|Christopher Priest talks to David Langford ... with personal comments on his books to date.|
Christopher Priest's all too infrequent novels are eagerly awaited by countless readers inside and outside the sf scene. As well as winning or being shortlisted for the usual international sf awards (notably, receiving the 1974 BSFA Award for Inverted World), he's also a veteran of the first Best of Young British Novelists promotion; and his book jackets feature enthusiastic comments from John Fowles. To general enthusiasm and popping of champagne corks, the first Priest novel in five years appeared at last in September 1995: The Prestige.
Chris is married to fellow-novelist Leigh Kennedy; their twin children's names can be found on the new book's dedication page. These days the family lives in Hastings, so it seemed logical that Chris and I should chat on the seaside promenade under the blinding sunshine of Britain's 1995 heatwave. Is candyfloss bad for cassette recorders? Will the harsh cries of gulls drown out vital answers? Interviews are fraught with unreliability....
Chris, you're regarded as one of the more 'literary' authors working in or near sf, but the editor of SFX was morbidly fascinated by your brush with Doctor Who and asked specially about this: can you bear to tell the story?
"I'll take on almost any writing job, provided it sounds interesting. Doctor Who was like that. The programme is a challenge to a writer: a tiny budget, a more or less fixed cast of characters, a fairly inflexible storyline ... and millions of fans who'll beat the shit out of you if you overlook a crucial fact mentioned in an undertone by a minor character in the second part of a story first transmitted in 1968...."
But you still bravely did a script.
"I wrote two scripts, not one. The first was while Douglas Adams was script editor, before the Hitchhiker books burst on the world. Douglas rang me up one day and said the producer felt the show was drifting away from the heartland of sf, and wanted some 'real' sf writers involved. I went in and met Douglas, and he commissioned a four-parter called Sealed Orders. I wrote this, and it was accepted but never produced. This was because of upheavals in the show while I was writing. Douglas Adams pissed off to become rich and famous, the producer also moved on, and by the time I delivered my story the 'brief' (the background story) had changed."
And what about script number two?
"The BBC commissioned a second story called The Enemy Within, because of the first going wrong. Again it was written and paid for, but once again upheavals in the BBC wreaked havoc. They inflicted a total of three different script editors on me, who all mucked around with the story and demanded different things ... and the new producer turned out to be an appalling little [word obscured by microphone noise, and triumphant seagull cries], who was more interested in being a media star than actually working with a lowly writer like me. It all led inevitably to a bust-up. I grabbed a parachute and took a header through the nearest emergency hatch."
Have you done much other TV/radio work?
"In theory I'm currently writing a three-part sf/thriller original for BBC-TV called The Cull, based on the Hungerford massacre. I actually passed through Hungerford on the day of the shooting! Now the script is languishing somewhere in the Beeb and the contract is about to lapse.
"I did an episode of Return to the Labyrinth for HTV, and Thames TV did one of my stories, The Watched, as a 30-minute play. A couple of years ago I dramatized The Glamour as a play for BBC Radio 4. At present most of my later novels are under option for movies, of varying likelihood.
"People say my books are visual, but of course I think of them as novels, not first drafts for screenplays."
I read in that terrible scandal-sheet Ansible (cough, cough) that you were in the studio for the recording of The Glamour and were pretty impressed....
"Yes. The studio was purpose-built for radio drama, and was almost new. It was a surreal place ... built to allow just about every conceivable aural circumstance. One bit was carpeted, another had bare boards, another flagstones, another gravel, etc. The staircase linking the two levels has three 'strips': bare wood for institutions, carpet for houses and stone for dungeons. There are numerous different doors to be slammed, opened, rattled, locked. There's a phone-box in one corner, and even a car. I poked around, trying to imagine what someone would think were they to wake up in the room without knowing what it was used for!"
What was the recording process like?
"I assumed radio plays were recorded with a group of actors holding scripts and standing around one microphone. 'Ahem!' they said as they ticked me off. 'Only The Archers is done like that!'
"The way my lot did it was almost like a stage play. The fight scene was meticulously rehearsed, with all the punches and oof noises arranged so they were close to microphones: several takes, with much falling over and bruising. Bed scenes are recorded in a bed (which folds out of the wall), with sheets! 'God, if I'd known this,' I said, 'I'd have put in a scene in a swimming pool.' The sound man visibly paled. 'We don't like swimming pool scenes....'"
An authentic broadcasting secret! I'd never have guessed.
"Nor do they like scenes in cars: too many familiar noises that change all the time -- gears, traffic, etc -- and which have to be timed to the script. They still cut cabbages in half for beheadings ('not much call for that these days'), but I saw no coconut shells anywhere. The sound of a ring-pull beer can defies aural science: they had to go down to the vending machine and buy a few cans of Coke.
"A highlight was listening to the effects people build up a car bomb from scratch, beginning with a dynamite explosion (sounded a bit like a door slamming), then layers added to give echo, reverberation, glass shattering, metal lumps skidding down the road, ground juddering, windows rattling, people screaming, alarm bells going. When this was played to the actors, two of them ducked -- I too jumped out of my skin, and I knew it was coming! The BBC people were so pleased with it that they put it into the effects library. Me: 'Here, that's my car bomb!' They: 'Sorry, squire, it's ours now.'
"I was awed by the manifest professionalism and hard work of it all; felt shagged out at the end, and I was just watching."
Radio lets listeners create their own mental pictures -- but often the elements of a book that translate well to film or TV aren't the important ones. From your own novels, do you have favourite visual images? Would they translate?
"There's a scene in The Glamour where the two main characters are driving along, and one of them suddenly realizes that a third person is sitting in the car with them, who must have been there unnoticed for several days. This is a fairly crucial scene and it works 'visually', but I can't imagine how anyone could actually point a camera at it and film it. There's another scene in which a woman is raped by an invisible man, the point of which would presumably defy a camera. (But film-making isn't my game ... so maybe there's a way.)"
I remember a hair-raising surprise on similar lines to that "third person" discovery, in The Affirmation.
"The Affirmation has several similar scenes. There's one with a particular room painted white, and another with a manuscript that the central character has written. Many people have found these scenes surprising, not to say shocking, because of the visual jolts they contain. But they aren't the same kind of jolt you get from a horror movie, where something leaps out unexpectedly and scares the shit out of you. My shocks are based on a sudden devastating reversal of what the reader knows or believes."
Let's call it the "Priest effect". When did you first consciously do it?
"I think it was when I was coming up to the end of the first draft of The Space Machine. There's a character called 'Mr Wells'. At first, I planned him to be H.G. Wells, the real-life author. He never felt right, though, and the book started to unravel. Then I suddenly realized that it made more sense to think of him as the unnamed first-person narrator of The Time Machine and The War of the Worlds ... a fictional character, but with many of the characteristics of the author. This kicked the novel into a completely new arena, and I saw the story in a more subtle light. It made it less 'reliable': it was still a scientific romance in the Wellsian mould, but it was now in quotation marks; it was not just a re-creation or a pastiche, but a contemporary novel set in a metafictional past. This sounds as if I was tarting it up, but in reality it opened up more possibilities for jokes, plot development and character insights, so I think it made the novel more enjoyable.
"After that, things were never quite the same. I can no longer take a plot seriously enough to go with it as bare plot. I'm always thinking: where's the flaw in this, where does the idea leak? Unreliability soon starts creeping in, and I cheer up no end."
But that subdued mischief in The Space Machine was something an inattentive reader could overlook. It's the unmistakable shocks in The Affirmation that make this your narrative breakthrough novel.
"Yes, the first really noticeable 'Priest effect' is there. This is a key novel of mine, if anyone wants to work out where I stand in relation to the rest of sf."
Looking through your older stuff, I found traces of the "effect" as far back as 1972 -- in the short "Real-Time World". Had the germ of it been with you even longer?
"The first time I remember being jolted by this was in Fredric Brown's sf novel Project Jupiter. [Alias The Lights in the Sky are Stars -- DRL] Something of the sort happens there, and it left an impression on me. But I think I first noticed this narrative unreliability lark back in my teens, when I was still reading horror stories. I was fascinated by writers like Lovecraft, whose narrators famously go on scribbling even as the horrid thing is slithering up the garden path towards them. I kept trying to imagine this. What would I do if that happened to me? Sitting in my study, trying to set down an account of the horrible events of the afternoon ... and blimey! It's out there again! And this time it's coming for me! Would I go on scribbling? Clearly not ... so then who finished the story? The problem used to worry me for hours!"
Like that dreaded English Composition subject: "The Hunt, told from the viewpoint of the quarry. (Remember the quarry must escape in order to tell the story.)" Guaranteed to set any red-blooded schoolkid searching for a loophole in the "must escape" rule.... Although the sf audience is used to writers kicking holes in relativity or thermodynamics, don't you get protests when you tinker with the narrative itself?
"Actually, it's a bit mixed. On the whole, the answer is no: sf readers seem sympathetic to the books themselves, although they don't always like what I say I'm trying to do with them.
"I get pretty perceptive reviews from sf critics, while out in the wider world it's more patchy. The newspaper reviews are often bemused, and give their own game away: few of these critics have the foggiest idea what I've been up to for the last twenty-five years. The sf world is more actively tuned in to what writers like me are doing."
Inverted World seemed to go down particularly well with the "straight" sf audience, receiving a BSFA award, Hugo shortlisting and so on. Do you remember what set you thinking about that weird, literally infinite world?
(Long worried silence.) "This goes back a long way ... the middle 1960s, I think. I was wondering about time travel in a topographical sense: a movement to and fro across a certain place that would put you forward and back in time. I remember not getting anywhere with it for ages back then, but that's where the city on rails eventually came from."
Didn't time travel by moving to and fro across a special bridge emerge separately in your story "Palely Loitering"?
"Yes. You can't stamp out an idea once it's taken hold!"
And how did it connect with the notion of the hyperboloid world?
"That came from something I learnt at school ... one of those defining moments. The point about school was that my brain was stuck in neutral for most of the time. I daydreamed all the way through senior school and never really listened to what was going on. But even so I somehow got into the high stream for maths, and when I was about twelve we started on calculus. We reached the stuff about drawing graphs, and then rotating them about an axis and measuring the results. I didn't see much point in that ... but I started doodling, trying to imagine what the solids would look like. After a bit I came across the one where y equals the reciprocal of x, which even when scribbled on a scrap of paper looks pretty intriguing.
"Somewhere along the way I must have conflated the two ideas. I wrote Inverted World in 1973. I was young then, everyone wore flares and had silly haircuts ... that distant era when even Harlan Ellison's Last Dangerous Visions seemed credible."
Speaking of which ... do you have any idea why The Book on the Edge of Forever, your essay about this famous non-event, struck such a chord that it's gone through many printings and got shortlisted for this year's nonfiction Hugo?
"To be honest I think there are two reasons, only one of which is to my credit. The essay started as a conscious exercise in investigative journalism. You don't get much of that in the sf world, and the Ellison non-anthology was a God-given story just waiting to be written. I think it came as sheer novelty to most people. All those lies and evasions, the bragging and boasting, the promises and betrayals. The story has a horrid fascination when it's set out factually.
"At first I thought that people would simply read the story, say tut-tut, and pass on to something else. What I hadn't counted on was the army of Ellison camp-followers. These come in all persuasions, from the worst sort of toady up to a kind of fannish armed militiaman, bent on crazed revenge against Ellison for some long-ago slight, real or imaginary. When my essay first came out I got piles of mail from these types, respectively threatening me, and urging me to put on camo gear and pack a machine pistol. At this point I realized the thing could run and run."
So long as people keep pushing....
"Latterly, it's been egged on by Ellison himself. It seems that every time interest dies down, Ellison pops up to threaten me with something, or to make up some bizarre new explanation of his inertia. As you know, in recent weeks he's been comparing himself wonderfully with Michelangelo, working slowly but surely in the Sistine Chapel, while an angry pope rages below, insensitive as ever to genius. All this makes me think that in some odd way my essay gratifies his ego."
You've also released the essay on the Internet, which helps keep it going. But (he asked for the benefit of puzzled readers), that version is mysteriously called The Last Deadloss Visions ...?
"Years ago I used to publish a fanzine called Deadloss, so when I wrote the first version of the essay, that title sort of presented itself naturally."
Have you used the famously vast resources of the Internet in other ways, in connection with your books?
"The net is still too disorganized and unwieldy to be a really useful source of reference material, but the stuff is there if you know how to hunt around.
"For The Prestige I downloaded several long texts about Nikola Tesla, but these were only useful in tiny bits. In the end a visit to the science library at Imperial College gave me what I really needed to know about him, and in fact most of the 'hard' research for The Prestige was either practical (interviewing magicians and watching them perform) or from books."
But the Acknowledgements do mention a certain Usenet newsgroup....
"Yes, I discovered alt.magic, where practising stage magicians meet to chat and swap ideas. Or that's what I thought before I quietly joined. As in a lot of literary research, serendipity is the real name of the game. I'd hoped to pick up a few conjuring tips, but the threads in alt.magic actually fell into two much more interesting subjects.
"One was obsessive jealousy about David Copperfield ... this is the magician famous for large-scale illusions (like making the Statue of Liberty vanish), but who is actually much better at smaller stuff, particularly when he works with kids. He's unquestionably brilliant at this, the best of the lot, and the others are all mad with curiosity about how he does his tricks. The other thread was obsessive secrecy about protecting their own magical techniques! I had already decided that jealousy and secrecy were to be the main themes, but that newsgroup gave me a real insight into the mentality of magicians. It's all in the novel now."
Many writers go on and on about how serendipity really works: the perfect idea, fact or mood magically pops up in real life just when needed. Are you often lucky that way?
"Yes, but you have to create the circumstances in which the luck can strike! Once I'm in the thick of a novel I'm always amazed at how many ideas turn up out of the blue: fragments of overheard chat, bits you see on TV, even some terrible holiday knick-knack which has been lying around your house unnoticed for years. All these can suddenly seem relevant to what you're working on. My novels have stuff like this growing all over them. The point is, though, that the same ideas would instantly wither if the soil was barren."
In The Prestige I was struck by what seems a highly significant anecdote about a Chinese stage magician who all his life pretended to be virtually crippled as part of the deception that made his best trick work. A real story?
"Yes, that anecdote is genuine, and was what originally suggested the idea of the book. This particular magician is often muddled up with another one with an almost identical name, who is in some ways even more interesting. 'Chung Ling Soo' was actually an American (real name William Campbell) who performed as a Chinese, in a direct lift from my man, Ching Ling Foo. It was 'Soo' who was famously shot while trying to catch a bullet in his teeth."
Maybe he'd written an essay on Harlan Ellison.... Another link to reality is the memoir on stage magic by your character Borden, with a supposed modern edition from Dover Publications Inc. I idly wondered whether you had in mind the Dover reprint of the 1898 Magic by Albert A.Hopkins, of which I've got a copy?
"I used the Hopkins book, but the real influence was another Dover facsimile, called Exclusive Magical Secrets by Will Goldston. This provided the model for the book within the book. Goldston's original was sold with a lock and key (nodded at in the novel, when we learn a particular notebook has a lock), whereas Borden's book is described as 'oath protected'; they seem to have gone in for these gimmicks in the past. Dover are just about the only mainstream publisher with a magic list."
Did you go to magicians' performances as part of your research? If so, were you still impressed, amazed, baffled?
"Last year's meeting of the I.B.M. (International Brotherhood of Magicians) was in Eastbourne, just down the coast from here, so I grabbed the chance and went to their gala show. Ninety-nine per cent of the audience was made up of professional magicians, and highly appreciative they were too. This tends to underline the fact that performance skills matter more than secrets (since presumably most of them would know how the tricks were 'done').
"I quickly found my boredom threshold for sleight of hand is very low indeed. About half the show consisted of people doing clever but tedious things with playing cards. What I preferred were the big illusions, which is what my novel is really about."
One of Somerset Maugham's stories opens by summing up the dread card trick syndrome: "'Do you like card tricks?' 'No, I hate card tricks.' 'Well, I'll just show you this one.' He showed me three...." What was your favourite large-scale illusion?
"There was one that really intrigued me. Very briefly, a young woman wearing a bare-minimum stage costume was trussed arm-and-leg in ropes, so tightly she could hardly stand. Her colleague then went into the audience, and grabbed one of the men as a volunteer. They went back on stage, where there was a sort of tent arrangement, barely big enough for one person. The woman in the ropes was bundled into this tent, and then so too was the man from the audience, shoved in beside her. The flap of the tent was zipped up, and either by accident or design the man's head was caught in it, so it remained in sight. There was then evidence of furious activity inside the tent!
"It all happened in less than five seconds. Next thing, the flap was unzipped, and the man stumbled out on the stage, looking dazed. The jacket of his suit was missing. Then the woman in the ropes staggered out too ... she was still trussed exactly as before, but now she was wearing the man's jacket, under the ropes! They got a lot of applause."
Presumably, having swotted up on millions of magical effects for the novel, you saw through this in a trice....
"Not exactly! I was extremely intrigued by it. But you know something like that is just a trick, and that what you saw isn't necessarily what actually happened. There's a rational explanation somewhere, and you can't help wondering what the hell it is! By this time I'd done so much research into techniques that I felt I ought to be able to solve it ... so I thought and thought about it, and finally worked it out. The funny thing is, I think they were using the same method that my chap in The Prestige was using! There are only about six different methods, anyway. Everything depends on the performance, and on the audience thinking: There's only one way that could be done, but they wouldn't have gone to that much trouble! Or would they ...? But the thing is they usually would."
In The Prestige you yourself seem to play the part of stage-magician, with teasing misdirection, devious truths and surprises from unexpected directions. People who like neat genre pigeonholes will be left uncertain for a long time, and then made uncertain again. Fair comment?
"All fiction misdirects the reader, or it can do. You hear thriller writers talking about it. What they mean is laying false clues, and all that.
"But when a magician uses 'misdirection' he's up to something more subtle and interesting. A magician plays on the audience's own assumptions so they misdirect themselves. The deck of cards still in its seal (so it must be brand new), the pitcher full of water (so it must be heavy to lift), the rope that has no knot (so it must be all one piece).
"That was the kind of thing I was trying to get at in The Prestige, but as I say it's not all that unusual in fiction. The narrative voice is comparable with a magician's act ... exactly as you were saying, about devious truths. Most people reading a novel told in the first person singular will reasonably assume that it's truthfully or reliably reported, or that only one person is writing it, or that no one apart from the narrator has tampered with the text before it was printed, and so on, but to me these assumptions open possibilities for a few sneaky reversals. All in the cause of keeping people awake!"
It kept me awake well past bedtime, so I'm not complaining! Some people seem to have the dark suspicion that any such literary tricks are effete, artsy-fartsy decoration, when in fact they can help you construct a really gripping story. And there's an unmistakable science-fictional device lurking there too, with a nice Wellsian flavour. Not invisibility ... but did I catch an allusion to The Invisible Man?
"Yes, but almost all sf devices refer back, ultimately, to H.G. Wells. Him being the main man, and all that. Actually, this particular referral was through another of my own books, The Glamour."
Everyone in sf owes a lot to Wells. But, er, the specific device also set Langford the Ex-Physicist thinking on perhaps unfair and smartarse lines. A rough calculation led me to reckon that one electrically-powered stage illusion you describe, supposedly performed around the turn of the century, would demand something like the full output of a modern gigawatt power station operating for well over two centuries....
"I am, as you know, dedicated to the strict observance of scientific accuracy at all times. Ruthless for the truth, is what they say about me. But sometimes it doesn't half get in the way of a good story."
Yes indeed; and of course in your book, it [microphone crackle, shrieking gulls]. What's next in the mighty Priest literary pipeline?
"It's probably a long way off, because these days it takes me three to five years to plan and write a novel, but I've already started taking notes for a book called The Gloss. It's too early to say what it will be 'about', but I do know that matters of identity and explanation come into it. It's all something to do with mutter-mutter, mumble-mumble, you see.
"On the other hand, as I plan more than one book at a time, I have two others in reserve. One of these is called The Allure (identity and explanation don't come into this one, but offensive sex and gratuitous violence do), and the other is untitled, and has slightly more mumble-mumble than mutter-mutter at present."
On which uplifting note, it must be time to finish. You know, implicitly we've been chatting on sunny Hastings promenade -- but following all our discussion of narrative deceits I'll bet suspicious readers are wondering if this too might be subtly misleading.
"POSTMASTER@cix.compulink.co.uk *** Your e-mail could not be delivered for the following reason: System downtime and seagull cries. Please resend your message at a later time."
Thank you, Chris Priest!
BLUFF YOUR WAY AS A PRIEST EXPERT!
Slightly abstract and surreal tale about a chap held prisoner in a version of Brazil. The most memorable sf plot device is the 'live' hand growing out of a table which, during interrogations, points at our hero in a fearfully menacing way.
Priest: "It was a period. There are a couple of good bits, but unfortunately I can't remember what they are."
FUGUE FOR A DARKENING ISLAND (1972)
Disorienting cut-up-and-reshuffled narrative of nasty events in an England swamped by African refugees from a nuclear war. At the time our author was dead proud of having slipped a rogue piece into the jigsaw story, one that doesn't actually fit anywhere.
Priest: "The first book of mine about someone who misremembers things. This has become something of a theme, based on one of my own failings. Another period piece, this is the one novel of mine where one hostile review wiped out any cheerful thoughts I ever had about the book, and I haven't been able to look at it since."
INVERTED WORLD (1974)
This world really is inverted, geometrically transformed from a sphere to a hyperboloid whose equator and poles taper off to infinity (which makes Larry Niven's Ringworld look a bit puny, though later on it was topped by mathematically "bigger" infinities in Rudy Rucker's White Light). Across the distorted surface trundles a whole city on wheels, fleeing disaster.... Mindboggling stuff, shortlisted for the Hugo award.
Priest: "The best opening sentence I ever wrote (even better in French!), and in the middle of the book is the best sf scene I ever wrote. I dined out on these two bits for about ten years after the book came out. I wouldn't be able to write Inverted World now, because I'd be too inhibited and self-conscious."
REAL-TIME WORLD (collection, 1974)
Uneven collection of early stories, with two interestingly prophetic items: the grisly 'The Head and the Hand', starring a performance artist who chops bits off himself before huge audiences, and the title story with its foreshadowing of later Priest preoccupations.
Priest: "This book happened because Inverted World did well. To be frank, I think it was too soon to put together a collection. But scarcity has its own dynamics, and the hardback has become by a long way the most collectable of my titles."
THE SPACE MACHINE (1976)
A cheery romp: a gentle pastiche of H.G. Wells which begins with the assumption that The War of the Worlds and The Time Machine were episodes in the same alternative history, and helpfully fills in several gaps. Much of the action takes place on Mars, and we finally learn how the Martian invaders launched their capsules....
Priest: "I thoroughly enjoyed writing this one, probably more than I should have done. For me it represents a kind of personal peak, because I wrote it in an extrovert mood during a happy period of my life, at a time when I wasn't too broke, and I was not yet feeling held back by other people putting labels on me. Everything went smoothly until publication day, when the Observer memorably observed, 'Three hundred pages of homicidal tedium', since when I have written in a state of politically correct humility."
A DREAM OF WESSEX (1977)
The sf gimmick is predicting the future (or at least, a self-consistent possible future) by consensual hallucination in a kind of cyberspace. But the personalities of certain experimenters overshadow mere logical extrapolation....
Priest: "This novel represents a kind of valediction to trad sf, because it explicitly describes the process of futuristic imagining, then subverts the whole business. It has recently been described as the novel that predicted virtual reality, but that's because whoever said it hadn't spotted the subversion."
AN INFINITE SUMMER (collection, 1979)
A mixed bag of atmospheric short stories. Besides the much-anthologized title piece this includes "Palely Loitering" (a BSFA Award winner) and the Hugo-shortlisted, TV-adapted novella "The Watched".
Priest: "Another chunk of mid-1970s Priest, a bit raw in places, a bit soppy in others, but with a particular mood throughout that I haven't caught since."
(An Infinite Summer and The Affirmation centre on the "Dream Archipelago" venue; two more published stories with this setting exist, "The Cremation" and "The Miraculous Cairn" -- not collected with the others except in translated omnibus editions published in France and Germany. Priest: "I have been secretly hoping I might one day get a British or American publisher to do the same, but would want to rewrite all the stories first.")
THE AFFIRMATION (1981)
Indescribable. Read it! As one reviewer (oh all right, Ian Watson) noted, this book -- which only seems to end abruptly in mid-sentence -- can be re-read with a new understanding as its own sequel.
Priest: "The first of the novels to make a deliberate effort to deal in a new and realistic way with stock sf ideas: in this case, immortality. The whole novel, from beginning to end, subverts reader expectations: everything is unreliable. As a result I think The Affirmation has the best overall plot I ever wrote, and also the best and most surprising plot revelation ... on the other hand I think it has rough edges, caused by my being a bit nervous about what I was up to."
THE GLAMOUR (1984)
H.G. Wells's invisibility is physical: light somehow passes undisturbed through the invisible person. G.K.Chesterton's psychological invisibility (see his Father Brown story "The Invisible Man", which Chris insists he's never read) applies to people and things you don't notice, can't take in, have forgotten even though they're in plain sight.... The Glamour passes through this territory and goes far beyond.
Priest: "Another go at a stock sf theme: this time invisibility. Again, nothing about the novel can be trusted. I look back on this book and enjoy the plot, and the strength of the central metaphor (invisibility = memory loss), but once again I feel uncomfortable with certain short passages. The Glamour was once spoken of as a major Hollywood 'vehicle' for Barbra Streisand and Christopher Walken, a fact which ten years later still has the power to make my goolies shrink in horror."
THE QUIET WOMAN (1990)
A deceptively understated tale whose backdrop is a withering extrapolation of Thatcherite excess: the media prevented from reporting the awkward fact of Southern England being partly radioactive, the barely restricted power of a now-privatized Military Intelligence, and worse.
Priest: "BBC-TV got hold of this one, dramatized it into a three-parter, hired a director, recce'd the locations ... then did nothing until the contract expired. I was sorry about this, because apart from the obvious benefits of having a book on TV, I was dying to see how they would work out the story. This has an anti-plot: on the surface it's a story of a woman surviving a nuclear accident, but as soon as you delve into it nothing is certain any more."
THE PRESTIGE (1995)
The Victorian era: and two stage magicians are deadly rivals leading strangely parallel lives. Each has his own unique version of a major magical illusion; each is baffled by the other's method; the two different secrets go beyond mere mirrors and trapdoors to be the central defining and distorting factor in their owners' lives. Compulsive stuff.
Priest: "The newest one, and therefore still a favourite. I think for the time being I'm too close to it to have any idea how it fits in relation to the others, but the usual Priest stuff about misremembering is in there, and a plot with many intricate developments. This novel, with Space Machine, is the most widely researched of my books. I must by now know more about magic than most people, but I still don't understand how tricks are done ... even when I find out."
| A much shortened and differently edited version of this interview and
the accompanying material appeared in issue #4 of
SFX magazine (dated September 1995, published August); a longer but
still buggered-about version was in Critical Wave.|
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