of the same range of books — with The Affirmation, The Glamour and The Extremes — in a way that The Quiet Woman wasn’t.
The sexual triangle is hardly unique to me. It’s one of the great engines of literature. But what’s your point? I interrupted.
It’s become such a focal point in your novels, a structure that you keep returning to.
It’s one of the great verities. I would be very slow to say I write all these novels about sexual triangles as if no one had ever done it before, as if Romeo and Juliet had never touched on that.
But it wasn’t there before.
Ah, now you’re touching a different point. You see, A Dream of Wessex was the key novel, that’s the moment where it changes. You can actually see the process changing. That’s the point where science fiction starts being subverted, where I’m saying you mustn’t take this stuff too seriously, because that’s what A Dream of Wessex is all about: don’t believe in these dreams. Before that I was trying to be what Bob Shaw called ‘a science fiction writer who wrote science fiction’. Up to and including, I suppose, The Space Machine. But after that I was simply taking on more adult themes. It seems to me that stories are best told through character, and engagement of sex is one way.
One of the things that interests me about the triangle theme is that the two men are actually mirrors of each other. Then, in The Prestige, you actually get into talking about twins, and with your own children being twins I wondered how personal it was.
I can’t answer that, because I don’t really know. My children aren’t the kind of twins that I like writing about. We always think of them as just brother and sister who happened to be born on the same day, their personalities are so completely different. But the kind of twin I’m interested in is the doppelgänger or the identical twin or the unknown twin or the behavioural twin…
Even the mirror image?
Yes, or the fraudulent twin. The Prestige is full of fraudulent twins. One of the things that really grabbed my attention years ago was Graham Greene’s thing about ‘The Other’. Greene said he was being followed around by someone who called himself Graham Greene, the author. This impostor was always being arrested, busted for things.
Getting back to the sexual triangle: all characters are a reflection of your own personality. You don’t think: ‘that’s me doing those things,’ but it’s an aspect of me in that situation that might react that way. This other aspect might react in another way.
I’m sorry, I’m ducking this.
Are you ducking it?
I don’t know. It’s something I write about and it seems it’s like life and death and the whole damned thing, it just comes into it.
As a critic you constantly assume that the author is aware of everything they’re writing, and very often they’re not, it’s just what seems right for the story at that time.
Oh, you’re completely aware, except that later you forget.
I was interviewed years ago, when I was still living in Pewsey, by somebody from a magazine that was published in Salisbury. He started asking me questions about philosophy. I bluffed my way through, and it later turned out that the philosopher he was quoting was a character from one of my books, Deloinne from The Affirmation. I was absolutely gobsmacked by this because it sounded quite good to me and he was quoting all this really deep stuff, and I’d made it all up. At the time, when I was writing it, I felt that was good stuff, but fifteen years later you’ve forgotten all about it.
Also, the moment of perfection in a novel is the day you’ve finished it. You’ve got your manuscript and nobody’s seen it, no one at all, not even your wife. At that point it’s in a state of original innocence, but from that moment on the novel is never the same. Your wife says you’ve spelt this wrong or couldn’t you have done that better; you send it to your agent and your publisher, the copy editor goes through it and the proof reader, then you do your own proofs. By the time the thing comes out and the reviewers go at it, it’s in another domain. The actual innocent thing you wrote, what you intended, is something you have great difficulty recalling. Especially after you’ve had a number of reviews and you get people interpreting things.
Is there any book you’ve written that you think is right?
The one I’m fondest of is The Prestige.
The way I work is, when I think of a novel it’s 100% perfect. That’s the novel I’m going to write, that’s the novel I aspire to. By the time I’ve written it, I’ve come to an accommodation with the fact that it’s not going to be 100%. The accommodation is usually between 55 and 65%, but with The Prestige I kept it to about 70%. That’s how I feel. It’s closer than any of my novels to what I conceived.
You talk as if you have the whole novel in your mind before you actually start.
No, but I talk as if I do.
You don’t actually know where it’s going?
No. With The Prestige I had this idea — maybe it was a stupid idea — of the magic trick that no one knows how it’s done. I was amused by that, and it was enough to get me going. It grew crystals as I was writing it. Every day you wake up and think: what am I going to do on the book? Gradually you get this Olympian ideal of what you want, then you settle for something less than that.
What about The Glamour, which is one of the books you’ve returned to and re-written.
With good reason.
I remember receiving the first edition and writing a review, then seeing you in a pub before my review appeared. I told you I really liked the book except for the ending. About two days later I got a new ending in the post. So you were never satisfied.
The Glamour is unendable. It’s not a plot, The Glamour is a set-up, it explains an idea. The characters are the medium of that. But at some point you’ve got to finish the book, and when I did the first version, the Cape version, I came to a particular way of ending it. But the American publishers said, ‘you’ve got to come to a more positive ending’. They wanted me to resolve it in some way, and I didn’t think it was resolvable. So all I did was rewrite that ending — it’s a bit more lucid, a bit more spelled out. Then, of course, I couldn’t stand the Cape ending, but it had already come out. So I got Abacus, who did the paperback, to use the Cape text with the Doubleday ending. Now I had these hybrids. I had the original text in Cape which wasn’t very good because it had a bad ending; I had the Americanised text from Doubleday which I didn’t much care for because it was Americanised, but it had a much better ending; and then I had the British text with the American ending. I had no definitive text, and that feels untidy. Then I did the radio play, and I got some really good ideas for little scenes I felt would work better. And then I got all these letters. It really provoked correspondence, people saying it happened to me once. It was definitely an idea that attracts people’s attention.
The reality of what happened was that since The Quiet Woman all my books have been on computer, and I found it extremely handy to have the text on computer. I thought what I’d do is re-type The Glamour word for word and cherry-pick the bits I like so I’d end up with a definitive text. I’d done about 30 pages of this when Simon and Schuster said they’d publish it, so I had to go on and finish it.
Are you happy with the revised text?
I haven’t read it. Not since I wrote it.
It’s like the revised text of The Magus.
You see, I don’t like the revised text of The Magus, it’s too knowing. Aldous Huxley said this about Brave New World; he looked at it and he winced, but he knew if he rewrote it he’d take out of it what was good as well as what was bad. And that really is a danger.
I haven’t rewritten most of my novels. Most of them are intact. Up to The Prestige, which is the ninth novel, I see my books in three groups of three. There are three which I feel I can stand my reputation on, three which are good near-misses, and three which I’m not very happy with at all. Indoctrinaire, The Quiet Woman and The Space Machine are in this bottom group. In the top group I’d put Inverted World, The Affirmation and The Prestige. Then Wessex and Glamour and Fugue are the near misses.
I might have put Wessex in the top group as well, coloured by the fact that it feels like it’s laying the groundwork for the books that came after.
It is a transitional novel. When I wrote it, I knew it was a transition because at that point I wanted to get out, I wanted to change what I was doing, I felt inhibited by science fiction.
OK, let’s lay this thing about you and science fiction. I’ve seen some of the essays you wrote at the time about leaving science fiction, yet you constantly say you’re being misquoted.
No, I think I’ve been misunderstood. What you have with science fiction is an orthodoxy. It shouldn’t be that, books should not be an orthodoxy, but science fiction has rules. People say, you can’t do that in science fiction. This is sf, this isn’t sf. All the time you’re getting orthodoxy, the politically correct thing. All my life, ever since I’ve been old enough to think for myself, whenever I feel an orthodoxy coming on I want to break it. If someone says, ‘you can’t do that’, my first question is ‘why not?’ Even if, at the end of the day, there’s a good reason why I shouldn’t go on the grass, my first question is ‘why not?’
With science fiction people say you can’t do that, there’s the golden rule of science fiction. Who formed the golden rule? What does it mean to me? The more I asked that, the more I thought all the orthodoxy was just rubbish. People didn’t understand the nature of the medium. I approached it through writing essays and Guest of Honour speeches, but I could see peoples’ eyes glazing over. People don’t want that, they want the easily understood. I wrote an essay, I thought a really good essay, called ‘It Came From Outer Space’, with the whole idea that science fiction is an ‘it’; ‘it’ has rules, you can tell ‘it’ when you see it. What we’re talking about are many different books, hundreds of different writers with different levels of aspiration and ability and interest, and they’re all cobbled together into something called ‘it’. And that must be wrong, that must be a fallacy.
Going back to your early stories and novels, did you think they were archetypally science fiction?
I’ve been going through my stuff recently and most of my early short stories really aren’t short stories at all, they’re set-ups. They adumbrate an idea, then drop it. ‘An Infinite Summer’ is the first real short story I wrote, everything before that isn’t really a story.
Basically, 30, 35 years ago I decided I wanted to be a writer, and I’d never written anything. I’ve spent 35 years learning the trade. So the stuff I did at the beginning, without undermining it, well-intended and serious as it was at the time, is largely inept. I feel now that after 30 years I’m at last writing books I want to write. I’m now where I want to go.
You’ve defined your own genre?
I don’t know. The Extremes is as close as you’re going to get to a trad sf novel. This is largely the point I’ve been making, about being trapped in genre expectations and genre thoughts. I remember reading something in SFWA once, a letter from someone who said: ‘There’s only one way to write science fiction. Whenever I get to a scene I think, how would Isaac write this?’
That way, what do you end up with? If you write like Isaac or Robert or Poul or whoever, you end up with something that’s second best to the writers you aspire to be. There’s a lot of that, and if you work within the orthodoxy you think: what would Interzone publish? I’ve never written for Asimov’s Magazine, what sort of story would they like? If you do that you’re writing from the top of your head, not the bottom of your heart. What I’ve been trying to say to people is: throw away your orthodoxy, get into yourself, re-imagine what you want to do, and if it comes out as something that looks like science fiction, so be it. But don’t write it because you think Arthur C. Clarke would have written this way, because at best you end up with a second-hand imitation.
Do you consider yourself a science fiction writer?
Do you consider yourself a writer who writes science fiction?
The truth is, I don’t read science fiction. I haven’t read science fiction for twenty years, I haven’t read science fiction with any pleasure for twenty-five years, probably even longer. But on the other hand — this is the interesting thing — broadly speaking I’m best appreciated within the science fiction world. People like yourself and Clute and Roz Kaveney and some people in America, who know the science fiction field, they get to the point of what I’m writing about very lucidly and quickly. You’re reviewed in The Times or somewhere, it’s like they’re coming from another world. For instance John Fowles, who we were talking about earlier, reviewed The Prestige and gave it the most negative review it got anywhere in the world. He hated it, although he was bending over backwards to be nice to me. My view is, he completely misunderstood it.
Fowles really liked your stuff early on.
He said he did. I think he was being kind.
I don’t know, but that must have been more science-fictional than The Prestige, which is a good magic realist novel if you want to give a category to it. It seems like something that would appeal to the author of The Magus.
Well, yes. Fowles was a big influence on me. I’ve always felt Fowles is the kind of writer who opens doors, and though he doesn’t necessarily go through himself, he shows you it’s there. I wouldn’t say I uncritically admire everything he’s written, because I think he’s written some real turkeys, but I think that The Magus and Daniel Martin are smashing novels.
And A Maggot?
The one about the Shakers? That’s all right, but the most boring stuff in there is the flying saucer stuff. This is what he said about The Prestige: he loved the stuff about the cigar smoke and velvet, the old theatres. But the stuff about Tesla, the machines and sparks, he said was going too far. The imagination has limits and you mustn’t venture into that territory because you’re venturing into the unbelievable.
I don’t understand how anyone who wrote The Magus could say that. The Magus is all about the fact that the imagination doesn’t have limits.
Exactly. But I really just felt he was out of sympathy.
I get reviews in newspaper, and they just don’t understand. I suppose every writer who gets a negative review feels that, but with The Prestige I’ve had hundreds of reviews, particularly in America, and with just one or two exceptions they are wholly favourable. Not just favourable, many of them were shouting about it. I can’t think of another novel written by anybody that has had such a uniformly good press, it seems an extraordinary thing but there you are. I feel there’s a kind of critical consensus about the novel, so when Fowles goes against that I think it’s not just that he didn’t like the book, he’s out of step somewhere.
I’ve had such lousy reviews in my life, I feel free to enjoy the good ones. When you’ve had reviews like I had for Inverted World …
I remember, years ago, seeing a review in the mainstream press which was full of snobbery about the fact that you were a science fiction writer and therefore, inevitably, the book was not good. I believe it was for The Affirmation, and I was thinking, hold on, this isn’t exactly science fiction.
Peter Ackroyd wrote that one, if I’m thinking of the same one. We never forget.
So the science fiction critics are the ones who most immediately understand where you’re coming from.
That doesn’t necessarily mean you’re writing science fiction.
What I think I’m doing is re-inventing science fiction. It seems to me there are basically two approaches to science fiction. One is the Wellsian approach. Wells wrote science fiction as a primitive, he was interested in the science. What was it Rebecca West said? Something about him being absorbed in airships and colloids? But Wells was genuinely interested in all that, he was an unlettered schoolboy who taught himself to read the great novels and he was taught by Thomas Huxley, and he started to write at a remarkably young age. He was born in 1866 and The Time Machine came out in 1895, he was 28, 27 when he started writing it, a very young man with no literary background. Although he changed as he went on, his great novels were the ones he wrote before 1900.
And there are other writers — the famous ones are Stapledon and Orwell and Huxley — who, down the years, have written works which the science fiction world would instantly recognise as science fiction. But the authors themselves would have been horrified to realise that that’s what they’d written. Stapledon, apparently, was in contact with Eric Frank Russell, who sent him some pulp magazines. Stapledon said take these horrible things away from me. He had no interest in that kind of stuff.
If you accept that — that there is a primitive, instinctive way of writing science fiction — the next thing that happens is that Gernsback published the first pulp magazines, and in the first three years he published almost everything that Wells had written up to that point, including serialisations of six of his novels. We know those early pulps were imitated, everyone wrote stories based on stories they had read, and gradually the orthodoxy grew up. I said earlier, the bottom of the heart and the top of the head: the bottom of the heart produces Wells and the top of the head produces Murray Leinster. Both perfectly adequate in their own ways, but actually universes apart.
I joined the sf club, as it were, in the ’60s, and soon after that there was a boom in science fiction. It wasn’t the New Wave, it was what Tom Disch called the Labor Day Club, the George Martins and the Gardner Dozoises and the Jack Danns and people like that. What was so interesting about this boom was that it was entirely top of the head stuff, it was entirely derivative of the science fiction that had gone before. It was utterly, utterly mediocre, almost everything published in the ’70s by the new writers emerging then was sophisticated in some ways and elegant and worked and wrought, but it was dead-headed and dead-hearted, and it’s now mostly forgotten, thank God. There were good works in the ’70s, The Dispossessed, stuff like that, but that all seems to me to be such a dead end. I’ll give you an example: Strangers by Gardner Dozois, one of the worst novels ever written, and he’s a good short story writer.
The original short story, ‘Strangers’, is excellent. But I agree, the novel is dreadful.
That, to me, is an archetype of the 1970s, a well-intentioned, boring, empty book.
Now, to put me into this equation: I started writing in the ’60s, wrote a few short stories, got caught up in the New Wave which didn’t really interest me. Indoctrinaire was published in 1970, so I’m a writer of the ’70s, that’s where I start. That process of realisation, that the Ed Bryants and the George R.R. Martins, the hot writers of the ’70s, were actually no good, can be paralleled in my own writing. In 1973, I’m writing Inverted World, but by 1979 I’m writing The Affirmation. In a very short period of time I changed direction, because I realised their stuff wasn’t worth writing. If the best you can come up with is elegant, well-wrought nothing, then you might as well not be writing at all. What I wanted to do was to re-invent it, find the heart and not the head.
But along the way, in Inverted World, you wrote what must count as one of the four or five most inventive and original science fiction novels ever written.
Ah, it was a period, as John Lennon said. I quite like Inverted World, it’s got energy.
It’s got a lot of invention too. Every perception is new.
I remember writing it. I wrote that in white heat, it was one of the great experiences. I was living alone in Harrow and they had these playing fields belonging to Harrow School which I could use because I lived in one of the houses that backed on to them. Most of the time I had this huge field to myself, so every day I’d go pottering about thinking about Inverted World. From that field you can see Harrow Hill, and on top of the hill is Harrow Church with the steeple, and I used to look at that and think, that’s the inverted world. The whole thing was written in that field. Then I’d go back inside and write like a dervish. What was published was effectively first draft, I never revised it. Oh boy, I wish I could write like that now.
You take a long time now?
You’ve got to be young, you’ve got to believe in it.
Okay, let’s go back to A Dream of Wessex. When it appeared you were beginning to feel disenchanted with science fiction?
But it fit in so precisely with what was being written in science fiction. It matched with Road to Corlay by Richard Cowper, for instance.
But that was years later.
No, ‘Piper at the Gates of Dawn’ was the year before, The Road to Corlay the year after.
The opening of The Road to Corlay is embarrassing to me, how close it is.
I just assumed there was some weird synchronicity going on.
I think there was. It’s embarrassing to me because I think if writers do something similar to other writers it means you’re not imagining properly. It shouldn’t happen that another writer should touch the same thing. That used to be my argument with Ian McEwan, that many of his early short stories were similar to the work of other writers and it seemed he was imagining only to the first or second level, not going deeper and coming up with something fresh. That happened four or five times with McEwan early on, and I would have thought that should have given him serious pause for thought. And when I read The Road to Corlay I was really depressed because you know Cowper’s a mate of mine, and I didn’t want him to think that he and I were thinking alike.
You don’t suppose that you and he had met sometime, talked over ideas and sparked off the same thing?
It’s quite possible. In many ways that is its own argument, that is why I am so down on science fiction, because you do get the tropes, you get the phraseology.
But aren’t the tropes part of the life of science fiction? The excitement of it?
Who for? I know there’s a big readership who want the same thing over and over again. I’m not interested in that readership, I know they’re not interested in me.
You want to do something different with every book?
I want to do something that’s mine. I don’t want anyone to read it and think: oh, Richard Cowper could have written that. Now, because of that with A Dream of Wessex, I make really sure that that’s the image I want. Here’s an idea for a story – the first level. Can I do it? That’s the second level of imagination. The third level is: does it matter to me? Then, if you get past that, you come up with something that’s really your own.
That’s what so much of science fiction is, it’s written to the second level of imagination.
But so much fiction, not just science fiction, is like that. You’ve already quoted Ian McEwan, I think he has got better.
I think he’s got a lot better. I think he had the same thing, you know; I think he finally worked out what was going on.
In many ways, since leaving the science fiction field, that generation of writers — McEwan, Martin Amis, Kazuo Ishiguro — is the one you’re most associated with.
I’ve got nothing in common with them. I don’t want to have anything in common. It’s another bloody orthodoxy.
I can sometimes see a similarity in tone between what you’re writing and what someone like Ian McEwan or Graham Swift is writing.
I’m closer to William Boyd. I really admire Boyd. He’s got rough corners and dodgy bits which I look at and think, yes, that’s me. He has the same failings as me, and I like that.
The thing is, you and everyone, you’re falling into the booksellers’ trap, you want to know where to place things. Once you say a book is about football, they respond, oh thank God it’s about football, we can deal with that. I don’t like football, there’s nothing on earth would make me read a book about football. If you told me Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn has written one of the great literary novels of the 20th Century about football, nothing would make me read it. It’s quite likely I’m missing something worth reading, but my prejudices are intact. And there are many more people with similar prejudices about science fiction who will not read science fiction.
I don’t want to exclude anyone, I don’t want anyone to look at any of my books and say I don’t want to read that, it’s about football. I’d like people to pick up on my stuff because of what I’ve written, not because five years ago they read a pile of Jerry Pournelle and think that I write the same stuff.
You lose as well, maybe someone who reads a great novel by Ballard or Aldiss. But I don’t want them for that reason, either, to think this might be as good as Aldiss or Ballard. I want them to pick it up because it’s me.
The other side of the coin is that people in the science fiction world will pick it up no matter what it’s called. The sf world has very good bush telegraph.
I’ve never, ever said to a publisher you mustn’t put science fiction on the cover. When The Prestige was going through, my first book with Simon and Schuster, about six months into production one of the young women in the art department said, ‘We had someone in here the other day who said this is a science fiction novel. It’s not science fiction, is it?’ That was the first mention that anyone at the firm had made about science fiction to me. They’d read it and bought it and were producing it just on the basis of what it was.
There’s something a little — odd, I suppose — about the fact that it comes in and wins both the James Tait Black Memorial Award and the World Fantasy Award.
It’s neither a literary novel nor a fantasy novel.
But it’s somehow both?
I think some people would see that as my vindication. But I don’t feel vindicated, I don’t feel that’s shown ’em. I was extremely pleased to win the James Tait Black. Have you ever seen the list of previous winners? That’s a club I don’t mind joining, so I’m very proud of that. The World Fantasy Award? Nobody hates fantasy more than I do, so to win the award for the best fantasy novel is like being told I’ve written the greatest novel in Romanian. But you don’t give yourself awards. The people behind it wanted to give it to me, and I accepted that with pleasure. It made a big difference in America. They’ve increased the print run of The Extremes.
But there’s a question you can ask me, I don’t know what the answer is. I saw the review of The Extremes you did in The New York Review of Science Fiction. But there was a preamble, which you’d put in the apa Acnestis, and I wish you’d incorporated it in the full review because then I could argue with it. So why don’t you ask me why I’m such a lousy stylist?
Why are you such a lousy stylist?
That’s a good question. That isn’t quite what you said.
What I actually said was:
He never uses emotional language, if you take the words at face value the emotion is flat the whole way through. It is as if everything is written from outside, almost reportage. He uses viewpoint characters, but we are never told how they feel; we are told simply and dispassionately what they experience, and we supply the feelings for ourselves. This comes across particularly in The Extremes because it is far and away the most violent book he has ever written. I find it obvious that Chris hates violence of any sort, though right now I have no way of knowing whether that stems from my familiarity with his work or my familiarity with the man. But you don’t get any authorial voice telling you that this is horrible, in fact all the emotions conveyed by the central character (as are the emotions of virtually all his characters in every one of his books) are ambiguous.
This is part of the old internal dialogue that goes on all the time, like is it sf or not. There’s no definitive answer and there are contradictions all the time, but broadly speaking it seems to me that English fiction is written in one of two ways, one with the emphasis on language and one with the emphasis on story. On the whole, the writers of fine language, the literary stylists, are deemed to be producing the superior form. The thing is that narrative art is identified with bestsellers, romances, thrillers, and so on. Most sf is written in this plain workmanlike prose, while a lot of literary fiction (not all) is written in the fine style. To my mind, this is a false distinction, there are only good books and bad books. The style that interests me is transparency. The Americans call it the art that conceals art, George Orwell calls it the clean window.
That’s what I realised reading The Extremes. You have to create your own emotion for every character. It’s all there but you don’t tell us, we have to put it in. So you’re getting the reader to do more work than we’re used to. That’s why the early ones felt flat. They weren’t flat at all, but you weren’t making it easy for us emotionally.
That’s not an intention, but I think it’s an effect. Take sex, getting back to sex, I’ve really come round to the idea now that the less sex is described the better. It wasn’t true in the past, I put some dirty old stuff in, in the past. But that liberates you, you don’t have to do it again because it shows you know all the dirty bits. Also, it seems to me, it’s like breathing. How often can a reader take a description of someone breathing or eating, it’s such a commonplace. With sex I feel now, in my middle age, they get into bed and they pull the blanket up over their heads, and the next morning they get up and get on with the story. Because what they got up to was quite possibly highly enjoyable but not very original.
Also, there are other feelings, like when someone dies. You have this … it’s not really shrinking away but you don’t want to define it, you want to give people enough to know that it’s happened and then leave them to it.
Do you cut out a lot when you’re re-writing?
I tend to add, to build things up. Or I cut out big chunks. I’ll work on a chapter over and over, then suddenly decide it’ll be better without it. The Extremes, if I showed you the first draft it’s a completely different book.
Was that when it was called The Cull?
No, The Cull never really existed as a book, it was going to be a TV series. I sold the book as The Cull but the moment I started writing, I couldn’t call it that.
The Extremes was a very difficult book for me to write because it’s basically about an issue, and I don’t write issue books. The thing that bugged me was this feeling that I had to take a stand on the gun laws. In fact, I’m a sort of definite don’t know. I can see arguments on both sides on just about everything, including gun law. But it’s such a shocking thing that it’s not something you can back away from.
I’m having the same problem with The Gloss, which is the novel I’m writing now. It’s set in the Second World War, and I’m not a war novelist. Though I have strong personal views on war, they don’t fit into the kinds of novels I write. So at the moment the problem with The Gloss is finding the way into the material.
One of the things I commented on in my review of The Extremes was that it was about violence, and you don’t write about violence.
It’s got violence in it.
It’s about violence.
What can you say about violence that’s worth saying that hasn’t been said before, and possibly better? This is the thing about the Second World War. What can I say at this late stage that would be original, worth saying, never been said before?
So why are you writing about it?
It’s a very personal novel. It’s about me, really, since I was born in the war. I am of the last generation who can write about the war. I was born in it, though I have no memory of it at all — well, I have one memory. The war has overshadowed my life. You know this yourself, you were in Manchester. My memory of Manchester is acres of rubble, and a lot of it is still there you know. That was a powerful thing, and something I want to write about, but I don’t really want to take on the war, so I’ve got to find a post-war approach.
Is it going to be science fiction?
Oh yes. Oh no. Oh, I don’t write science fiction. It’s about the Gloss, so everything will become clear.
Christopher Priest, thank you.