It’s time for a cuppa and catchup! I recently interviewed internationally-acclaimed author Tim Powers, author of The Anubis Gates (you can read my review here). Tim’s also responsible for the swashbuckling tale ‘On Stranger Tides’ which inspired the Monkey Island games and the fourth installment of the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise. He’s also credited as being one of the Fathers of Steampunk!
Rachel: Lovely to have you aboard, Tim! Tell us a bit about yourself and what creative stuff you’re working on at the moment.
Tim: Well, my first novel was published forty-one years ago, and I’ve had fourteen in all so far. That’s fairly slow work, but I use the excuse that they’re generally pretty long, and research and plotting eat up a lot of time.
I’m halfway through another novel now, and I hope to have it finished by summer, roughly. It’s contemporary, set in Los Angeles, and it involves freeways. And of course supernatural stuff.
Rachel: I was first introduced to your work when I read The Anubis Gates, a historical fiction with time-travel, Victorian corruption and ancient Egyptian folklore. Can you tell us a little about your approach to historical fiction? What is it about a certain period of time that intrigues you?
Tim: A novel for me generally starts with something I stumble across in recreational non-fiction reading. I’ll notice some peculiarity — like Edison working on a phone to talk to dead people with, or Albert Einstein going to a séance — and I’ll start to wonder if a story might not be built around what I’m reading.
If I come across another oddity or two — like Edison’s last breath being preserved in a test tube in a museum in Michigan, or Einstein turning out to have had a secret daughter who disappears from history in 1902 — I’ll decide that this isn’t recreational reading after all, but research for a book.
For The Anubis Gates, it was a note in one of Lord Byron’s letters. He said that several people had recognized him in London at a particular date in 1810, when at that time he was in fact in Turkey, very sick with a fever.
I wondered how he might have a doppelganger, and started reading all about Byron, and his doctor in Turkey, and London at the time, looking for clues.
Rachel: Many people will know you as the author who inspired the Monkey Island games, as well as The Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides. What is it about writing pirate themed fiction that you enjoy the most?
Tim: Sometimes I’ve started research for a book just because some place or situation looks very likely to provide the stuff to make a book out of. John LeCarre-type espionage, for example, always struck me as just begging for the addition of a supernatural element or two, to base a novel on.
And I’ve always loved pirate novels like Stevenson’s Treasure Island, Sabatini’s Captain Blood and The Black Swan,and Howden Smith’s Portobello Gold, and I wanted to write a book with all the default situations “pirate story” implies: cutlass fights on tropical beaches, sea-battles between square-rigger ships, mutinous crews, the Royal Navy — and of course I’d add some supernatural stuff to all that. Voodoo and the Fountain of Youth were obvious elements to use.
I don’t know that I’ll ever return to that setting, but it certainly was fun to play with.
Rachel: Have you always known you were going to be a writer? What was your earliest memory where you knew this was your calling?
Tim: I was about five or six years old, and I read a book called Timothy Turtle. I don’t think it’d hold up to re-reading today, but it was about this turtle who got flipped over onto his back and needed the help of his woodland friends to get right-side-up again.
I thought that writing stories and getting them out in the world and read by strangers must be the coolest thing a person can do. I still think it.
Rachel: In the past, you’ve very kindly given me and other authors advice on the thoroughly miserable process known as querying. What advice would you give to an author seeking representation?
Tim: Oh gee, that’s a complicated one. But my main advice to a new writer would be to get a contract from a publisher and then go looking for an agent. Agents like to have some reason to believe that the manuscript they’re representing is publishable, and they really can’t tell just by reading it.
If you’ve had short stories appear in reputable places, that’s an implication that a novel you’ve written is also probably publishable … but the best evidence is if it has in fact already been bought by a publisher. With a contract already in hand, you can get the attention of virtually any agent.
Of course getting that contract isn’t easy! But at least in science fiction and fantasy, there are a number of editors who still look at unsolicited manuscripts, and for the rest of them you can send query letters.
Getting an agent is like getting a spouse — you shouldn’t sign on with either one just because you’ve found one that will take you, and you’re better off with none than with one that isn’t near perfect.
There are a number of publishers that accept unsolicited manuscripts, either all year around or on a seasonal basis. For starters, I’d recommend that writers keep a beady eye on the websites of publishers such as Tor, Baen and Daw.
Rachel: If you could tell your younger writing self anything, what would it be?
Tim: Oh — work faster, you lazy thing. And when you decide to write a trilogy, it’s a good idea to have the same publisher for all three books. (That didn’t occur to me when I sold the two books that follow Last Call.)
Rachel: Do you feel that with enough practice and perseverance, anyone could be a good writer? What crucial lessons would they need to learn to reach their potential?
Tim: I do think that with practice and perseverance — a perhaps irresponsible amount of perseverance — any literate person can eventually become a published writer. Good, I don’t know.
The only thing that distinguishes one writer from another is his or her perspective — that is, what that writer finds fascinating, what convictions the writer has, what conclusions the writer has come to about everything.
Ideally you don’t have the same default tastes and opinions and philosophies that are prevalent in your decade, so your work stands out a bit. And the best way to be independent of the attitudes and assumptions of right-now is to read heaps of stuff from other cultures and other centuries, which expose you to different attitudes and assumptions — you’ve got a bigger tool-kit, basically, than writers who avail themselves only of what’s popular right now.
Rachel: How do you find the writing process? Do you find it energizing, or exhausting, or both? Do you pace yourself or go ‘full steam ahead’?
Tim: I’m very pleased with myself when I write a thousand words a day; the work stacks up nicely over the course of months. I seldom do more than that — for one thing, on the occasions when I’ve done something like four thousand words in a day, I’m so pleased with myself that I take a week off, so it’s not really productive. So yes, I pace myself!
I outline very thoroughly before I start, and try to consider every possible variation of the plot, so that when I actually start writing I know what comes next, which characters will be present and what they’ll say, and what their eventual fates will be.
I let my characters have lots of free will and spontaneity in the outlining and plotting stage, but I try to allow them none any longer when it’s time to actually start writing.
Rachel: You’ve seen a lot of book trends come and go, especially in fantasy and science fiction. Are there any trends you’d like to see more of, or less of?
Tim: In general I’d like to see less of whatever trend is popular at the moment. I think too many new writers tell themselves, “Gee, I’d better figure out what’s selling right now, so I can write that.”
The trouble, of course, is that by the time your book is written and (God willing!) sold and published, that trend will be a bit stale. And if it doesn’t sell, you’re left with an unpublished manuscript that is very likely to be something you never cared deeply about anyway.
It’s much better to … well, for one thing, to have read enough in and out of your field, old and new, so that the current trends aren’t all you’re aware of; but it’s much better to write about things and people and settings that you independently find fascinating and dramatic, which will probably result in a book that’s outside of “what’s selling right now.” With luck, it will start a trend of its own, and you can move on to something else.
Rachel: Do you have an old book idea from years past that you’d like to resurrect one day?
Tim: I’ve always thought a good fantasy novel could be written involving mountain climbing; using horrible mountains like the Eiger or Mount Everest. The setting is already stressful and dangerous, and there are details like bodies of fallen climbers hung forever in inaccessible locations, and “demons of the upper air,” and occult motivations of climbers …
Maybe one day!
Rachel: People define success in so many different ways – what do you feel makes a person successful?
Tim: Well, money, of course — both for its own sake and because it indicates that you’ve got a lot of readers who want to buy your stuff. Then too, you want your books to hang around for a while — stay in print, not just appear and then sink out of sight forever.
I wonder if we can use “successful” to describe writers who died broke, but whose books are now widely read and esteemed! Maybe, if we broaden the definition of “successful” a bit.
Rachel: What kind of research do you do for your stories, and how long do you spend researching before beginning a book?
Tim: I spend altogether too much time doing research. The thing is, I get my plots and characters from the research — I don’t think of a story and then do research for it, I find a likely character or situation or historical period and then do research in order to find out what my characters and plot will be.
I follow side-trails — if a historical character I’m researching pursued beekeeping in his retirement, for instance, I feel duty-bound to read up on beekeeping. And then the history and folklore or honey might occupy me for a while. I throw a very wide net, and I have to look at all the litter that accumulates in it.
In all of it I’m looking for “things that are too cool not to use,” and when I’ve scavenged twenty or thirty such things, my main task is how to connect the dots.
Rachel: Do you remember getting your first writing advance? What was it for and what did you spend it on?
Tim: I believe it was six hundred dollars on signing, against a total advance of twelve hundred dollars. (This was in 1975.)
I don’t know what else I spent it on, but according to the “journal” I was keeping at the time, I bought a new pipe and a one-pound can of Balkan Sobranie #759 tobacco.
I wish I still had it — Balkan Sobranie stopped making it many years ago, and full cans of it go for hundreds of dollars on Ebay now.
Rachel: You’re writing a first draft – is your weapon of choice a pen or the keyboard?
Tim: I do first drafts into a keyboard now, because I can type faster than I can write. Before I had a computer, and an electric keyboard, I did all my first drafts with a Bic pen, crossing out bits and adding others in, with asterisks meaning flip the page and insert the paragraph on the back; and then when it was done I would spend a month typing the whole thing with one finger and a thumb for the upper case.
The nice thing about the handwritten first drafts was that you could tell when no more revision was possible — there was no more white space on the page.
A friend once said, “Powers used to take a year to write a book, but then he got a computer and now it takes him three years.”
Rachel: You have many fans from all over the world – do any of them ever reach out to you? What sticks out in your mind as something nice that makes you feel like ‘yes, this writing lark is worth all the blood, sweat and tears’?
Tim: Yes, sometimes! Once when we were in Israel, a guy told me that he had been in a disabled tank in the Negev Desert, and while he waited for rescue as bullets and mortar shells pounded his tank, he found my book The Anubis Gates to be a welcome distraction. That was very gratifying! And once a woman told me that she and her friends had played games, based on one of my books, in her snowy schoolyard in Belgrade. It’s reassuring to get some evidence that people are out there enjoying the things!
Rachel: Was there ever a time you felt a bit discouraged by writing? How did you bounce back?
Oh sure. My first two books were published by Laser Books — that was Harlequin Book’ brief experiment to see if science fiction would sell as well as romances — and when they discovered that SF did not sell as well, they folded the line. And I found myself right back where I’d started, sending unsolicited manuscripts to editors and getting form rejections after long waiting. But by that time I had quit graduate school and didn’t want to go back, so I got a part-time job at a pizza parlor and kept sending the stuff out. And a couple of years later Lester Del Rey at Del Rey books bought one, and I was back in business!
And then Del Rey rejected the next one, and the one after that, and the one after that, and I was once again pretty much back where I’d started, until a year or so later Ace Books started buying the ones Del Rey rejected.
And I’ve had books rejected since, too! But there’s never been any choice but to keep at it.
I’ve always believe that a crucial step in making a career as a writer is to make sure you’re not fit for any other sort of employment. I feel I’ve achieved that.
Rachel: Are you reading any good books at the moment?
Tim: I’m on a Michael Connelly binge right now — he writes absolutely riveting police-and-courtroom dramas.
In the car I’ve got a battered paperback copy of John D. MacDonald’s Condominium, which I’ve read several times before, so that I can read it if I get stuck in a line at the bank or Taco Bell.
I probably re-read more books than read books for the first time. I’m always re-reading Heinlein’s juvenies, and Raymond Chandler, and Lovecraft, and Dick Francis, and Peter O’Donnell’s Modesty Blaise novels.
I’m afraid I don’t keep up with current stuff very well!
Rachel: Let’s talk TV!! Are you watching any good shows at the moment? What would you recommend we check out?
Tim: (my wife Serena and I) don’t have cable, so we wait for things to come out on DVD and then burn through a whole season in a couple of days — so we’re not really up to date! But we’re caught up in House of Cards, and since we watched Breaking Bad obsessively we’re now following Better Call Saul … we went through Downton Abbey … we’re big fans of 24, and I want to watch them all again in one enormous marathon … and we always go back to the British spy series from the ’70s, Sandbaggers, which is terrific and ended far too soon.
Rachel: If you could take any three people to dinner, living or dead, who would you take and why?
Tim: I have to say H. P. Lovecraft, even though he is justly condemned for being a racist. If you read his letters, you see that he was a fascinating guy. We might never have got stories from Fritz Leiber, Henry Kuttner or Robert Bloch if not for the extensive help he gave them, and I know I learned a lot about writing from reading the advice he gave them, and many others, in his letters.
Then — Lord Byron. I’ve been fascinated by him sever since I read the Andre Maurois biography of him in high school. Even if he was drunk and in a bad mood, I’d still want him along.
And finally I think G. K. Chesterton. He’d be erudite and witty and physically imposing enough to keep Byron in line, and Catholic Chesterton and atheist Lovecraft, both of them polite and intelligent, could have some interesting arguments. Byron would side with one for a while, then with the other.
Rachel: You’re headed to a desert island – what three items do you take and why?
Tim: I suppose “a mirror to signal passing airplanes with” is cheating, since it would ideally get me off the island. Okay — tobacco seeds, because I’m sure I could find something to make a pipe out of; the Bible, so I could really read it thoroughly straight through; and a violin, in the hope that I could learn to play it. (Of course I’m assuming I also get to take basic survival stuff like rope, a knife with fishing hooks and line in the handle, and a magnifying glass!)
Tim, it’s a pleasure and an honour. Thank you for stopping by!