Interview: Tim Powers

By on Apr 13, 2010 in Interviews

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Cover of The Anubis Gates

I know you write poetry and you’ve incorporated the Romantic poets in a couple of different works. What’s your interest there? What intrigues you?

I’ve always been fascinated primarily with Byron.

 

How can you not be?

He’s just a totally fascinating guy. And I’ve got the 13-volume set of his letters that Leslie Marchand edited. And I’ve always just read biographies of him and his letters, just because he’s a fascinating guy. And then, at one point, in about 1822, roughly, he says, “Well, you know, back in 1810, several people saw me in London. Several people said, ‘There’s old Byron across the street.’ And they appeared to be pointing at the same guy. In fact, the guy they were pointing at even went and signed his name, ‘Lord Byron,’ on a list of people expressing sympathy about the king being ill.” He says, “But weirdly, at that date, I was actually in Greece, sick with a fever.”

And I thought, “Well, OK, what the hell is this?” And so I thought, “Well, obviously, somebody made a kind of clone of Byron for some purpose and had it walking around London.” And you think, OK, how did they make a clone. And I think, “Well, I don’t know, but his doctor in Turkey, his name was Romanelli,” which reminded me of Romani, which is Gypsies. And gypsies were supposed to, according to some stories, be from Egypt. So we have Egyptian sorcery.

And so I derived it from those bits. That was the one that wound up as Anubis Gate. And then the other book about them was The Stress of Her Regard. And that started because, again, I was reading about Byron, just for fun. And I read that, after Shelley drowned, his body was found with a copy of Keats’ “Lamia” in the pocket. Or poems, folded open to the poem “Lamia.” And I thought, “OK, that’s not a coincidence.” I always assume nothing is a coincidence. And I thought, well, “Lamia” is about a female vampire. Obviously, […] Shelley’s death had to do with a female vampire.

And so I looked through Shelley and Byron’s letters and Keats’ life for evidence of this, of a vampire. And if you approach anybody’s biography with this kind of obsessive polarity you find piles of clues. I think I could read about Louisa May Alcott, and if I was looking for vampire clues, I’m sure I’d find plenty.

 

Well, John Polidori’s The Vampyre was based on Lord Byron. And that’s the first novel in English literature on the vampire. But the legend is that it was based on his relationship with Lord Byron, because apparently he kind of used people and cast them aside.

Polidori was bitter, of course.

 

Well, he had issues of his own, we all know.

Yes. It was fun making Polidori a vampire.

 

That would be just dessert for him for having done it to Byron.

Yes.

 

Another thing that I found interesting. You were talking about how your parents gave you a volume of [H.P.] Lovecraft at the same time they gave you a couple Simon and Garfunkel albums. And so you were reading the books at the same time you were listening to those albums, and they’ve become mixed in your mind. So I was wondering about [your] inspiration as a writer, if that [experience] inspired you to want to synthesize different things.

Exactly. Yes. Synthesizing is the main thing you want to accomplish. When you’re really young, you write imitations of your favorite writers. I was writing lots of Lovecraft- and Robert E. Howard-like stories. And if you read them, you’d say, “Oh, here’s somebody who is crazy about Lovecraft and has nothing of his own.”

In a way, you could say that we don’t really get anything of our own. What would be described as your own voice is really a synthesis of lots of influences. And what would make my style my own, say, would not be anything Powers contributes, except for the selection. At first, your fiction is going to be obviously pieces of Lovecraft, Heinlein, whatever. As you read more and get a wider basis, and ideally, read a lot outside of your own field, the bits of influence become smaller and more numerous. So instead of solid chunks of visible influence it’s like a bag full of confetti. And you can’t really pick out any more of what’s this writer’s influence and that one, and it becomes kind of this mix, this characteristic mix.

[…] Ideally, I think a writer should think, “I get this powerful response, not only from this book but from this painter, this music. How could I get that effect in a reader in prose?” And of course, you probably can’t. But you’re going to come up with some interesting effects. And so yes, I do think synthesis is the main thing — is the only thing a writer has.

 

It’s clearly very evident in your work, and I think part of it is probably because I would say you seem to have a natural curiosity about the world.

Well, I think you need to learn as much as you can about as many things as you can. Like I always think it would be terrible to simply read science fiction, if you want to write science fiction. I think you need to have read everybody: lots of cultures, lots of centuries. […] Anything you do know about is going to be part of your toolkit when you write, and therefore, you should know about as many things as you can. I was thinking of something Heinlein said. He sort of said that you should know how to do as many things as possible, and specialization is for insects. So yes, you want to be able to cast a net as wide as possible.

 

And then that maybe will help you find your voice, as well, because you kind of find things that you gravitate towards.

I also liked what you were talking about as free writing as a way to work on ideas and how you talked about your process of just putting down what you were thinking on the page, so that you could go back and look at it.

You have to think into the keyboard and realize that, as I said, these are imaginary bets. There’s no responsibility for any of this. There’s no commitment to any of this. So you just type anything: “Well, what about this. Well, how do you know — I’ve always wondered how birds stay up in the air. I suppose it has something to do with their wings. That reminds me of a story.” You just want to be able to think with totally free association, which again, will get you results to the extent that you have a lot of facts in your head to do free association with.

And then at the end of 20 or 40 pages of this, you can page up, page up, page up and find some valuable bits, you hope. But yes, the first sort of rush should be no obligation, this free association, uncritical. And then from that, from the result, you pick bits, and you think, “You know, I think I could exert some effort on this and put some serious work into this.” But that’s a second step.

[…] I think a lot of times people apply their critical editing thinking when they’re supposed to be free associating, which totally stymies it, totally shrivels it up.

 

Last question I’ll ask you: could you tell me more about upcoming projects.

Right now, the thing I’m working on is going to involve Victorian London. I figure right now everybody’s writing about Victorian London, but by the time I finally finish it and it gets published these will have receded a little bit. People won’t be quite so deluged with Victorian London books by that time as they are now.

 

Was there something that, like just with the cards and the Tarot cards, that was, you know, the moment that it came to your mind, and you said, “Hey, I need to do this”?

Yes, but I’ll sit on it for now. […] A lot of times what strikes you as the incident that you’re going to build from, you start building from it and you decide, “You know what? I like the scaffolding, but I don’t think we need the core any more.”

 

I like that. You’re very good at metaphors.

Thank you.

 

I appreciate you talking to me.

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About

Alyce Wilson is the editor of Wild Violet and in her copious spare time writes humor, non-fiction, fiction and poetry, keeps an online journal, and is working on a book, Belated Mommy: How to Cope With Being an Older Mom. Her first chapbook, Picturebook of the Martyrs; her e-book/pamphlet, Stay Out of the Bin! An Editor's Tips on Getting Published in Lit Mags ; her book of essays and columns, The Art of Life; and her humorous nonfiction ebook, Dedicated Idiocy: How Monty Python Fandom Changed My Life, can all be ordered from her Web site, AlyceWilson.com. In late 2019, she published a volume of poetry by her third great-grandfather, Reading's Physician Poet: Poems by Dr. James Meredith Mathews, which also contains genealogical information about the Mathews family. She lives with her husband and son in the Philadelphia area and takes far too many photos of her handsome, creative son, nicknamed Kung Fu Panda.