Interview about The Prestige

[interview by Don Iffergrin]

DI: Let’s start with some facts. When did you write The Prestige, and when was it published?

CP: I delivered the manuscript to my British publishers at the beginning of 1995. They published it in September that year. It came out in the USA in 1996. In the years that followed the book has sold steadily to translation markets — I think we’re up to over 20 different languages now.

DI: Where does the title of The Prestige come from?

CP: I was thinking of writing a thematic sequel to my novel The Glamour (published in 1984), and thought that “prestige” had a lot of possibilities. However, when I noticed its closeness to the magicians’ word “prestidigitation” (sleight of hand) I realized it would make a perfect title for the book I was then planning. This sort of coincidence is always valuable to a novelist.

DI: But “prestige” is a word magicians have used for centuries.

CP: Not for centuries. According to the Shorter Oxford, from about 1881 … which is roughly when the novel is set. The world of magic is not particularly word-driven, so few magicians actually used ‘prestige’ to describe what they do, but I gather since the book came out, and latterly the film, it has come back into use in some quarters.

DI: The Prestige seems to have a lot of real people appearing as characters.

CP: Most of them are brief mentions, names of real magicians from that period: David Devant, John Henry Anderson, Nevil Maskelyne, and so on. There are only two significant characters who are real. Nikola Tesla is of course one of them. The other is Robert Noonan, who appears near the beginning. Noonan was the real name of “Robert Tressell”, one of the most celebrated former residents of Hastings. (But not for being a painter and decorator, as described!)

DI: And Ching Ling Foo. He was real — why didn’t you mention his bullet-catching trick?

CP: Because he didn’t perform it. That was his imitator, the American magician William Ellsworth Robinson. Ching Ling Foo was a real Chinese; ‘Chung Ling Soo’ was a nom de théâtre adopted by Robinson. (For several years Ching and Chung conducted a public feud, not unlike the one between Borden and Angier in the novel.) It was Chung Ling Soo who performed the bullet trick, although he did not invent it. He died in 1918 at a performance in Wood Green, London, when the gimmicked rifle developed a fault and a real bullet was accidentally fired.

DI: You’ve said that it was Ching who gave you the idea for the novel.

CP: Only incidentally. I was already thinking the novel out when I came across the story of Ching’s lifelong obsessive secrecy. It changed nothing in the book, but confirmed that I was on the right track. Ching’s amazing story is told in the novel as an anecdote. It is also, remarkably, performed in the film.

DI: Yours must be the only book about magic that never mentions the trick where a woman is sawn in half.

CP: The novel ends in 1903. ‘Sawing a Woman in Two’ was invented by an illusionist called Selbit, and was not performed until 1921.

DI: Can you perform magic?

CP: No, I’m just a novelist. I don’t even know how most tricks are done — it’s all in the performance, because magical secrets are never that complex. At the risk of sounding pretentious, my main interest in stage magic is its metaphorical nature in relation to art. For instance, I’ve always been interested in misdirecting my readers in my novels, and magicians use techniques of misdirection that are similar. This isn’t sleight of hand: real misdirection is when the performer allows or encourages his audience to make assumptions about what they are seeing … or in my case, assumptions about what they are reading.

DI: Are you ever tempted to try your hand at a screenplay?

CP: I have a long-term project (i.e. I keep going back to it in odd moments) of  a screenplay based on an original idea, called Reck. No one has seen it yet, so I have to be circumspect. Like The Prestige, it’s set in the 19th century, and like The Prestige it describes a conflict between two men. There the similarities end! Reck involves mistaken identity, revenge, fallen women and the most interesting hollow statue in the world.

DI: What about your other books? Are there film interests in any of those? And which in your view would make the best movies?

CP: I have sold options in most of my books at different times, but The Prestige was the first to come to fruition. Fugue for a Darkening Island is presently being developed in Australia. The brilliant young British director, Gerald McMorrow, is currently working on an adaptation of The Glamour. If you’ve seen his debut feature Franklyn you might consider this to be a mouth-watering prospect — I do. My short story “The Sorting Out” was filmed two years ago by Caleb D. Shaffer, but it has only ever been shown on the festival circuit, so few people have seen it. It ran for about 20 minutes and they did a pretty good job with it, in my view. (An extract can be seen here.) I’m currently working on a stage adaptation (straight drama) of The Prestige.

[Interviewer Don Iffergrin can be contacted at:]