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A Quick Chat with Christopher Priest
An author interview by Graham Dickson

The Extremes
Christopher Priest
Simon & Schuster

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Christopher Priest is the author of ten novels and two collections of short stories. Picked as one of the Best of Young British Novelists in 1983 alongside Martin Amis, Julian Barnes etc. he has won both critical acclaim and numerous awards including the James Tait Black Memorial Prize for his novel The Prestige. His new novel The Extremes takes as its themes violence and the world of Virtual Reality. It is the story of Teresa, the widow of a FBI agent who was murdered by an out of control gunman on a killing spree in a small town in Texas. Discovering that a similar incident had happened on the same day in small English town she travels to England to try and find an explanation for what seems to have no explanation. She is then drawn into the world of Virtual Reality violence in the form of ‘ExEx’, a commercially available experience that soon takes over her life. The Richmond Review caught up with Christopher Priest as he was preparing to leave his home in Hastings for a family holiday to ask him about the background to the new novel.

Graham Dickson: One of the themes in The Extremes seems to be the effect violence has on the witnesses and their desire to make the past different. To what extent did your own experience of Hungerford make you want to write about this?

Christopher Priest: My own ‘experience’ of Hungerford was pretty marginal, and I’m not keen to depict myself as some kind of victim. It was partly that I was living near Hungerford at the time (in the same sort of large village as Hungerford), and partly that I happened to be driving through at just about the same time as Michael Ryan started killing people. (But I saw and heard nothing, and didn’t even sense there was anything wrong.) Probably more relevant were the feelings of shock and distress that many people all over the country went through afterwards. I have no special claim on those, either. But it all amounted to something I wanted to write about.

GD: Did you have worries or inhibitions about writing events based on Hungerford? Why choose to do so now?

CP: Yes, many worries and numerous inhibitions. Why else did it take me more than ten years to get the novel written? Much of the problem was a feeling of presumption: who was I to ‘stake a claim’ in a human disaster like that, one in which I was involved in only the most peripheral way? And don’t mention Dunblane, which was in every way a worse outrage than Hungerford, and which happened just as I was about to start writing The Extremes. All my books are about distances, identities, memories… and I had to put a lot of distance between the reality of those appalling massacres and myself, to be able to write about the subject.

GD: In the book reality differs from the ExEx partly in that has no ‘edge’. It goes on forever. Is that idea important to you?

CP: In metaphorical terms you can compare the structure of the ExEx process to the way digital computers organize their data. Everything in a computer is contained in separately identified files. Some are contiguous, some overlap, some are copies of others … but they all have separate and separately labelled identities. Reality isn’t as neat or as compartmentalized as this. When computers were ‘analogue’, they approximated reality much more … I’ve always regretted they never caught on, technologically, like digital computers. But then, I regret the loss of Direct Current, Betamax and the piston aircraft engine. Reality misremembers, writes things down wrong, is open to endless interpretation, happens to people, is multi-dimensional, and much else besides … none of this is true of virtual reality or any other kind of computer storage.

GD: How real is ExEx anyway and where did you hear about it?

CP: Um… I made it up.

GD: Are you, yourself, an internet addict?

CP: No, but I do use the internet.

GD: Would you like to see controls put on ‘extreme’ aspects of the internet or Virtual technology?

CP: That’s an interesting question to which I wish I knew the answer! The quick answer is no, since I’m generally opposed to censorship. An interesting rule of censorship is that the people who try hardest to ban things know least about them. For example: the calls for the film of Crash to be banned were led by people who hadn’t seen it, who didn’t want to see it, who weren’t regular cinemagoers, who didn’t understand film as an art, who didn’t know either Ballard’s or Cronenberg’s work, and who had nothing to go on apart from their prejudices. It’s been like this in almost every similar publicized case I’ve heard about. The same is closely true of the present ‘debate’ on freedoms within the internet. Most of the people who write about banning or restricting the internet are bibulous tabloid journalists who’ve been told about the pornography, or who have seen a couple of snapshot frames, and generalize from there. Meanwhile, the people who are actually working with the internet generally recognize its strengths and weaknesses and learn to use it for their own purposes. I think the real problem with the internet (as it presently exists) is that it allows the unselective dissemination of material on a vast and unprecedented scale. What could have been an invaluable research or information tool has become cluttered with garbage, much of it juvenile or exploitative or self-serving or just plain wrong. In the last couple of days I’ve seen a couple of remarks actually defending the indiscriminate nature of the internet. They said in effect that unselective data is itself a kind of reality, and should not be judged as a failure just because it isn’t as well organized or reliable as, say, a library. Well, that’s an interesting point, in fact it could turn out to be culturally paradigmatic, but it makes people like me regret that we still don’t have an effective, reliable, provenanced or democratic source of on-line information, and are never likely to have since all the priorities are elsewhere.

GD: Teresa discovers the extent people are inter-connected. Literally in the case of the ExEx. Does the idea of this scare you or make you happy?

CP: It’s the way of the world.

GD: Dangling in front of Amy [Teresa’s host in England] is the offer of a new life in Sydney. Beaches etc. Your idea of temptation?

CP: Oh yes. There’s a part of me that is definitely a would-be Australian! Some of the happiest weeks of my life have been spent in that marvellous country.

GD: Are you pleased with the way the book turned out?

CP: I’m quite pleased with the way it turned out, given that I’m never content with what I’ve written, and see in my books almost nothing but stuff that didn’t work as well as I planned, etc. It was a difficult and often frustrating book to write, but the last three or four months of the work were amongst the most enjoyable and productive I’ve had.

GD: Publicity duties. Pain or pleasure?

CP: A necessary evil. Not bad enough to be a pain … but certainly not a pleasure for someone like me. I cringe at the idea of self-promotion.

GD: You seem to have moved away from SF in your writing. Is this deliberate? Do you see your work as fitting into particular genres?

CP: A long time ago, in the mid-1970s or so, I tried to distance myself from the genre of sf writing, because it seemed to me at that time that orthodoxies were being set up. In particular, a number of high-profile films appeared which tended to confirm the uninformed image many people had of science fiction: wisecracking robots, flying saucers making contact, space wars, laser guns, and all that sort of easy-listening, brain-dead stuff. The only hope of a corrective to this was in the books then being published, but unfortunately sf writing was at that time going through a pretentious phase, and many of the high-profile books of the 1970s were dull, self-conscious and unimaginative. So you had two opposite extremes, neither of which I felt I had anything in common with. At the same time, it was all being taken seriously, some would say over-seriously, by the academic and media worlds. The effect was to make science fiction orthodox: safer, more understandable, more commercially identifiable. It wasn’t a temporary phase: the process has continued since. I believe books should be unorthodox. They should shake and upset people, undermine their understanding of the world, make them think about their own lives from a new perspective, give them a bit of uncertainty to gnaw away on. All the commercial pressures in science fiction make this kind of writing more or less impossible. I felt I was being forced to get out … or at least to get my books published without the label. However, with all that said, the kind of book I want to write has hardly changed at all, allowing for the fact I go on getting older, etc. Thirty years ago, when I started writing full-time, I would have said that I was writing science fiction (and to prove the point would hold up the stuff I was producing); now I would never say that (but would still hold up the stuff I was producing).

GD: You’ve written for TV and Radio and The Glamour was mentioned as a possible film. How does it compare to novel writing?

CP: I don’t enjoy it.

GD: When you were picked in 1983 for the Best of Young British Novelists what effect did it have on your career/income? What do you think of prizes in general?

CP: I don’t think the promotion you mention had any effect on my career as such, mainly because I’m not one of those people who think they have a career. Unless you mean the word ‘career’ in the sense of crashing along and colliding with things. It had no perceptible effect on my income; I remember in fact how ironic it felt to me to be picked out as one of this group of supposedly successful writers, and creatively I was in the doldrums and financially I was flat broke. My then publishers, Faber, cleverly remaindered all my books just before the promotion began, so they didn’t have anything of mine to sell, I’d had to give up the house I was living in, and I was borrowing money to stay alive. But two or three years later, when I sent in my next novel, I did find that people wanted to buy it, so I was able to change publishers.

GD: How has your work changed in 30 years? What are you most proud of?

CP: I’ve seen each of my books, in its day, as being a bit of an improvement on the one before. At least, that’s been the justification. I’ve never seen myself as a natural writer: it’s always been hard graft to me, and I feel I’m gradually improving. In this sense I’d say my latest book is the one I’m most ‘proud’ of. (Pride doesn’t come into it, actually. The wrong word.) But I realize this isn’t necessarily true, that the last isn’t necessarily the best. I’ve now written and published ten novels (that’s ten in thirty years, so the average gap is three years). If I discount The Extremes because it’s so new (I don’t know what to think of it ) I have a backlist of nine novels. They break down into three groups of three: three well intended failures (although for a different reason in each case), three books with a number of good bits and three that are OK (again for different reasons in each case). I’m not trying to start a guessing game about which is which, because what I think of the books is more or less irrelevant. Parents often love their spotty child best. I’ve always said that I’ll probably never write a single novel that completely satisfies me, or which is objectively a ‘great’ novel. When I began writing I had an idea that I wanted to produce a body of work that I could put my name to, one with good bits and highlights, but which should really be seen as a whole.

GD: What are you working on next?

CP: I’m currently finishing a revised collection of the ‘Dream Archipelago’ stories, which Earthlight will be publishing next year. After that… I don’t know yet. Another novel probably.

GD: Sometimes many years seem to go by between each book. So, do your books come easily or do you have to drag them out screaming?

CP: I think I got up to 5 years once. I’d write a novel a year if I could, I always intend to, I always try to. You can take it that they don’t come easy.

Copyright © 1998 Graham Dickson


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