#74 = Volume 25, Part 1 = March 1988
Interview With Tim Powers
Tim Powers has been writing fantasy and science fiction novels for over 20
years. The Anubis Gates (1983) and Dinner at Deviant's Palace
(1985) won the Philip K. Dick Memorial Award. Last Call (1993) won the
World Fantasy Award; Expiration Date (1996) was nominated for the World
Fantasy Award and the Nebula. These latter two novels, along with Earthquake
Weather (1997), make up what Powers has referred to as the “Fisher King
His novels are elaborately plotted and set against tangible, colorful societies
exotic to the American reader—16th century Austria in The Drawing of the Dark
(1979); 19th century London in The Anubis Gates; London and Venice in The Stress
of Her Regard (1989); the 18th century Spanish Main in On Stranger Tides (1987);
and a truly bizarre post-apocalyptic Southern California in Dinner at Deviant's
Palace. Many of the novels by Powers and friends James Blaylock and K. W. Jeter
are exemplars of steampunk sf. Powers has drawn on a number of motifs familiar
to fantasy—vampires, Arthurian legend, voodoo, zombies, Egyptian and Greek
myth, the Fountain of Youth, the Tarot deck—then mixed in themes more readily
associated with science fiction, for weird measure—time travel, body
transference, chaos theory, quantum mechanics. His fiction is an exhilarating
mixture of literary allusion and rollercoaster action. He invents likeable,
plausible characters and then puts them through hell.
At the 1996 WorldCon in Anaheim, Powers sat on a panel at which an audience
member asked the writers how they would deal with the possibility that
traditional books might go out of fashion as multimedia or hypertext story
products grew in popularity. Other panelists said that it was important to adapt
to new trends, and that they would learn the skills of dumbing down the text,
writing multiple endings, and so on. When it was his turn to answer, Powers
replied, characteristically, “I guess I'd just try to write better.”
Powers granted this interview, with occasional comments by his wife Serena, at
the 1997 Science Fiction Research Association's annual conference, held in
tandem with the Eaton Conference, which took place in June on the Queen Mary, in
Long Beach, California.
FK: Today is June 25th and we are sitting in the Observation Bar of the
Mary. It's an elegant setting, I would describe it as elegant....
TP: At least.
FK: Here we go. I was going to begin at the beginning. Do you come from a
TP: No. A very literate family, all real well-read. My mom read to all us kids
everything from Narnia and The Wind in the Willows to Chesterton's “The Battle
of Lepanto,” which to this day I can almost recite by heart. Greatest poem in
the English language. And the house was always real full of books. Every
imaginable randomly accumulated story. I think my mom did write short stories
when she was in college and send them out.
FK: Were they in the genre fields?
TP: I have no idea. Probably not. She did read Weird Tales when she was a kid
and when I started to get interested in all this, she would say, “I remember H.
P. Lovecraft, I remember Robert E. Howard!” But she had not saved any of them or
anything. So the books around the house weren't really genre-oriented at all. It
was just the main recreation probably was reading.
FK: Your first two novels were published in 1976. How old were you when you
wrote them? Do you want to tell me the story about Laser Books?
TP: I was 23 when I wrote both of them. Back in about '74 or '5, Roger Elwood,
who had been doing millions of anthologies in the field, convinced the Harlequin
Romance people in Canada that they should branch out into science fiction, and
so for a couple of years they did. And K.W. Jeter, a friend of mine I had met in
college, had sold a couple of books to them, and he told me and Jim Blaylock,
“You should write for these people. They pay virtually nothing, they're brand
new, they have horrible restrictions on length and bad language, and so there's
no competition. Just write three chapters and an outline, and you'll get a
contract. I did it.” And so both Blaylock and I did do that. Blaylock's was not
bought. Elwood said that Blaylock was making fun of him with his outline. But I
figured, “Okay, I can do this.” Because throughout my high school and college
career, I'd always been writing on the top of a page, “Book One. Chapter One.”
And then I'd write a page and a half, and get sick of it, and put it in the
drawer. And then the next night I'd write, “Book One. Chapter One,” and start
another story, and get sick of it. Sometimes I could finish short stories. And
so I thought, well, gee, three chapters and an outline, what's that, seventy
pages maybe. I can do that. And then if I get a contract I'll have the threat of
a deadline, the hope of on-completion money, and so forth, to nudge me along and
get it done.
FK: Were you in college at this time?
TP: Yeah, yeah. Close to graduating. I just stayed in college for years and
years and years. I never did really want to graduate and mess with the job
market. In fact, I never have messed with the job market. But I was real scared
of the idea of a novel. I thought, “This is sixty thousand words! That's a lot
of words! You'd better start really slow.” So I wrote about ten thousand words
of my characters just making lunch and talking and trying to get their cars
started and doing nothing, having dinner, as I recall. And I brought this to
Jeter and said, “Look! I've got ten thousand words!” And he read it and said,
“Throw this in the trash. This is no good. You have to start where the action
starts.” I thought, Okay, though that seems awfully profligate. I'll use up the
action way too quick.
But I did throw away that ten thousand words, and started within a few minutes
of when the action started, and sent the three chapters and outline to Laser
Books, and they said, “Well, do us a fourth chapter, 'cause we've never heard of
you.” So I did a fourth chapter real quick, and then they said, “Okay, you have
a contract; go.” So I started writing like crazy. Except I never—I did get the
contract before it was published, finally, but I kept not having the contract
when I was writing it. I thought, God damn it, they're not gonna like the
finished book, and then they'll say, “Don't even write a contract for this
thing.” Which was just paranoia; they did eventually buy it. Of course, it was
like twelve hundred dollars. And as soon as I sold it, and actually got the
twelve hundred dollars, or half of it, or whatever, I quit school and quit work
because I was just going to be a writer from here on out. I think I was making
through Laser Books around maybe twenty-five hundred dollars a year. And I can't
imagine how I lived on that, but I did. I'm sure it went a little further then
than it does now, but I didn't have a phone, I remember that. Then I was 24 when
they were published. The first one was not bad. The second one, though, was
extensively rewritten by a copy editor, and though I had tried to change it back
in the galleys, they ignored the galley corrections and published it as it was.
FK: Was that Epitaph in Rust?
TP: Yeah. And I was very dismayed by that, because you want to show off and
force copies on your friends, but I really couldn't with a straight face show
off with that one. So I called up Elwood and said, “I ain't doin' this no more
if you're gonna do this.” And he said, “Never mind; Laser Books is folding and
you owe me back five hundred dollars for an advance I've given you on a
subsequent one that now won't occur.” Which I never did pay back; five hundred
dollars was a quarter of a year's money in those days. After Laser Books folded,
I was pretty much left exactly where I'd been before. The books had virtually
not been reviewed anywhere. There was one review in one fanzine, and it was not
a credential that anyone like Lester del Rey would have any respect for.
But I had turned pro, you know, so there was no way I was going to go back to
school. I did go back to work. I went back to the pizza place I'd been working
at and said, “You guys need somebody who knows the routines?” And luckily they
said, “Yes, there's aprons back there, Powers, and we got a big party of square
dancers coming in; get busy right now.” So for a couple of years I was right
back to sending manuscripts to editors cold and getting anonymous rejection
FK: That was an early age. Were you one of the youngest writers to be publishing
novels in the field?
TP: I don't know. If you compare it to people like Jack Williamson and the
Futurians, I was a late bloomer at 23. But now that I'm 45, looking back on it,
I think actually that was pretty youthful. Kind of a child prodigy there. And it
was a lucky thing for me that Laser Books was there, because I don't think I
would have gotten anywhere with Ballantine or Ace or any of them. I might have
got some sort of respectable job in the meantime and never again had the
incentive to really attempt a novel. I probably would have just gone on writing
two short stories a year and getting 'em bounced three places and then retiring
them and I don't know what I would have done.
FK: You never considered journalism.
TP: No, I never considered journalism, no. I was considering being a college
professor, which would have been fairly easy. I had started the Master's program
when I started my first book, and ditched it as soon as I did sell the first
book. I thought, to hell with all that, I'm a writer.
FK: How many short stories have you published, and why do you write so few?
TP: I think I've had about five short stories published—and two of those have
been collaborations with Blaylock. We keep planning to do another.
I don't know—every time I try to write a short story on my own, it's either a
pointless vignette or a telescoped novel; and it takes me nearly as long to
outline a short story as it does to outline a novel! I've just always been more
at home with the elbow-room of a novel's length. Even that I'm beginning to
abuse—Earthquake Weather is a little more than 200,000 words. When Lester del Rey rejected
The Anubis Gates he said it was a kitchen-sink novel, meaning I'd
thrown in everything including—he specified including—the kitchen sink. He's
right—I just don't see that as a drawback. I like reading “kitchen sink” novels,
so of course I like writing them too.
FK: You've used Arthurian materials a few times, as in The Drawing of the Dark
and Last Call. Is there any reason for this?
TP: Well, yeah, though I wouldn't want it to get around. Way back in '75, Roger
Elwood tried to market a line of fantasy novels, a proposed series of about ten
books, all based on the notion of King Arthur being reincarnated throughout
history—you know, King Arthur trying to save Abraham Lincoln in one, King Arthur
chopping open Nazi tanks with Excalibur in another. K.W. Jeter and Ray Nelson
and I agreed to write them, and we got together and divvied up history. I wound
up with three time-slots: Vienna in 1529—I had wanted the Siege of Malta, which
was about fifty years later, but I think Nelson had one too close to that—and
England in about 1750, and England in 1810. I had written the first two, and
outlined the third, when Elwood told us the deal was off. The first was The
Drawing of the Dark, and luckily I eventually sent it on to Del Rey Books, and
Lester del Rey made me re-write it hard; the second one has never been
published, and the rearranged scraps of it and the outlined third one became The Anubis Gates. I'm glad the series fell apart —for one thing, Elwood was probably
planning to publish them all under one house pseudonym!
Anyway! In researching Arthurian stuff, I came across the Fisher King legends,
and Jessie Weston's books, and all that business about the Green Knight, and the
fertility king who has to die in the winter and be reborn in the spring, and the
perilous chapel in the wasteland—and I found—I still find!—all of it endlessly
fascinating. It all ties in with Osiris and Dionysus and Balder— and as a Roman
Catholic I of course love the continuity of it all with the New Testament. It's
not a theme I can imagine ever getting to the end of.
FK: Your characters drink a lot.
TP: They do.
FK: Did you know that in Queen Elizabeth I's time, booze was safer to drink than
water, and that even her chambermaids were granted two gallons of beer a day as
part of their wages?
TP: Two gallons!
FK: That would have been for breakfast, lunch, and dinner.
TP: And that would have been about thirteen percent, too, not our little four
percent beer. Yeah, God knows, you do see differences from one century to
another that really are big differences. Like in the 18th century, routinely
everybody killed a bottle a day of port, say. And you read about their dinners
and you think, “My God, they'd go to bed and die.”
FK: I've heard that Elizabeth herself was pretty well tanked in the afternoon
when she'd be writing policy.
TP: (laughs) I always liked that the Arabs had a policy that any important state
decision, you had to review it once drunk and once sober. And if they agreed,
then you'd feel free to go do it. But if there was a conflict, you had to worry
more. But yeah, my characters. Looking back, I think, yes, they all in fact
drink their heads off. I can only guess why. I think I've always seen something
bigger in drink than what is literally really there. It's always seemed much
more important somehow.
FK: Well, it has a host of associations going back to the Greeks, after all. And
you write books with all those swashbuckling characters who would be two-fisted
drinkers as part of their personality.
TP: That's right. Yeah. I've always seen something almost spiritual about drink
that, for example, is just not there in dope. You can't picture Christ's first
miracle being that Mary comes up and says, “They're out of doobage. Okay, get
some grass together.” It just wouldn't be the same thing. And of course, just
mechanically speaking, it's really useful, because a drunk character can be
more valuably frank and incautious in speaking than a sober character would be.
FK: In The Drawing of the Dark, you were able to play on the pun of “spirits”:
the spirit of Finn MacCumhaill infuses the beer with his own magical powers. I
love that title, because when I opened it up without knowing what the book was
about, I thought it would be about a gathering of dark spirits. And there's the
parallel of the character maturing as the beer matures.
TP: Right. Right. I remember del Rey wanted to change that title, and I thought,
“No, no, come on, man! It's about beer, you know? Leave it alone.” Yeah, that
was mainly about beer, that book. And in Dinner at Deviant's Palace I had a
society in which brandy was the currency. Even now, my characters still just
drink like pigs, even though the author has backed off.
FK: There's a jokey, sub-culture drinking game in which readers of Fredric
Brown novels—particularly Night of the Jabberwock—try to have a drink every time
the protagonist does. And you wind up getting sloshed a quarter of the way
through the book, because Brown didn't realize how many drinks he allowed his
character to have. So is there a Tim Powers Drinking Game like there's a Fredric
Brown Drinking Game?
TP: No, though I'd be interested to watch somebody do it. I never consciously
gave thought to how much a character might be drinking during one scene. I'd
like to think I wouldn't accidentally have had him drink enough to render him
unconscious before the scene was done. Among the worst would be Byron when he
was crossing the Alps [in The Stress of Her Regard], and I was not making that
up. That was historical research. He did have stacks of cold white wine for
FK: Sabatini was clearly an influence as recently as On Stranger Tides, which
often feels like an affectionate homage to Captain Blood. Who are some other
early literary influences?
TP: Oh, certainly always Lovecraft and Heinlein and John D. MacDonald and
Kingsley Amis. And Fritz Leiber. Fritz Leiber over everything. Constantly I've
always been writing along and I'll think, “What is this you're doing? You're
doing something here.” And I'll think, “Oh, you're doing Leiber, is what you're
doing.” I always figured that if I could have written the Fafhrd/ Grey Mouser
stories somehow, instead of him, I'd have been happy with just that. “I've done
it. I'll retire now.” So probably my main hero is Fritz Leiber.
FK: Did you pick up any philosophy of writing style from him, do you think? You
do have your own voice. Anyone picking up one of your novels would know this is
a Tim Powers novel.
TP: Hard to say. I think probably so, in that Leiber would not hesitate really
to go on at length to describe something or have some bit of awkwardness happen
or some kind of in-joke among the characters. I've always been a sucker for that
kind of thing from a number of sources, and I bet I picked a lot of it up from
him. Probably sentences being too long I picked up from Leiber. And I think from
Kingsley Amis also. I can see bits in my fiction where I'll think, “You were
really doing Kingsley Amis that day.” Then there's some people where I simply
pick up plot tricks, like Thomas Pynchon. I think I'm constantly doing Pynchon
tricks in my plotting. You know, dropping weird outlandish clues that can't
possibly be related, but seem to be anyway. And almost mystical weird junk
showing up in—in junk, in litter and trashy newspapers and clues from papers. So
there's a lot of people I pick up plot tricks from, but not really style tricks.
I'm always afraid that Pynchon might one day look at one of my books and think,
“Boy, if you took away V and Crying of Lot 49 from this guy, this would be a
very slim book.”
FK: Reviewers seem to find your books full of bleak gloom-and-doom, but I think
they're very funny. Do you laugh at your own fiction when you write?
TP: Actually, I do. There's a bit, in the upcoming Earthquake Weather, in which
our hero and heroine are drunk and waiting on a guy's porch at night for him to
come home, and inadvertently making a mess of the porch—and I was laughing my
head off when I was writing it. I read it to my wife, and I called Blaylock and
read it to him—I can't recall now if they found it as funny as I did. And a lot
of times I think it's mighty funny when one of my characters grossly
misunderstands what another has said.
Here's a good point, though—I don't think I ever indicate that I think it's
funny! My characters generally are too upset and busy to find any humor in these
debacles, so I've covered myself, see—if a reader can't see that some bit is
damn funny, it doesn't matter, the action goes on with no pause, I don't have
any equivalent of a laugh-track.
FK: Let's talk about mechanics. When and where do you write?
TP: Generally always at my desk, because that's where the computer and all the
research books are. I'm not looking right out the window, but it's at my elbow.
I have that now at the house we have in San Bernardino and I also had it in
Santa Ana. I think now that's sort of a nervous tic. If there wasn't a window in
some place I had to write, I think I'd hang a picture there or something. But
yeah, always at the desk, and surrounded by research books. I've never
understood people who can write on airplanes with laptops. I suppose I could
write letters that way, but I can't do three paragraphs without having to pull
some book down and see what that was called or what's the name of that city or
what caliber gun that'd be.
I used to always write morning, from as early as possible till around noon, and
start to taper off, but lately I've been doing it more at night because the
phone doesn't ring after about ten. When I was finishing up this recentest book
[Earthquake Weather], I was routinely staying up till three in the morning to
get a lot of serious work done. The trouble is, the day still starts at eight,
the phone starts ringing, the cats want attention, so while I was finishing that
book at least, I was just never getting eight hours' sleep. But we had the
deadline of having to move and disassemble the office, so I figured, “Okay, stay
up late. You can sleep when you have moved to San Bernardino.”
Generally if I do a thousand words, I figure that's a day's work. If I can get
that done, I think, “There, you've bought today.” If I do more, that's extra
grace, and usually if I do a whole lot, if I do three or four thousand words in
a day, I'm so overwhelmed with my virtue that I'll take two weeks and write
nothing, so it's not really productive. If I stick to a thousand words a day,
FK: At what point do you polish? Page by page, or after the first draft is done?
TP: I guess page by page, because what I'll do is start the day's work by
re-reading the last five or ten pages previous. As I re-read them I touch them
up, and at that rate when I get to where I left off yesterday, I'm running by
this time, and I can keep going with no hitch. I can't tell any more how much
revision I do because it's on a computer. In the old days I would do it with a
pen on a piece of paper, doing revisions in the margins and between the lines,
and there came a point when I'd realize it was time to type because there was no
more white space on the page, and a lot of asterisks meaning to flip the page
over and insert a paragraph. I write real tiny. I used to get 1200 words on one
8 1/2 by 11 page, which was fun because it meant one page was a day's work. Then
when it was all filled up I would type, and of course in the process of typing
it would get one more revision, but then it would be done. Now with the
computer, there's no limiting factor. Jeter said once that before Tim got a
computer, it took him a year to write a book. Now that he's got a computer, it
takes him three years to write a book. But maybe four times in the course of a
book, I'll stop and go all the way back to the beginning with the bits I now
know are going to have proven to be important and sweep through real hard,
making sure I lay mines that later will be blown up and emphasize stuff that
later will want to have had some preliminary lead-up time. So I do three or four
big revisions per book, but a million, an infinite number of little ones. I'm
not one of these people who could ever stand on their first drafts. I don't know
if it's true or not, but you hear that with Phil Dick, the first draft was it.
And a whole lot of our pulp heroes—Frederik Pohl —have said that you finish
typing the thing and it goes in the mail and you re-read it maybe when it's
Now, if I did that, it'd be very lifeless, colorless work, because my first
drafts read like a bunch of people standing around in street shoes on an empty
stage, holding scripts, looking at tape marks on the floor, just kind of making
sure that they can walk through it comfortably. And then as more drafts come
along, it gets more colorful and spontaneous-seeming, and they're dressed right,
and there's real drink in the cups, not just empty pretend cups, you know. A
revision is horribly important for me. Even those first Laser books, I think the
manuscripts were all full of crossing out and things like that.
FK: The protagonist of Dinner at Deviant's Palace is a musician. I'm curious
what music you listen to, and whether you listen to music when you write.
TP: No, I don't have music playing when I write—if it was worth playing, it
would be worth listening to, and I have enough distractions-from-work just with
the cats, and the goats next door, and the occasional wasp that gets in. And the
phone. And any old paperback lying around.
A lot of times, though, I can hear music and remember what book I was writing
when I was listening to that particular bit a lot. For example, in my head the
soundtrack for The Stress of Her Regard is obsessively The Pet Shop Boys,
especially their songs, “It Couldn't Happen Here”—picture that playing behind a
water-level shot of Lake Geneva, with a boat slanting past under an overcast
sky!—and “It's a Sin.”
My tastes in music are all fossilized—I haven't listened to current rock music
in years. I love that period from about '64 to about '75, especially the flare
that was Jefferson Airplane, Buffalo Springfield, the Byrds . . . and Bob Dylan,
I still pop up with Dylan quotes the way some people come up with Bible quotes.
And I'm a big reggae fan, Marley and Peter Tosh and Culture and Burning Spear
and Black Uhuru . . . though I haven't kept up. In classical music I like the
Romantics, like from Beethoven through Tchaikovsky and Borodin and
Rimsky-Korsakov and Rachmaninov, not quite up to Stravinski. Movie
soundtracks!—especially Jerry Goldsmith, especially Chinatown and The Wind and
the Lion. And of course any Bing Crosby.
FK: If Southern California fell into the sea, where would you want to live?
That's an interesting question. [Serena starts whispering.] Oh, Ireland!
(laughs) South of Dublin. County Wexford. This is strongly my wife's opinion.
That's right, even though she's only Irish by marriage. Realistically, I don't
know if Ireland would do. I don't know if we'd get over there. In the United
States, I would probably—we like Oklahoma. New Orleans would be fun. Or
somewhere sort of up the coast here, but not far enough up for it to be. . .
SP: No, it can't be. If California fell into the ocean, that was the question.
TP: Yeah, that's right. Generally I would want to have lots of sun and no snow.
I don't think Ireland would stack up with the sun. I grew up in Buffalo till age
7, and just absolutely imprinted a horror of snow. Now I just don't ever want to
see it again except in calendar pictures. I think Southern California is the
ideal climate. Never been to Florida. Of course I gather it's damper.
FK: It's a lot damper, yeah. I was just wondering about that because L.A. is so
clearly influential on novels such as Dinner at Deviant's Palace and Expiration
Date. I was wondering whether there was any other place you'd like to live just
so as to write about that place.
TP: I suppose—you know, New York, we can never relax really in New York. It's a
fascinating city, just infinitely intricate and colorful, but we can never
actually relax there. Oklahoma would actually be a choice. People always think
I'm kidding when I say we'd like to live in Oklahoma, but the people really are
different and better. And I mean better morally. They're better people. We'd be
kind of scummy unreliable types in Oklahoma, by comparison, but it has a lot to
say for it.
FK: Have you traveled to all the places you've used as settings?
TP: No. In fact only starting with Last Call did we ever physically see a place
that I wrote about. With things like Drawing of the Dark, Anubis Gates, the
pirate book especially, On Stranger Tides, it's all a result of those big
picture books, you know, a souvenir of your trip to Venice. I would get, I
don't know, ten of those and lay them all out so that you could say, “Okay, the
photographer of this picture was standing about at point X in that picture, and
if he had looked over his shoulder he would've seen this picture.” And if I do
that intricately enough, I can get a really very authoritative sense of the
I love finding old travel books, either travel memoirs or travel guide-type
books from the period. I was real lucky, for example, in Stress of Her Regard,
to find a tour book of Rome from about 1820. It gives you the smells, and what
are the nice areas and the bad areas, and what kind of food you'd be likely to
get, and how much it'd cost, and how many days it'd take to travel by what kind
of carriage to this city. After I've done a whole lot of that and, you know,
National Geographic, which gives you the plants and maps and the sea-charts with
shoals indicated, and the tides and the temperatures, I really don't feel one
down compared to somebody who has actually been there. As far as being able to
set a scene plausibly in one of these places, I think I've got as much
ammunition as you do. A lot of times I will talk to people who have been to
those places, and say, “What do you remember? Tell me a typical day.” Somebody
mentioned that the canals smell funny at night in Venice because they're not
constantly being churned up and stirred and aerated by boats. When they settle
down, and God knows why this would happen physically, they smell funny. I'll
think, “Cool, that's a great detail, thank you.” Of course the main purpose for
research is not to prevent being caught in an error by some scholar, but because
of all the colorful, wonderful details it gives you about architecture and boats
and traditions and legends. . .
FK: . . . someone who might have died at a certain spot . . .
TP: Exactly. You think, “Wow, that's beautiful, I love it, I never could have
made that up, I'll use that.” In fact, for On Stranger Tides, when I was writing
that, I think I knew more about sailing than anyone in the world who had never
set foot in a boat. Be sure to include the qualifier. Anybody who'd actually
done any sailing would be ahead of me, but as far as people who had always
stayed on the shore, I really did know more than any of the rest of them.
FK: The Clute-Nicholls Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, I think it was in the
entry on steampunk, says that the fact that you and the other steampunk writers
haven't actually traveled to London, for example, doesn't really matter because
what you're writing about is the London that Americans think about when they
read fantasy, and not the actual London.
TP: Yeah. Though I like to think that they wouldn't catch us in any horrible
mistakes. That's true: the London we're writing about is not there any more. In
fact, the Las Vegas I was writing about is not there any more! But yeah, finally
with Last Call, we were able to actually, physically go look at a place we were
going to be writing about. I gotta admit that it's better, because you can take
pictures, you can talk into a tape recorder.
At one point, I told my wife, “Okay, my characters are going to Las Vegas, so
we should, and we can go where they'll go and see how it all looks. And air fare
is cheap; we can get there real easily.” And she said, “Are your characters
going to be flying there?” I said, “No, they'll drive.” And she said, “Well,
then, we should drive.” And I said, “I don't want to drive across the Mojave
Desert! In this goofy vehicle? We'll be killed.” She said, “Well, it seems to
me, if your characters are driving across, we should drive across.” I'm glad she
insisted on it, because the drive to Las Vegas turned out to be real
overwhelming. Dazzling. Really, the desert is very impressive. And all those
strange little towns on the way, that exist only because they are little stops
on the way, provided a whole lot of great color. And since then it's been places
we've been able to look at. Los Angeles for Expiration Date. This new one
[Earthquake Weather] takes place on the way to San Francisco and in San
Francisco. We did drive up there with a video camera the whole way, so every
time I was writing a scene where they'd be ripping across the city in this
direction at this hour, on a rainy night, I would have a cassette I could put in
the VCR: rainy night, this route, this hour, and I'd say, “Oh, look, you can
hear the noise of the cables in the tracks, that's interesting. I didn't notice
that at the time.”
I'm going to be getting away from that, though, for this coming book I have yet
to start, because it looks like it's going to be taking place in Beirut, and I
don't think we're eager to go to Beirut. And Moscow, and again I'm not eager to
go to Moscow. And London, which would be fun, but I think I'll be back to the
picture-book and National Geographic style of research.
FK: Isn't World Fantasy in London this year?
FK: You're not going to go?
TP: (laughs) Serena thinks we're going to go. I don't think we're going to go.
She keeps promising a British editor friend of ours that we will go.
SP: Everybody's always asking me!
TP: (laughs) It would be useful. I could go to the building where MI5 was, in
the 50's, and sneak in. I don't know if they'd let us sneak in, but it's one
thing to be . . .
SP: It was easy bribing somebody $25 here on the Queen Mary, but we could try
bribing somebody at MI5, “Come on, take a twenty, let us in!”
TP: Yeah, the Queen Mary, when we did research for this vessel we're sitting in
here [for Expiration Date], we took a tour and at the end of it, I gave the tour
guide twenty bucks and said, “Can we go look at your private employees'
cafeteria?” Because that used to be the men's crew's bar. And she let us and
then turned us loose down there, in those decks where the public doesn't get
to. We were able to wander around taking pictures until somebody finally yelled
at us and made us leave. But I think you're right, the MI5 building wouldn't
let us go. (laughs) “Well, we're just writing a science fiction book!” (laughs)
Much less in Moscow! Picture us wandering around the Lubyanka!
SP: “That's what they all say!”
TP: “Sciencesky fictionsky!” “Yeah, everybody says that! That old line.”
(laughs) I think you can do totally adequate, better than adequate, research
strictly out of libraries and used bookstores and new bookstores. Even just in
the L. A. Times recently, there was an article on Moscow heating. They have
about three heating plants, and giant pipes that go to every apartment in the
whole city. And there's no thermostats. Everybody just gets heat. To the extent
that they get it, it's constant. So some people throughout the winter are just
baking and all winter long all their windows are open, trying to get a little
relief. Literally. Kim Philby always had his windows open in winter. Other
people are at the tail end, and they don't get any heat at all. (laughs)
But I just read that in the L. A. Times, and it gave a history of the system and
when it started to fall apart and everything, and I think, “Okay, that goes in
the stacks.” In fact, there comes this great moment, just when you're almost
done with research, just when you're going to start plotting, when almost
magically, everything you look at turns out to be research. You can't pick up a
paper without there being some article that you absolutely needed. The first
book you glance at in a used bookstore is one you would kill to get. Any movie
you watch will have to do with it. I don't know what that moment is, but what it
means is, you're done with research. Maybe it means you've gone crazy, and
you're starting to imagine that everything is data. (laughs)
FK: Does your plot or your protagonist come first? I suppose everyone knows by
now that you and Blaylock invented the poet-character Ashbless, but your
protagonists are a strange lot—a bar bouncer, an ex-midwife, a puppeteer, a
poker player, an Indian boy, and so on.
TP: Well!—I guess I've got the protagonist fairly well defined before I start
laying out the actual plot, but I do all my research, and figure out the
location and the main concerns of the eventual story, long before I decide what
sort of character could best be, most usefully be, propelled through the story.
The things I discover in the research gradually block out, or at least strongly
indicate, a definition of the protagonist. Often the last thing I decide about
him is what his job is, his career; I want to give him a job that will plausibly
send him into the situations I want him to get into, and will give him the
background experience and knowledge I want him to arrive with. In Expiration
Date the protagonist was an electrical engineer, and in Earthquake Weather he's
a vineyard worker—both of those choices were made long after the shape of the
story had already become evident. The others you mention—yeah, I can clearly see
that each of those definitions was picked, arrived at, after I had done the
researches and figured out the shapes of the stories. You know: “What kind of
guy would be the best key for this lock?”
I do outline the daylights out of a novel before I actually start writing—I make
a huge calendar before I start, with all the events, and even a lot of the
conversations and jokes, already written in on the big squares.
You hear writers say sometimes that their characters have lives of their own,
that the characters take over and enact the story the way they want, ignoring
whatever the writer would have planned. That's not true of me at all. If I let
my characters have their way, they'd all sleep till noon and be pig-drunk by
sundown. They'd never get anything done—an eventual eviction would be the big
action, and then them cussing and trying to get their junk cars started.
Back to what their jobs are—I somehow always start by considering making the
protagonist a bartender or a gardener! God knows why. I've never stuck with
either one. At least I resist the temptation to make the protagonist a
writer—especially a novelist! Any time I read a book about a novelist, I think
it's the actual writer talking about him or herself. Like, if the protagonist is
a best-selling author, I think, “Oh, you wish,” and if it's a struggling writer,
I think, “Don't whine at me.”
FK: A lot of post-Tolkien fantasy and fantastic historical novels use an
elevated style of dialogue . . .
TP: Do they not!
FK: . . . with a lot of “thee's” and “thou's,” whether or not the author knows
the difference between them.
TP: That's the truth! (laughs)
FK: In your fantastic historical novels, which are set anywhere from the
Continent to the Spanish Main, your characters sound like 20th century
Americans. Do you do this because you consider your dialogue to be a
translation of how they would have spoken a couple hundred years ago, or do you
have some other reason? And can you tell me when and how it occurred to you to
write like that?
TP: The question first came up in Drawing of the Dark. A friend said, “These
people are talking in too modern a way.” And I did say, “It's a translation!
They weren't speaking English at all. They were speaking Austrian, and not
modern Austrian at that. Why should I translate it into archaic English?” Since
then, what I've been trying to do, and I'm sure it's impossible, is to write in
some kind of dateless modern English. I don't like archaic dialogue written
out. If it's archaic because it was written in 1500, fine, I have no quarrel.
But for a modern writer to have characters talking in a really markedly archaic
way—with, as you say, “thee's” or “thou's”—strikes me as so instantly mannered
and stilted that, to me, it kills the illusion of the story and instantly calls
attention to the author. It's like Toto has pulled the curtain aside and the
voice has to say, “Pay no attention to the little man behind the curtain.”
What I hate even worse is archaic narration. You see a lot of books that start
with, “It was the morning of the Becoming.” Which is capitalized: The Becoming.
“And the girl-child Diphtheria went forth from the castle.” And she's a Healer.
And I just think, “Give me a break!” To me what's fatal about that is the
obvious constructedness of it. It's so obviously labored together that I don't
see how a reader can overlook that. I think the first thing fiction has to do is
make the reader forget that the reader is holding a stack of pages all glued
together along one edge. Anything that reminds the reader that this is all just
fake, just words on a page, is fatal.
So it's a compromise. Certainly I'm sure I have erred on the side of making it
too twentieth-century in dialogue, narration, et cetera. But the alternative
strikes me as even more dangerous. If I have a character saying, “Quotha, smite
me, ye blackguard! Damned if I . . .” They're just high school kids with make-up
on and cotton moustaches, suddenly, not even knowing what half these things
mean! “Ah, God's death,” whatnot. It just strikes me as instantly phony. After
all, I'm writing for readers like myself, which is to say twentieth-century
I noticed with Drawing of the Dark—well, even more so I noticed with a book I
never wrote—I was going to write a book about François Villon, the French poet.
Mainly because I had a great source book on him. It had all his poems in the
medieval French with an English translation and more than half the page was
footnotes, explaining, “Oh, that was this bar,” “Here's a map of Paris,” “This
was slang among the students in those days,” “He's talking about the shoelaces,”
“This is a kind of knife they used to carry,” “That's a pun they used to make
about what they used to drink.” I thought, “Wow, all my work's done right here
in one book!”
But the reason I didn't write it is that there was one element of it which was
represented, for example, by this tool they had which was for pushing back from
the edge of a pot of boiling oil the hands of a guy you had dumped into it. They
had a special tool to do that. And I just thought, “Oh, God, you know, I don't
want to write about these people.” I'm sure that's true, I'm sure people were
like that, I'm sure that was a part of that society that didn't strike them as
damnable and abominable, the way it strikes us—just as, no doubt, many things we
find routine, they would find abominable. But I just thought, “I am too at odds
with that to write about it.” And if I did write about it accurately, my
readers would be too at odds with it to read it. So I didn't even touch that
period. But with any period before 1800, say, the people really are different.
They really thought differently. They valued things we don't think about and
overlooked things we worry about a lot. In many ways I think they were correcter
than we are, but nevertheless it's an alien viewpoint, and if I wrote about it
accurately, I'd be writing characters that my readers couldn't identify with.
So it's a compromise. My characters inevitably will be twentieth-century people.
I want to disguise it enough to get the reader through. I don't want to disguise
it enough to fool a real scholar of that period, because if I restricted my
readership to those—well, for one thing, I could never satisfy those—but that is
a real problem. I remember somebody helpfully sent me a big dialogue off the Net
of people assessing the way I had done dialogue in The Stress of Her Regard.
Their collective opinion was that I had not done it right, that it was too
twentieth-century. I mean, I avoid words like “groovy, “bitchin,” “cooking with
gas.” But I did not try to take out of it any twentieth-century cadences. I feel
fairly free to use words like “right” in the way we use them, and this did annoy
some scholarly people. I do think the alternative is way worse: to get it really
FK: I have a related question. You sometimes describe the action through
dialogue rather than exposition. Did you notice that you do that?
TP: No, I didn't know I was doing that. (laughs) That's interesting. I guess I'm
pleased I was doing that.
FK: Do you have any kind of philosophy of dialogue, how much of the action the
dialogue ought to carry?
TP: I guess off the top of my head I would say it really shouldn't carry much at
all. I'm trying to think of a situation in which dialogue would convey action.
“Don't run so fast, children. You'll trip. See, there, I told you. Look, now
your nose is bleeding.” (laughs) “You clumsy pig.”
FK: I don't know whether I can point to an example off the top of my head, but I
have noticed it. You know: people are looking over the wall: “Look, the army is
TP: Yeah, yeah. No, I wasn't consciously aware I was doing it. Therefore I hope
it was fairly restrained. It's always tricky with action. I try to avoid a real
omniscient third person, because it always strikes me that when any action
occurs, it's mostly a noise, a confusion, somebody's running, you hear glass
break, there's smoke, and later you find out what happened. It doesn't happen in
an orderly way, the way it might be done in a movie. Although even in movies
it's often fast: a window breaks, a car skids away.... I always find it
important, especially in action scenes, to picture being the guy there, what
would he see, hear, feel, how quickly would he catch on to what was going on.
It's always tempting to have people instantly understand what's going on,
because then you can just proceed, but I think at first he's going to get it
wrong, he's going to think that guy did it, or that we should be running
Also, any usefulness in dialogue really has to be concealed. It's way too
tempting to have dialogue do too much work, from the famous cliché “As you
know,” where you have two characters tell each other things they already know,
all the way to dialogue that's simply too helpful. “He wasn't there at the train
station, so we left a message at his hotel room. By two o'clock, if we haven't
heard from him, we'll go on without him.” It's just too helpful. It's too clear.
It's too much the author making sure the reader understands the rules as they
stand right now. I always try to make it a little more spontaneous-sounding,
and see if you can't do it with some gesture rather than an actual statement.
You do need to fool the readers into thinking this is really occurring, not
being mimed and acted out by characters who are consciously keeping themselves
from looking over at the camera and winking.
FK: Puns and wordplay are frequently integral to your plots. When I encountered
the hemogoblin in Dinner at Deviant’s Palace, the rivalry between the Carbonari
and the Siliconari in The Stress of Her Regard, and the Bony Express in
Expiration Date, I couldn't help wondering which came first, the plot segment or
TP: That's a good question. The hemogoblin, the word came first. Serena was
reading something and said, “Hemogoblin, I mean, hemoglobin.” I said, “Wait a
SP: No, when I was little I thought that.
TP: Okay, when she was little she thought it said that. But I just thought,
“What a wonderful misreading.” I suppose I probably would have had that weird
little creature in the book anyway, but once I had that word for him, I thought,
“This is great.”
“Siliconari” occurred to me in the course of things. I'd think, “Well,
Carbonari,” naturally it would be that. “Bony Express” also occurred to me as I
was going along; the character would say that. Siliconari, I suppose, is a joke
for the reader from me. I don't like to do that, because the reader is aware
that that's from Powers, not from one of the characters. “Hemogoblin” could have
been a word that came up in that society. “Bony Express” could have been a
phrase Sherman Oaks came up with on his own. Siliconari—that is from the author,
and I think on principle that's not good.
A lot of times I'll have some sort of joke that I want to put into a book, and
it takes me forever to find an opportunity to work it in. In one example, in
Earthquake Weather: In college, in about '71, I was in an anthropology class and
the professor, God knows what he was talking about, used the word “asymptotic.”
And the guy sitting next to me said he wished the professor would pick up his
ass and tote it out of here. I thought that was just mighty funny. Ever since
I've thought, “God, I wish I could find a way in a book to have a character use
the word asymptotic so that some other character could say he wished he'd pick
up his ass and tote it out of here.” But every time I looked up asymptotic, it
was a math thing having to do with a line edge-on with a circle. And I thought,
I can't see how I could have a character jabbering about that.
But then when I got my Britannica CD, I said, “Show me any time you've ever, in
any context, used the word asymptotic.” It gave me a hundred. One of them was
subatomic physics. I thought, “Cool, tell me about that.” It said that quarks in
a proton or neutron, the force that confines them doesn't push them together
when they're close. They're loose when they're all in each other's company. It's
only when they start to drift out that they feel a force pushing them back
in—the opposite of gravity or electromagnetism, where the force gets weaker as
you get further out. It said that quarks thus experience asymptotic freedom. I
thought, “Cool!” I made it be the case that personalities or ghosts in a
person's head experience asymptotic freedom as long as they stay in the head,
but if you have a personality that's starting to spin eccentrically, it's no
longer experiencing asymptotic freedom; and finally I could have a character say
that, and another character say he wished he'd pick up his ass and tote it out
of here. It was twenty-five or -six years before I could finally use that.
I've got a notebook at home with useful bits in it, and a number of the useful
bits are these idiot phrases, which I just hear some time. You'll hear somebody
misunderstand something someone else said, and you'll say, “I love that,” and
you'll write it down. I do always try to put it in, unlike “Siliconari,” so
that it's strictly arising from the characters and there's no sense of Powers
doing wordplay. I never think authors have any business doing puns or wordplay.
The characters can do it, of course, the way they do all kinds of things.
FK: You've said before that you think the author should never be
TP: Right. Very related. Any time you're aware of the author at all in a book,
the author has screwed up. Even if what you're aware of him for is to think:
“What a great author this is!” It's still a mistake that he did that. Kingsley
Amis frequently stops me with admiration for him. I'll think, “What a sentence!
What a great goddamn sentence! What a writer this Kingsley Amis is! I want to go
back and read that sentence again. That reminds me of a couple of other funny
sentences out of his books.” Great, but I've totally forgotten what the story
was. I think the author has to be absolutely invisible. Tongue-in-cheek is the
most fatal way to blow it. In effect, the author is pushing the book down so
that he can meet the reader's eyes over it and wink and say, “This is all just
fake, you know. I made all this crap up.”
FK: I'd like to hear about how you choose what to put into a story and what you
leave out. What have you left on the cutting room floor?
TP: Lately, I really know in advance well enough how it's going to turn out that
I don't write the stuff that would wind up on the cutting-room floor. I outline
real thoroughly. I frequently will highlight the bits of the outline that will
appear onstage, rather than be referred to in a flashback or in dialogue, so
that I kind of know before I ever start what bits will be portrayed.
When I first wrote Anubis Gates and sent it to Ace Books, Beth Meacham said,
“We'd like to buy it, but it's got to be cut by an eighth.” I went through it
and I found that there were a number of scenes which, if they were missing,
wouldn't be missed. The reader would not have failed to understand anything,
failed to get any clues. If these scenes were missing, it would be just the same
effect. So I just made 'em all missing, and it did shorten the book by an
eighth. I think Beth Meacham, the editor, had been expecting me to shorten
everything a bit, cut every paragraph by some degree. What I did instead was
leave the untouched bits totally untouched and take other bits out whole.
When Mark Ziesing did a limited edition of it some years later, he said, “This
is a limited edition, three hundred copies—it's not so important, the paper
costs. If you want to put the cut scenes back in, do it.” So I re-read it and I
thought, “You know what? I don't want to. They really are just hot air.” It
really was marbling in the flesh of the story. I remember there was some scene
of a ship being loaded with freight at the London docks, and it was a mildly
interesting scene. I had some source material about how ships were loaded at the
London docks and back in '82 I figured I'd better show the reader that. At this
later date I realized, “Ah, this is a valuable thing to learn. Anything that can
be missing and wouldn't be missed, make it missing.” Not down to the level of
paragraphs. If I've got some kind of very clever paragraph that admittedly
isn't crucial, I'll still leave it in.
But I arrive now with that attitude, “Remember, you're going to be cutting any
scene that doesn't pay its own way eight different ways.” So, realistically, I
don't think I'd write the aimless stuff any more. I would say I did that a
couple of times real solidly, and now I simply don't write the stuff that would
go on the cutting room floor. Either that, or I'm too dull to be able to tell,
and editors are too tired to complain! (laughs)
FK: A basic writing rule of thumb, and one of the things the old Star Trek never
learned, is that you don't make the good guys look good by making the bad guys
look dumb. However, you seem to have taken the view that you can make the bad
guys bad by making them really bizarre. When I think of the false messiah in
Dinner at Deviant's Palace, Darrow and Horrabin in Anubis Gates, Georges Leon in
Last Call, or Loretta DeLarava in Expiration Date, what I think of is that these
are cripples, grotesques. They are almost as much junkies or parasites on
society as they are imperialistic conquerors.
TP: Yeah, I do like making grotesques. Just as I like grotesquerie in
everything fictionally. I'd never have a scene in a car if I could have it on
the back of an elephant, or in a room if I could have it on the rooftop in a
thunderstorm, just as a rule of thumb. And I do like the idea that bad
people—that being bad has cost them something. It marks 'em. I've always liked
an idea I think I originally got from C. S. Lewis, that in order to really
pursue bad magic, or magic at all, it's real costly to your psyche. You lose
I.Q. points. You lose fine-tuning of emotions. You get sort of blunted and
truncated. And then I guess I just figured, “As long as you're making them
mentally damaged, screw 'em over physically too.”
Generally, whenever I'm broadliest blocking in characters, I think, “Okay, give
me four main characters, make two male, two female, two one thing and two the
opposite thing.” Then I work on these opposite things: tall, short; make one
real tall and one a midget. Often the pairs, I think, “Make one skinny and one
real fat.” So the bad guy in Deviant's Palace got real fat, and so did Loretta DeLarava. I think I'm just fond of the grotesque, really, is the reason I do
that. A friend of mine worked at a bookshop, and the manager did wear rubber
bands around her scalp under her hair [like Loretta DeLarava] and every now and
then they would slide up and mess up her hair, and I just thought, “That's very
cool. I got to have a character do that.” In fact, the editor at one point said,
“Are you ever going to explain why she wears these rubber bands?” And I thought,
“I guess I should, huh?” so I provided an explanation. But I was just thinking,
“Of course a bad lady would wear rubber bands under her hair. Given the choice,
FK: In Last Call when Scott Crane's false eye eventually gets pushed out by the
new eye—that was a very disturbing scene, but the grotesquerie was also
TP: That was a fun scene. The grotesquerie for me is a whole lot of the fun.
It's nice to be able to take a real place and some historical characters and
stuff and really scoot some circus specimens through. I think Fellini talked
about the circus aspect of film-making. I certainly would claim that there are
circus aspects of fantasy writing. It's like, I wouldn't need a reason to have a
character be all covered with tattoos and weigh eight hundred pounds and go
nowhere except on roller skates, I would almost need an excuse not to do that.
FK: Please talk about how you design the systems of magic in your novels.
TP: I'll look at whatever systems of magic might historically be there, like
with On Stranger Tides obviously there's voodoo. So, okay, look at voodoo: how
does it, quote, work, unquote. In this newest book I'm sort of doing the same
thing; in Earthquake Weather I’m using santeria a lot, which is sort of voodoo
again. I'll look at how they claim it really works. But then I of course use it
for my own purposes. With Anubis Gates there was gypsy magic and some Egyptian
magic, but I tend to impose just for plausibility a Newtonian structure on it.
So that if you're going to have a big fire over here, there'll be a
corresponding big frost somewhere else. And you can't have a character levitate
without in some way explaining it. I would never, for example, have an invisible
man who could see by visible light. I wouldn't have a three-inch-tall man who
could move comfortably or think. I'd have to give a lot of thought to a
three-inch-tall man. For example, does he weigh still as much as he did when he
was six feet? In which case he's going to go right into the ground.
I always worry about these physical consequences of the magic. I'd never have a
character's hair turn white overnight, because that's impossible. Somebody
could say, “Well, Powers, isn't dead guys coming around ringing people's
doorbells in the middle of the night and running away, isn't that kind of
impossible?” Well, yeah, but that's part of the story.
FK: That's logical.
TP: It is logical, yeah, that's true. White hair overnight is not logical. I try
to impose a Newtonian logic to magic, and I have had some fun with, like in The
Stress of Her Regard, putting sort of a quantum mechanics slant to it, where if
you're tossing a coin for fortune-telling purposes, the coin that lands isn't
necessarily the same coin you tossed. Just because it lands over there doesn't
mean it crossed the distance from here to there. In Last Call, I was able to use
some of the fascinating consequences of chaos theory and the Mandelbrot set.
Since it's fantasy, it doesn't matter so much whether I totally understand the
science. After all, a penny won't show the quantum effects that an electron
would show. But I say, “Hey, it's magic.” Then all the Newtonian or Einsteinian
or quantum stuff becomes just plausibility shoring up a magic system. I like to
think it does give a resiliency, a texture, so that somebody would say, “This is
an actual working system, not just like some magic ring that'll always give you
three wishes,” or something, which just permits too much, and the whole story
would fly apart.
Cold iron is traditionally a counter for magic. Fresh blood is traditionally an
ignition switch for magic. Things like wine would never be out of place; you
would always believe that. Nestle's Quick would not work, even in a contemporary
book. There's a bunch of things that have a resonance of being applicable, so I
try to use those, and then imply the structure and limitations of the structure
so that the reader will buy into it.
FK: The limitations are really interesting because they tell us that the bad
guys are not infinitely powerful, and that there is a system of logic that, if
the protagonist can figure it out, he can prevail.
TP: Although, at the same time, if the protagonist uses the magic, it will
damage him. I always picture magic as being basically bad. You can often use it
relatively harmlessly if you don’t make a career of it, and you're just doing it
on one weekend for a special purpose, but even then it's not good for you. And
if you really get into it, you'll be a really fat guy in a swimming pool or
you'll be wearing rubber bands around your scalp, or completely go insane.
Every now and and then you'll throw in a really ancient, magic-using character
of whom, after 200 pages, we'll say, “Oh, that's who that is!” This minor
character will turn out to be somebody famous, such as Villon in The Stress of
Her Regard and Ponce de Leon in On Stranger Tides, who have been around for
centuries. And Dr. Leaky in Last Call. And they're not happy dudes.
TP: And they weren't bright. They were kind of bird-like, blinking around. I
think I would have that be the case for anyone very old. I don't think I'd ever
have a Lazarus Long who was so squared away.
FK: Again, it's illogical. Things degrade.
TP: Yeah, a lot of science fiction writers have signed up for that Alcor thing
where they freeze your head after you die. I've always just seen that as
horrifying. I have real traditional views, and I think: three score and ten.
That's fine. Ten score and ten, no, that's too weird. You're not going to be
better off. You might still be wandering around, or being wheeled around in an
aquarium eating butterflies, children throwing rocks at you, but it wouldn't be
good. I'm always steeply inclined toward expecting imbecility as you pursue
FK: Your stories occasionally take the form of a mystery, with some climactic
revelation awaiting the reader. In horror, revelation is frequently linked with
the issue of visibility. Although you frequently deal with problems of
perception and optical illusions, when I read your books I don't get a sense of
straining to visualize some invisible mysterious ultimate entity which, if
described, would drive me mad, as Lovecraft would write it. Your monsters and
ghosts and succubi are very solidly drawn. What is your opinion about the
implied-vs.-explicit debate in horror fiction?
TP: One restriction I would always have is that I need the reader to be able to
really picture whatever is going on, which means that I've got to be able to
really picture it. A lot of times I draw pictures for myself, just so I can see
where what is. “Can you see that over the top of the house, or is it hidden by
the house?” Therefore I could never write a scene about something that I
couldn't draw a picture of. And anything I can draw a picture of, I can describe
verbally. I might have a lot of stuff that would be kind of flickering and in
the wrong focus and wrong wavelength to be visible, but then I would say and
describe that. The only times I've gotten close to this—I'm thinking of when [in
The Stress of Her Regard], on top of some Alp, Byron and our hero Michael
Crawford, and the lady who pulls her eye out, meet the Sphinx. There I was
really trying to push the borders of what I could describe. But I never would
say, “It was undescribable, and to see it is to go insane.” Because that's
simply handing the reader a blank card, a gray card, saying, “Missing tape,
blank pages, never mind.” It's not a valid move.
FK: You run the risk of the charge that your imagination has failed.
TP: Sure. Which obviously it did; it's a blank card. Someone might defend it by
saying, “It's referring to a thing, a fact, that which is unpicturable, and to
see it is to go mad.” And I would say, “I think you're talking about an empty
set. You're using a lot of words to say nothing. It has no referent in my head,
what you just said, and I don't believe it has any in yours either. I think
you're just waving Arabic lettering or Cyrillic letters and trying to tell me
that they represent `Big Monster.”' I mean, I love Lovecraft. I re-read him
every year. But I can't go along with the idea of the Unnameable, the
Unpicturable, Azathoth—whatever the hell Azathoth is doing—no, there's no such
It's like having a color that nobody ever knew about. You can't have a color
that nobody ever knew about because the visible spectrum is from this frequency
to that frequency, and everything in there is accounted for. You might torque
somebody's eyes so that they could see infrared, or ultraviolet, or gamma rays.
That might be kind of interesting. But they're not talking about that; they're
talking about colors as seen by regular eyes. You gotta just stick within what's
Imagine a movie. A movie is never going to have the screen go blank and say,
“You would go crazy if you saw this. This is not visualizable.” What they would
have is, I suppose, white fog, in which case you describe white fog. You can
visualize white fog. It's a challenge because you do want to be able to crowd up
against that which it would be madness to comprehend. It would be nice to be
able to write a scene about something so appalling that the reader would go
crazy. That would be very nice. I don't think you can get there visually,
though. I don't think it's there. I think there's a lot of images that are
profoundly disturbing and can shake the reader. God knows, as a reader, I've
read these things sometimes. But it was never indescribable.
FK: Have you sold film rights to any of your novels?
TP: No. Several have been optioned for a year or so at a time, but nothing ever
has come of it. I think at the moment none of them are even optioned.
FK: Do you
play the game of which novel you would like to have filmed?
TP: Oh, sure, and I think of who would be perfect as an actor and so on, but I'm
not really up enough on movies to have an educated speculation. If it came right
down to it, I would love to see anybody on earth make a movie of one of my
books, and I wouldn't care what they did to the story.
FK: I think John Sayles would be great because he has already done several
films in which he has several protagonists . . .
TP: Now, what are his movies?
FK: Uh, Brother From Another Planet, he's done a few genre films; his earliest
one was probably Battle Beyond the Stars, which came out right after Star Wars,
and that was essentially The Seven Samurai retold as space opera. He wrote the
scripts for Piranha, The Howling and The Clan of the Cave Bear. He also did
Secret of Roan Inish.
TP: Oh yeah, we saw that, that was a terrific movie. It would be interesting to
see a movie based on a book I wrote. It would be a sort of squared and cubed and
quadrillioned version of seeing a cover painting for a book I've written. You'd
be thinking, “No, that isn't it,” or “Oh, yeah, that was exactly right!” or
“Even better than I meant, beautiful!” I don't think I'd take it personally,
though, if they messed it up and totally disregarded whatever I thought was
important, and emphasized something I thought was contemptible, and took all the
characters I thought were neat and threw them away and replaced them with
characters I thought were worthless. I'd just say, “Oh, well, it's a movie, what
did you expect.” And of course this is theoretically accompanied by the big
bucks. And I'd want a couple of those cool jackets with the logo on the back.
FK: Speaking of cover art, you've been really lucky.
TP: I have been very fortunate. Yeah, I love that Walotsky on Dinner at
Deviant's Palace, and I love the Gurney skeleton waving a cutlass on On Stranger
FK: On Stranger Tides, parenthetically, is one of my favorite books. And not
just because I'm a Floridian.
TP: Oh, that's right, you're a Floridian, that's good, you'd be able to catch me
in some errors there.
FK: Well, that was hundreds of years before my time. . .
TP: Exactly, things have changed. (laughs)
FK: You don't get that swashbuckling adventure very often any more.
TP: I know. I do so love Sabatini. When I thought, “Okay, let's write a book
about pirates, voodoo, Fountain of Youth, Blackbeard,” I thought, “What do you
need to have?' And I thought, “Cutlass battle on beach, sea battle, you know,
the things that Sabatini did so well. Let's make sure we get those.” Because
Sabatini was never tongue-in-cheek, he never . . . I'm thinking of a book by
George MacDonald Fraser, who I really like. He did those Flashman books, and
they were wonderful. But then he wrote a book called Pirates, and I bought it.
“Oh my God, George MacDonald Fraser about pirates, this'll be great.” And it
was so tongue-in-cheek that it could not be read. In a swordfight, one character
would say, “You can't kill me on page 3!” It was like holding two magnets
together by the wrong ends. I just thought, “Bang. I'm unable to read this.” As
opposed to Sabatini, who was always serious.
FK: Would you like to, or do you plan to, invent a Secondary World for a setting
in any of your future novels, as you did in The Skies Discrowned ? That
was a Secondary World, wasn't it?
TP: It was another planet. It was the only one of my books to take place on
FK: Would you ever invent a fantasy world?
TP: Like Middle Earth? I don't know. Maybe. I like—I guess even Jack Vance's
Dying Earth was this Earth. Of course, maybe Middle Earth was this Earth in the
past. But yeah, I could picture it being fun. Nehwon, say, Fritz Leiber's world
where Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser hang around. It would be fun. I could picture
doing that. And I've always wanted to write a real hard science fiction story
about orbiting colonies and whatnot. I've got some wonderful research books on
it. But it never seems to be quite the right one for right now. It would be
good, I could have some real fun with it. I don't have any prejudice against a
Lankhmar-type world. I would have a prejudice against that goofy archaic
style, but I don't think that needs to go with it, necessarily.
FK: What books have you read in the past year? I presume they've all been
TP: Actually, they largely have. A whole lot of books about Kim Philby, the
British spy. It's research. It started because I was enjoying it and then I
thought, hey, why waste the time, make it research. I always re-read Tinker,
Tailor, Soldier, Spy, and I think I did that not too long before. And I was on a
big Tom Wolfe binge. He's now my favorite living writer just by default, 'cause
all the others have died, but I loved Bonfire of the Vanities and The Painted
Word. The Painted Word, in forty minutes of reading, sums up, totally explains,
and totally dismisses all modern art. It's terrific. In forty minutes, you can
say, “That's it. I knew I hated abstract art!” And now I don't have to be
ashamed and mumble every time [mumbling:] “Oh yeah, it's really good. I don't
know what it is.” So yeah, a lot of Tom Wolfe. God knows who else in particular.
FK: The question really was going to be, “Whom of your contemporaries do you
TP: I don't really read science fiction and fantasy people. And always I'm
re-reading John D. MacDonald and Kingsley Amis.
FK: Where do you think the narrative impulse comes from?
TP: Any time you're telling anybody anything that happened, when they weren't
there, you're going to touch it up. If it's five minutes after the fact, you'll
give them a pretty accurate, journalistic version of what happened, but two
years later, it's changed a lot. You emphasize some bits in the story that play
well, and you omit other bits that are just extraneous. I think of any of my own
favorite stories that I’ve been telling for ten years—probably they have no real
resemblance to what actually happened, because I've had ten years of seeing how
audiences get bored at some parts and think other parts are funny. So I imagine
it just comes from telling people what happened, and you start to see what's
effective and what's dross. Then you think, “Why should I limit it to what's
happened to me? I'll tell that thing that happened to Blaylock as if it happened
to me.” And very quickly you've moved from nonfiction into fiction.
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