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The Interrogation

an interview with Christopher Priest

by Nick Gevers


Born in 1943, Christopher Priest is reckoned amongst the finest authors yet to emerge from British SF. His early novels, Indoctrinaire (1970) and Fugue for a Darkening Island (1972), along with his first collection, Real-Time World (1974), were bleakly experimental, and competent enough in those terms; but his eminence was truly confirmed with the appearance of Inverted World (1974), an astonishing vision of cultural isolation and altered physics, and The Space Machine (1976), a complex tribute to H G Wells and one of the first significant steampunk novels. Thereafter, remaining faithful to the ambitious formal and thematic agendas that underpinned the SF of the New Wave period, Priest produced work that was less and less recognizable as genre fiction. A Dream of Wessex (1977) specifically portrayed SF's imagined futures as artifacts of solipsism; the Dream Archipelago tales in An Infinite Summer (1979), later revised and consolidated in The Dream Archipelago (1999), with still greater resonance classified the secondary worlds of fantastic literature as oneirisms, glimpses into inner space. By the time The Affirmation, the climax of the Archipelago sequence, was published in 1981, Priest was a major writer straddling SF and the more innovative The Glamourreaches of mainstream literary fiction.

His later novels have borne out fully the promise of that combined stance, amounting to SF and Fantasy written with all the technical resources of the mainstream. The Glamour (1984) is a penetrating, and masterfully ambiguous, summation of the causes and mechanics of the secret history; The Quiet Woman (1990) is a thoughtful near-future dystopia; The Prestige (1995), which won the James Tait Black Memorial Prize, is an historical fantasy whose twin narratives interleave with the fabulous intricacy of the stage magics they describe; The Extremes (1998) is an intellectually and viscerally gripping thriller delineating the interface between virtual reality and violence. And now Priest has produced perhaps his most accomplished work yet, The Separation, published by Scribner UK in August 2002. A masterpiece of alternate history, setting out the possibilities for peace and war that competed for existence in 1941 in the aftermath of the Battle of Britain, this novel is a triumph of narrative art and historical speculation.

I interviewed Christopher Priest by e-mail in August 2002, with an emphasis on his recent writings.


NG: Contemplating your total oeuvre, there is a decided shift from your early SF writing to your later, more consciously mainstream, literary output. Yet all your "non-genre" books operate from recognisably science-fictional or supernatural premises. Are you still at root an SF and Fantasy writer?

CP: Let's get something straight from the outset. I know I probably brought it on myself in the first place, but this idea of my having consciously gone over to "mainstream literary output" is not true. My approach to writing hasn't changed in the last thirty years. Obviously, anyone can make whatever they like of the stuff they see published, say it is this or that, give it a label.

But I would argue that in one special sense the books represent the visible tip of a kind of long-term argument. It's an essentially friendly argument I've been having with colleagues in the SF world, other writers, critics, readers. I once characterised it as a family disagreement amongst people who understood each other rather too well. It's about how science fiction should be written, what we should be doing with the stuff.

I began writing in the belief that the essence of science fiction (and incidentally of much of great literature too) was the speculative or visionary metaphor, handled seriously, tackled without compromise, but presented in an entertaining, realistic or readable manner. It's a prescription that governs all the great examples of science fiction. It's what got me going, what made me want to be a writer.

The problem is that that was in the mid-1960s. Since then, the images and ideas of SF have been comprehensively sold out to commercial interests, to TV and movies, to computer games and advertising, to soft-brained sagas and trilogies and series and sequels. Many of my contemporaries have given in to this pressure; many of the new writers obviously accept it as the norm. I've met young writers who have declared that selling Star Wars or Star Trek tie-ins is a way in to the writing of legitimate SF. The typical SF shelf in most bookshops is now crammed with these undemanding TV or film tie-ins, along with paranoid androids, heroic trilogies or larky fantasies. The serious kind of SF has become marginalised.

I feel I have carried on in the way I started: I've now published eleven novels, all different from each other, none of them a sequel to any of the others, all of them with an original idea and based ultimately, as you say, on recognisable SF premises. I see each of them as an attempt to write traditional SF in a new or challenging way, the best I was capable of at the time I wrote it. I always assumed this was what the writers I admired were doing.

Now things have in general moved so far to the right wing of commercial opportunism that I'm viewed as a kind of would-be posh outsider. But in fact I see myself working within a clear and even conservative tradition created by Wells, Dick, Pohl, Sheckley, Aldiss, Ballard, Le Guin, Sladek, Wyndham.

I know I'm always being misunderstood on this subject, but it's really only here, in somewhere like Interzone, within the family, that I can speak plainly about it. I don't expect anyone to agree with me, but I want to get it out of the way.

NG: Virtually all your mature work is deeply concerned with issues of identity (thus recurrent doppelgangers) and memory (thus your extensive use of confessional narrative forms). Why this emphasis on the dubiety of the Self and the unreliability of recollection?

CP: They're all subjects that interest me, although I'm a bit dubious about dubiety.

On the unreliability of recollection. All fiction is set in the past. It's a narrative form, based on storytelling.

In our everyday lives stories are invariably misremembered. Anyone can try it: repeat a story you were told the other day, or describe something that happened to you last week. You never get it completely right: you have to improvise a little, blur details you can't quite recall, add a few twiddly bits for emphasis -- in short you make fiction of it. So the unreliability of memory is intrinsic to narrative, to fiction, and is therefore a principal subject for a modern novelist. The past is always uncertain.

NG: You are an acknowledged master of narrative structure: your complex novelistic threads of character and meaning always seem choreographed to perfection, ultimately converging with the force of revelation. By what stages has your command of literary architecture evolved?

CP: I think I'm probably getting better at it as I go along, so I assume the answer to this question is simply that I keep trying.

My first attempt to employ something like structure Inverted World and Fugue for a Darkening Island omnibuswas when I was writing Inverted World. I managed things so that the climactic scene, the revelation of the state of the world, came almost exactly halfway through ... a rising highpoint, like the poles of that world.

Narrative structure interests me, because it seems widely misunderstood. For me, much of the challenge of writing a novel these days is bound up with the structure. I see it as something that should ideally be invisible to the reader, in the way that anything made well does its job without drawing attention to how it's done.

I wouldn't want to give the impression that literary structure is something that interests me more than (say) drawing characters or setting a scene. I bang on about structure in particular because you don't hear much about it from other writers and a lot of people don't understand it. It's certainly something few editors seem to grasp.

NG: Your most recent collection, The Dream Archipelago, together with an additional long story, "The Discharge" (on Sci Fiction), bears an intriguing relation to your early masterpiece, The Affirmation. In that novel, the "Dream Archipelago" was essentially metaphoric, a reflection of a disturbed contemporary individual's psychological crisis; yet in the story cycle, the islands are quite concrete, a harrowing secondary world. Why does the dream become tangible between one book and the other?

CP: The Dream Archipelago stories are an attempt to deal with various odd obsessions and phobias that seem to haunt or interest me.

The AffirmationYou're right: the islands are essentially metaphoric in The Affirmation ... but the "concrete" descriptions in the short stories are also metaphoric. They have to be, don't they? It's just a question of emphasis. Look at the realist tradition in theatre, for instance.

Part of my long argument with the SF "family" concerns the dangers of taking things too literally. All fiction is metaphor. None of it is real. This is why SF novels shouldn't have glossaries of invented words, why fantasy shouldn't be published with a map showing where the bloody swamp is situated. Readers seem to want these things, but the writers should resist temptation. Dumbing down invariably follows. Once you try to make literal that which is metaphoric, the metaphor dies. If you can't write a novel without the glossary or the map, then you're making a pig's ear of it.

NG: The endless war raging in the world of the Dream Archipelago is a savage and meaningless one, a fact especially clear in "The Discharge". Did this imaginary conflict help draw your thoughts to The Second World War, subject of your new novel The Separation?

CP: The straightforward answer to your question is: No, I don't see that thematic link between the Dream Archipelago stories and WW2.The Separation

When I began the Archipelago stories, the war background to the stories was my reaction to "proxy" wars: the way the superpowers would try out their new weapons and techniques in smaller, local wars. Ever since the end of WW2, war has been a constant feature in the life of the world: I read once that something like 140 different wars have been fought since 1945, most of them directly or indirectly sponsored by the big countries. (The number has undoubtedly increased since I learned that depressing fact.)

World War Two is a different matter: it was a conflict of global proportions, in which the superpowers were fully involved and committed. It had a drastic impact on the lives of millions of people, with a less dire but just as dramatic effect on millions of others. (In 1940, my father and elder sister were strafed by a German plane in Woking, Surrey; a few weeks later my father happened to be in Coventry on the night it was destroyed.) I was born while the war was going on, although I have no reliable memories of any of it. I grew up in the immediate post-war world.

All through my life WW2 has been lurking behind me, and I knew that in the end I should have to find a way of writing about it.

NG: In your very helpful bibliographic essay on the research that went into The Separation (online at, you indicate your sources at length. You've described your long-standing urge to deal with this subject, but in summary: in a novel arguing a pacifist thesis, why World War Two? Why the Blitz and Britain's retaliatory raids on Germany? Why not, say, the First World War, which more observers, along with you, would agree was unnecessary, militarism gone mad?

CP: As a writer I respond to the imaginative impulse. In imaginative terms, the First World War seems to me to be ground so well trodden that there is almost nothing there for me.

When I was young I read some of the memoirs of the war (Sassoon, Graves, etc.), mainly to find out what had gone on. Through those books I discovered the poetry. I was shocked and moved by the poetry. I felt then, and still feel now, that it would be inappropriate to try to write something from my nice safe position some sixty or eighty years after the events.

It's a genuine dilemma for a writer, because even superficial enquiry into that war reveals horrors on such a scale, militarism gone mad, as you say, that somehow you feel you have no right to call yourself a writer unless you attempt to tackle those subjects. But then you look more closely. How could someone like me presume to improve on Wilfred Owen's "Anthem for Doomed Youth"? How could you dare? How could you deal imaginatively with those experiences today, without getting your emotions from the local Oxfam shop?

World War Two is a different matter. For one thing, many of the people who took part in it are still alive. Physical traces remain everywhere, even in central London. Two or three years ago I noticed that some buildings in Stuttgart were peppered with bullet holes; bomb damage caused by the RAF can still be seen all over Leipzig. Much of the political situation that exists today (for instance in the Middle East) can be traced directly to events in the war. The uniforms that people wore, the planes they flew, the ships they sailed, the homes they lived in, were not all that different from ours today. In addition, I had personal links: where and when I was born, what had happened to my family during the war, what the world was like in which I grew up.

And from the point of view of an imaginative writer seeking a theme, WW2 is still rich in possibilities. Many secrets remain; much is unexplained; people still have things to hide. That's how I came across the story of Rudolf Hess. It's a terrific mystery, hushed up by Churchill and the Soviets, a political hot potato, full of fabulous stuff for a novelist to look at.

(There's information about the Hess mystery on my website, if people want to explore some of the fascinating books on the subject.)

NG: The counterfactual development at the heart of The Separation, peace between Britain and Nazi Germany in 1941, is an historical alternative a lot of people would consider nightmarish, the triumph of appeasement; yet you seem somewhat to approve of it. Wouldn't this "premature" peace simply have aggravated the horrors of Nazism, transferred suffering from the British to others? A Nazi-dominated Europe through the late Forties and Fifties ...

CP: Well, The Separation is a book of ideas, with no particular agenda to pursue, other than my own general anti-war sentiments.

The so-called appeasers in the British government of the 1930s were all veterans of the First World War, who had seen the horrors at first hand and who were determined that nothing like that must ever happen again. To me, that's an honourable instinct, not a despicable one. Appeasement only became discredited after it failed, after war broke out, after Churchill took over. History is written by the victors, and history is now against appeasement.

As a novelist, I don't give a stuff about historical consensus. I took the pacifist point of view that maybe there was, after all, something to appeasement.

NG: You do seem to assume that Nazism would in time have faded away of its own accord, much as Communism was to do, hardly needing a globally destructive War to bring it down. In your view, was Nazism's fundamental shallowness, its self-indulgent vulgarity and barbarity (well exhibited in The Separation in the figure of Rudolf Hess) evidence that it was simply a psychopathic flash in the pan?

CP: Yes. For the novel I worked with the idea that a Nazi government was inherently unstable, and that Hitler, without a war against Britain to sustain his position, would have been overthrown. Germany's true enemy was perceived by many Nazis, including Hitler himself, to be Soviet Russia.

This comes into The Separation and to a large extent it is borne out by the historical record. All through the war there were various attempts on Hitler's life, and covert approaches for peace talks with Britain were made surprisingly often. Much of this has been kept under wraps, for some reason.

NG: The Separation is rather serious in tone, but an "extract" from the famously rancid memoirs of Goebbels provides some hilarious light relief at an unexpected point. Is the extract entirely, or largely, genuine? How acute an observer do you think Goebbels was?

CP: I made it all up, but I pastiched Goebbels's style as closely as possible. When you read Goebbels you have to put aside many of your normal expectations of a book and remain as open-minded as possible. In the context of the senior Nazis, Goebbels was easily one of the most interesting, although also one of the nastiest. He wrote thousands of pages of diaries, and lies and exaggerations and distortions can be found on almost every one. Yet his atrocious attitudes, his bullying, his self-delusions, do make remarkably entertaining reading ... a quality I set out to capture in that imaginary extract. He's also brilliant on unexpected but sly observations, and odd but unverifiable facts. You can't trust a word he writes.

I wouldn't recommend his Diaries to anyone, but if you must read any of the Nazi literature, Goebbels is where to start. He's a sort of alternative history all on his own.

NG: Your characterisation of Winston Churchill is highly intriguing, a mixture of dislike and admiration in the minds of your narrators generating a balanced, well-nuanced portrait. Do you see Churchill as a brilliant opportunist? Or a person of principle? It's interesting how, in making peace with Hess, he seems simultaneously to yield nothing ...

CP: I was brought up by parents who worshipped Churchill. Like so many others of their generation, they had come through the war and felt that Churchill had saved the country. As a child growing up in a country that thought it had "won the war", and as someone who hadn't been involved, I couldn't dissent from this but I held no strong views. I have always admired Churchill's speeches, for instance. They still have the capacity to stir me.

Then in the early 1970s I read The People's War by Angus Calder, in which Calder described Churchill as an "utterly egregious man". I have to admit this shocked me, but it made me want to know more about Churchill. He was indeed a political opportunist, a warmonger, a troublemaker, a strikebreaker, an empire conservative, a self-publicist, a drunkard and much more. But he was a compassionate man, he was brave, he had a sense of humour, he was ineradicably a brilliant war leader, his speeches can stop you dead in your tracks ... and he wrote some of the finest English of the last century.

One of the challenges of writing The Separation was to try to convey some of this, to show how Churchill, acting within character, could conceivably have done an about-face and made a deal with Germany.

NG: Again on Churchill: I wondered to what extent he had ultimately planned all the events of the novel ...

CP: That's getting a bit convoluted, even for me.

NG: Your protagonists in The Separation, the twin Sawyer brothers, begin as Olympic rowers, moving in harmony down the stream of time, only to diverge; and historical paths diverge with them. In the same manner as the decisions of Churchill and Hess, do you see the actions of obscure individuals as crucial to macro-historical outcomes?

CP: That's partly what the novel is about, of course. World War Two was fought for the most part by obscure or ordinary people. Many of them survived the war, and a considerable number of those survivors wrote books about their experiences. WW2 was populated by air-gunners, sappers, naval lieutenants, radio operators, nurses, dive-bomber pilots, air-raid wardens ... many of them published their memoirs later.

These vernacular accounts, usually written in plain and unpretentious language, are rich in experience, emotion and graphic detail. Writers like Jack Currie, Russell Braddon, Don Charlwood and Richard Hillary are all but unknown these days, but their books are gripping and moving, in some ways equal to the trench poetry of the First World War.

NG: Do Jack and Joe Sawyer -- the dashing bomber pilot, and the troubled pacifist -- represent different elements of Englishness, the balanced halves of a national character?

CP: I didn't see them that way. Characters in my books are usually intended to stand only for themselves, not to carry symbolic baggage too.

Of course, in times of war men and women do emerge who become seen as representing some kind of ideal. In WW2, people like Vera Lynn, Erwin Rommel, George Patton, Joseph Goebbels, William Joyce, Claude Eatherly and Winston Churchill fulfilled this role.

NG: Elements of autobiography in fiction: The Separation concerns identical twins, and you have twin children. Any connection between the two circumstances?

CP: Just a happy coincidence. My kids are fraternal twins, i.e. non-identical brother and sister. I had been planning The Prestige for a long time before they came along, and it was with that book that I started getting interested in twins. I dedicated the book to the children, but by then they were already five or six.

NG: In your alternate timeline, the Third Reich allows some Jews to escape to Madagascar (as was indeed proposed at one stage in our history); the state established there, Masada, seems to share the political and military dilemmas of contemporary Israel. And your parallel Europe of 1999 isn't that different from the one we know. In some ways, do even the most radical separations end in convergence?

CP: The Madagascar Plan has a vestige of historical respectability, in that it stems from the Germany of Bismarck's time. It was an idea for solving the Jewish "problem". That is, all the Jews in the world would be moved to Madagascar and left there. This has the same kind of ruthless thinking behind it as the Holocaust we know, but it does at least have the advantage that no genocide would have taken place. Winston Churchill, as an historian, would have been both attracted and repelled by the idea. What he is quoted as saying about it in The Separation is my own invention, but I believe it represents his actual views.

Madagascar (or the Republic of Masada, as I have it in the novel) is depicted as a secular Jewish state, roughly comparable to the Israel of our own world. It has become by the present day a democratic and civilised place, but one with many serious internal and external problems. I suppose you could say that this similarity to the modern state of Israel suggests there is a momentum to historical events that leads to convergence. But I don't see convergence as inevitable. In The Separation, the USA goes off in an entirely different direction, for instance, and the Soviet Union is dismantled.

NG: Having now published a major alternate history novel, or uchronia, or counterfactual: do you see The Separation as a book fundamentally different from the SF genre's alternate histories, in form and intent?

CP: This takes us back to what I was saying at the beginning. All my novels have the same sort of starting-line: a standard or conventional SF riff, given a new treatment.

Almost all "alternative histories" in the SF genre deal with results. History is said to have taken a different course, so that the present day we discover through the fiction seems subtly (or not so subtly) different. The Spanish Armada landed, Queen Victoria was assassinated, the South won the American Civil War, Napoleon prevailed, the Reformation didn't take place ... and so on.

In The Separation I wanted to try something new: to examine not the results, but the process by which a "separation" of the historical ways might actually have taken place.

The novel concentrates on the six months of the autumn and winter of 1940/41, during which a number of small, subtle changes of direction become apparent. I wanted to show that these changes could themselves be brought about not by big decisions or grand actions, but by more human things: by forgetfulness, jealousy, muddles, a confusion about identity, getting things wrong, a bump on the head, an intrusive neighbour, a borrowed motorbike. Other great events are going on at the same time -- the Blitz on British cities, the war in North Africa, the fall of Greece and the Balkans, the peace mission of Rudolf Hess -- but in a sense they are irrelevant, as are the political and social results in the present day. I was more interested in working out which of the two brothers was going to bed the girl.

If all that makes the book fundamentally different from other genre books, then that's OK by me. I've never seen the point in going over old ground. For instance, it's thirty-five years since Pavane appeared. That's a novel that still has the capacity to thrill me. I re-read it just after Keith Roberts died and found it as marvellous as I remembered. Pavane defines and in a sense finalises uchronia, because Keith did it better than anyone else, before or since. Because of that book, and a few of the others, alternative history is no longer a fruitful field in which to work. If you're not prepared to churn out glib rewrites of different bits of history (which is basically all that's left for others by books like Pavane), then you either have to leave uchronia alone or find a new way in which to address the form.

NG: Finally: what's next for you? Is the shape of your next novel apparent as yet?

CP: I'm currently recharging batteries, as they say, a tired old U-Boat bobbing up to the surface for a breath of fresh air. The Separation took a total of four years, of which two and a half years were spent actively researching or writing it.

I'm working gently on a new Dream Archipelago story at the moment. I've also started thinking about a new novel, with a theme so vast I keep hiding from it. At this general stage of planning a novel, sheer fright of an idea is a real experience for me. Only gradually does a writable book start emerging from the terror.

© Nick Gevers 2002, 2003
This interview
was first published in Interzone, October 2002, and was shortlisted for a 2003 British Science Fiction Award.
The Separation cover

The Separation (2002) is published in the UK by Scribner.

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