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Issue #130 - June 2006

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An Existentially Poignant, Angst-Ridden, Grimly Realistic Yet Surreal Interview With Tim Powers

By John Shirley

You say you look at the newspaper, the television, and thereís nothing but bad news? Not true. Thereís a new Tim Powers novel about to come out, Three Days to Never. You see? Something to live for. Time to party. Powers, winner of the World Fantasy Award and author of classics such as The Anubis Gates, Last Call and Declare, consented to an interview, too. The party gets out of control and the neighbors call the cops.

JS: Powers, you donít take Joseph Heller composition time, but Tim Powers time does seem to stretch out a bit. This is presumably because your books are long or longish, extensively researched, and complex. Still, could you give us a sense of your process in terms of research-to-writing? How do you organize all those elements of research? And how much did you do for your new novel Three Days to Never?

TP: Well ideally it should only take me about two years to write a book! Ideally. A year to do the research that lets me know what itíll consist of, and then a year to write it. In practice, teaching at a high school and various colleges eats up amazing amounts of time.

TP: What I do first is find some real-world situation or activity or person that looks as if a story could be hung on it. This is always the result of random recreational reading ó Iíll be reading something just because itís interesting, and then Iíll think, "Wait a second, this looks like the sort of thing you could build a story around." Then Iíll read everything I can get my hands on about that person or place or whatever it is, freely allowing myself to be sidetracked by anything this reading touches on. ("He was interested in goldfish? Letís read everything about goldfish!") I underline like a lunatic, and make customized indexes on the flyleaves of all these books, and soon Iím working in a little nest of stacked and tumbled books. (I have to make it an ironclad rule that no research book ever leaves my office ó that way I know that any book I may need is somewhere in the pile and at worst no more than four feet away from me.) 

TP: I make a lot of cross-indexed computer files, to try to keep track of everything. (I wish published books had a "Find" window!) All the while, Iím looking for "things that are too cool not to use" ó events, customs, people, places, unique motivations or conflicts, means of transportation, anything. And when Iíve got a couple of dozen of such things, I can start to ask myself what sort of story these things might be pieces of.

TP: In other words, I donít come up with a story and then do research for it; I do the research to find out what the eventual story might consist of. Itís easier that way.

TP: Three Days to Never started when I read that Albert Einstein went to a séance with Charlie Chaplin, in California in the 1930ís. Iíd already read a lot about Einstein, just recreationally, and Iíd always wondered, for instance, why his hair is white in all photos after 1928 ó okay, he had a heart attack or something while hiking in the Alps, but what really happened? But the séance settled it ó a book of my peculiar sort could probably be built on Einstein. So I read a heap of biographies of him, which led me to his secret missing daughter, the history of 20th century Israel, and the Mossad, Pasadena and Cal Tech, proto-Nazi groups like the Thule Society, the history of Palm Springs, and of course Charlie Chaplin. All very interesting, and full of bits that were "too cool not to use." So I assembled those bits and figured out a story to string them together.

TP: One frustrating thing about all this is the stuff youíve got to leave out! Michelson, of the Michelson-Morley experiment that proved thereís no luminiferous ether, built one of his big interferometers very near Newport Beach, with its barrel pointed to the nearby spot which later happened to be the epicenter of the 1933 earthquake. At one point in my novel, two of my characters go to that spot ó but I couldnít manage to make Michelsonís interferometer part of the story! If I ever do a sequel, thatís the detail Iím going to start figuring from.

JS: In Three Days to Never you combine Einsteinian physics, quantum ideas, and mysticism ó everything from ritual magic to the use of magic objects to the Qaballah ó do you ever get a strange feeling, crossing from one to the other that it really is seamless, not just in fiction?

TP: Sure, all the time! In some 14th century Italian Qaballah text Iíll find what seem to be speculations on E=mc2, for instance, or the universe being expanding-and-contracting. I found eerie parallels between General Relativity and certain Grimm Brothers' fairy tales! A lot of this is just the result of me looking at a whole lot of unconnected things with a very specific polarity ("Whereís the supernatural?"), so that connections are apparent where in actual fact there are no connections ó you can always find useful coincidences if you look real hard ó but I think some of the apparent overlaps are real. After all, all these things were attempts by not-stupid people to figure out whatís true, so itís not surprising if sometimes they come up with similar conclusions.

JS: Three Days to Never is a variety of time-travel novel. Kinda sorta. Do you ever fantasize (as I do) about the personal possibilities of time-travel? The moral issues of it? Would God permit us to go back and change time do you think? What do you mean, "How the Hell would I know?" You could guess. I guess. I guess all the time. What, you canít guess?

TP: Right, could you justifiably kill the toddler Hitler? Or would you have to wait for some token first concrete offense? ("He just stole a car! Broke the steering-column, even! Couldnít that do?") Iíd like to go back and give young Powers some stern advice, actually. But I have a Monkeyís Paw feeling about it ó I think the results would be worse than the original, and when I tried to go back to an earlier point and fix it again it would turn out worse still. Eventually Iíd probably be trying to reason with a feral mute whoís living in a hedge.

JS: Yes I dreamed of going back in time and getting myself to do some things different ó "Youíre about to make a dreadful mistake, Shirley!" ó but then it occurred to me that if I were able to do that, my earlier self would not do the same things, not go the same places, not meet certain women, and my children would never have been born. So though Iíd not make certain dire mistakes Iíd be losing these excellent offspring and in a way committing murder!

TP: I wrote one novel, The Anubis Gates, in which the past was unchangeable ó you could go back there and mess around, but everything you did would turn out to have been (largely unrecorded) elements of the exact same history you originally came from. In Three Days to Never I say that the past is changeable ó you could go back and prevent your parents from meeting. This would not make you disappear, it would just mean youíre a character with no origins ó you entered the world for the first time when you stepped out of your Wayback Machine.

TP: But no, I donít think God lets us have any influence on the past! Just as well ó I think He may have been over-optimistic in letting us screw with the present and future.

JS: Thereís almost a gourmandís appreciation of liquor and cigarettes on display in Three Days to Never. Thatís just from reading books about them, right?

TP: Thatís correct.

TP: Well no, actually I love alcohol and nicotine. I retired from alcohol some years ago, though I still donít like to go to parties or restaurants where itís not being consumed. I figure the respectful attitudes toward something as spiritually important as alcohol are either total indulgence or total abstinence ó I did the one, and now Iím doing the other, just to be thorough. And I get impatient when people justify high taxes on tobacco by saying, "But that money is going toward programs to help you quit smoking!" Actually I donít want to quit. So my poor characters donít get to quit either ó Iím a bad influence on them.

JS: Were Last Call, Expiration Date and Earthquake Weather conceived as a trilogy of some kind? Or did some of the related themes just kind of extend themselves on their own insistence?

TP: Originally I believe I meant there to be four books ó spring (Last Call), summer, fall (Expiration Date), and winter (Earthquake Weather). I didnít do a book for summer, I guess because I felt that summer for a Fisher King would be too unrelievedly pleasant.

TP: Of course itíd be impossible ó for me, anyway ó to thoroughly outline three big books before starting the first one, so in fact a lot of the overall plot elements cropped up after Last Call was already published, and I had to look back through Last Call to find initially unimportant things that I could later claim had been deliberately-placed plot elements. Donít tell anybody.

JS: As a poker player I sometimes think there are "tides" to card playing, as in Last Call ó or anyway there are patterns in the random. You make use of that but what do you think of it? Do you ever feel that the chaos is just seeing order on an antís scale of perception?

TP: I so love the idea ó that if you can distill perfect randomness youíll find in it the consistent, basic patterns of reality ó that I really want it to be true. The first time I read about the Mandelbrot Set, in James Gleickís Chaos, and saw those color-coded patterns in the Complex Plane, I just figured this was the fingerprints of God. 

JS: In Three Days to Never you reference the Ayin of the Qaballah, which seems to speak of the Big Bang. I seem to find the reference in this Qabbalistic text: "The beginning of existence is the secret concealed point, primordial wisdom, the secret conceptual point. This is the beginning of all the hidden things, which spread out from there and emanate, according to their species. From a single point you can extend the dimensions of all things. Similarly when the concealed arouses itself to exist, at first it brings into being something the size of the point of a needle; from there it generates everything." When you come across something like that in your researches, do you find that it touches you or affects your relationship to life as you live it? I guess what Iím asking is, do your researches for books change you? Do your books change you?

TP: Right, and "In the system depending on mathematical concepts, which is sometimes linked with images of light and rivers, the first Sefirah is nothingness, zero, and the second is the manifestation of the primordial point, which at this stage has no size but contains within it the possibility of measurement and expansion," from Gershom Sholemís Qaballah.

TP: Well, especially with my largely-unplanned research reading, and with so much of it being from previous centuries, I get a lot of information and perspectives that are new to me. A lot of times Iíll be grateful that I read some book, totally independent of whether or not it gave me something to use in the book at hand.

TP: This is probably evidence of a totally closed mind ó but I find that instead of changing my core convictions about everything, all this reading tends to confirm them. (I suppose any closed-minded person would find the same, whatever their initial convictions were.) And it expands them! I see more surprising parallels than surprising divergences. Scientific breakthroughs are preceded by similar intuitive guesses (Newton guessed that light rays must be bent by gravity), Christian truths are preceded by centuries of inspired parallel speculations, the same crowd of archetypes keep popping up in different cultures. Itís all one big piece of cloth, and the same threads show up down here as up there!

JS: I know you donít want to take yourself too seriously, but do you think a novelist, whoís an entertainer first (especially when we write for genre audiences), has, or should have, another mission in writing books? Do you ever hope youíre feeding something in the reader?

TP: Well I donít have any other mission than to provide a plausible-but-outlandish adventure story. Of course to make the reader "believe" itís all really happening, you want to have interesting characters who are confronted with problems worth taking seriously, and so the writerís idea of whoís interesting and whatís worth taking seriously is going provide clues to what the writer thinks is important. Whatís admirable and whatís contemptible. But I hope thereís never any discernible message, aside from basic things like "Loyaltyís good, treacheryís bad"! Whatever I might have to say about pro-life or pro-choice, or the war in Iraq, or racism, can wait till Iím in the mood to write a letter to the editor at the Los Angeles Times.

TP: I do take the characters and the story seriously. I just donít think theyíre representative figures illustrating some bigger point outside the boundaries of the story. (And I work hard not to in any way let the reader notice that this is all, at core, impossible nonsense. Iím definitely not doing Post-Modernism! Maybe Iím doing Pre-Modernism.)

JS: In Three Days to Never you write about secret-secret-secret services, and secret societies that operate like secret services ó organizations which use the paranormal. The CIA did indeed have a remote viewer (telepathic spying) program, now (as far as we know) not operational. It wasnít very effective. Did you hear of children being kept in Remote Viewer facilities, underground, as described in your books? Did you come across stuff about paranormal villainy that seemed unnervingly real to you? 

TP: I didnít read about children doing it, no, but I did read about proposals to dress up military installations as hospitals or Chinese restaurants or something, so that Soviet psychics who "saw" the places would assume theyíd got a wrong number. I read a book called Remote Viewers, by Jim Schabel, about the Armyís attempts to do psychic spying, and frankly Iím convinced that it got a lot of valid results.

TP: One unnerving bit was the apparently common experience among long-time remote viewers of running into hostile non-corporeal inhabitants of the psychic realms! That caught my attention. Iím always extra-ready to believe unwelcome news. Itís an Irish thing.

JS: Do you ever get (as I do) letters from people whoíre bipolar and who claim that they know what your REAL meaning is, etc? Do you wonder why some writers (Iím not saying youíre one but I bet you are) attract a certain amount of, ah, reality-challenged readership?

TP: Yes, from time to time Iíve got "the schizophrenic letter," which is always lots of pages of single-spaced text with no margins, all about Jesus and Walt Disney and Nicola Tesla, with elaborate wiring diagrams and maps of Heaven and Hell. I donít write back. One guy called me on the phone and said he didnít appreciate being portrayed in books without his permission. You and I should be writing stories about talking bunnies.

JS: Speaking of reality challenging, do you think you have lots of Phil Dick "damage" (not necessarily a bad thing)? Werenít you one of his protégés?

TP: I knew him for the last ten years of his life, and after I met him I read his books feverishly and repeatedly. Jeter and Blaylock and I hung out with him a lot while we were writing our first things, and he helped each of us.

TP: Iím not sure what "damage" I sustained from him! Probably more than I can see. I learned that characters in fiction, even very weird fiction, especially in very weird fiction, have to have jobs they need, and probably have romances that arenít going smoothly. I learned that truly numinously scary stuff is practically the opposite of the guy in a ski-mask with a bloody chain-saw. And I learned that if you want to write fiction in the 20th Century you had better be familiar with lots of pre-20th Century literature. And I think I learned from him that bad guys are never bad guys in their own estimation (a disquieting thought!).

JS: Do you ever feel that just when you think youíve got your literary "voice" refined and in place, suddenly another voice wants to come out?

TP: I find I have a different "tone of voice" in one story than in another, certainly. That seems like something that happens naturally, deriving from the characters and events.

TP: But really, I try not to think about my literary voice! Iím sure that trying to make clear the things I think have to be made clear gives my narration some particular torque, what you could even call some awkwardness, and I suppose thatís my voice ó but to the extent that Iíd ever be consciously aware of any idiosyncratic "Powers voice" I think Iíd try to suppress it.

TP: Maybe because of this reluctance to see any such thing, I never re-read my stuff unless Iíve got to correct new proofs! I figure when Iím seventy Iíll re-read it all ó and then probably take up drink again.

JS: Do you ever ache to just write a purely historical novel, say, or spy novel, something with no element of the fantastic? If so what would it be about?

TP: No, actually! I couldn't write a mainstream story for very many chapters before some character would get a phone call from his dead father. I donít read a lot of science fiction or fantasy these days ó and what I do read of it is nearly always stuff Iíve read many times before, like Heinlein and Lovecraft and Leiber ó but when I was a kid that was all I read, and all my plot-imagining machinery is forever locked on those settings.

TP: I love reading Dick Francis and John D. MacDonald and Kingsley Amis and John le Carré and Raymond Chandler and Hemingway (though a couple of them did sometimes write SF and fantasy!), but I could never write a whole story in which nothing impossible happened.

JS: Do you ever feel like SF/fantasy writers are to spy novelists or detective novelists what 3-D chess is to regular chess? Not in a superior way but in the sense that thereís that much more WORK to it? We have to juggle more plates than they do. If you do feel that way, does it embitter you? Maybe youíre a better man than I am. (Thereís little doubt of that anyway.)

TP: Yes, I do feel that, and the 3-D chess is a good analogy. I see mainstream fiction as a fairly severely restricted form ó thereís a lot of nicely-stressful or intriguing situations, even a lot of plain emotions, that theyíre barred from. (Shakespeare didnít acknowledge any such arbitrary confinement!) And youíre right, weíve got to juggle more plates than they do ó but weíre free to juggle any of the things in the kitchen, even the chairs and the cook, while they can only use a few specified sets of dishes.

TP: I do sometimes wish that more readers had an appreciation for our (more complex!) form! But some people canít grasp 3-D chess either. (I like to think I could, but Iíve never tried it.)

JS: Do you ever feel that a book is something hard to control, as you develop it? Like youíre wrestling with something multi-armed? Especially when we consider the development of a book like Three Days to Never with so many levels, so much happening, so many sides of the paranormal, so many characters ó how do you deal with all those threads? Isnít that a maddening challenge?

TP: Itís a whole separate task, yes! The way I handle it is to outline it down to the most miniscule detail possible before I even start. I make giant calendars, with every event, even bits of dialogue, fitted into each big day-square. When Iíve finally got the whole thing diagrammed on my calendar, with a hundred-or-so-page outline printed out and strategically underlined, I figure, "Whew! The hard partís over! Now all Iíve got to do is write the thing. Start right here and follow the arrows."

TP: During the notes-&-outlining stage Iím willing to write unplanned dialogue, and try out my characters in various provisional situations, but once Iíve got the outline finalized I wonít permit any spontaneity from the characters. Theyíre supposed to know their lines and cues and make it look spontaneous, but if I catch them improvising I put a stop to it right away.

TP: Thatís not exactly true. Sometimes they do improvise and I pretend not to notice. But they know the rules.

JS: Giant calendars with everythingÖ?! Amazing! No wonder your stuff is so damn much better than mine. I just make shit up. I tried to write about magic combined with out of body travel in Demons, but in Three Days To Never youíve done it so eerily well. How did you research that? Were you tempted to try it?

TP: Iím glad it seemed convincing! I read several books about it, and they seemed to be consistently describing the same thing. But Iíve never been tempted to try it, no! Iím sure Iíd wind up getting caught in Coriolis forces or something, and wind up stuck in the Asteroid Belt forever.

JS: You seem kind of down on New Age stuff like the Harmonic Convergence, and the parents in Expiration Date ó and I donít blame you but is that a little bit of your personal faith or philosophy emerging? I mean, isnít New Age stuff kind of just fuzzy and vague enough to make it a great camouflage for predators... mostly human, but perhaps the inhuman too?

TP: Yes, the New Age "philosophies" seem like blurry feel-good fantasies to me. But since Iím a convinced Catholic, I believe there are real hikes you can take out past our normal boundaries, and the rattlesnakes and Gila Monsters out there wonít back off just because youíre smiling and wearing a peace-symbol. I like to write about this stuff, but I wouldn't have a Ouija board in the house!

JS: You seem to get into the head of a 12-year-old girl pretty damn well in Three Days to Never. Why is that? You have no children so how do you get that verisimilitude?

TP: Donít tell anybody, but Iím probably off by a few years, actually! For six years Iíve been teaching writing classes two days a week at a high school, and itís a very informal place ó my classroom is the basement of a 19th Century building that used to be a Christian Science church, and there are no chairs, just a lot of bean-bags. The windows under the ceiling are ankle-level for people on the sidewalk outside. And Iím moderator of a physics-&-literature club that meets down there on Wednesdays, and one way and another I wind up spending a lot of time talking at random with 14- to 18-year-old boys and girls. (Luckily this is a "high school of the arts," and they all have to submit writing theyíve done to get chosen for it, and so theyíre all very bright and surprisingly well-read.) I probably talk to them, in any given week, as much as I talk to adults. Iím lucky all my characters donít talk and think like teenagers. Iím lucky I donít, if in fact I donít.

TP: Incidentally, this is a great job. My classes are just explaining how writing works, and my boss is Jim Blaylock.

JS: Working on a novel now? What is it?

TP: The new one is going to be set in Victorian London. Right now Iím putting together six feet or so of books on then and there, and theyíll doubtless lead me to more, on God knows what subjects. Iím sure Iíll find lots of details that are too cool not to use, and see evidence of supernatural business going on!

TP: I sent the editor two outlines ó book outlines are just bluff and guesswork, written before I do any research ó and she said go with the Victorian one. But the other was going to involve mountain-climbing. Iíve been reading a lot of horrifying non-fiction books about guys climbing Everest and the Eiger, and I would like the excuse some day to research all that. Itís made me resolve never to even go on a steep hike, but I can send my poor characters up those mountains!

JS: You have someone hiding a gun in a cat box in your new novel. Howíd you ever think of that? Wait, could it be...that you have 800 cats?

TP: Thatís correct.

TP: I guess I do see cat boxes as a more standard item of furniture than many people would! Incidentally, itís not 800. We figure we have more than ten cats, and less than twenty. We could easily name them off and count up the number, but we donít think weíd be happier knowing it than we are not knowing it. Iíve got one on my lap now, trying to help me type.

TP: And Iíd never hide a gun in a cat box. Some moron cat would manage to fire it.

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