‘All Men Are Islands’: Interview with award-winning author Christopher Priest
24 January 2012
No map is allowed. Not even to me. There is in fact a strand of argument in the novel that much of the pleasure of living in the islands, or of trying to travel through them, is that you almost always get lost.
Christopher Priest is the author of a dozen novels and other works such as radio dramas, short stories and novellas over the course of a career spanning more than four decades. His fiction has won numerous awards, such as the James Tait Black Memorial Prize, the Arthur C. Clarke Award, the BSFA Award and the World Fantasy Award.
Becoming a full-time writer in 1968, Priest rose with the New Wave era of British science fiction in the 1970s and early 1980s. Largely positioned within the vibrant science fiction field throughout his career, Priest's writing is often difficult to categorise. Using a variety of science fiction tropes, and with a distinctive and relaxed English writing style, Priest produces novels that straddle the boundaries between science fiction, fantasy and mainstream literature.
Arguably Priest's most successful novel to date is The Prestige (1995). A compelling read in its own right and shortlisted for the Arthur C. Clarke Award, The Prestige came to the attention of many as a result of its adaptation into a successful Hollywood movie directed by Christopher Nolan. The Prestige is a perfect example of the deceptive positioning Priest's work can take: ostensibly the story of feuding magicians consumed by jealousy and obsession set in the 19th century, at the story's heart is the science fiction concept of teleportation.
Priest's twelfth novel, The Islanders (Gollancz), represents a return to the fantasy world of the Dream Archipelago, a chain of countless islands each with its own customs, climatic conditions, cultural idiosyncrasies and dialects, which has also featured in previous Priest works, such as The Affirmation, first published in 1981.
London Calling asked Priest about The Islanders, and what the future holds for this distinctly British author.
London Calling: You have written a few novels set in the Dream Archipelago. What caused you to return there with The Islanders?
Christopher Priest: I feel as if I never really left them. I have a policy of moving on from the last thing I wrote, so there were The Prestige, The Extremes and The Separation, all big projects, none of them anything to do with the Dream Archipelago, but I always had the islands in the back of my mind. You say I've written "a few" Dream Archipelago novels, but before The Islanders there were only one and a bit. The Affirmation was intended (at the time) to top out the sequence. One reviewer even said "that's that" for The Archipelago, which I took as a sort of low-level challenge (i.e. a bit of an uninteresting one, but I didn't see why someone else should decide). The Quiet Woman has several silent references to The Affirmation. In particular there is a character in common, but as she's dead from the first page (in fact, "quiet"). People could be forgiven for not noticing. Then in 1999 I put together the first English-language collection of the stories, wrote a new one as an introduction, and that reminded me of how much the islands interest me. A later story, The Discharge, really stoked the fires, though.
LC: The Archipelago is drawn in considerable detail in The Islanders; how much of this was already in place from previous Dream Archipelago books, and how much did you have to create from scratch?
CP: The whole thing is new. There are soft references all over the place to earlier stories, but they are genuinely soft in the sense that you lose nothing at all by not recognizing them. Mostly it's just names of islands that crop up. (One reviewer called them "easter eggs", which was a good way of putting it.) The book began with a sort of wish to make sense of all these islands, where they were, what they were like. The earlier stories were fairly synoptic, so I had a few clues and hints to provide a basis but there was nothing already defined by the stories.
LC: Creating the climate, topography and various customs of the islands in the archipelago must have been quite challenging. Was this simply a process of making copious notes or did you also use a map or some other technique?
CP: No map is allowed. Not even to me. There is in fact a strand of argument in the novel that much of the pleasure of living in the islands, or of trying to travel through them, is that you almost always get lost. No one knows the way, everyone is a bit muddled. The only people who navigate accurately are the operators of the thousands of ferry services but they only do short trips, usually to another island that can be seen from the starting point. As for the customs, etc., that was what the novel was about. No different, in effect, from any other work of fiction.
LC: Your stories tend to be very complex, and usually involve an unreliable narrator and reader misdirection; do you ever find it difficult to keep track of events yourself during the writing process?
CP: One of the pleasures of writing The Islanders was the sense of being a part of that lazy islander mentality. It's really difficult trying to make sense of, or graft continuity on, a number of different events taking place on different islands, in different parts of the world, at different times, where the main contact is by way of a series of ferries which are at constant risk of getting lost, and where no one can even agree on the names of the islands. If that amounts to unreliability or misdirection, well OK. The novel does have a story and it starts and ends, but it's not immediately obvious what it is because there are so many distracting beaches, lovely views and big hairy insects. I want the reader to enjoy the islands, and feel about them, as much as I do.
LC: Your novel The Prestige was made into a successful Hollywood movie; did seeing your story on the big screen have any impact on the way you write?
CP: No, but I learnt quite a lot about the craft of adapting a screenplay from a novel. Before the film was made, in the period during which I knew it was going to be made, I couldn't see how the novel could be filmed. It just seemed to have too much in it. All became clear when I eventually saw Jonah Nolan's script. I thought it was highly ingenious in the way it compressed and made certain scenes so visual, using my ideas. But if I wrote the novel now I'd probably do it the same way I did back in 1994: a film is a film, a novel is a novel.
LC: The Islanders is your first novel in ten years; what's next for CP?
CP: I have three major projects in progress. The first to be finished (this week, if I quit answering your questions) is my first stage play, which is a dramatic adaptation of The Prestige. As of today I have no idea what will happen with it: it has been commissioned, and it is scheduled as a definite production next year, but this is a naughty world and a lot can go wrong on that long road paved with good intentions. Whatever, the play has been a real challenge to write, and I have enjoyed every minute of it. For contractual reasons I am not allowed to duplicate the film in any way, so there is nothing in common with that. (Most of the names are the same, but that's about it.) It is, however, true to the novel, much truer in fact than the movie. The plot is better, I maintain stoutly, and does not depend on the clonking twist ending of the movie. It has all been a reminder of how much good stuff they left out when they made the film.
After that, there will be the next novel. This is called The Adjacent and I have written most of it. I was hoping to deliver it before the end of 2011, but the play has taken longer than I expected, so it will probably be finished in the new year. I'm saying nothing about The Adjacent before it is complete, but it is (for me at least) one of the most intriguing and complex books yet.
Then I plan a break. I will have been working more or less non-stop for three years, with much still ahead. After a holiday, I have a novel in mind called The Mariners (that's a working or provisional title, because my titles are not usually firmed up until I've finished writing). This will be another novel set in the Dream Archipelago, and amongst many other things will deal with what happens to those ferries that get lost. I think it might have scaly sea monsters, rather than big hairy insects.
LC: Thank you, Christopher Priest.
**************** The Islanders, published by Gollancz, is available in both traditional and e-book formats. Find out more about Christopher Priest and his work at christopher-priest.co.uk
London Calling-recommended works by Christopher Priest: The Affirmation; A Dream of Wessex; The Prestige.