|A Retreat from Reality|
|an article by Christopher Priest|
|courtesy of Time Warner Trade Publishing|
How does an experience turn into an idea for a novel? More to the point, since we have experiences all the time, how
does one particular incident select itself from the sludge of memory to make the transition? Sometimes you can trace
the process, perhaps instructively glimpsing the method. Here's something that happened to me.
About a decade ago I was living in a village called Pewsey, situated in countryside due west of London, about an hour and a half's drive from the capital. Pewsey is an unglamorous but livable place, surrounded by hills, farmland and high plains where the British army exercises. Stonehenge and Avebury Circle are in its vicinity. The area is reasonably close to the M4 motorway, which connects London and South Wales.
In those days I was running a tiny mail-order software business with David Langford. Once a week, to keep up with paperwork, I would drive over to Dave's house in Reading, about an hour away. The route I usually followed led me along a narrow road skirting the northern edge of Salisbury Plain, then joined the M4 motorway near Hungerford, a pretty riverside market town situated in a broad valley.
One hot day in August 1987 I was coming into Hungerford by the usual road, brain enjoyably disengaged and running in neutral. Traffic was light, the way was familiar. Hungerford is approached from the direction of Pewsey through open agricultural countryside, the edge of town making a sudden transition. The road slopes down through the houses, leading more or less immediately into the High Street.
As I drove towards the town that day I saw what I thought at first was a bright light in the sky, somewhere off to the right. When I looked directly at it I couldn't see it properly, while still being aware that it was there. It was distracting and puzzling. When I looked back at the road the light was shining again, nudging at the edge of vision.
I suffer from occasional attacks of migraine. As fellow-sufferers will know, the first sign of a migraine is often exactly this: an unseeable bright source off-centre of vision. When I realized what it might be I groaned to myself. It's almost impossible to drive with a full-blown migraine attack going on. I saw a place to stop on the side of the road and pulled over. I had to decide whether to drive on, or go home, or simply wait until it had passed.
I got out of the car and took stock. I was only a few hundred metres from Hungerford and I could see some of the larger buildings ahead. I felt no other symptoms of migraine, but the puzzle of the light remained. Although I could now look more or less directly at the point of light it was impossible to see what was causing it. In that part of the world you often see strange lights in the sky but they almost invariably turn out to be something to do with military exercises, up on Salisbury Plain.
The migraine, if that was what it had been, went no further and within a few more seconds the light too had disappeared. I mentally noted where it had been -- from where I was standing it appeared to be directly over a school building, away to the right on the edge of the town -- then I drove on.
The whole incident had lasted no more than a minute. I passed slowly through the centre of Hungerford -- traffic always gets delayed in the High Street -- and within a few more minutes I was speeding along the motorway and had forgotten all about it.
An hour and a half later my wife Leigh telephoned me at Dave Langford's place.
'When you come home this evening, drive the long way round,' she said. 'There's been a shooting in Hungerford and the town has been sealed off by the police. It's all over the news.'
The massacre at Hungerford was indeed all over the news that day, to the exclusion of almost anything else. The story travelled round the world. A dysfunctional young man called Michael Ryan had gone berserk with a Kalashnikov automatic rifle in the centre of town, shooting at anyone he saw. In the space of under an hour he had killed fourteen people, including several children, and badly wounded fifteen more. He was eventually cornered by the police, whereupon he shot himself. The final siege took place inside the school building I had happened to notice because it appeared to be beneath the light-source in the sky.
The fact that I had been there in Hungerford 'at the time' did not dawn on me straight away. The immensity of the disaster removed any notion that I might have been personally involved. It was a shattering event, because gun incidents of this kind are rare in Britain and they come as a shock. Guns are not routinely carried either by the police or by law-breakers. The shock was made more intense because of the type of place Hungerford is. It is in many ways a typical English country town, with hundreds of small and beautiful houses, most of them dating from the 19th century and before, there is a weekly market, an annual town festival, and many of the shops specialize in crafts, antiques or secondhand books. For the people who live in Hungerford there is a strong sense of community: afterwards, when the reckoning of the massacre began, it was found that just about everyone in the town had known the victims. The grief flooded the town.
Indeed, such was the suffering of those who really were there on the day that to me it felt impertinent even to think of myself in the same category. During my short drive down Hungerford High Street I had not been in any danger, I had not heard gunfire, I had not even sensed there was anything wrong, but when I checked the timings it was clear that Michael Ryan had already started his deadly adventure during the minutes I was passing through.
In his autobiography A Sort of Life (1971), the novelist Graham Greene describes a gruelling incident that took place while he was being treated for appendicitis in hospital. A ten-year-old boy was brought in with a broken leg; the parents were told they could go home, but shortly after they had left complications set in; the parents were summoned back; the boy died. While the other patients shut out the sounds of the mother's pitiful cries by listening to their radio headphones, Greene watched and listened. 'There is a splinter of ice in the heart of a writer,' he writes, chillingly. 'This was something which one day I might need.'
After Hungerford, a splinter of ice embedded itself in me and would not come out when I pulled at it.
Life went on. I continued to drive through Hungerford from time to time, but I did not dawdle and did not look around. Sometimes Leigh and I went shopping there, and we would hope not to see people in the streets whose faces might be familiar from some past TV news bulletin. Something terrible and tragic hovered over the little town. To be in Hungerford or anywhere near it was to learn what the aftermath of collective grief was like. In a word, numbness.
I hadn't much idea how I wanted to write about my marginal experience, but even so the compulsion to do so would not go away. All I had were vague thoughts about the feeling of unreality of it all, plus a worrying sense that the other events of that day had been so overshadowed by the massacre that a kind of collective amnesia existed. What else had gone on in the world on 19th August 1987?
While waiting for coherence I put thoughts of Hungerford as far to the back of my mind as possible and wrote my novel Une Femme Sans Histoires (The Quiet Woman) instead. Some time later I wrote The Prestige. Neither of these has anything remotely to do with killing sprees.
Years went by. Sometimes I am surprised by how slowly novels germinate. In this case, in addition to the usual difficulties of sloth I felt daunted by the problem of presumption.
In short, what right had I to use this unqualified disaster as the basis for a novel? My feelings of distress about what happened were no more acute than those of anyone else who hadn't been directly involved. Every time I was in Hungerford I went through such thoughts. The massacre was too personal to those directly affected, too inexplicable, too close to home in every sense. It wasn't, in Greene's phrase, something I might need.
Then there was the question of the gun agenda. Living in a country where there are few guns in private hands I have the luxury of not having to take a stand on the issue, pro or con. Gun control is of course an important issue in many countries, especially the USA, but in Britain it is not. We have anti-gun laws and on the whole these, together with a more general national disposition against the holding of private weapons, have ensured that a gun culture does not exist. Of course some people break the law, as some always will. At the time of the Hungerford massacre it was illegal for most people in Britain to own or carry most types of guns. Afterwards, in spite of the evidence that Michael Ryan was a one-off case, the anti-gun laws were tightened up. After the Dunblane shooting in 1996 the law was changed yet again, with the effect now that all guns -- including sporting weapons -- are banned.
Novelists require detachment, irony, a sense of the metaphoric, none of which was appropriate to writing about an event like Hungerford. More than this, my novels are not 'issue' novels. They are works of the imagination, usually concerned with the quality of memory, with questions of identity, twins and doubles, narrative unreliability. A novel which would directly confront the issue of gun control seemed like nothing I could ever write because I had never written like that. I doubted that I had anything to say that would be original or interesting.
Even so, thoughts of the novel persisted, even beginning to take shape as a story. The media dimension interested me, for instance: the way that other news had been effectively blacked out on the day. I wondered what it would mean if one of the other news stories that hadn't reached the British media on 19th August happened to be a similar gun-spree incident somewhere else. Maybe one that was itself so shocking that in its own country it wiped out, at least temporarily, local coverage of the Hungerford shooting. When it was eventually realized the two events were contemporaneous, were mirror images of each other, they would always be linked historically. Maybe they would have other similarities. The possibility of coincidence, the duality, began to make it feel more like one of my own subjects.
We eventually moved away from the Hungerford area and this helped detachment to develop. In the early 1990s I tried to tackle the story through a television script commissioned by the BBC. The idea of this was an exploration of the motives of a spree gunman, cast in the form of a psychological thriller. The central character was an FBI agent who came to Britain to investigate possible links between two outburst gun events that happened on the same day. The title I gave it was The Cull, which might suggest something of the way I was then thinking. In the end the BBC went off the idea and the script was never finished but the act of writing something down had helped shape a story at last around the event.
I took the work to my UK publishers and suggested a novel might lie therein. They agreed and we did a deal.
A few weeks later, on the day the contract arrived for signature, and a few minutes after I had mailed back the signed copies, a dysfunctional middle-aged man called Thomas Hamilton went into Dunblane Primary School and shot dead sixteen small children and their teacher.
By this time I had my own children. They were the same age as those murdered in Dunblane. That very week they had brought home their classroom photographs, teacher and small children saying 'cheese' to the camera in unison. Their innocent pictures looked to me almost identical to the tragic ones from Dunblane that were now on the front page of every newspaper.
What had long seemed a difficult novel to write now assumed the proportions of the impossible. On the one hand I felt besieged by the magnitude of outside events, on the other I was assailed by self-doubts. The thought of writing fiction that could be seen as an exploitation of tragedy was abhorrent to me. Every instinct in me wanted to drop the idea.
But Greene's splinter was still firmly embedded, and there was the small matter of a book contracted to a publisher.
In the short term I procrastinated, a common failing in some writers and certainly in me. Months later I did at last start work but the unfinished draft I produced was not a good one. I had approached it with the intention of 'novelizing' my own TV script, thinking that it would provide a start. My novels generally take on a life of their own once I get stuck into the work, and I thought and hoped that would happen again this time. In fact it didn't: the script of The Cull seemed synoptic and terse, lending itself not to expansion but to pages of padding. I broke off after several months of fruitless work and sought relief in writing instead a novel for children.
While I worked on that I would glance occasionally at the abandoned draft of the massacre novel. It always made me feel sick at heart to see it.
Again, though, the break brought a certain detachment. I was starting to forget the details of what had happened in Hungerford. The events had run through my mind so many times that I was no longer sure of the difference between what I knew had happened and what I thought had happened. This was to me a good sign. Unreliable memories can be more useful to a novelist than research, if you treat them the right way.
Then there was the FBI agent. A half-developed idea I'd had for the unfinished TV script was based on one of those trivial facts that embed themselves in your memory. I knew that the FBI use a kind of point-and-shoot arcade game to train its agents to respond to violent situations. It seemed to me that it would be only a short step from this to using a full virtual reality system. Although VR has become a familiar device in science fiction, the parallel between it and the numb sense of unreality I had detected in Hungerford gave the use of VR a metaphorical purpose.
But the final key to any novel is discovering the point where you can feel personally committed. In this case, my unique involvement in Hungerford on the day was a slim one: I had been momentarily distracted by the glimpse of a light.
It might have been a migraine attack, it might have been a military flare, I might have imagined the whole thing. Several people have assumed, when I've related the story, that I'm about to describe a UFO sighting or some such thing. I still believe something distracted me and I don't know what it was. But at the same time, just as important, I'm no longer even sure that anything at all actually happened.
The power of the mind to confabulate convincing memories from nothing is an astonishing and little understood phenomenon. Once again, uncertainty was my muse.
With the children's book completed, I went back to the novel. The first thing that changed was the title: now it was called The Extremes. Virtual reality is an extreme experience, which was my starting point. Freed of thoughts of a cull, of multiple murders, of attempting to find some kind of sane explanation for the cause of outburst murders, I began instead to imagine the inner world of a psychopath, to think about the edges of reality, the frailty of memory. The Extremes became a novel I was able to write.
In his autobiography, Graham Greene urges novelists to remain in ignorance of themselves and to forget easily. 'What a novelist forgets,' he says strikingly, 'is the compost of the imagination.'
Some events are harder than others to forget, and some should never be forgotten at all, but novelists are not historians and novels do not have to be literally true. Stepping back from reality, turning away from a blinding light, is one way of finding out how to write them.
This article first appeared in the Spring 1999 issue of the SFWA Bulletin (#141).
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