|Tim Powers. Photo: Anna Guxens.|
Si queréis leer la traducción al castellano lo podéis hacer aquí.
Meeting Tim Powers is a very big privilege, but to chat with him during more than half an hour, being able to stretch the time I have been assigned for this interview, is even better. Nobody complains, since his Spanish editor, Alejo Cuervo, is also with us, enjoying the interview and chipping in from time to time. Who dares, then, to interrupt Tim Powers, a man with an undeniable talent to develop some of the best conspiratorial plots of modern fiction? What’s more, he definitely has the remarkable gift of oral storytelling so that the topics with him never seem to end. There is always something of his past, present or future waiting to ask about.
On the one hand, Powers is a steampunk pioneer, a style you can already find in The Anubis Gates, one of his first and most acclaimed works; on the other hand, Disney turned his novel On Stranger Tides into the forth installment of the famous Pirates of the Caribbean movie franchise, in addition to inspire the videogame Monkey Island. Powers also can boast about being friends with Philip K. Dick (author of Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?) and he even managed to create the fictional poet William Ashbless, who has a couple of books published, together with his fellow writer James P. Blaylock.
I am at the Celsius 232 Festival and when I first meet Tim Powers he says is a little bit tired because it’s been only four days since he last finished his last work, but he is delighted to have this little vacation in Asturias (Spain), where some of his wife antecessors seem to come from.
Powers tells me he gave up drinking twenty years ago, but I guess he is referring only to alcohol, since he always has a Coca-Cola can in hand as it were his personal Fountain of Eternal Youth. However, despite his 62 years of age, he has an impressive memory (he declaims a couple of poems from the beginning to the end) and he retains a teenage spirit that leads him to share some of his craziest adventures between jokes. Our chat ends up with an exchange: Powers signs three books for me (upside down, his personal trait) and he has gotten three ideas for potential future stories from me. You see? A pleasure for both of us!
If I had my books dispensed by genre, I would not know where to put yours, since they would perfectly fit under the fantasy, science fiction, horror and history label for equal. How would you define your style?
I always thought that if you are writing a fantasy story you want the reader to believe it is happening. You don’t want her to think: “Oh, this is a ‘let’s pretend’ story”. That’s why you need to set the story in London, in Madrid, in Paris, in Rome, in the real world. And therefore, if you are going to set that there’s magic going on in one of these cities, it has been secret, obviously, because it’s not in the newspapers, but you have to, at the same time, say: “Look, here are clues that proof it was really going on”.
That’s what you do when you are on your research? Look for conspiracies?
Yes, you want to explore history looking for something where you could say: “OK, this really was something mundane”, but if you put it in a certain way it can look like a clue to the supernatural backstory you are trying to convince the reader of. So I use history to try to sure up the reader’s credulity because I want them always to think: “Well, London does have this street because Shakespeare did say that! So maybe this story is true!”. And, hence, I use history, science and literature to may the reader feel you are telling the truth. Sometime I even convince myself of what I am writing and, at night, I might say: “I think this is real! I discovered a secret!” And just after that I believe the CSI has been monitoring my research and have a shooter in the yard…
You handle magic as something ancient, lost from our knowledge. This is quite rare, since I feel a lot of authors are now using magic as the element that can solve any problem, as if it was a joker…
Yes, but mine, as you say, is a very different sort of fantasy. What I write is in this world, but behind all that, if you look in the secret corners, you’ll see that, in fact, ghosts and vampires have been there all along. On the other hand, there’s the kind of fantasy that will take place in Los Angeles, where you will hire an exorcist, there are visible gangs of vampires and if you need to get someone in a hurry you get him a flying carpet, you know? In other words, in this second case, magic is very over the top and it’s too much “let’s pretend”. I like to have a real basis and to be in this world. Then, I do want to trick the reader and, if I have done my work well, she’ll be reading my book in the way she reads a spy novel, in which the action might be happening right now outside.
You have borrowed a lot of real characters for your books: Mary Shelley, Lord Byron –this, more than once–, Coleridge… How do you choose them?
Usually, I’ll be reading some non-fiction just for fun –a biography or a history book–, and I’ll come across something weird and I’ll think: “Hum… That’s arguable”. And then I’ll come across a second weird thing, and I’ll think: “I’m sure we have something here”. For example, once I read a Thomas Edison biography and I discovered his last breath I in a test tube in a museum in Michigan and, apparently, Henry Ford said to Edison children: “Your father is an old friend of mine. Just sentimentally, when he expires, could you catch his last breath for me?” Then, I read Edison, in his old age, wrote a letter to Scientific American magazine saying that the next project he wanted to do was a telephone to talk to dead people. So I began to read more biographies of Edison with this weird squint. I didn’t’ want to know about the real Edison, I wanted to know about a fake Edison I could make up. So any weird thing he did, which was really senseless, I thought: “No. What if it was not senseless? What if it was shrewd or a very clever thing to do, given a magical context?”
Has somebody ever blamed you for using real people’s lives as the basis of your stories?
No, although sometime I worry about that. If I write about Byron, no problem. But I’ve written about Bugsy Siegel, an American gangster who was a very bad man. He actually has children who are still alive, and I think: “Is this going to offend his children? If my version of him is much nicer than any of the factual versions! I made him a little bit of a nice guy, so they should be grateful!” And the book I just finished four days ago involves Rudolph Valentino and Alla Nazinova, who was a silent movie actress, and I was thinking: “I don’t believe they had children, so I don’t think I’ll offend anybody”.
You also mention another movie actor in your books, Humphrey Bogart, so I see you are a cinephile, but also a lover of the Victorian Era and the Romanticism Period...
Totally, I’m a fan of the whole XIXth Century because with people like Byron and Shelley, which had very dramatic lives, I only have to connect the dots. It was a little harder with Christina Rossetti because although she wrote some really weird poetry and had some weird clues in her life, she really was very quiet, very stay-at-home. I couldn’t have her riding horses to chase vampires. She had such a low profile, but at the same time, I wanted her to participate, so I worked hard to have her be able to take decisive action without being a superhero. Luckily, there were other people in her circle of friends who did have very dramatic slash buckling lives, so could use them for the action and her for quieter revelations.
James Blaylock, K. W. Jeter and yourself created the term ‘steampunk’. In fact, Jeter said back in 1987 that the Victorian fantasy was the next big thing. Do you think it has been accomplished?
Yes. Cyberpunk was very big then, and when he said the famous sentence you’ve just mentioned, luckily he mentioned my name. If he had not said Powers in that sentence I don’t think I would be considered steampunk. But luckily he did say Powers in that same sentence where he said steampunk, so The Anubis Gates (1983) is now considered one of the early steampunk books. Of course, there were people doing it before, such as Michael Moorcock with The Warlord of the Air (1971), and Harry Harrison wrote Tunnel Through the Deeps (1972), which were both definitely steampunk, but Jeter made up the word, so me, Blaylock and Jeter are all considered steampunk too.
You said that before the steampunk there was the cyberpunk and you were actually friends with one of the most famous cyberpunk writers ever: Philip K. Dick. You actually appear in his novel VALIS (1981), in which you are the alter ego of David. Does Phil appear in one of your books in an undercover way?
No, but that’s a good idea! I owe that to him so I’m gonna remember that! Lovecraft and Robert Bloch used to do that. They would write about each other in their stories, but VALIS really was autobiography; at least, until they go to see the movie and meet the saviour, who is reborn. But all the conversations in the book between me and Jeter and Phil K. Dick were real conversations we had, although there is one point in VALIS, where the Philip K. Dick character says to the Tim Powers character: “Would you please not tell us what C.S. Lewis would say about this situation? Could you do us that one favour, please?” And I told him: “I don’t quote C.S. Lewis all the time!” And he just laughed at me: “Hi, hi hi hi!”.
He actually has written one page of The Anubis Gates manuscript, or is this a legend?
He did, in a way... Every Thursday night my wife and I would have a bunch of people over and they’d drink beer and smoke cigars. Often, they would arrive before I get home from work, and one time I was busy typing up The Anubis Gates and when I left in the morning, forgetting to put away my typewriter. I left it on the table with half a page written. Then, Philip K. Dick arrived before I got home and looked the top half of the page and finished to the bottom in a sort of a rude parody of what I had written… So it wasn’t part of the book as published, but I saved that page. After all that was Phil K. Dick’s work! [Laughs].
Did he finish up things more times, or that was a singular fact?
No, he did often do that. Another time, I was going to send a short story off in the mail and I had written to a magazine of science fiction: “Dear editor, your consideration to the enclosed story would be appreciated. Cordially, Tim Powers”. And he saw that and added: “P.S.: I always read your wonderful magazine. I wish you had pictures, especially of the women characters. I always picture them with their faces in mud and I am slapping them on their rear ends with a broom or maybe a stick”. And he thought I might crank that piece of paper out of the typewriter and put it in with my story without noticing his P.S.! [Laughs].
When Doyle [the main character of The Anubis Gates] is in the XIXth century, he is determined to taste their cigars, women and whisky to know if they are better than in his current days. What would you like to test if you went back there?
Ah! [Laughs]. I would definitely like to try the cigars and the pipe tobacco. I quitted drinking 20 years ago, but if I went back in time, which would be before I quitted drinking, I would have definitely wanted to try the whiskey and the beers, although I would probably arrive with no money. The reason? Because you do wonder. You read a XIXth century book and it goes: “They drunk some wonderful wine”. And you think: “I would like to know what they consider wonderful…” And there’s no way to find out…
The Anubis Gates is your most popular novel. At least, until Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides (Rob Marshall, 2011), which is based in your book of homonym name, came out. Is the fourth film your favourite one?
The best one is the first one. I watched that again all the time, but I’m a big fan of number four, too! [Laughs]. I am very glad they did it, because they could have said: “Powers, you didn’t make up Blackbeard; you didn’t make up the Fountain of Youth; you didn’t make up pirates… Go away!” But, luckily, right after the first movie came out they got in touch with my agent and said: “If this becomes a series, if we do four, we’ll buy Powers’ book”. So when the second movie came out we saw it the first day. We wanted it to be a huge success. And the same for the third movie. And then, they finally did say: “Yes, we’re going to do a number four, and it’ll be based on Powers’ book”. But they didn’t buy the rights until the day before the shooting started. They gave me option money, which means that I couldn’t sell it to anybody else, but they didn’t purchase it until the last moment.
Did you go on set?
Oh yes! We did get to watch them film in Los Angeles, one night. The scriptwriter took us around and said: “Oh, Penélope Cruz! You’ve gotta meet Tim and Serena Powers. Oh, Johnny Depp! Come here!” And I was like: “Oh, I got it! It’s Johnny Depp”. And I told him: “I really loved Ed Wood (1994) and you were friends with Hunter S. Thompson! I loved Hunter S. Thompson!”, And he was: “Yes, yes, yes…” And he had to go. Everybody else was really, really busy, so my wife and I walked away.
Beside On Stranger Tides (1987), would you like any other books adapted?
All of them! When On Stranger Tides came out as one of the Pirates of the Caribbean movies, I thought: “I hope everybody else in Hollywood thinks: ‘Disney bought a Powers’ book, maybe that’s a smart thing to do. Maybe we better buy a Powers book...’” So far they have not, but I would love it, and if they said: “O.K., Powers. We’re gonna made a movie out of this book of yours, but we’re gonna change it a little. It’s gonna be an animated musical with dancing hamsters”. I’d say: “Good! I’m with you!” Because I don’t care what it is! I don’t care if it’s any good. I just want them to do it! Hollywood also made movies out of James M. Cain’s The Postman Always Rings Twice (1934) and Double Indemnity (1943), and somebody asked him: “Mr Cain, what do you think of what Hollywood has done to your books?” And he said: “They haven’t done anything to them. Look! [Powers grabs a book and browses through it]. It’s the same”. That would be my attitude too.
But I bet when filmmakers take a book as a basis they would feel very attached to it to be faithful to the author…
I’ve had people sometimes call up and say: “I will not rest until your book is the movie it deserves to be”. And I don’t care! And then they would say: “We are not able to offer you any option money at this point”, and I think: “Borrow it from your mother”. Because there are two things, here: a movie in theatres and an option payment. One of them is completely imaginary, so let’s focus on the one that might happen. [Laughs].
Do you often get people knocking at your door asking to adapt one of your books?
Well, every now and then somebody does option one of them; somebody has actually optioned The Anubis Gates right now and I hope they make the movie. If they do, I just ask two things: One, if there’s a big crowd scene, my wife and I must be in it; and two, if they have these crew waistcoats with the name of the movie on the back, I want to get sis. I don’t care about the rest.
But you think it’s hard it comes through, don’t you?
Yes, it’s very rare. For every thousand incidents of that, maybe one movie happens. To the point I sometimes feel bad about the person buying the option, because I think: “You have a wife and children. Don’t be throwing your money away. What’s wrong with you?” But I don’t say that. I just take the money…
Being here talking with you, it’s a must to mention William Ashbless, probably your most famous creation. How was it born?
Well, the college newspaper had poetry in it, but it was really bad poetry, so James Blaylock and I thought we could write poetry that could be even worse. I would write one line and give it to Blaylock, and he’d write one line and give it to me, and so on. When we got down to the bottom of the page we’d bring it to an end and we sent those poems at the school paper and they printed them. And we thought we needed a name for a poet, one of those two-word names, like Words-Worth or Long-Fellow. So one of us thought of Ash and one of us thought of Bless, and luckily we didn’t decide on Blessash. Then, when we began selling novels, we frequently had a crazy old poet, and each of us independently thought to name him William Ashbless. And I wrote The Anubis Gates, and Blaylock wrote The Digging Leviathan (1984) and we sent them to the same editor. She said: “Do you guys know each other? Who is this William Ashbless in both your books?” And we offered to change one, but she said we could keep them. And for me William Ashbless has become sort of a good luck charm. I always mention his name in every book, although I don’t always use Ashbless to let people say [mocking]: “Ha, ha… Powers always says Ashbless…”, so I put it on different languages, like Aschesegnen, which is German.
And Ceniza-Bendiga, which is Spanish...
Yes! And in this new book I used Latin, which I don’t now remember what it was, but it’s just of a good luck thing, now. I’d be very uneasy if I let a book go and it didn’t have Ashbless on it, somewhere. We have written books like William Ashbless, like On Pirates (2001), where we have an introduction saying that it seems that he has died and Blaylock and I, in his memory, have collected these poems. But then, afterwards you find Ashbless saying: “I’m not dead and they messed up my poems and they stole my money!” In fact, we also wrote The William Ashbless Memorial Cookbook (2002), and we wrote: “This time it seems Ashbless really did die and in his memory we have collected all these recipes”. And then, at the end, he says: “I’m not dead and Powers and Baylock took my money again”. And there’s even a third one now, Pilot Light (2007), and I bet you can guess the ending… [Laughs].
In your books we find vampires, lamias, werewolfs, gods… So I can see you like mythology too. Since your ancestors were Irish, will we see a book set in Ireland or with Irish mythology in it?
I would like to, I guess I haven’t read the right source book. I should read the biography of William Butler Yeats because he was kind of a spooky guy.
And Oscar Wilde, I guess…
Oh, Wilde, sure, sure! Wilde did really go to prison. Well, that was the cover story, because nobody else went to prison for sodomy or, at least, not many. Why did he really get sent to prison? And then, he died in Paris where on his deathbed converted to Catholicism, which I find charming since I am catholic myself. I think he’s kind of the Patron’s Saint of decadent writers. So we have Wild and Yeats… I should give them some thought…
Have you ever thought of including real characters that are alive in your books?
[Laughs] It would be difficult because they would wanna see every chapter. They would say: “I wouldn’t say that” or “I wouldn’t wear this kind of shirt”. They’d like to change everything. Even if they acted like they weren’t offended, I bet they would be offended. They’d be telling: “Look what Powers did to me. What a pig!”
You have to be very awake to follow all the stories, hints, names and references in your work in order to predict how the story will move forward. Do you think your fantasy is a bit heavy?
Yeah, the reader has to pay close attention because in any science fiction and fantasy book you drop little clues, so if the reader is alert picks up: “Wait a sec, that guy who is having a sandwich is dead!” So you trust the reader to pick up on the clues you leave. And I think some people are constitutionally incapable of doing that, so they find science fiction and fantasy incomprehensible. My father, every time I had a book published he would go like: “I’ve just read chapter one, it’s really good!” [Laughs] And then, neither of us would ever refer to it again, because he couldn’t read science fiction or fantasy. I mean, he read lots of mysteries, but he never learnt to pick up the clues of the genre I like…
In The Anubis Gates, destiny plays a major role and we also have puppeteers, like Horrabin. Did you want to throw the message that we are just puppets in somebody else’s hands or, even in the hands of something bigger, like fate?
I actually never thought of connecting the puppets with destiny, but I really like that! So I would say, as my official answer: “Yes, of course, it was a metaphor”. [Laughs].
But in your other novel, On Stranger Tides, you also have a puppeteer…
That’s true. Of course, in The Anubis Gates I was aware that I was dealing with fate. “This will happen. Tomorrow you will be out front talking to somebody, and it doesn’t matter if you want to or not or if you think you will be somewhere else… No. You will be there”. And it was fun to figure the book out, given that a character knows where he is going to be. Then, how do you let him have free will?
I guess the “how” here was the most important thing, since you and the character already knew the “what”, “when” and “where”…
Yes, the “how” is very important. It’s like the old Greek myths. There’s always an oracle that would say: “You would kill your father” or “You would marry your mother”. Even Hercules, since he was told he would kill his children... And these heroes say: “No, me? Never”. But yes! You know “what”, but not “how”.
Doubles also are important in your work. Have you ever wanted to be someone else?
I think I have always wanted to be Paul Newman… [Laughs] No, I think I’ve always been afraid of meeting myself. You walk around the corner too fast and you’re face to face to yourself and you think maybe he’s not a nice guy: “What does he want? I know why I am here, but why is he here?” And I think I largely got that from an old Robert A. Heinlein story: By His Bootstraps (1941), in which, basically, a guy comes into the room and it would be as if a Tim Powers came here with greyer hair, and said: “You gotta get into the car. You can trust me, I’m you older...” But then, a white hair Powers comes in and says: “Don’t trust him, come with me!” And I may go with the white hair Powers, which is older, and might know more, but he’s drunk...
So you are afraid of this idea…
I think there’s always something scary about the idea of meeting yourself, but luckily, Percy Shelly was very afraid of that too. In several of his poems mentions it. And I thought: “Good! I will exaggerate that”, and Dante Gabriel Rossetti, who was a character in my book Hide Me Among the Graves (2012), did a very mysterious picture called How They Met Themselves (1864) where there are two couples meeting their identical, and I thought: “Alright, I don’t know why you did it, but I’ll give you a reason…” You see? I think there’s something spooky about a doppelgänger…
I think all your books but The Fault Lines (1992-1997) series are standalone novels. Don’t you like sequels?
Well, I prefer standalones. For one thing because as a reader I know that sometimes when I pick up a book in a bookstore and read the back cover, I would think: “Oh, that’s good”. But then, I discover it is number four, so I don’t buy it because they don’t have the first one. And I think a lot of readers may feel that way. But If I pick up a book that is all on it’s own and it’s right here, I’ll buy it. There is a temptation I think that happens when you get grey hair, which is to put all your previous characters in one book. Poor Heinlein did that and it was a big mistake. Ashbless yes, but nothing else.
What is the last think you wrote?
Subterranean Press will soon publish a short story called Nobody’s Home (2014). It’s about a guy whose name is Nobody, so his place is Nobody’s home, and it involves one of the characters of The Anubis Gates before the action of that book started up. But I don’t want anybody to think it’s a sequel, and I don’t want anybody to think it’s a novel. It’s just a short story.
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