Lee Wochner: Writer. Director. Writing instructor. Thinker about things.


The Prestige of being Priest

The other night my son Lex and I went to see “The Prestige,” which we enjoyed greatly. On the way to the movie, I said to him, “It was written by Christopher Priest, a comic-book writer.” I recounted for him some of Priest’s comic books, most notably Black Panther.

When the credits rolled on the movie, I was surprised to see that Priest had not in fact written the script; rather, the film is based on the novel by Christopher Priest. Hm. I didn’t know that he was a novelist, but he most certainly was a scriptwriter, so why hadn’t he scripted it? And when had he become a novelist?

At home, still puzzling this over, I jumped on the internet and found Priest’s website. The site seems equally devoted to three areas: comic books, beautiful nude black women, and a religion he has joined. I share his interest in two of these things and, because my tastes are catholic I am completely nondenominational. It doesn’t matter if you’re focusing on Marvel or DC, or Asian or caucasian or Latino, etc. They all have their place.

(And I’m sure that right now every friend I have is clicking through to that website.)

In reading Priest’s lengthy bio, which stretches back into the 1970’s at Marvel, I started to feel that something was odd. After all, who was Christopher Priest? In my mind he was a guy who had started writing comics just over 10 years ago — that’s when I first noticed him anyway, and I’ve been reading Marvel comics since Stan Lee was personally writing them. How could he have been writing all these Marvel comics without my having noticed?

Then I come to this paragraph: “It was about this time Jim Owsley became Christopher Priest. He never discusses the true reasons behind his name change, but insists every story you may have heard about it is absolutely true.”

Then, after Googling “Owsley changes name to Priest,” I discovered that there was another Christopher Priest, also a writer, and also a writer in genre (science fiction). I read a bit about the controversy, then found this, from a guest-of-honor speech to WorldCon in August, 2005, written by the “original” Christopher Priest:

A few years ago I discovered that a young comics writer called James Owsley had changed his name to mine. It was a deliberate act, and he knew of my existence. The only reason he’s ever given in public for this irrational act is his belief that the name “Christopher Priest” is cool. In fact, he said “co-o-ol.” At first I thought it was a joke, then I thought it must be an error, and then at last I thought it was time for me to do something. When I contacted his publisher, an Owsley enthusiast called Brian Augustyn, I was told that the decision was made. It wouldn’t now be reversed, and it was “Chris”‘s inalienable right to call himself anything he liked. I should, in fact, praise the Lord for the good fortune of being born with such a co-o-ol name. When I pointed out, with good reason, that the worlds of science fiction and comics are perilously close to each other, and often confused with each other in the minds of certain people, I was told that the sheer excellence of Chris’s writing would permanently set him apart from everyone else. Including, presumably, me.

Since then, “Chris” and I have been regularly and routinely muddled up with each other. Enter my name in Amazon.com and you’ll see what I mean. A search in Google, or any other search engine, produces the same result. I often receive e-mails intended for him — I assume he often receives mine.

So without much effort this impostor has been not only irritating but seriously annoying. For several years I tried to take a tolerant, amused line on the problem, thinking that he’d get tired of the gag after a bit, but he shows no sign of it. Now, twice in the last twelve months, I have heard comments that publishers have had unpleasant experiences working with “Christopher Priest” and don’t want to work with “me” again. So as well as him being irritating and annoying, his professional incompetence is damaging me.

I’m not amused any more. My message is this. If you hear my name mentioned in any context, please remember what I’ve said and ask yourself if you’re sure which one of us it is. Beyond that, if anyone here has the least influence on him, please use it.

I don’t bear him any ill-will. All I want him to do is change his name back. He’s done it once, so there’s no great difficulty in doing it again. In fact, I suggested this during my conversation with his publisher. I even proposed a new by-line for him. I said, “Why doesn’t he call himself … ‘Harlan Ellison’?”

Mr Augustyn said, “That’s not a co-o-ol name.”

Then I went to bed.

In the morning, wanting to learn a bit more about “The Prestige,” I dropped “Christopher Priest” into Google again and found this site. And as soon as the photo of a blue-eyed white man came up, I finally discovered that “The Prestige” was written not by the comic-book writer but was based upon a novel by the British author — and that said British author is entirely correct: People are going to confuse the two of them. I had — for days.

The photo on the left of the comic-book writer Christopher Priest is the only one I can find on the web. The photo on the right of the rather haunted-looking Christopher Priest is liberally applied — perhaps in an effort to distinguish himself from the other Christopher Priest.

If you were a somewhat unknown writer who had struggled all his life to make a name for himself and had lately seen it coming to fruition, gaining guest of honor status at the world’s foremost science fiction convention, having your novel turned into a film as good as “The Prestige,” how would it feel to find yourself being confused with another genre writer who had taken the same name as you, and seemingly while knowing of your existence?

Years ago I discovered another Lee Wochner on the web. This Lee Wochner was Leland P. Wochner, he lived in Illinois, he was 70 years old — and he was a plumber. Not a writer. I remember the relief in discovering this.

3 Responses to “The Prestige of being Priest”

  1. Chris Priest Says:

    It’s the real Chris Priest here, the one who wrote The Prestige.

    Thanks for what you said, Lee. Briefly my position on this annoying subject has not shifted since my worldcon speech last year, but if anything I feel less amused, more likely to get the gloves off. I believe that since 1994, when I first became aware of Owsley’s activities, I have always been patient, tolerant and reasonable. But those gentler instincts are fading fast, simply because Owsley has never responded to patience, tolerance or reasonableness.

    The situation is that Owsley knowingly stole my name. He had no good reason to do so. Although he was offered every opportunity to change it back, he never did so. At first I chose not to believe the egotistical argument that he was trying to trade on my good name, cash in on what success I have found in four decades of professional writing, pass himself off as me, take credit for my books … but having exhausted every other possibility, that’s the only one that’s left. He’s content to let people think he writes my books.

    In his defence I’ve never read anything of his where he claims outright to be me, but a dozen years of silence on this subject amount to the same thing. It obviously suits him and his secondrate writing career to sit by in silence and let people make the same mistake you made.

    Since the movie of The Prestige has been released, it is even more in his selfish interests to continue to let people go on making the mistake. Chris Nolan’s film is a brilliant piece of work, breaks a lot of new ground, and is certain to enjoy great success. How pleasant for Mr Owsley that thousands or millions of people will think he wrote the original novel on which everything in the film is based! Think of the professional opportunities that might follow! Think of the kudos!

    Until (a) Owsley makes a public proclamation that he is NOT the author of my novel or any other of my books, and (b) even more important, changes his name back to what it used to be, he should be criticized publicly and held up to contempt.

    I’ve tried to make the facts as public as possible over the years, without wanting to create an unpleasant situation. Your summary is an honest account of what I have always most feared … so I assume that thousands of other people are at this moment making the same assumptions as you. Understandably, on the realization that they wouldn’t have the same motivation, most of those people are not going to go the extra mile to find out the truth.

    I’d be grateful to anyone reading Lee’s blog, who sympathizes with this unlooked-for and downright annoying problem, who would make their feelings known as widely as possible.

    By the way, I strenuously resist the idea that that photograph makes me look “haunted”! It was taken a couple of years ago at a festival in France, but slightly too early in the morning for my liking. I’d been up half the night before. I think “hungover” might be more apt.


  2. Rich Roesberg Says:

    Has anyone pointed this problem out to Marvel Comics (and Movies) ((and Merchandise)). I would think that they’d want to avoid any negative publicity connected with the situation and would take steps to resolve it themselves.

    Plus, I guess I’ll have to stop using the name Lee Wochner on all that internet porn I’ve been writing.

  3. Rodney Hobbs Says:

    Hey Lee (if this IS the REAL Lee Wochner who teaches at Moving Arts)!

    This is Rodney J. Hobbs, Terence Anthony’s frequent play-reader. Just writing to let you know that I enjoyed this well-written article very much. And I’m especially impressed that the novelist actually responded! How cool is he???

    It’s interesting that writers don’t have a registration process like the Screen Actors Guild so that this “identity theft” can’t happen. I think that would piss me off, to say the least, if there was another actor with my name out there.

    BTW, great work on “Orlando’s Joint”! Enjoyed working with you.

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