Today’s interview is one I’m quite excited about. I was really pleased to be approached about being part of the blog tour as I’ve been eyeing Tim Powers’ works for a while and Hide Me Among the Graves with its links to the Rossetti’s was especially intriguing as I love both Christina Rossetti’s poetry and Dante Gabriel’s painting. Unfortunately, due to the timing with my upcoming house move and World Fantasy Con coming up, a review wasn’t in the cards, but I was lucky enough to be able to do an interview and Tim Powers’ answers were even better than I could have hoped for. So I’m definitely going to try and say thank you in person at WFC! I hope you enjoy this interview.
Hide Me Among the Graves is a historical fantasy set in Victorian London starring, among others, the Rossetti family. I know from other interviews you’ve done — the Speculate! one with Brad Beaulieu and Greg Wilson in particular — that you do meticulous research. Do you have a set research routine?
My research generally starts with something I stumble across in plain old recreational reading. I’ll be reading a biography of Charles Lindbergh, for instance, or an account of people climbing Mount Everest, or a description of the social life of bees, and some detail will suggest part of a possible story plot. If I run into two or three such, I decide that this is not recreation al reading after all, and I’ll dig up and read everything I can get my hands on that concerns, as it might be, bees; and if sideline topics suggest themselves (if an inordinate number of beekeepers retire to New Zealand, say) then I read everything I can find on that. All the while I’m looking for the sort of odd details I think of as “things too cool not to use.” And after I’ve got twenty or thirty of that sort of details, the challenge is to connect the dots!
Two rules of thumb I always use in assessing these odd bits and pieces are: Nothing is a coincidence — if two things happened on the same day, or in the same place, they’re connected; and, What were they up to really? — what unreported and ideally-supernatural factor could just as plausibly — or ideally even more plausibly — account for what the historical characters did?
With the Rossettis, it started with learning that Dante Gabriel Rossetti laid his notebook of poems into the coffin of his wife, and the poems were buried with her — and that a few years later a publisher offered to print a book of Rossetti’s poems, if he had a good number of them, and so Rossetti dug up his wife’s coffin and retrieved the poems. My first thought was, Why did he really dig her up? Obviously getting the poems back was just the excuse — really he must have needed to get something else out of the coffin, or put something else in.
And so I read everything I could find about Rossetti, his siblings, his friends, his artwork, his London …!
Which aspect of the story needs the most research for you to feel grounded enough in it, to be sure that you’ll get the feel right: your characters or their surroundings?
Really they both seem equally important — in fact the surroundings generally have a lot to do with the character! You can’t learn a lot about some particular fish without learning a lot about the tide pools he frequents! And since I intend, in the story, to apply a good deal of fictional torque to both the characters and the surroundings, I want to make sure I know them as thoroughly as possible before I start trying to bend them into a plot.
Certainly I want to be as well-grounded as possible. I want to get the fullest use of the surroundings, and I want to keep the behavior of real historical figures in character — strain their boundaries a bit, maybe, but not have them do anything they really would not have done.
The Rossetti’s were at the heart of the Pre-Raphaelite movement. Are they your favourite Pre-Raphaelites aesthetically or do you have a different preference?
My favorite of the Pre-Raphaelites, if she even counts as a member, is Christina Rossetti. She was a terrific poet — far better than her brother, for all his grave-robbing — and she was a fascinatingly complex person. A devout Christian, fastidious and proper and reclusive, who at the same time worked closely with prostitutes to reform them, and who wrote wild poetry about ghosts and guilt — she’s one of the many dead people I wish I could have met.
Did you use any of their paintings as inspiration, which reflected the mood you wanted to capture while writing?
Definitely Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s painting Beata Beatrix. Ostensibly it’s a portrayal of Dante Alighieri’s Beatrice, but in fact it’s a portrait of Rossetti’s wife, Elizabeth Siddal, done eight years after her suicide. (The limited Charnel House edition of Hide Me Among the Graves had this picture as the frontispiece.) Rossetti put a couple of ominous figures in the background, and the figure of Beatrice/Siddal is holding a poppy — Siddal died of an overdose of the opium-based sedative laudanum — and altogether it’s a painting that really calls for some sort of explanation!
Did you read much of the then contemporary literature as part of your research? If so, which book or poem would you recommend to readers of Hide Me Among the Graves?
Yes, I read piles of the poetry of Swinburne and William Morris and the Rossettis, and volumes of their letters. I think the best of their work, and one that’s relevant to my book, is Christina Rossetti’s long poem, Goblin Market. It’s a wild fantasy that reminds me equally of Hope Mirrlees and James Blaylock.
What can we expect next from you?
Right now I’m working on a novel that takes place in contemporary Los Angeles, but has to do with mysterious things that happened in the ’20s and ’30s. And of course there’s supernatural stuff going on!
Will your fans have a chance to meet you in person in the coming months, for example at book signings or conventions?
My wife and I are going to be at the World Fantasy Convention in Brighton, England, over the Halloween weekend — and I’m going to be doing a signing at the Forbidden Planet bookstore in London on the Saturday before that — and I hope we get to meet a lot of British science fiction and fantasy fans!
Finally, I have to stay true to my roots and ask a librarian question to finish off with: Do you shelve your books alphabetically, by genre or do you have an ingenious system?
They’re divided into categories — history, science, religion & philosophy, poetry, fiction, science fiction and fantasy, etc. — and then within each category they’re either shelved alphabetically (fiction and science fiction and fantasy) or according to historical chronology (in poetry, for example, it’d be too weird to have Byron right next to Bukowsky).
Bio (from the Atlantic Books website): Tim Powers is a two-time winner of both the World Fantasy and the Philip K. Dick Memorial Awards and three-time Locus Award recipient. He lives in San Bernardino, California.
You can find him online at The Works of Tim Powers.
I’m only the third stop on Tim’s blog tour. You can find yesterday’s stop at Falcata Times and tomorrow’s stop will be at SF Signal. You can find a full overview and links for all the blog tour stops over in the sidebar to the right. Be sure to check them out!