By Donna Kennedy
Tim Powers sat in a dark booth at the Mediterranean bar sipping a double club soda. Club soda—period—not the scotch he would order for Andrew Wale [sic], the protagonist of his 11th and latest novel.
The fictional double-agent in "Declare" (Morrow, $25) is too busy saving the world from a tribe of djinn on Mount Ararat and setting up the end of the Cold War to hang around a dark-paneled bar in San Bernardino. Depending on his cover, Wale [sic] is more likely to frequent exotic bars in London, Berlin or Beirut.
Powers, the author, travels mostly by book. He feels at home at the Mediterranean, even though at 48, he's a bit younger than the other regulars. The restaurant and bar is a convenient meeting spot for him and his wife, Serena, since it's halfway between her job in San Bernardino and their home in Muscoy.
So why is a writer of fantastical literature leading a quiet life in our midst -- Muscoy to be exact, a strip of rural real estate along the I-15 northwest of San Bernardino?
After all, Powers won the prestigious World Fantasy Award in 1993 and the Locus award in 1993, 1996 and 1997. "Declare" hit the bookshelves Jan. 23 and is already scheduled for a second printing. It's No. 20 on Amazon's best-selling mystery--thriller list for the year and every Amazon reader review has given it a full five gold stars.
Other fans and his Spanish book publisher have created Web sites devoted to his work. The majority of his fans are in the United States, Powers said, but he has a strong following in foreign countries as well. Some of his novels have been translated into 12 languages: French, German, Italian, Russian, Polish, Finnish, Swedish, Dutch, Italian, Portuguese and Japanese, as well as Spanish. Six of his 11 novels and a collection of his short stories are in print.
Powers' publisher doesn't release sales figures and Powers said he has no real idea how many copies of his books have sold, but most of them have gone into multiple hardcover and paperback printings. "Last Call," first published in 1992, was reprinted in hardcover five times.
Powers is used to the question: Why Muscoy? He has a stack of reasons that begin with his landlady deciding to move Into the Santa Ana apartment she had rented to Powers for 16 years.
"When the jump came, it was quick," said Powers, sounding a bit like Wales [sic] the spy. It was four years ago, and he was just finishing "Earthquake Weather" (Mass Market Paperback, $6.99). "When you're finishing a book is precisely when you have no money at all."
The Powerses had 90 days to find a new home. They had checked out the real estate in Oregon, Texas and Oklahoma on previous book tours, but decided they liked the San Bernardino area, where Serena's mother and grandmother grew up.
What Muscoy doesn't have—like sidewalks and street lights—is as much a draw as what it does have—goats, chickens, horses, ostriches, owls, according to Powers. "It's very charming. I like Muscoy."
It's close enough, but not too close to LA and Orange County, Powers said, and his dusty, rusty blue '72 Chevy Suburban looks right at home in front of his two bedroom home and guest house.
Here in the most ordinary of settings, Powers reads, a pastime he calls both a vice and part of his work. In the midst of all those words, he finds a weird wobble in history, a blank spot that cries out for a supernatural explanation. Powers doesn't tamper with facts or dates, just weaves his own story into the existing one.
Detail and drama
It was author John Le Carre's reference to British double agent Kim Philby in the introduction to "The Philby Conspiracy" that inspired Powers to start "Declare." The mysteries surrounding Philby, who spied for the Soviet Union, and intrigued Powers. [sic]
When he's preparing to write a book, he holes up at home for a year until he knows everything about the topic at hand. For "Declare," he read everything he could find about Philby. He read about T. E. Lawrence of "Lawrence of Arabia" and "Tales of the Arabian Nights." He steeped himself in information about the Soviet and British secret services, memoirs of actual spies in World War II, the Cold War and everything he could find about Arabs and Bedouins. His big find was a 1964 tourist's guide to shopping and dining in Beirut. "I had everything," he said.
Powers' books are dense with detail and drama that demand a re-reading to catch all the allusions and foreshadowing bypassed on the first run-through.
In "Declare," for instance, the plot has several levels besides the espionage and battle against the supernatural enemies. There is Andrew Hale's love for a beautiful former Spanish Civil War soldier turned intelligence operative, and his gradual return to his Roman Catholic faith.
Powers' books appeal to readers like Chris Branch, 34, and Ellen Endebrock, 35, who designed Web pages on Powers about three years ago.
Both prefer Powers' historical fiction to his present-day or futuristic stories. Endebrock, a state civil engineer in Chandler, Ariz., e-mailed that Powers' characters and dialogue are believable and that she likes the way he "interweaves factual history with fantasy.
That's the draw for Branch as well. "A Powers book is an extremely satisfying package," he e-mailed from Boynton Beach, Fl, where he is a software developer in telecommunications.
"The ‘magical' elements are chosen in such a way that they appear to explain some of the unexplained occurrences in the real historical record, and there's always a well-thought-out underlying logic to the magical explanations," he wrote.
In the midst of the historical detail and realism, magic sneaks up on readers.
"I want everything to be tangible and sensory said Powers. "I want the supernatural to be very palpable…I don't want to say, 'and then a giant genie arrives.' "
For example, the supernatural arrives in "Declare" after 182 pages of believable espionage exploits and character development, with just enough foreshadowing to keep the reader wondering. And then: 'He is here.'
Hale followed the man's gaze—the rainbow-smeared surface of the water was more bumpy and irregular now, as if the wrecked chassis of a locomotive were rising up from the depths, humping the sliding water above it and about to break the surface—and then Hale's face went cold, two full seconds before his ribs tingled like a mouthful of bubbling champagne.
The description continues until it seems quite reasonable that the amphibian-like
head of a djinn should rise, fall, gush and whirl in the middle of a black
pool in the desert and speak to Hale.
Of course, said Powers, in the Arabian desert "there really is a pool and there is supposed to be a sinister black scary djinn."
Work of the moment
Bruce McAllister, a Redlands science fiction writer and writing coach, calls Powers a consummate story-teller who can describe anything and get you interested. "He could tell a story about two rocks, and you would want to hear it."
Although his characters quote everything from ancient Babylonian text to Rudyard Kipling, Powers stays with fantasy plots. Every plot is an echo of the science-fiction and fantasy novels that he burned through as a teen-ager, beginning with a copy of Robert A. Heinlein's "Red Planet" (Mass Market, $5.99).
Powers always knew he wanted to be a writer, so he majored in English at California State University, Fullerton. There he met Philip K. Dick, author of "Blade Runner" (Mass Market, $6.99), and eventually won the memorial award in his friend's name for "The Anubis Gates" (Ace Science Fiction, $12.95) and "Dinner at Deviant's Palace" published by Ace in 1985.
Powers was 15 when he got his first rejection and 23 when he sold his first novel. He purposely stayed away from jobs with attractive benefits that could tempt him away from the muse.
"I made a practice to have junky jobs with no benefits so it was easy to quit…janitor, pizza cook," he said. "It was the work of a moment to quit."
Next he plans a novel set in the desert having to do with the repercussions of the movie industry of the '20s and '30s. In the meantime, he teaches a few creative writing classes, appears at conferences and tours bookstores, most recently up the Pacific Coast. He hits mostly science fiction and fantasy bookstores. That's where his fans find him fastest except, of course, for the Web.
"It is fun having these things show up," said Powers of the Web sites. When he finds a new Web site, he general emails to say, "It looks cool."
He's even got foreign-language sites from London, Spain and France. "The Anubis Gates" ('Les voies d'Aubis") is so big in France that he jokes that everyone must have a copy.