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Tim Powers Rewrites the Cold War

Tim Powers Winner of the World Fantasy Award (for Last Call) and a two-time recipient of the Philip K. Dick Award (The Anubis Gates and Dinner at Deviant's Palace), in his eleventh novel Tim Powers takes his unique brand of speculative fiction into uncharted territory, instilling the old fashioned espionage novel with a healthy dose of the supernatural.

For more than ten years, Andrew Hale has been retired from the "Great Game." Recalled now from his comfortable teaching post to complete the top-secret mission that represents his greatest failure, Hale suddenly finds himself framed for the murder of an old friend and shipped off to the Middle East as a doubling Russian spy.

"I don't think I've ever done quite this much research before," the author admitted. In Declare, he rewrites Cold War history like no author before him.

Dave: I think you'll be pleasantly surprised by the number of Powell's employees who attend your reading tonight. You're pretty popular around here. But what you probably don't know is that you're actually responsible for changes in the structure in our store.

Tim Powers: I had hoped that would be the case! No, what do you mean?

Dave: A while back, our Science Fiction and Fantasy sections were combined because people were having too much trouble differentiating between the two. They actually moved Horror in there for a while, too, though it's since been split out again. According to the legend, you were among the primary culprits - authors whose books couldn't be set firmly in any one genre. Powers: I'm glad to hear that. It's very flattering. I've never seen a clear border between Science Fiction and Fantasy. Or even Horror, if they mean supernatural, as opposed to meaning just bloody hatchets and eyeballs on corkscrews, things like that.

I figure I'm writing stuff under the umbrella - Bradbury, Heinlein, Lovecraft - and I never divvy it any finer than that. At our house we have books categorized, but Science Fiction and Fantasy are mixed.

Dave: Now Declare brings another whole genre into the mix: the espionage thriller.

Powers: For at least one reviewer, it was very unpalatable. Publishers Weekly said it was as if I had mixed vanilla in with fried potatoes. Magic stuff, spy stuff - no, they don't mix. "Foolish" was the word the reviewer used. But I don't know. You couldn't have a fantasy book that was absolutely independent of any earthly situation; it'd just be talking heads floating on clouds.

I suppose some people figure that historical stuff is already halfway to magic just because it's already so old fashioned and hard to picture. And remote farmhouses in New England are kind of asking for it anyway.

Dave: I found your Author's Note at the end of the novel especially interesting. I knew some of the story - I knew there had been a real life spy named Kim Philby, for instance - but the amount of detail you go into there was fascinating, and I really appreciated your analogy of astronomy:

In a way, I arrived at the plot of this book by the same method that astronomers use in looking for a new planet - they look for "perturbations," wobbles, in the orbits of the planets they're aware of, and they calculate the mass and position of an unseen planet whose gravitational field could have caused the observed perturbations - and then they turn their telescopes on that part of the sky and search for a gleam. I looked at all the seemingly irrelevant "wobbles" in the lives of these people - Kim Philby, his father, T.E. Lawrence, Guy Burgess - and I made it an ironclad rule that I could not change or disregard any of the recorded facts, nor rearrange any days of the calendar - and then I tried to figure out what momentous but unrecorded fact could explain them all.

Powers: I find that I absolutely need research. When I was first starting out I thought you could write a story and leave gaps, for color or something, which you could subsequently fill by doing research. But what I've discovered is that until I read the daylights out of some situation - the place, the people, even the restaurants - I don't even have a clue what the plot might be.

If I tell someone, for instance, "The next book is going to be about British and Soviet spies in the Middle East," they might ask, "What kind of story will it be?" I have to say, "Wait a minute. Don't ask me. I don't even know where it would happen." I have to read up first.

Dave: So you found this story in history. You drew it out of the gaps you'd found in all your research.

Powers: Once you find it, you can get busy at polarizing your research. I'll read at random until I find a couple things that make me stop and ask questions: "Wait a second. Why did he really do that? That doesn't make any sense." You get three or four of those, and you ask what explanation might be perfectly concealed under these three or four things. And because of all my childhood reading, all the explanations tend to be, "Oh, I bet dead guys are behind it!"

Once I've figured that much out, the research can be more focused. And pretty soon, it becomes an exercise in resisting paranoia because you'll find that your research genuinely does seem to support whatever goofy theory you've come up with.

Dave: The Publishers Weekly review aside, it would seem like a spy novel would be the perfect platform for that process because there's so much mystery left after the fact. Every historical detail is shrouded in secrecy and double-talk.

Powers: The whole purpose of anything spies do is to be duplicitous. Whatever espionage agency x was trying to accomplish, it was certainly not what they seemed to be trying to accomplish. None of the agents know what they're really working for, everybody has a cover story - more than one, in fact, depending whom they're facing. It was made to order for this. I probably could have written ten books of this kind of business set in the Cold War.

Dave: And you won't?

Powers: Actually, I'll probably write at least one more before I'm done.

Dave: I think it was Kirkus Reviews that said there's never been a novel quite like this one. Your books often combine genres in ways that seem fresh and different. How much of that is a conscious effort on your part?

Powers: There are overlaps, but to me they do have a kind of intrinsic obviousness about them. For instance, one of my books was about pirates in the Caribbean [On Stranger Tides], Blackbeard and cutlass fights on the beach, sea battles, all that Long John Silver stuff. But also it's the fountain of youth and voodoo - those are just as much part of the Caribbean folklore as Blackbeard the pirate.

And so, to me, there was no speed bump in going from Blackbeard to zombies. In fact, Blackbeard...good Lord! Tying burning matches in his beard, and one time, apparently because he was bored, he shot one of his friend's legs off! It never seems to me that big a gear shift to go from what is in fact historically likely to what is impossible.

Dave: You've said elsewhere that you use the historical as grounding in your stories to support the supernatural. History, in your writing, serves as evidence.

Powers: I think it's hugely important. If I was writing about The Magic Land of Ding-Dong and Lost Prince Yo-Yo Boy trying to reclaim his kingdom, any kind of affecting supernatural would arrive plastered with bumper stickers that say "Let's Pretend!" But if I say, "London...Rome," or "Interstate 5...Chevy Suburban," I like to think I can sneak in under the credulity defenses of the reader. In Fantasy, if you give the reader a moment to think, he's going to realize it's all bogus. To avoid them noticing this insult to their intelligence, I really pile on the plausibility lumber.

Dave: In Declare, even as Hale is experiencing the supernatural, he realizes that he's probably not going to remember it or believe it happened quite as it did. Meanwhile, the other espionage agents are completely reluctant to believe any of it. They'll believe it when they see it, basically. So even within the story, there's a great deal of disbelief as far as the supernatural elements of the plot are concerned.

Powers: There's a huge mental reluctance to get over. I think that's actually real. I'm confident that supernatural stuff does not occur, but if it did I think we'd see that effect. There would be a real reluctance to believe it, even among witnesses.

Dave: As a writer known for books about the supernatural, how do you deal with that disbelief? Many of your fans must believe in it - not all of them, but some certainly.

Powers: I have a sort of back door in my skepticism in that I'm a practicing Roman Catholic, and though I'm generalizing, Catholics do have a sort of double-barreled view of the supernatural which is: "I don't believe a word of it" and "I wouldn't touch it." So I'm totally skeptical and totally scared of it at the same time.

For one book, Last Call, I had to buy a set of tarot cards because I needed to look at the pictures. I think it's silly nonsense, like astrology. But I wouldn't shuffle that deck in my house. I think it's nonsense, and I also think it's scary. Maybe my readers have that in common with me; maybe they don't so much believe it as they wouldn't necessarily play with it.

It's almost a creed with me...I don't believe anybody, no matter how responsible an adult they may be - cop, surgeon, diplomat - who tells me they're never afraid of the dark. Sure, say that now when the lights are on and people are around, but let me hear you say it at night when the building is empty and the floors are creaking and noises are coming from upstairs. I think everybody still has that circuitry in their heads. We don't drag our knuckles on the ground when we walk anymore, but evolution hasn't eliminated that primal fear.

Dave: You mentioned in another interview that you don't read much Science Fiction or Fantasy any more. You read it passionately growing up, but now you read other genres and styles. That would seem to inform your writing with a larger context; it helps explain why your writing is so hard to pigeonhole as strictly this form or that.

Powers: If you want to write Science Fiction and Fantasy, you can't simply read that kind of book and nothing else. You'd produce something like a tenth copy of a Xerox, a copy of a copy of a copy - it would start to fade out.

I find Fantasy, especially, needs lots of tangible structures from mainstream fiction. And I get a lot of ideas from mainstream fiction. I'll read John D. MacDonald or Kingsley Amis or Tom Wolfe or Dick Francis and I'll think, What if he'd done this instead? Given my head, the answer ends up involving dead guys, but nevertheless, it's an idea I wouldn't have had if I hadn't been out hanging out with the mainstream writers.

In my youth I read nothing but Science Fiction and Fantasy and thus set all the switches and dials beyond hope of ever resetting. Now I get my input from the mainstream. It's a productive way to have set it up.

Dave: What was your relationship to Philip K. Dick?

Powers: I met him in '72, when he flew down to Orange County, California. His house had been blown up by unknown evil powers - which really had happened; I've seen photos. He was really just homeless. He flew down to stay with two young ladies who had just lost a roommate and needed somebody to make up the rent, and I knew the two young ladies.

Luckily, I hadn't read more than maybe a couple short stories of his at the time because I would have been just choked with awe. I got to know him, and my wife met him when we started going, which would have been the late seventies. We were there when the paramedics took him out of his apartment in '82.

He was a great guy to hang around. If you just read his biographies, you could get the idea that he was just a doper visionary, a crazy man - and if you just read the biographies, yes, that's the conclusion you'd come to - but actually, he was totally sane and just the funniest guy you'd ever hope to meet. Also the nicest guy. At a crowded party, if he saw some ill-at-ease person who didn't know anybody just kind of hanging by the punch bowl, he'd go over and strike up a conversation. He was always very unaffectedly interested in what you were doing.

I don't know to what extent his work has influenced mine. I've now read all his stuff. He was a natural genius. He could sit down and in twelve days turn out an absolutely brilliant book. He wouldn't sleep or eat, but he could do it in twelve days - almost as if he'd got his fingers stuck in a light socket. It would be hard to emulate that. You can just admire it.

Dave: Is there a book of his that you find above and beyond the rest? Do you have a favorite?

Powers: I think my favorite of his is Martian Time-Slip. It's just a dazzling book. I'm glad his books have started to be published by Vintage. It's fun to see such dignified heavyweight F. Scott Fitzgerald-type books with titles like Martian Time-Slip. It's nice that he's got himself into that hallowed venue.

Dave: You once taught with Orson Scott Card.

Powers: One time, yes, at the Writers of the Future Workshop in Long Island, New York. People who win the Writers of the Future contest not only get their stories published in the big, fat paperback, but they get flown in for a weeklong workshop with, in that case, not only me and Orson Scott Card, but also Algis Budrys. They're both tremendous speakers. There were a number of times when I'd haul out my own pen and start taking notes. I've done it a couple times since with Budrys, and it's always the same effect.

Dave: Do you do a lot of teaching?

Powers: No. Roughly every other year I teach at the Clarion Workshop at Michigan State University. I used to do it during the first of their six weeks, and lately I've been doing it during the last two of the six weeks, co-teaching with Karen Joy Fowler, who is another very good teacher. Every other year is about enough. If it was more, I think I'd get burned out and quit.

Dave: Are you working on another novel now?

Powers: I am. It involves Death Valley and consequences from some stuff that went on in Southern California in the twenties and thirties. Movie stuff, Cal Tech. But it takes me so long to write a book that you could have asked me the same question six months ago or six months from now, and you'd get very much the same answer.

Dave: Did you take anything away from the experience of writing Declare that you hadn't from previous books?

Powers: There were some difficult tricks. For example, the book consists of two narrative lines: one is January 1963, the other is a flashback of Hale's whole life until 1963. Those two tracks are moving simultaneously, and I'll move the reader back and forth. It was a challenge to switch back and forth without losing the reader at any point, and also without messing up the progression of explosions you want. It's like a roller coaster: you don't want all the big dips and whirls at the beginning and all the mild stuff at the end. I hope that worked out, but that was something I hadn't done before.

And I don't think I've ever done quite this much research before. I didn't come into it knowing anything about KGB and the rest. I'd read Ian Fleming, you know? So I spent at least a year doing nothing but reading about Bedouins and KGB and Berlin, John LeCarré territory.

Dave: As you go from one book to the next again and again, do you tend to forget all this information, all you've learned from the research?

self-portraitPowers: When the book's done, and I start doing all the research for the next book, I can tell there's no protection on the memory of the older material. It's like I have one RAM file for work, and it keeps getting written over. For the book about pirates, I really did know as much about handling a sailboat as anybody in the world who had never actually sat in a sailboat. Anyone who'd done it knew more than me, but as far as those of us who hadn't, I really knew a whole lot. Now I'm lucky to know starboard from port.

Tim Powers visited Powell's City of Books on January 26, 2001 to present his new novel, Declare. After sitting upstairs in the Annex for this interview and signing books for Powells.com readers, he wandered through the store with his wife, gawking at the changes since his previous visit to Powell's in the mid-eighties. He was very excited to find the Sci-Fi posts in the Gold Room. "Will Gibson!" he said, finding the author's name scrawled in black ink. Typically shortsighted, I hadn't thought to bring a marker, so Powers waited patiently while I scurried from room to room.

÷ ÷ ÷

Dave interviews authors for Powell's. He created our Out of the Book film series. He likes cats and dogs.

Books mentioned in this post

  1. Martian Time-Slip
    Used Trade Paper $8.00
  2. Last Call
    Used Trade Paper $7.50
  3. My Silent War: The Autobiography of... New Trade Paper $16.00
  4. Declare
    Used Hardcover $19.95
  5. The Anubis Gates Used Trade Paper $9.00
  6. Declare
    Used Hardcover $19.95

Dave is the author of Out of the Book, Volume 3: State by State

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