Behind the Grim Grin

Long before the recession got under way, more and more major SF authors were resorting to small presses. Story collections, according to traditional publishers, are difficult to market because the general public can't face the hideous effort of dealing with new characters every few dozen pages. Reprints are unpopular too, unless you're in the SF Masterworks or Terry Pratchett class. Publishing wisdom is that readers want a shiny new book, not some dusty old palimpsest unearthed from the forgotten twentieth century.

You'd imagine the SF public would be fascinated by the story behind a film as hugely popular and successful as The Prestige, told by the author of the novel it was based on. Big Publishing thought otherwise, though, and Christopher Priest defiantly set up his own small press to produce this book: the enigmatically named GrimGrin Studio.

GrimGrin now offers four Priest titles – in fact four and a bit – all interesting in different ways. The lead title is The Magic, Priest's own take on the making of The Prestige from his novel of the same name. Have you ever wondered what an author thinks about the brutal dismantling and reconstruction needed to transfer a book to the big screen? It's all here, from his first struggle to write the complex story to a detailed analysis of the movie.

Generally, Priest gives the film high marks despite noting a few plot and motivation problems. He even manages not to be bitter about director Christopher Nolan, who became so infected by the novel's central theme – the obsessive secrecy and jealousy of stage magicians – that he kept announcing: "Don't read the novel! It spoils everything!" Just what every novelist wants to hear.

One thing an author expects from his connection with a successful film is to make a few bob from extra book sales. But the important money-spinner, the American tie-in edition, was sabotaged by the film-makers' refusal to allow any movie scene or image on the jacket. (How Gollancz managed to get around this in the UK is a mystery.) Even though they'd drastically changed the ending, and though the novel has been around since 1995, there was this deep-rooted paranoia about spoilers....

The Magic is a good read, full of thoughtful insights. Learn more about this and the others at

Another much-enjoyed GrimGrin book is the cryptically titled "It" Came from Outer Space, collecting 56 assorted pieces of Priest nonfiction published from 1973 to 2008. Section titles: "Fragments of a Life", "Lost friends and colleagues", "Things that come along", "An Enthusiasm for H G Wells", "Some science fiction", "Writings of War", "Books and Writers" and "Distractions and Occasions". An entertaining, niftily written mix of criticism, polemic, autobiography, weirdness and outright fun ... like the laugh-out-loud anecdote about Anne McCaffrey at an SF writers' workshop, which I daren't repeat here.

Real-Time World simply reprints Priest's first SF collection from 1974 – a mixed bag, though with some notable stories including a gory anticipation of reality TV – and Real-Time World +2 is the same book with two extras that somehow weren't included first time around. To buy them both would hardly be sensible.

Personally I wouldn't have had the courage to publish Ersatz Wines, a collection of still earlier material subtitled "instructive short stories". These are Priest's first attempts at fiction, some never before printed. The "instructive" part consists of a long introduction describing the author's roots as a writer, followed by unsparingly critical "Then" and "Now" commentary about each story's good and (mainly) bad points. It's not often that a notable SF author invites us behind the scenes like this. Ersatz Wines teaches more than you might think about the techniques and problems of fiction.

(Nothing to do with GrimGrin, but I can't resist mentioning the how-to-write-serious-fantasy passages in Lin Carter's Imaginary Worlds, which assure readers that his own hero's monicker Thongor "has the ring of clashing steel", while a good name for a wizard is Herpes Zoster. Well, Priest admits that one editor persuaded him to change a character's name from Arstourd because it sounded somehow rude.)

What about that slightly sinister press name, GrimGrin? Christopher Priest, who's very popular in French translation, has guested at many continental SF conventions and been tickled by how they pronounce one famous British author. Brighton Rock, Our Man in Havana, The Power and the Glory ... You know. GrimGrin.

David Langford delivered a new collection of 85 SF essays, reviews and columns to his US publisher: it's called Starcombing.