|Christopher Priest. Photo by Adrià Guxens|
“I’m looking for my girlfriend but we can do the interview meanwhile”. This is the answer Christopher Priest gives us when we ask him if we can cross a few words. But what should have been a short interview turns into a thirty-minute conversation where we dig into the universe of this acclaimed science fiction writer. Adria’s News talks to the author of The Prestige in the Celsius 232Festival of Avilés to discover why he doesn’t want to work with Christopher Nolan again, why he abandoned a Doctor Who project and why he hates the writer James Christopher Owsley so much. As you’ll see shortly, he doesn’t mince his words.
The writer James Christopher Owsley uses your name as his pen name. Does this bother you?
I don’t understand what’s going on. He changed his name to be mine when The Prestige became a film, and my name is very unusual... He is an asshole. He is a bastard. But I got my revenge on him. After he changed his name I wrote a horror story and the central character is a complete asshole whose name is James Owsley.
Let’s talk about The Prestige. Why a book about magic?
I enjoy it and by then I was looking for an idea for a book and I thought what magicians do and what writers do is quite similar. It’s entertainment, it’s for fun. You read a novel for fun. Magicians and writers use the same sorts of techniques. They tell a story and the trick doesn’t just happen.
How did you come up with the idea of writing a book in an epistolary structure?
Because it’s set in Victorian times. However, the thing about the epistolary novel is completely unrealistic. People are sort of running away from vampires. It’s ridiculous.
I find Nikola Tesla to be one of the most intriguing and exciting characters in The Prestige. Why did you decide to mix fictional characters with real historical figures?
Well… When I wrote the book he wasn’t very well known. He became much more popular because of my book. There is a car in America called the Tesla and I’m sure it came up five years after the film. The thing about Tesla is that he was a mad genius. With science fiction you have mad professors and mad scientists, and he was that, he was mad. He invented alternating current. Before this, there was only direct current, and direct current is much weaker. In New York when they built skyscrapers they couldn’t put light in it because it was too weak. So what they had to do was to build transformers.
He also invented the electric chair…
Yes, to kill people and do a lot of mad things. His greatest invention was an electrical transmitter. The idea was a big globe used to transmit electricity so anywhere in the world you could get it. He was a great friend of Frank R. Paul, who illustrated many of the first Science-Fiction magazines. They all have big globes on them and that’s Tesla’s. This was a great idea but you have to have 400 dams and 6000 coalmines all working at once to do it and it wouldn’t be powerful enough to power mobile phones. It’s a good idea but it didn’t work.
How was the process since you finished your novel until the day that Nolan said: “Yes, I’ll do it”?
Well, the book came out and you know… First of all, a guy in Hollywood got interested, but when I typed his name on IMDb I discovered he only had one previous credit and that was as a costume designer in a gay porn film and I thought: “That’s not a very big job” [Laugh]. So anyway... As a result of that my agent got interested and started sending this around and I think I got a review in Entertainment Weekly and they gave it a very good review. At that point I started sending this to Steven Spielberg, not personally, but I sent all these books, hundreds of them, and I had to pay for all. It was terrible! And I kept saying “I hope one day they buy the fucking thing!” Anyway, in the end, I got three offers. The first was from Channel 4, a British company. It’s kind of good, but they had no money. The attractive thing there was that they’d do the movie straight away. Then, the second was from Sam Mendes and he’d just made American Beauty, which I thought it was a great movie and it was nominee for seven Oscars. And in the end I had an offer from Nolan. I thought: “Mendes is the one, obviously”. But next day a motorbike came to the house and brought me a VHS of Following and they put a note that said “Before you decide, look at this film and imagine what this young man could do with a big studio behind him”. I thought he had an interesting imagination. I always believed in encouraging young talent and so I sold it to Nolan. My agent said: “I think you are wrong now, but in the end you‘ll be right”.
Actually, Nolan and you seem to have a strong connection in terms of topics. Both of you talk about memory, perception of reality... I agree he seems to be the right guy for this movie.
At the time. He’s made too many Batman films…
You don’t like his later films?
Crap! Inception is one of the worse films ever made. Terrible! He’s got this sort of gimmicking; even The Dark Knight. The whole of Gotham is covered by mobile phones. He got kooky! [Laugh]. What an asshole! Batman films are so bad! So Bad! Memento is excellent, The Prestige gets better and better over time and I think Following is good. I think these are the three best films.
But if you remember, in Following the main character has a Batman sign in his room so the fact that he’s made the Batman trilogy is not completely strange…
I guess he likes superheroes.
Why didn’t you write the screenplay for The Prestige?
Me? Because Jonathan Nolan wanted to write it and he’d written Memento. He could do it!
I find The Prestige to be a little steampunk. Are you comfortable with this tag?
Hum… It’s not really steampunk. It’s Victorian. It is the Tesla thing. Tesla had 35 patterns that never were built and they’ve never been opened because the Tesla family has been told they are secret, but for a writer this is fabulous. And I thought why not? And that’s where that came from. And I suppose the steampunk thing is related to this.
Do you want to collaborate with Nolan again in the future?
What do you think about another movie that came up more or less at the same time than The Prestige? It was called The Illusionist.
I didn’t like that. I thought it was a fake. It looks beautiful and the photography was beautiful but the story was stupid. Also, The Prestige is the only book where magic is rational and has a scientific explanation. Tesla’s science is explained; it’s not supernatural. And every other magic film you’ve ever seen has this extra quality: “It may be real…”, and the plot setup in The Illusionist… No way.
Another film director you are connected with is David Cronenberg, for whom you adapted his movie eXistenZ into a book. Why?
Because they offered me money to do it.
Did you like the movie?
No. I like Cronenberg, but I thought it was… The thing was I had just written a book called The Extremes, which is about virtual reality, and I was offered the film eXistenZ, with a very similar title and also about virtual reality, but his virtual reality was basically about a guy going to a Chinese diner. OK, what else are you going to do? I thought it was lacking of ideas. It was just a job.
You were asked to write a couple of Doctor Who episodes, but in the end they didn’t accept them. Can you talk a little about this experience?
Hum… Not really… I did it because Douglas Adams was the script editor and I was working with him, but then he left the show and the people to cover him weren’t really happy. He was a great guy. It was bad period… The producer [John Nathan-Turner] created this sort of power illusion that he was sort of a God on Doctor Who. It was awful and he was so vain. So they didn’t produce the scripts and I lost interest.
You have twins in real life and some of your books are about twins. Did your own children inspire you as a writer to explore this topic?
It’s true, The Prestige and The Separation are both about twins, but I wrote The Prestige before they were born and The Separation after.
You write more science fiction than fantasy and horror, genres that tend to go together. Do you prefer SF to the other two?
I don’t like fantasy. The Illusionist is fantasy; The Prestige is science fiction. Science fiction is essentially rational. This is boring, but I take it very seriously. However, I think the fantastic metaphor is the engine of literature. I think all the great books in the past have this sort of quality and, science fiction, the American genre, is kind of cheap and very commercial, and I’m too serious for that! [Laugh]. I really believe that we should be writing fantastic literature and not science fiction.
You said before that you like to encourage young talent so which new science fiction or fantasy writers do you like?
Joe Abercrombie [he points towards him, sitting at a bench thirty meters away]. Have you met him yet? There is also a very good young writer in Britain, Sam Thompson. He has just had his first novel published. He is brilliant. He’s a nice young guy, about 26. He’s very modest, he’s very serious, and he can be huge. There’s also a young woman called Emma J. Swift. She is a science fiction writer and she’s doing really well and again she’s very serious and she’ll get it in the end. Seriousness is the key. If you are serious you can have fun; if you are not serious it is so trivial.
You were also part of the Jury in the 2004 Sitges International Film Festival. How was that?
At first I hated it. I didn’t know anybody, in that sense it was very badly organized. I got there; I had my hotel and went to see movies. I did this for two weeks and then I met the rest of the jury and we started working together and then it got more interesting. Then I met John Landis, who received the honorific prize, but wasn’t part of the main panel. He made An American Werewolf in London and Blues Brothers 2000. Anyway, he is completely knowledgeable about Hollywood. He knows every director, every actor and every writer. What he doesn’t know about films doesn’t happen. So we hung out for two weeks and it was really fun.
You also wrote the script for the upcoming film The Stooge. Can you talk to me about it?
It’s still going on. Initially it was going to be a twenty-minute short film to go to film festivals. It’s very simple: it’s about magic. You know, a lot of magic tricks work by having a stooge in the audience who is actually employed and this is about a guy who gets the job as a stooge. That’s how it started, but now that the producers have had it for a couple of years, they’re having trouble raising money because everyone was saying they wanted it to be a feature so we are thinking about doing it in the long form. But it takes so long...
Any future projects you want to talk about?
I have a new novel called The Adjacent that’s out in England. It’s a serious novel [Laugh]. I also have another film coming out based on my book, The Glamour. It’s a great book, it’s terrific, about invisible people! It’s the power of invisibility and that’s why it’s called The Glamour. The idea is that these people are completely real, in every sense: they are solid, they wear clothes... He’s on that bench [He points at a bench] but you can’t see him and the reason you can’t see him is because he’s very boring [Laugh]. He doesn’t like it, he wants us to see him but he doesn’t know how. He’s got bad teeth because he can’t go to the dentist and he carries pills because he can’t go to the doctor, he has to sleep in department stores where there is a bed, he steals food all the time... So it’s a story about a young woman who is being drowned into that world and a young man who is right on the edge of it, half invisible, half not…
How do you film someone who is invisible?
It’s impossible to film. It’s been talked about for ages and all sort of directors got involved. One wanted to make this film with Christopher Walken and Barbara Streisand [He winces] Anyway… Now there’s a young British director, Gerald McMorrow, who’s made a film called Franklyn. It’s a science fiction film and it was like discovering Nolan; full of imagination, full of good writing… very literate. It had a lot of very interesting sets, a lot of it looks like Blade Runner and I wrote to him and I said: “I wrote The Prestige, I really liked Franklyn, we have to get together.” So we got together. We signed a contract about a month ago, we got some producers and at the moment the movie is in preproduction. I look forward to it. It’ll be quite interesting, a properly budgeted full-scale movie, but it won’t be like The Prestige.
- Interview with George R.R. Martin (A Song of Ice and Fire).
- Interview with Patrick Rothfuss (The Kingkiller Chronicle).
- Interview with Neil Gaiman (American Gods).
- Interview with Brandon Sanderson (Mistborn)
- Interview with Tim Powers (The Anubis Gates).
- Interview with Joe Abercrombie (The First Law series).
- Interview with Steven Erikson (Malazan Book of the Fallen).
- Interview with Adrian Tchaikovsky (Shadows of the Apt).
- Interview with Dmitry Glukhovsky (Metro 2033).
- Interview with Lisa Tuttle (Windhaven).
- Interview with David Simon (The Wire).
- Interview with Christopher Priest (The Prestige).
- Interview with Ian Watson (Artificial Intelligence).
- Interview with Robert J. Sawyer (FlashForward).