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Joined: 5-November 06
Tim Powers, award winning author of “On Stranger Tides” and I had a nice long chat the other day, a sort of follow up to our interview with Tim last year. Let’s see what’s happened with Tim since we last talked to him here on JDR.
Photo: Serena Powers
JDR: Thanks so much for talking to us again! We appreciate your taking the time for this follow up interview!
For those who don’t know, would you remind us how the movie came to happen?
Tim: Sure, sometime between the release of the first POTC movie and the release of the second one, Disney approached my agent and said “we’d like to option Powers’ book “On Stranger Tides” in case this should become a series and we should do four. If we actually for a fourth one we’d like to not just option but buy Powers’ book.” And I thought this was a terrific idea and so for the next several years while the second movie came out and then the third I was anxiously hoping they’d be successes so that Disney would be motivate to do a fourth one and I kept reading Google news hoping to get news about what they were thinking. And very gradually it got more and more likely, closer and closer and then I got more and more anxious and I’d read on Google news that “yes we’re going to do a fourth one” and I’d think “oh excellent, good…good” and they’d say “no we’re going to do the “Lone Ranger” instead and I’d think no, no, no, nobody wants the Lone Ranger. They want Pirates. And one day I went to Google news and I read that Johnny Depp had been killed in a car crash in France and I thought oh come on. I never had any contact with anybody involved in the movie, I just got all my “quote information unquote” from Google news and then finally they announced the title of the next movie and it was the title of my book.
JDR: Well that was a dead giveaway.
Tim: Yeah, and at that point I was still not allowed to say that Disney had optioned my book. Ever since the first discussions of it they had said, you’re not to say anything about this, this is secret. I had still not been released from the secrecy when they announced the title of the movie and people are saying “Powers, is this connected with your book?” And I asked my agent “What can I say?” And he said: “You can say it’s not a coincidence.” And then luckily very shortly Disney did say, “yes it is from Powers’ book” and so at that point people would write to me and say “Congratulations on that” before that some people were saying it’s probably a coincidence because after all the title of Powers’ book is from an old poem and Disney may simply have likewise quoted from the same old poem independently but of course, I made up that poem. But it all did end happily and Disney did buy it so I don’t have to be reading Google news anymore.
JDR: You’ve touched on a question I was going to ask you and that’s of a “what came first, the chicken or the egg” sort of thing. We have the bit of the poem from your William Ashbless, did that poem, that bit…is there more to the poem?
Tim: No, no…I was having a hard time thinking of a title. Generally titles, you either know them from the very beginning or you get to the end and still have no clue and go frantically scrambling for some sort of, any kind of phrase…and in this case I thought well, I’d like one of the titles like “In Doubious Battle” you know or “Eyeless in Gaza” that are obviously quotes from something but I can’t find anything. I went through Bartlett’s Quotations looking for topics like pirates, ship, ghosts and finally I said think of a phrase and then write a bit of iambic pentameter around it and so I thought…well instead of “in” something, make it “on… dangerous oceans” like Keats’ “opening on the foam of perilous seas in faery lands forlorn.” And so I thought on tides…weird tides .you know, on…peculiar tides…and stranger sounded good, so I thought well write the poem around that phase. Just a bit… as if you were quoting just a fragment from some other poem and I thought it was a good title and so did Disney evidently.
JDR: So it was a “what came first” kind of thing, the book came first, then your wrote the poem to get the title?
Tim: Yeah…sort of… the book came first.
JDR: Isn’t that interesting that you can just write the piece of poetry so that you can quote from it to get the title?
Tim: Well if I had to write the whole poem it might be a bigger challenge. But you say I’m quoting a couple of lines here, the whole poem would be very impressive, trust me.
JDR: When you and I talked last for our first interview on JDR, the film title had been announced and filming was about to begin. You’ve shared with us on JDR, a photo of you on the OST set with your lovely wife and Johnny as Capt. Jack. Can you tell us a little bit about what that was like?
Photo: property of Tim Powers
Tim: Well you suggested that we actually visit the set since they were filming in Los Angeles, I wrote to my agent and said “find out how I get permission to go watch.” Disney was very accommodating and had somebody write to me and say, “Yes, be at this gate at this time, ask for so-and-so, bring picture ID.” And so we did drive out to Universal and drove to this gate around the back of Universal Studios that I had never noticed before, it’s at the other from where the tourist stuff is and we showed ID to a guy and he told us to park somewhere and then this van came down this hill and they drove us to where they were working and at the top of the hill it was real impressive, they has this whole little village there, with trailers and mobile homes. I suppose they have crew and technical people who must have to be kind of nomads since they filmed in Hawaii, LA and London. But they were all running around very busy and we found the woman we were supposed to link up with and she introduced us to Terry Rossio who was there, the screenwriter, he was very friendly and escorted us around and showed us what was what. They had built a lagoon there which was a duplicate of a real lagoon they had been filming at in Hawaii. But they wanted this duplicate because they could control the waves and they had this tower, a sort of lighthouse which was in two pieces, the top was a hundred yards away from the base, though I gather in the movie they reassembled it somehow with special effects.
And then when is got dark, we got introduced to Rob Marshall and then Johnny Depp came walking up from the dressing trailers, and we got introduced to him. He was very nice, chatted for a couple of moments about Hunter Thompson and I gave him a copy of my book and then we met Penelope Cruz and Ian McShane. Everybody was very sociable, very friendly and then they all got to work, we weren’t able to be up in the tower where they were filming, but we were able to watch on monitors. And there were 3D glasses there too. Then Penelope Cruz; husband, Javiar Bardem graciously insisted that Serena borrow his glasses so that she could see what was going on. He was very nice. And then we figured that everybody was very busy and we should probably take off.
So one of the crew got us in a little golf cart and drove us down the hill and it was real fun because she stopped at a couple of places on the Universal lot, such as the Norman Bates motel and this mother’s scary hotel. We got to run up on the porch of the Bates house, which I don’t think the people usually get to do and then we were back in our car and it was about midnight. We didn’t want to go straight home so we went off to Cantor’s Deli on Fairfax, and all together it was a dazzling day and evening.
JDR: It was fun! So were you with Depp long enough to get any impressions of him or Rob Marshall?
Tim: No, not really. They all seemed nice, they chatted sociably, we didn’t get a chance to talk.
JDR: No I guess not, they were at work. So you met Terry Rossio, and you also met Ted Elliott?
Tim: Yeah we met Ted Elliott just a couple of weeks ago, it was after the premiere, when I was teaching a writing thing in LA and at their ending party, he came by, we got to go out in front of the hotel and chat for a half hour or so. He had read a number of my books, which was flattering, he asked what other ones had or had not been optioned, very sociable, we exchanged some emails and wandered off.
JDR: So does a part of you wish you’d had a finger in the writing of the screenplay…perhaps in a different world?
Tim: No, the only reason I would liked to have participated in discussions of the plot of the movie, would have been social. Just a chance to hang around and chat in a kind of free association way. I’ve never been tempted towards screenplay writing myself just because it is so adapting and collaborative and changeable. Selfishly I like to have exclusive control over the stuff I write. I don’t want anybody helping, largely because I figure the main reason to write is to show off. And to show off most effectively I want it to be all mine.
JDR: So you don’t want to undertake writing the screenplay for any of your other works?
Tim: No, no. For one thing I don’t know how. I think it’s a separate and very specialized skill. If I watch a movie often enough to stop being attentive to the concerns of the characters and get objective enough to look at how it works, how it was put together, how the people got the effects, I’m always aware this is a different sort of effect than what you get in books, it’s a different tool kit. And I know a fair amount about the tool kit that you use to make books, but I’ve got no acquaintance with what the movie people use. I’m just a happy consumer and I’ve never thought “oh I can do that.”
JDR: I’ve sat in classes that you’ve taught at various seminars and there’s something that just came to my mind while you were just talking. Now I’ll get this wrong so please correct me. You’ve said that when writing, you like to find things that “are too cool not to use.”
Tim: Yeah, the way I generally get the basis of a book, get the plot elements is: I’ll read some non-fiction, not really meaning to be looking for a book idea, just be reading some non-fiction for fun and sometimes it’ll happen that I will say…” well, now that’s interesting, what was he doing there?”, “why would these people do this?”…if I get two or three such nudges from some non-fiction thing, I’ll think maybe this is the basis for a book. I mean you hadn’t thought about writing about oh say spies in the middle east. But here’s three of four little clues, so what the hell? At that point I’ll keep reading but now it’s research rather than recreation. Sometimes I go specifically looking, like with the pirate book for example I thought “what would be a good thing for the next book? What would be a good situation?” And I thought “you’ve always liked Treasure Island and Raphael Sabatini’s pirate books…how about pirates? You know, in the time of Blackbeard and Stede Bonnet and those guys and I thought yes that probably will provide enough of the sort of things you like to make a book. So I began reading all of the non fiction I could get a hold of about pirates and ship handling, the Caribbean climate and everything else, what kind of guns and swords they used and which ever way it goes, whether it’s something like that where I am deliberately fixed on the context hoping for plot bits or whether I stumble across them by accident, so that when I am just reading a book for fun what I look for is things that are too cool not to use. Interesting characters or places to set a scene in or cultural peculiarities that would be fun in a plot or odd customs and once I find ten or twenty such things which any biography would provide, then I’d say you’ve got ten or twenty parts of your eventual book. That’s a nice head start to have. Then all you have to do is connect the dots!
JDR: You used this with "On Stranger Tides" and on your new book.
Tim: I’ve used this system pretty much on all of my books, most of them anyway. One involved Albert Einstein for example and I read a bunch of biographies of him for odd, unexplained incidents and there were plenty. I think the biography of any body would have a number of incidents where one would think “why did they do that? That was an odd thing to do.” And when I find such things, I think, OK, let’s think of a reason why that was a sensible thing to do. And since I only somehow am interested in writing stories involving the supernatural it’s generally supernatural reasons I think of.
JDR: So for example in pirates you would take Blackbeard…and..
Tim: Yeah in pirates I took Blackbeard and his weird behavior, you know putting those burning matches in his beard and shooting his friend’s legs off and apparently almost getting captured though just gross carelessness and I thought, well what if these, instead of being what they really were in the real world, which is evidence of being crazy, what is these were instead very shrewd moves once you know the supernatural back story. So all I have to is cook up a supernatural back story against which Blackbeard’s actions were actually very intelligent and well thought out.
JDR: Then it makes sense if buy into the voodoo, the curses and the blood in the water.
Tim: Given the Caribbean of course, voodoo and the Fountain of Youth immediately stood out as supernatural options, they should be involved in some way.
“Powers has the remarkable ability to look at disparate parts of real history, examine them for where things are not quite explained or are just about strange, and weave a compelling “secret history” of what was really going on.”
Tim: That’s exactly what I was trying to do. I kind of approach it like a detective, I say OK, given that there’s a hidden supernatural plot going on behind these mundane events, what is it? And of course, in reality there was not. But I go looking for it, and go there’s a clue and there’s a clue and why on earth would he have done that? I assemble all of these clues and figure what sort of supernatural contexts do these imply? And in a way, my system is designed for someone with no inherent imagination because I don’t have to make things up, I just have to find them.
JDR: Ahh but don’t discount yourself, some of us could look at those same things and skip right over them.
Tim: I think if you could learn the sort of paranoid schizophrenic squint that I approach them with… Often late at night, several times it’s happened, I’ll have cooked up my supernatural explanation and I’ll have got hold of some fresh research book and I’ll read it and it appears to confirm my supernatural theory.
JDR: I like it!
Tim: And I think, you didn’t make this up! You stumbled on the real story! But in the morning it’s not like that anymore.
JDR: That’s so sad! LOL While I am thinking about it someone asked me if I would be sure to ask you about a line in the movie that is quite close to what you had Blackbeard saying.
Tim: Oh yeah, something like “if I didn’t kill somebody every now and then, you’d forget who I am.”
Tim: I think actually, as I recall that’s something Blackbeard is noted as actually having said. So the screenwriters might have got it from my book, and again they very well might have got it from the same source I got it from.
JDR: Did you radar go up when you heard that in the film?
Tim: Yeah, I think I also recognized though that I hadn’t made it up either.
JDR: Some from JDR also wanted to know, other than the William Ashbless, which is really not a pseudonym, people these days pretty much know that’s you…have you ever written under another name?
Tim: No, no. I don’t think I ever have. I’ve known people who do that and usually the reason is that it’s in different genres and they don’t want to confuse the readership. Maybe the reason that I’ve never done it is because I’ve always pretty much written in Science Fiction/Fantasy genre. Though even if I did, I’d still want to use my real name.
JDR: Change of subject, had you ever been to a premiere before?
Tim: Yes. Serena and I went to the premiere of "Battlefield Earth" at the Chinese Theater and we got in because I’m a judge for that "Writers of the Future" contest. And it was a great evening. So those are the two premieres I’ve been to and that’s pretty good actually. The Chinese Theater and Disneyland.
JDR: You don’t see them any more diametrically opposed I guess.
Tim: And both in their own way, very glamorous. For the Chinese Theater they blocked off Hollywood Blvd. which made it impossible to get there and park, there was a red carpet down Hollywood Blvd. They had all the local LA area science fiction people marching down the red carpet God knows what passers-by thought of it all.
JDR: Was there anything about the " On Stranger Tides" premiere that made it special or that sticks in your mind, or was a memorable moment for you?
Tim: I was walking up the black carpet with a huge crowd, right at the beginning there was a whole bank of photographers and every few steps there would be somebody with a question, “you’re the guy who wrote the book, what do you think of the movie?” and I’d say “I haven’t seen the movie yet, but I’m sure it’s going to be good.” Walking along with us, was Johnny Depp himself, odd dressed in regular civilian clothes. We saw Jody Foster, and again there were any number of notable people walking along. But that was a sort of disorienting sort of walk, I kept thinking that there’s been a mistake, I don’t belong here. But it was a huge enthusiastic crowd, many of them dressed up as pirates. And there were a lot of “extras” dressed up, someone on stilts, pirate suits and a guy walking on an enormous ball rolling along. It was a little circus walking up to where the movie was being shown. And of course over laying all of that was that this was Main Street in Disneyland! I’ve been going there since I was seven years old! We walked right by the place where Phillip K. Dick asked his last wife to marry him!
JDR: Oh my gosh, where was that?
Tim: The Carnation place there at the top of the street, right there. It was very much a sensory overload.
JDR: So did you sleep well that night or were you too jived?
Tim: Oh yeah, it kind of wore me out, you get home and your back in your familiar house again, and you think, well that was a weird interval. Let’s feed the cats.
JDR: So would you like to comment about the movie for us?
Tim: Sure, I had a great time, the intrigue and the betrayals and sword fights and lots of action and I thought it was a fine movie and certainly Blackbeard was a terrific element. Ian McShane is just a force of nature! He just dominates it with that face of his.
JDR: Did you get to meet him?
Tim: At the filming we did, last year. And he was very gracious and nice. I thought the movie was fine!
JDR: Ok, you’ve got a huge film with your book title "On Stranger Tides" out in the theaters and your name is very prominently listed in the credits and the box office is HUGE!
Tim: Yeah, it’s crowding up there!
JDR: Let’s talk about OST merchandising…how bizarre is it to see “Pirate Booty Popcorn” with your book’s name on it?
Tim: That constantly startles me, walking down Hollywood Blvd. last week, because I was there teaching, I kept seeing my Ashbless phrase (On Stranger Tides)!! Look…I made that phrase up! It was twenty five years ago but, I made it up!
JDR: It’s everywhere, on t-shirts…
Tim: …nailpolish, and that stuff is probably just going to be around forever, you know, in people’s garages and in the old toy chests that they don’t look at anymore. That phrase is going to be sort of underfoot everywhere!
JDR: Does Disney own that phrase… or maybe just in conjunction with the film?
Tim: I don’t think they own it, my book still has that title, the book is still in print. Well for one thing, you can’t copyright titles anyway.
JDR: While we’re speaking about books, do you realize that your Ashbless Cook Book is selling on line for anywhere between $36. and $123. ??
Tim: I noticed that on A.B.E books, it’s kind of fun having books of mine be collectable. During the 90s when I would go broke I would haul out a first edition and do a drawing on the front fly leaf and have a friend sell it online.
JDR: You have a couple of new covers for OST…
Tim: Yeah, yeah!
From the left, the UK version from Corvus, the others are Harper Collins
JDR: And is that a new publisher?
Tim: No, it’s a new publishing house for the book, it was originally published by Ace, which is part of the Penquin/Putnam Group. And now it’s published by Harper Collins, but Harper Collins is currently my publisher. So we told them that they needed to reprint this, and this movie’s coming out…I think you kind of have to.
JDR: Have you noticed an up tick in sales?
Tim: Yeah, I always go looking on Amazon for the sales rank and you want to be number one, and you’d hate to “three million” – usually I’m satisfied with around thirty thousand, the last few days, a week or ten days really, the pirate book has been around one or two thousand.
JDR: Isn’t that great!
Tim: Yeah that’s very good.
JDR: Can you share with us why there is no movie tie-in with the book?
Tim: Disney didn’t want to let the publisher use specific art work or the Pirates of the Caribbean logo. I imagine because if somebody saw the movie and then saw a book with Jack Sparrow on it and the POTC logo, they would imagine that this is the book of the movie. And he’d be disappointed in that my book really is not the same as the movie in nearly all aspects.
JDR: Didn’t they come out with something like a juvenile novel?
Tim: Yes Disney did come out with a book called “Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides” and I even think I bought a copy, but it does appear to be sort of a young adult book and I’m sure it does follow the movie script.
JDR Would you like to comment about the new art work on book covers? All of your previous book covers have such fabulous, detailed cover art.
Gurney art Marano art Ace Press and Babbage Publishing
Tim : The first edition, from Ace Books, back in 1987, and then the paperback from Ace in 1988 and a limited edition from Subterranean Press, two or three years ago all used this one painting by Jim Gurney which is a gorgeous painting, I’ve got a print of it on my wall, of a skeleton in pirate garb with a parrot on his shoulder, holding a sword, and he’s on the deck of ship and you can see that one of his forearm bones is broken and tied up with a rag and there’s coins and a skull around his feet and a broken sword hilt and behind him you can see the rigging and forecastle of the ship, kind of receding in mist. It’s just a beautiful painting! And I think whatever success the original printing had was probably because of the picture. I mean you walk past that book in a book store and think “damn, I have to read THAT! “ I never heard of this writer…but look at that picure! Now a days, I think publishers don’t want that kind of painting, the kind that needs to be eight or ten inches tall, and five inches wide to be comprehensible because I think publishers are calculating that the majority of customers DON’T see books in bookstores.
The majority of customers see books as thumbnails on an Amazon page on their monitor and a giant cool picture like that will simply be a blur if it’s a one inch high thumbnail. And so I think the style is changing, the style in the cover art to be most effective seen one inch tall. Sort of postage stamp standards, I think this is kind of a shame because there have been some book covers that every now and then you can put your finger in to hold your place in the book and you turn back to look at the cover again and think Yeah WOW ...COOL. It’s sort of like record albums when they used to be the 33 1/3 real records. The album was a good foot square. On "Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band" or "Big Brother and the Holding Company’s Cheap Thrills" or Jimi Hendrix’ "Axis", all of which were just gorgeous pictures. But now “albums” are little four inch square CDs and those big old pictures are not really the style anymore.
JDR: I’m sitting here looking at, as you well know, my dog-eared, highlighted, pages-bent- down- signed copy of "On Stranger Tides" with the Lydia C. Marano cover. It’s a lovely cover.
JDR: I’ve asked you this question before, but I’m going to ask it again. Since" On Stranger Tides" is a big ol’ movie out there now is there any chance that you might revisit Jack Shandy?
Tim: I think not. If I did, it would be just to sort of scramble aboard the band wagon. It wouldn’t be because I saw any real consistent plot there.
JDR: Well you sure left Shandy and Beth open for another adventure.
Tim: True…I always sort of figure my characters, by the end of the book, the big event of their lives has happened. I figure they’re going to go get a little house somewhere and raise vegetables. LOL
JDR: I wanted to ask you what you thought of the images of the Fountain of Youth in the movie.
Tim: I was glad that they had that little water drop that was sort of anti-gravity, but their fountain was a stone ring with a drip. If I had been involved with the script process, I would have said make it somehow big…if not physically big, then emotionally big, strikingly big, because after all, it’s the Fountain of Youth. Of course you could say well the Fountain of Youth doesn’t necessarily have to restore your youth, it doesn’t have to be a dramatic thing on its own, but it should be.
JDR: So, all in all Tim, this has been a good experience for you?
Tim: Yeah, yeah, yeah.
JDR: And you’d love to be involved with the Disney folks again?
Tim: I would love it if Disney said, well , that worked out well, let’s buy some other Powers books.
JDR: Which one would you like to see developed?
Tim: Oh, if they had a big budget then "Declare" would be a fun one. And, oh hell I’d like to see any of them developed. A friend of mine has an option on "Last Call" and he, I didn’t know him before he got the option, is optimistic and it would be fun to see "Anubis Gates" as maybe some sort of min-series. I really am, with all of this speculation, kind of peeking through a crack in the wall. I keep hoping that Hollywood people will say “ gee, Disney is smart and they bought a Powers book, maybe that’s what smart people do. Maybe we ought to buy a Powers book.”
JDR: I know you have a new book coming up, are you at liberty to discuss it and can you share the final title, I know there were a couple of options?
Tim: It’s "Hide Me Among The Graves'"
JDR: Oh that was my favorite one.
Tim: Me too!
JDR: Any news on its status?
Tim: It’s finished and accepted, which is good news and I believe March is when they are planning to publish it.
JDR: Any book tours or signings?
Tim: Yeah, I’ll be doing book signings!
JDR: OK, GREAT! What’s next?
Tim: Yeah, it’s looking like it might involve time travel again…it’s kind of vague, some sort of screwed up romance, bad guys, supernatural, practically writes itself.
On that word, we ended our discussion for JDR and I thanked Tim again for his generosity with us!
Member No.: 21
Joined: 26-January 07
First--a HUGE thank you to Mr. Powers for so graciously giving Karen another interview--very interesting comments about the film. I would imagine it's a surreal experience seeing something you've put so much work in show up on the big screen with your credit.(I know the movie wasn't really like the book in many ways, but the credit at the end is very prominent )
Another thank you to Karen for taking the time to put the interview together for us on JDR---a wonderful treat!
"It is not the destination so much as the journey" ~Capt. Jack Sparrow
Member No.: 307
Joined: 7-March 07
I'm so late! The real world gets into my Depp business some times. Thanks Mr. Powers for being so good to us! I don't post much, but I wanted to add my 2 cents worth, you're a true gentleman and as Karen said, a good friend to JDR!
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