Beneath Ceaseless Skies Author Interview: Bill Powell

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Andrea Pawley interviews Bill Powell for Weightless Books. Powell’s play “The Punctuality Machine, Or, A Steampunk Libretto” appears in Beneath Ceaseless Skies Issue 173.

beneath-ceaseless-skies-issue-173-cover-200x266Q: How did “The Punctuality Machine, Or, A Steampunk Libretto” come together? Especially as a supposedly authentic Victorian script for a stage comedy?

Powell: This is one of those extremely improbable projects where you break down and just write about the weird stuff you know you’ll love yourself, even though there’s no way it’ll actually get published. For this story, those loves include:

  • Time travel disasters, including fighting with your double(s). As a kid, Back to the Future completely messed me up.
  • Crazy comedies like I’ve been writing since high school (a format editors request rather infrequently).
  • The extravagant, amazing language and satire of Gilbert and Sullivan, especially Pirates of Penzance.

As far as I know, Gilbert and Sullivan never happened to write about time machines and alien invasions — a most regrettable omission. But I had tons of fun trying to tackle these ideas as if I were one of their (much less skillful) contemporaries.

Q: What’s the first play you remember wanting to write?

Powell: Alas, I hesitate to inflict any of my juvenilia on the unsuspecting reader, even in summary form. :) But my first big audience for one of my comedy skits was a gym packed for my high school talent show.

This must have been Election Year 1996, because the title of my skit was “Waiting for Perot,” which perhaps suggests the obscure quality of much of the humor. As I mounted the stage, I had no idea whether this heartless horde in the shadows would get most of the jokes. Comedy is wonderfully and brutally testable – people either laugh, or they most emphatically do not. You face ecstasy or evisceration. In public.

The first few jokes got modest laughs, but then came a weird, complicated joke . . . and silence.

A seething silence – I could feel hundreds of people all straining their mental muscles in concert. The question hung high above us all, like the long, long arc of a desperate three-point shot. Would they get it? Would they?

Then came the explosion. Whoosh!

They got it. And they got me – I’ve never recovered from the high of making an audience laugh as one. It’s an altered state for us all.

Q: I understand in college you turned in philosophy essays in the form of plays when your classmates were taking more traditional approaches. Are you the first person in history to do this and get away with it?

Powell: Ha! Definitely not. The honor of “first play-writing philosophy student” goes to that chap Plato. The Socratic dialogues really are dialogues, sometimes with a whole dinner table of argumentative characters.

Personally, I stumbled early on into this rich tradition of disputation masquerading as drama, from the zany, high-spirited philosophical “novels” of G. K. Chesterton that I devoured in high school all the way back not only to Plato, at least, but also the delectable satire of his contemporary Aristophanes.

In fact, I think my first college success at handing in a play instead of a paper was in a class where we’d read an Aristophanes comedy. I simply asked if I could write a modern retelling.

This was for my “Great Books” seminar, a wonderful experience across all four years where everyone could actually talk about Plato, Homer, and all those names we’d always heard but never read. I suppose the course was already so offbeat that the teacher was comfortable letting me try something cool.

Best of all, my class did a reading.

After that, I hustled to write comedies instead of papers whenever I could. Professors, it turned out, were also human beings, at least part-time, and almost all appeared to be even more bored reading normal papers than I was writing them…up to and including my philosophy thesis advisor.

Besides, comedy isn’t just a blast – it’s a most sensible way to discuss philosophy. People loved seeing these crazy philosophical positions come to life as even crazier characters. It’s one thing to read Descartes nattering on for chapters about how he might not exist; it’s quite another to watch Bob the Cartesian really try to get through his day.

Q: If you could debate any living or dead comedian, philosopher, or playwright who would it be?  

Powell: Wow! Are you kidding? All of them! I’d put everyone in a huge school cafeteria and lock the doors until they’d figured everything out.

Things might get dicey once the grape juice started to ferment.

Q: You’re a graduate of the the Odyssey Writing Workshop. How has your experience at Odyssey influenced your writing?

Powell: Every possible good way! I can’t even list them all.

Odyssey is like you’ve spent your whole life trying to build custom dollhouses, and you think you’re pretty good at it, maybe, and then Jeanne Cavelos walks in and:

1) Turns your workshop light on (whoa!),

2) Explains how to use hundreds of specialized carpentry tools, as opposed to your current toolset of a rubber mallet and a crowbar,

3) Gently deconstructs your current attempts in microscopic, systematic, eviscerating and yet loving detail, illuminating every minute opportunity for improvement,

4) Teaches you how to analyze and learn from other people’s dollhouses at this same incredible level, and

5) Introduces you to a network of master carpenters, all of whom are delighted to meet you (even years later) simply because Jeanne chose you as a student.

Apply to Odyssey. Everything will change.

Bill PowellQ: Do you have any upcoming projects you’re working on now that you can share?    

Powell: Sure! I’m writing a comedy novel about a hapless college student who gets trapped in a small, rural Virginia town where everyone is delightfully crazy. This town bears no resemblance whatsoever to the small, rural Virginia town where I happen to live.

Bill Powell lives in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia, where he eats and breathes regularly. He writes fantasy, science fiction, metaphysically problematic author bios, and character-driven stories about driverless cars. His website is, and you know what’s awesome? Mutual funds. Seriously! You can retire with a million bucks! How is that not science fiction?

Beneath Ceaseless Skies, a three-time Hugo Award finalist and World Fantasy Award-winning online magazine publishing the best in literary adventure fantasy, is available for DRM-free purchase from Weightless Books.

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