The Powers of Fantastic Fiction | An Interview with Tim Powers | September 7, 2005

The Powers of Fantastic Fiction | An Interview with Tim Powers | September 7, 2005

Tim Powers is a unique, imaginative, and versatile author whose work has been compared to that of Michael Crichton, Neal Stephenson, and Clive Barker. He has been described by Kirkus as "the reigning king of adult historical fantasy" and the Manchester Guardian writes, "Powers always goes the distance, never taking easy shortcuts that tempt authors with lesser imaginations." His novel Declare, a supernatural secret history of post-WWII espionage, won the 2001 World Fantasy and the International Horror Guild Awards. He is also the two-time recipient of the Philip K. Dick Award for The Anubis Gates and Dinner at Deviant's Palace, and a three-time Locus Award winner for Last Call, Expiration Date, and Earthquake Weather.

Born in 1952 in Buffalo, New York, Powers has lived in California since 1959. He studied English Literature at Cal State Fullerton, where he first met collaborators James Blaylock and K. W. Jeter, as well as renowned science fiction author Philip K. Dick, who became a close friend and mentor. Powers’s first major novel was The Drawing of the Dark (1979), and his next novel, The Anubis Gates, won the Philip K. Dick Memorial Award and cemented his reputation as one of the finest contemporary science fiction/fantasy writers.

Powers describes himself as "a conservative Catholic who’s also fascinated with stuff that’s grotesque and weird and funny and dramatic." recently interviewed Powers about his work, the world of science fiction and fantasy, and the relationship between literature and faith. How, why, and when did you begin writing works of fantasy? Who were your major inspirations and influences? Were there, or are there now, Catholic authors (fiction or non-fiction) whose work has had a strong impact on your writing and storytelling?

Tim Powers:
My mother read us kids the Narnia books very early – "old men forget, yet all will be forgot but I’ll remember with advantages" Reepicheep, and Puddleglum, and Pauline Baynes’ illustrations! And my mom read us The Hobbit, and she was always reciting Chesterton’s "Lepanto." And then when I was eleven she got me a copy of Robert Heinlein’s Red Planet, and the course of my future was set.

For the next ten years I think I read nothing but science fiction and fantasy – my favorites being Lovecraft, Leiber, Sturgeon, and Heinlein, probably. Then in college I was an English major, and from that time on I haven’t really read a whole lot of science fiction and fantasy – but my foundations were already laid, and to this day I can’t think of a plot that doesn’t have ghosts or something like that in it. Writers who have influenced me include those I mentioned, and C.S. Lewis, Kingsley Amis, John D. MacDonald, and I suppose even Hunter S. Thompson.

None of those are Catholics, I notice! I love Hemingway and Byron and Tennessee Williams, and each of them talked about converting to Catholicism, but I guess C.S. Lewis is the closest fictional influence.

I’d like to think that Chesterton’s non-fiction, especially Orthodoxy and The Everlasting Man, have influenced my writing, but that’s probably wishful thinking. Adjectives commonly used in reviews of your novels include "intricate," "horrific," "adventurous," "inventive," "lively," "grotesque," and "unique." What do you think makes your novels unique? How have you distinguished yourself in the world of science fiction/fantasy?

All that can make any writer’s work unique is the writer’s personal perspective, and that’s the result of what? What he finds interesting, I guess, what he figures is worth paying attention to, and what conclusions he’s come to about things. I’m a conservative Catholic who’s also fascinated with stuff that’s grotesque and weird and funny and dramatic. On an almost cellular level I find writers like Chesterton and Lewis convincing – and, being Irish, I’ve been a big fan of alcohol and poetry: Laphroaig scotch, Wild Turkey bourbon, Byron, Swinburne, Housman, Eliot, Auden! Add all that up, together with having quit drink twelve years ago, and you get Powers.

One way I’ve distinguished myself in the world of science fiction and fantasy is that I’ve kept at it. When this current book – which I’m nearly finished with – gets published next August [2006] (assuming the editor doesn’t decide it’s no good), it’ll be the thirtieth anniversary of the publication of my first book. A lot of writers don’t hang around the science fiction and fantasy field that long. They’re probably smarter than I am, but that would be a different question. You’ve gained a reputation for being a meticulous researcher. How do you create, or find, a story – usually a wildly fantastic story – while being true to the historical data and your commitment to thorough research?

Well, the trick is in letting the research provide the story. I don’t think up a story and then research the places and times involved – I read up on some interesting time or historical character that looks likely to provide material for a story, and then I read every book I can get my hands on about that period and that character. Biographies, letters and journals, contemporary tour books, histories, books on the technologies of the time, the politics of the time, superstitions, medicine, religions – cuisines!

And while I’m doing all this reading, I’m noting "bits that are too cool not to use." These are dramatic places and events, intriguing sorts of conflicts and ordeals, novel motivations, things like that. When I’ve got a couple of dozen or so such bits, by definition I’ve got a couple of dozen or so bits of my eventual novel, and I can look at them and start to try to figure out what sort of novel it’s going to be. What sort of plot could be made of these things? What things should happen before what other things, what things might be the causes of other things, what sort of protagonist could most effectively be propelled through this maze – what sort of motivation would get him involved in all these things?

The result is – I like to think! –the novel’s plot (and any themes that might spontaneously appear) will derive from the time and the settings and the characters, and not be something I imposed from my 21st-century perspective. Of course this is nonsense, since it’s my 21st-century perspective that chose which bits were intriguing and which were not, and what sort of plot the raw materials seemed to indicate. Still, it does ensure that my plot will involve lots of stuff of the time and place, since it was made out of those things. The main characters in your novels are a very diverse lot. But many of them seem to suffer the common fate of being mutilated in some way. Is there a specific purpose or meaning to be found in the mutilations?

There’s no specific purpose; I don’t arrive with the resolution that they’re going to get chopped up. The thing is, I work to make the dangers they’re facing seem to be real ones, and so it’d be implausible if they didn’t get a bit banged up in dealing with them! I want the reader to think, "Gee, these guys better be careful! They could get killed messing with this stuff!" Actually I imagine their injuries are tokens – if a real person underwent these ordeals, they’d probably simply be killed outright!

But I have to agree, my characters do lose an inordinate lot of limbs and fingers and eyes! I imagine a psychologist could find a more interesting explanation for it, but it would probably depress me. Did you intend your short story, "The Way Down the Hill," published in the December 1982 issue of The Magazine Of Fantasy & Science Fiction (later receiving received a special printing by The Axolotl Press in 1986 and now available in Strange Itineraries, a collection of all of Powers’s short fiction published in 2004 by Tachyon) as an anti-abortion statement? If so, did you begin with that message in mind, or did it develop as the story unfolded?

It developed as the story unfolded. As I plotted it I could see that the story was based on the idea that unborn children are humans, and that depriving them of life is murder – not surprising, since that’s the writer’s belief! – and that the characters were in effect performing abortions. And of course I knew that this would be an unpalatable idea to some readers. But I didn’t mean it to be a statement. Killing unborn children was simply the most logical way – from my perspective – for these characters to renew their lives in a way that was abominable, which is what the story required. A more liberal writer might have had their renewals involve … well, it’s hard to avoid sarcasm here killing whales? Trees?

I’d hate to have that story regarded as "one of Powers’s anti-abortion statements" (my story "Night Moves" has an abortion in it that’s also presented as the killing of an innocent person), just because at that point the characters would stop looking like real, spontaneously-behaving people (at least I meant them to look like that) and would instead seem to be constructed metaphors, examples, representatives of types, illustrations of some point beyond the (now merely token) events of the story.

I was on a panel once in which a woman said, "Dracula is actually about the plight of 19th-century women," to which I replied, "No, it’s about a guy who lives forever by drinking other people’s blood – don’t take my word for it, check it out." As a reader, if I can sense a "message" unfolding in a story I’m reading – if I get the idea that the writer is trying to make some point beyond the characters and events of the story – my "suspension of disbelief" is just gone. This is especially risky in science fiction and fantasy, because all our disorienting effects, our ghosts and our starships and our time-travel – which are the main point of our stories – become just "let’s pretend" devices, not meant to be mistaken for "what the story’s really about.

The main point of fantasy should be (it seems to me) to excite the numinous, vertiginous effects of real supernatural events actually occurring. Any other purpose – to comment on feminism, or racism, or abortion, or the war in Iraq, or whatever the new issue of Newsweek provides – cripples that main point. Many of your novels draw heavily on mythologies about King Arthur, the Fisher King, Orpheus, and related characters. Why do those myths and characters resonate so strongly with you?

In these myths I always get the sense of some bigger, half-remembered event behind the handed-down stories. The eerie parallels between the mythologies of Egypt, Greece, Celtic England, and Norway remind me of the attempts of early Greek and Egyptian scientists to establish the value of pi, or the distance from the sun – that is, these are primitive attempts to describe something that’s actually there. Of course, as Christians we can know the real story, but these early, intuitive guesses have a power of mystery to them, and a kind of heroic poignancy in their inevitable incompleteness. These, and our almost inarticulate spinal responses to them, are the things Lewis described as signposts in Surprised By Joy – not to be mistaken for the destination, but deeply affecting anyway. I don’t think a Christian who is indifferent to pagan mythology is quite getting the full scope of his faith, Your award-winning novel Last Call (1992) is set in Las Vegas and uses Tarot cards as part of a symbolic framework within the story. How did you arrive at the idea of using the cards in that way, and how important is to create a moral framework for objects such as Tarot cards? Do most fantasy novels today implicitly embrace a more relativistic moral vision, or a more traditional "good vs. evil" perspective?

Powers: I read in a book on gambling that modern playing cards are derived from Tarot cards, and I was intrigued by the idea that both have an intrinsic glamour and an intrinsic peril. (I wonder if a non-Christian writer would agree that Tarot cards are scary.) So I re-read T.S. Eliot’s "The Waste Land," because it involved Tarot cards, and I found myself in Fisher King and Holy Grail territory again. Eliot talks about the Perilous Chapel in the wasteland, and writes, "I will show you something different from your shadow at morning striding behind you or your shadow at evening striding before you – I will show you fear in a handful of dust."

Now that’s obviously somebody walking east, and I wanted to start the story from here, southern California – so what’s east of here that could be called a perilous chapel in a wasteland, having to do with playing cards? Obviously Las Vegas! And so I read all about Las Vegas, which led me to the gangster Bugsy Siegel, and pretty soon the stack of "things too cool not to use" indicated the plot and characters of that book.

I don’t think I created a moral framework for Tarot cards – I think I used the framework that was already clustered around them. I mean, everybody’s scared of Ouija boards, right? Tarot cards are very similar. It might be an idiosyncrasy of mine, or something I’ve picked up from being a Christian and a C. S. Lewis fan, but I’ve always taken it as a given that magic is bad for you, and that if you mess with it a lot it will damage and diminish you.

I think a book that presented Tarot cards a benign or neutral – as opposed to dangerous – would have to get over the average reader’s accumulated impression that Tarot cards are dangerous. I had to buy a deck of the Ryder-Waite Tarot cards, to look at the pictures on them, but I’d never shuffle them. After all, if some fortune-telling device works, you’re getting something: information. Is this free? If it’s not free, what is the cost? How come you’re asked to hand over your credit card without being able to see what kind of numbers, or even what kind of currency, is on the voucher?

I really don’t read contemporary fantasy much. But I hope it manages to work from a bigger perspective than the default philosophies of the late 20th century – like "Don’t be judgmental," and "Violence never settles anything," and "People don’t do bad things because of informed deliberate choices, but from lack of education or an abusive upbringing," and "Recycle your aluminum cans." Fantasy fiction that worked from this sort of standard-issue assumptions would reek of 1990, and would be pretty tepid stuff compared to the fantasies that grew out of the more robust philosophies that preceded (and will doubtless follow) those of the late 20th century. Declare is your first explicitly Catholic novel both in subject and theme. Did editors, critics, and fans react differently to this novel? It won both the World Fantasy Award for Best Novel (2001) and the International Horror Guild’s Best Novel (2001). Does this suggest that the market would open to Christian material in fantasy? What challenges might a Catholic writer face in the science fiction world and market?

A couple of reviewers thought it was a pro-Catholic tract, but I think that was mainly because they happened to know I am Catholic. I imagine there is a reflexive prejudice against overtly Christian fiction, but I think fantasy readers can get past that prejudice pretty readily – Lewis’s trilogy is still widely read and admired among fantasy fans, and everybody liked The Exorcist. (I’ve thought of writing an exorcism novel myself, but so far I’ve found the research too scary!)

It would be a mistake for a Catholic writer, as I think it’s a mistake for any writer, to have a deliberate theme or message in writing fiction. But I think a well-written, suspenseful fantasy story that was set in a world where Catholicism is real (such as this world, according to me) would please readers. Is there, do you think, a difference between a "Catholic novel" and a novel written by a Catholic? Do some readers, in your experience, prefer edifying, didactic fiction to works that don’t provide easy answers and depict an untidy and morally complex reality?

I’d say – simplistically – that a Catholic novel is a novel that is based on the assumption that Catholicism is true, and is about Catholicism. I don’t know if my Declare would qualify, just because it’s about a whole lot of other things in addition to Catholicism.

I suppose there are readers who prefer edifying, didactic fiction – though I imagine they’d like it to agree with their beliefs! I can’t picture a Marxist atheist relishing a Christian allegory – but I’ve never met any such readers. Trying to make fiction that will illustrate a pre-determined message is (it seems to me) like trying to make wine by adding grape-juice to ethanol. Joan Didion said once that art is hostile to ideology, which I take to mean that if you force the ideology in, the art goes away.

Of course any work of fiction will have a theme – maybe even a message! But I think these are more effective, and more truly represent the writer’s actual convictions, when they manifest themselves without the writer’s conscious assistance. I generally see a theme manifesting itself in whatever I’m writing, but I’d never presume to summarize it or attach a conclusion to it. I concern myself with my plots, but I let my subconscious worry about my themes.

Related Links:

Catholics & Science Fiction | An Interview with Sandra Miesel (
Strange Iteneraries website, devoted to the work of Tim Powers
The Works of Tim Powers website
Wikipedia bio of Tim Powers interview with Tim Powers
Stranger Tides: An unofficial site dedicated to Tim Powers

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