The OF Blog: January 2004

Friday, January 23, 2004

M.R. Powers Interview

The Author: Michael R. Powers is professor of risk and insurance at Temple University’s Fox School of Business in Philadelphia. He received his bachelor’s degree in applied mathematics from Yale University, and his Ph.D. in statistics from Harvard. A former public official with the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, he has consulted for both business and government, and has published numerous scholarly articles. He lives with his wife and two sons in Swarthmore, Pennsylvania. Icons is his first novel.

The Book: M. R. Powers’ debut novel, Icons, revolves around the discovery of an old Eastern Orthodox religious icon.

The story begins with a premonitory dream in which computer scientist George Chen is propelled—by the power of a mutable religious icon—to re-live several poignant experiences from childhood. One of these is his first encounter with Sofia, a mysterious young girl who was a cancer patient at the same time as George. Shortly thereafter, he comes into possession of an unusual icon of St. Raphael that had been left for him by Sofia.

Mary Chen, George's twelve-year-old daughter, is the first to discover the power of the icon, and she subsequently disappears. Fearing Mary to have been kidnapped, George soon learns her whereabouts from Professor MacKnight, a garrulous mathematician. The Professor explains that Mary has unwittingly fallen under the control of a brilliant tyrant who plans to use a science of consciousness, beliefs, and "expectation fields" to prepare an assault on our world.

In the course of the adventure, the reader explores themes of maturity, chance, free will, and metaphor, against a backdrop of discussions ranging from computer chess to religious experience. Imbedded in the novel are two subordinate stories—The Gurkha Story and the history of Sofia’s icons—that introduce and develop concepts important to the basic themes.

The Questions:

Writing Habits
    When/how/why did you decide to start writing?

    I always enjoyed writing short stories when I was in high school. However, apart from one freshman English class, I spent most of my time in college studying applied mathematics and the social sciences. To some extent, my current writing style developed through the practice of expositing mathematical models, which is what I do in my research articles. Consequently, I have a predilection for brevity: cutting to the quick in story development, and an almost total absence of physical character-description. This means that I have more time to focus on the remaining story elements: storyline, themes, tone, and the selection/juxtaposition of individual words.

    Approximately how much do you write per week/month?

    On the average, I spend at least thirty hours per week engaged in writing: correspondence, research papers, or fiction. For novel writing, I like to set aside long stretches of time with few distractions. Consequently, I do most of this work during major breaks in the academic calendar.

    Do you spend much time on editing/rewriting?

    Yes. Writing the initial draft is taxing because it’s best left to the subconscious mind, which requires suppressing/distracting the conscious mind for extended periods of time. I much prefer the stages of editing and rewriting, when the conscious mind can be fully in charge. While good language and good ideas flow from the subconscious in preparing the first draft, it’s through the subsequent revisions that I begin to understand more clearly what I’m trying to say. I find this period of discovery very gratifying.

    When you start a novel, do you know the ending already, or do you let it come naturally from the story as you write?

    I generally use extensive notes (to guide the subconscious) in writing the first draft. These include some idea of how things will come out in the end, but not the specific details. Composing the end of a story is the most challenging part, because ideally it should be both inevitable and unpredictable—a difficult combination that requires much reflection, rewriting, and finesse.

    Which authors have had the greatest influence on your writing?

    I’ve always been impressed by Samuel Beckett’s discipline of writing in French (a second language) to avoid introducing superfluities into his work. So I think my commitment to brevity is partly due to reading his plays (as well as the exercise of writing mathematical papers). In terms of themes, I’d say that C. S. Lewis and Stanislaw Lem have had the biggest influences. My favorite Lewis story is The Dark Tower (an unfinished work); its tone is magnificently disturbing.

    Are there any authors that you are particularly fond of at the moment? What are the last three books you have read?

    Overall, my favorite authors are Stanislaw Lem and Fyodor Dostoyevsky. I feel very fortunate not to have finished reading their complete bodies of work, because I still have much to look forward to.

    I was very pleased that Lem’s Solaris received some attention because of the recent motion picture; but I’m afraid I was disappointed in the movie. I thought the most interesting part of the book was the ongoing description of the planet’s bizarre behavior, which lay just beyond the grasp of human understanding. This aspect was largely ignored in the movie.

    The last three books I’ve read (in reverse chronological order) are: The Quiet American (Greene, second reading); His Master’s Voice (Lem); and The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress (Heinlein).

    Many of our readers are aspiring fantasy/sci-fi writers. Being a relatively “new” author yourself, could you explain how you got to be published for the first time? What steps were necessary?

    My entrance into writing was somewhat unusual, in that I never formally planned a career as a writer, and my educational background reflects that. Instead, the idea of writing a novel coalesced over a number of years, and was strongly influenced by personal circumstances.

    When I finally got started on Icons, I deliberately treated publication as a secondary concern. My thinking was that I wanted to write the kind of book that I would like to have read as a teenager—and would still like to read today—even if that meant that it wouldn’t fit neatly into any of the pigeonholes that publishers use to characterize fiction. I’m convinced that this attitude helped my writing, but it also made the publication process more difficult.

    Several of the publishers I contacted simply didn’t know what to make of Icons. One stated that he/she couldn’t quite decide whether the book was science-fiction, fantasy, or young adult fiction. Another wrote that he/she found the book intriguing, but “too cerebral” for young adult readers. Fortunately, several publishers took the time to read the entire manuscript, and I received some very supportive comments even from those that felt the novel didn’t quite fit their “lists”.

    Finally, I received an offer from Dry Bones Press, a small publisher near San Francisco with an interest in fantasy, science-fiction, spirituality, and patient experience. In short, it appears that a crucial component in establishing a relationship with a publisher is to find one with shared interests.

On Icons
    Where can Icons be found?

    Icons is available on-line (from,,, etc.). Also, readers of wotmania can support their favorite website by purchasing the book through the wotmania Bookstore .


    Is there a topic not covered in Icons? ;-)

    I interpret your question as an indirect inquiry into the book’s abundance of themes: dreams, religious icons, artificial intelligence, chance, serious illness, consciousness, the mind-body problem, free will, time travel, parallel universes, metaphor, good vs. evil, growing up, etc. As I mentioned earlier, when one spends less time on story and character development, one has much more time for the presentation, exploration, and interplay of a variety (a proliferation, really) of themes. To me, each theme is like a shard of beautifully colored glass that one finds mixed in with a lot of useless debris. The idea is to identify the theme, polish it, and then find a place to fit it into the story, just as one would fit a beautiful shard of glass together with others to form a stained-glass window.

    What were the most difficult aspects of writing Icons? The characterization, the concepts, the plot? Something else?

    Apart from constructing the ending (which I already mentioned), the most difficult aspect was composing the parts of the narrative that are necessary to carry the storyline from one point to another, but which are not very intellectually stimulating in and of themselves. One can recognize these portions of Icons because they are the only places (in that theme-ridden book) where no themes are introduced or highlighted. To continue the metaphor of my previous answer, these sections would correspond to the leaden material used to hold pieces of stained glass together.

    How much of yourself do you tend to put into your characters? Do they resemble you in any way?

    To some extent, every character reflects certain aspects of my life—viz., elements of my history and circumstances, or personality. Undoubtedly, those characters that are most obsessive (for better or for worse) are the ones that resemble me most.

    Where do you get your ideas? Are they based on particular experiences of yours, on true stories, or do you just use your imagination?

    My ideas derive from all of the above, but probably the biggest source is my dreams. That’s why Icons pays great homage to the power and importance of dreams.

    Could you give us an example of something from Icons that was inspired by a dream?

    One good example is the two Towers of Deebs. The original inspiration came from the image of two large, ancient cathedrals, built on the scale of a modern skyscraper, and standing out starkly as the only buildings in a vast, mildly hilly landscape. As I viewed the two impressive structures in my dream, I noticed that their only difference seemed to be that one was slightly narrower than the other. I was very puzzled by this, and the image remained fixed in my mind.

    Where did you get the ideas for The Gurkha Story and the history of Sofia’s religious icons?

    The story of Olena—Sofia’s ancestor—is based upon a story that my Ukrainian grandmother once told me about a young girl who lived alone, but was sometimes seen in the company of mysterious strangers. As the girl’s worried neighbors eventually discovered, the strangers were actually a group of saints that watched over her (in response to her prayers). It was a natural step to connect this story with the icons of the archangels and their supernatural powers.

    The Gurkha Story was more deliberately constructed to elaborate two specific ideas: (1) that an act whose evil consequences occur with probability less than 100 percent is still an evil act; and (2) that for free will to exist, one has to be able to avoid the apparent paradox that an individual’s selection of his/her moral philosophy must be based upon his/her moral philosophy.

    Do you plan on writing sequels to Icons? Do you have any other projects?

    Icons is planned as the first in a series of four novels. The second book—The Logopath—is already completed. It’s not really a sequel in the conventional sense—i.e., the story and characters are not ostensibly related to the first book. However, the separate threads of the two books will be joined together in the third book (a work-in-progress, tentatively titled I, John). The fourth book (Gnosis) will continue the story, weaving together most of the significant themes from the previous books.

Thank you to Dylanfanatic and Dodge for letting me blatantly rip off their interviews and reviews for ideas. Plus, thank you to Alric seVinta for help with formatting, promoting and posting.

Thank you to grogg0316 and Gwenhwyvar for helping me come up with original questions.

Alric: On behalf of wotmania, I'd like to extend our thanks to M.R. Powers for taking the time to answer questions and provide interesting insight into his process. Also, thank you to smaug who put this interview together.
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