Tim Powers’ novels start with real historical events and imagine occult forces behind the scenes. On Stranger Tides is an adventure story about magic among 18th Century pirates (and was the basis for the Pirates of the Caribbean movie of the same name). Last Call casts gangster Bugsy Siegel as the mythic Fisher King in 20th Century Las Vegas. And Declare connects British Cold War traitor Kim Philby with Noah’s Ark.
Powers writes a rare combination: Densely researched and rich novels that are also fast, exciting reads.
I interviewed Powers in February. Our conversation, like his books, was rich, entertaining, and fast, and it’s taken me this long to beat the transcript into an article
I kicked off the discussion by describing Powers’ novels as “secret histories.” But Powers said he doesn’t think of his work that way. He just thinks of his work as science fiction, fantasy and horror.
“What makes it secret history is an inevitable consequence of setting fantasy stories in the real world,” Powers said.
“When you read the LA Times there’s no mention of dead people coming back to life or anything like that. And so if you’re going to say magical stuff is going on, but there is no mention of it and most people aren’t aware of it, you pretty much have to say it’s secret history. That’s unavoidable,” he said.
Where he gets his ideas
Powers’ books start with his recreational nonfiction reading. “I’ll be reading some nonfiction just for fun, a biography or history or a book on sailing or something. And some detail will snag me and I’ll say, well, that’s enigmatic. And then if I come upon one or two more snags, I think there are enough oddities here that there is probably room to hang a book on it.
“And then I’ll start reading obsessively on whatever it is, as opposed to just recreationally. While I’m reading, I’m looking at it as if I’m a cold case detective. Except, while a normal researcher would be trying to figure out what really did happen, I’m looking for an imaginary supernatural story.
“Aside from the supernatural requirement, I’ll let the clues dictate what the secret backstory is. It may turn out to be ghosts or genies or vampires or some less refined thing, but I really do — maybe out of laziness and lack of imagination — let the research dictate the elements of the story.
“For example, in the book Declare, I was reading about Kim Philby, just because I find those guys fascinating.”
Philby was a high-ranking member of British intelligence who worked as a double agent before defecting to the Soviet Unionin 1963.
Philby “had been seen on the Turkish-Soviet border under really unexplainable circumstances,” Powers said. Philby had been very close to his father, who had been an early explorer of the Arabian desert and possibly discovered the lost city of Wabar (also known as the “Atlantis of the Sands“). Both Philby and his father “had a real weird attitude toward Catholicism and baptism.” Philby’s father converted to Islam.
Despite their close relationship, Philby “wasn’t terribly upset” when his father died. But Philby was “devastated” when his pet fox died.
“And the fox used to drink whiskey and smoke a pipe,” Powers said.
“And so I figure, you’ve got a lot of stuff in the Arabian desert, you’ve got the facts of Philby and his father both being very averse to baptism, you’ve got the lost city of Wabar, you’ve got possible reincarnation of the father into a fox. Then I checked out the Arabian Nights in the [Richard Francis] Burton translation.
“And there’s a lot of fox mythology in Arabian folklore. And so the research indicated genies, and it also indicated the details of espionage, Philby being a secret Communist agent during World War II and thereafter. And so really the whole course of the story was dictated predicated on what the research gave me.
“It’s not as if I arrived with the story I want to write. I combed the research looking for pieces of the story I’d eventually write.
“Often I’ve thought if you could get a really thorough big detailed biography of anybody, you can approach it with the kind of paranoid squint I use for research, and almost certainly find enough clues to hang a book on it.
How he started writing secret histories
It started with Laser Books, Harlequin Romance’s attempt to start a science fiction line in the 1970s. “They went 30 or 40 volumes and then decided science fiction didn’t sell nearly as well as romance did and canceled it. But then, the editor, Roger Elwood, said to me and KW Jeter and Ray Nelson, there is a British publisher who would be interested in a series of books about King Arthur reincarnated throughout history, would you guys like to write books in that series?”
The three authors divided history among themselves. Jeter wrote about Arthur in Victorian times and Powers wrote a story about Arthur returning in the Siege of Vienna in 1529.
“I discovered that setting up a book in actual history gives you a whole bunch of cool stuff for free,” Powers said. “If you want a map of the area your story takes place in, you don’t have to draw it, there is a map of Vienna. And if you want to know about the religious beliefs, or what the economic situation was, you don’t have to make anything up. You can find out what those things actually were. They’re all real colorful and dramatic and you get it all for free.
“That project collapsed. The British publisher decided they didn’t want those books after all. And we were all three of us left with books about King Arthur at various points in history. Jeter sold his to DAW Books, which was Morlock Night, and that was kind of the beginning of what was called steampunk. There were other things previously but those weren’t called steampunk.
I mentioned an essay by blogger and fantasy author Jo Walton, where she discusses how science fiction and fantasy readers approach fiction differently than other readers, picking up clues to what’s important about a story that other readers, unaccustomed to science fiction and fantasy, will miss. Powers said it was a good point.
“For example, my father was a big reader — fiction, nonfiction anything — but he could never get more than a chapter into any book of mine. It was the same with any science fiction or fantasy. He never learned the clue-discerning trick that science fiction and fantasy fans do.
“I think I would like to minimize that because, ideally, you don’t want your readership to be the people who are primed for that kind of thing. You look at Michael Crichton, say, and he manages to write a lot of what you’d have to call science fiction, but got everybody reading them. You ideally want make clue-discerning more evident, more reliably findable.
On the other hand: “I’m always very glad to have my books labeled and shelved as science fiction fantasy,” he says. Some editors and writer believe there’s an advantage to being published as mainstream, but Powers disagrees.
“The stuff I write is that weird goofy stuff, and I want it to be shelved where people who go looking for weird goofy stuff go looking. If a straight John le Carre reader were to pick up my book Declare, he might be comfortable enough in the first chapter or two, but by the time genies start popping up he’d have the same reaction my father had, which is, ‘Wait a second, hold it, when did this turn stupid?”
Powers says he wrote many first chapters of uncompleted books when he was in college.
“You come home at night. You don’t want to go to bed. You take out a piece of paper and you write CHAPTER ONE. And you write two pages, and you figure that’s pretty good. So you go to bed.
“And then the next night you’re in the mood again, so you pull out a fresh piece of paper and you write CHAPTER ONE. And you write a whole different thing.
“And eventually you realize, I’ve written a whole lot of page-and-a-halfs of various CHAPTER ONES. Add it all together, it’s a lot of words. But it’s not anything. What you’ve got to learn is: Every night when you’re in the mood, instead of starting something fresh, continue that previous thing until it’s done. Which was a tricky thing to learn, actually.
“And you need to remember that first draft work is supposed to be pedestrian and lifeless and stupid, and so if you write thirty or forty pages of first draft and you read it and find that it is in fact pedestrian and lifeless and stupid, you’ve got to tell yourself, good, we’re right on track, this is how it’s supposed to be. This leads to a finished book, which will ideally be good. This is one of the necessary steps. Rewriting and revision will make it, we hope, lively and interesting and suspenseful.
“I’ve always thought people who claim to have writers’ block are snagged at that point when they see that it’s stupid and tepid and lifeless. And obviously a person who has writer’s block isn’t claiming that they’re incapable of writing a sentence or a paragraph. They’re lamenting that when they do write a paragraph it’s dumb. And I would want to tell them, keep going, good, it’s supposed to be dumb. You’ll touch it up, you’ll fix it, you’ll polish it.
“In my own first drafts, when I re-read them, it always seems like a bunch of people in street clothes holding scripts, standing on a bare stage, looking at tape marks on the floor and reading from the script very haltingly. And you think ok, well, that’s the first rehearsal. We’re going to get sets, we’re going to get costumes, there will be real drinks in the glasses, this isn’t the finished production.
Powers writes 9 pm to 1 am.
“Greg Benford said you should write in the mornings because you’re smarter in the mornings. And I paid attention to that for a couple of days until I realized, no, I’m stupid in the morning. I don’t get my full IQ working until around noon. And from 9-1 at night there’s really not a lot of interruptions. It’s not like you’re going to go running off to do errands. The phone is unlikely to ring. There’s really no distractions from writing. From the outside at least.
I said the Internet is a mixed blessing for avoiding interruptions. You can do errands on the Internet to avoid interruptions, and email replaces phone calls. On the other hand, I said, Wikipedia is always a temptation.
Powers agreed. “And you go to Wikipedia for some virtuous reason, because you need to find out about something. Except there’s those words in blue and you click on those and oh gee what is that, and pretty soon you’re eight levels in and you can’t find your way back to the page you started out wanting to look at. And then there’s a little sidebar that says ‘two-headed dog,’ and you think, well, jeez, what the hell’s that.
“And then if anything leads you to YouTube, you’ve had it.
“Though YouTube is very useful for research. For example, in my last pubished book I had a character at the top of the Dome of St. Paul’s Cathedral in London. And I thought, well, is there a railing? How wide is the walkway? What do you see from there? Is it really noisy with wind? I’ve never been up there.
“Well you go to YouTube a hundred people have been up there and videoed it. And that’s true for any situation you can imagine. I wonder what it’s like to be on a sailing ship, squarerigger, standing at the bow in he middle of a storm. It would be useful to get some sensory impressions of that. I’ve never tried it but I’m sure a hundred people on YouTube have done it.
“What would it be like to be on skis going over a cliff in the Alps? Some poor devil has videoed it. You get to experience it to the extent of those two senses, sight and hearing.
I recalled a conversation where he said he finds it easier to write about places he’s never been.
Powers replied, “Yeah, that’s probably right. It’ll all be new and exotic. You get picture books, or YouTube, or with Google Earth you can drop the little orange man down into the street and look around. It will all strike you as new and intriguing and you’ll notice details that characterize it for you. If you’re looking at someplace you’re real familiar with, a lot of those evocative details that would strike a stranger and a reader as remarkable are going to kind of fall out of your radar. You’re too familiar with it.
“I remember the first time we went to Las Vegas for research for a book. All kinds of things struck me as striking and odd and peculiar and questionable. I noted them all and put them in a book. If I lived in Las Vegas, I don’t think those would even have caught my attention.
“I had a book set in Venice. Hemingway wrote a book set in Venice, Across the River and Into the Trees. Hemingway was great guy for details. I said, ‘Why don’t you read Across the River an Into the Trees, and see if you can pick up some striking little elements you can use?’ Except Hemingway was so familiar with Venice he didn’t even describe the damn place.
“I have lived within an hour of LA since 1959 and am fairly familiar with it. When we’re driving around for research, I try to think, ‘Be a tourist. Pretend this is your first time. What the hell is that? When did they do the pavement this way? Who would have thought you needed parking meters on this street?’ I try to look at it fresh.
A thousand words.
Powers puts in a quota of a thousand words a day.
“That gets interrupted sometimes because you stop and think, ‘Hold it, we need to know a whole lot more of what this guy is up to than what we are aware of so far.’ And I’ll go to a scratch file and talk to myself for several pages until I can figure out what he is up to. But then I will resume the thousand words a day.
The scratch file is a stream-of-consciousness document.
When planning out stories in your head, “you come to a conclusion which is likely to be dumb and you don’t remember all the steps of logic that led you to it,” Powers said. When “thinking into the keyboard” you’ll also come to a dumb conclusion — but you can backtrack through your thought process, find the fork where things went wrong, and take a different path. When planning a story that way, Powers even types “um um um” as if he were thinking out loud.
Powers also uses scratch files to sketch out scenarios of different ways the story might play out.
“I’ll say, ‘Did he know his friend had been killed when he spoke to this person in the diner?'” Powers writes out the consequence of what would happen if the character knew, and also what would happen if he didn’t know, and works on the one that looks best.
Powers keeps a long, “obsessively detailed” outline of his novel in progress. The outline is thorough and searchable, and Powers tries to include searchable key phrases and mark passages in bold and red to find details that need to be referred to later in the story, such as when a character last appeared in a story and what he was wearing at the time.
Powers outlines in advance. “I try to outline so absolutely that I’ll never be stuck with a question as I’m writing. My outline, before I ever start, includes bits of dialogue, even some descriptions. Of course when you’re actually writing the book, it turns out there’s things you didn’t think to outline. But I try to minimize those snags by outlining in advance to a obsessive or insane degree.”
A Powers outline might be a hundred pages single spaced, with auxiliary files on specific topics like Kim Philby or the British Secret Service — about half of the length of the finished book.
“In order to build a building, you put up so much scaffolding that the scaffolding outweighs the building,” Powers says.
Powers writes sequentially, unlike many writers who write scenes out of order and then stitch them together.
“I could never write Chapter 13 before Chapters 1-12. For one thing, there would be an infinity of tiny details that carry through, and if I wrote chapter 13 in isolation I wouldn’t know what those are. It’s like if you took one segment of a building out, and tried to design the 13th floor before you design the rest of the building, you wouldn’t know where to put the plumbing and wiring,” Powers says.
Powers doesn’t blog or use social media. “My publisher set up a Facebook page for me, but there is very little activity on it, and I don’t get on as often as I should, I’m sure. A lot of times people say, ‘You have to do that, you have to tweet, blog, Facebook.’ I always think, well, why? And they say, well, to promote your work. And I say, well, that seems vulgar. I’m supposed to talk about my books? What am I supposed to say about my books? I know the opinion I’d have of somebody who wouldn’t shut up about his damn books. I don’t want to be that guy.
“And Twitter. What are you supposed to talk about? What you had for breakfast? ‘Oh, my cat vomited on the keyboard again.’ I’ve never seen a purpose for it that I thought it would be worth me participating in.
“To an extent, I think I have an advantage in that I have been [writing professionally] forever. I think I’m fortunate in that I’ve been published since the 70s. I think if I was starting out right now, the online presence would be much more urgent. It does seem like there’s this vast churning crowd and you’ve got to do something to draw people’s eye to you.
“I’m always afraid that the things that intererest me would be of only mild interest to other people most of the time. And I have a kind of reflexive reluctance to talk about my own work, unless somebody asks. Like on panels, I don’t think I ever mention the titles of my books.
“I’d have a horror of seeming to say I think you should try out one of my books. You may as well get ‘obnoxious pig’ tattooed on your forehead.
“I always think of something Eric Flint said, he said the best way to promote your book is to write another book. Which I find comfortable because that’s what I want to do. I always think advice must be correct if it confirms me in what I’m already doing.
“Some people do it really well. I always read John Scalzi‘s blog. There’s a lot of blogs I keep up with and I find them entertaining. I’m glad Scalzi publishes books every now and then of his collected blogs. But if I did it, I don’t think anybody would be interested in a book of The Collected Blogs of Tim Powers.”
Powers most recent novel is Hide Me Among the Graves.
He’s revising his next novel, which he expects to finish by the end of the year. He describes it as “The House of Usher in the Hollywood Hills. When a brother & sister return to the big old house they grew up in, horrible consequences from the 1920s pop up to give them a bad time.”