Exclusive Author Interview #4
#4 The Early Years
Your interviewer clutching the first page of the original handwritten manuscript of The Skies Discrowned. Apologies for the cheesy grin and any drooling that might have occurred.
JB: Let's go onto to the books, to your work. The Skies Discrowned and Epitaph in Rust, the Laser books. How did they come about? What made you start?
TP: Well, K W Jeter, through I think knowing Barry Malzberg, had found out about this publishing company Laser Books which was then very new and what it was is Harlequin Romances the Toronto, Canada company had decided to branch off into science fiction publishing and it was a failure. They, after a couple of years, stopped it, but briefly as Jeter explained to me when he called me up, he said "This is a new company. They're very hungry. They pay very little and they have rigorous length requirements and pretty damn strict restrictions on, like, sex scenes and dirty talk and stuff like that. So, there's no competition! They will give you a contract on the basis of three chapters and an outline. I just signed up for my second one. Why don't you do this?" And I thought, Golly! Yes, I sure will!
"An outline though you say Jeter?" …because I had been used to pursuing it the way Blaylock and I had been at Cal State Fullerton. He said, "Yeah. You need to know what's gonna happen before you start!" I thought, well that's exotic! But if they actually want to see it, I could write one.
So, I wrote an outline and Jeter said, "That's very good," and then I wrote three chapters but I started very slow, 'cause I thought gee, this is going to be like sixty thousand words – which today seems like not that much – I'd better start very slow. Just have the characters making lunch, trying to get their car started, things like that. No action yet. And I brought this, say, ten thousand words over to Jeter and he read it, and to my everlasting gratitude he said, "This is no good. You need to start when the action starts. Throw this away." So I did and wrote three fresh chapters starting with when the action started and then I sent them in and I did get a contract. Actually, they asked for one more chapter. They said "We've never heard of you. Could you do us a fourth chapter, just so we can see you can do it?" So I did, and they said "Great! You've got a contract." I didn't physically have one, but I was told I had one. And I had a deadline which was something like four months in the future and I wound up happily writing the book. And eventually I was able to able to get the contract before I actually turned it in.
And then I quickly jumped into a second book for Laser and that was Epitaph in Rust. And then the editor said Corgi Books in England wants to do a ten volume series of books about King Arthur being reincarnated through history. You know, King Arthur in the Civil War – King Arthur chopping open German tanks in World War II. Would you and your pal Jeter like to do this?" and we said "Golly! Yeah, sure!" and so both Jeter and I wrote, I dunno, two books and accepted front money for them. And then the editor, Roger Elwood called and said "No. It's all off. They don't want to do it at all. They wish they'd never heard of King Arthur!" And so we found ourselves (and Ray Nelson also) stuck with books about King Arthur being reincarnated throughout history and we each of us looked at the other two and thought I'm gonna get mine in the mail first, because very soon editors are going to be thinking what the hell is all this King Arthur throughout history crap? And so Jeter sold Morlock Night. Mine was very fortunate to wind up with Lester Del Rey who made me totally shatter it to bits and rewrite it from the beginning as twice as long and that was The Drawing of the Dark, and I think Ray Nelson sold one of his to Ace Books.
But just as that fell apart and I went to Elwood, Laser Books had come out with my second book Epitaph in Rust and it had been rewritten by a copy editor. I had made corrections and restorations in the galley proofs (which in those days still were galley proofs, you know, three feet long,) but the corrections had been ignored. And so I was left with this book that I could not show off with.
JB: That must have been a very bittersweet experience.
TP: Just bitter! Ha Ha!
JB: You must have been delighted to have been in print.
TP: Not that book! The first book I liked. That had been published straight, but the second book I could not take any satisfaction out of. And so I called him and said, "I'm not writing for you guys any more unless I can have a written guarantee that this crap doesn't happen anymore," and he said, "Never mind that. The Corgi deal's off. You all owe me all that money back!".
And so I said, "Well, I not gonna write for Laser anymore without a written statement assuring me that this can't happen," and they promised one and it didn't happen and finally I did just… well, actually what shortly happened is Laser went out of business. So for a period of two years or so there, I was back exactly where I had been. My Laser credentials counted for nearly nothing in the real world and so I was right back to sending manuscripts out and getting them back in the mail with, you know, Xeroxed rejection slips. And in fact I went back to the pizza parlour that I had quit when I had sold my first book.
JB: But you've since been able to repair the damage to those books. Certainly to Epitaph in Rust.
TP: Yeah. That second book has been published from my manuscript.
JB: That must be very satisfying to have been able to do that.
TP: That was fun. Because actually I do like it as the work of a twenty-three year old. I think for a twenty-three year old it's very nice. I wouldn't want anybody thinking it was my new book, but I am glad that that twenty-three year olds' book has been published the way he wrote it.
But then I was back at the pizza place and finally managed to sell The Drawing of the Dark to Lester Del Rey. Then I was kind of back on track again, though one always falls off the track again.
JB: On the subject of The Drawing of the Dark, here's a little question for the die hard Powers fans. In the Hypatia editions, Blaylock has written an "Afterword". He talks about you seeing a bunch of dwarfs running through a shrubbery! I'm dying to know if it is true or not!!
TP: That was at Blaylock's apartment. Oh yeah. He had a family of dwarfs living at his apartment complex and they had little paths that were short cuts through the planters and – this sounds disrespectful, it's not at all! – and so you would turn around and suddenly see little people coming out of the bushes! And I remember they always had a terrible time throwing trash into the dumpster because they'd have to kind of arc it, not simply throw it straight up!
JB: So these things really happened!
TP: Oh yeah! That showed up in The Drawing of the Dark. And then we were all taking fencing classes in college at the time and we would get a bunch of jugs of wine and foils and masks and go off to this local riverbed and just kind of drink and fence our way several miles down and then drink and fence our way back home again. Great great times! So we would wind up fencing while sliding down a gravel slope, say. Or fencing two people at once uphill with a tree between you and so those details got into The Drawing of the Dark. Those were actually… researched! Ha!
JB: How do you feel about the reissue? It's coming out again in November '99 and it's being marketed as a classic. You must be thrilled.
TP: I'm just nothing but pleased. Yes. I'm delighted with it. It's got a beautiful cover. It looks respectable – not that the first one didn't – but it looks like a… trade paperbacks, somehow that format always has very dignified covers. So it was real fun. I got to read it in galleys again.
JB: Did you make any adjustments?
TP: No changes, no. I fixed typos, but I've learnt that you can't try to collaborate with yourself ten years earlier or in this case, good lord, twenty years earlier.
JB: But you did it with the Laser books. That was a repair job?
TP: I did it with one of the Laser books. I did it with The Skies Discrowned. In '85 Beth Meacham at Tor said, "We would like to reprint that one," and I though Ok. Good. And she says "You can rewrite it if you like. Touch it up," and I thought why not? And so I did – arguably improvements. Fixing up plot ambiguities. But on the whole now, looking back, I think I should have left it alone. I think it's original 1976 version had a kind of front to back consistency and sort of a twenty-three years olds' attitude that the thirty-three year old was only able really to kind of diminish a bit. I don't think I helped it.
JB: So The Anubis Gates… I think The Drawing of the Dark is certainly regarded as your first major novel and The Anubis Gates is regarded – probably until quite recently – as your most popular novel.
TP: A lot of people still think it's my first novel, which I don't mind.
JB: I've read somewhere that one of the Arthur novels you wrote for the Corgi series was kind of hacked up and bits of it appeared in The Anubis Gates.
TP: Yes. I had written King Arthur in 1529 in Vienna which was The Drawing of the Dark and then I had written a novel which never has been published of Arthur in London in 1750 – with, um, Bonnie Prince Charlie it seems to me – or at least the Stuart line. That was completed. And then I had begun outlining and writing on one that was to take place in 1810 when the Corgi deal turned out not to exist. So what I did is I took the London 1750 and the London 1810, broke 'em all to bits, took the best parts from all of them, left King Arthur out and made it into The Anubis Gates. And I had been sending it around for, well really, ever since the Corgi deal went to hell in '75. It had been bounced by Ace, for example, (who eventually bought it,) and eventually it came round to Ace again and this time the editor was Beth Meacham who got it and she said, "Yeah. I'd like to buy this." – and I think God bless you Beth Meacham! – and she said "Now it need to lose an eighth. It's too long." And I though, well OK, whatever you say.
By this time in fact it had been bounced by Lester Del Rey. He had bought The Drawing of the Dark and so I tried The Anubis Gates on him. But he said "No. I don't like it at all." He said "It's a kitchen-sink novel Powers," which of course it is – but I like kitchen-sink novels!
So it finally wound up with Beth Meacham and she said "It needs to be cut by an eighth," and so what I did was, at first I thought should you maybe try cutting all the adjectives, cutting anything repetitious? Finally I though, you know what? Go through and simply find any whole scene – you know, the bits between the cross hatch marks – if any scene could be cut out and never be missed for plot reasons, let's do that. And so I went through and found any number of whole scenes which if they were missing, the reader was not deprived. And so I made them all missing and it did get it down to the proper length for Ace books.
Many years later when Mark Ziesing was putting out a hard cover limited edition of it, he said "Now Powers, if you like, I mean this is a limited edition – paper costs aren't that big a factor – we could restore those cut bits," and so I went back and read the whole manuscript and I decided no, every one of those cuts was an improvement. Every bit of it was fat that the book is better off without. And so I like to think now that I learned how to do that and so now I don't write those bits that would have to be cut out. But it was a valuable thing to do that – to drop a whole eighth out of the book and see that the net result was an improvement.
JB: Now you won the Philip K Dick award for The Anubis Gates. What was the effect of that?
TP: That was terrific. Beth Meacham gets credit for that because the book was published in December and the award is given in March. She got it into the hands of the judges and shook them by the shirt fronts. And so next thing I knew I was told "You've won this Philip K Dick award," which was only two years old at the time, 'cause after all, Phil Dick, it was after his death. The first winner I think was Rudy Rucker. And it was a cash award – a thousand dollars and my agent fronted it to me – you know "Pay me back when you get it," but he gave me the thousand up front so that we could fly to Seattle and pick the award up at the event. And it was just great fun. It was a convention in Seattle called "Norwescon" and especially in the early 80's Norwescon was just a terrific convention. All the editors would show up, all the writers would show up and it was just lots of parties. We met Algis Budrys – we met any number of people.
I had been going to science fiction conventions since the age of nineteen but not a lot, and really that one sparked us going to them again. We kept going to Norwescon for several years. And then in fact two years later Dinner at Deviant's Palace won the Phil Dick award and so we were right back there again.
I do think The Anubis Gates winning that sort of put me on the science fiction map. It got nice reviews and I had my picture on the front page of Locus and I think since then the science fiction world has been real friendly. Before that I think it would have called for a fairly thorough fan to have read, say, The Drawing of the Dark.
JB: Does winning an award like that help the sales?
TP: I don't know. Yes. Yes it does. Especially in France! Because Philip K Dick is very big in France and so when The Anubis Gates came out with Philip K Dick for some reason on the cover, I think a whole lot a French readers bought it and then at home said "Now what has this got to do with Philip K Dick? Oh I see, it's by someone else," but by that time they'd bought it! And as a matter of fact The Anubis Gates has sold tremendously well in France. I almost wonder if there can be very many Frenchmen who don't own a copy! Much more per capita than over here, way more. And I think it helped with a lot of overseas sales where Phil Dick is a more substantial name than he was then in the United States. So yeah, I think that Philip K Dick Award really did have a big effect.