Christopher Priest, the mind behind the incredibly complex novel "The Prestige" that became a movie from Christopher Nolan, has a new book out. It's called "The Adjacent." It's a timeline-crossing story about a photographer in the future, a magician during World War I, and theoretical physicist in the present day. It's complex and dense, and should easily be worth your time.
To mark the occasion of the new book, the author agreed to answer a few questions for me. We talked about his interest in magicians, "The Prestige," and his terrible experience with "Doctor Who."
Big Shiny Robot! What started your fascination with magicians?
Christopher Priest: Nothing special at first. When I was a child I liked watching magic on TV, but then so did a lot of other people. Somebody gave me a how-to book on magic (which I still have), but I read it with only mild interest. Fast-forward a few decades ... I began thinking about a possible story which would involve a magician doing a trick so baffling that other magicians could not see how it was done. From that I thought of a second magician, driven by curiosity to mad rivalry. The problem was that I had no idea what sort of illusion might produce this response. The book I had been given as a child was full of simple tricks with playing cards and metal rings, so that was no good. I began to explore, research, read other books, look into the subject in a serious way. I soon began to learn about the complexity of the world of magicians, the traditions they have, the techniques they use. That was interesting in itself, but for me the story really only came to life when I realized that a magical illusion is structured rather like fiction. The techniques magicians use are not all that different from those of a novelist developing a plot. From that point I had a central metaphor.
BSR!: How do you approach juggling timelines in your prose?How do you keep them straight and know what to bring to the reader and when?
CP: I believe I actually think like that. I can foresee the shape of a novel as I write, with the various diversions already in mind. I rarely know the details of a plot, but I do sense its shape, the way it will begin, the way it will probably end (but never quite sure of that until I get there) and the way it will proceed (no detailed idea at all). The technical answer is that I write more than one draft. I keep a printed copy of the first draft, then working from that (and not the computer file) I rewrite the whole thing, from beginning to end. I never use copy/paste. I do it the hard way. Sometimes I will even do it all over again. I recommend this method to anyone who will listen, but few seem to think the extra drudgery is worth it. They’re wrong. It makes all the difference.
BSR!: What sparked your journey towards writing "The Adjacent?"
CP: It was the discovery that during the First World War the British were experimenting with methods of camouflaging their warplanes. This had never been done before, so they had to invent the methods from scratch. One idea they had was to put lights on the leading edge of the wings, to distract the enemy into briefly thinking the aircraft were somewhere else. It was never tried in practice (the pilots vetoed it), but it was an intriguing idea. My novel grew from there.
BSR!: You're the inspiration for what is perhaps Christopher Nolan's best film, but as the author seeing your story changed, what is that experience like?
CP: I agree with you about Nolan’s film of "The Prestige," although I think "Memento" is slightly better. (I don’t like his other films.) The experience of seeing the process take place is much as you probably imagine it. Watching the completed film for the first time I had a sense of familiarity and strangeness: the lines of dialogue were close to what I had written, but I couldn’t remember if they were exactly the same, or different. I never quite threw off this impression. I admired the film, but I was also critical of some of the changes. I thought the ending was weak (and still do). Since then, my opinion has shifted, and I think more highly of the film. As time passes it looks more and more like a minor classic. I see the changes as necessary in the transition from book to film, I think there are some scenes which are pure and brilliant, and overall I think it is a considerable piece of film-making. However, the ending still lets it down. He blew it.
BSR!: You had been approached to do some episodes of Doctor Who, if they came back to you now, would you do it? It seems like it would be a perfect fit. I
CP: would not go near the programme again. The BBC does not have sufficient power of persuasion (or enough cash) to tempt me anywhere near it. It was one of the most unpleasant writing experiences of my career. I wrote two four-part stories, but ran up against a producer who was vain, power-mad and in general incompetent. The story frame was ad hoc and implausible and constantly being changed, sometimes on the whim of an actor, the special effects were childish, they used women actors like adjuncts of the men, the sets looked bad – the whole thing was done on the cheap. (This was three and a half decades ago, remember. It's better now.) I only became involved because I was friendly with Douglas Adams. Douglas was fun to work with, but he left the show to become famous not long after I started. After that it was a grim battle all the way. In the end I received a formal apology from the BBC for the way I had been treated.