The Works of Tim Powers » Secret Histories

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Secret Histories

I have a very real fear of being thought of as one of those people clearly obsessed with a grand scheme, but who seems completely incapable of bringing it to fruition. You know the kind I mean – "Oh, there's old Berlyne, still going on about his so-called Powers book" – the guy who folks laugh at behind their hands. "Say! How is your book coming along John? And how long has it been now? Six? Seven years?"

I first got the idea to do what was essentially a paper version of this web site way back before the turn of the century. By that time I had unearthed so much fascinating information for the site about the many and varied editions of Tim's works that it struck me a properly researched and presented Powers bibliography would be a really nice collectable in its own right. Thinking of myself as the target demographic, I was sure that there would be other Powers fans who might like such a document, perhaps nicely bound, maybe even signed by Powers himself. I'd discovered by this time that any pre-existing bibliographic lists of Powers book were all woefully inadequate – in fact the thin 1991 Ultramarine pamphlet by Christopher Stephens and Tom Joyce entitled A Checklist of Tim Powers remains the only official bibliography of Powers's works, and it is now half a career old.

There's no question that there is a market for an updated and definitive Powers bibliography, signed or not – and even in this age of on-line catalogues, official author web sites and unofficial fan tribute sites, the true collectors (of which there are many where Powers is concerned) still desire a physical reference work from which they can tick off those elusive titles they still need to fill the gaps on their shelves.

For someone setting out to create such a reference, certain choices must be made – not least how much detail to go into. The Stephens check-list is pretty spare and what detail there is turns out to be not all that helpful for the bone fide collector. This is not surprising, given that Stephens and Joyce created their minor Powers bibliography as part of a larger series of similar pamphlets. Additionally I've been recently enlightened to the fact that putting together a bibliography ain't exactly a picnic, and it must have been a damn site harder before the arrival of the internet, although ironically for the bibliographer the internet tends throws up more red herrings than a trawler could catch.

Nevertheless the very basic requirements of a bibliography dictate that every title an author's published canon be listed – and within that brief, a further choice must be made. How much detail is necessary? Are we talking about every edition of every title? Are we going to dealing purely with British or American publications or do we go global? Are we talking simply novels? Or shorter fiction too? This would constitute an author's 'primary' bibliography, but what of other writings by our man? Introductions to works by other authors, afterwords, articles, essays, review by, reviews about, shopping lists, doodles…?

Actually, let's talk about doodles for moment. I made my choices early with regards to the level of information contained in the Secret Histories bibliography and certainly the depth of detail I chose to go to accounts in good measure for the length of time the project continues to take. I accept that not everyone will be interested in acquiring a copy of the Taiwanese edition of The Anubis Gates and those same folks might not worry too much about the subtle differences found on the covers of the second and third printings of the Del Rey edition of The Drawing of the Dark, but there'll be collectors out there, who just like me, do want to see this information catalogued and laid out for easy reference. The alternative for those poor beggars would be to spend all that time researching this stuff just as I did, so I guess I'm saving them a hell of a job! This is a public service I'm performing here! To my mind, being thorough is everything and I do believe it is generally accepted in endeavours of all sorts that attention to detail is mark of quality. Indeed the plot of any Powers novel is adequate proof of this assertion. But hold on – I am sidetracking myself. I was trying to talk a little of doodles!

Early in my research for the previous incarnation of this web site, I uncovered the fact that Powers can draw. I'd had no idea of this previously. On the surface, his style is generally that of cartoon and caricature, but the more Powers artwork I uncovered, the more sophisticated seemed the drawings. As seen on various pages on this web site, there are a few limited editions for which Powers has provided drawings – notably the Charnel House The Stress of Her Regard and the Subterranean Press lettered edition of Declare. Those fantastic illustrations are in the public domain – this site has helped that along. But, as I looked further and further into the background to Tim's various novels, I began to come across glorious images drawn by the author that have never been seen outside private collections.

The bulk of these revelatory images came to my attention when I visited with John Bierer, a Powers friend and fan without whom neither this web site nor the forthcoming book could ever have happened. John – really the premier collector of Tim's work – holds much of the original handwritten manuscript material and through his kindness I was able to study much of this stuff at leisure. What I discovered was a wealth of material, graphic and otherwise that had lain hidden for years. It was John's enthusiasm and generosity that planted the seed in my head of somehow bringing this material to a devoted audience, who – just like me and John – were fascinated by the works of Tim Powers.

So many bibliographies are little more than dry lists of data – hardly riveting reading, even for those with a vested interest. It struck me though, that when the author in question is also such a capable illustrator, it ought to be possible to present this information in a far more interesting way than the usual fare. Looking at those original manuscripts, it was clear that if these drawings could be digitally manipulated, somehow separated from their settings, they could be employed to bring this dry data to life. Similarly, the manuscript material itself seemed to be crying out to be seen. Here was the fascinating history behind some of the most exciting fiction I'd ever read, the very raw material employed by the author to create his twisting baroque plots. Virtually each page seemed to have a story to tell, a secret history all of its own – some pages were covered in the tiniest script, as if Powers were answering a challenge to fit the most words on single page; others contained phone numbers, shopping lists, admonishments by Powers at his own staggering stupidity or the venting of his spleen at some provocation, sometimes fictional, sometimes real.

Examples of writers still working by hand are rare nowadays – certainly some still cling to their old habits, but many writers workng today have only ever known computers as the tools of their trade. Exactly half of the novels Powers has so far published were written by hand, the first to be written on a word processor being The Stress of Her Regard. Of those first six novels, only the manuscript for Epitaph in Rust was I unable to locate and it is now believed to have been lost, or at least misplaced (not by Powers, I should add!). I was able to handle and study in depth the original holograph pages of Powers’s first book, The Skies Discrowned and his most well known novel The Anubis Gates – these both reside in library of John Bierer, a custodian that posterity can rely on to keep these important papers in a state of loving preservation. Since I visited him some years ago, John has acquired the manuscript of The Drawing of the Dark for his archive and via the Internet and John’s scanner, I’ve been able to look closely at this material also.

Furthermore, taken collectively, these packages show the evolution of the writer’s craft. That first novel, The Skies Discrowned, with all its notes and drawings and ephemera, all fits very neatly into a single shoebox. The equivalent material for Declare on the other hand, Powers’s World Fantasy Award winning novel published in 2000, is contained in three enormous boxes, each capable of housing a large wide screen television. Aside from the various drafts of the novel, (no longer written by hand of course, but now hard copy print-outs of word documents) there are sheaves and sheaves of paper, hundreds of thousands of words. Reams of pages are bound together with gaffer tape, the spines of which have titles scrawled on upon them – “MI6” or “MOSCOW” OR “BEIRUT”. That the author can process and organise this amount of material, let alone fashion it into a novel is staggering and the progression – the evolution of Powers's technique – from that first novel to Declare is extraordinary to see.

Delving into all these boxes offers a rare insight into the craft that Powers employs in his writing. It’s a window right into his brain, if you like. A chance to watch this author develop his work almost from the kernel of that first idea right through to publication, and these research notes themselves make for fascinating and gripping reading. Throughout there’s a kind of narrative to self going on, a stream of consciousness in which the author kicks his ideas (and characters) around. And within this literary jazz, it is possible to pick out the very moments of creativity. My absolute favourite is the point during the plotting notes for Last Call where Powers records a light bulb moment as he conceives the idea of the “Assumption” card game. Having done so, he wrestles his invention, eventually fashioning it into the plot device that underpins that entire novel. A close second favourite to this can be found in the notes for Powers’s sixth published novel where after a few passages exploring what he might actually want the book to be about, he suddenly writes, “Pirates…. Yes pirates”!

So, there was I thinking that a simple – if highly detailed – bibliography might make a nice collectable, when in the process of my initial research I was unearthing the most unbelievable Powers treasures. In addition to all this stuff I’ve already mentioned, there was a wealth of unpublished material – poems, short stories, juvinalia, articles, Ashbless material, novel outlines, out-takes, alternative beginnings, middles and ends, and drawings, drawings, drawings… none of it published and none of it even seen beyond private collections. It dawned on me that I had a unique opportunity to collect this material together and offer,at least some its highlights to other Powers fans, all of whom I knew would be as amazed as I was to see it.

It’s no easy task taking on a project like this when your subject resides on another continent, but I have received generous help along the way from the author and other Powers associates, not least the aforementioned John Bierer, but also notably James P. Blaylock (who let me rifle through boxes of stuff in his office and made me coffee whilst I did so), Michael Yanovich (who with his lovely wife Laura, offered shelter in the Hollywood hills) Don Goodie (who supplied scans of the Dinner at Deviant’s Palace manuscript) Pete DeVries (who sent over two huge boxes containing the manuscript material for the pirate book) and many, many others.

Technology has played a massive part in the how Secret Histories has come together. Back when I began the work, I had a very clear vision of how it ought to look. The core idea was to try and recreate at least the feel of those original manuscript pages that I’d handled – to incorporate the Powers drawings into the body of the text as if Tim himself had drawn directly onto the very pages the reader was holding. I naively attempted to render this concept in Microsoft Word – wasting hours of my life trying to move an image an inch to the left – the equivalent of trying to carve granite with a plastic knife and fork. Similarly my attempts to treat the graphic elements in those early days of the project now cause me to wince and go red in the cheeks, as I stoically took three months to clean up a drawing pixel by pixel when now I realise the same task can be achieved with a single click of mouse using Photoshop. Sigh! We live and learn.

In those early days I entertained the notion that this could be a self-published project. Somehow I’d be able to put it together and stump up the money to produce the kind of book that would rival some of the other beautiful Powers editions I so coveted. With my friend, the writer Lavie Tidhar – who at the time was developing a bibliography for Michael Marshall Smith – it was decided to incorporate our own publishing company, the idea being to somehow finance and publish both books. We even had our friend Mark Roberts draw up a very cool logo for us, and I remember we also had meeting in a pub with Stephen Jones, plying him with beer and picking his brain for advice. Steve’s expletive and put-down ridden advice was, some might say predictably, to forget the whole thing and that if the work we were producing was any good, we should get it placed with a legitimate publisher – and of course, Steve, as Steve most often is, was quite right.

Some months later, Lavie and I managed to successfully pitch his Michael Marshall Smith bibliography to Peter Crowther, whose PS Publishing outfit seemed be growing exponentially (it continues to do so to this day) and I took the opportunity to have conversation with Pete about the Powers book. I was able, having recently returned from a research trip to California, to show off a lot of the material I was intending to use in the book, along with a fulsome pitch on how I envisaged the project working. Truth to tell, given that as well as being a successful writer and publisher, Peter is a fellow collector and bibliophile (particularly for the works of Ray Bradbury), he really didn’t need that much convincing and so, to my great and everlasting delight, Secret Histories became a PS Publishing book.

It has been some years now since the book got the backing of PS Publishing. In that time, Peter has remained eternally patient as he awaits delivery of this monster of a book, one I hope is set to redefine what author bibliographies are. Together with Tim, Peter’s unfailing support has allowed me to work at my own pace. Any number of things have interfered with the book’s progress – it has eaten graphic designers for breakfast (the official body count is three), I have moved cities, changed my job and had plenty of obstacles and barriers in my way. Of these the main issue was always that of presentation.

In the end, the only (and in retrospect, obvious) solution to those graphic design issues was for me to master the necessary software. I would not now call myself an expert by any means, but with the particular help of two people who have become immensely important to the project, Sam Tonge and Dirk Berger – I think I might be able to someday have a sidebar career involving Quark and Photoshop. Dirk in particular has become instrumental in the eventual delivery of the book – a devoted Powers fan (he runs a wonderful German Tim Powers site), genre expert, übergeek and super-talented artist, he is becoming perilously close to being my collaborator on Secret Histories. Here technology has played its part too, as although Dirk resides in Germany and I in the UK, we are able to fling files between each other like so much confetti.

As I write this long history and news update, the book is now scheduled to be published in April 2009. In truth, it ought to be ready well before then – currently it exists in a fat bound proof state (pictured at the start of this article) of which there are only five copies – each signed and limited by Tim. However though this rare state is representative of the content of the book, is is not an advanced peek at the end product. Soon Dirk and I will begin putting together the final draft, adding all the whistles and bells that will turn it into a PS Publishing book like no other. The timing of the release is very deliberate, for Powers (on what will be, difficult though it is to believe, his first visit to the UK) is to be the GOH at the 2009 British Eastercon taking place in Bradford and how cool will it be to have him on hand when this tribute to his work finally sees the light of day.

2009 seems a long way off right now, but given that I began to toy with this project back in 1999, it also seems an appropriate anniversary year in which to finally present the fruits of my considerable labours. Nevertheless, until we’re all able to flick through the real rather than theoretical pages of this weighty and substantial volume, my real rather than theoretical fear of you all laughing at me behind your hands remains.

–John Berlyne
September 2007