Tim Powers is the author of such novels as The Anubis Gates, Last Call, and Declare. Along with his friends James Blaylock and K.W. Jeter, he’s considered one of the founders of the steampunk genre. He was also good friends with Philip K. Dick, who included a character based on Tim in his novel Valis. Tim’s pirate novel, On Stranger Tides, inspired the video game, The Secret of Monkey Island, and also provided the premise for the fourth Pirates of the Caribbean movie.
This interview first appeared in January 2016 on Wired.com’s The Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy podcast, which is hosted by David Barr Kirtley and produced by John Joseph Adams. Visit geeksguideshow.com to listen to the interview or other episodes.
Your new book is called Medusa’s Web; what’s that about?
Broadly speaking, I guess, it’s about a brother and sister who return to the decrepit mansion in the Hollywood Hills where they were brought up. Their aunt has died and left a will, and when they get there they discover that they’re enmeshed in a bunch of supernatural mysteries that have their origins in Hollywood in the 1920s.
Right, the book jacket describes this as The House of Usher in the Hollywood Hills.
Does it really? Okay. That’s not bad.
In what way do you think it’s similar to The House of Usher?
The House of Usher is mentioned in the book. At one point, there’s kind of ghostly communication with the dead aunt. In the midst of dementia and gibberish, she quotes some bits from The House of Usher, and so I kept that story in mind as I was plotting the book. So, it’s a big, old, dangerous house occupied by a couple of insane and evil people.
You sort of have two pairs of siblings, too, which kind of reminds one of The House of Usher.
In fact, one of them is named Madeline, as the sister was in The House of Usher.
So, then, Library Journal says, “This novel is as weird as anything Powers has written.” Do you agree with that?
Yeah. I started with idly reading a biography of Rudolph Valentino and discovered that it took two priests to give him last rites when he was dying. One priest came to attend in him in his hospital bed, and baffled, had to leave and come back with another priest in order to do it thoroughly. I thought that was intriguing. You know, what would constitute an obstacle in that?
Then the other thing was that I’ve always been struck by Cordwainer Smith’s story, “The Game of Rat and Dragon,” in which the adversaries are two-dimensional. I was thinking, “How would two-dimensional creatures even manifest themselves? Much less pose a threat.” And so, I took those two things, and researched very hard into Valentino, which led me to various other figures in Hollywood in the ’20s. And also to Aubrey Beardsley, who inspired Valentino’s second wife—she was a costume and set designer. And of course once Aubrey Beardsley came up, the idea of two-dimensional things looked pursuable, since drawings are two-dimensional, so it sort of went from there. As Library Journal said, it did wind up very weird.
Say more about your writing process, because this is how you write novels, right? You do a lot of research and you try to draw connections between the odd facts that you discover?
Yeah, it usually starts I’ll just be reading some non-fiction for fun and snag on some fact and think, “That seems irrational. That seems inadequately explained. Wait a minute, why would the guy do that?” And, if I run into two or three such snags in a non-fiction book, I start to think, “Maybe you could cook up a supernatural backstory in which those enigmatic or apparently irrational actions actually make sense.” And, as soon as I decide that, it stops being recreational reading.
For example, I almost pursued a book on mountain climbing after reading Jon Krakauer’s Into Thin Air, so I got a whole bunch of books on mountain climbing, and it never went anywhere, but it might still one day. But I just read anything connected with the initial impetus, and I feel free to follow any sidelines that show up; like, if I discovered that Valentino had been an ardent beekeeper, or his father had been, or his family, I would have felt bound to read up on beekeeping looking for weird clues. As I read in this very widespread net way, I’m always looking for odd facts, persons, habits, tradition, rituals, locations that are too cool not to use. Once I’ve got twenty or thirty things that are too cool not to use, obviously I have twenty or thirty pieces of my eventual book, and so the trick then is to connect the dots. I never approach a project with a story in mind and then do research to shore it up. I always do the research looking for the pieces that will eventually make up the book. I have no story in mind before the research provides it.
One of your rules for yourself that I think is really interesting is that you say that you can’t violate any actual historical fact.
Yeah, that’s kind of for two reasons. One, I really want the story to seem to be taking place in this here actual world that we’re in. I don’t want any hint that it’s an alternate reality. I want to emphasize, no, it’s here. It’s this here reality. Sticking very strictly to the facts is sort of a good discipline, too. The readers are always smarter than you suspect. If I was to deviate from what I know actually happened, some readers would say, “Oh, I guess this must be some kind of imaginary world.”
And then, sort of superstitiously, if you look at it as an arbitrary rule, I feel like it’s good luck to stick with established facts, and days of the calendar, and who was actually where, and what they actually talked about. It seems like deviating from that reality just for the convenience of an easier assembled plot would be bad luck.
Right, and when you picked up this biography of Rudolph Valentino, were you a fan of his, or a fan of those sorts of films already?
Yeah, my wife and I are both big fans of silent movies, her more than me. She’s always telling me, “You’ve got to read this book. You’ve got to read up on this guy.” In fact, Medusa’s Web involves peripherally the murder of this 1920s director, William Desmond Taylor, and to this day, nobody knows who killed him. My wife said, “You’ve got to read this biography of William Desmond Taylor. It’s fascinating.” And so I did, and I thought, “You know, yeah, what the hell was going on there?” It was a pretty small world, really, a small society then in Hollywood. He was involved with Valentino and Natacha Rambova, who was Valentino’s second wife, and Alla Nazimova, who was a sort of glamour queen at the time, though she wound up in penury late in life. All of them turned out to be fascinating characters, and the structure of my book is such that my 2015 characters get to meet and interact with those historical people.
It sounds like it was a little dangerous being a director back then, because you mentioned that this guy, Thomas Ince, died under mysterious circumstances as well.
That’s right. I also deal with Thomas Ince’s death, which again was very mysterious. He died on William Randolph Hearst’s yacht during a little cruise, and everybody who had been guests on that cruise later insisted that they had not been. “Oh, I was nowhere near there. I was in New York.” And Ince’s body was taken off the boat and immediately cremated, and then Hearst paid a fortune to Ince’s widow, and in fact, there’s been a lot of speculation about what, exactly, killed Ince. There was a movie called, I think, The Cat’s [Meow] about that incident, and in that movie it was Hearst himself who killed Ince, because allegedly Ince had been carrying on with Hearst’s girlfriend, Marianne Davies.
What is it exactly that you and your wife find so interesting about these silent movies?
For one thing, it was a whole lot freer. It was, of course, way before all the codes, and there were a lot of things people worry about now that never occurred to those old movie makers to worry about: sexism, racism. It was kind of a wild and undisciplined field. And they were actually really good actors, since they didn’t have dialogue to convey things. People always think of silent movie stars as sort of mugging and using exaggerated expressions, but actually Lillian Gish, Mary Pickford, many of them were really great actors.
And it’s interesting to see what they were able to accomplish with hardly any special effects. I mean, they could do some things in camera, like make someone seem to disappear or run things backwards, but all the stunts were absolutely real. Somebody had to actually do all those things. Plus, a silent movie could be shown anywhere in the world. All you had to do was change the language of the dialogue cards. It didn’t need dubbing or subtitles.
It was brief, since in 1927 the talkies came in. So, it was a brief period of movie making, but a lot deeper and richer than most people appreciate.
In particular, this book really focuses on this 1923 film, Salome. Why did you decide to kind of focus on that one?
Mainly because Natacha Rambova, who designed the costumes and the sets, was powerfully influenced by Aubrey Beardsley. In fact, in the credits it says, “inspired by Aubrey Beardsley,” and because I posit that Rambova and Alla Nazimova, who made the movie, who was the director and star, were both very involved with Valentino, so it was a short step to take a close look at that movie. And then once I watched the movie with the kind of paranoid, schizophrenic squint I adopt when I’m doing research, it was very easy to say that the movie, its details, were in fact closely aligned with the concerns of my book, the supernatural situation that I say applied at the time to those people. It’s a weird movie. It’s a kind of spooky, weird, senseless movie.
Those supernatural elements are really referenced, I think, in the title, Medusa’s Web. Do you want to say a bit about why you decided to title the book that way?
The two-dimensional things that provoke these sort of possessions, or visions, or trans-temporal interludes, are based on some abstract things Beardsley did, and it was easy to say that, well, they look like spiders. Let’s say they are eight-limbed patterns which provoke this effect on anyone who looks at them, and at that point, I always start thinking about mythology. I think, “Well, what do you have for spiders in mythology?” And I thought, “Well, there’s the African spiders, the Anansi, the African spider god, but Neil Gaiman kind of grabbed that.” So, I thought, “Well, what about Medusa? How many snakes were on her head? Let’s say it was eight.” And looking extensively into the Medusa mythology, I discovered that in the very oldest renderings of her she really was just a head, a bodiless head, and so when Perseus cut her head off, maybe that is the story remembered slightly wrong. Maybe she was always a bodiless head, and if we say she had eight snakes growing out of her head, you’re kind of at the spider at that point.
So, I conflated Medusa, and spiders, and webs, and I like to think that at least for the duration of somebody reading the book, it will sort of make sense.
And the characters in this book suggest that Medusa didn’t actually turn people to stone. That that’s a bit of a mistranslation. Is that true?
Right, I say that what the original Greek text was is something more like rigid, paralyzed, frozen, rather than literal granite, or something. That was a convenience for my plot, and a plausible thing to say. I mean, who’s going to say that the old Greek myth wasn’t that way?
Half the time, if it’s very late at night, I find sometimes when I open some new research book, it’ll appear to confirm my fictional theory, and I’ll think, “Oh my god, Powers, you’re not making this up. You’ve stumbled on the actual story here.” Except in the morning, I’m sane again.
Because you’re able to draw connections between this Medusa spider thing and all sorts of things. I mean, you mention King David, and La Mano Negra, and the Tarantella Dance, just all these kind of things.
Yeah, all that stuff fit in really with no shoehorning at all. The Tarantella Dance, for example, really was originally supposed to be done in order to cure the effects of a spider bite, and “Tarantella” is where the word, apparently, “tarantula” comes from. And I thought, “Well, jeez, that’s handy.” And Valentino lived for a while in Toronto where the Tarantella originated, and I think, “Jeepers, this is practically writing itself.” That’s the sort of moment where I think, “Oh my god, I bet this is all true.” And what were the other things you mentioned?
King David and La Mano Negra.
Yeah, La Mano Negra, of course, you’ve got a black hand, there’s five, put three more on it, and you’ve got eight limbs, eight legs. There is a story about King David hiding from, I think, King Saul—King David wasn’t King David yet—he hid in a cave and a spider obligingly quickly built a web across the mouth of the cave, and so when King Saul’s soldiers came by, they said, “Obviously, he ain’t hiding in that cave. He would have busted the spider web if he ran in there.” The spider helped David out, and of course it’s very easy to say, “Well, that’s how tradition remembers it, but actually, David hung one of these spider’s symbols over the mouth of the cave, which disoriented and provoked fits in his pursuers when they saw it.”
To come across a fact like that, do you go searching somehow for spider mythology? Or are you just reading random things all the time and coming across that sort of thing.
Both. Once I know the direction, I’ll start looking for mentions of spiders, or Medusa, or etc. Fortunately, for example, for the Bible, there’s giant concordances, and you can just look up “spiders” in the Bible, and it’ll give you every reference. Another handy thing is Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations. You can look up Medusa, or spiders, or whatever is relevant in the back, and it’ll say, “Sophocles on,” “Plato on,” “Shakespeare on,” “Marlowe on,” and you can look up all those quotes, and with luck find one or two that make you think, “Oh boy, yes sir, uh huh, I can use this.”
How about in the films? Because you also mention odd spider references in films, like in Ingmar Bergman.
Yeah, that’s weird as hell, that Bergman movie, In a Glass Darkly?
Through a Glass Darkly.
A quote from St. Paul. There’s a weird scene in there where the woman who is going crazy says God in the form of a spider materialized out of a wall and tried to rape her. I think, “Cool,” and therefore I say—in fact what I say with all of this research is—“That’s no coincidence.” Bergman is referring to this phenomenon which had always been a secret vice in the movie industry. Always, with research, my governing principle is none of this is a coincidence. If Einstein did something in Germany on the same day that Charlie Chaplin broke his toe in Hollywood, I think, “Aha, not a coincidence.”
Of course, I’d be nuts if I took this into everyday life.
I was also really curious about the thing about Henrik Ibsen’s rough draft of A Doll’s House.
There wasn’t actually a rough draft that his agent forced him to revise. I made that up. But, in the play, which one is it?
A Doll’s House.
Oh, A Doll’s House, yeah, at one point the woman character does go into a frenzied Tarantella dance. I think, “Well, okay, it’s not a coincidence.” How did she happen to get exposed to one of these spiders so that she had to do that? Well, I don’t know, let’s read the play with a paranoid eye, and look for what a suppressed first draft might have consisted of without altering the actual play too much. I want it to be plausible that a first draft deviated to this little extent.
I remember you telling me that one thing that you do for setting is that you’ll drive around, and you’ll take pictures of all the places that you need to write about.
Yeah, and luckily we live just an hour from L.A., so my wife and I did drive all over the place. All of those places are accurately described. For the house that the characters are living in, Caveat, we kind of synthesized a couple of actual places for that. In fact, the way that started, right along with Cordwainer Smith and Valentino’s priest, was I read about a fandom which is people who collect “cheesecake” postcards and photos from the 1950’s. You know, women in bathing suits? And apparently among this fandom, they noticed that the background of many of their photographs was the same place, and they thought, “Well, where is this place?” And somebody said, “I recognize that mountain. This is L.A.” Evidently they were able to track down the actual site where most of these photographs had been taken in the ’50s, and there was, in the background of many of the pictures, a big wall with a spider mosaic on it. In fact, that’s probably where I got the spider idea.
I went online, and several people have managed to climb through bracken and hot fences, and find the actual ruins of this place where those photos were taken in the ’50s. Apparently, there was once a house there, built by the guy who had worked in the movie industry and collected old movie sets. When movies were finished, he would take away the walls and arches and windows from Egyptian, Medieval French, Russian, whatever the movie was, he would grab the settings and incorporate them into this big, rambling house he built.
I wasn’t able to get to that place. Well, the house is gone now, but I wasn’t able to get to the ruins of the spider wall itself, because it’s on private property, and the owner said, “No way.” Even after I promised to move it miles away. But, just as well, since I wanted to alter it for my purposes anyway.
How about the detail about all the doors from the different hotels?
That I got from a place called “The Magic Castle” in Hollywood. It’s a club of magicians, and it, like Caveat, has been assembled from a lot of torn down old hotels and houses and buildings, and in fact, in one room, they do have one wall that’s just doors that they’ve collected from older structures. When I saw that I thought, “Wow, that’s kind of neat.” A bunch of doors, each one from some different old hotel or what have you, it would be interesting after the place is closed in the middle of the night to go around and knock on the doors, see if any “come in” should sound from the other side. So yeah, I grabbed that. That was from The Magic Castle. Fascinating place altogether.
One thing that the characters in the book run into a lot is that these places have changed so much since the ’20s, and often the building isn’t there or even the whole hill isn’t there. Was that a challenge for you when writing about the ’20s?
Yeah, although there are still plenty of photographs of the missing places. In fact, for Bunker Hill, which was apparently a gorgeous place, in roughly 1900, it was where all the rich people lived and there were just elaborate mansions. Then by the 1950s, all the rich people had gone elsewhere, Beverly Hills or somewhere, and it had become just kind of run-down apartments, and junkies, and pickpockets. Raymond Chandler set a bunch of stories in Bunker Hill. Then in about 1965, Los Angeles simply tore all the houses down and scraped the whole hill off. Dumped it in the ocean somewhere. So now the whole hill is gone.
As a kid, I did, one time, in like 1959, ride the Angels Flight diagonal railway up and down with my dad. I wish I remembered it better. But luckily online—YouTube is a priceless research tool—somebody in about 1950 hung a camera outside the door of their car and just drove a grid pattern all over Bunker Hill. God knows why he did it, but it’s a priceless record. And I found that there’s a lot of old film noir movies from the ’50s that used Bunker Hill extensively, and so I watched a bunch of weird old Burt Lancaster crime movies where the plot wasn’t much, but I was real pleased to see the backgrounds. Look, there’s the house from the south. Now watch this other movie, and you get a view from the north. I wound up getting a fairly comprehensive view of those old missing parts of L.A.
I know this book isn’t out yet, but have you been getting responses to it from early readers?
Goodreads has some very polite things, and there have been a few reviews, but no, really not much yet.
But your wife reads all your books, right?
Yes, she read it. She always, very valuably, has things to say like, “I don’t understand what they’re talking about,” or, “I thought they were still in the car, but they’re in the kitchen. When did they do that?” or, “You led up to this scene like it was going to be big news, but then when the scene finally arrived, you simply walked through it. Very perfunctory.” And that’s valuable because I go fix those things.
Then my editor, Jennifer Brehl, also had a lot of questions like, “Why did this guy do this exactly?” My first thought is, “Well, it’s obvious,” and then I think, “No, if it wasn’t obvious to her, it’s not obvious, go back and make it clearer.” So yeah, readers like my wife and Jennifer Brehl are priceless, because inevitably in a book you’ve written yourself, you see all the motivations and developments very clearly because they’re in your head, but that doesn’t mean they’re necessarily clear in the manuscript.
Right. Given that you work so hard to make these conspiracies seem plausible, do you ever hear from people who are like, “Oh yeah, I know about the spiders, too,” or anything like that?
No, I don’t think I’ve ever had anybody say, “Yes, Powers, I see that you’re also aware of this secret.” I’d mistrust the sanity of anyone who ever told me anything like that. I know Lovecraft used to get letters from people who’d say, “Yes, Yog-Sothoth is hassling me, too. What do I do? Where do I get a Necronomicon?” But, no, I don’t think I’ve run into anybody who actually thought my conspiracy theories were real.
One thing that you told me that stuck out in my mind is that you said that you were always afraid to handle tarot cards because you were afraid of what might happen.
Yes, yes, Ouija boards, tarot cards, the I Ching, any of those things where you are supposedly getting information, that is to say, if it is not just kids games, if it is actually accomplishing something, I think, “What are you paying for it?” In fact, what’s the currency? And the answer is, “Well, I don’t know.” And I think, “Yeah, I’m not playing with that. No thanks.” I’m both entirely skeptical and scared of them. It may be relevant that I’m Catholic, so supernatural events are not entirely ruled out.
One time I was going to write a book about, sort of, The Exorcist in San Bernardino, and all my research would have been covered pretty easily because my wife was, at the time, working at the Parish office and knew how the day-to-day stuff worked, and then I got a book by Malachi Martin, which was actual transcripts of exorcisms. Dialogue between priests and devils. And I thought, “Cool, wow, boy, I’ve got all my research right here. This is great.” And I opened the book, and on the first page it says, “The author and publisher advise that anyone reading this book say the following prayer before and after each chapter.” I slammed it shut. I don’t need that. Uh-uh. I ain’t doing that.
It probably helps in writing the sort of things I write that I’m a little bit antsy about supernatural stuff. Very skeptical, but I don’t entirely rule out the whole category.
What you were just saying about the warning on the book was reminding me of the story you told about Philip K. Dick, where he would say, “I have discovered this secret . . .”
He was very good at that sort of thing. He was always, after his weird mystical experience in 1974, researching the Pre-Socratics, and the Talmud, and all kind of obscure, mystical-type stuff, and yeah, he would say, late at night over a bottle of wine, looking first nervously into the corners of the room, “My researches have led me to a discovery. I’ve found out something that only twelve people in history have known, and each of them died within twenty-four hours of learning it. I want to tell it to you.” And we’d say, “No, no, good God, no. I can’t hear you. I can’t hear you.” And, of course, the next day you’d say, “Jeez, Phil, you’re still alive? I thought, knowing that thing, that you would die.” And he’d say, “Powers, you were taking me seriously? That was bunch of crap. Honestly, you’d believe anything.”
He was always very mercurial in his convictions, which leads to a lot of inaccuracies about him. People would say, “Oh, he was Episcopalian. He was an Orthodox Jew. He was gnostic.” I’d say, “Yeah, for a day. Check with him the next day, and he’d be something else.”
It must be kind of strange for you that that’s someone you know, and he’s turned into this legendary cult figure.
Yeah, it is. It’s weird to see the consensus caricature of him that emerges. This kind of crazed, drug-addled hermit writing these crazy books all alone. That wasn’t the guy I knew. The guy I knew was real sociable, funny, well read, skeptical. It must be the same with people who knew Byron or Hemingway or any other writer who kind of becomes a legend. You start to notice the legend doesn’t really resemble the actual model much.
Do you think about that when you’re writing Rudolph Valentino or people like that?
Yeah. Obviously, I’m having them do and pursue things that in real life that they didn’t do or pursue and have concerns that really weren’t ever concerns of theirs. In a way, I suppose that’s unfair, but I try not to violate what history lets me understand of their actual characters. I think I present Valentino and Nazimova accurately, as far as what sort of people they were. But I do take liberties, it’s true. And, of course, I’m working from the written history, which somebody who actually knew those people might say was distorted and inaccurate. But it’s fiction. What the hell.
I have a couple of stories that you told me years ago that I’ve been repeating ever since. I’m not sure I have all the details right, so I thought I would take this opportunity to . . .
It’s a good idea to check, yeah. [Laughter]
The first is about Philip K. Dick telling you that he had the power to forgive sins.
He called me up one morning, and I said, “Well, how’s the research going?” And he said, “Last night my researches led me to believe that I had the power to forgive sins.” I said, “Wow, that’s cool. Whose sins did you forgive?” He says, “Well, none. This morning I decided I was mistaken, and last night I called K.W. Jeter, and he got all huffy and didn’t want his sins forgiven, and so I just had to forgive the cat’s sins.”
Okay, so that’s one. And then, there’s also the story I have in my head about how you guys created the Ashbless character.
Oh yeah, Jim Blaylock and I in college in ’72, I think. The college paper printed poetry, and it was close enough to the ’60s that the poetry was all just horrible free verse about children, and flowers, and rainbows, and so we figured we could write poetry that would sound very portentous, but be, in fact, meaningless.
So, we decided to start, and I would write a line on a piece of paper and pass it to him, and he would write the next line and pass it back, and alternating we’d write out this poem. When we got to the end of the page, we would bring it to a conclusion, and we decided we were going to send this to the school paper.
We needed a name for our poet, and William was a friend of ours sitting there, and I said the last name should be one of those two word names like “Longfellow” or “Wordsworth.” Each of us came up with a syllable and the result was Ashbless, and the paper published them, and so we wrote another lot that was dumber, and they published that. So, we wrote a third lot that was dumber still, and they did not publish that.
But, ever after that, whenever Blaylock or I have needed to have some kind of crazy poet in a story, we’ve used the name William Ashbless. It puzzled Beth Meacham, then editor at Ace, when she got a manuscript from me involving somebody named William Ashlbess, and then got one from Blaylock involving somebody with the same name, and she wrote to Blaylock and said, “Do you guys know each other? What’s this William Ashbless?” And Blaylock said, “I’m sorry. Did Powers use Ashbless? I’ll change my name.” And she said, “No, no. Keep it Ashbless. Think up some way it could be the same character.” “Okay, he’s going to have to be about two hundred years old in Blaylock’s book, but okay.”
Ashbless has been with us ever since. In fact, I’ve mentioned him in every book, just as a good luck piece. I don’t want readers to keep saying, “Oh look, Powers gotta mention Ashbless. Here’s Ashbless again.” So, I’ve done it in different languages. Ceniza-Bendiga, I think, is Ashbless in Spanish. I think Asche Segnen is Ashbless in German. But, one way or another, I always sneak it in.
Right, but there is this thing where people at college wanted to meet him, and so you said that he was this deformed recluse or something like that?
Yeah, we said he was hideously deformed and couldn’t physically attend any readings or meetings, but he had given us these poems to read in his stead. At first hearing some of the poems sounded pretty good except that Blaylock and I would often break out laughing in the middle of reading them, which people thought was very insensitive of us to be laughing at the poetical efforts of our deformed friend.
Then another thing that you said, this was at Clarion, that you told us that’s always stuck in my mind, is that every time there’s a spree shooter or something, part of you always hopes that they’ll be found with a copy of a Tim Powers book because it would get you so much publicity.
I don’t recall that. You mean like Catcher in the Rye?
Yeah, like that sort of thing.
Was I sober? What year was this?
I’m not sure.
What year were you at Clarion?
’99. Yeah, I was sober then. Well, I suppose it would be publicity. I’d rather the Pope would be seen with a copy of one of my books in his back pocket, but I remember—do you remember the young lady that was kidnapped at age twelve and not discovered for eighteen years in northern California?
I don’t know her name.
I don’t remember her name, but when People Magazine took pictures of the place she had been confined in, there were a whole lot of Dean Koontz books. I wanted to tell Dean, “Hey, look, you’ve got a fan.” But, yeah, I think I’d rather have the Pope be seen with it. Or some sort of widely admired figure.
Right, right. Another piece of advice you gave us, I’m not sure if I’m remembering this right, but the way I remember it is that, as a writer, you either want to get a great job or a terrible job. Do you remember this?
I probably said you should have a terrible job. That if you want to really pursue writing as a career, it’s a handicap to have a good job with benefits and stuff and high-pay because no matter what kind of advance you got from a publisher, it would never be enough to justify quitting that solid gold job. It’s much better to have crappy part-time jobs, like at pizza parlors and be a janitor and things like that, because then if you sell a book and get an advance, it’s a cinch to quit. And, in fact, I’ve never actually had a full-time job in my life.
When I met you at Clarion, too, I didn’t realize that your novel On Stranger Tides had inspired one of my all-time favorite video games, The Secret of Monkey Island. I was curious if you had ever played that game.
No, I never have. I have, of course, heard of it, because everybody does say, “Oh yeah, it was the inspiration for Monkey Island.” And there’s some character named Threepwood, I think? It was nice of the guy who wrote Monkey Island to acknowledge that. Then, of course, Disney bought my book for the basis of the fourth Pirates of the Caribbean movie, which was fun. Which, in fact, was very nice. Especially since they could have said, “Powers, you didn’t make up Blackbeard the pirate. You didn’t make up the fountain of youth. Why should we give you any money?” It was nice that they didn’t say that.
I haven’t seen the movie, but I gather that it’s not . . . they didn’t take much from your novel for it?
No, just Blackbeard and the fountain of youth. And, you know, ships, ocean.
And the title, right?
And the title, yeah. It got the book back into print and selling well, and we got to go watch filming one evening. Briefly talked with Johnny Depp and Penélope Cruz. We talked about Hunter Thompson with Johnny Depp. And then everybody was very busy, so we ran away and had dinner somewhere. My attitude toward books into movies is always, “You guys do what you want. I’m not going to hang on your elbow. I’ll go see the movie when you’re finished with it, but I don’t insist that the movie have actually anything much to do with my book.” Although I’m always in favor of if they want to do that.
Another thing that we talked about a lot at Clarion, because you and I argue about this a lot, but you were saying that you didn’t like fantasy that was kind of winking at the reader and too self-aware and things like that.
Yes, I think that’s part of what post-modernism is. I hate tongue-in-cheek, irony, self-referential, anything where the writer, in effect, says to the reader, “Well, we both know this is just made up stuff, huh? We’re both too sophisticated and hip to read for escapism and actually worry about the characters, and actually imagine that the story is really happening to real people in real places, right?” Because that’s exactly what I do want. I do want to vicariously participate and imagine that it’s all actually occurring.
Any time a writer is flippant, tongue-in-cheek, breaking the fourth wall, I get really annoyed. I think, “Goddammit. How much did I pay for this book? I paid for a performance. I didn’t pay for you to be winking at me over the top of the page.” That’s a big cause of me stopping reading books on page two. Sometimes I’ll get advanced reading copies where they say, “Would you like to write a blurb for this book?” I think, “I don’t know. Let me start it.” And, bang, as soon as there’s that sort of in-joke winking tone, I stop.
I remember a George MacDonald Fraser book, which I read because I love his Flashman books, but it was called The Pyrates, and they’re reading a magazine called like “Playrogue” or “Playknave” or something, which was a parallel for Playboy, and in a sword fight one of them says, “You can’t kill me on page four,” and I thought, “That does it. Thank you. In fact, no thank you.” Yeah, I don’t like that sort of tone in fiction. I feel very cheated.
I used to argue about this with you a lot, because back in ’99 I was in college, and I was . . .
I remember we argued about this.
I was really into that stuff, but I’ve more and more come around to your way of thinking. I don’t know if you saw the new Star Wars movie, but I totally panned it on this show for exactly that reason. I felt like every scene there was some like, “Hey, remember this scene from Star Wars? Remember this scene from Star Wars?”
I haven’t seen it, but I gather there’s a lot of that . . . not in-joke exactly, but in-reference to people who have followed the whole series, and I don’t like it in Terminator movies if Schwarzenegger says, “I’ll be back” for the second time. No, that’s just winking at us. The first time it was great, but now you’re just nudging us in the ribs saying, “Huh, huh, remember? Remember?” Which is taking me out of this immediate story at hand.
Yeah, exactly. Speaking of Clarion memories, I was just curious if you remembered anything from my year that stuck out, or just from other years.
I miss that place. I miss Michigan State University there with that river and the woods. I know Clarion East now is in San Diego, which hardly makes sense. They should call it Clarion South. It all kind of blurs into one. Who were the other people in your year?
Tobias Buckell and Tim Pratt.
Oh yeah, and I think Karen Meisner? And John Sullivan?
Yes, I remember. I remember Toby Buckell getting criticized in the workshop sessions for being too, in a way, the sort of thing I prefer, too plain storytelling with no concerns besides action and intriguing ideas and stuff. I remember thinking, “No, that’s what I want. That’s what I like. Almost Larry Niven-ish invention.” It’s a slightly separate thing from that irony and tongue-in-cheek, but I’m always also rubbed the wrong way when I see evident themes.
When I see that the author is not simply telling me about these characters with these problems, but has a bigger purpose, is trying to make some comment about social or political issues of the day, I think, “No, don’t do that. Don’t do that.” I can read the newspaper for that. You’re taking me out of the story. You’re making the characters only representative types. I always think of Galaxy Magazine in about 1969, when all the stories were about alien empires 5,000 years in the future, but the big concerns are student unrest, and legalizing marijuana, and the Vietnam War. No, don’t do this. You want to write about those things? Write me some nonfiction, but don’t tell me about these science fictional characters and then make it clear that what they really represent is Joe McCarthy or something.
Right, that’s what’s nice about having a podcast, is I can just give people my undiluted opinions about things.
I don’t know if people like it any more on the podcast than they would in a story, but I like it.
It’s more natural on a podcast. It’s you. It’s not you pretending to tell us about imaginary characters. I mean, I could go on about politics and stuff here myself, though I won’t. The place for that is not, I think, in fiction.
I was curious, I heard you say that Philip K. Dick included you as a character in Valis. The character is David.
Yes, Valis was largely autobiographical. The character David is based on me. The character Kevin is based on K.W. Jeter. One character was a girlfriend of a horse-loving, fat Philip K. Dick, who in the book died of cancer. In real life, she survived, and only, in fact, died last year. And everything the characters argue about and do in the book, me, and Jeter, and Phil Dick, and she actually did do until the point in the book where the savior is reincarnated, and they all go up to Northern California. At that point, the book deviates from autobiography. Until it deviates that way, it’s very closely autobiographical.
I remember reading it, and at one point he says, “David,” that is Powers, “had withdrawn into himself in some sort of catatonic way when confronted with the savior reincarnated. The Catholic Church had taught him how to do this. How to shut down his senses when confronted with something that violated Catholic orthodoxy.”
I remember telling Phil, “What the hell is that? What are you talking about here, man?” He just sort of went, “Heeheeheehee.” And at one point in the book the Phil Dick character says to the Powers character, “Would you please not tell us what C.S. Lewis would say about this? Could you do us that one favor?” And I said, “I don’t quote C.S. Lewis all the time.” And again, he sort of went, “Heeheehee.”
That’s the thing I wanted to ask you about. Were you that big of a devotee of C. S. Lewis and are you still?
Oh yeah, I love Lewis. I reread him all the time. Largely his nonfiction, though his fiction is lots of fun, too. And G.K. Chesterton. I’m still a practicing Catholic, not lapsed or recovering.
Right, because that’s fairly unusual in my experience among fantasy and science fiction writers. Like, I can think of Gene Wolfe, obviously he would be a big example of a Catholic writer, but most authors that I’ve met, fantasy and science fiction authors, are not religious particularly. I was wondering how you felt about that.
I think it’s an advantage. It gives me a different perspective, and a different perspective is a good thing to have. I’m sure there’s lots of other ways to have different perspectives too, and as I said earlier, Catholicism at least allows for supernatural stuff. I mean, you hope you never run into any, but it doesn’t rule it out. So, maybe that gives a bit more conviction to my stories.
Also, I always have a streak of contrarianism. If everybody is one thing, I’m always tempted to be the other thing. So it’s sort of fun to not be agnostic or atheist if most everybody else is.
We’re pretty much out of time, so just to wrap things up, do you want to tell us about any other projects you want to mention, or anything else you have going on?
I’ve got a novella coming out from Subterranean Press sometime this year called Down and Out in Purgatory. Though it’s not the orthodox purgatory. I’ll be curious to see how it’s received. I’m fond of it myself. Aside from that, it’s just sort of business as usual here.
And now you’re going to start reading randomly to come up with your next book?
Yeah, I’m already neck deep in it. Pursuing weird anomalies that appear to call for a supernatural explanation. It’s going to be set in L.A. again, though not connected with Medusa’s Web at all. Really, I keep on finding that Los Angeles and Hollywood just are inexhaustible wells of weird enigmatic mysteries that fit my purposes real smoothly.
I thought it was funny, I heard you say that L.A. is your favorite city. You said, “Anyone can love San Francisco, but it takes a special kind of person to love L.A.”
Yeah, San Francisco and New Orleans, you spend a day there, you fall in love with the place. They’re easy. But, you have to kind of get acquainted for a while with L.A. to see its charms. People arrive in at the airport, stay at the hotel, drive around for a couple of days, and they say, “I hate Los Angeles. What a horrible place.” Well, yeah, it was two or three days, of course you don’t like it. Go to New Orleans if you want to fall in love with a city right away. Go to Paris. Go to San Francisco. But, yeah, L.A. you’ve got to know it a little better to appreciate it.
Really looking forward to the next book you write about L.A. And I think we’re going to wrap things up there. We’ve been speaking with Tim Powers, and his new book, again, is called Medusa’s Web. Tim, thank you so much for joining us.
Well, thank you, David. It’s been fun.
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