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Meet the Author

Meet the Author: Christopher Priest

Christopher Priest

Christopher Priest is a British novelist and science fiction writer. His works include The Evidence, The Islanders, The Affirmation, The Glamour, The Prestige, and The Separation. His latest book is Airside which is published by Gollancz on 25th May. You can find Airside and other titles by Christopher on our catalogue.

H.G. Wells has featured in your work on more than one occasion. What was your first introduction to his books?

When I was 14 a collection of Wells' short stories was one of our set books at school. After my recent past, groaning and struggling with Jane Austen, George Eliot, etc, Wells seemed like a breath of fresh air. It was the first set book I read through in one sitting, and which I felt spoke to me directly. I didn’t want to give it back! A few years later I came across The War of the Worlds, then The Time Machine. Since then I’ve read many of his later books. Not all are as good as those first three!

What does a typical writing day look like for you, if such a thing exists?

Slow mornings: if a book is going well I might look back over what I did the day before. Some displacement activity goes on: emails, newspapers, paying bills, but no social media, ever. (Writers should permanently steer clear). Lazy afternoons: a bit of reading, a bit of research. My cat sleeps on me. Evenings: life returns. I work hard and solidly, sometimes late into the evenings.

You create worlds like the Dream Archipelago. How do you pull all that information together? Is there a massive amount of planning and preparation?

The Dream Archipelago books are consciously designed as sort of anti-preparation, anti-planning novels. Within each separate book there is a solid consistency, but a lot of background things from one book to the next are inconsistent: I leave things out, make up something new, deliberately contradict facts from earlier books. I hope and believe that the reader will enjoy this as I do. It’s intended to amuse and entertain in a mild and unimportant way, not to confuse anybody.

In general I benefit from having an eidetic memory and imagination, so I rarely if ever make notes. I hold the entire book in my head while writing. It’s fluid not fixed, so I’m often changing and re-planning, learning about the book as I go. It’s something I’ve always done, so I can’t explain it or even trust that it will work next time. But it’s kept going so far.

In 1983 you were featured on the famous Granta list of the Best of Young British Novelists. What are your memories of that time, and did you find it a positive experience?

How long have you got?

At the time it happened I was in a bad way: I had just had to sell the house I was living in, most of my back titles abroad had gone out of print, and I was borrowing money to stay alive. But I had been writing full-time for many years and knew how to take the rough with the smooth. When the Best Young British promotion came along I thought maybe the pendulum would swing again and things might start to improve. That could have been true but two months before the public launch of the promotion my publishers (with whom I had been working for 14 years) remaindered all my books. So almost none of my books were on sale or talked about. It seemed incomprehensible to me, and still does. What on earth possessed the publishers? For me, it meant that my dire personal circumstances didn’t change.

Then it was my first direct exposure to so-called contemporaries, many of who seemed to think the promotion was a sort of beauty parade of their literary wonderfulness. I had made a point of reading something by them all before I met them. I therefore knew what they could do. Like a few of the others on the list I was appalled and embarrassed to see at close hand the arrogance and self-delusion of the more famous names.

And the beauty parade delusion was mostly shared by the media. The literary journalists predictably gushed over the usual suspects, and rarely if ever mentioned me, except as the one who had no books out, whom they had never heard of.

I know this makes me sound bitter, but in fact that genuinely isn’t how I felt at the time. I treated it all as a bit of a bad joke. I was one of the oldest and most experienced writers on the list and already knew that building a solid reputation takes years, that there’s rough and smooth, and so on. Promotions like Young Brits come and go. I’m still sceptical of the whole thing. (A year or so later things did start to improve).

Do you still maintain your interest in magic from researching and writing The Prestige?

Yes. I have no current plans to write another novel on the subject, but I have always loved magic. One of the unexpected rewards of The Prestige was that the community of professional magicians took it to heart. I’ve since been much more involved with the world of magic. E.g. a few years ago I judged the ‘Magician of The Year’ competition for the Magic Circle. (I can’t perform magic myself).

Your latest book is Airside. Can you tell us a little about it?

The ‘airside’ of an airport building is a liminal space of transit and delay. Most people feel a little disoriented or apprehensive while waiting for a flight. The story starts with a young woman, a Hollywood film star, who enters the airside of an airport and disappears. Never seen again. The rest of the book explores what might have happened to her.

Is there anything you can share with us about your latest project?

I’d love to talk about it, but it is currently being offered to publishers so nothing about it is certain. It is something new for me – not another novel.

One book that you keep returning to or wish you had written yourself?

I often wish I had been able to write Pavane (Keith Roberts). I feel something of the same about The Magus (John Fowles). The book of mine I always see as my ‘key’ novel is The Affirmation – I don’t think it’s my best, but it contains themes and symbols that I have returned to several times. I’d love to write The Prestige again – it has a brilliant plot.

What is on your 'to read' pile at the moment?

If only it was a pile – it’s a whole shelf! Here are the first six, in no particular order: The Blazing World (Jonathan Healey), Tragedy (Terry Eagleton), The Invention of Morel (Adolfo Bioy Casares), Ascension (Nicholas Binge), Empire of the Sun (J.G. Ballard), Limberlost (Robbie Arnott).

Can you tell us one thing about yourself that your readers may not know?

I’m an English Justice of the Peace.