Exclusive Author Interview #7
#7 The Business of being a Writer
JB: So how many drafts does one of your books typically go through – before you're satisfied with it?
TP: Hard to say. In the old days before I had a computer I'd used a sheet of typing paper and I wrote very small. I'd get a thousand words easily on a page, sometimes twelve hundred. And I'd go back the next day and cross out, re-write, have an asterisk that means "flip the page over and insert this bit", circle a bit with an arrow meaning "put it down here", but eventually there was a top limit. Eventually the sheet of paper had no more white space in which to write revisions – and so I'd figure "This means you're done!" And so at that point I'd type it when the whole manuscript was that way – and, of course, in typing you're allowed one more revision – but then that was finished. But now with a computer it's impossible to say. There's no record of how many drafts you've done.
JB: Are you printing your work out at regular intervals?
TP: Regular intervals, but not specifically with an idea to preserve each draft. I print out regularly in order to be able to have a hard copy in the truck in case the house burns down or suddenly electricity isn't available anymore and I don't want to have just disks. K.W. Jeter said once that "Before Powers got a computer it used to take him a year to write a novel and now he's got a computer it takes him three years to write a novel!" – and there's some truth to that!
JB: And at what point – because I have seen a number of your manuscripts and I've also seen the little yellow "post-it" notes of Serena's – [To Serena] sorry to bring you in on this, but I'm quite interested to know what your role is, really, as that kind of objective eye, because Tim's going to be immersed in the work. [To Tim] It must blinker you at some point. It must be difficult to keep an objective eye …
JB: …when you're that deep into developing an idea. What kind of influence, what kind of input does Serena have on the work?
TP: I think a lot of writers find it valuable to have someone else read their book, just to point out things they neglected to mention or neglected to remind the reader of or led up to with all kinds of promise and then simply walked through hastily. But I think a lot of writers have the mistaken idea that it should be another writer that reads this. I think that's wrong. I know if you give me a manuscript of yours to critique, I gonna critique it and I think improve it, but actually what I gonna be doing is making it closer to being a Powers novel – which isn't what you wanted. Serena, like another friend who has unfortunately moved away, is well-read, intelligent, but not a writer. And so when she critiques it, she's critiquing it as a reader, which ultimately is what I want for my audience. So there's no imposition of how she would have written it. It just simply clarity – "This wasn't clear; this was anti-climactic; this seemed hasty," and it's strictly as a reader. [To Serena] Is that roughly correct?
JB: Serena nods!! But then this critiquing is then passed into the hands of an editor.
JB: Which must be a completely different level?
TP: Yes, and they have big authority. When I am finally satisfied with the book, when I have finished it – I can no longer see any problem with it. It's as if you gave me a piece of chalk and a chalkboard a year ago and said "Draw me a perfect circle without any help. Just by your eye." Eventually I'd have what I think is a perfect circle. Now you can come in with a compass and say "No Powers, you've deviated down here in south-west corner," or something, but when I mail it off it looks like a perfect circle.
And then the editor will say, "Well, this scene strikes me as unbelievable," or "How come this guy does something against his own self-interest here?", "Where was this character for whole middle of the book?" and my first response is always, "Well, if you'd read more carefully, you'd see these things!!" but my second response is that the editor has, in fact, read it at least as carefully as a reader is going to and if the editor found something confusing, certainly the reader would too.
Usually if an editor has ten points, I'll be totally convinced by five – and be grateful for them, and make the fixes – and the other five, I'll think "Well, I'll let you have a couple that don't do any harm, but these other three I do disagree."
JB: Does it become a negotiation?
TP: Very friendly. It never gets down to, you know, lines drawn on a table! Sometimes the editor will say "I really do think that this bit doesn't work." And I'll say "I really do think it does," and we'll discuss it until one party does finally say "Well, I guess you're right." But it's never, you know, raised voices.
JB: And the more experienced you become, the more established you become as a writer – it doesn't lessen the input of the editor?
TP: I hope not!
JB: I would think the editor has more responsibility.
TP: You do hear of writers getting so successful that they either insist they get no editing or, in fact, their schedule is so fast that there's no time for them to get any editing. I think that would always be a handicap. I know my books now don't need now as much editing as they used to, but in every case the editor finds something that I say "Thank God you suggested that!"
JB: And if you gave your book to an editor and they said "Great! We'll publish it straight away," you'd be very worried and you'd quickly go off and get another editor?
TP: In a lazy way I'd be grateful! You know? As if a dentist was to take a two second glance in your mouth and say "No problems! Go home and good health!" You'd be glad, but at the same time you'd be thinking I wonder what he might have found if he'd looked a little harder!
It has happened that an editor has said "That's just fine," but I've always wondered what somebody else would have said. And in a way you're happy 'cause it means you don't have to go ripping up your prose, but at the same time you're a little uneasy.
JB: What about the actual "business" of being a writer? How does your relationship with your agent function for example? You been with the same agent for how long?
TP: Since '82 and it's very nice. I have a perfect agent. Which is good because it's a terribly important relationship. It's not as difficult, but it's almost as difficult to get into or get out of as a marriage. And so you don't want to get into an agent/client relationship unless you really think it's perfect. And it's been very good in that, for example, I never talk business with editors. When we meet them like at something like this [The NASFIC]. I talk about movies, gossip about mutual friends, things like that. I would never say to Susan Allison or Beth Meacham or Jennifer Brehl "Uh, now I would like more money for my next book!" or anything similar. My agent does that! And sometimes he'll be kinda high-handed I think. Kind of really sort of like in poker – check and then raise when the bet comes around to you again. I think he's a very clever businessman, but even if he might exasperate the editors, that never rubs off on me. I meet them and they might roll their eyes and say "Boy Powers, your agent is a real wild man," and I'll just say "Ach! That's terrible. If it was up to me I'd do everything you said!"
JB: That is accepted business practice? It's how the industry functions?
TP: Yes. It is a very very handy arrangement.