Next ‘Pirates’ movie based on book by CSUF alumnus

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James Blaylock and Tim Powers attended CSUF together in the '70s and went on to publish science fiction novels, creating the first books in the steampunk genre. Photo by Janelle Conner/Daily Titan.

While Johnny Depp is expected to return as Captain Jack Sparrow for a fourth Pirates of the Caribbean movie, Titans may be interested to know that the roots of it stem back to Cal State Fullerton.

The inebriated, swashbuckling Sparrow will embark on a voyage seeking the Fountain of Youth that will feature the legendary Blackbeard and perhaps “varied and substantial dangers along the way, including but not limited to zombies, cutthroats, mermaids and the vicious and vivacious Penelope Cruz,” Depp said in a teaser trailer for the upcoming film, shown at San Diego Comic-Con this past summer. Not counting Cruz, all of these aspects come from the novel On Stranger Tides written by CSUF alumnus Tim Powers.

Powers, as well as friends James Blaylock and K.W. Jeter, attended CSUF in the ‘70s where they befriended science-fiction author Philip K. Dick and launched into becoming published writers themselves with all three fathering the science fiction sub-genre steampunk.

Dick was doing a convention in Vancouver but decided not to return home when it was over. Prior to the convention, Dick’s home was broken into and looted, his wife had left him for a Black Panther and several of his acquaintances were involved in paramilitary groups in the hills, Powers said.

“He lived in Canada a number of months, attempted suicide and then wrote to a professor at Cal State Fullerton in the English department, Will McNelly. (Dick) was at a heroin rehab place at the time; although, he was not a heroin addict himself, but he was suicidal and wanted monitoring,” Powers said. “McNelly read the letter to his class and a couple girls said, ‘We just lost a roommate. He can stay with us.’ McNelly told Dick that and Dick just said, ‘OK,’ and flew down.”

Since Powers was friends with Dick’s new roommates he went with them to pick him up at the airport, and the two became well-acquainted, even great friends within a short period.

“Tim introduced me, must have been ’75. (Dick) was living in Fullerton,” Blaylock said while sitting in a small library at the Orange County High School of the Arts, where he and Powers currently teach. “For the last years of his life, he actually lived six blocks that way when Tim was living three blocks that way.”

“And K.W. Jeter was living about one block that way,” Powers added. “And so all of us kind of hung out together. We would get together and drink scotch and smoke cigars, and though you’d think, with Phil Dick, and (Blaylock) and me and Jeter that it would have been a lot of writing talk, but in fact it was not. Sometimes we’d say, ‘Oh hell, I got a rejection letter from Ballantine,’ and Phil Dick would always say, ‘It’s just as well; there’s too many books in the world already,’ which we’d take comfort from.”

Dick worked on several books while he lived in Fullerton, occasionally sharing his work with them.

“He gave me a few early pages in VALIS while he was in typing,” Powers said. “From the other room he’d shout, ‘How do you spell nuclear?’ I’d tell him. ‘How do you spell Eliot?’ I told him. Then I said, ‘This looks really good, Phil. I’m gonna leave. I’ll let myself out.’ And then when the book was published, it was fun to see nuclear and Eliot right in the same paragraph. That was the paragraph he was typing when I was there.”

Blaylock added, “It seemed to me that he’d let books go around in his head for a while and then he’d sit and write it in 11 days, and he would be so incommunicado for those 11 days because he was working so hard.”

Dick dedicated books to the trio, with his Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? retitled as Blade Runner when it was reprinted in ‘82, calling Powers and his wife, Serena, his dearest friends. CSUF’s Pollak Library houses the Philip K. Dick Science Fiction Collection, archiving several of Dick’s manuscripts and letters.

Shortly after graduating from CSUF, Powers, Blaylock and Jeter continued to meet to discuss stories they were working on.

“We used to get together at O’Hara’s Pub a lot, over on Orange Circle. And we would have story conferences over many, many pitchers of beer, me and Blaylock and Jeter,” Powers said. “In fact, we concocted a lot of books there. I remember Jeter giving me priceless advice on my first book. This is the stuff we didn’t inflict of Phil Dick.”

They started writing novels that would later be considered a new type of science fiction: steampunk. Steampunk involved taking a setting like Victorian England and implementing technology that would not exist in that period, but powering it with steam. Blaylock and Powers agree that it all began with Jeter’s book Morlock Night.

“We read so much Victorian lit or lit from the 19th and early 20th century at Cal State,” Blaylock said. “I read heaps of it after I graduated. Getting to play in that sort of era was fun. None of us had the idea that we were writing in some variety of sub-genre. When K.W. Jeter was being interviewed by Locus Magazine, cyberpunk had become popular. They asked what Tim and I and K.W. called what we wrote and he said, ‘steampunk.’”

“And it just went to town after that,” Powers said.

In recent years, the sub-genre they created has exploded in popularity with steampunk-themed conventions and events held worldwide.

“Now it’s a real big deal,” Blaylock said. “I think it’s an artistic or fashion aesthetic more than a literary thing.”

“There’s at least several steampunk conventions now, and they don’t really have many books in the dealers room,” Powers said. “They have tons of costumes and goggles and ray guns. It’s more of a costume phenomenon, which has always been a big part of science fiction fandom. It seems that it has evolved dynamically into another area and sort of out of dutiful loyalty keeps referring back to me, Blaylock and Jeter.”

Due to steampunk’s popularity, Jeter’s novels Morlock Night and Infernal Devices will be going back into print in the spring. Jeter, who is in the process of moving to San Francisco, commented on the trend.

“The steampunk enthusiasm is entertaining to me, my having coined the term and all. I’m glad that people are having fun with the various concepts associated with it,” Jeter wrote in an e-mail. “There’s possibly a deeper element involved; though, I don’t want to get too pretentious about it – that would be the admiration by steampunk devotees for the handcrafted, artisanal aspect of everyday objects from previous industrial periods, versus the cheap plastic crap that lines the store shelves nowadays. There’s a humanness, for lack of a better word, to old stuff – and old ways – that the modern world lacks.”

Powers and Blaylock agreed that they love the gadgets and details in steampunk stories.

“They came naturally for me,” Blaylock said. “I was crazy for Jules Verne, and so you read 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea and I think, ‘I want one of them submarines. I’m going to put one of them submarines in my book.’”

Finding interest in writing historical anachronism, Powers wrote On Stranger Tides which turns the life of fictional character John Chandagnac upside down as he is pressed into service under buccaneers, journeying to find the mythical Fountain of Youth alongside Blackbeard.

Following the release of the first Pirates of the Caribbean movie, Disney contacted Powers’ agent to option On Stranger Tides for a possible fourth addition to the franchise. Powers is unsure how much the movie will follow his book.

“I don’t imagine it has much to do with my book at all,” Powers said. “It would be interesting if some snatch of dialogue or some character, also Ponce de Leon. He was a character in the book. I said he was like 300 years old. It would be interesting if he shows up.”

Powers has been able to visit the set and meet with screenwriter Terry Rossio, another CSUF alumnus.

“A few weeks ago my wife and I did drive up to Universal Studios where they were filming. They had recreated this lagoon on the lot that they had been filming at in Hawaii because they wanted to do synchronized mermaid swimming which they couldn’t do in the real ocean,” Powers said. “We got to meet Penelope Cruz and Johnny Depp in their pirate makeup. I gave Johnny Depp a copy of the book. I hope he understood it was written before, not a month ago.”

Jeter commented on Powers’ book getting optioned.

“If the Disney people were smart, they would just throw out all the Pirates of the Caribbean stuff, and just make a straight film adaptation of Tim’s fine novel,” Jeter wrote in his e-mail. “The Pirates franchise has devolved into not being much more than Johnny Depp’s increasingly threadbare shtick routines, which is probably why a decent actress such as Keira Knightley has pulled the plug on any further involvement.”

He then suggested that Disney consider adapting Powers’ Anubis Gates, writing that it would make a great film. Blaylock was more receptive to Disney.

“Having a colleague who sold a book to the films, especially Disney, is just the coolest thing in the world,” Blaylock said. “In fact, I kind of buy into the idea that to whatever extent writers are successful; it lifts the potential for all of us to be successful.”

“Ideally, it should call attention to Ashbless,” Powers said.

William Ashbless was a pseudonym Blaylock and Powers wrote under when they submitted intentionally bad poems to the Daily Titan while they attended CSUF, which the student publication printed in 1974.

“Ashbless was hideously disfigured, wouldn’t go out into public and so we were sort of his emissaries, and for some reason, that didn’t bother anybody at all,” Blaylock said.

“That was still close enough to the hippie days that the poetry in the Daily Titan was all sunshine and children and flowers and free verse, and we decided we could write worse stuff that would look portentous,” Powers said. “So I would write a line, Blaylock would write a line and we’d pass it back and forth till we got to the bottom of the page and then kind of bring it to a close.”

They put Blaylock’s phone number on the submissions, calling him to be sure the information was accurate.

“They wanted more so we wrote another lot that was dumber, and they published that,” Powers said. “And we wrote a third lot that was dumber still and they did not publish that.”

Over 35 years later, Ashbless has several published works, including a cook book, and often writes hateful criticisms of Powers and Blaylock, whom he accuses of being terrible drunks who break into his home to steal his furniture. Ashbless appears in many of their novels, even giving On Stranger Tides its name.

As a writing teacher, Powers jokingly remarked on his dreams of authoring books.

“Ever since I was 11, all I wanted to do was be in that number. I’d think Henry Kuttner, Robert Heinlein, Fritz Leiber, Theodore Sturgeon. I want to be one of those guys,” he said. “I should have thought pick rich guys.”

Actually, Powers advises that should one decide to dedicate their lives to becoming a writer, they should take on dead-end jobs.

“Always get used to driving $200 cars and living in zip codes where cops travel in pairs,” Powers said. “Don’t get the nice job at Microsoft, ‘cause you’ll have benefits and the nice salary, and if you get a book sold, you’ll think, ‘I should quit my job and be a writer full-time. No I’ve got benefits. I’ve got a good salary. I’ve got rent. I’ve got a mortgage.’ Trick is don’t have those things; have junk jobs. That way whenever you sell anything it’s a cinch to cut the job.”

Disney’s Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides will be hitting theaters May 20, 2011.

“I’m hoping that my wife and I will get to go to the premiere in some capacity instead of just waving behind a chain-link fence. ‘I wrote the book!’” Powers joked. “There’ll be about six people yelling that.”

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2 commentsOn Next ‘Pirates’ movie based on book by CSUF alumnus

  • These three writers, or four, including PKD, are my most beloved novelists. I keep on rereading Homunculus by James P. Blaylock, and Infernal Devices by K. W. Jeter. But my number one is The Anubis Gates, an absolutely astonishing and breathtaking SF/F/H novel by Tim Powers. If you didn’t read it, you’ve lost something in your life. It’s that good.
    Thank you for this amazing interview.

  • Hallelujah! I needed this-you’re my saivor.

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