Alexis Kennedy's "The Death of the Archangel Michael by Gustav Vogel by Tim Powers"
Secrets and mummies and package slips

John Berlyne on "The Secret History of Secret Histories"

In 2009, PS Publishing released John Berlyne's Secret Histories - the definitive bibliography (and more) of the works of Tim Powers. It was not only a comprehensive exploration of Powers' writing, but also a look behind the scenes - a celebration of the creative process. 

For the 2011 WorldCon (at which Powers was the Guest of Honour), John Berlyne revisited the project - explaining how he went the decade-long process of compiling and producing Secret Histories. The following is reprinted with his permission.


Sketch by Tim PowersA good idea at the time

The origins of my quixotic adventures with Secret Histories are detailed in the introduction I wrote for the book, but, in short, it seemed like a good idea at the time. To me, at least. In the very early 1990s, I was putting together a web site dedicated to the works of my favourite author, Tim Powers. Though hitherto I’d had no idea what it meant to be a bibliophile, I discovered in the catalogues of booksellers and libraries a fascinating and strange world of dusty facts, of limited editions, of juvenilia, unpublished ephemera, foreign language editions, variant printings and variant states, first printings, second printings, erroneous printings, proofs, arcs, review copies, galleys… an entire lexicon of exotic terms that describe the tiny differences between one kind of book or another, even ones that look identical.

I should’ve been put off the idea right there — I mean does any of that stuff matter? A book, is a book, is a book, right?

Just a book

Well, yes and no — to most of us a book is merely a delivery system, a way of conveying the story from the writer’s brain directly into the readers — something British author Jasper Fforde refers to as an ‘imagino transference device’. But for the bibliophile the book is so much more — an artefact, a receptacle, and object d’art, a tactile and olfactory experience, something to gaze at, something to admire, something to covet and something to own.

Foreign Editions of Tim PowersA SERIOUS HABIT

Having been exposed to this highly addictive narcotic substance (the street name is ‘paper’), I fed my habit by acquiring as many of these rare items as my means would allow and I got it into my head that it would be cool to somehow turn all that web site research into something physical — such as a collectable book about collectable books.


That in itself is not a ground-breaking idea, but in Powers I had a particularly good subject for bibliographic study. In a career that first saw him published in the 70s, large parts of his canon have gone on to become genre classics and consequently have been reprinted many times and in many editions, some of which are spectacularly rare and beautiful. His collaborations with Blaylock, particularly those concerning William Ashbless have resulted in some wonderfully eccentric ephemeral items and then, of course there are the original manuscripts. There are still writers out there who use pen and paper, but let’s face it, nowadays they’re so scare they can be considered pretty screwball. The invention of the word processer has undoubtedly changed the way writers work. Inline editing is done without a thought and unless the author is vigilant about printing out his whole manuscript on a regular basis, the actual creative process tends to go unrecorded. This development, though on one hand a huge leap forward, on the other robs posterity of something very precious — a physical insight into how some of our greatest minds work and thus into how some of our greatest works are created.


With Powers we’re very lucky indeed that much of his handwritten manuscript and research material is lovingly preserved in a private archive. (Not one maintained by Powers, incidentally, who confesses to be is no collector of his own material – indeed were this stuff still in his possession it would have been long ago ‘eaten by snails’ as he puts it.)


Perhaps the most notable thing about this material is that much of it is festooned with drawings and annotations, with crossings out and non-sequiturs, imbued with magical hieroglyphs and codes that serve to add character and depth and story to the novels themselves – a secret history of these secret histories. What truly struck me was that most of this stuff lived in storage, forever unseen by the very people who — like myself — might be most fascinated to see it. To be able to present such wonders in a book of their own suddenly seemed far less crazy an idea. So, with the author’s blessing, the archivist’s generosity and my own bibliographic researches, I set about coming up with a way to present these gorgeous hidden things.


After a false start or two, (in which I learned the hard way that books are not designed in Microsoft Word, nor by sheer enthusiasm) the project found backing from another noted bibliophile, Peter Crowther at PS Publishing. By this time, three designers had been defeated by the demands and complexities of presenting this hot-potch of material. I kind of knew what I wanted, but everything I saw fell disappointingly short. After designer number four bowed out (we’re six years in by this time) it became clear that part of the problem was my need to retain control over how the material was presented. This wasn’t just my obsessive compulsive disorder at work — rather it was the need to treat this material with great and sympathetic care.


Essentially my favourite author was allowing me no-holds-barred access to his entire career history, warts and all. This bargain struck, it was implicit that I must avoid ever giving Powers cause to exercise his veto, with regard to either content or presentation.

And now that a publisher had become involved, I also had to keep him happy too, delivering a product that would see a return on his investment or at the very least not bring shame and bankruptcy upon his house! Finding myself thus a slave to these two masters, it was beginning to look impossible that I could ever find a designer who could produce what I was after, especially a designer who wouldn’t charge by the hundreds and hundreds of hours such craziness would require.

Secret Histories - Limited EditionA BOOK A DECADE?

Ever wondered why it takes Powers five years to write a book? Most other authors manage to crank out a book at least every eighteen months, but not Powers. The precision research and painstaking construction work that he employs in his writing is a process that he has evolved over many years. Whereas the research and plotting notes for, say On Stranger Tides, might take a up a couple of shoe boxes, by the time he wrote Declare, Powers was amassing enough background material to fill a container ten times as big. With this meticulous eye for detail Powers fashions his plots in such a way that they fit together seamlessly — each plot element lining up with its neighbor so perfectly that the reader inevitably experiences a moment when they’re convinced that they’ve stumbled upon historical truth rather than historical fiction. A kind of ‘undeniable plausibility’. The construction of such a complex puzzle is an artistic process that cannot be rushed — and in Secret Histories, readers are offered a window into this uniquely Powersian approach to novel writing.


In the end I had no option but to design Secret Histories myself. It was simply less hassle to learn to use the various softwares than it would have been to do it via a proxy. The process wasn’t a smooth one — I recall with burning embarrassment spending three months working on one image (page 317 if you’re interested), adjusting it pixel by laborious pixel, only to find out that I could have achieved my intended adjustment in less than five minutes with the wand tool! And I was helped across the finishing line by Dirk Berger, artist, fellow Powers obsessive and project therapist. It took me a decade to complete Secret Histories, and it might take another decade to recover! But the end result has a solidity and a presence that I think embodies my unstinting admiration for the subject.

Do not drop it on your foot.