Interview with Kevin J Anderson
At Sasquan, I had a long conversation with Kevin J. Anderson. We talked about a lot of things, from Star Wars to his new book which comes out tomorrow, Clockwork Lives.
Gama Ray Martinez: I am here with Kevin J Anderson, Hugo nominated author of over one hundred twenty five titles, editor, publisher, writing instructor. I’m sure I’m missing something there. You are prolific and very well-known author. Can you tell me something about yourself that our listeners may not know about?
Kevin J Anderson: Well I grew up in a very small town in Wisconsin which I like to compare the environment to halfway between Norman Rockwell and Norman Bates. I was this oddball kid, and I liked to climb trees and tell ghost stories out in the woods. I had a stash of comic books, and I built Aurora Monster Models, the plastic monster models of the Phantom of the Opera and the Mummy and everything. My dad, who is sort of a normal all American guy, was kind of frustrated because I wanted to read comic books instead of playing baseball catch or I wanted to buy monster models instead of buying racing cars. We had this really big fight when I was eleven years old because he gave me money to go to the hobby shop, and he wanted me to buy like model cars. I wanted to buy a King Kong model and so I spent the money on King Kong, and he grounded me for a week because I was supposed to be a normal kid instead. I’m glad I wasn’t a normal kid.
G: As we all are. By word count, your biggest original work to date is, I believe the Saga of the Seven Suns which is a seven book series. Last year you came back to that with Dark Between the Stars which is up for a Hugo this year. Can you tell us a little about that whole universe?
K: Well, I grew up in science fiction and the Saga of the Seven Suns, that whole universe is like my love letter to science fiction. It’s got alien empires and ruined planets and monsters and space battles and intrigue and politics and killer robots and everything I loved from grand science fiction and space operas. Star Wars and Dune and Star Trek and Isaac Asimov and Robert Heinlein. I did seven volumes, and I planned it as seven volumes as sort of a war and peace in space: the whole thing with sort of a million different characters and plotlines. I finished that up, but while I was writing it, all along, I was planning for a sequel that would take place twenty years later with a new galactic threat that would come in that was coming in. You can’t destroy the universe twice in one series. I had to come back later. I just love the color, the characters, the politics, the alien races. It’s got everything I enjoy about science fiction. It’s my longest thing, but also my most popular original work to date.
G: Thanks for that. Now, you’re writing process is a little different form most in that you basically just retreat into the mountains and dictate large portions of your books. Can you talk a little about that?
K: Well, I’ve always liked to hike. I live in Colorado so I go in the mountains and in the national forests and I go hiking. I don’t have to choose between hiking or writing because I’ll take my recorder along with me, and I’ve plotted everything. I’m a very careful plotter so I have my one hundred thirty chapters, and I know what’s going to happen in detail. It’s like drawing a blueprint before you build a house, so I have my blueprint and I will go out with my notes for three or four chapters and I will hike. I’ve gone up to 26 miles a day off in the mountains, and I’ll be hiking, and I just dictate. As a writer, you think up the sentences, and then you move your fingers to type the on a keyboard. Well, I think up the sentences, and they just come out my mouth. My mom used to say that I would just say things before thinking about them. This way, I’m at least thinking about them before speaking them. Then, I have somebody else transcribe it, and I do the actual work at the keyboard editing and polishing. I do all different stages of it, but I find it more inspirational to be out in nature and walking around. It’s also far from distractions because if I’m sitting in the house, the phone always rings or the doorbell rings or the cat wants attention. There’s always something. If I’m ten miles away from the trailhead, and I’m out of cell phone range, nobody gets hold of me.
G: Thanks. You’ve written for several universes that were created by other people including X-Files, Star Wars, you had a couple of DC Comics novels. How was different from writing in your own universe?
K: Well, you have to get things approved, so there’s a lot more red tape and paperwork. I mean, I can’t just say “I’m going to write a Batman novel” and then write it and publish it. I have to go through legal permissions and everything so there’s that entire aspect. Working for, let’s say Star Wars, there are approvals people, and they have to make sure your book doesn’t contradict somebody else’s book that I haven’t read yet because it isn’t published yet, but as a fan of these, I’m not writing in any of these that I’m not fan of. I’m already a batman fan. I’m already a Star Wars fan. I’m already an X-Files fan. It’s kind of like exploring my inner fan boy, being able to write new Star Wars stories or new X-Files stories. I don’t see it’s any different. It’s a creative part of the process. I know the universe of Star Trek so I can write a story the same way that I might do research on Dallas and write story set in Dallas. As a writer, you’re supposed to be able to immerse yourself in an imaginary world. It just happens to be my other imaginary worlds are Dune and Star Trek or something.
G: With the return of X-Files and a new Star Wars movie coming out, is there anything in the works to write in either of those universes?
K: Not at the moment. I would love to. I really enjoyed my X-Files work and I did fifty-four projects for Lucas films. I had a blast with that, although it’s been quite a while so it’s going to be hard to jump back into it. I would be certainly be interested if they were interested, but if not, I get to go see the movie and I get to watch the X-Files TV show as just a fan, and there’s something cool with that too.
G: Yes there is. You mentioned Dune, which is, I’m assuming our listeners will know that you and Frank Herbert’s son Brian have taken over that universe and have written…I don’t even know how many novels in that universe.
K: I’m not positive. I think it’s fourteen. I could count if I had to, but off the top of my head, I think it’s fourteen.
G: Is that substantial different from writing in your own universe like Saga of the Seven Suns or something?
K: Well, it is different because if it’s Saga of the Seven Suns, I made it all up. I can write my own notes down. I know what the planets are, and I make up my own rules. For the Dune books, Frank Herbert made up all the rules, but he wrote like a five thousand year history. His six Dune novels take place over something like five thousand years, and so studying all of that stuff plus studying his notes and learning where he was going with it and understanding his characters in the way he understood or at least make the attempt if I can, it is a different sort of process because you are borrowing somebody else’s creation and not only do you want to be accurate, but you have to true to the spirit of that. You can’t write a Dune novel that has novel to do with the other Dune novels. You want the people who read all the Dune novels to feel like they’re getting what they ask for, and that’s one of the biggest challenges for me and Brian.
G: OK, and Hunters and Sandworms of Dune, those were based off of an outline.
K: Frank Herbert, his last book was called Chapterhouse: Dune, his last book in the Dune series, and that sort of ends of on a cliff hanger and then he passed away of pancreatic cancer, and we found the full outline of what he called “Dune Seven” which was this big epic grand finally that wraps everything up, but Frank Herbert, in some of his later books, he skipped over a whole lot of the action. He sort of referenced things in a sentence or two that we would’ve dramatized to many chapters because there’s a lot of stuff going on. Rather than “Oh by the way, the planet Dune was destroyed.” Well, no we want to actually show that, so Franks outline that he wanted to do in one book for Dune seven, Brian, and I fleshed it out and dramatized a lot of the events, because an outline is just an outline. It’s just a breakdown of what the story is, and we wrote that into the two volume grand finale which is Hunters of Dune and Sandworms of Dune.
G: So Dune itself is a massive universe. You mentioned that the books Frank did span five thousand years, and then you guys went back and did the Legends Trilogy which was something like ten thousand years before so the whole things spans fifteen thousand years. Right now you are working on Navigators which will complete a trilogy about the founding of the great schools. What’s next for Dune?
K: Just the day we’re doing this interview, I sent off Navigators of Dune to Brian Herbert. That was draft five. We might go through eight or nine drafts, just back and forth, back and forth just polishing it up. This one is finally getting to the point where it’s pretty close. It’s getting fine-tuned. Right now, that wraps up the trilogy, and it’s way back. We are exploring a lot of possibilities for more maybe film work or TV work, and that’s a huge challenge that Brian’s been spending a great deal of time and effort on, and I don’t have any big news to tell you. It’s just a very long term thing. With the end of this trilogy, I think we’re going to catch our breath for a little bit because Brian is working on some solo novels. I’m finishing up this Seven Suns trilogy, and I find that I have less time now to write than I used to because of running my publishing company and I’m also running this writing seminar and everything, but it’s just everything that I want to do. I just wish I was cloned or something so I could do more of it.
G: Switching gears a little, your first novel, Resurrection Inc. was inspired by the Rush album Grace Under Pressure. Since then, you’ve actively cultivated a relationship with that band. Recently, you published Clockwork Angels, and you have the upcoming Clockwork Lives where you actually worked with the drummer Neil Peart. Can you talk a little bit about how that came about?
K: My first novel, Resurrection Inc., it was a big science fiction murder mystery thing, and as I was writing it, Rush came out with a new album called Grace Under Pressure, and it seemed like every song in that album was relevant to my novel. There are scenes from my novel that were songs because Rush songs tell stories usually, and I incorporated that on purpose, and when the book was published, I mentioned in the acknowledgments that it was all inspired by this album. I mailed off copies of the book to the band and I got a letter back from Neil Peart who’s the drummer but also the guy who wrote all the lyrics that inspired the book. He really enjoyed the novel. That was I think twenty-seven years ago we struck up a correspondence and have a long standing friendship. Recently, though and this was several years ago, Rush was developing their own concept album. It was a steampunk fantasy adventure called Clockwork Angels. Neil was talking with me as they were writing the songs and coming up with the story, and I would brainstorm the story with him, just because I’m a Rush fan, I thought it was very cool. That developed into something complicated enough that he asked me if I would write the novel itself. I wrote it with him, and it was a wonderful experience. I just love that book. It’s one my favorite books I’ve done. There was so much in there that we’ve spun off into a second book. It’s not really a sequel. Clockwork Lives is a companion book. It’s like a steampunk Canterbury Tales of a lot of the characters you met in Clockwork Angels, but you don’t have to read that one to read this one. We just love playing in that universe, and I hope people will read Clockwork Lives.
G: Clockwork Angels hit the bestseller list on Neil Peart’s birthday. Is that right?
K: Well, when it came out right before Neil’s 60th birthday, and it hit the New York Times Bestseller list on his 60th birthday, so I was able to text him to say he was a bestselling author for a birthday present.
G: I’ll bet that was nice. You mentioned your publishing company. You founded WordFire Press a few years ago. What prompted that decision?
K: The whole publishing world itself is changing very dramatically. When I got into the business, you knew that there were a dozen or so big publishers, and that was where you would send your books. They would publish it and they would promote it and you the author would do some promotions, but your job was mainly to write the next book and that has completely shifted around because right now, the writer’s job is to the write the book but also to do nonstop promotion, to build up a social media presence, to do blogs and do appearances and interviews and podcasts and all kind of things. The whole ebook revolution and print on demand which means you don’t have to have a printer print up ten thousand copies of your book and store them in your garage as you try sell them one at a time at a convention. You can just print exactly what you want. This is new technology that simply wasn’t available years ago, and it gives authors a whole different venue of being able to produce their own book and to get it out their fan base. Now I had an advantage in that I already a big fan base. I’ve got fifty bestsellers one hundred twenty books out so we ourselves at WordFire printed some of my own original books that had gone out of print years and years ago, so they were just gathering dust. We reissued them and found that we had a very large readership that was interested in them, and we did well enough with those that other authors started coming to us to get their books published. They were Frank Herbert and his estate, and Allen Drury, the great political novelist who wrote Advise and Consent, and Mike Resnik and Jody Lynne Nye, and just lots and lots of other authors kept coming to us, so we’ve now built into a fairly large publishing company with two hundred seventy titles out so far and fifty authors, so that’s a fulltime job, and we teach writing workshops and many other things so I’m not retiring anytime soon.
G: We’re glad to hear that. Wordfire follows a bit of a different model from most publishers. As I understand, you do most of your business at conventions. Is that right?
K: Not most of it. It’s a whole different venue. We go where the readers are. There are lots and lots of genre conventions, media conventions, comic book conventions. It used to be there were only a couple of really big ones a year. Every large city seems to have its own comic convention or media convention, and when you have fifty thousand people coming through the door who are all science fiction and fantasy fans, it seems to me that’s a good place to go if you’re trying to sell science fiction and fantasy books. We have a lot of our authors. We treat them as celebrities the way these conventions will have the guest star of a Star Trek episode as they’re signing autographs. Well we have authors there. Sometimes we have really big name authors, but we also have very motivated newer authors that want the exposure, so we give them a spotlight. It’s a direct connection between us, the publisher, and the readers, whereas in the traditional thing, the author would deal with the editor who would deal with the publisher who would deal with sales rep who would deal with bookstore who would then deal with the customer so we’re cutting like seven middle men by just having face to face with the author and the person who’s buying the book.
G: Can you talk a little bit about what you do with Writers of the Future?
K: Writers of the Future is a contest that’s in its, I think, 32nd year now. I’ve been a judge since about 1996, I think. It’s open only to new writers so I can’t enter it but newer writers, it’s a great possibility for them to get their stuff paid attention to. It’s a quarterly contest at writersofthefuture.com so you can find it very easily, and I’ve been a judge for that, and my wife Rebecca Moesta is also one of the judges, and we read the stories a couple of times a year. There are rotating judges. Then, once a year, all of the winners get to come to this workshop in Hollywood for a week with a whole bunch of bestselling writers and award winning writers will teach the workshop, and we’re there and it’s just this really great in depth workshop that covers a lot of the stuff that I wish somebody had taught me when I was starting out.
G: In addition to everything else you do, you mentioned a seminar. Several years ago, you along with a number of other authors put together the Superstar Writing Seminar which in February will have its seventh iteration. I’ve gone to, I believe, five of them. So can you talk a little bit about that workshop and how that came about?
K: A bunch of bestselling authors, we were all friends. Me and Brandon Sanderson and David Farland, and Eric Flint, Tracy Hickman’s been there a couple of times and Sherrilyn Kenyon. When you’re at a fairly high level, you have to exchange information with each other because you can’t go and buy a ‘behavior for bestselling authors guidebook’ from Writer’s Digest. We were sharing information and I was learning so much from these other writers and we realized we should maybe share some of this information. It’s not craft and skill stuff. It’s not how to write a better character. It’s how to understand your royalty statement and book distribution and contracts and intellectual property and copywriting. All that stuff. Instead of doing a writing craft workshop, we came up with this seminar where we’re dispensing out own professional career building information. The first year was in Pasadena and it went pretty well. Well kept going. I think something like 280 people have been through the Superstars Seminar. I don’t think there’s anything like it. It’s just a business-centered, career-oriented seminar for three days and we’ve really developed not just a tight knit team of instructions, but the attendees are probably one of the strongest support groups of new writers that I’ve ever seen in my career.
G: Yeah definitely. What are you working on right now?
K: I just sent Navigators of Dune to Brian Herbert so he’s doing his polish on it now. I’m just starting my edit on Eternity’s Mind, which is the last book in the trilogy for the Saga of Shadows. Clockwork Lives is about to come out, so we’re starting to promote a lot of that. I may be doing some comics works and some more Dan Shamble, Zombie PI stories and running the publishing house and seminars and I don’t even know what I’m doing. You’re hearing me cough here because we’re in Spokane, and there are forest fires all over the place and I can barely breathe the air. I keep busy. I work on my laptop. I work on my recorder. I go hiking when I can. Yes, I’m very busy but I wouldn’t have it any other way because I’m just really enjoying what I’m doing.
G: All right. Thanks. Well, that was all I had for you so thank you for doing this interview. We really appreciate it.
K: Thank you Gama, I hope you enjoyed it.
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