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
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
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
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.