Interview: Tim Powers

By Lyda Morehouse

Tim Powers is a two-time winner of the World Fantasy Award for Last Call (1992) and Declare (2001). He has also twice won the Philip K. Dick Memorial Award for The Anubis Gates (1984) and Dinner at Deviant's Palace (1986). Similarly both Expiration Date (1996) and Earthquake Weather (1998) won Locus Awards.

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Lyda Morehouse: You have suggested that certain reviewers have been taking an anti-Catholic view of your most recent book, Declare. Tell me more about that.

Tim Powers: Several reviewers and one judge for an award felt that the book was a pro-Catholic tract, I guess in the manner of C.S. Lewis's Out of the Silent Planet trilogy, in which Christianity is aggressively presented as true and important.

I love the Lewis trilogy, but I'd never write anything with a message, myself. I hate books in which the writer seemed to have "something to say." Ideally—and it seems in general to be the case—readers of my stuff should have no idea what my religion or politics are. I'm convinced that sneaking any kind of message into fiction makes cardboard metaphors out of the characters and the events (there are exceptions, as with the Lewis, but if I were to try it, it would not be an exception).

My book was a supernatural adventure story, with the supernatural stuff mostly based on The Thousand and One Nights. Since one of the historical characters, Kim Philby, had a peculiar and intriguing attitude toward Catholicism, I made Catholicism be true in the definition of the world the story takes place in—so that baptism, for instance, has a real effect on a person's identity, and the genies are stray angels. In other books I've written, Catholicism has not been true in the definition of the story's world—as in The Drawing of the Dark, in which reincarnation occurs.

I think the people who saw a Catholic agenda in the book were all people who knew—through interviews and such stuff—that in fact I am a practicing Catholic, and so they fired their guns toward a position they presumed I had occupied. I don't think they were particularly anti-Catholic—just not approving of any current organized religion. I'm sure they'd have been equally annoyed if I'd written a novel in which Judaism were true, or Islam. And I think they would have had no problem with a book using an extinct organized religion, like the elaborate ancient Egyptian system.

This illustrates the advantages of being a mysterious recluse writer, like Thomas Pynchon or B. Traven.

LM: How do you define yourself primarily, as a horror/SF/F writer?

TP: I guess I define myself as a fantasy writer. And sometimes science fiction. "The sort of stuff that gets reviewed in Locus," basically.

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LM: Do you think that an author should never have an agenda—religious, political, or otherwise—when they write? How does an author exclude their personal leanings, political or otherwise, without ending up with similarly cardboard characters?

TP: Well, there's a difference between an agenda—or message—and a theme, I think.

Any fiction writer is going to make his or her own sense of morality evident in any story, involuntarily, just in the choices of what sort of problems are presented as being worth the characters' and the readers' concern, and what sort of choices and resolutions follow. As I say, this is pretty much involuntary. And it's likely to wind up illustrating a pretty basic sort of morality: courage, generosity, loyalty are good; treachery, cruelty, avarice are bad. And other things show up involuntarily—Philip K. Dick wrote a lot of scary, crazy women characters; Lovecraft always wrote about the sea with dread; Stephen King often puts children up against the worst sorts of natural or supernatural catastrophes. I'm guessing those things are reflexive in those writers, not deliberate.

A message is going to be a finished thought, deliberately inserted; a theme is going to be a subconscious question, occurring as spontaneously as fermentation in grape juice. And it might contradict the writer's surface opinions. When I see something like a theme cropping up in something I'm writing, I might try not to obstruct it, but I'd never presume to summarize it or express it. I wouldn't presume to know what my subconscious mind's opinions are.

I've said that when I'm seventy I'll hire a psych major to read my books and tell me what my themes, if any, have been. In the meantime I don't want to know! I think there are some—sometimes it seems to me that I write about fathers and sons more than randomness would provide for, and dysfunctional families; but I really don't know what, if anything, I have to say about these topics, except "fathers and sons should get along, families should not be dysfunctional."

I mean, what sort of statement can a writer make, in a story? "Racism is bad," "Sexism is bad," "Homophobia is bad." Well, sure—but a bumper sticker could have conveyed those, no need for a whole novel. And if you try to make a novel express these things, illustrate these things, it seems to me that the characters and settings and events just become jigsawed metaphor figures. Somebody once told me, "Dracula is actually about the plight of 19th-century women," and I said, "No, it's about a guy who lives forever by drinking other people's blood—don't take my word for it, check it out."

LM: Do you think that writers have no moral obligation when writing? What would you say about the author who writes, possibly even subconsciously, that "racism is good"? And, on a similar note, hasn't SF/F always been the place for these kinds of stories? Sure, we all mock the Star Trek episode where there's the obvious half-white, half-black people, but don't most of us also extol Theodore Sturgeon for writing his "homophobia is bad" story "World Well Lost" in 1958?

TP: Well, this is a point worth a bit of pursuing—you're right, SF/F is often described as a form in which the author can "sneak up on the readers," convey opinions about current social and moral issues in disguise; in the '50s you could seem to be talking about the Galactic Overlord while actually making incisive points about Joe McCarthy and the House Committee on Un-American Activities. Dystopias are generally warnings about social and political trends current when the books were written.

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And sometimes a very good writer can have a consciously concocted message like that, and still write a story with vivid and believable characters in a convincing situation—Orwell's 1984, Lewis's That Hideous Strength, Dick's A Scanner Darkly—but mostly I think of some of the stories that Galaxy was publishing in 1968-1970—alien empires and far-future civilizations that were mainly concerned with student unrest and legalizing marijuana. You can hear Jefferson Airplane playing in the background.

"The World Well Lost" is a great piece of writing—Sturgeon is one of my all-time heroes—but it's a fable or a parable or something. The aliens aren't aliens we're supposed to believe are real, especially in their messages from their home planet ("Don't bother with parachutes"); and the Earth isn't real, and the spaceships aren't real (especially the "life-boat"). They're all props to make a pre-decided point.

But what I want from SF/F stuff is a totally convincing world and characters, with self-consistent depths and histories that extend beyond the edges of the page. (Sturgeon has done this too, of course.) I want to think it's real, happening to real people. And as soon as I get a hint that these characters and events were selected to make some point about the war in Iraq or the plight of illegal immigrants in California—valid though these points may be—the story sustains a massive injury. My credulity sags.

I don't like specific, conscious metaphors! You can arrange your hand so that its shadow looks like a dog or a bird, but it's not going to seem to be a natural gesture. Joan Didion said art is hostile to ideology—I think she meant that art won't docilely assume a prescribed posture.

As I said earlier, a writer's moral convictions are in fact likely to be fairly evident, just in the sorts of conflicts the writer thinks are worth attention, and in the resolutions that the writer thinks are logical and satisfying; but I think these are going to be instinctively arrived at, not consciously selected. And the resulting themes are likely to be general, not readily affixable to some contemporary issue. (I've found that people who like my fiction tend to assume that I agree with them on politics and religion, though often as not I don't.) And if the convictions should ever be explicitly deduced and shown to the writer, he or she might be surprised—even dismayed.

So no, I don't think writers have any moral obligations when writing. All you can do is helplessly present your own core convictions, as illustrated in your (ideally unconsidered) selection of characters and problems and resolutions. Kingsley Amis wrote a couple of misogynistic novels, Lewis wrote pro-Christian novels and Pullman writes anti-Christian novels, James Branch Cabell's The High Place was believed to be a motivator in the Leopold-Loeb murders, Kipling and Lovecraft and Robert E. Howard probably wrote some "racism is good" stories—my own characters often drive cars while drunk!—but I don't think any of these would benefit by revisions to make them more moral, and I don't wish any of them hadn't been written.

LM: You said of fiction that you "want to think it's real, happening to real people." Can you talk a little bit more about why that's important to you and how you make it work?

TP: Well, I want the magic to seem to be really happening—I want the readers to be as vicariously disoriented by the appearance of the supernatural in the story as they would actually be if it happened to them in real life. (Easy to say!) What I don't want is for the reader to come across the first mention of magic and think, "Oh, I see, this is an imaginary story." To me, Magic Realism stories generally tend to be "imaginary stories"—for one thing, the characters never seem to be very surprised by the occurrence of magic. If a lady in a Magic Realism story floats away into the sky and nobody's astonished, then I don't believe a real lady did it—a lady in a Dali painting did it.

I guess I think it's important just because we still have the hard-wiring in our heads that makes us half-suspect there really might be fairies in the garden and ghosts in the cellar. I mean, Darwin has raised our foreheads and pushed back our eyebrows, and stopped us dragging our knuckles on the ground when we walk, but that scared-of-the-dark circuitry hasn't been trimmed. I've heard mature, serious people say, "I'm not scared of ghosts, I'm scared of urban gangs and terrorism and pollution!"—and I always think, "Sure, you say that now, in daylight, with lots of other people around."

So I think the capacity to believe in the supernatural is always there, below the critical rational level. You just have to make it look believable, which isn't exactly the same thing as making it look logical. For one thing, if you make magic be very systematic and reliable, it becomes just a not-fully-explained technology—some cool opportunities for flying carpets and demons in pentagrams, but you've lost the "numinous" factor, the vertiginous awe inherent in the plain fact of magic occurring at all. It's no more a violation of reality than a Chevy station wagon would be to Charlemagne—a big surprise, but not an intrusion of a different reality.

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If magic is to seem real, it's got to seem to be the intrusion of a different sort of reality—different and bigger, since it deals with the future and talking with dead people, and therefore doesn't seem to be bound into sequential time the way we are. Things that live in that bigger perspective are not going to think the way we do, aren't going to have motivations that we could relate to, or that we could even recognize as motivations. "Not only stranger than we know, but stranger than we can know," as somebody said about quantum mechanics.

So how does a writer convey that sort of thing? Not just by having them behave at total random, though even that's better than saying that these creatures want human women, or gold, or control of human governments. I think I try to mix a couple of things to get past the reader's conscious incredulity.

For one thing, since I always work in an actual historical time and place, I take into account the sorts of magic people believed in then and there. Voodoo, for instance. And I read up on it and try to find (what probably isn't even actually there) a core consistency, a core creed. And I feel free to torque it or force it, to come up with a useful definition and then say, "This is what all those myths were partly accurate and half-remembered descriptions of." And then—since this is fantasy, after all—I feel free to use scientific ideas and effects on ridiculously wrong scales. I'll have a fortune-teller's tossed coin behave the way an electron does, or have a running ghost show the optical oddities of a body approaching the speed of light. For the intrusion of inhabitants of the bigger reality, I'll try to imagine us as Mr. A. Square of Flatland, and the intruder as a 3-dimensional guy passing through our 2-dimensional world. What I hope all this does is convey an alienness that seems to have a kind of logic to it, like non-Euclidean geometry. And—in pursuit of the reader's credulity!—I try to be careful not to have any extraneous impossibilities sneak in. I would never have an invisible man who could see, for instance—unless he saw exclusively in infrared or ultraviolet, I guess. I'd never have mass appear from nowhere, or disappear into nowhere. I'd have to give a lot of thought to levitation, and if I have any two-inch-tall guys wandering around I've got to worry about how much they eat and how they keep warm, and whether or not they can think.

I think I learned all this from Fritz Leiber, who learned a lot of it from H. P. Lovecraft! And of course Lovecraft was a total materialist who nevertheless recognized that people do still have all this circuitry, still ready to light up if you put the right sort of battery to it.

LM: A writer friend of mine, Kelly McCullough, who was a student of yours at Writers of the Future a few years ago, attributes to you the idea that you create characters who are like employees. They have a job to do. If they go off and do something else (which a lot of other writers like to talk about in terms of their characters surprising them/having a life of their own), you fire them. Does that make you a plot-driven writer instead of character-driven?

TP: Well, my characters are like actors in a play I've written, let's say. During the performance I don't want them to abandon the script and start making up a new, ad-lib play! When the performance starts, my characters have no free will at all, though of course I hope they're good enough actors to make the audience think they have free will.

I've heard writers say things like, "My characters have lives of their own! Bathsheba the Snake Woman became real to me, and I just watched and typed in amazement as she carried on." Imagine one of these writers trying to get to the airport! "I wound up in Mazatlan, the car had a will of its own!"

But I let my characters have plenty of free will and spontaneity, and every opportunity to show me what they'd prefer to do, during the lengthy period in which I'm writing notes and trying to figure out what's going to happen and what the characters are going to do. I'll even write off-camera scenes and dialogues, to see what this-or-that character could do, and I'm forever—for too damn long, anyway!—considering every sort of alternate plot development I can think of, and ways to combine two characters into one or vice versa, or to make this guy admirable after all, or to have this guy be remarkable for not, after all, being covered with tattoos. When I'm finally done with all this, and have written the authoritative outline, I figure the time for spontaneity is passed, and I won't put up with it if some character tries to exhibit it. (Well, realistically speaking, I'll let a few spontaneous ideas sneak in, if they don't have an effect on the finalized plot.)

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So I'm definitely a plot-driven writer! If I let my characters do what they want, they'd all just sleep till noon and be drunk by sundown, and the big action would be when they got evicted for not paying rent and couldn't get their crappy cars started.

LM: How long does it take you to write a novel? And what do you make of the whole idea that a successful novelist ought to write a novel a year?

TP: It takes me a long time. Longer than I can really justify, I guess. But I do have to do a powerful lot of reading before I can even figure what sort of plot would fit into the period I'm writing about and the things that were going on then. I take heaps of notes, make dozens of long, cross-indexed files! And I freely let myself get sidetracked on peripheral topics, which generally don't prove to be useful (though it's very nice when they do!). And then I have to figure out my plot and characters, in a lot of detail since I want to have made the tricky decisions in the outlining stage rather than be surprised by them as I'm writing—though inevitably a few sneak in anyway. All this winds up taking about a year, somehow.

Then all that's left is to write it; and with revisions and all, if the book is in the neighborhood of 200,000 words, that takes about a year too. And then the editor usually has some suggestions for revisions, which prove to be good ideas.

If I wrote a novel a year, they wouldn't be the sorts of novels I write. They might be better, objectively!—but in my eyes, at least, they wouldn't be what they could be. The real reason to write fiction, after all, isn't to make money, nor to show the human heart in conflict with itself, nor to give a picture of one's time, nor to call attention to the plight of any oppressed classes, but to show off. You want to be able to say to visitors, "Sit down, let me clear that stuff off the couch, it's copies of my new novel." And to show off effectively, I want each book to be as close as I can get it to what I want it to be. It's like making six-foot-tall replicas of Gothic cathedrals out of toothpicks in your basement—you might as well get all the saints' faces right.

LM: Many of our readers probably know you not only from your writing, but also from your various teaching gigs—Clarion, Writers of the Future, etc.—so, tell me: what's the appeal? Why do you teach? And, do you think writing is something anyone can learn to do?

TP: Good questions. At Clarion and Writers of the Future I find myself with a crowd of people who want to know about something I know about, and who can actually benefit from what I tell them. This is a fairly uncommon situation, ordinarily!—unless you happen to be a physician or a car mechanic. With those two workshops there's at least some reason to believe that the participants could go on to be substantial writers, and so my help is likely to have counted for something. Basically it's a kick to be able to explain what you do, and why, and what ways proved not to work, and why, to people who are interested and will use the information. And I always tell them to remember, when they're accepting Hugos and Nebulas, to thank Powers for having told them all the crucial things—though somehow in the excitement of the moment they've forgotten to do it!

A few years ago a book of mine was up for a Nebula, but didn't win—and the book that won was by Nicola Griffith, who was a Clarion student of mine in '88. (Well, I was one of the six instructors, anyway.) And it was oddly satisfying to have her get it.

I also teach high school and college writing classes, part-time, and this is fun too, though the odds of any of them going on to publish are a lot less. Basically I guess I just like to hear myself talk. I tell a lot of funny stories.

No, I don't think writing is something that anyone can learn to do. Even literate people who passionately want to do it prove to be unable, sometimes! Well, by "it" I mean "write and get it published," not just "write." Anybody can just write!

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What a lot of students mean by "it" is "write and get the stuff published and make a living at that trade," which I think is impossible for most people. I mean, think about it—how long does it take you to write a book, from the first plotting notes to the final draft? How much money does it take for you to live that length of time, in terms of rent, gasoline, cigarettes, Taco Bell, car insurance? It's unlikely that the publisher's advance payment on the book is going to be as much as that amount of money. And if you want to add in factors like health insurance and payments toward retirement, it's even less likely.

But lots of people are both (A) literate and well-read and quirky enough to write publishable fiction, and (B) don't know the ways to do it and not do it. You could synthesize those ways from intensive analysis of what you read, just as an uneducated person could figure out the multiplication tables unaided, but it's easier to look at the cumulative experiences of people who have already done it! I never went to a writing workshop, but I did read lots of "what works" articles, by Lovecraft, Leiber, Kingsley Amis, Damon Knight, Algis Budrys, and so forth. In fact a lot of those were book reviews—a book review by a pro writer can have lots of nice bits of advice in it. Even just a few statements, like Hemingway's "cut the first three pages and let the story begin with the next complete sentence," or Elmore Leonard's "leave out the bits that readers skip over," can transform somebody who never thought of them before. And of course learning the details of how a manuscript should look and how it should be submitted are a big step forward.

So yes, I think "writing" can be taught, given a likely student and a teacher who knows the ways it's done and can articulate them. And I think dead teachers who wrote down their advice are as good as living teachers.

Just as an aside—I'd never advise trying to learn fiction writing from somebody who hasn't had a lot of fiction published; just as I wouldn't advise learning sailing from somebody who doesn't sail a lot. I think it's useless to "major in" Creative Writing in college—editors won't care about your MFA degree, and the teachers have seldom had more than one or two books of their own published, if that. Of course getting an MFA is crucial if all you want to do is teach Creative Writing!

LM: What are you working on now?

TP: What I'm working on now is a novel set in southern California in 1987, which was the year they had that Harmonic Convergence thing. In the novel it turns out that the Harmonic Convergence was a bad idea. And the novel involves consequences of Einstein having lived in Pasadena during the winters of '31, '32, and '33.

When Einstein told FDR to get busy on the atomic bomb in 1941, he did not tell the president about another thing he knew of that could be used as a vastly more horrible weapon. But now in 1987 various agencies—including the NSA and the Mossad—have found hints of it, and want it. Our hero has an Irish-sounding name, but he discovers that he's Einstein's grandson by way of Einstein's first child, Lieserl; and now all the conflicts are focusing on him and his twelve-year-old daughter.

And there's gunfights and car chases, and ghosts.

LM: Before I close, does the new book have a title yet (and/or a publication date), so your fans will know what to look for?

TP: No, the new one has no title yet—my computer files just call it "NextChapter1," "NextChapter2," and so forth. And I can't guess at a publication date, since I don't really know when it'll be done!


Lyda Morehouse

Lyda Morehouse writes about what gets people in trouble: religion and politics. Her first novel, Archangel Protocol, a cyberpunk hard-boiled detective novel with a romantic twist, won the 2001 Shamus. Fallen Host made the preliminary Nebula ballot. Her most recent work is Apocalypse Array. Lyda lives in Saint Paul with her partner of nineteen years, son Mason, and four cats. You can read other pieces by Lyda in our archive.