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Powers: Secret Histories: A Bibliography Review

Powers: Secret Histories: A Bibliography, compiled and edited by John Berlyne (PS Publishing, three limited editions: 1,000 numbered copies signed by Powers – 978-1-84863-011-6, GPB40; 200 slipcase copies signed by all contributors – 978-1-84863-012-3, GPB195; 26 lettered slipcase copies — GBP495, 569pp, hc) April 2009.

Tim Powers is alive and writing. I know this because we called him to make sure, after this career retrospective volume showed up at the Locus office. The elegantly-printed Powers: Secret Histories is a thorough 167-page bibliography with over 400 pages of appendix and introductory material, including previously unpublished or hard-to-find poetry; early stories; drawings and handwritten notes; sections from early drafts of novels with commentary about the publication process; extensive notes detailing Powers’ thought processes, and essays by the likes of China Mieville, Karen Joy Fowler, James P. Blaylock, Dean Koontz, and others–including William Ashbless, the redoubtable 19th century poet who repeatedly shows up in Powers’ and Blaylock’s work. It’s such a career-capping volume that one wonders whether the publisher might be tempted to off the writer, just to keep it from becoming out of date.

Powers started writing historical fantasies after Roger Elwood (who’d published his first two SF novels at Laser Books) told him that a British publisher was looking for a series of novels about King Arthur reincarnated at various points in history. By the time the King Arthur deal fell apart, Powers had written what eventually became The Drawing of the Dark (1979), as well as 24,000 words of a book called To Serve In Hell with King Arthur as a highwayman (included in this volume; previously unpublished), and notes towards a third novel. Powers “broke those two things to pieces, took out King Arthur, and with the fragments put together an outline of what I was then calling The Anacronist.” The Anubis Gates eventually came out in 1983, and remains Powers’ most famous novel. But as Powers said, “I had never meant to write exclusively historical fiction… So when I noticed, in a John Scarne book on gambling, that modern playing cards are derived from Tarot cards – and then decided a book might be written combining them – I started thinking of Las Vegas as a setting for it.” (Last Call, 1992). All of history and culture — as well as Powers’ own experiences and concerns — are fodder, including Romantic poets, Edison, Chaplin, Blackbeard, ghosts, alcoholism, Catholicism, the homeless-looking girl that used to come into the pizza place where Powers worked in the mid ’70s, the motorcycle he used to ride, the balloon-man incident at the Chinese Theater, the particular Hispanic style of magic practiced in San Bernardino, and a great deal more. Much of the attraction of Powers: Secret Histories is how it makes public the processes by which Powers writes.

What’s even more fascinating about this volume is not the bibliography (which includes cover art and information about limited and foreign editions) or even the multiple successive versions of notes towards novels (which overlay my own memories of the books to create a fuzzy metafictional resonance), but Powers’ extensive stream-of-consciousness speculations as he thinks through plot, character, and story. After Powers acquired a word processor, the scribbles and drawings dwindled, replaced by successive drafts of notes written on a computer and printed out, often stored in his truck “in case our house burns down.” In these pages — with footnotes in the margins explaining references to books, poems, ideas, etc. — Powers argues with himself in first, second, and third person; suggests particular historical figures, plot points, and areas of research (“Obviously you gotta check out Oedipus and Moses and Tiamat and Saturn and Zeus’s father and cannibalism and incest in general”); figures out the rules of the world and the relationships between the characters; and includes insights from his wife Serena, his friend James Blaylock and others, as well as more general to-do items (“FOR GOD’S SAKE WRITE A POST CARD TO GURNEY”). It takes confidence to allow the publication of one’s writing notes–never mind juvenilia and sketches, however well-rendered the latter are–this is the life of a writer laid bare.

So who is the intended audience? From its limited-edition pricing and high production value (even the advanced review copy is in full color and printed on heavy, slick paper), this volume is targeted to serious Powers readers and collectors. To some extent in the Internet age, a printed bibliography may seem an anachronism; the out-of-print and limited editions are trackable online, and the notes and essays could have been published on their own (though that might appeal to an even narrower market). Academic papers can — and will be — written comparing Powers’ notes to his finished works, and anyone who wants to write fiction can learn a lot about Powers’ writing methods and the editorial process. John Berlyne, in his foreword, explains the origins of the book: after his brother gave him a copy of a paperback with a mummy on the cover, Berlyne made a hobby of tracking down other novels by Powers, asking at bookstores for the elusive Laser novels, visiting John Bierer to leaf through his collection of original Powers manuscripts, hand-coding a website about Powers’ works to share what he’d learned. With this volume, Berlyne has created a resource that saves others from going through all that effort. Anyone who reads author interviews or spends time with writers will know that stories do not come fully formed from the ether, but are a collaboration between writer, editor, publisher, and all of history and experience. The underlying point of this volume is ultimately a celebration of books and the process by which they come into being.