Interview: Tim Powers

By on Apr 13, 2010 in Interviews

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Tim Powers
Photo by Beth Gwinn for Locus Online

Science fiction and fantasy author Tim Powers has won the World Fantasy Award twice for his novels Last Call and Declare , and he won the Philip K. Dick Award for The Anubis Gates. Specializing in “secret histories,” Powers bases his works on historical events and biographies of famous people, with the idea that occult or supernatural factors heavily influenced those people and events. 

In addition to writing, Powers also teaches part-time as writer in residence for the Orange County High School of the Arts. He has frequently served as a mentor author as part of the Clarion science fiction/fantasy writer’s workshop.

This interview was conducted at Philcon, where he was the keynote speaker in November 2008.

I’d like to start by picking up on some of the things you spoke about in your keynote address. You were speaking about how science fiction is almost at a perpendicular plane to mainstream fiction. Could you tell me how that applies to your own work, that definition?

Yes. I would say that mainstream — and it might be a 20th Century development — has become limited to what could really happen. And I think it’s 20th Century development, because in Dickens, you’ll get a mainstream book like Oliver Twist or Bleak House which will just casually include a ghost or spontaneous combustion. Or some other occult semi-SiFi-type incident. […] “Christmas Carol,” of course, is an extreme example, but it doesn’t seem to have excluded it into a separate category in those days. And I think, in the 20th Century, mainstream has become restricted to what could really happen.


And the definition of what could happen is more narrow, as well?

Yes. It presumes that supernatural stuff can’t happen. […] Mainstream has become restricted, maybe because the 20th Century was such an aggressively atheist century. It’s become restricted to what can naturally occur. And it strikes me that to write mainstream is to adopt a needlessly restricted toolkit. And so I would say that our stuff, the stuff that gets reviewed in Locus includes all the stuff mainstream can do but opens it up to a second dimension, as well. So we can have all the guns and TV sets and […] telephones and stuff that mainstream uses, but we also have access to a whole lot more stuff. And I think it’s, I’d say, an enrichment, except that I think it’s the basic landscape. It’s not that science fiction/fantasy has got a richer field to play in. I think that mainstream has an artificially narrowed field to play in.


Are you familiar with the term “magical realism?”

Yes. Magical realism always strikes me as […] mainstream’s anemic attempt to include the stuff [that] our stuff works with. Because somehow, in magical realism, I always get a sense that this isn’t really happening to real people in real places.

One element that always makes me think this is that, in a magical realism story, people aren’t surprised when a supernatural event intrudes. In 100 Years of Solitude, some woman’s hanging her laundry out and floats away into the sky. And it rains flower petals all night, which is a very nice effect. But it’s no big deal. And there’s no consistent structure to the magic. It just will happen.


Like a dreamland or dream logic.

Yes, exactly. It’s like a dream. And, since there’s no consistency to the magic, I don’t think we’re called on to believe this is really happening in a real world to real people. It’s kind of “let’s pretend.”


Kind of an escape.

Yes. And, of course, our stuff is escapism, but we want it to be very convincingly presented. When I’m reading a book, I really want to think, for the duration of reading it, that this is really happening to real characters.


Now, you said that you’re skeptical.



But that you, I guess, would say, as well, you’re also open-minded. That’s the true definition of a skeptic, though. They don’t subscribe to either way of thinking. They don’t say everything [is] scientific, and they don’t say everything [is] supernatural. They’re willing to accept there’s some room to move.

Yes. I would be skeptical about ghosts right now. But if I was in a dark, old house all alone in the middle of the night, my skepticism would get a little bit threadbare.


Now, one of the things that was brought up in the panel about your work […] was your Roman Catholic background. And they felt that that informed your interest in the magical and the secret history side. And I was wondering if that’s a simplification or if you think there’s any connection.

It’s probably roughly true, in that it can’t help but affect my perspective. Certainly, as a Catholic, I think […] the supernatural can occur. I think it’s real rare, and if somebody told me it happened to them, I wouldn’t believe them. And certainly, I’d prefer that no supernatural things happen around me. But yes, it would keep me from reflexively dealing with such things at a sort of skeptical arm’s length, with the attendant possibility of kind of a patronizing, condescending, contemptuous attitude.


Because, obviously, you would believe in certain miracles and things like that.

Yes, I do. As a Catholic, there’s a number of supernatural things I believe occur, as much as I believe an atom consists of protons and electrons.


Now, another thing that they pointed out [in the panel] is there’s a timelessness to your work, because you minimize the use of contemporary pop cultural references. So if you’re writing about an historical period, you are writing about things that are contemporary to that time. But if you’re setting it in the present, somebody’s not listening to a radio, like in Stephen King, and the latest pop song is on, and then they’re watching some TV show and they’re talking about the latest sports hero. They felt that that was one of the reasons that your work was more timeless.

Well, I like that they thought it was timeless. I would say I don’t so much try to exclude such things as not give contemporary things any particular preference over more archaic things. […] I have included references to Elvis Presley, but they’re not more prominent than references to Dionysus, say. Or Edison, or Milton. In fact, I think it’s real important for writers — readers, too — to not specialize in the two-dimensional top surface of culture, because really, it should be a three-dimensional volume. And you shouldn’t be more aware of Stephen King [or] any contemporary writer than you are of Hemingway, Dickens, Defoe, Milton, Chaucer. There’s this big pile of stuff, and you shouldn’t be exclusively concentrating on the stuff that’s at the top level. Because 20 years from now, something else will be on the top level.


I think what they were talking about was really the inclination amongst some contemporary writers to use that as a way to kind of say, “Hey, I’m hip.  I’m with it.  You should read me.”

Hip and with it, I would avoid.  The trouble with “hip and with it” is you have to cut yourself off from a whole lot of really powerful stuff.  And three years from now, it won’t still be hip and with it. I would never want to be timely or relevant, because five years later, whatever you were talking about isn’t timely or relevant any more.


And I love that you put it that way, because that dovetails into another thing that came up in your talk yesterday. When you were talking about resisting the inclination that some writers have towards sociological commentary and trying to talk about what’s happening in modern culture and putting that into your work. Now, you were challenged on that by a member of the audience.

Yes. Who brought up 1984.


Yes, which is not exactly contemporary, but…

It could be [argued] that 1984 was not any kind of one-for-one commentary on something specific. Arguably, Big Brother was Stalin. Arguably, the world of 1984 was oppressively socialist government, such as was going on in the Soviet Union at the time. But I think, rather than specifically talking about Soviet Russia, it was a dystopian novel. And was really more in the general timeless impulses and problems and things that are likely to occur, than “this is a commentary on the Soviet Union.” Because if it was a commentary specifically on the Soviet Union, then today, with the Soviet Union gone, it would have only historical interest. It would be like Uncle Tom’s Cabin, which is historically important. It’s a crucial factor in the whole picture of slavery in the 19th century. But I don’t think anybody reads Uncle Tom’s Cabin for fun now. It’s like […] Upton Sinclair, The Jungle. I bet nobody really reads The Jungle now for fun. I bet they read it as a historical factor: “Oh, look, it revolutionized the Food and Drug Administration.”


I read 1984 in 1983, and I thought it sounded a lot like Reagan, in some ways. Because there was some of the newspeak kind of thing, like the PC kind of things that were starting to come into popularity then.

Well, ideally, that would be how it would work. Every time period would find relevance to their own. But they would never say Orwell was specifically speaking about this. And I don’t like it when any fiction, but especially our stuff clearly is talking about its own time.


Philip K. Dick comes to mind, and that’s another one that the audience brought up, and obviously, you know him and know his work very well.

Well, his book, A Scanner Darkly, was written pretty deliberately to be an anti-drug use book. But I think he was such a good writer that the concerns of the story and the plot and the characters took precedence. It did wind up being, in effect, a good anti-drug use book, but I think it’s a good book first.


To your point, it was set in the 1960s. It’s very of the 1960s, and yet it’s also something you can read now. It will always be true, because anybody you will ever know who has ever known anyone who is addicted, it is still true, no matter what time period it is.

Yes. And he didn’t do the thing I’m always leery of, which is make his characters representative of types. They were all real characters. And it’s almost incidental that they happen to be drug addicts. It doesn’t read as if the purpose of the book was to do an improving portrait of representative drug addicts.

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Alyce Wilson is the editor of Wild Violet and in her copious spare time writes humor, non-fiction, fiction and poetry and infrequently keeps an online journal. 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; her humorous nonfiction ebook, Dedicated Idiocy: How Monty Python Fandom Changed My Life, and her newest poetry collection, Owning the Ghosts, can all be ordered from her Web site, 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.