The Works of Tim Powers » Exclusive Author Interview #3

Main Menu

Site search



Ads by Google

Exclusive Author Interview #3

#3 Philip K Dick Friend and Neighbour

The building in Santa Ana, CA where Phil Dick lived in the top floor apartment

Listen to an MP3 file of the next section. (16.20MB)

Audio clip: Adobe Flash Player (version 9 or above) is required to play this audio clip. Download the latest version here. You also need to have JavaScript enabled in your browser.

JB: Let's move on to Phil Dick.

TP: Oh yes.

…and how you met him and became friends.

TP: Well, in '72 I was a student at Cal State Fullerton and I knew Willis McNelly who was a science fiction teacher there and I knew a number of, through him, sort of science fiction people – students. And one day one of the students said "Powers, we're going to the airport to pick up Philip K Dick. He's gonna come home and live with us. Would you like to come along and meet him?" and I said "Yes!". I hadn't actually read more than one book I think of his, but it was certainly a name I'd heard of. Now unknown to all of us, Phil Dick had been having a terrible time in North California at that point. He'd had… his house had been blown up by "persons unknown", looted. There were death threats. He was just having a terrible time. He went to Canada to be guest of honour at a convention and simply didn't go back. He simply stayed in Vancouver after the convention ended. And eventually checked himself into a heroin rehab place. Now he wasn't in fact a heroin user, but he was suicidal, and he wanted to get into a place – he was a moderate part-time doper – liked marijuana and LSD and amphetamines – he was always very big on amphetamines. But he checked into the heroin place mostly for sort of company and protection. And after a while he got tired of it and he wrote to Willis McNelly and said "I need to get out of here. I need to find a place to live." And so McNelly read this letter to his science fiction class, which I think is dubious ethics, but one of the girls in the class said "We just lost a roommate. We need another. Tell this Philip K Dick guy he can come live with us," and Phil was so desperate that that's just what he did! He simply got in a aeroplane and flew to LAX and said "Yes. I'll be your roommate." And it turned out to be a terrible arrangement. All they had for him was a couch to sleep on and they expected him to pay for all the groceries and so very quickly he moved out into a two bedroom apartment of a guy who had just been divorced.

But in the meantime I had got to know him and luckily I had not read much of his stuff because I was able to speak normally. If I'd read much of his writing I would have been just tongue-tied and spitting and sweating and stammering! It was only gradually that I started to read his actual books and so it was sort of a stretched-out effect – it wasn't one huge impact. I still kind of choked with awe sometimes to think that we're having beer with the author of Martian Time-Slip say, but it wasn't just one enormous avalanche.

And then he wound up marrying a young lady he met in '72 and for about a year and a half or two years I didn't see him because he and the new wife simply disappeared from view. But then when that marriage began to go bad, he appeared again and then we were close pals from then until his death in '82 and Serena met him in probably '78 or '79. In fact we were both on the balcony walkway of his condominiums when the paramedics took him out to carry him downstairs to the ambulance. So I knew him for just about precisely ten years, given that interim period when he was married and we didn't see him. And was always just the nicest and funniest guy I've ever met. Also probably the best writer I'll ever meet or know well at least.

And people always do get the idea from reading his letters that he must have been crazy. "Oh well, he thought God talked to him ya know! Clearly insane!" and I always want to say "I totally understand why you think that." I mean, if I had read the letters and had not known the man myself, I'd be of exactly the same opinion. But you had to be there! If you had known him, you'd see that, no, in fact he was totally sceptical. He would entertain a (admittedly crazy!) theory for… a day. And then the next day if you talked to him, he'd say "Oh no. That was nuts. That was crazy. Today I think this!"

I remember one time he called me up and said "Powers. Where were you? You weren't home yesterday. Yesterday my researches led me to the conclusion that I had the power to forgive sins."

And I said, "Gee. Who have you absolved?"

And he said, "Well, nobody. You weren't home and Jeter got all huffy and said he didn't want his sins forgiven," he said, "so I just had to forgive the cat's sins!"

But I've never been aware of any influence from him. I love his books and I think that some of them like Martian-Time Slip and Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, Maze of Death very many of them are terrific books, but I just don't see any particular Dick influence in my stuff.

JB: Did he read your stuff?

No. I mean he read one. He read… at one point a publishing deal fell through and I was left owing a publisher some advance money 'cause they didn't want the book anymore and I went to Phil and said "What do I do?" and he said "Let me read the book." And he did and wrote a letter to his agent saying "You should take Powers as a client." And the agent did not. And another time he did read a short story of mine – Where They Are Hid, but mostly Jeter and Blaylock and I were terrified – well, too polite say, to push manuscripts at him. We'd do it to each other without ceasing. I mean I'd constantly say "Blaylock. Read this. Tell me what you think. I'll read yours. I'll tell you what I think," but somehow we just never would ordinarily have presumed to, you know, bother Phil with it.

JB: Some years ago you sold of a lot of your personal library that Phil Dick had passed on to you. I have read some interesting commentaries on the Internet – which is of course a place for gossip! – and there was a kind of interesting reaction to the news of this sale – both from your fans and from his fans. I was wondering if you were aware of that…

TP: I bet I'm not! Ha Ha!

JB: …and if so, whether you had any comments. There were two distinct camps, one of which said "How can Powers sell this precious stuff off. If it should be anywhere it should be a library or it should be in a museum. It's important literary material." And then there was a distinct separate camp which said, "Well, Powers is a writer. He's got to earn a living. He's got to be able to support himself to continue his work, and Phil Dick was a writer." The consensus in that camp was that if anybody would be more than happy to help you supplement yourself whilst you were working, it would have been him.

TP: Well, yes. In fact he always did tell me while he was alive and giving me the novel manuscripts, he always said, "Now Powers, don't ever hesitate to sell these. If you ever want to see what these are worth – go ahead!" And I always got the idea that he would have been interested to look over my shoulder while that went on. That he would have been fascinated himself to see how they'd be described, how much they'd go for. In a way it was sympathy with your first point of view that made me sell 'em. We were living in Santa Ana, in a rackety rickety upstairs, leaky-roofed apartment that we pretty well repaired with duct tape and Serena knew that if there was a fire and we had to scramble to get out, she knew what box was the Philip K Dick manuscripts, because I didn't want to become famous as the guy in whose custody this massive collection of Philip K Dick memorabilia was lost!

I did in fact offer it to any number of… the Huntington Museum for example, Cal State Fullerton, UC Riverside and they all… none of them showed any interest, though I got a nice letter from somebody at the Huntington, saying "No thanks." I suppose I could have given them away, though that wasn't at all what Phil intended. The bookseller I sold them to wasn't the one who ultimately wound up with them, who's offering them now, and of course I didn't get anything remotely like the price they're going for now — you can find his catalogues on the net, and if you look at the prices he's asking for them, these items are never going to be in any danger of being lost or damaged or destroyed. And hell, one of the biographers has xeroxes of it all anyway. And kind of, I guess I'd say to anybody who would say "How could Powers do this?", I would say, "You had to be there!" Phil and I knew what we were doing, and no doubt if you had been sitting at the table there, you similarly would – as it is, you do not!