Tim Powers, On Stranger Tides

So let’s start at the beginning with the award winning author Tim Powers.

Tim, what was your inspiration spark for this fantastic story?

-TP: “ I had just finished a novel set in the future, and I wanted to do another historical novel next, just as a change-of-gears -- and I've always loved Stevenson's Treasure Island and Sabatini's books Captain Blood and The Black Swan, so it occurred to me that the Caribbean pirates in the 18th century could probably be a good basis for the sort of book I like to write -- that is, supernatural adventure.”


 And it sure is a supernatural adventure, skeletal pirates and voodoo! My parents took us kids down to Disneyland every summer when I was growing up and my favorite thing at DL was a sign that said "Future home of Pirates of the Caribbean."  I was in love with pirates at a very young age.   Did you have a love of pirates also?   I read the Sandy Auden interview on the SFsite where the "stream of consciousness jazz notation" idea of your writing of this book is thrown into the discussion - can you elaborate or explain how that method worked with this story?

  -TP: “Yes, I grew up reading Stevenson and Sabatini, so I've always loved pirate stories! They've got such fine ingredients: sea battles, cutlass fights on tropical beaches, desperate men with renounced pasts in the Old World, British accents and manners in savage jungles, eyepatches and parrots and peg-legs! Great stuff.   The stream-of-consciousness thing is how I put stories together, before I start to actually write them -- I talk to myself into the keyboard, asking questions, proposing lots of possible plot elements, speculating about characters and events, considering what sort of locales and scenes and conflicts might be fun to include ... it's all very random at that stage, like an architect taking his first look at a blank patch of land and imagining every sort of bridge and balcony and turret. Eventually I have to start being specific, but in this initial stage I just throw every sort of idea up in the air -- so it's not terribly coherent, except to me!”

You have a wonderful way of mixing details of history with historic figures and then giving them a twist. On Stranger Tides was released in 1987, I'm betting that "google"  type searches weren't as easy or plentiful  then as they are now. What kind of research did you do and about how long did it take for you to get your historical background work together?

- TP: “True, I don't know that the Internet even existed when I was writing that book! Certainly I didn't have a computer yet, and so I did all my novels in longhand.

It probably took me about a year to do the research and plotting. I read every book I could get my hands on about pirates, and the Caribbean and its history, and the politics of the time, and -- and sailing and boat handling! For a while I probably knew more about sailing than anybody on earth who had never actually set foot in a sailboat. And the research not only prevents me from making too many historical and technical errors, but also gives me tons of wonderful story elements -- I can't begin to put a story together until I've done the research that shows me what the story elements will be.

For instance, I read about all of Blackbeard's extravagant and plain-crazy behavior -- and then I asked myself, In what supernatural situation would this behavior not be crazy, but instead be very shrewd? And that led me to some handy ideas about how the magic worked.”

 OK, now about that magic, one of the things that caught my attention early on (and believe me, it was VERY hard for me NOT to skip ahead) was the importance of iron. At first I thought their mentions were random, then as the story continued to build, they became more and more frequent and important.  Can you tell us how this part of the story came about?

-TP:” I was trying to figure out how magic would work in the story -- of course, given the locale, it had to be more-or-less based on voodoo, but in a lot of Old World superstitions cold iron is supposed to be a counter to magic ... so arguably hot iron, such as the iron in blood, would promote magic. And that provided a lot of nice details, like anemia in people who practiced magic a lot!”

What a great detail tie in!  Anemia and magic!  Now this is a question that I ask all of the authors that I've been blessed to visit with about their Depp related books. So without getting into any area that might be difficult, can you give us an idea of what you felt when your book was optioned by Disney? 

-TP: ”Well, I was delighted! It was before Dead Man's Chest had come out, so I wasn't sure there would be a fourth movie, but I certainly hoped it would happen. Of course the characters in the movies don't much overlap with the characters in my book, so I never expected the movie to follow my book particularly -- but it'll be intriguing to see what elements from my book do show up.”

 Are you able to add anything else for us about your book and the upcoming film?

-TP:” I'm now free to talk about anything having to do with the Pirates movie -- but all I've ever known is that they optioned On Stranger Tides! (For several years I wasn't allowed to reveal that.) They've now actually exercised the option and bought the rights, which is good of them, since technically they didn't have to do that until the day they start filming -- which, according to the L.A. Times, is to be June 14.”

 Yup, that’s the new start date as Depp current filming schedule (The Tourist) ran longer than expected. Do you keep up with what I call the internet “chatter” about the filming?

-TP: “ Everything I know about it I've got from feverishly reading Google News over the years! Sometimes the news was, "Oh, we're gonna do The Lone Ranger instead of the Pirates thing," and -- since actual purchase of the rights is one of the last steps they take -- I'd go crazy, shouting at the computer, "No, nobody wants the damn Lone Ranger!" Other times they'd say, Yes, we're definitely gonna do the Pirates movie, and I'd relax -- and then next day there'd be a report that Johnny Depp had died in a car crash in France! I'd really have been better off ignoring all the blogs -- it just gave me more white hairs.

I haven't had any contact with screenwriters, but (from the blogs!) I gather that Blackbeard is going to be in it, and the Fountain of Youth, and, somehow, a mermaid ... and maybe a young missionary ... and the L.A. Times said that budget constraints have forced them to ditch a proposed sequence on the frozen Thames (!) ... Actually I'd be surprised if the movie follows the book at all closely.”

I for one hope that they do use some of the great elements from OST, it’s such a well crafted storyline!

In the past, most all of the books that have been turned into films starring Johnny Depp have had reprintings with his photo on the cover as a film tie in. Is this something that you think we might expect?

-TP “ I really have no idea! It would be very nice!”

 I particularly liked the talking fungus heads along the river that spoke to Jack. The character of John Chandagnac /Jack Shandy is haunted by his deceased father, why or how did you use this as a part of the story?

-TP “ I wanted to give Shandy a strong revenge motive, and at the same time I wanted it to be conflicted -- so it seemed like a good idea to have him blaming his treacherous uncle for his father's death, largely in order to avoid blaming himself. It's always nice to have a character who's got an old unresolved guilt in his past!”

The relationship between Hurwood and Leo Friend is a strange one, can you enlighten us a bit about it and why you included the character of Friend in the story?

-TP “Hurwood was a bit stuffy and formal and distracted -- dignified! -- and so I wanted a co-villain who could be gross and vain and pretentious; a better target for contempt and scorn! And I made him competent at magic so that he'd be a plausible accomplice of Hurwood's, but ultimately not a reliable one. If Hurwood had been paying closer attention, he'd have seen that Friend was treacherous!”

And then we have poor Elizabeth Hurwood, she spends most of the time either fainting or unconscious. Is there any chance that you might write a sequel that would follow Jack and Elizabeth?

-TP “Well, it's conceivable! But right now it looks as if the most dramatic episode in their lives is over. I kind of hope they settle down and have nice times now, and that wouldn't make much of a book!

OK now have a sort of "what came first, the chicken or the egg?" question for you. Did you make Jack a puppeteer so he could fool his uncle Chandagnac by making Hurwood a puppet?  Or was that a plot device that came about because you had made Jack a puppeteer and it was one of his talents?

-TP ”It came about because I had decided he was a puppeteer -- and I think that came about because I happened to have an old book on puppets and marionettes! But once I had decided to make him a puppeteer, I immediately told myself, Okay, and that skill has to come in crucially handy at some pivotal point. And there's something striking about a puppeteer concealed up in the rigging, working a marionette that's down on the deck -- a nice scene!”

 Regarding the "resurrection magic" using blood into water as a method of rebirth reminds me a lot of my Catholic faith and that Baptism uses water as a means of bringing eternal life to our souls.  Can you please comment about that for us?

-TP “ I'm Catholic too! (And a practicing one, not a "recovering" one.) And I think there's something intrinsically convincing in the idea of "rebirth from water." It appeals to our pre-logical minds before our logical minds can step in with scepticism, even without the precedent of baptism. It's one of those things about which Chesterton said, "We do not know why the imagination has accepted that image before the reason can reject it."

Now, about Mr. Bird. He  has a catch phrase throughout the book, "I am not a dog." Is there a hidden meaning or an inside joke there?

-TP “I meant it to be a random complaint that a half-crazy person would fix on, but in fact Mr. Bird is based on a homeless guy who was always around our apartment in Santa Ana when I was writing the book -- any time he was frustrated or annoyed by anything, he invariably expressed it by insisting that he was not a dog.”

  On Stranger Tides is a book where many of the characters have aliases, was that common for the time period or a method to add to the storyline?

-TP “It was common to the time period, in that a lot of the European people in the Caribbean had pasts that they wanted to disown, for one reason or another -- and that's a handy device for the storyline too. “

  It sure was a handy storyline device!  If you look at Jack Shandy as the hero, who do you see as the "anti-hero”?

-TP  “I guess that would have to be Phil Davies! I meant him to be a genuinely bad guy who had once been a good guy, and who sometimes reverted back to it. That's a fun sort of character to write about -- a bit like Long John Silver!”

 Very Much like Long John Silver!   I've been through the book a couple of times now, looking for a scene when Elizabeth's blood went into the sand at the Fountain. All I could find was that her blood dripped in the wooden box that held her Mother's head. Does this mean that she is not affected by the magic of the Fountain, that she is "safe"? Or did I miss something?

  -TP “You're right, neither she nor Shandy got the morbid immortality of the Fountain. Her terrible father put her blood into that box hoping that it would cause her mother's ghost to assume Elizabeth's body, thus resurrecting the mother at the expense of Elizabeth's soul.”

 Speaking of Shandy, why did you have Jack see things as the fifteen year old "Johnny Con" aka Ed Thatch/Blackbeard?

-TP Well, in Chapter Thirteen there, as they're walking from the boats to the boundary of the Fountain, the memories of everyone present seem to sort of overflow from their heads; when Shandy looks at Hurwood, he gets a distorted glimpse of Hurwood's wedding, and when he looks at Friend he gets a quick flash of Friend's nasty fantasies, and when he looks at Davies he sees an important moment in Davies's past. Blackbeard is probably the strongest personality present, and so when Shandy looks at him, he vicariously experiences a fairly lengthy episode from Blackbeard's youth.  And then of course he finds himself re-experiencing his own most troubling memory!

 Thanks for that explanation Tim, sometimes I miss THE most obvious things! I did notice however some pretty well scripted sword moves and your fights are choreographed so well, do you have a background in fencing?

-TP Yes, I took fencing for several years in college, and then my wife and I took classes at a local junior college for sixteen years! It was all standard Western fencing, foil and epee and saber. Now that we've moved away from that area, we really do need to find classes here.

 Can you tell us what's up next for you?

-TP “Well, my last two books took place in 1963 and 1987, so I'm jumping back to the 19th century, for variety. This one I'm working on takes place from 1862 to about 1880, in London, and involves vampires. A different sort of vampires, though, from the ones in movies and TV lately!”

Well sign me up on the wait list for that one!  I’m a pirate lover and also a vampire fan! We wish you the very best of luck Tim with not only On Stranger Tides but also with your future plans. We thank you for giving us to much of your time, it was great to be able to chat with you!

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