|A Conversation With John Berlyne, Tim Powers, Peter Crowther and Dirk Berger|
|conducted by Sandy Auden|
John Berlyne's Powers: Secret Histories is so much more than just a bibliography of Tim Powers' stories -- it's
a unique insight into the writing life of one of the most respected fantasy authors around. The project has been a
huge undertaking for Berlyne, taking nearly a decade to complete, and here he is joined by the book's artist Dirk
Berger, the publisher Pete Crowther and Tim Powers himself to discuss how the book came into being, the problems
with designing it, the artwork, the bodies buried in the garden and spilling beer.
How It All Began
And one of the most important pages in the book, once I had read the story, was the bit that says "by the same author." I said, "God I would love to read something else by this guy, he's great." And I began to try and find copies. And I couldn't. Nobody had ever heard of him. You would go a book store -- don't forget the internet doesn't yet exist, we are in the mid-80s so you can't click a mouse and get whatever book you want sent to your door within a day. Back then you had to go to book stores and ask around. And thus began for me a huge hunt.
This went on for years, and the more difficult it was to find the books, the more determined I became to locate these damn things. I wrote to Grafton which is a UK publisher:
"You're listing other books by this guy…"And so it became a bit of an odyssey to try and find these books. I contacted relatives in America or Canada and said "Can you find them?" Nobody could find these things. And this went on for at least ten years, trying to find these books.
In the meantime, there were new books coming out. You would get the subsequent ones that Tim had written. I mean ten years, that amounts to about two books. So I was at least able to keep current. But actually I did find one of these books -- and that moment of finding actually turned me into not just a Tim Powers collector, but a book collector.
The more I dug, the more I began to find out about limited editions. I began to find out about what it meant to be out of print, books not available, print runs, final print runs. And I started delving and learning about the book world. By this time the internet had been invented and I said to myself well you know it would be good to have a resource where I could have just visited but there wasn't one. So I decided to build one. I was working as an actor at the time, out of work, not doing anything at all and thought this would be a good creative endeavour.
So I joined the British library and started researching their catalogues to try and find out why you couldn't find some of these early books. And it became a terrible kind of obsession to get the answers to these questions. It was feeding itself all the time.
The website was created and I continued to find out more about Powers. And my interest was always in the work rather than in the person. I was just absolutely fascinated by the kind of stories that he was telling. And I wanted to eat them, kind of, you know, to devour them.
Then I got the chance to meet Tim back in 1999. I had created this website. Tim had got in touch with me and very generously said "What an amazing website you have done. I'm very flattered, you make me seem very important."
Tim: It really does.
John: And this is the key: he then said to me "If there is anything I can do to help you in your research, please don't hesitate to say the word." Which is the kind of thing that, talk about music to your ears. He introduced me to a friend of his named John Bierer who lives north of LA and is THE Tim Powers collector. What I did discover is that Powers is not a Powers collector. He doesn't have any of this stuff and it's a very good thing that he doesn't because this way it's safe and looked after and it's all in John Bierer's archive.
Tim: How could you collect your own stuff? "Here's the coke you drank from" -- you know?
John: I went to see Bierer who shared his archive with me. Tim is of a generation of writers who pre-date word processors. There are handwritten books that he wrote where it comes out of his brain and down his arm and onto a piece of paper. It doesn't get stuck in a word processor first where you start to lose the history and the development of the novel, because you simply just delete. So you don't have a record of the evolution of the story. But on paper you've got everything. And I remember when I held the original manuscript -- the handwritten manuscript -- of The Anubis Gates. There is only one of these things in the world. And you can see on the pages the creative processes of the brain.
You can see this little spidery handwriting as this story travels and it goes onto the page and then it goes back. He starts to write and then crosses something out, and there are bits where crossings out are very leisurely done, don't like that. And there are bits where it goes "Arghhhhhh." And so you actually start to get an emotional connection with the creative process of the writer. I'm fascinated by writers and what they do and how writers, particularly in Tim's case, create these extraordinary plots.
Tim: And you see the writer spills beer a lot.
John: Yeah, you see the writer spills beer. You see pages that are nibbled by rabbits. There are Coca-Cola stains. I became quite fascinated by the creative process. And to cut a long story short, I thought "Wouldn't it be cool to see all this stuff in a book? Wouldn't that be great?" And I am just sitting there wetting my pants with all this stuff.
And John Bierer is getting so much pleasure sharing this wonderful memorabilia…
Sandy (Interviewer): You're not wetting your pants together are you?
John: No, no, we wet them at separate times. But the idea of sharing this information with other people who would be as passionate about it, who would find such pleasure in discovering such things is a kind of common experience. And that's basically why the book was written.
The other reason the book was written was because the material is there and it should be seen. I discovered Tim could draw and I never knew this before. Tim's manuscripts are covered with drawings and some of them are characters in the books. They illustrate the situations that we are reading about in the novel. There are maps that show you how he is working out the locations, how character A gets here, and character B gets to character C or how situations link. And I thought these are things which should be seen by people, because they're the DVD extras to the books that we love. And so Secret Histories is an attempt to convey the pleasure that I experienced in seeing all this stuff for the very first time. So that the legions of Powers fans that are out there, who feel as passionate about his work as I do, can also share in that.
Under The Cover
Sandy: Beer stains aside, what does Secret Histories reveal about Tim Powers' actual writing processes?
John: With Powers you essentially get a stream of consciousness. And I liken it to jazz music -- in the book we have a number of examples of this stream of consciousness jazz notation. Where he is basically working stuff out and working out the mechanics of the story. For instance there will be people here who I'm sure know about Tim's On Stranger Tides which begins with a very interesting section in the notes. Basically from the day he sat down he thought "Come on, you know, I need to write a novel, what shall I do?" I'm paraphrasing but essentially he goes "Oh I don't know. Maybe we'll do a novel about this or that, or pirates, that's a kind of cool idea, yeah. Hang on a minute what about…?" So it's like opening a little window in the brain and you get to see these ideas actually in this book.
Another good example is in Last Call. There is a very substantial section in Secret Histories on the Last Call notes. It shows Tim really working out how this story is going to function. And recorded very clearly, as you read through this, is the moment where he conceives of this card game, this Assumption that really becomes the anchor point of the novel, an essential plot device. And he is kind of thinking, "Yeah, it would be good to have a variant of poker in this book that was played with tarot cards. What could we call it?" I don't know. This or That or Assumption. You know Assumption, I kind of like that, that's a good name. And then he goes off and he works out this variant of poker which actually is a perfectly viable, workable game…
So it's like reading a window of what's going on.
Tim: Actually it's an effect of something I have figured out. I mean to suddenly start writing stories, or try to, you have to think of a plot. And you think, "Well you know? How about a talking rabbit?" Well maybe not a talking rabbit but a tattoo of a rabbit that talks? You kind of go rambling and free associating and after a while you come to a conclusion, and often as not the conclusion is stupid. And if you did it on your head you don't remember the trail of thoughts that led you to the conclusion. But if you did it into a keyboard where you say, "How about a guy that's covered with tattoos? Or no, a guy that's remarkable for not being covered with tattoos? Or a dog that's covered with tattoos."
And then, if you've done it all into the keyboard every thought, every little stray thought that you had, even though the conclusion on page ten is stupid you can page up, page up, page up, or in the old days flip back, flip back, flip back. And say: here I was onto something. This was not bad. You should have taken this sideways. And so you can hang onto and use the thoughts. Where if you just let it all happen in your head your memory doesn't bother to hang onto them.
The result is, as John says, a very rambling, free association, unconnected string of thoughts. But I do find it really useful to be able to have something besides simply the conclusion you come to. Where you can look back up and say there I was onto something.
Getting Into Print
Sandy: Pete (Crowther from PS Publishing) where did you get involved in the process and what happened?
Pete: Well I got involved because I figured that somebody had to do it. We've got here one of the world's greatest storytellers in Powers, there's no question about that. Also there's John, the guy who developed the website to keep Powers' work tracked down. So when John came to me and said I've got this idea, it was a much more modest affair than it's turned out to be. Then it was just a history of Tim's books to that point. And I'll make one other mention, for those who are worried about this book becoming obsolete, Nicky (my wife) and I have taken steps to remove Tim Powers from this earthly plane, because we can't have him write any more books now.
Tim: It's almost unnecessary since I work so slowly, we will all be in old folk's homes before the next book comes out.
Pete: So John called me and he was asking advice on how to go about it and what to do. And when he was outlining what this thing entailed I just thought to myself, "You know, this sounds fantastic." And so I said that we would love to do it. And that was eight, nine years ago now.
Sandy: There was one more person needed to bring this project to fruition -- Dirk Berger. Dirk did the fantastic artwork featured in the book. So where did you get drawn into the mix?
Dirk: Well it's hard to remember. I think it was three years ago, though I think it must be centuries since I met John the first time. He came over to a convention in Germany and I remember Tim was a Guest of Honour and of course when Tim Powers was in Europe, John had to come too…
John: It cost me a fortune.
Dirk: And we met. Of course I had already seen his wonderful website and used it as a base for getting my own information about Tim's work. And when John came over he had his notes and everything with him. So I heard for the first time about Secret Histories. And from that point onwards we were talking about a lot of this on Skype and phone nearly daily. And it was a very interesting work because the material was already there but it was bringing it in so that this whole material could be viewed without becoming boring.
John: When I took the material to Dirk, it was kind of formless. I had a really clear vision about how this stuff needed to be presented but I had no skills in actually rendering it, presenting it, organising it. So meeting Dirk actually crystallised the project. Because we discovered that we have the same obsessive eye for detail and would be very happy to argue the toss for many hours on you know…
Pete: Just let me say here that he is actually understating the case.
John: This is very true. But Dirk and I considered we were kindred spirits. And once we got working together we began to find a way to impose a structure on this. Initially we went to about three or four designers who just kind of, their brains…
Pete: They're buried in our back garden.
John: They are, their brains melted at the prospect of what this thing needed to be and it became apparent to me that the only way to create what I had in my head was to do it myself, it really was one of those scenarios.
There's no precedent for a book like this, if you pick up this book and have a flick through it, you will see that every single page of this book is bespoke. There are no two pages that are the same. So it's not a question of designing a template in Quark and then cutting and pasting and dropping it. That doesn't happen in this book.
If you insert something, it knocks everything else out. That means changes on one page actually knocks something out 450 pages later and you've got to redesign everything in between. So these were the challenges that I was faced with, and completely hopeless and helpless until I ran into my absolute saviour Dirk Berger. And thus we began the very laborious business of actually creating the physical book, rather than the contents if you like or the concept.
Tim: I remember you telling me, "Powers here's a proof but you cannot cut anything because it won't shift back."
John: Yeah, everything starts from scratch if we mess with it. You still cut stuff.
Sandy: So how did you decide what artwork was needed?
John: Well the first problem to solve was the fact of a bibliography. One of the early constraints that Tim dictated for this project was that it should be a bibliography -- and I completely understand why, now that we can see the book, and I think it was a good idea.
Tim: That's originally what it was supposed to be.
John: Yeah, well it is, it says so on the front, a bibliography. What is a bibliography? It's a list of dry data. A list of books that have been published by this author. And I thought, well that's okay but it's not actually very interesting to look at. What about if we threw the covers in, that would be really cool. But it would be really nice to have it in colour because there's plenty of beautiful artwork and beautiful covers for Powers books.
But then Dirk and I got talking about how we could enliven the material, this dry data. How can we make it live, how can we make it so that somebody actually might want to read the data rather than glance it and go to what they might think was the cooler stuff later on.
At which point, Dirk quietly revealed that he was a super talented artist of Michelangelo proportions. Which was a secret he had kept from me originally, and we suddenly discovered we had an opportunity to, well, pay homage or tribute to some of our favourite novels, and do it in a way that we could make this thing look beautiful.
Sandy: Tim how was the overall experience for you -- having all your nooks and crannies probed by John?
Tim: Ah, I kept trying to restrain him. For one thing you know, some of these old manuscript pages where I'm jabbering to myself -- there's old phone numbers there, and I don't remember whose phone number it is but I hope people don't go calling it. And a lot of the manuscript pages have a couple of paragraphs crossed out, and in a bibliography that's interesting. If I was looking at a bibliography of some writer I had never heard of I would say "Well that's interesting, here's a couple of paragraphs he crossed out." But when I look at it and I think maybe I crossed it out because it was embarrassing, maybe I crossed it out because it was blatantly stupid. And admittedly I crossed it out, I said I recognise that it was stupid, but I think well, I guess that's alright, at least I did cross it out. But I think, John, you noticed that throughout I was always sort of saying, take it easy here.
John: Yeah, we've had to establish a degree of kind of trust really, a line. I've always looked at the material very sensitively and only ever used material that was complementary or showed Tim in a good light, but also served the purpose of the book. But you should see some of the stuff that didn't go in.
Tim: Yeah, and as a one time collector myself, if this was about some writer I didn't happen to know it is still an intriguing book, just because of all the weird little details it's got. So just as an objective reader I was thinking, that's kind of cool, this manuscript here and this hand drawn map there, that's kind of neat. But then I think "Wait a sec Powers, this is you. Do you want all this in -- especially some of your pictures? Okay Powers, you were probably not 100% sober drawing this little monster here, entertaining yourself for two minutes while you were writing. Do you really want it in the book?" But John would always say, "Oh you know Powers that's a very cool drawing…"
As for the kinds of things that didn't get in… Well, if you're just totally talking to yourself -- simply transcribing the thoughts that are going through your own head with no thought of anybody but yourself ever seeing this -- you're not politically correct, you might say, "Let's see if you can handle this scene a little bit better than such-and-such writer did in his misguided…" So for the book you think "Let's ditch the name there". And "Let's change this adjective a little bit." And then some of the notes are: "How did this character do something? Don't forget tonight you're supposed to pick up the laundry…"
On The Topic Of Books And Nosebleeds
Sandy: Secret Histories comes in three different formats I believe?
John: Yeah. The trade state is a full colour
production. This is litho printed, with stitched binding, gilt blocking and a dust jacket. It's limited and
signed by Tim and Dirk.
There is also a slipcase edition which contains, additional to Secret Histories, a copy of the
novel The Waters Deep, Deep, Deep, a previously unpublished and actually unfinished novel written
by a twenty-year-old Tim Powers. The slipcase edition is signed by all the contributors which includes
Dean Koontz, China Miéville and James Blaylock, who is a long-time friend and collaborator
with Tim. William Ashbless -- whom some of you may know of -- has written a typically scathing and unpleasant
piece which, although it cost us a certain amount of money, he has allowed us to print it in
Secret Histories and he's signed the copies as well.
John: We have also produced a deluxe
slipcased edition of which there are only twenty six lettered copies available. This extraordinary
item has a piece of original Powers art on the spine, and as well as the 'signed by everybody' status
and a copy of The Waters Deep, Deep, Deep, it contains a facsimile reproduction of the original
handwritten manuscript of The Anubis Gates. Signed by Powers and in full colour so you can actually
see Tim's most famous novel as it came out of his brain, unedited, unexpurgated…
Tim: Sounds like a nose bleed.
John: It's very fascinating to see this and…(picks up the book)
Sandy: Stop stroking it.
For more information about Secret Histories go to: PS Publishing
For more information abut Tim Powers books visit The Works of Tim Powers
This is an abridged version of the Eastercon panel that took place in the UK in 2009.
Sandy Auden is currently working as an enthusiastic interviewer/reviewer for SFX magazine; a tireless news hound for Starburst magazine; and a diligent interviewer/reviewer for Interzone magazine and SF Site. She spends her spare time lying down with a cold flannel on her forehead. For background information, visit www.sandyauden.co.uk.
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