Exclusive Author Interview #6
#6 Road Trips and Reading
JB: Dinner at Deviant's Palace was written before The Anubis Gates?
TP: No. The outline was. God knows when I wrote the outline for it originally – maybe all the way back in college I had been playing with it. I loved the idea of trying to tell the Orpheus and Eurydice story in science fiction. And I think there was a Samuel Delany, maybe The Einstein Intersection where he touched on that, and so I had always wanted to do it and so I had written an outline of it and sent it to Del Rey and he said, "No. This is even worse than The Anubis Gates! I can't believe how you've diminished," so after The Anubis Gates was written, I then got busy on Dinner at Deviant's Palace. Actually originally I wrote Deviant's Palace for Timescape – which was the science fiction line of Pocket books, but they went out of business during that and so I wound up writing it for Ace – specifically for Beth Meacham. So the story sort of is older than The Anubis Gates, but in fact I wrote Deviant's Palace after.
JB: Is it true to say that a lot of the ideas of yours that eventually become books you've been kicking around for quite a long time?
TP: Oh yeah.
JB: I know we're going to talk about Declare or whatever the new novel ends up being called but I read an interview you gave to Locus way back in '85 where you say, "I would like to do a kind of spy thriller thing."
TP: That was fascinating. Yes. I had forgot saying that. I was fascinated to read that on your site. I thought, oh that's right, I did say that!
JB: So a lot of these things you have been mulling over for a long time – which leads me to think that you may yet have many more things that have been kicking around a long time that are eventually going to become books.
TP: Oh I'm sure. Yeah.
JB: So not a lot of your ideas are spontaneous, for want of a better word?
TP: No. Often I think the plot – like when it comes time to write an outline for the next book – I'll write quickly some five page outline of a story, but then I go away and do research and by the time I finally come round to writing the actual book, I don't really remember the five page outline that I sold, I guess.
JB: Does it generally resemble the outline?
TP: Oh, I suppose it will be something like, but I never take it as, you know, very dictating. And so during all that time I'm doing research and I'll say, "Oh, this bit is too perfect not to use. You have to use this character, you have to use this place, so forth and so in any case, I think it's during that period that I think all the old ideas that I've been messing with a long time finally come up. For one thing I have a sort of a note book that I keep near my desk that I write down odd bits in, an interesting phrase, something funny a friend will say, an interesting quandary to put a character into. And sometimes I go back and look at that book and I'll think "Oh yeah, look, you used that for The Stress of Her Regard or you used it for any number of things. There was the bit about Edison's last breath being in a test-tube. That was written…
JB: Is that for real?
TP: Yeah. We've even seen it! It's in Michigan in a museum. And all these notions that I eventually get around to using have been in this notebook for ever. And God knows there's a million of 'em that I still haven't used. So I never really plan it, you just think – Oh yeah, pick up on that now.
JB: Dinner at Deviant's Palace is interesting in itself because it stands out, barring your first two Laser novels, as your only futuristic novel.
TP: True, true. And the only book set in a relatively made up setting.
JB: So it's purer science fiction than fantasy is it?
TP: Yeah… it's hardly "Hard" science fiction but yeah, in that and the two Laser books, those are about the only science fiction I've done. I would like to do another science fiction. I've always thought it would be fun to have a story set in an orbiting colony. You know, like it spins so that to have it's own centrifugal gravity around the edges, you're weightless in the centre. I've always thought you could have any amount of fun with that kind of thing. But somehow it's never the project at hand.
JB: Are the historical fantasies harder to write than, say, a piece of science fiction or your books that have a more contemporary setting?
TP: Actually I would say they are not harder. I had thought that Expiration Date would be easier for example just because it took place in Los Angeles and I am very familiar with Los Angeles, but when it came to writing it, I found that I was only familiar with the LA freeways and the places I knew to get to, and that there were whole expanses and exits from the freeways that I knew nothing about. I may have seen these districts out of the corner of my eye as I flashed past, but I had never stopped to look at them. And I didn't really know enough about Los Angeles history, so I wound up having to do the same thing I'd have done for Rome in 1820 which is read all these history books, find out about these various districts then and now.
One advantage that we've had with Last Call, Expiration Date and Earthquake Weather is we've been able to go look at the places, which I never have been able to do with London or Rome or Venice or any of those places. And so my wife and I would drive through all the places the characters would go to and I'd be talking into a little tape-recorder and Serena would be leaning out of the window with a camera and eventually we figured out we were paying ninety dollars to have snapshots developed – just one days worth – and that it would much more sensible to simply buy a video camera – 'cause the tapes are reusable and you can put the commentary right on with the pictures.
So for example for Earthquake Weather we drove all over San Francisco in kind of a grid pattern, almost like some challenge – "Can you cover every street without retracing your path?" – with Serena simply filming everything there was to see and one or the other of us saying what street intersection we were at and so when it came time to have a scene occur there, I'd say "Well, our characters are going to go from this address to that address at sunset," and I'd get the appropriate video cassette out and put it in the VCR and simply watch it with a pad in my lap – and I'd notice things on the video tape that I had not noticed live – such as the cable in the cable car tracks. You can hear that kind of slithering along and I'd never consciously heard it walking around San Francisco, but looking at the video, you think what's that noise? Oh my God, it's the cables!
This has been a real help because now every place the characters go to, we've been there. At one point with Last Call I told Serena "This is great! The characters are going to Las Vegas, we can go. Airfare's cheap." And Serena said "Are your characters going to be flying there?" and I said "No. They'll drive, but we can fly," and she said "No. If your characters are driving there, we should drive there." I said "Are you insane? In a '72 Chevy truck across the Mojave desert? We'll be killed! We'll break down and some truck load of rednecks with rifles will come up and we'll wind up buried in the desert," and she said "…Nevertheless!"
And so we did drive there and neither of us… I had certainly never been to Las Vegas before, had never driven across the desert – and it was really dazzling. The Mojave desert and all these weird little outpost towns that you just stop at to get a hamburger and gasoline were just fascinating – and we took pictures of every single view there was and in fact the trip across the desert wound up being a very substantial part of the book which it would not have been if Serena had not insisted that we actually do it.
JB: But the historical novels are invented through your reading?
TP: Yeah. Right – there's no actual physical acquaintance with any of those places.
JB: So is the methodology of putting something like that together a matter of you piecing together a historical skeleton of the period? Of the lives of the people you're writing about and using as characters, the actual historical figures – and then you're wrapping a fiction around it – fleshing it?
TP: Right. I'm trying to put a secret motivation behind their overt, and in effect, actual, motivations. Like with The Stress of Her Regard, the period when Byron and Shelley were in Italy is very well recorded and so I was able to put together calendars – giant oversized calendars where every day is a foot by a foot – and I was able to write in ink all the events that history simply insists did occur. And I had a lot of sources – Byron's letters, Trelawny's journals, Shelley sources. I was even given actual conversations they had. Shelley wrote a long poem called Julian and Maddalo which is a long account of a conversation he has with Byron in Venice. And so I not only had to adhere absolutely to the events and travels and times of day that history stuck me with, but I was also stuck with actual conversations which I couldn't leave out. So I had to look at the conversations and then say "In what way was this actually a reference to my secret supernatural business? They appear to be talking about this, but in what way can I make it be the case that 'oh, as any fool can plainly see, they were actually talking about this magical junk!'" and it was kind of fun. In a number of cases I was able to put together the secret motivation behind some really well documented conversation between Byron and Shelley.
JB: That's quite a task for a novelist to set himself. You are married to these conversations.
TP: Yes. I took it as a rule that they were set in stone. I was not at liberty to change the calendar or the actual history at all. I mean there may be some bits of history that I didn't get to which I contradicted, but I never knowingly changed anything or left anything out.
JB: What's your fascination with that period of history?
TP: Oh mainly just the people. I've always been fascinated with Byron. Just absolutely one of the dead people I wish I could have met. And he's one of those people – like Hemingway – whose life is almost more fascinating than his work, and like Hemingway he's very well documented – in fact more! There's no books of collected conversations of Ernest Hemingway, but there are books like that about Byron. His journals are so fascinating and letters. He wrote letters the way we make phone calls if we're not totally sober! So I very much just wanted to use this character, get to play with him.
And then, good lord, there they were – climbing through the Alps, drunk by ten in the morning , you know – their children are dying right and left – you just sort of think if you can't cook a story to fit into this, you should get a job! Ha!!
JB: What about the Lamia – the female vampyre legend? A number of people have asked me about the source for that. They know of the legend itself, but how did you find out more about that, where did you go to feed your knowledge of them?
TP: Well, where I came up with it… it was never my choice. When Shelley's body washed up off the west shore of Italy there, he had apparently deliberately died. He set out into a storm when everybody said you'd better not – and he couldn't even swim! And then when his body washed up, his face and hands had been stripped to the bone. The explanation is "Fish ate it!" and I thought "Oh? I bet fish ate it!!" and also when they picked up his body to carry it to the pyre it just fell to bits. I thought "Well now, what? Fish took him apart and put him back together inside his clothes again?" But in his pocket was a copy of Keats' poems folded open to the poem Lamia and I though "Well, 'nuff said. I don't need a bigger hint than that! Thanks!"
And so I read La Belle Dans Sans Merci, The Lamia, and – how else would I have read up on Lamias? God knows! It seems to me that Boccaccio had a story about Lamia, and of course quickly you segue into succubi and the whole kind of erotic old world demons. It didn't seem to be a big stretch to get into Medusa – all these perilous supernatural women.
And then I noted that trolls turn to stone if they're caught by daylight – Lot's wife turned to a pillar of perhaps salt, perhaps quartz when she looked back – and I was puzzled by the fact that the things that stymie supernatural assailants, are on the one hand silver bullets, cold steel and on the other hand wooden stakes. And I thought how's the rationale? I thought one is a very good of conductor of electricity and one's a very bad conductor – virtually an insulator. Therefore they hate the extremes, they like the middle. What's the middle? Well, silicon! You know, computer chips, semi-conductors. And I thought OK, well that's interesting, because silicon is the famous other basis possible for life. Like carbon has four electrons in it's outer orbit so it's very ready to combine with others of itself and make long chains. And I thought well, you're not making this up. You're just noting this and obviously this is talking about silicon based life-form and quartz is silicon di-oxide and so obviously these creatures, if the are exposed to an energy bath, crystallise.
At this point when I had figured this much out we went out and took Greg Benford to lunch and I said "Greg, you're a physicist. I'm gonna try to say this. How nonsensical is it?"
He said "Well, it's pretty nonsensical, but if you emphasise these aspects and never refer to those aspects, I think you can get by."
"Thank you. Thank you. If we can get this simply by buying you lunch, this is great!"
So I emphasised the bits he said were relatively sound and skated over the bits he said were hyperbole and I like to think that I wound up with a sort of explanation that a medium scientifically literate reader would read over and say "Well, yeah, maybe. If you say so!"
JB: You seem to experience as you're putting together your research, putting together your plots, this whole idea of – you used the phrase "I'm not making this up."
JB: It seems to become apparent to you what's happening. But that's not to say that the material takes on it's own momentum is it?
TP: No. It's like I simply notice patterns that were in it all along. Like the way I came up with the plot for Last Call was strictly linear. I had no input, Ha! I had read in a John Scarne book about gambling that tarot cards were the original form of playing cards, and I thought "Well that's fascinating, because they're both kinda scary, they're both kinda dangerous. See if you couldn't have book based on that." And I thought, well, tarot cards… I dunno. What is there? Well there's The Wasteland, there Madam Sosostris the card reader, and so I read The Wasteland and it, of course, is about the perilous chapel in the wasteland, the Fisher King business and it talks about :-
"And I will show you something different from either
Your shadow at morning striding behind you
Or your shadow at evening rising to meet you;"
And I thought, well that's somebody walking east obviously, and if we want to start this in southern California, where I live, and have somebody moving east and have it involve playing cards and a perilous chapel in the wasteland, it's no stretch at all to say that we're talking about Las Vegas. I mean so far I haven't even done any work here. I'm just noting things.
So I read The Green Felt Jungle about Bugsy Siegel and the way he virtually established Las Vegas and he built The Flamingo Hotel as an insane castle – as if his soul was riding on this. And again I though "OK! I get it. Message received thank you!" I'm not making anything up yet!
And then I noticed that The Flamingo opened on the day after Christmas, closed just about on Good Friday and re-opened on just about Easter. And again I think "OK! I get it. No problem!" and Siegel himself was killed on June 20th – which is the day in Babylonian myth that the fertility god Tammuz is killed. And I thought "Well, so far I've made up nothing! So far this is all simply true!" Ha!
JB: But it takes you a while to make these discoveries?
TP: It takes a year or so of just reading, yeah.
JB: So you're really – just to go into the kind of methodology of how you are creating your books – you're sitting and you're reading and you're making notes…
TP: Underlining, yeah.
JB: So every book on your shelf is full of…
TP: …Oh, my research books are destroyed. Ha!