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Industry Insights: From The Industry Side

An Interview with Tim Powers

by Gareth-Michael Skarka
January 18, 2002

We just were granted second publication rights on this, by Gareth, who incidently is the second most prolific columnist at RPGnet over the past five years!

This interview originally ran in "THE RELEVANT CONUNDRUM" at the Gaming Outpost, and we appreciate Gaming Outpost and Gareth-Michael Skarka for allowing us to republish it!


From the secret magical history of Las Vegas in The Last Call, time travel in 17th century England in The Anubis Gates, or his latest work mixing Middle Eastern legend and the Cold War in DECLARE, Tim Powers' works have provided inspiration for gamers everywhere. His novels are found on many gamer's shelves, making him, along with such luminaries as Tolkien and Lovecraft, one of the benchmarks of reference for our community. This past summer, he was kind enough to consent to an interview.

GMS: How do you go about choosing a subject for your novels: do you concentrate on subjects that are rife with odd coincidence and symbolism, or do you choose your subject and then scour it for those elements? I suspect that some of the elements are created whole-cloth, but I remember reading an interview where you said that often you just provide interpretation to actual historical fact...could you give an insight into your process?

Powers: What generally happens is that I'll read some non-fiction book or article and something in it will kind of make me raise an eyebrow. I read that Shelley's death-by-drowning was almost deliberate, with him sailing off into a gathering storm while everybody was hollering at him to turn around, and then his body was found washed up on the beach with all the flesh eaten away from his face and hands and a copy of Keats's poems in his pocket, folded open to "Lamia" -- well, pretty clearly it wouldn't be hard to find a supernatural story behind that! And luckily when I got into the details of Shelley and Byron and Keats, I found lots of suggestive stuff -- Keats having been born on Halloween, and so forth.

So I guess what I do is find a situation -- characters and setting and concerns -- that looks as if it would provide the raw materials for a story, and I write an outline and sell that to an editor; then I actually do the research, hoping that the situation really will support a story when considered at microscopic scale; fortunately, if you research anything with paranoid suspicion and a sharp eye for secret motives, I think you can find a secret supernatural story behind anything!

With enough research I'm sure you could write a Powers book based on Disneyland -- what had the land been used for previously, what's up with the buildings that have a Western-frontier north face and a Tomorrowland south face, what goes on at night after they're closed, what's with these tunnels, etc.

Often it's the most routine details that I find that lead to the most valuable conclusions. I bet a lot less is made up of whole cloth than you think!

GMS: Your work, with its injection of the fantastic into mundane historical or modern settings, has a large following among the RPG crowd. Have you ever done any gaming?

Powers: No, I've never done any gaming! Of course I know lots of people involved in it (is MUD a category of games?), and I love Kenneth Hite's books -- I know they're for gamers, but they seem to have been written for me. I guess I'm afraid that if I got into gaming it would totally absorb me, and I'd get no writing at all done.

GMS: Given it's literary roots, and the preparation and research involved, a large percentage of RPG gamers are aspiring writers. What advice do you have for beginners?

Powers: Oh gee -- lemme think. I'd say, Trust a game to give you character development and unexpected ways of working things out, but don't trust a game to give you a plot; anymore than you'd trust real life to give you a plot. Read lots of stuff, fiction and non-fiction, and read the good stuff twice -- once for enjoyment, then once more to see how the author got the effects. Keep in mind you owe the reader everything and the reader owes you nothing -- if someone doesn't "get" your story, it's your fault, not theirs.

At the same time, write about stuff you find fascinating, not what you imagine the reader will find fascinating; if you're lucky, they and you overlap. Don't listen to any writing advice that involves the phrase "Catch 22" -- it's invariably a lie.

GMS: What is your favorite among your own works, and why?

Powers: Huh! That's hard to say. I'm fond of each of 'em, even the two I wrote when I was twenty-three. I guess maybe I'd say Last Call-- because Las Vegas and the desert and Hoover Dam were such fine locales to write about, and it was the first time my wife and I had had the chance to actually go look at my settings, rather than me getting all the details from travel and picture books; and the Tarot magic, interwoven with Poker, was lots of fun to play with, and the Fisher King stuff fit into that so perfectly that sometimes I thought I was discovering it, not making it up; and the characters were all particularly fun -- Bugsy Siegel was great to study in my paranoid-polarized way.

GMS: You've written about the magical history of Las Vegas, Byron and Shelley, 17-century England, 16th century Viennese Brewmeisters, The Cold War, the Golden Age of Piracy...are there any historical eras that you haven't covered yet which attract you, or that you consider ripe for "wierdification?'

Powers: I've thought of doing one on the Old West; I think there's room there. And it would be fun to deal with Lovecraft in 1920s New York. And I've wondered why Evariste Galois, the 18th-century French mathematician, really died in a duel. Really, though, I don't get rolling until I stumble across some evocative reference, and usually it indicates something I wouldn't have gone to otherwise.

GMS: What's next for you? Anything currently in the works?

Powers: This next one -- well, I don't want to get very specific! But it'll take place roughly now, I think, with repercussions of some odd stuff that was going on in the L.A. movie industry in the 20s & 30s; and the desert will figure. I think that pretty well sums it up!

GMS: Thank you for your time, Tim. TQo0~^DҒt< ek&Ǿ$\۵ZFȃuwݝIŃU QYir2HR2.u3MFoعq]4#A`pP5(b& )b)ⰾp7(i<[-2gL#5[f g?*rVGf8*)s'+20ϟ̑F}KB<7wSL\gbvm9WiRބYŜvd y0'p2I_Fc2>#o A )VL[Qk?3`)<У[(*W.JH ?tXCt谙 X:@ \0w ~LqĤE-rFkYœj4q 5AQ6[AxG [>w|?( fХθY䝛$c=_qNĦoǸ>O_|&/_Mi7"宥CЧk0dӷLh;TmuCGU-!Ul{ h<\bQX.~"O2*yPcz!ŠGg

What do you think?

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All Industry Insights

  • Gareth-Michael Skarka interviews China Mieville, April 24, 2002
  • lizard's Condensation of All Game Fiction, April 18, 2002
  • Sandy's "God or Whore?" GTS'02, March 26, 2002
  • Allan Sugarbaker with GAMA Trade Show '02: An Inside Report, March 22, 2002
  • Aldo of Impressions on the GamePlay CD, January 3, 2002
  • Gareth-Michael Skarka interviews Ken Hite, February 8, 2002
  • Gareth-Michael Skarka interviews Tim Powers, January 18, 2002
  • Aldo Ghoizzi on Inside the Making of GamePlay, January 3, 2002
  • The RPGnet Awards Cabal presents the RPGnet 2001 Awards Results!, December 5, 2001
  • Ken Whitman teaches us with A Note About Creating a Good Promotional Campaign, October 12, 2001
  • Sean Jaffe on The Fallout, September 27, 2001 [about 9/11]
  • Sean Jaffe on Interesting Times, September 21, 2001 [about 9/11]
  • GodLike: Dennis Detwiler and Greg Stolze, September 14, 2001
  • Jared Nielsen on Tribe Gamer, August 31, 2001
  • Mark Bruno teaches about Copy Editing, August 16, 2001
  • Ratings not just kid's stuff for RPG industry, reported by Matt Snyder, August 9, 2001
  • GenCon '01 News, reported by Matt Snyder, August 3, 2001
  • Origins Report: Would you send your mother to buy from them?, part 4 of 4
  • Origins Report: Booth Babes, part 3 of 4
  • Origins Report: Overview, part 2 of 4
  • The Origins Awards, part 1 of 4, reported by Jason Paul McCartan
  • Gary Gygax Interview, part 1 of 3, by Scott Lynch
  • Why I Write Gaming Materials by Greg Stolze, November 16, 1999
  • Blowing out the Nostalgia Candle by John Wick, October 19, 1999
  • Interview with Sean Pat Fannon, Shards October 5, 1999
  • Portuguese is not Spanish! by Thad Blanchette, September 14, 1999
  • Intuition and Surprise by M. J. Young, July 27, 1999
  • Fear and Loathing in the Wizards of the Coast Game Center by John Tynes, January 26, 1999
  • Breaking In,, on how to break into writing for RPGs, by Steve Kenson, December 22, 1998
  • ALT.RPG, first of a series looking deeply at what gaming is all about, by Matt Miller, September 1, 1998
  • The Night They Tore Old Mecca Down, GenCon report by Randy Porter, August 20, 1998
  • GenCon Fun: con, city, and even housing tips from Randy Porter, June 30, 1998
  • GenCon Lore Vol 3: Program Books, update on GenCon 98 attendance, by Randy Porter, June 23, 1998
  • The Missing and the Dead, update on GenCon 98 attendance, by Randy Porter, June 2, 1998
  • The Definitive Count on who is and isn't attending GenCon 98, by Randy Porter, April 28, 1998
  • How to Scam Games Part II by Steve Johnson, March 24, 1998
  • The Perils of Penniless Publishing by Aaron Rosenberg, February 3, 1998
  • Polyhedral Dice & Mirror Shades, by Greg Costikyan (or, the death of paper).
  • Ken Whitman: A Love Hate Relationship by (of course) Ken Whitman
  • Interview with Sean Punch, GURPS line editor, by Bob Portnell, October 1997
  • YOU DID WHAT? Perspectives On Becoming A Full-Time Writer In The RPG Industry, by Steven Long, September 1997
  • A Resurgence of Role Playing, by Gary Gygax, August 1997

    Other columns at RPGnet

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