Tim Powers Interview
Posted: Mar-10-2015 at 9:28am
An Interview with Tim Powers
by Ken Rand
Note up front that Tim Powers speaks ironic with the same fluency that he writes fantasy. Note too that, when speaking, he never tells you when he switches from the serious to the not-quite-so (although the occasional laugh might be a hint; listen for it). If you misplace the border between irony and fantasy, you're on you own. You Have Been Warned.
Powers says he knows exactly why he writes--and why not. "Ultimately," he says, "the motivation to write is not to improve people, it's not to educate readers, it's not to change their minds about anything, or call their attention to some oppressed population. I think ultimately the main reason to write is to show off, so that when people come over to your house, you can say, 'Why don't you move that crap so you can sit down? It's copies of my new novel.' At that point, you've accomplished what you became a writer for."
No, you don't clean up for company. "You leave it out," Powers says. "That's the whole point. You're not getting the reward if you're not leaving these things underfoot."
There are other rewards for writing. "They pay you, of course," Powers says, "but the other things, I think they all could be boiled down to showing off. You want people to think you're more intelligent than you actually are, better read than you actually are, funnier than you actually are."
Powers got hooked on writing when he was about six. "I read a book called Timothy Turtle [by Alice V. Davis, Harcourt, 1940]," he recalls, "in which this turtle winds up tipped over on its back and all his animal friends have to tip him back upright again. I remember thinking 'The coolest thing a person could do would be to write these things.' I suppose I've just stuck with that ever since. It would be very cool to be a pope, president, astronaut--but the coolest thing would be to be a writer. And I've done that."
Science fiction hit Powers soon after. "A big thing at age eleven was my mom giving me a copy of Heinlein's Red Planet, and that polarized me for life, really. I'm still polarized from that. By that I mean, rotated forever in pointing in one direction, that direction being science fiction-fantasy. I don't actually read all that much of it anymore, but anything I write inevitably is going to be science fiction-fantasy. It imprinted too hard back then."
Powers attended his first science fiction convention in 1971. "I've been consistently going to conventions ever since," he says. "Even before that, I had poems in Jack Chalker's fanzine Mirage and drawings and limericks in George Scither's Amra. Excellent fanzine. I'm a fanboy myself when it comes to all this stuff."
By the time he was 20, in 1972, Powers was "already totally under the spell" of Fritz Leiber, Theodore Sturgeon, Lovecraft, Heinlein, "and I'd already been getting stories rejected for years."
In 1972, while a student at Cal State, Fullerton, he met Philip K. Dick. "Phil Dick was the first working writer I knew," Powers says. "Luckily when I met him, I hadn't read any of his books yet, so I was not speechless with awe as I would have been if I'd read him. So I was able to chat normally; and then gradually, one book at a time, I would start reading his stuff and have to kind of squint sideways at him and think 'Geez, this guy's a genius!' But since it was only one book at a time, it didn't render me mute.
"He was an influence, certainly. Effective scary stuff. Effective characters. The fact that characters have ordinary lives and have to have jobs. These were certainly things I picked up from him."
Dick died in 1982.
That year, Powers also met James Blaylock. "We had a friend in common and she said, 'Let me introduce you to this guy, Blaylock, who is also trying to be a writer.' When I first saw Blaylock, he looked all wrong to me for trying to be a writer because he was obviously some kind of surfer guy, which in fact he was. He didn't come to this through science fiction-fantasy the way I had; he came through Mark Twain, Robert Lewis Stevenson--William Gerhardy, of all the obscure writers. But we both did arrive at the same sort of thing and we were collaborating on stuff real early--and still do."
K.W. Jeter also arrived on the scene in 1972. Powers recalls: "Somebody had sent Phil Dick a copy of Jeter's Doctor Adder and Phil was impressed with it. Very soon, Jeter had sold a novel, which was just dazzling for us. And he told us that it was a brand new company, that they were hungry. They paid very little. There wasn't likely to be dangerous competition as there would be if we tried Ace or Putnam or something.
"So we scrambled and sent portions and outlines to Laser Books. Blaylock got rejected because Roger Elwood said he thought Blaylock was making fun of him, but I managed to sell two novels to Elwood before Laser Books collapsed."
The first novel was The Skies Discrowned (1976). "That was before I figured out that you should have titles that people can understand. People would say 'This Guy's The Ground?'"
The second was Epitaph in Rust (also 1976). "Then Laser Books folded," Powers recalls, "and all of us were thrown right back into the cold pool pretty much in the same state we'd been before we'd sold at Laser Books; Laser was not a real prestigious thing to have on your track record."
Powers says, while Jeter has gone his own way, he and Blaylock are almost a collaborative team to this day. "We've always read each other's stuff and commented on it and collaborated. We have a very similar perspective all together, cumulatively. Jeter has not always lived in comfortable proximity to Blaylock and me so we haven't consistently seen him as much over the years as we see each other.
"I don't know where Jeter's influences are from. He has a kind of a bleak pessimism to his writing that I'm not easily able to track. I don't think Blaylock and I have that."
Perhaps the most significant writer to emerge from that portentous year, 1972--more than Powers or Blaylock or Jeter--maybe more than Dick--is William Ashbless.
"Ashbless will probably outlive us all," Powers says. "It's fun to google William Ashbless; there's just hundreds of things." (I just googled William Ashbless and got 1340 hits.)
Who is William Ashbless? Powers explains: "Blaylock and I decided in college that the poetry that the college paper was printing was so stupid that we could write totally meaningless but kind of heavy-sounding portentous poetry and that they'd publish it. I'd write a line and pass it to Blaylock and he'd write a line below that and pass it back and we'd simply pass the paper back and forth till we got toward the bottom of the page at which point, whoever's turn it was would bring the thing to a heavy close. The paper printed it.
"So ever since then, every time we've needed some kind of crazy, bearded poet in our books, we've always used the name William Ashbless. In fact, now, I just use the name Ashbless like a good luck charm. I just think it would be bad luck at this point to have a book without Ashbless in it somewhere."
While he writes fantasy, Powers asserts that a firm grounding in real science is important, "and it might be some kind of requirement. I don't think being a fantasy writer is an excuse for, for example, not know why there's two high tides a day in spite of the fact that the moon's overhead once a day. I think if you have an invisible man who can see, you should realize you've got a problem there logically.
"And I don't think the mere fact of writing fantasy excuses you from knowing these things, on the one hand. On the other hand, knowing something about science--for me, it's really hardly more than having read all of Asimov's "Fantasy and Science Fiction" columns on science--gives you gorgeous ideas. If you're trying to think up magical effects, then looking at actual, real, truly occurring effects, such as photosynthesis, or what did vacuum tubes do in radios and how do silicon chips do it now--it can give you gorgeous stuff for fantasy. Of course, you don't have to have understood it perfectly, because after all, you're talking about ghosts."
To describe Powers as a research junkie is not an overstatement. "I do have to do a heap of research," he says, "because, if, for example, I decide that this Kim Philby character--who was in British secret service in the '40s and '50s--that he'd be a good figure to hang a book on; well, all right. You'd have to read a bunch of biographies on him, then you've got to read a bunch of books about the secret service then, and England then, and it branches out very rapidly. His father was a noted Arabist and so I had to read about his father and then about Arabs and then about Islam and then the Empty
Quarter in Saudi Arabia and Kuwait and airplanes at the time. There's just no end of possible research and there's hardly any end, it seems like, of minimally necessary research.
"I have to stop myself after about a year. You think, 'That's enough. Are you ever going to write a book?' But I need to do it because--say I've read all that stuff. What I'm looking for in all of it is things that are too cool not to use. And obviously, if you read a whole bunch of the stuff, you're bound to find things that are too cool not to use in a book you're intending to write. If I can find 12 or 15 things that are too cool not to use, then by definition, I've got 12 or 15 things that are going to be in my book.
"And therefore, all I've really got to do is arrange them in the right order and connect the dots and I will wind up, God willing, with the outline of a plot and I didn't make anything up; I simply selected and arranged.
"Now, of course, when it gets down to plot details, you find you do have to make some stuff up, but to the biggest extent possible, I try to get all of my stuff from the actual research."
Powers says he spends more time doing research than writing, "because if I get the research all theoretically finished, and then arrange the plot elements, add more to fill it out, make a totally thorough outline which leaves the absolute minimum possible to chance, at that point, writing the book seems like the easy part at the end. You'd think: 'Whew! God, that was hard. I'm glad that all that's left now is just to write the damn thing.'"
Powers also teaches a lot. "I'm teaching at a high school with Blaylock," he says, "which is fascinating. Last semester, I was teaching at the University of Redlands; I may be again next semester--part time, you know. At least it's an entertaining sort of job. I mean, I could be washing cars."
Powers travels some three or four weekends a year. An upcoming trip: Israel, possibly, in October. "Theoretically," he says, "I'm going to be a guest of honor at a convention there; we're still kind of figuring it out. But that would be terrific. It's kind of weird; the book I'm writing right now involves Israel but I'll be done with it before I go to Israel, which is a bad arrangement of things."
Does Powers rewrite a lot? It depends. "If I still have it," he says, "I rewrite it. Once I've sent it off, I don't much. Generally, even after I send it off, a few months later the editor will send it back and say, 'Do you really think these last three chapters are as good as they could be?' and I'll say, "Oh, gee, no. Sorry. Of course not.' And I'll fix them up.
"But that's so consistent in fact that a lot of times, I don't wait for the editor. I'll let a couple of weeks or a month go by, look at those last three chapters unprompted, and find that they need rewriting."
Powers writes to contract-imposed deadlines. He says it helps, but he admits that he's often late delivering the book. "And the editor will yell at you at conventions--actually editors only gently scold. But guilt certainly is a valuable thing. In fact, if it weren't for guilt, I wouldn't get anything done. I don't think I'd get out of bed in the morning if it wasn't for guilt. I like to think I work more from the authority of guilt and fear."
Powers fans, take note: Tachyon Publications is scheduled to publish Strange Itineraries, a collection of his complete short stories, in July.
Of his next novel, Powers says "I have sworn will be finished by the end of this summer--it really, really should be.
"It takes place in 1987, the year of the Harmonic Convergence, and it has to do with consequences of Albert Einstein having lived in Pasadena in the winters in the early 30s. I say that he left stuff there that in '97 becomes important. Several crowds are trying to get his stuff and our poor hero is in the middle of it without knowing what's going on and so forth. And it will involve Israel."
William Ashbless--at least his name--will appear.
The possibility that Hollywood will one day make a movie of one of Powers' books continues. Anubis Gate (Ace, 1984) Last Call (Perennial, 1996) and Declare (HarperTorch, 2002) have been optioned.
"I think they're all lapsed at the moment," Powers says. "But I'm always grateful to those people for the time they keep it on option. I figure they have vast idealism and optimism. They're looking forward to an actual movie occurring and I'm content with simply the option occurring."
Some writers fret over the "Hollywoodization" of their work. Powers doesn't. "I would be happy with whatever they did," he says. "They could tell me, 'Powers, we're going to do Last Call but instead of a 40-year-old male protagonist, it's going to be a nine-year-old girl. Instead of Las Vegas, it's going to be Atlantic City. Instead of poker it's going to be--' I'd say, 'Don't even tell me. I don't care. Do whatever you want. It's yours now. Don't--not that I imagine you're doing this--but don't trouble yourselves worrying about how this will strike Powers.'
"I always think of something James Cain is supposed to have said. Somebody once asked him, 'Mr. Cain, what do you think if what Hollywood has done with your books?' And he pointed at the bookshelf and said, 'They haven't done anything to them. Look.'
"If somebody was to propose making a movie of one of my books, I'd say, 'I have three non-negotiable demands. This is my book. If it wasn't for my creativity, we wouldn't be having this conversation. Therefore I feel free to demand the following three things, which are not negotiable. If you make those jackets for the crew with the logo of the movie on the back, I get six and Serena and I get to have a free lunch at the commissary and, if there's a big crowd scene, Serena and I get to be in it.' After that, I don't care.
"That would be totally fulfilling. And then of course if they happen to make a good movie too, that would just be gravy. But I'd have those jackets."
If you're unacquainted with Powers' body of work, he suggests you consider starting "objectively speaking" with Anubis Gate. "That seems to be the one people like best, cumulatively," he says, "so I would trust them and say probably that's a good place to start. And after that, I'd just say, 'Well, here's one about poker in Las Vegas and tarot cards [Last Call]. Here's one about Soviet and British spies and genies [Declare]. Here's one about pirates and voodoo [On Stranger Tides]. Pick whichever flavor looks like the most fun."
Powers personal favorite is Declare "just because it's the most recent. As my books get older, I look at them and see stuff I should have done differently which I was not able to see at the time I wrote it. And it's been so recent really with Declare that I still am not able to see any things I should have done differently. Five years, ten years from now, I probably will. But right now, I just think--unimprovable. I know that in fact as they recede, you notice some kinks and dents and patches where the wall doesn't meet the ground and things like that."
Still, Powers is fully aware that, for writers, there's always something more to learn. "The one nice thing about all of this is it doesn't hold still," he says. "I think whether we write it or read it, it takes enough sharp curves to kind of keep us awake, keep us from subsiding into senility--at least keep us from doing it as rapidly as we otherwise would."
And the best way to learn what's next? Powers says, write what's next. "It's always the case that you think, 'I should try to do this. Let's see if that is possible.' Because, after all, the previous ones can still be consulted. It's not like we're working live on stage with no cameras where you had to be there. The old stuff is still there, consultable, and so if we kind of try something new over here and it's a total failure, at least those old things are still there."
How would Powers like to be remembered a hundred years from now? "For one thing," he says, "it won't matter to me at all. I'll be dead. But if I could somehow be a ghost haunting bookstores--I suppose it would be nice if people would read my stuff and think, 'I bet he was an interesting guy. It's too bad I can't have a beer with him.' Which is what I think about dead writers whose stuff I read. Such as Lovecraft. Well, of course, Lovecraft wouldn't have wanted to have a beer with me, but I hope he would have been happy to have a coffee with me. Yeah, that would be a nice thing."
Finally, Powers offers these words for SFReader.com readers: "I'd like you to know that if you would like to find the sources where Powers scavenged the good stuff that is in his books--hoping that you'll grant that there's some good stuff in there--I'd say don't miss John LeCarre's Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy and Lud-in-the-Mist by Hope Mirrlees and Pervan by Keith Roberts [Tim, I couldn't find this. Where did I go wrong?]. These are great books that I'm always afraid are going to get kind of buried under the dust; that people won't go look at them and notice how terrific they are."
copyright © 2005, Ken Rand
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