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March 2007
Locus Magazine
Tim Powers: Follow the Arrows
Tim Powers was born in Buffalo NY and has lived in Southern California since the age of seven. He attended California State University Fullerton, graduating with a BA in English in 1976. While in college he became friends with James P. Blaylock and K.W. Jeter, and all three spent time with Philip K. Dick, who influenced their writing and careers in various ways.

Powers has written some science fiction, but more often his work involves the supernatural and magic, with an emphasis on mythology and secret histories of historical figures, including Bugsy Siegel, Lord Byron, Thomas Edison, and, most recently, Albert Einstein & Charlie Chaplin. His first two novels were SF: The Skies Discrowned (1976; revised as Forsake the Sky 1986) and Epitaph in Rust (1976; revised as An Epitaph in Rust 1989). Fantasy The Drawing of the Dark appeared in 1979. Time-travel novel
Photo by Beth Gwinn

Locus Online links for Tim Powers:
awards nominations | bibliographic pages
The Anubis Gates (1983) and post-holocaust SF Dinner at Deviant's Palace (1985) each won a Philip K. Dick Memorial Award. On Stranger Tides (1987) involves pirates and voodoo, and The Stress of Her Regard (1989) concerns the supernatural exploits of poets Byron, Shelley, and Keats. Contemporary fantasy Last Call (1992) won a World Fantasy Award and a Locus Award, and began a loose trilogy that also includes Expiration Date (1995) and Earthquake Weather (1997), both Locus Award winners. Declare (2001), a supernatural secret history about Cold War spies, won a World Fantasy Award and an International Horror Guild Award. His latest novel, Three Days to Never (2006), concerns time travel, supernatural creatures, and the secret histories of Albert Einstein and Charlie Chaplin.

Powers has produced a small body of well-regarded short fiction, most collected in Night Moves and Other Stories (2001) and Strange Itineraries (2004). Collection The Devils in the Details (2003) features a story by Powers, a story by James P. Blaylock, and a collaboration.

Powers lives in San Bernardino CA with his wife Serena (married 1980), who also acts as his editor, research assistant, proofreader, protector, and enforcer.
Excerpts from the interview:

“I like to think Three Days to Never is a science fiction novel. It's goofy science, but if we restricted our definition of science fiction to science that was not a bit goofy, we'd only be left with a few like Brin, Benford, and Bear -- everybody else would be disqualified. How scientific does a book have to be to count as science fiction? Mine has Einstein, and I even refer to Niels Bohr! Of course it also has ghosts and dybbuks, but those could be peripheral, misunderstood consequences of esoteric scientific principles! It only looks like fantasy, see, at a hasty glance. And -- and there's some stuff about car repair, and that's pretty scientific, right?. I remember one definition of science fiction was 'fiction involving electricity.' Actually, I've got quite a bit of electricity in this.

“Oh well.

“Being an English major who paid no attention to science or math in school, I only belatedly caught on that in fact they're fascinating subjects, so now I have to read all these books with titles like Physics for Morons, The Foolish Man's Guide to Relativity and Quantum Mechanics, The History of Pi for Slow Folk. I wound up reading a lot of books about Einstein just for entertainment, and the thing that struck me was that his hair is white in all pictures after 1928. What happened? Well, it turns out he had a heart attack in the Swiss Alps, but I thought, 'No, what really happened? What made his hair turn white and gave him a heart attack?'

“That was percolating in my mind, and when I read that Einstein went to a séance with Charlie Chaplin while visiting Los Angeles and Cal Tech, I thought, 'OK, that's two. That will do. These are enough clues that I can write a book involving Einstein, and so reading about him is no longer recreational, it's now research.' So I got any biography of him I could, and followed any trails those indicated. And if Charlie Chaplin was going to be involved, I needed to know all about him. And Einstein was hugely devoted to the brand new state of Israel, so I thought, 'Why was he almost obsessively interested in it?' My reading about Israel led both to the Kabbalah and stuff like the Mossad.

“My research method is always just to follow any little interesting lead that the initial research takes me to, and then any leads that leads me to, virtually at random. I eventually have to rein myself in and say, 'What bits of this are going to be part of the book?' So I said, 'OK, it looks as though it involves Einstein, and Kabbalah, and it involves his secret daughter....' (That's a fascinating thing, that his daughter was totally unknown to history for 80 years, and Einstein was the most famous guy in the world at that point.) There were a couple of dozen things I found in my research that were too cool not to use, so obviously they were part of the book.”


“This high school I teach at is real fun. It's called Orange County High School of the Arts, and it meets in this big old 19th-century building that used to be a Christian Science church. The guy in charge of the writing department is Jim Blaylock. He took over the entire basement/catacombs, and he and I put together a great library down there. I think as long as that whole show is going, I will happily continue doing it. Luckily, the students are all volunteers. They have to send in samples of their writing, which we accept or don't, and they're all eager to learn this stuff. (They do write better than Blaylock or I did when we were in high school.)

“John Kessel said something like, 'Every good writer is constantly taking the risk of being made fun of,' and I want to tell them, 'Don't hide behind irony and tongue-in-cheek, boys and girls, and don't hide behind archaic, formal, stilted pseudo-Tolkien-type language, either. Step out from behind those things and write about characters you think are worth being paid attention to, who have problems you think are worth them paying attention to.' I suppose it's true for anybody starting to write fiction that you always do imitations. I was writing imitations of Lovecraft and Robert E. Howard when I was that age. (Mainstream people used to imitate Hemingway -- I don't know who they imitate now.) I try to tell them, 'Be aware that you will soon have to climb out from behind that.'

“And of course Blaylock and I are forever encouraging them to get stuff in the mail. In our main basement room, the ceiling is just plastered with rejection slips the students have got. People tend to be afraid of rejection slips, so I tell them it's just a sheet of paper in the mail; it's not like the editors come to your house and say, 'Are you the person who wrote this stupid thing?' In fact we want to make that a mark of intermediate prestige, to have actual rejection slips.”


“My next book is going to be set in Victorian London, which I actually haven't done before. Anubis Gates was a little before Victorian London, but this will be roughly 1880. It's going to involve the Pre-Raphaelites -- Millais and Rosetti and Rosetti's sister, that whole crowd. It's always fun when I'm doing my recreational 'idle reading' and suddenly get a couple of red lights on the dashboard, meaning, 'You might be able to set a book in this stuff.'”

© 2007 by Locus Publications. All rights reserved.