Tim Powers has won the World Fantasy Award twice now, for LAST CALL and DECLARE, the Philip K. Dick award twice for THE ANUBIS GATES and DINNER AT DEVIANT’S PALACE, and has multiple Nebula award nominations.
Tim Powers has always been one of my favorite authors. I look forward to every new release and move it to the top of my “Must Read” pile. My wife likes his work too, and turned him into a piece of dryer lint art which Tim purchased and now has hanging on his wall. (No, I’m serious — check out my wife’s page at www.HeidiHooper.com).
I met Tim at a convention a while ago and now it gives me great pleasure to be interviewing him.
MICHAEL A. VENTRELLA: Tim, one of my favorite books of yours is the pirate novel ON STRANGER TIDES. Let’s start with the big news then: How did this end up as the fourth Pirates of the Carribean film?
TIM POWERS: Disney optioned the book a couple of years ago for a projected fourth Pirates movie, and now it seems likely that the movie will happen! I imagine it’s the Fountain of Youth element in the book that they mainly want to use, but I haven’t talked to the script writers or anything, so I’m only guessing. In any case, I’m very pleased with this new attention being paid to a book I wrote 23 years ago!
VENTRELLA: Are you worried that the book may change too much upon being transferred into a film with already established characters? Do you have any say in this?
POWERS: No, I have no say in it, and that’s okay with me. I never feel that a movie must accurately reflect a book it’s based on — look at “Bladerunner”, or “To Have and Have Not”! Both were great books made into great movies, and the movies had very little to do with the original books. And obviously this movie can’t be based at all closely on the book, since the movie is using characters that are already separately established. I mainly want to be surprised when I see the movie!
VENTRELLA: Is it true that you get to have a cameo?
POWERS: No, that was an internet rumor. I’ve often said that if anybody were to make a movie of one of my books, I’d have three non-negotiable demands: (1.) That my wife and I get parts as extras in some crowd scene; (2.) That we get a free lunch from the catering truck; and (3.) that we get six of those cool jackets they make for the crew, with the movie logo on the back. This was, though, a joke!
VENTRELLA: Most of your novels follow a technique unusual for other writers, in that you take items from real history and find ways to make them interconnect in magical and fantastic ways that cause a reader to say “Aha! That makes perfect sense now!” when in fact it’s just make believe. How did this style come to being?
POWERS: Back in the mid-’70s, Roger Elwood proposed a series of books in which King Arthur was reincarnated at various points in history to save Western civilization. K. W. Jeter and Ray Nelson and I signed up to write these books, and I drew three places in history: 1529 (the Siege of Vienna), 1650 and 1810. Elwood’s project collapsed, which was just as well, but by then I had noticed the virtues of historical fiction! Such as — you get your exotic world ready-made, with its geography & maps, climate, government, currency, cuisine, mythology –! Even a lot of usable characters and events come with the package, all free. All you’ve got to do is look at the settings and the events and figure out a story that could be woven among them without knocking anything over. Find the inexplicable bits and connect the dots. It’s much easier than making up a consistent other-world, and I like to think it makes the supernatural developments more plausible, since they occur in places and among people that the reader has actually heard of.
VENTRELLA: Do you look for the connection first, or do you read a lot of history and biography and then see what jumps out at you?
POWERS: I approach it sort of like a paranoid detective. I read heaps of biographies and journals and whatnot, and my attention is polarized to look for things that don’t fit — which any biography has. And I ask myself, “Aha! What was really going on there?” And I make it a rule that nothing is a coincidence — if Keats did something on the same day that the King of Prussia did something, they’re secretly connected. And as I look for clues to the secret back-story, I eventually come up with one!
VENTRELLA: Has it ever not worked? Have you ever decided “You know, I’d love to do a book about X” and then after research, determined there wasn’t enough there?
POWERS: Not so far! I think anybody’s biography — Louisa May Alcott, Beatrix Potter — if it was thorough enough, could provide this sort of clues, this sort of evidence of a secret supernatural real story. Of course I’ve got to let the clues dictate it — it might turn out to involve vampires, or ghosts, or werewolves, or anything. If the research is going that way, I let my story go that way too.
VENTRELLA: What do you think of Dan Brown’s work? Do you think he is just copying your style, but not as well?
POWERS: Well I doubt that he’s copying me! That is, I doubt he’s read my books. But if I were ever (per impossibile) to collaborate with him, I’d tell him, “No, our made-up history has to be plausible enough to at least stand up to a quick search in the Encyclopedia Britannica!”
VENTRELLA: What gave you the idea for THREE DAYS TO NEVER?
POWERS: It started with me noticing that, in all the photographs of Albert Einstein, his hair was white after 1928. So I wondered what had happened to him in that year — the biographies said he had some sort of stroke, or heart attack, or seizure, but I thought, “I wonder what really happened?’ So I started reading all the biographies of him, which led me to histories of Israel, and Charlie Chaplin, and Kaballah, and God knows what-all else. And of course at every turn I found odd details that couldn’t entirely be explained. One significant thing was this “maschinchen” or “little machine” that Einstein was working on for years; I eventually concluded that it must have been a time machine.
VENTRELLA: Were you a Chaplin fan before that? Or was it just research that led you to including him in?
POWERS: I wasn’t really a Chaplin fan, before I had to research him! Now I love his movies, especially “City Lights” and “Modern Times” and “The Kid.” Eventually I realized that the reason I had thought I didn’t like Chaplin was because I connected him with people like Lucille Ball and Carol Burnett doing imitations of him. Hardly fair.
VENTRELLA: You’ve commented before that you dislike it when authors try too hard to give messages or when readers try to read too much into the work. Have you been the victim of this, and how do you counter it?
POWERS: If people claim to find themes or messages in my books, that’s okay with me, as long as it’s nothing nasty. There may, for all I know, be themes and messages in them! But certainly I don’t have “things to say” in my stories — any themes that may show up are from my subconscious, not from any deliberate intention of my own.
VENTRELLA: What do you know now about the publishing industry that you wish you had known when you first started out?
POWERS: Oh — hard to say. My first publisher, Laser Books, surprised me by re-writing bits in my books, but nobody’s done that since. Really I haven’t learned anything that would have made me behave differently if I’d known it from the start! I guess I have no real complaints!
VENTRELLA: What sort of advice would you give an aspiring writer that you wish someone had given you?
POWERS: Finish what you start, don’t do dozens of unconnected “Chapter Ones” that extend for only a couple of pages each. That’s kind of obvious, I know, but you specified what I could have benefited from hearing. To aspiring writres in general, I guess I’d say — read a whole lot, and not just in the field you want to write in and not just in the century or centuries you’ve lived in; and try to ditch your reflexive 2009 mind-set when you’re reading the old stuff. Don’t be cynical or ironic or tongue-in-cheek or Post Modern — that is, take your characters and their concerns at least as seriously as you take the elements in your own life. Don’t fret about the fact that your first drafts are dumb; they’re supposed to be. Print your stories out in the correct format and send them to editors — and start with the best publishers and magazines, don’t anticipate disappointment by starting with the lower ranks. Don’t self-publish.
VENTRELLA: And finally, what work would you like most to outlast you? What do you want to be remembered by?
POWERS: Oh gee — I suppose ANUBIS GATES or LAST CALL or DECLARE! I think those are my best. After I’m dead I won’t care, of course, but there’s something charming about the idea of somebody a hundred years from now finding a book of mine in a junk store and enjoying it, and trying to find more!