Interview: Tim Powers
by Andrew Brooks
Review by Andrew Brooks
SFRev.com Interview ISBN/ITEM#: INTTimPowers
Date: 26 November 2007
Links: Review: Three Days to Never /
Tim Powers: Well, they were all consequences of researching my original subject, which was Einstein! Einstein turned out to have several connections with Chaplin, so I had to read all about Chaplin -- and Einstein was a passionate supporter of Israel, so I wound up reading about the Mossad on one hand and Kabbalah on the other, and Einstein was forever messing with this invention of his, his "maschinchen," and it didn't seem like too long a jump to say it had to do with time travel! And of course I was fascinated to read about Einstein's mysterious first child, his daughter Lieserl who disappears from history at about the age of one. In real life I imagine she died about then, but for fiction I naturally decided she lived on, though secretly. I figured she would have accompanied Einstein on his exile from Europe, so Shakespeare's "The Tempest" occurred to me as a parallel -- and I wanted her to be still alive, or at least only recently dead, at the beginning of my story, so the year of the Harmonic Convergence seemed like a good year for the story to happen in. These connections always look natural to me when I stumble across them!
SFRevu: To those unfamiliar with your works, you research extensively before deciding what exactly the story is going to be about. What were you researching specifically that lead you to write Three Days to Never? And could you talk some about 'the bits that are too cool to leave out' that really formed the backbone of this book?
Tim: All I had at first was the fact that Einstein's hair turned white abruptly after he had some kind of heart attack in the Swiss Alps in 1928. So I read a bunch of biographies of him, and details in those led me to ... Israel , Hollywood , Palm Springs! Among the things I flagged as too cool not to use were Einstein's "maschinchen" and his missing daughter, and his friend who assassinated some high Austrian official (why did that happen really?), and of course the movie associated with Charlie Chaplin that was destroyed (why really?), and Einstein's 1931 retreat to Palm Springs ... and the fact that the big 1933 earthquake hit southern California on the day he left that state forever ... it's hard to list them all, actually! After the Einstein research led me to Israel , I found heaps of stuff in the Kabbalah and the history of the Mossad that fit too perfectly to be left out -- really the plots and characters and locations of my books are entirely provided by my research! My only challenge is arranging them in some cause-&-effect order, and then connecting the dots. My system is designed for a writer with no innate imagination!
SFRevu: I read somewhere that you had read five or six biographies on Einstein, anything interesting that you discovered that maybe didn't make it in 3DTN?
Tim: Yes, a few things! Michelson built a big interferometer -- kind of a long tunnel with mirrors in it -- in Newport Beach , and it was pointed directly at the spot on the beach which was arguably the epicenter of the 1933 earthquake. That's awfully cool, but I simply was not able to fit it into the plot. And there were a lot of cool details in the life of his unfortunate first wife that would only have added bulk to the book, not any particular plot development. And I'd like to have used more of the information about the Mossad, and its founder Isser Harel! -- amazing people -- but it would really have required another book.
SFRevu: It is interesting that Einstein, whom wrote President Franklin Delano Roosevelt urging the study of nuclear fission for military purposes, is significant in your book where he is the author of a machine that, used by the wrong people, would be far more terrible. From your own research, did you gather that Einstein would have gone back and stopped himself from writing that letter, if he'd indeed had a maschinchen to do that?
Tim: Oh -- maybe! Since it turned out that Germany had not in fact made as much progress toward the atomic bomb as seemed to be the case. But he was one of those people -- another that springs to mind was Edna St. Vincent Millay -- who was converted from pacifism by the horror of Nazi Germany. Though he might have decided the atom bomb hadn't been necessary, I don't think he ever went back to the pacifist philosophy.
SFRevu: The character Charlotte Sinclair is fantastic. Her childhood was spent remote viewing for a secret government organization, she sees out of other people's eyes, and she'd like nothing better than to erase the whole of her life. I know you read a book on Remote Viewing that gave you the seeds for Charlotte, can you tell us more about that?
Tim: The book is Remote Viewers, by Jim Schabel, and it's an intriguing book. Apparently the government did have a team of clairvoyants to remotely view Soviet locations -- though their results could only be reliably confirmed after the sites were examined by more traditional methods! But sometimes it did seem to actually work. And somebody did propose disguising American military locations, like missile silos, as some other sorts of places, so that any Soviet remote viewers who glimpsed them would conclude that they'd got the wrong location. And it was just natural that a character who could see remotely ought (for plot purposes) to be unable to see normally. And then it was the time-travel option that made me give her some old sins that she would love to go back and negate, even if negating them meant negating most of her own identity. I have to admit I'm fond of Charlotte Sinclair!
SFRevu: The stakes are high for characters in a Tim Power's book. No character is safe from death, dismemberment or the possible loss of their soul. But you've come up with a far worse fate in 3DTN, to have never existed at all. Can you talk some about that, and why life's so damn hard for the folks in your stories.
Tim: Well when I was considering people's life-lines as long ropes -- or electric arcs -- through a sort of fifth-dimensional space, it occurred to me that it might be possible to "short out" one of them. And the universe would just sort of cave in on the channel it had occupied, with a fresh set of relationships and cause and effect chains. So there would be no evidence or memory of that person at all. And I imagined that Einstein would consider this a more abominable thing to do to a person than killing him.
And it's true, I do tend to bash my characters around. The thing is, I want the perils they confront to seem really dangerous, so I have those perils bite my characters fairly often and fairly hard. I don't want the reader to get the idea that my characters are somehow immune from dangers -- that would constitute reminding the reader that all this stuff is just made up, and I don't want the reader to think of that while he's reading the book!
SFRevu: 3DTN and your early book Anubis Gates both deal with time travel. Do you find it hard to keep up with what's going on at times? I mean there are so many different theories as to how a person wouldn't be able to do this or that, or that a person wouldn't actually be traveling to their own timeline but a different parallel world altogether. Do you lay some hard rules first, so as to not get tripped up in a theoretical contradiction?
Tim: Yes, I have to write out rules for myself! The rules were easier for The Anubis Gates, since nobody could actually change the past -- the characters could only discover that their adventures had been part of the history they'd been inhabiting all along -- the adventures were only a surprise because most of them hadn't made it into recorded history. With 3DTN, on the other hand, a time-traveler could change the past, and return to his home-time present to find that it had been changed by what he had done in the past. This made for a much more complicated structure, since I had to keep on determining what particular past this character remembered, as opposed to the past which the other one remembered. For both books I had to make elaborate charts to keep track of who was where, when, and how old. And what "yesterday" is this guy remembering?
And in 3DTN I wanted to imply -- not that the characters could know -- that it is only one world, not parallel worlds. If someone is erased from the world, that is, he does not keep his original life-line in some other universe. After all, if erasing him simply meant that he was no longer a figure in this universe but kept his unaltered life in other universes, then the "erasure" procedure wouldn't be as horrifying as I meant it to be!
SFRevu: One of the characters in the book meets their future self, would you be open to meeting your future or past self? And what would Tim Powers tell…Tim Powers?
Tim: I think I wouldn't approach him. On the whole, a lot more good things have happened to me than bad things, so I'd be afraid that if I leaned in and gave him advice to prevent some particular error, I'd have skewed him off the path I remember into another, and probably worse, path! I wouldn't build my own maschinchen! And if somebody else was building one, I'd try to knock it over.
SFRevu: You've occasionally collaborated with James Blaylock and K.W. Jeter, both of whom you met while studying English Literature at Cal State Fullerton, have they influenced your own writing any? And have you seen shades of Tim Powers in theirs?
Tim: I've collaborated several times with Blaylock and no doubt will again. It's fun to write five pages of a story and then a few days later find that it's become ten pages! I do think Blaylock and I have influenced each other's writing a lot, over the thirty-five years we've known each other -- or, more accurately, we've both been influenced by the cluster of jokes and books and movies and tastes that we've accumulated together since we were in our early 20s.
Jeter was a terrific help to both Blaylock and I when we were all starting out -- he could pinpoint a clumsy bit in a story, or suggest a perfect incident to occur, and lots of our stuff benefits from his perspective. I don't see an particular influence of his work on mine, but then again probably I'd be the last to see it anyway.
SFRevu: You all have jokingly referred to yourselves as "steampunks." What constitutes "steampunk?"
Tim: Oh, gee, I don't know. Whatever I'd say would probably be just paraphrasing some article on it that I've read! What we were doing, with my Anubis Gates, and Blaylock's Homunculus, and Jeter's Infernal Devices, was mainly using Dickens' London the way Fritz Leiber used Lankhmar -- or Lovecraft used Arkham -- this intricate city of smokes and basements and narrow alleys, where unearthly things were likely to be going on behind the curtains of high windows! And it has the virtue of having really existed -- if I say Covent Garden or St. James Park or St. Paul's Cathedral, the reader will think, "Oh, yeah, I've heard of those places!" London is part of the real world, which is an advantage over made-up locations, since it comes with -- free! -- all sorts of valuable associations already in the reader's head!
SFRevu: James Blaylock and yourself are William Ashbless scholars. Would you mind explaining to those who don't know how Mr. Ashbless came about?
Tim: Well, in college the school paper was running a lot of really dumb poetry -- this was in '72, so it was all still hippie-type stuff about love and sunshine, all free verse -- so we decided we could write poetry that would sound portentous but would in fact be nonsense, and they'd take it. So we wrote several poems -- he or I would write a line, then pass it to the other guy who'd write another line, and so forth to the end of the page. (We decided he should have one of those two-word names, like Wordsworth or Longfellow, and each though up a one syllable word and then pushed them together.) The poetry made no sense, but some of the lines were nice -- I still remember "Heavy on my brow sits the cold dog of the snows." Anyway, the paper printed the first lot we sent them, so we wrote a second lot that was dumber, and they printed that too, and then we wrote a third lot that was dumber still, and they didn't print those.
But Blaylock and I kept messing with Ashbless, and when we started to get books published we included him. He was a major character in my Anubis Gates and Blaylock's Digging Leviathan. Now it's sort of a good-luck charm with me -- I always find some way of sneaking his name in, even if it's in another language, like Ceniza-Bendiga.
SFRevu: And I've heard rumor there's a cookbook…
Tim: True, Blaylock and I wrote The William Ashbless Memorial Cookbook, using the excuse of his "reported death" to collect all his favorite recipes in a book. It "turned out" that he hadn't died after all, and he wrote an afterword to the book denouncing Blaylock and I. It's actually a good cookbook -- Blaylock and I both like to cook, and the recipes are all ones we've had successes with!
SFRevu: Some fans have lightheartedly chided you about how long it takes you to write each book, but in your defense you're not only a meticulous researcher but a teacher as well. Are you still teaching? Still doing the every other year stint at Clarion?
Tim: Currently I'm teaching two days a week at the Orange County High School of the Arts , and Jim Blaylock is my boss. It's a great job -- the building is an old 19th century church, and we've got the basement catacombs for the writing department. And the students are all volunteers, so if they don't like it they can just quit, leaving us with just the ones that do like it. And many of them are damn brilliant.
But it does eat up a fair amount of my time! I'm not teaching at a college this semester, though I may well be doing it next semester -- sometimes I've taught three college classes in addition to the high school.
I haven't taught Clarion for a few years now -- the best years were when Karen Joy Fowler and I co-taught the last two weeks of it. But I bet I'll teach Clarion again.
SFRevu: Can you talk some about Clarion, about what the students go through and what you try to impart to them?
Tim: The students take six weeks out of their lives to just immerse themselves in writing. They get six pro instructors who work to tell them everything they know about how to write science fiction or fantasy. The students don't get to eat very regularly, and I get the idea they don't sleep at all. (Even as an instructor I generally only got about four hours of sleep a night!)
I try to tell them everything I've found that works, and why, or doesn't work, and why not. (It's so rare to find an intelligent group of people who want to know how you do what you do, and seem able to act on it, that you wring out your brain to tell them everything! You feel like Evariste Galois staying up all night to write out every suspicion and speculation!)
SFRevu: Some of your books are set in the Southwest, a place you're very familiar with, does that help a writer? To know the lay of the land in which they write?
Tim: I suppose it does help to be able to go and look at the places your fiction is gong to take place in -- take pictures, make notes! But I hate to admit it, since so many of my books are set in places I've never been to, like London and Venice and Beirut. I like to think I can get an effective familiarity with a place just with picture books and maps and National Geographic!
But yes, I have to admit it's an added advantage to have actually walked around in the places. It puts less call on the imagination, and my system of writing -- with all the exhaustive or at least exhausting research -- is designed for a writer with no intrinsic imagination!
SFRevu: Often times the setting seems to be a character unto itself, do you plan it out that way, or does it just happen?
Tim: That's a consequence of worrying that the reader might notice that all these characters are made up, and all these situations are ludicrously impossible. I try to make the settings tangible enough for the reader to vicariously experience them, not just note them -- I'm afraid that if I back off on the sensory details the reader will step back and say, "Wait a sec, this is all bogus."
SFRevu: Pirates, time-travelers, vampires, djinn; you never do the same thing twice do you?
Tim: Well, I'm helped out by the fact that it's always a different historical situation or character that catches my initial interest and sparks the research. If I decide there's a book in the adventures of a British spy in Arabia, the research is going to present me with a very different sort of supernatural toolkit than if I decide to pursue a book set in the semi-civilized Caribbean! I generally let the research provide me with the materials for a story -- and at least the shape and style of the supernatural element -- so by choosing different areas to write about I wind up doing very different things.
There's generally an indigenous magical system that comes with any historical setting, and I try to base my supernatural "facts" on whatever that native tradition is. I wind up learning all sorts of fascinating things -- but unfortunately I forget them all as soon as I'm done with the book and begin researching another.
SFRevu: We won't try to classify exactly which genre your writing falls under, but do you find this actually helps you rather than hinders you? In other words, you're not bound by the particulars of any one genre.
Tim: I think of the genre I write in as "that stuff that gets reviewed in Locus." If I had to get more specific I might say I write Urban Fantasy -- certainly there always seems to be some supernatural element in my stuff -- but also I certainly feel free to put in scientific-sounding scaffolding! (Thank God for Asimov's science articles!) The only thing I'd insist I'm not doing -- not that anyone has said I do it -- is mainstream. I can't imagine writing a story in which somebody's dead grandfather does not call him up on the phone at some point.
Oh, and I would never do what I understand to be "Post-Modernism." That is, I'd never write a book that invited the reader to notice that it's fiction. I want the reader to totally forget, for the duration of reading the book, that these characters and events are just made up.
SFRevu: You seem to break the conventions of whatever type of story you're writing, do you set out to do this?
Tim: No -- as I say, I figure I'm writing urban fantasy, with emphasis on both words. And I don't think I break any conventions that Lovecraft or Leiber, for instance, didn't break before me. Of course I grew up reading heaps of science fiction and fantasy, so I'm aware of what's been done (up to about 1975, anyway), and I know what the conventions have been. I don't think I break them, so much as stretch them a bit!
SFRevu: Mapping everything out-as you've put it even knowing some of the dialogue in a particular scene - how does this affect the actual writing of the story? Do you find yourself in sort of director's role, setting the scene, placing the actor's on their marks and shouting action as you hit that first key? Does it make it easier to focus on your composition, maybe allow for you to sort of edit as you go?
Tim: Right, I'm like the playwright and the director both. When I'm putting the plot together and "auditioning characters," I'll let them have a lot of free will -- I'll write free-association bits of dialogue among them, and let them try out various behaviors -- but by the time the story is outlined, that's all done with, and I expect them to recite the lines I've written for them with no back-talk. I want them to seem to have spontaneity and free will, but if any of them actually start to show those things I slap them back into line. I'm in charge at that point, not them!
SFRevu: Your stories deal with the occult quite frequently. How do you feel about these types of things, with your personal beliefs and such? I'm interested in them as well, but it is the kind of interest where you want to know but you don't want to know. I suppose it's like going to the zoo and really wanting to see the tigers but you don't want to get inside the cage with them. At the end of the day you want to go home, glad you don't live in that jungle.
Tim: There's something in us that finds all that stuff fascinating and attractive -- magic, the occult, ghosts! And as a Catholic I can't just dismiss it all, even if my subconscious would let me try. I love using it all in fiction, and hopefully lighting up that old circuitry that's still in readers' heads -- but I'd never fool with it myself. For Last Call I had to buy a deck of the Ryder-Waite Tarot cards, so I could look at all the pictures -- but I'd never shuffle them!
SFRevu: Exorcisms have long been a province of Catholics , have you had any dealing with such or researched any for future books? I'll admit I'm fascinated, but only if it's light outside. A lot of religions say there's more to life than what we see, but sometimes that's sort of glossed over. Why do you think that is? And what's your take on it?
Tim: Well, being Catholic, I believe that possession and exorcism are possible! I even believe they've occurred through history. It's a genuinely scary idea -- I've thought about writing an exorcism novel, but I'm nervous about reading the books it'd require! And if a priest ever asked me along on an exorcism (which he wouldn't!), I'd run in the other direction and take a bath in holy water.
SFRevu: What kind of ideas have you drawn from the Bible? There's lots of fascinating things I've come across that have left me in both awe and terror. I'm thinking now about a particular instance of a man seeing the unseen by looking between the ears of a donkey. Forgive me if I've butchered that story, but it's been awhile since I've read that, and it's night here so I don't think I want the particulars this instant. Care to speculate on what you think may be around us daily, hidden or unseen?
Tim: I don't know the story about looking between the ears of a donkey! I can't see how I missed that! But certainly there are a lot of puzzling details in the Bible -- the sort of thing that makes you think, What was going on there? What was the whole story? Like at one point Christ heals a blind man and asks what he sees, and the guy says, "I see trees like men, walking." And then Christ does it again and the guy sees normally. So what was he seeing at first? I've never really drawn any plots from the Bible, but many times a plot I come up with will remind me of a Biblical scene, and I'll refer to it.
As far as what's around us daily -- devils and angels! I trust they never get around to noticing me driving my old truck around and feeding the cats and tapping away at my keyboard!
SFRevu: What turned you on to writing these secret histories?
Tim: Back in '75, Roger Elwood brokered a deal with a British publisher to provide ten novels about King Arthur being reincarnated throughout history -- Arthur wrecking the Spanish Armada, Arthur chopping up Nazi tanks with Excalibur -- and he got me and K.W. Jeter and Ray Nelson to agree to write them. The three of us divvied up history, and I got 1529 (the Siege of Vienna), 1750, and 1810. The projected series collapsed, luckily, but I had discovered the many advantages of writing in real-world history -- you get your whole world free, complete with maps, politics, currency, climate, languages, history! I was never again tempted to write a story set in a world I'd have to construct myself.
SFRevu: You use history in your books as evidence, a way to make the implausible seemingly plausible. Do you ever feel the need to slightly bend things so that those implausible elements seem more solid?
Tim: No, I take it as an absolute rule that I'm not allowed to change events or rearrange them on the calendar. If history has varying accounts of some event I'll feel free to choose the account that's most useful, but I won't invent an account of my own. I suppose this is really just a superstition -- who'd really know if I said Shelley did something after some event rather than before it? -- but I stick to it anyway. Maybe it helps give me the conviction needed to take the characters and the story seriously! Certainly there are times when I think I've inadvertently discovered some true story, rather than made it up! That usually only happens late at night, though, and by morning I'm sane again.
SFRevu: When writing them do you ever find a bit where you think "Hey, this may not be so fictional after all?" A case where the myth turns out to be closer to the truth than you first thought?
Tim: Yes, I often get the impression that there are big truths behind the mythologies of all cultures -- they have so many strange similarities, almost as if they're all corrupted versions of some very big, very old story!
SFRevu: I've heard that you and your wife Serena are extremely close -- connected at the hip as one person put it. Do you ever bounce any ideas off of her? And does she ever say 'No, Tim, you've got it all wrong?' Perhaps you should bring her into the room to keep you honest on this one.
Tim: She's too shy to comment here -- but yes, I get lots of ideas from her! We have the same sort of perspectives on what's funny, or scary, or awesome, or sad, so notions that occur to her appeal to me. Lots of the dialogue I give my characters was originally said by her! And she's my first reader -- she notices when I've left out details that the reader needs to know, and she can see if a scene isn't living up to its promise.
And yes, we always travel together -- it'd be too mean to come home and tell her about some great place I've been while she's been home minding the cats.
SFRevu: Thanks for taking the time to talk with us.