Fact and fiction
Whether it’s the pre-Victorian London underground in The Anubis Gates, or Blackbeard’s 18th century lunatic wanderings along the Florida Coast in On Stranger Tides, Tim Powers is as much alternative historian a science fiction and fantasy writer. The winner of the World Fantasy Award for the Vegas-themed Last Call and two-time winner of the Philip K. Dick Award (named for Powers’ late friend and mentor), Powers has spent his career writing by his own rules, lacing his literature with the light of supernaturality and speculation, gray humor and magical realism, while drawing his readers in achingly strange and fascinating situations.
PT: You write with such detail, crafting perfectly reasonable, super-researched worlds, and then somebody’s eyeball pops out, or someone’s arm falls off. Does the historic and the imaginative share the same artery?
TP: Actually, it’s the difference between history and the imaginative that I depend on—I use real history to make the fictional craziness look plausible. I want to show the reader the actual real world he recognizes, and then pop into it a ghost, or vampire, or dybbuk, or whatever. As much as possible, I want to blur the ordinarily conspicuous distinction between what’s real and what I’ve made up, so that the reader will think, “Gee, maybe this stuff is true!”
PT: Along those lines, how much of our history do you think is really just a kind of narrative fiction?
TP: Oh, gee, I don’t know. I guess I take most of it on faith as being accurate. I mean, you can go see where Caesar was killed or who signed the Declaration of Independence. If history is just a bunch of baseless legends, then my goofy fictions have no foundation to stand on.
PT: How many books have to go in through your synapses and be digested for every one that you produce?
TP: A whole lot. I get my plot elements—and settings, and conflicts, and even lots of my characters—from finding, in research books, bits that are “too cool not to use,” so I try to read as many books on my subject as possible. I bet I read a dozen Einstein biographies before I wrote Three Days to Never, looking for odd, apparently minor details that I could use as clues to a secret back-story. And then the Einstein research led me to read a heap on Charlie Chaplin, and kabala and the Mossad … and Palm Springs.
PT: You must either have a photographic memory, or you must go through a hell of a lot of highlighters.
TP: My research books wind up ruined—I underline and draw arrows connecting different paragraphs, and I make a customized index on the front flyleaves. I could never use library books, even if they’d let me keep them for the two or three years I’d need them.
PT: I’ve read that when you research something, you sort of go about it inside-out, meaning if you’re looking for info on Einstein, you take closer notes of the esoteric stuff or the missing details than what’s well-documented.
TP: Right, I pretend that there’s a supernatural thing secretly going on, and then I look for clues about it. If a historical character made a stupid mistake, I ask myself, “What if that
wasn’t a mistake? What if it was actually a very shrewd move in the peculiar circumstances that history failed to record?” And yes, it’s always nice when a biography says, “It is not known what he did during this month.” I figure, “I’ll tell you what he did!”
PT: Which do you find a better source of information—the internet or a good used book store?
TP: A good used bookstore is better—or, a mixture of the two. The internet is a goldmine for peripheral details.