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This interview was read 7798 times

by Ignacio Illarregui Gárate
Transcription by María Jesús Sánchez

   This interview was made last time Christopher Priest visited our country. Exactly in June 17th 2003, when he came to Madrid to present The Extremes. Since then a lot of water has passed under the bridge, and although we delayed more than justifiable, yet we can offer you this friendly chat we, David Fernández, María Jesús Sánchez and I, had in his hotel reception during forty minutes.

   The day before we, among others, went to the presentation of the book in the House of America. In this place, he was introduced by Carlos Ruiz Zafón, author of La sombra del viento, and both of them dialogued intensely about the circumstances of the creative task. What a pity we haven`t any transcription, that was really memorable!, as there`s no way to bring to you the sense of humour, nearness, simpathy and sharp comments displayed by Priest in his answers. Written words are cold and limited, so we must resign ourselves with his intelligency, his way of understanding some topics, his tastes...

   For those who doesn`t know him, Christopher Priest is one of the best celebrated authors of fantastic literature in the last thirty years. That reputation comes mainly from two caracteristics: the superb way of planning his plots in his stories, and the way in which it is connected with the topics. Books as The Separation, The Prestige, The Glamour, The Affirmation, The Dream of Wessex, The inverted world, Fuge for a Darkening Island, the above mentioned, The Extremes, or the collection of short stories called An Infinite Summer witnesses this enough.

   Before leaving you with him, I liked to thank Mr. Priest for his kindness, which showed in that day and now. Some weeks ago, he has answered very kindly some questions about his last novel published in Spain, and revisioned his previous answers. I want to thank Minotauro as well, for publishing his books, the opposite of what we consider a bestseller, and to have the interest in bring him to Spain. And last, to María Jesús, for the hard work made with the trasncription and translation.

Ignacio Illarregui Gárate (Nacho)

 

 

Christopher Priest

 

The Extremes deals with virtual reality. Why do you feel this tool so atractive?

Because of several reasons. One, it can happen. You know, technology will take us there. Secondly, I`m worried about it. Thirdly, I´m a novelist, and novelists deal with metaphors and it seems to me that, when I´m writing a book, I always try to deal with the act of writing fiction as a part of the subject. A lot of people don`t like that. They say who cares, but I care. I feel the working of virtual reality is very similar to the process as a writer goes to when you think of an idea and try to write it.

 

Another topic is violence through guns and the so-called extreme experiences. Where does your interest in those things come from?

Well, you heard me last night speaking about it, my closeness to this. My wife is american, and she left America because of that culture of violence there. I`m really against violence; you know, if something threatens me, I scream round all the way.

A situation denounced by Bowling for Columbine...

Yes, I´ve seen Bowling for Columbine. It`s really shocking how many guns there are. I mean, if you go to an american house, there`s one thing that particularly surprises me. I`m thinking in a couple of friends of mine. One day we asked them, how do you feel on guns?, and they answered, “oh, that`s serious, very serious!” And at this point they came out and returned with twenty guns... That`s insane, they could have guns for an army there...

My feeling is that if you have a gun, there is no point in having a gun if you are not prepared to use it. And if you are prepare to use it, you must be prepared to kill. For me this step it`s really unthinkable, to kill someone.

The horrible thing is the fact that people that have twenty guns, and they must be typical, is that they are all prepare to kill. In America you get what I call “the cult of the expert”. So they say when you have a gun you learn the rules to become an “expert”. It seems to me as an excuse, it`s a way of special pleading.

Long time ago I was present at a massacre, you know, and the kid was a young man of twenty years, he was an “expert”: he bought a gun, came to a club and trained himself till he could get a good shot... The whole thing is insane!

 

Carlos Ruiz Zafón and Christopher Priest


 

I wanted to ask you about Matrix, where we can find a virtual world and a trivialization of violence as well, that looks as dancing...

I`ve seen only the first. I think it´s pornography. It´s “the culture of the expert” what makes violence beautiful. The first book I wrote about virtual reality, 25 years ago, was in The Dream of Wessex. In that book virtual reality is a kind of seaside resort, where people go on holidays to sit in the beach, do swimming, make love... That`s my virtual reality, my vision of virtual reality. The dream goes wrong because the dream is invented by a maligne outer presence, which is exactly the same plot as Matrix, except they do martial arts, jump over buildings and things like that. And it looks more exciting that people in a beach making love. And I prefer people in a beach making love. I don`t like people going out with sunglasses (laughs).

Times are changing...

I know it, I`m outdated (laughs)

Returning to our topic, in The Extremes, there`s a moment in which the main character begins to confuse reality and fiction, as we can see in other novels you wrote as The Affirmation. ¿Why are you so interested in the incertainty of perception?

I think that all my books are basically about ordinary dreams... (He stops) Well, the thing is that your question is very complex, because I`ve written books about if for more than twenty five years and I can`t give a quick answer. Essentially, there is a tension between objective outer world we see and experience and the fact we do see and experience, that do I see this but you see that. I put “that is a table” and you look at it and think that is a table too, but are you seeing the same table as me?. Being children this is only something to think about. It`s not original. But it seems to me that nowadays in the outer world, in the media, and in the advertisings, in the way fantasy is used to project something better than reality, that`s what makes this thing surprising.

 

The Separation

 

This year, Minotauro has published The Separation, translated as El último día de la guerra, an ucrony about the Second World War, that won the BSFA and the Arthur C. Clarke. Is there any special reason to use a historical period as exploited as this one?

Well, I was born just at the end of the Second World War. I haven`t memories of it, but when I was growing up all around was destroyed, the cities were bombed,... it was traumatic and it was a dramatic, a terrible scene. In Britain people always say we “won” the Second World War, but to me it looked as if we had lost it. So I grew up questioning that. As I was becoming an adult, I questioned that once and again and, particularly, I questioned the role of Winston Churchill in the war, so that is the background.

During the war, there was a famous event with Rudolf Hess, who was the right hand of Adolf Hitler, traveled to Britain with a peace plan and Churchill put him in prison without speaking with him, and he was in prison since then. I just want to know why and, in fact, the whole thing is still top secret. So I thought to write a novel about that. Because I was interested in fantastic. All I wanted to do is an alternative story where the peace was made in 1941 and the war ended at that point. It`s a sort of science fiction, obviously, in that sense.

It`s all quite interesting, I suppose you don`t know that just before Hess went to Britain, he flew to Madrid and also to Lisbon. There is a lot of mistery in all that story.

How did the people in United Kingdom receive the pacifist thesis in your book?

I believe there is not a single accepted "understanding" of WW2 in the UK. Most people assume that Britain and the USA "won" the war. (I'm sceptical about that.) Most people think of Churchill as a hero. (I do too, but I also feel there is a much broader picture of the man most people ignore.) So you could say that most people in the UK are not pacifists on the subject of that war.

However, as the world goes on, generations change, and events in the world change, nothing is certain any more. For instance, at the time I am writing this, most ordinary people in the UK are profoundly ANTI war, in a way I have never known before. I wouldn't say people are pacifist, but they believe Britain and the USA were wrong to invade Irak, and are wrong to remain there now. So it's difficult to generalize. I think the true answer to your question is that the opinions of people in Britain usually reflect all colours of opinion, and where people disagree with each other they are generally tolerant of the differences between them. Pacifism has always been present here, it has always had a voice, pacifists are treated tolerantly.

 

The Separation

 

Which is the reason to build The Separation as a sort of a collage made by stories that are converging or... diverging?

Because I'm a novelist and not an historian. I have a personal approach to understanding war. For instance, I think the true history of the 1914-18 war is told through poetry. The Second World War produced hundreds of personal accounts of individual experiences: the stories of bomber pilots, radar operators, nurses, and so on. I used these extensively in my research for El último día, because they describe the odd, personal, surprising, moving accounts of real experience that you never find in the official histories. Often, these personal stories describe similar events from different points of view, sometimes disagreeing about what really happened. So when I began writing, it seemed only natural that my novel should try to capture that sense.

(SPOILER: Select the text if you'd like read it)

For people who has read the book. All the novel is fruit of the hallucination of Joe Sawyer or every story has its place in a different reality?

I think the answer to this is contained above. The hallucinations of Joe Sawyer are only one element. I think the true story of El último día is the different texts, the different stories, where each one is probably literally true, where no one is deliberately trying to mislead (except Joseph Goebbels!), where there is always the possibility of people forgetting something, or not noticing something, of getting the story wrong. All the fragments build a picture. The story is there, but there is not a single "true" or definitive" version.

(END OF SPOILER)

The rol make by time in your novels it`s quite strange. It`s a sort of a game, it doesn`t look as a line, but as an spiral...

Yes, that`s right, but it`s not a game. It`s a way of telling a story.

Because reality works that way?

Life is very messy: you collide things, you make statements you forget, you get lost, you come late..., you know, in books people never get to the toilet (laughs). That`s related to memories. If I ask you what did you do last year, in 2002, most people probably don`t remember unless it could be their child`s birthday, an accident or a very nice day. What did you do in September 11th 2001? Life has a lot of levels and memory works at differente levels too, and you remember in different ways. So when I`m writing about memory, I try to reflect that. I don`t like to confuse, I don`t try to write a book that is imposible to read, but I want people to learn this, to recognize at so a deep level they depend on his own memory.

 

The Glamour


 

And what about Borges?

Well, I haven`t read him for many years. I read him thirty years ago. It was like a shock, you know. I consider he is one of the most important writers of the XX century for his sheer and new way of writing. Every writer I know is deeply motioned and affected by him. He changed literature.

The Prestige deals with magic in the beginning of the last century. Why do you feel interested by this topic?

I would love it as a kid, and magic is really a live performance when you see it in front of you. It`s not the same on TV. In fact, TV has really ruin magic in many ways. So I wanted to write about the great period of magic which is this period between the end of XIX and the beginning of XX.

In The Prestige we detect two kinds of magic, every one related to a character. Do these two visions of magic exist? Do both of them coexist or has prevailed anyone over the other nowadays?

There`s a twin trend in magic, as you say. The rules they use are different in both kind of magic and it seems as it could be a sort of competition between them. One is very tradicional, the one that deals with cards, golf balls, which produce birds from hats, and the other comes very technological, look out for things, and get new inventions as laser rays and things like that. If you follow the world of illusions you will find this, you can see both of them on stage. When I was writing The Prestige I found that at that period Nikola Tesla was working, very naturally, at the front of science of that time. It sounded to me quite strange and I said I wanted to help with the “truth”. Even today would happen this colaboration, that someone should say I like your technique and adapted it.

You told us about magic in TV. What do you think about David Copperfield, the magician?

He is famous for big illusions, but I prefer his magic for children, which is on a much smaller scale. For children his magic is brilliant. He got a trick with a duck which was the funniest I`ve ever seen. He must continue with that and stop with this stupid illusions.

The novel is, in some parts, a scientific romance at Wells`s way, to whom you paid homage in The space machine and, not so plainly, in The Glamour. ¿What do you owe to him?

I love Wells, I loved his books when I was a kid. He was a very nice man. And was a great man. But in the early part of the XX century he was probably the most famous writer alive. I will tell you something very interesting about Wells: he wrote 150 novels and the best ones are the first six, which were all about science-fiction.

Wells, was a student of Huxley, a great scientist who was like a Tesla to Wells. For me it`s a very natural theme to write about it and pay homage to him.

 

Fugue for a Darkening Island

 

Early in the seventies you wrote Fuge for a Darkening Island, where you saw, prophetically, the coming of a extreme right-winged party to the goverment, the massive inmigration from the Third World, and the racial problems it would raise. How you see that thirty years later?

I wrote and intended Fugue as a metaphorical novel: the state of Britain and Europe in the early 1970s, a time when many old social assumptions were being overturned. It seemed to me that mass emigration of refugees from troubled countries was going to be an increasing feature of life in Europe. Since those days, the ideas in the novel have repeatedly become facts, perhaps from the time of the "boat people" fleeing Vietnam, up to the present day when thousands of refugees from Africa, the Middle East and other troubled areas of the world are seeking safety in the West.

The one thing that worries me about Fugue is the risk that it might be taken as supporting an argument, from either side of the debate. It is not intended as a manifesto, either for uncontrolled immigration or for the racists who oppose it.

On the whole, I believe the absorption of refugees from foreign countries has a stimulating and beneficial effect on the host countries, but I do realize there are many serious short-term problems to be faced. The novel touches on all these, but I don't see that it is "about" them.

Invertid World is probably your most “different” book. Though essentially is quite similar to others of your books, is the most scientifical of all, the most “hard”; even the main topic could be one of a book from Larry Niven. How did the idea come to your mind?

It`s very complicated, as you say. I wrote it long time ago, and I was quite young, I was 27 or 28. It was a novel I worked through but still has the same things about time, memory, reality at the end.

Why do you still use fantastic elements in your stories, if could be an added difficult for many readers?

That`s why, I don`t want to make it easy. I`m serious, I`m a serious writer, and I have serious objectives and I believe in writing for intelligent readers. But the fantastic is misunderstood, and to me is a very powerful tool that a novelist has and should use. In fact, to my mind the word novel means new. Therefore every novel try to be different.

 

An Infinite Summer


 

All your novels are very well structured and are a plain work of narrative engineering. Do they take a lot of time from you?

It takes me years to work out a new novel, because the intricate structure is difficult and exacting. I usually leave a gap of about four years between each novel, during which time I am trying to work out the next one.

I found surprising the little number of short stories you have written. Don`t you find attractive this genre?. Are you uncomfortable writing them?

Yes, short stories are an attractive form of writing, but I find them devilish difficult to do! At least one of my short stories took longer to write than at least one of my novels. That's no excuse, but in general I am usually fairly dissatisfied with my short stories after I have written them. It's a real discipline, a real art. I like to think one day I might master the form, but I haven't done so yet.

To finish, three simple questions. What are you writing now?

I'm in the planning stages of a novel to be called (provisionally) The Decoy. It's about islands no one can see.

Which of your books do you consider to be the most easy to read for someone who has not read a lot?

The Prestige, it`s interesting for someone to start. It`s different to others but the best in that sense.

And the best one?

The Separation.

 

Links

Bibliografía de Christopher Priest en Cyberdark.net

Narraciones originales de Christopher Priest en Cyberdark.net

Página personal de Christopher Priest

The Last Deadloss Visions (inglés) – Artículo de Christopher Priest sobre la tercera entrega de Visiones Peligrosas, la antología de relatos más anunciada del mundo mundial y que, después de treinta años, sigue sin publicarse.

Christopher Priest: de la ciencia ficción tradicional a la fantasía de la identidad y la memoria – Especial dedicado por elmundolibro aprovechando su visita a Madrid en Junio de 2003, orquestado por Alberto Cairo. Incluye una breve retrospectiva de su obra y un registro de su encuentro virtual en el chat literario de El Mundo

Reseña de Fuga para una isla

Reseña de El mundo invertido

Reseña de La Afirmación en Cyberdark.net

Reseña de Un verano infinito en El sitio de ciencia ficción

Reseña de El Glamour en Gigamesh

Reseña de El Prestigio en Bibliópolis

Reseña de Experiencias Extremas, S.A. en Cyberdark.net

Reseña de El último día de la guerra en Bibliópolis

Foro de Cyberdark.net – Ciencia ficción – Experiencias Extremas, S.A. – Comentarios sobre la novela

Foro de Cyberdark.net – Ciencia ficción – El último día de la guerra – Comentarios sobre la novela. Contiene spoilers puros y duros. No leer si no la has acabado.

 

©2004 de Ignacio Illarregui Gárate y María Jesús Sánchez para cYbErDaRk.NeT
Prohibida la reproducción sin permiso expreso de los autores

    

2004-11-11 16:08   ALALALA
Desde luego parece un tipo interesante, no lo he leído pero seguro que lo haré. Buena entrevista, ¿algo corta?
2004-11-11 03:41   Radagast
Por fin, se hizo esperar, pero valio la pena, muy buena entrevista chicos, y a esperar la nueva novela...
2004-11-10 12:46   iarsang
enhorabuena y gracias por la entrevista, me ha parecido muy interesante (y qué decir de ese spoiler sobre "El último día de la guerra"! todo un lujo).
Priest es uno de mis escritores favoritos, sus libros me resultan fascinantes, y me ha encantado encontrar aquí algunas de sus claves y motivaciones.

Ahora a leer los libros suyos que me faltan :)
2004-11-10 12:08   db105
Sí, parece un escritor que tiene algo que decir y al que no le importa ser menos comercial, con tal de ser honesto.
2004-11-10 08:33   Tyla
Buena entrevista.
Soy un recién llegado a la obra de Priest (sólo he leído "La afirmación", que me ha parecido sencillamente magistral) y me interesa muchísimo todo lo que explica sobre su forma de crear. Además, da la impresión de ser un tipo bastante accesible.
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