AN INTERVIEW WITH TIM POWERS
By Nick Gevers
Tim Powers, the author of such classics of dark fantasy as The Anubis Gates (1983), On Stranger Tides (1987), The Stress of Her Regard (1989), Last Call (1992), and Declare (2000), is a master practitioner of the Secret History. His vastly complex novels–set in intensely realised locations both historical and present day, riddled with skeins of occult conspiracy, and featuring protagonists whose involvement with the supernatural follows a dark perverse logic chillingly threatening to body and soul—are consistently superb, as are his occasional short stories and novellas. After the Victorian milieu of Hide Me Among the Graves (2012), Powers’s latest novel, Medusa’s Web, published in the USA by William Morrow and in the UK by Corvus, returns to the contemporary California of such books as Three Days to Never (2006).
I interviewed Tim Powers by email in January 2016.
NICK GEVERS: In your new novel, Medusa’s Web, you set out a very interesting and mesmerizingly complex metaphysical scheme, of spider images that draw human minds up and down the corridors of time. What first suggested this scenario to you?
TIM POWERS: I thought it would be fun to play around with two-dimensional adversaries after reading Cordwainer Smith’s short story, “The Game of Rat and Dragon.” I decided that since such creatures would be dimensionally handicapped by definition, why not have them be fourth-dimensionally handicapped too? I.e. they don’t perceive time, and therefore every encounter these creatures have with humans is, from the creature’s point of view, the same event. So by riding along on the point of view of one of them, you can briefly inhabit whatever other encounters it’s had with humans, regardless of when those encounters happened or will happen.
This seemed like an opportunity for lots of dramatic developments, and even one very intriguing paradox for our protagonist to blunder through.
NICK GEVERS: The central characters in Medusa’s Web, the four Maddens, are all rather short of money—having the crumbling mansion, Caveat, in the family at most adds a measure of shabby gentility. Is Medusa’s Web, like some of your earlier novels, on one level about the Matter of California, the state’s present parched and financially stressed condition?
TIM POWERS: Well I wasn’t consciously thinking of that–but certainly the story uses California as it now is, so yes, that would have been a factor! And I hope the story also conveys my love of Los Angeles, in spite of all the city’s admitted defects. Anybody can fall in love with San Francisco or New Orleans in an hour, but L.A. needs more acquaintance.
NICK GEVERS: Your love of L.A. is very clear in Medusa’s Web: characters drive around in the city a good deal and you depict a lot of the urban geography. “Admitted defects” and all, what makes Los Angeles such an effective setting for complex stories of the fantastic like yours?
TIM POWERS: Unlike New York, San Francisco or New Orleans, L.A. is spread out–there’s long stretches of coastline, and nearly inaccessible twisting lanes and mysterious houses in all the many hills, and everywhere sites where classic movies were shot, and palatial old Art Deco buildings surviving among the newer glass and steel towers–all baking in the sun and interconnected by hundreds of miles of freeway. And unlike Rome or London or Paris, its history is comprehensible–two hundred years ago there was virtually nothing there. There’s a faint whiff of “imaginary” about the whole place.
NICK GEVERS: Those L.A. buildings you mention . . . Caveat, the well-named decaying mansion in Medusa’s Web, haunted (literally) by past eras: is it based on any particular building you’ve encountered? L.A. seems to feature many such architectural relics past their sell-by dates, ghosts in wood, brick, plaster, and stone . . .
TIM POWERS: Caveat is a composite of a couple of places in the Hollywood Hills, and yes, if you know where to look, there are lots of architectural relics in L.A.–often out of the well-travelled routes, or built-over, or cul-de-sac’d away behind the newer towers. Sometimes it’s a bricked-up balcony window in an old building that used to be a theater and is now an ethnic market, or set of steps that now lead nowhere but to a parking lot, but used to be the entry to some fabulous nightclub where Mabel Normand and Buster Keaton hung out. With a bit of imagination, the old stuff can almost eclipse the modern city!
NICK GEVERS: In the novel, Madeline Madden looks back very fondly on the early days of Hollywood, when Los Angeles was young and full of hopeful potential. “Spider visions” allow some of the characters in Medusa’s Web to visit the Hollywood past. You obviously have love and respect for the silent movie era—you depict it very vividly—but do you feel it had a darker side too?
TIM POWERS: There was a peculiar innocence to that time in Hollywood, with Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks entertaining visiting dignitaries at the Pickfair mansion, and the two of them and Charlie Chaplin merrily traveling around to sell war bonds–but there were drugs and alcohol and big money waiting in the wings, and they soon got busy wrecking everybody. William Desmond Taylor’s murder, and the framing of Roscoe Arbuckle for the Virginia Rappe death, pretty well ended the idyllic era!
NICK GEVERS: The cameo appearances of silent era Hollywood notables in Medusa’s Web, actors like Rudolf Valentino and Alla Nazimova, are beautifully executed. How did you set about weaving these real people, their actual biographies, into your intricate web of trans-temporal plotting?
TIM POWERS: Well the whole thing started, really, when I read that it took two priests to administer last rites to Valentino. That intrigued me, and so I read piles of stuff about him and the people associated with him, such as Natacha Rambova and Alla Nazimova–and as always, I was looking for inexplicable or apparently irrational behavior that could be explained by postulating a supernatural situation behind it all. And luckily they had such fascinating and crazy lives that there was no shortage of stuff to use! It was fun getting to know them better–initially I didn’t like Nazimova, but as I read more about her I came to admire her a lot, both for her iron ambition and for the way she could stoically roll with eventual failure and financial ruin.
NICK GEVERS: The Maddens’ recently-deceased Aunt Amity is very much a lingering presence in and around Caveat, making Medusa’s Web among other things a thrilling and amusing ghost story. Does Aunt Amity, in her obsessive, egotistical, manipulative way, like so many other ghosts in fiction symbolize the dead controlling hand of the past?
TIM POWERS: I guess so, yes! Nobody ever gets a really fresh, tabula rasa start—there’s always a litter of complications and obligations and restrictions left over from what has gone before, to get over. As Faulkner said, the past isn’t even past. But there’s nice sorts of past too, if you can get around the Aunt Amitys!
NICK GEVERS: Like many of your previous novels, Medusa’s Web involves characters whose artistic creativity is blocked or damaged by addiction—to alcohol or to rather more supernatural stimulation, like that provided by the spider visions. Scott Madden with his painting, Amity with her crime novels, Claimayne Madden with his poetry . . . Is this a danger all creative artists face, especially in Hollywood?
TIM POWERS: I don’t know that Hollywood is particularly susceptible to it, but artists do seem inclined to crash into addictions of one sort or another. I think the problem is that, at the beginning, the artificial aid really seems to help the work and not hinder the life–and then by the time it begins to wreck both, the idea of stopping is inconceivable. “They ride their cherished wreck down into darkness.” I imagine it happens to plumbers and lawyers as often as it happens to artists, but artists are more on display, and we’re more likely to miss the work they didn’t live to do.
NICK GEVERS: Medusa’s Web features some bravura action sequences—escapes on motorbikes, triple-sided confrontations with guns brandished—buttressed by hints of elaborate global conspiracies. There’s quite a lot of humor too. Why do supernatural thrillers work so well when garnished with a sense of the absurd?
TIM POWERS: There’s room, and even necessity, for a fair degree of absurdity when you’re writing supernatural adventures, especially if you’re trying to make them as “realistic” as possible–it’s not particularly grotesque when a gun misfires, but if an earnest ghost stumbles in an otherwise awesome apparition, for instance, it’s going to be at least potentially funny. When the otherworldly has to participate in this world, then accidents in the juxtaposition are going to be absurd.
But I hope I never overtly indicate that it might be funny! I don’t want to lose the numinous fact that this is, after all, the otherworldly intruding into here and now!
NICK GEVERS: There’s a love story at the core of Medusa’s Web, and that love deftly transforms an apparent villain into someone far more sympathetic. Would it be fair to say that in your novels true love is always arduously won?
TIM POWERS: Well sure! What fun would it be–in a novel, as opposed to real life!–if true love was easily won? It was fun to show the initial hostility, and then through stressful adventures break it down. And I do think that happy endings, achieved through horrifying adversity, are more fun than unhappy endings.
NICK GEVERS: What’s next for you? There has been mention of a novella rather strikingly titled Down and Out in Purgatory . . .
TIM POWERS: Down and Out in Purgatory is going to be published by Subterranean Press in June, I believe—it’s a 20,000 word novella about a guy whose cherished plans for vengeance hit a snag when he learns that his target has already died.
And I’m messing around with another novel—it’s to be set in L.A. again, though not connected to Medusa’s Web. After all, it’s a big city.