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Exclusive Author Interview #5

#5 Themes

WANTED! — For cruelty to protagonists
Would the REAL Tim Powers please step forward?

JB: I just want to touch now on some of the themes in your work. It seems like a good point to go onto this because the body switching theme that comes up time and time and time again…

TP: That's true.

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…is an integral part of both the two early books we've just been discussing. You've got Brian Duffy wondering around with King Arthur in his body and then of course you've got Doyle and Ashbless and the realisations that take place in that novel. You continue to explore this in your work.

That's true. Even Dinner at Deviant's Palace has that weird little duplicate of him swimming about in the canals that wants to in some way take over.

And in Deviant's Palace there's also the whole thing of the taking of the blood in which you get Jaybush inhabiting you in a strange way. This theme continues up to Earthquake Weather where you have multiple personalities. What is it that fascinates you about this and how are you continually able – almost in every work – to reinvent this theme, to break new ground with it?

TP: I think probably from some movie I saw as a kid. It has always struck me as both very scary and not all together impossible about the idea of meeting someone you know, talking with their voice, wearing their clothes but who nevertheless is not actually them. I think that has always struck me as one of the things you'd better worry about. So inevitably my characters wind up being worried by it. It's hard to say. You look at these things that show up a lot in your work and you think "Golly! I guess that looks really cool to me since I keep coming back to it!"

It's such a prevalent theme that it is now something that you are absolutely associated with.

Yeah, I guess it is because I do think that that is a particularly scary thing – that somebody could look just like your friend, your wife, your child and even have learned to talk very much like that person, but surprised or in a sudden question, they'll give it away. They'll show that in fact they were not, they aren't, they're an impostor.

JB: In the revision to The Skies DIscrowned which came out as Forsake The Sky, I was interested to see that reading the revised copy, you even seem to have added it retrospectively in 1985. There is a little passage that you added which reads, "Tom had decided that the way to handle this evenings unthinkable work will be to evict his real personality and to become just for tonight the kind of gold-eyed killer he had always admired in books."

Ha! Yeah well, there it was, added later. Ha! I had no recollection of that. But yes. Ha!

JB: It jumps out if you read the two together. You can see that you've decided to get a bit of body-switching in there.

You know that's interesting. I should re-read Forsake The Sky.

SP: He's gone crazy!

… or as Serena says the explanation could be that I've gone crazy! Yeah! Ha! You know another one that I've noticed is – and after I noticed it I kind of thought I couldn't do it any more because it wouldn't be an unselfconscious trick – but it occurred to me I think after Lord knows what book, that many of my books end with the characters leaving in a boat. In The Drawing of the Dark our man is going away down a canal outside Vienna. In The Anubis Gates, Ashbless is rowing away up the Thames, in Dinner at Deviant's Palace, the wall gets blown up and they're running down towards the LA river where the boats are, in On Stranger Tides they're getting in a boat and going away. In Last Call it's a truck going away through the desert, but the desert is full of seashell images and mirages and in fact in Expiration Date they're crossing from the Queen Mary back to the dock.

And I though, well that's interesting, but you can't do it now! Now that you've noticed, you can't in good conscience keep doing it, 'cause it will be "hoaked" up now, it'll be contrived now, where previously it's been spontaneous. And I thought, yeah, too bad, but it's true. Now that you've noticed it, you've got to let it go. And so after I was done with Earthquake Weather, I though how did I end that? Since I didn't have a boat. And I reread the last two chapters and in fact our heroes don't in fact leave in a boat – but all the ghost characters do! They get in a boat and go away and then our hero at the very last scene is called to join the woman he loves, who he's going to marry and she's on the other side of a lake. So instead of walking around the lake, he walks straight through it, across to her. And so again, it wound up ending with him travelling across water. Ha! It's as if it is such an insistent image, that even after I've decided not to do it anymore it will still shove itself in. I have no idea what that means. I should ask a Jungian! I'd rather hear from a Jungian than a Freudian what it means. Ha! A Freudian, it'd be something about toilet-training!

JB: What about magic? Again, you use magic a lot and it's always involving the connection or the correlation between blood and magic and magic and earth.

TP: That's true.

It happens in The Drawing of the Dark where Brian Duffy has to "earth" himself when he's fighting the winged demon. There are echoes of it with the Antaeus Brotherhood [in The Anubis Gates] and it keeps returning and I'm very interested to know where you have actually discovered this. Where it's come from.

It would be hard to say. I know I've always wanted to, if I'm writing about magic, I've always wanted to have it be convincing. I'm always very aware of the handicap fantasy books work under which it that the core is bogus. Vampires, you know, winged men flying around, this is nonsense, and therefore you've got to keep juggling and squeaking horns and things to keep the reader from ever quite noticing that fact. And so I try to make the magic have an almost kind of physics, a Newtonian mechanics style. So that if you cause a great fire over here, you're gonna get a reaction which will be a great freeze somewhere else. Now in fact in Newtonian mechanics terms, that doesn't make any sense, but it seems like it does. You think – oh right! Well of course! Great freeze afterwards, naturally!

Is your theory of magic – as it exists in your work – derived from some source material that you have read or some mythology or is it purely your own invention?

TP: Almost I'd say it's my own invention. Jeter told me "Oh! Like Antaeus?" and I said "Who is Antaeus?" and he explained it and I said "Oh! Very good. Thank you. How do you spell that? I'll use that," but I had not been thinking of Antaeus when I thought it up.

Where I got the idea of "grounding" – there's a Fritz Leiber book, The Swords of Lankhmar where they tie wires on to the backs of their swords and when magic is thrown at them they can flip the wire up into the faces of an enemy say, and the magic hits the enemy. Clearly I had read that in high school, so clearly I must have been aware of that. But what I was really thinking of was my uncle who was an attorney – and often lunatics would come into his office and say "I'm being attacked with government mind control rays. I have to wear a hard-hat. I can't go on buses. Will you help me sue the CIA?" and he would say, "Here's what I can do. Here's a box of paper-clips. String the paper-clips altogether into a chain, tie one end round some bit of your anatomy, let the other end trail out your pants cuff and you'll be grounded against these government mind control rays," and they'd leave happily and he was only out the price of a box of paper-clips. When I heard that I thought my God, grounded, how cool! And so I had it go out, of course, through a hole in the shoe rather than simply out the pants cuffs, but the thing is when my uncle said that I thought YES! What does this remind you of? It's sort of like Richard Dreyfuss in Close Encounters of the Third Kind when he makes some little shape and he goes "What does this remind you of?" It's as if that thing my uncle said clicked with me. I thought of course! Ground yourself against malevolent magic.

JB: And blood fits into this as well. There's a wonderful scene in On Stranger Tides where Jack has to put part of the sword into his flesh in order to deflect the magical attack.

Well yes, because that way he was in fact grounded. That's right. Blood almost seems to be self-explanatory. On some level if somebody tells us blood is necessary for magic, we kind of say, "Well yes, of course. I knew that," it seems self-evident. I was always struck by the fact that cold iron is traditionally an anti-magic sacramental. When I writing On Stranger Tides I thought well, iron is in blood. How is it that hot iron permits magic and cold iron does not? And then I kind of cooked a sort of pseudo-Newtonian explanation for it.

I remember you use the phrase of almost getting the taste of hot iron in your mouth. You can tell you're under a magical attack.

TP: Yeah. That was fun. I was very pleased with that. Ha!

You're also obviously fascinated by the supernatural in general. You've got the whole tarot card thing in Last Call which is quite a terrifying area. Your using chaos theory, which is sort of pseudo-supernatural in it's own way…

TP: It sure has one toe over the line!

JB: …and then we've got ghosts and most recently we've got gods.

TP: And genies coming up! Yeah. I always see the supernatural element as a sort of third dimension possible to fiction. Mainstream fiction is restricted to two dimensions, but fantasy can rotate it forty-five degrees in another direction because you've got suddenly all these extra effects. Not only can you have car-crashes and divorces the way mainstream can have, but in addition to that you can have the ghost of your father crashes a car into you – your dead grandmother is trying to talk your wife into getting a divorce from you. It's just an extra dimension and I'd always hate to deprive myself of it. There's just so much more fun you can have with those extra things in the toolbox.

I suppose I'm always I'm always very sceptical of any supernatural incident anybody ever tells me about. Anybody tells me astrology works or they see ghosts, I'm always terribly sceptical. But at the same time, being Catholic, it's in the rule book. You hope never to be around when it occurs, but it is in the rule book. I'm always tremendously sceptical but at the same time real scared of it, like for Last Call I had to buy a tarot deck, that Rider Waite deck where every single card is an enigmatic picture – two women crying on a beach with three swords stuck upright in the sand and you think what the hell is going on here, you know? And so even though I had to buy the deck in order to look at the cards, I would never shuffle it in the house. I would be terrified.

In fact one lady I met at a convention once said, "Let me do a reading of you – tarot cards – it won't take a minute. I just lay it out. You wave your hand," or something, however you connect with it, and I said "No thanks. I don't want to do it. I don't want to do it," and I left and somebody else came up to me after and said, "You were smart to decline that offer. I used to do tarot card readings a lot and I was very pleased with it. I thought of my tarot cards as my movable window which I could focus on any situation I was curious about anywhere. And late one rainy night I was laying out my movable window to check out some situation or other and I suddenly got the very clear impression that something on the other side had blundered past and looked in and now knew where I lived and I instantly knocked all the cards onto the ground, but of course by then it was too late. The thing would know me again if it saw me." And I just though Great God! I wouldn't touch these things. I'd rather have plutonium in the house than have these things in the house!!

JB: What about swordplay and puppetry which also continue to make occasional appearances?

TP: Puppetry is… God knows… I supposed that would be just because I bought a few books on puppetry as supplemental for On Stranger Tides. But swordplay, I've been talking fencing ever since college. I started taking it in, say, '74 and just over the years have kind of consistently always done it. When we got married my wife and I began taking fencing classes at a local college and we've slacked off recently because we moved, but for sixteen years in a row, every semester we were taking foil and épée and sabre. And the fun of it is not so much "Oh, I wish I was Errol Flynn," "Oh let's pretend this is real and I just stabbed you through the heart," the fun of it is really more like that it's kind of active chess. Or active… two man poker. It's very much all kind of bluff, feint, draw a response. OK, try to draw that response again, but this time have a different reaction to the response so that you can do this, but at the same time they're thinking too, and so they are now trying a different counter back at you. It is very much like chess or poker. You'll make a move like a bet in poker – which you don't mean – you're just trying to see what kind of answer it draws for future reference – and then later, you'll make that move again with a whole different motivation just because you believe you have found out what the reflexive answer is. So it's a lot of fun and I hope we get to start it up again out here. And of course it's very useful in stories. One of my favourite movies was The Three Musketeers – Richard Lester directed – and I just loved that kind of… it was real swordplay, genuine parrying and thrusting, but at the same time if you could pick up a chair and hit the guy over the head with it that was admissible.

JB: And that has found it's way often into your sword fights?

TP: Yes. Well no, not our own!

JB: The literary sword fights!

In the fictional ones, yes. For example I had some fun with it in The Stress of Her Regard where our man is fencing and at the same time carving a face to stick a blade into, which would have some magical effects.

JB: What about just touching on the way you treat your protagonists?

TP: Chop 'em up!

You are brutal to them.

TP: They get chopped up badly!

Why are you so mean to them?

Well, a couple of reasons. Ha! For one thing I want… I always think of a Schwartzenegger movie, I forget what it was called, but in this Arnold Schwartzenegger movie he runs across a football field sized lawn while eight guys are steadily firing machine guns at him and he leaps the hedge at the far end and he hasn't been touched! And this movie, which I had kind of been going along with up to this point suddenly seemed grossly unbelievable to me and so I thought don't let's make that mistake. And so I want to have my characters, if they're in a perilous situation get hurt. So that ideally the reader will say, "Hey, these people better be careful. They can get hurt here. They'd better take it easy," so that I definitely won't have that plausibility violating thing of them never getting a scratch.

JB: But why go so far as to have them lose ears or digits or eyes?

I suppose that is extreme!

That just takes that theory slight over the edge!

TP: Ha Ha! I haven't quite covered it I guess!

It's one thing having some sort of injury that can be repaired or can be stitched up neatly. The implication is that the event that causes them to lose their thumb or their ear is going to affect them… it's not just a physical injury. It's a psychological injury. It's a spiritual injury. It's kind of mirrored in the way that they then have to go on their journey, almost that losing the thumb or the finger is going to make them a better person. I mean you're particularly cruel to Rivas in Deviant's Palace because the guy is a musician and you have him losing his fingers, his livelihood. It's terribly cruel!

TP: That's right he did. I wish I had said all that stuff you just said incidentally!! That was precisely oddly what I meant!! But yeah, I do want the consequences of our hero's interlude during the book, the series of adventures which the book chronicles, I want him to come out not just changed by it, because any fiction ideally sends the character out changed at the end, but I want him broken by it. I want him not just to be different after, but to be limping, and not just for the next month or two but for ever! And I suppose I am using physical injuries and amputations as sort of emblems of a more spiritual sort of amputation, but I definitely want both.

JB: Is the idea that at the end of the day they are a better person for their experience?

TP: Well, wiser. Ha! Maybe more cautious!

JB: "Don't do those things!"

Yeah! "Don't go there anymore!" Ha! Next time somebody says "Wouldn't this be a good idea, you stay at the bar! You don't get up and go with them!" I sort of just want to make it have serious consequences. I want the consequences to be visible.