999 edited by Al Sarrantonio
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A Conversation With Tim Powers
An interview with Kim Fawcett
July 1999

Tim Powers

Tim Powers
Tim Powers was born in 1952. He attended and graduated from California State University, Fullerton, in 1976. In 1980 he was married to Serena Batsford. In 1984, he received the Philip K. Dick Memorial Award for The Anubis Gates and, later, his novel Last Call won the World Fantasy Award.

Tim Powers Website
ISFDB Bibliography
SF Site Review: Earthquake Weather
Review: Earthquake Weather
PUG: Tim Powers Interview
LOCUS Online: Tim Powers Interview
SCIFI.COM: Chat with Tim Powers
Book Excerpt: Declare
Tim Powers Tribute Site
Tim Powers Tribute Site
Tim Powers Tribute Site

Earthquake Weather
Expiration Date
Last Call
The Stress of Her Regard
On Stranger Tides
Dinner at Deviant's Palace
The Anubis Gate
The Drawing of the Dark
For Sake the Sky
An Epitaph in Rust

Other SF Site Interviews
F. Paul Wilson
Tim Powers
Michael Marshall Smith
Thomas F. Monteleone
P.D. Cacek
David Morrell
Chet Williamson
Ed Bryant

999 Review
999 Table of Contents

So you're off to Clarion. Do you like teaching?
Yes. Me and another teacher -- Karen Joy Fowler, who's on the cover of Locus magazine this month -- have lately been taking the last two weeks of Clarion as co-teachers, which used to be Damon Knight and Kate Wilhelm's job. And it's exhausting, but actually with all these car adventures it's gonna be kind of a nice dormant period.

How did you get into that?
Clarion? I met Algis Budrys at a convention in Kansas in about '85, and we got chatting, and he asked me if I wanted to co-teach the Writers of the Future workshop, which he does every year. And so I went and did that with him and Orson Scott Card in about '86. It was a week long. Very intensive, you know -- writing exercises and lecturing and whatnot. And he then recommended me to the Clarion people. He has since quit doing Clarion, but I seem to do it about every other year. It is exhausting, but it's just about a half a percent more fun than it is exhausting.

So it balances out?
Yeah, just slightly on the side of go do it.

What do you take away from it?
I usually come home sort of shamed into working harder, because all the students are just killing themselves with effort. I find my two week stint exhausting enough, and I can only imagine what they must feel like at the end of six weeks of it.

So they do the whole thing? They don't just go in for a week at a time?
No, they're there for the whole six weeks, and they get six different instructors, and they just write ceaselessly.

It sounds grueling. Do you get any writing done yourself while you're there?
It is. And not a bit. You don't sleep. You don't get to eat anything except that weird kind of triangular tuna sandwich that comes in clear plastic boxes. You certainly don't get time for your own writing. But as instructor, I do spend the whole time explaining plot and character and description, and I come home with my wheels all spinning in those gears. And so I tend to have at least a spurt of renewed activity after Clarion.

I would have thought you'd be so exhausted that you'd want a break for a month or so.
Well, I think the students do. But I usually come home consumed with guilt. And it's always fun to see some of the students go from writing unpublishable crap to writing publishable good stuff. I always want to take way more than my share of credit for that. In fact a couple of years ago one of my novels was up for a Nebula award and did not win, and the woman who won was one of my Clarion students from '88. And that was very fun. I was thinking: "there, by God."

I told her to say in her acceptance speech that she owed all her skill to me, but I gather she forgot to say that. <laughs>

I've been reading up on you a lot lately, but I've found there isn't really very much information on your life in other interviews or in your dust jacket bios or on the web. Can you tell us a bit about yourself?
Oh, well, the things that would occur to me first are the things that are in the dust jacket bios. Lived in Southern California ever since the age of seven. In late '96 moved from Santa Ana here to San Bernadino. And I do hope to die of old age here -- moving turned out to be just the most appalling ordeal. For one thing we have like ten thousand books, and the worst is National Geographic. When you move you discover that they apparently print those on sheet lead. And it's a great place here. The house is big enough so that if we ever get it squared away we'll be able to make it a very nice house. The yard is huge, which my wife likes, though it's still kind of mostly desert except for the spots she's been able to get at. And there are goats and sheep next door. Chickens come over the fence and tear up my wife's garden, and all that kind of domestic fun.

Let's see, other details. I was recently teaching a writing class at a local college here -- University of Redlands -- because a friend of mine abruptly retired. And I may go on next year to do some more of that, though I'm hampered by not having a proper degree for it.

What kind of background do you have in terms of schooling?
I got a B.A. in English Literature back in '76, but these days collegiality speaking a B.A. is hardly more than a high school diploma.

Your books just seem to have elements from so many different areas. You've got fantasy, horror, history, all mixed together. How do you classify your writing?
To strangers I usually say I write science fiction books, just because if I said fantasy I don't know what they'd imagine I meant by that. To myself, I just think I write that stuff we read, that stuff that is kind of under the umbrella of, oh... Bradbury, Heinlein, Lovecraft, Sturgeon, Leiber...

I think the distinction between science fiction and fantasy is an arbitrary one. Generally people who write one also write the other. And so when I'm writing I never think, you know, "Is this one science fiction? Is this one horror?" I just think "Well, it's that stuff. We'll certainly have something like ghosts wandering around, and..."

And I don't actually read that stuff very much anymore. When I was, I dunno, up to about age 21 that was about all I read. And so I've read all of Sturgeon and Henry Kuttner and Heinlein, and all those people. Alfred Bester. But as far as my contemporaries go, I really haven't read anybody. Which in a way makes it easier to meet them socially. Nah, I just don't read this stuff. And instead all my reading is mostly mainstream, really. My favourite authors are Kingsley Amis, John D. MacDonald. I like Tom Wolfe real well. And I do think this is good, as an incidental effect, for my writing because when I'm putting together a plot or characters or something, I can think "Oh, do that trick Kingsley Amis did, do that thing Dick Francis did, or Tennesee Williams." And this is sort of a broader toolkit.

I think, especially seeing a lot of Clarion manuscripts, I think some people want to write science fiction and fantasy who've only read science fiction and fantasy, and this kind of necessarily gives an anemic tone to their stuff. I think that the more eclectic all your inputs are, the more you'll be able to synthesize from. Certainly when I look at my own stuff, which I don't do all that often, I see way more things that I recognize as being derived from Thomas Pynchon, for example, than, I dunno, Heinlein.

So when you look back, do you feel you've progressed from when you wrote when you were just reading from the science fiction field to now, when you read more diversely?
Oh yeah. Of course none of the stuff I was writing then has ever been published, fortunately. My two earliest books were both written and published when I was 23 years old, and necessarily they look like the work of a fairly naïve, narrow young man. I do think that for a 23 year old they're pretty good. I like to think that the stuff is improving. It always seems like the one book of mine that people have heard of, if they've heard of any of my books, is The Anubis Gates. Which is certainly okay with me -- I don't mind if that turns out to be the only book anybody ever happens to pick up. I'm still very fond of it. But of course, every book as you finish it you think "This is the one, Stephen Spielberg's gonna call me up, I'll be reviewed in the New York Times or something."

If you were going to choose one of your books to represent you, which one would it be?
I think it would be Last Call. It strikes me as more firing on all cylinders than any of the other ones. Probably Anubis Gates is more plain fun, but there's some bits that are in Last Call that I'm just awfully pleased with.

Where do you draw your inspiration from?
Just like a whale sifting plankton, just all sorts of random reading and newspapers and hearing stories friends tell. A lot of times, just looking back, it seems like it comes from non-fiction reading. Anubis Gates was from a letter Lord Byron wrote. Last Call was from reading a book about gambling by John Scarne; he happened to mention that Tarot cards and modern playing cards are basically versions of the same thing, and I thought "Whoa, that's a heavy thought." And the book I just finished was sparked by a book I was reading about a real-life spy in the 1960s, and I thought "Jeepers, you could have some fun with that." And as a matter of fact, Expiration Date was sparked by reading in a Cecil Adams book that Thomas Edison's last breath actually is preserved in a test tube in a museum in Michigan. I just thought -- what a cool thing, why did they do that really? Not why did they claim they did it, but what was really going on?

So yeah, I guess I get most of my ideas from reading non-fiction. And I don't do it deliberately. It's all non-fiction I was just reading because it was interesting, but in the midst of it I'll suddenly say "Gee, you know what Powers, you could make a book out of this here." So it's always kind of an accident. I never go looking for these ideas, I just sort of stumble on them. And sometimes they've got to wait years before I get to them. I do have one little notebook that I scratch these things down in, and then whenever I finish a book I haul the notebook down and think "Well, whaddya got? What is there?"

In fact, this story I wrote for the 999 anthology -- I was in the midst of writing the spy book when the 999 editor called and said "Why don't you write me a short story?" And I said, "Nah, I'm in the middle of a spy novel. I can't be taking time off to write a short story." And he called me over and over again, so finally I hauled down my notebook of old ideas and said, you know, find three or four that could plausibly be part of the same story and... and I did. I thought well, this thing's kind of cool, and that business over there's pretty neat, could be in the same story. And why don't you hang it on that third thing over yonder, and see if you can't make a story out of it.

So he convinced you to write for the anthology through sheer persistence?
Yes. And I'm glad he did. I'm very impressed with the lineup of people in it. I'll use it for show-off value, you know, impress people. And I hope people like Joyce Carol Oates, while they're flipping through trying to find their own story, might stumble across mine and say "What is this?"

It is a very impressive lineup.
Yeah, yeah. Well William Peter Blatty, for god's sake. I'd love to get to meet him, in the midst of all this. I've read two of his scary novels, and thought they were both just terrific. Also I like it that he's writing from a very Roman Catholic point of view, which is also my own point of view. And I always like it when people really get the big scary stuff out of that. And there is a lot of big scary stuff in it to get.

Why is it that you don't often write short stories? I read somewhere that you've only ever written about a half dozen?
That's about exactly right. For one thing, unless I'm real careful, short stories I write tend to be either pointless vignettes in which nothing happens, or else on the other hand they're telescoped novels in which way too much happens and characters come to conclusions with way too little evidence. And I find that plotting and outlining a short story, and calculating the characters, and I always have to draw up a calendar... it's about 50 percent of the work involved in plotting a novel. And so I just think well gee, if you're going to go to all that trouble, go ahead and write a whole book. Rather than a short story which will be on the stands for one month. A book, at minimum, usually gets about three months. Of course it takes me forever to write a book.

How long does it take, generally?
It's usually, I hate to say it, it's usually like two years. I do have to read just a hundred non-fiction books, and then I have to talk to myself at the keyboard for hundreds of pages to figure out what the thing ought to be about, and what the good scenes should be, and what the characters ought to be. And then I've got to make my giant calendar... and by the time that's all done the actual writing of the book seems like a formality to be got out of the way.

It's all in the outline and the calendar. I try to make my outlines infinitely detailed. I even have bits of dialogue in the outline, ready for use. For one thing it's a cure for writer's block. What am I supposed to write today? Well, there it is, look all the descriptions are there, you've even got some of the bits of dialogue already laid out. Just, you know, put that into a thousand words.

So all of the surprises happen for you while you're still in the outlining stage?
Yes. Yeah. And you hear some writers sometimes say "My characters have lives of their own. They tell me where they want to go. They dictate the course of the story." To the extent that's true of me, it all happens in the outlining stage. By the time the outline is fixed, my characters have no free will at all. They shut up and do what they're told.

I always have this sort of forlorn wish that the outline could just gradually patch by patch become the final book. But yeah, I just outline like a bastard. By the time I start writing, there is no spontaneity anywhere on the landscape. If I see a patch of spontaneity, I'll go over with a bucket and put it out before I start.

You have this magic base that some people describe as New Age, although I'm not sure how I'd describe it myself. How did you go about creating it?
Well, I usually go to some relevant body of mythology and folklore. Like with one book I had with pirates in the Caribbean in 1718 [On Stranger Tides, 1987], I naturally picked the sort of Voodoo/Santeria type mythology and magic structure. With my recently published book Earthquake Weather I leaned hard on the Dionysus cults and the Dionysus myths. And what I'll do is read up all on whatever that magic structure is -- in fact for this newest book, the unpublished one, it was genies and the Thousand and One Nights and Islam and The Koran and all that -- and I'll get very familiar with this body of myths, and then try to "figure out what's at the bottom of it." Actually of course I'm making it up, but I pretend I'm a detective trying to figure out what the real magical facts are under this cloud of mythology, and one of the rules I use is: keep the stuff that gives you goosebumps, keep the stuff that has that kind of shivery tone to it that makes you say "oh yeah, right, wow," because real good mythology is full of that stuff.

I like Jung's idea that these things really do resonate in us, and even some kid brought up in totally sterile surroundings, never exposed to any of this, would still get shivers when he heard these old stories -- that it's part of the hardware of his brain. I suppose I'm using my own prejudices in what bits of these mythologies I decide are the potent bits.

Then I kind of calculate, okay, how would this work on a day to day basis? What would happen, how would it show up if it was to suddenly manifest itself while you were driving to the store to buy cat food? What would you see, what would happen? And I try to have it impinge on physical day to day stuff. Although I do try real hard -- I shouldn't even admit this -- but I do try real hard to keep that shivery Jungian "oh my god, what's going on here" type tone.

And I've got in each case a bunch of actual names to point to, to imply to the reader "Look, I'm not making this up. I mean, you can check this stuff out on your own, man. I'm just quoting all this. This is all real." Like, you know, with Dionysus I say "Hey don't take my word for it, read Euripides -- I'm just copying this stuff out, man, I'm not making this up." And I hope that gives it a tone of authority and plausibility for the reader.

I noticed when I was reading "Itinerary" that it deals with time, and a lot of your books do deal with time. What's your fascination with it?
It is such a kick to be able to have your character meet himself at a different age. I think it probably all derives from when I read, at probably about age 13, a Robert Heinlein story called "By His Bootstraps." And that was the first time I ever thought of the idea that the guy you met and had a conversation with last week was you, and you're now about to go back and have that conversation again but standing in the other pair of shoes now. That just was like comprehending an optical illusion or something, it was just a real eye opener for me. I thought "Oh how cool! What a new dimension for a story to have in it." And then I went really to town on that in The Anubis Gates, to where I had to have graphs tacked up all around my desk just so I could keep track of who was how old at what point. And in "Itinerary" I just sort of used it lightly to tie it up at the beginning and the end, and as a way to have our hero look back with kind of derision or revulsion at himself.

But yeah, one of the advantages of the science fiction and fantasy field is you can have a guy talk to his own self at different ages, you can have a guy meet his mother when she was young, as in Back to the Future, you can have a guy talk to his father's ghost -- all these things that mainstream writers just aren't allowed to do, but which are really useful for wringing emotion out of your characters that you couldn't really derive if you were restricted to the mainstream set of rules.

What about ghosts? Again "Itinerary" deals with a restless spirit, and that seems to be a recurring theme. Are you hooked on ghost stories?
I do like ghost stories, yes. Especially some of the old 19th century guys like M.R. James and E.F. Benson. I was always especially struck by something G.K. Chesterton is supposed to have said, which is that if you're being haunted by the ghost of your uncle George, your uncle George doesn't know anything about it. Uncle George is in heaven or hell. This thing that's haunting you is kind of a living cast-off snake skin, a kind of flickering induction coil current still wobbling around the house like static electricity. And I've always thought wow, that's very cool.

I've always had the idea that ghosts would not be very bright, that they would tend to be like very old people just repeating old stories all the time. A lot more ROM than RAM. And I always figured that they don't have any business really being here, that them hanging around is kind of like somebody who at age 19 and 20 still hangs around the high school cafeteria, unwilling to move on as they should.

Why did you call your latest short story "Itinerary"?
Because nobody liked the first title I had on it.

Which was?
I think it was "Eve Be Sudden." Either that or it was "Dawn Be Soon." It was a quote from a Francis Thompson poem called "The Hound of Heaven." It's about a guy fleeing from God, and he's trying to hide here and there, and he says "I said to dawn be sudden, to eve be soon, to all swift things for swiftness did I sue." And finally God catches up with him and says, you know, get back on track and do what you're supposed to be doing. Quit hiding in these corners from me. I'll find you, and we're all just wasting time here with your tricks. And in a way that's what the character in "Itinerary" is doing. He's hiding from doing what he's supposed to do, which is I suppose either go back to his body as his sister was telling him to do, or go ahead and die. But don't keep hanging around, stealing crackers and cheese from Staters Brothers markets.

So when they said they didn't like the Francis Thompson quote as a title, I looked at the story again and derived the present title from the world travels of that ceramic lawn duck. And I think it's a better title, just because with "Eve Be Soon" or "Dawn Be Sudden" people would, you know, finish the story and say, so what?

In fact, the house he goes to as a ghost to stay at is this house I'm sitting in right now. I can see the trees out in the backyard now where he found the initials carved in the trunk, and I can see from here the little patch by the rosebush where his uncle had stashed the beer, and when we first moved here, shortly before I wrote that story, the place did have that sort of abandoned air to it. We did plant an avocado tree, but it I'm afraid has died. We're going to have to plant another. I can see the spot from where I'm sitting here though, where it was in the story.

I noticed when I was reading through the introduction to 999 that Sarrantonio talks about how we might be on the cusp of a new golden age in horror fiction. What's your take on this?
If so, I think it would involve ditching the stuff that in the 80s they were calling splatterpunk. It always struck me that that was a bad false turn. That was, "Oh, I don't think I can really scare them in that supernatural shivery way, the way Lovecraft or Bram Stoker could, but at least I can gross 'em out the way Thomas Harris can. At least I can give them eyeballs on corkscrews..."

In the 80s there, writing horror, they were pretty much ditching the whole supernatural side of it, which always struck me as the main strength of it. It always strikes me that in a fantasy or horror story, the main thing isn't the scariness, the main thing is that sense of dislocation or vertigo, that kind of awe and feeling of diminishment in the face of real supernatural. Just as chickens brought up in a warehouse and who've never seen the sky still flinch at the silhouette of a hawk, I think humans -- even though we have all of our materialistic telephones and VCRs and whatnot -- still have that circuitry in our heads that makes us flinch and get goosebumps at any hint of real supernatural. And I think it's interesting that all of the Darwinian evolution that made us stop being covered with fur, and made us stop having our foreheads stick out two inches past our noses, nevertheless left us that circuitry to be scared of the dark, scared of ghosts. And I think that's the direction horror has to pursue if it's going to survive. We have to get that -- well Stephen King can do it, at least in books like The Shining -- that real, sort of lost feeling you get. You're not even so scared that the dead lady's going to hike up out of the tub and strangle you, just the mere fact of a ghost is almost too shocking to survive.

When I was a kid -- you know you'd be scared of the dark, alone in your room -- I would think, "If I open my eyes and see a face hanging in the air next to the bed, I'm going to expire, I'm just going to die." And it doesn't matter if that face is hostile, or just curious. In the face of the supernatural I think I would just flop down dead. And I do think that sort of thing can be incorporated into contemporary settings. Fritz Leiber always did it really well. Lovecraft did it; you know that was contemporary New England when Lovecraft was writing. And I do think it's especially effective if you do it well in a contemporary setting. I mean, it's one thing to read about a witch stirring a cauldron in medieval Scotland or something -- you sort of say "Oh well, so what?" But if a writer can convince you that there really are ghosts at a drive-in theatre in Palm Springs, it's more immediate, it's more effective.

Out of curiosity, what scares you?
I suppose ghosts, spirits, anything like that. I'm also very skeptical. If anybody was to tell me "oh, my house is haunted" I'd think right, but I wouldn't spend the night at their house after they said that. And I would never have a ouija board in my house. I'm both totally skeptical and totally scared of them. In order to write Last Call I had to buy a deck of Tarot cards to study the pictures, but I never shuffled them.

So I guess you've never played Assumption?
No, I sure have not! One time when I was teaching at Clarion, the students did. They cooked up a pack of cards and were playing Assumption, and I said "Well that's fine, you guys carry on, I'm going to wait outside."

I guess because of being Catholic, I'm stuck with believing that there is some ultimate substance to that kind of thing, and I just want not to have anything to do with it at all. I mean, I'm a totally rational person -- I know physics, I know astronomy, I have no problem with the universe being 50 billion years old, et cetera. But at the same time I don't entirely rule out supernatural stuff, and I don't want to mess with it at all.

Sometimes people do at conventions come up and say, "Oh, let me do a Tarot card reading for you!" Noooooo, I'm getting out of here.

I understand that you're working on a new book that's tentatively called Declare -- is that right?
Yes, I did just finish it. I finished it on Easter and just within the last few weeks finished all the revisions for the editor, which all were very good improvements, I do have to admit.

Where do you plan to go from 999 and Declare?
I really don't know. It's time to write an outline now for the next one. So far I've been doing my little random reading, and the only clues I've got right now are I think it'll involve LA, and probably LA in the past. Like, I dunno, maybe the 1920s, maybe the 1950s. I do think there's a lot to Los Angeles that I can valuably use. I certainly didn't use it all up in Expiration Date. And of course it will involve the supernatural. I tell people that my new book is about British and Soviet spies in the middle east, and they say aw geez, what is this, you're not doing science fiction/fantasy anymore? And I say no, no, it's got genies in it. It's got plenty of supernatural.

It was really fun to do a sort of John Le Carre-type book. I have always loved him. And it was real fun to deal with all that British secret service stuff, and the KGB, and Arabs and Lawrence of Arabia-type stuff.

Is there anything you'd like to add? That you'd like people to know?
Not especially, I guess. Just that as a reader, I'm certainly looking forward to the anthology coming out. I do want to see what William Peter Blatty did, for example. And it is a kick to be in this thing. I'm glad Sarrantonio did bug me enough to where I finally wrote one for him.

It was certainly nice seeing one of your short stories.
Yeah, that's probably number six. It'll probably be another ten years before I do another. God knows, god knows. I've heard that there are some writers who think most highly of whatever they're about to write. I'm the opposite. I'm always very pleased with what I have written, and have no faith at all in what I'm going to write next.

It's always a nice moment in writing a book when I put it in the mail and I think, "If you were to drop dead this minute, it would not affect the timetable of this book." It's good, good, good.

Copyright © 1999 Kim Fawcett

Kim Fawcett works, reads, writes, and occasionally sleeps in Ottawa, Canada. A day job working as a contract technical writer hinders her creative efforts, but has no effect at all on her book-a-week reading habit. She dreams of (a) winning the lottery, (b) publishing a novel, (c) travelling the world, and (d) doing all of the above all at once.

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