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An Interview with Best-Selling Science Fiction Novelist Kevin J. Anderson

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Kevin J. Anderson has to be one of the busiest science fiction/fantasy writers in the business. His work has been translated into 30 languages, and has more than 20 million books in print.  Among those are original novels and novel series, collaborative works with his wife sci-fi author Rebecca Moesta, Brian Herbert (which expand on Frank Herbert’s classic Dune universe), and a string of movie and TV tie-in novels from The X-Files to Star Wars.

In addition to all of his writing endeavors, Anderson and Moesta also have an e-book publishing business with about 60 titles, they are actively promoting. It seems like the most hectic of lives to be living while trying to crank out a continuous string of novels!

His latest novel Hellhole Awakening, part two of a trilogy, is about to be released by Tor, and just before he goes on tour beginning March 26, Kevin took the time to sit down and chat about his latest projects— and his extremely active writers’ life.

Kevin, I must say, your life sounds completely exhausting!
I just drink a lot of coffee and work all the time! When I see in a movie a writer sitting off in his cabin staring into the distance, waiting for the muse to suggest a literary phrase to him, and when it doesn’t he goes out and walks in the woods to be inspired!  That is as big as a fantasy as the movie Independence Day. It’s not the way [professional] work. Any writer I know who is successful has a schedule kind of like mine. They’ve always got a million irons on the fire, there’s always something to promote and something to propose and something to write, something to rewrite, something to edit, something to research. I love the whole publishing business and book selling and I love to travelling and seeing my fans and I can’t think of any job I’d rather do.

How many hours a day do you write? You can’t possibly write 24/7, but it sounds like you get pretty close to that.
It’s probably a good ten maybe to twelve hours a day that I’m doing something to do with writing, whether that’s doing an interview, editing, or actual writing. That’s seven days a week. I’ve got all these stories that I’m working on. The sooner I finish this story, the sooner I can start this next story.

You’ve written both for worlds you’ve created, like Hellhole, but also in worlds created by others: the tie-in novels for Star Wars, The X-Files, even your Dune novels based on Frank Herbert’s legendary novels. Do you have a preference? Do you find it more freeing to be writing in your own world or you prefer to write in someone else’s world where you don’t have to think as much about creating a unique universe?
The answer is yes.

Care to elaborate?
See I’m a fan boy. I grew up being a fan of science fiction and watching all the movies and watching the TV shows. We would even run around in the backyard playing Star Trek! So that was part of my growing up and my introduction to science fiction. Dune was my favorite science fiction novel of all time, and Star Wars—I have no idea how many times I saw it in the movie theaters. So it’s really cool to write stories set in these universes that have already meant so much to me.

There are advantages in that. It’s like you’re climbing aboard a car that already has a big engine. There are already fans who are going to grab the book because it says Star Wars on [the cover]; the characters are already [established]. If I say “Han Solo and Chewbacca flew the Millennium Falcon to Tatooine,” I don’t have to describe anything; you know Han, you know Chewbacca, you know what the Millennium Falcon is, and you know Tatooine. But swap out of all those words for made-up characters from an original novel, and I certainly have to explain to you everything about.

I’ve got a real head start when I’m writing a book in the Dune universe, for example, but there are also constraints. I have to follow the rules of that universe. Dune is very complicated. It has a very intense political setup that’s got lots of rules, lots of detailed philosophical underpinning, and if you’re going to put on those shoes, you have to walk the walk, and you have to know what your doing. Of course the advantage is that you have fans willing to take it up because they already liked the universe. But the disadvantages is that you have fans that may be so knowledgeable about the universe, they know more about it than you do, and they very much want everything exactly perfect.

And of course you have to follow certain rules; I can’t just kill off Han Solo, for example, or do something that would cause ripple effects in that universe. I can do that writing in my own universe.

So I like doing both. No matter what book you are writing you’re still operating within certain constraints. If I set a book in modern day Seattle I’m stuck with the rules of modern day Seattle. There is certain weather; there is certain geography. People don’t have flying cars if I want to have a flying car. I can’t say I feel constraint writing this book in modern day Seattle because I want my people to have flying cars. As a writer you look at the landscape that you have to work with and if you have the proper creativity and imagination then you can tell your story.

When you’re creating a world like Hellhole or with your Zombie P.I., do you start with a firm idea of what that universe looks like  before you set out, or do you start with a character and plot, or is it more organic than that?
It’s more organic than that because I usually have an idea for the story line of something. Hellhole is an interesting… You’ve heard about how supposedly an asteroid hit the Earth and the impact was what caused all the dinosaurs to go extinct?  The lava, the weather patterns, the earthquakes, everything that happened after the impact wiped everything out. So I thought that would be a nasty place to colonize as a group of humans. What if we have a planet that’s been struck by an asteroid say a couple of hundred years ago.

It’s stabilized but still quite a mess and there are people trying to colonize it. Who would try to colonize a place like that? It certainly wouldn’t be anybody’s first choice to go and settle down. The people who would be attracted to a place like that would be the outlaws, the misfits, the religious fanatics, people on the run from something. I thought, that’s kind of an interesting group people, they’ve might have a cool story. I’m working with Brian Herbert. I should be saying ‘we’ for all of this. So Brian and I created this world and an interesting main character a well. At some point we had been reading about Napoleon about how he tried this big revolution, and how he failed. He was exiled to this horrible island.

I thought, how about a character who is this military revolutionary general, and who tried to overthrow the corrupt galactic empire. But he lost so they exiled him to Hellhole—of course, he’s more of our heroic guy. He was correct in his revolution that the government was corrupt. He should have won, but he lost.

He’s the one keeping these people alive on the planet Hellhole. He is helping them form a colony that can survive the rigors of the volcanic eruptions, and horrible electrical storms, and earthquakes. Of course, most of the life forms have been wiped out on the planet, but the ones that did not get wiped out are not going to be the cute fuzzy teddy bears; they’re going to be the most vicious, nastiest predators.

The only thing that is left is some pretty nasty insects and animals that are there. This is how we start talking through it, or when I’m writing myself, this is how I do it. You have one idea, which usually sparks something else, which usually sparks something else. It is something I call the collision idea. That you have one idea going along and then a completely different idea just slams into it and takes the story in a completely different direction.

For example, in Jurassic Park, you have cloned dinosaurs. The collision comes when you put them in an amusement park and then something goes wrong. So with Hellhole you’ve got this colonist on a very nasty planet trying to survive, and there is a corrupt galactic government. But then they discover the remnants of an alien civilization that was wiped out during the asteroid impact. Bringing that alien civilization changes everything. Hellhole used to be a place that nobody wants until they find oil, or uranium, or natural gas, or something else, and suddenly everybody wants it.

Now that these exiled people have discovered the remnants of a highly sophisticated alien race of this planet, everybody wants this hellhole of a planet, but the colonist don’t want to give it up. That changes the whole story, bringing us to [the about to be launched novel] Hellhole Awakening, which is about the colonists’ fight to defend their planet now that the evil, corrupt government wants it back. We have aliens and monsters and all the fun stuff.

You’ve taken me up in broad strokes through Hellhole and brought me to the brink of Awakening. So because of this discovery, Constellation, the evil, corrupt galactic entity, wants this planet back, and your hero General Adolphus isn’t about to let that happen?  So what drives him? You mentioned Napoleon. But Napoleon was a bad guy; Adolphus is more heroic than that, right?
General Adolphus is very driven by honor. He would have actually won his rebellion, but in order to win he would have had to do something dishonorable and he hesitated at the wrong moment. But his nemesis, the rival general on the other side of the conflict, chose a dishonorable path and he’s now treated as a hero.

Adolphus lost because he wouldn’t kill a bunch of innocent people. Now he’s been exiled and trying to keep his own people safe, but he’s still sort of quietly running the revolution. He still wants to overthrow the galactic government, but he wants to keep his people alive. He wants to keep this colony stable and not let anymore innocents suffer. And of course now he’s got all these aliens running around… We wont discuss the details of how the aliens come back and stuff …

Spoiler alert, right?
Yeah. We don’t want to do that. So, it’s just an interesting thing but also describing almost like the amalgamation process as you start asking one question, you develop this then it leads to something else. You start building these different characters and then you put them into the same situations. Then they start interacting with each other and then some other collision idea will come up. I’ve never been the sort of writer that is happy with just one character doing one thing for a couple of days. I’d like to do the grand effect miniseries kind of thing. There are lots of characters and lots of story lines. If I’m going to create a universe, I might as well explore it.

Now, this is a trilogy, so there is one more book after Awakening. Does it have a title yet?
It has two titles. We haven’t picked it yet. It’s either Hellhole Impact or Hellhole Inferno. It’s probably going to be Hellhole Inferno, but Brian and I are still emailing and discussing it. Right now, we’re wrapping up the polishes on the next Dune book. We’re alternating a Dune book and a Hellhole book every other summer.

Have you sketched out the entire Hellhole trilogy?
Oh yeah. Before we wrote page one, we had all three books outlined, at least the general broad strokes of the story. I think that’s important. I think you need to know where the trilogy is going to go because a trilogy is like a three-act play. It has a beginning, a middle, and an end. It’s not just a book that finishes and then you might come to sequels to it. That’s not what a trilogy is.

A trilogy has a full structure and a story to it. We know what’s going to happen; I don’t know all the details, but I have the general roadmap. We know how this character is going to meet his or her end and we know that this is a kind of a climactic scene that’s going to solve one of the big problems. Hellhole was published in 2011, now Hellhole Awakening is in 2013, and Hellhole number three will be in 2015. I don’t want to be writing things next year and go ‘Oh shoot!  I wish I would have just put two sentences back in book one.’ I try to avoid stuff like that.

So, you must work with a very extensive outline.
That’s even more important when you’re working with a collaborator because Brian is writing half of the chapters and I’m writing half of the chapters. We both better agree on what the blueprint looks like. Otherwise…your house isn’t going to look very good if you’ve got a contractor over there building the east wing and you’re over here building the west wing. Neither of you has the same plan. You’re not going to have much when you finish up. We brainstorm very carefully. We outline at great detail and communicate quite a bit as we’re writing so that I come up with the little detail with him now and vice versa.

Hellhole seems to me very cinematic to me; the images are very strong and vivid. Have any of your books been put to a screen treatment?
You just keep telling that to people! The producers are going to hear it. I’ve had things optioned, and there’s always a lot of Hollywood interest. I would love to see like the Dan Shamble thing turned into a TV series or movies just because they’re just so funny and so made for that kind of treatment.

Oh, wouldn’t that be fine?
I go to LA several times a year but I’m not the sort of person who lives in LA who is taking meetings two times a week just to write or pick something. I guess the stars just have to align. We need to find somebody in the right position who falls in love with the right one of my projects. I agree with you fully. Hellhole was a nice cinematic thing, and it should be done as a movie and so should the Dan Shamble books.

So, let’s move on to your zombie P.I. Dan Shamble…
I’ve always been a monster fan. I’ve always been doing these goofy monster things in the back of my mind, and having watched and read the Jim Butcher Harry Dresden stuff, and the Sookie Stockhouse, True Blood things. There’s a lot of humorous horror out there. I edited three anthologies for Pocketbooks called Blood Lite that are all humorous horror stories. I’ve done a lot of that, and I just thought that a hardboiled gumshoe private detective who is also a zombie— back from the dead, and back on the case, just had all kinds of neat intrinsic fun to it.

He’s got a bullet hole in his head; somebody came up behind him in an alley and shot him in the back of his head. But you can’t keep a good zombie detective down, so he rose up again. This is in a world where there are vampires, werewolves, ghosts, ghouls, and all that stuff. They all live in a part of the city that’s called The Unnatural Quarter. They came back from the dead when there was an alignment of planets, and a virgin’s blood was spilled on an original page of a copy of the original Necronomicon. It was just a paper cut but it was spilling blood and that changes the rules of magic, some of the monsters came back.

My character Dan was a normal private eye before his murder, and now he is now out to solve his own murder. He has got a ghost for a girlfriend who wants him to solve her murder as well, and here are all kinds of other cases. His partner in the office is a bleeding heart human lawyer who wants justice for all the monsters; they’re involved in all kinds of fun lawsuits. There’s a mummy who is suing the museum to be emancipated because he’s a person damn it, not property! There are two witches; they’re sisters, but one of them got turned into a big fat cow because a spell went horribly wrong due to a misprint in the spell book. They’re suing the publisher for not doing a spell check before publishing.

There is a company called the Jekyll Lifestyle Products and Necroceuticals that makes deodorant, toothpaste, soap, and everything for the monsters. In fact, there’s a lip-gloss for zombies that’s called Embalm. They are being sued because one of their batches of shampoo tailored to vampires got contaminated with garlic oil so all the vampires’ hair fell out.

The cases are all intertwined, and by the end of the first book, Dan manages to track down who actually killed him. Every day some monster comes through the door with a problem. The first book is called Death Warmed Over. The second book is called Unnatural Acts. The third book will be called The Hair Raising, and that comes out in May (2013). We also did a short story called “Stake Out at the Vampire Circus” that you could get as just e-book single. I can keep writing these year after year. I’ve got pages and pages of notes about how about this, and how about that, etc. It seems that as fast as I write them I get ten more ideas. I just hope to keep doing these and I really think that it could go well as a humorous TV series.

Yeah, airing right after True Blood!
Well, I’ve got to put more nudity and sex in mine, I think.

Does writing these almost serve as a respite from working on the heavier stuff?
It really does. The Dune books and the Hellhole books, they’re 700 to 800 pages and there are dozens and dozens of main characters. They are big, political, and traumatic—all kinds of stuff like that. Sometimes it’s nice to just really have fun. I just get to laugh out loud a lot. I am purely goofy and funny in person. I tell lots of jokes. Most of my writing is not tailored to be humorous but these ones certainly are. If you’re expecting serious book, this is not a Walking Dead kind of thing.

I get that. This sounds great.
Dan is a well-preserved zombie who takes great care with his physical appearance because he doesn’t want to turn into one of those disgusting rotting shamblers that just can’t be bothered to take care of themselves, and shame on them for not being able to curb their appetites for brains.

It’s like I get this flash of zombie noir in my head…
Yeah, that’s kind of what it is.

So, let’s shift to Clockwork Angels, which sounds really interesting. Tell me how you came to create a novel based on the album by [the legendary progressive rock band] Rush.
I’ve been inspired by progressive rock since like early high school years when I heard things like Rush’s “2112” and Kansas’ “Leftoverture” and “Point of Know Return,” as well as Pink Floyd’s “The Wall.”  They are all music-told stories, and I used that music to inspire me to write my own stories.

My very first novel called Resurrection, Inc. was entirely inspired by the Rush album Grace Under Pressure, and I put that in the acknowledgements of the book when it was published in 1988. I signed copies and mailed them off to the members of Rush. I just kind of forgot about it for a year. Then, one day I came home and opened up my mailbox and found that I had a seven-page letter and they’re from Neil Peart who had read the novel and really enjoyed it. So, this has been a long-time coming. He reads a lot of my stuff and of course, I’ve listened to all of their music.

Neil and I wrote a short story together called “Drumbeats” and then he wrote the introduction to one of my short-story collections. W’ve always wanted to do something a little bit more substantial, something that really brought my writing together with the lyrics and stories he told of his music. When Rush was developing their new album called “Clockwork Angels,” it was a big steam-punk fantasy adventure that had a young man going through this fantastical landscape, but there’s this villain called the “Anarchist” who wanted to destroy order in the world. And there is a big-brother type controlling figure called the “Watchmaker” who wanted to keep everything running perfectly in order and rigidly controlled. There were airships, and alchemy, and lost cities and wonderful stuff like that Neil was developing as parts of his songs and as part of the overall structure of the album.

He and I started talking about it as a more detailed story and I was looking at it as a novel writer about how does he get from point A to point B and what changes his attitude to go here and how does this wrap to come there. We decided that it would be a great project to do a novel version of the album.

The album already has a story in it, but the songs in the album are just little snapshots. It’s almost like the quick scenes in a movie trailer. You might get the overall impression of what the story is, but you don’t get all the nitty-gritty details. So, Neil and I went to Colorado and during one of their concerts out here, we spent a day climbing a 14,000-foot mountain—because what else do you do in your day off?

We were brainstorming the real details about the character and the specifics of his journey and how things would all tie together. Neil had already sent me the lyrics he was writing and he kept sending them to me as he finished them up. So, I started to work on that then we got the story and then I applied my story architect skill. Once we were ready, once the album was nearly finished, I got to listen to the rough cuts of all the songs. To me, that was really important to hear the actual songs rather than just reading the lyrics because it’s like a different delivery method.

I had it outlined and wrote the first draft to that book in less than a month. I was sending chapters everyday to Neil and he was reading them, making comments, and sending them back. He wrote some of the sections that were specific to him about techniques of drumming and things that I don’t know anything about. I just think it turned out wonderfully. Neil wrote his own little essay for it about how the project came together. All in all, not only is it just a beautiful fantasy, wonderful colorful book, it’s of course the fan-voice complete dream to be doing something like that.

The ultimate fanfiction…

I would tell other people in publishing, even my agent, that I was doing a novelization of the new Rush album and I would get blank stares. They didn’t understand how you could a novelization of a Rush album.

But it makes sense, some music—albums, whatever, lend themselves to it…

 [The Who’s]  Tommy, or somebody doing a novel of 2112, for example. I mean, that’s just so obvious…But I guess if all you listen to is classical music… But, of course, even some classical music tells a story.

You could easily could write an entire novel based on Beethoven’s Sixth Symphony—The Pastoral
I expect that now that Clockwork Angels was such a big success, and it was on the New York Times list for two weeks, there will be more. This is from a small Canadian publisher, and it was the first bestseller ever in the history of their publishing house. (Full disclosure: I learned during the course of our interview that Clockwork Angels is published by ECW Press, publisher of my own Chasing Zebras).

Hellhole Awakening is available from Tor March 26. For more information on Kevin’s books and the tour, visit his webpage or follow him on Twitter!

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About Barbara Barnett

Barbara Barnett is publisher and executive editor of Blogcritics, as well as a noted entertainment writer. Author of Chasing Zebras: The Unofficial Guide to House, M.D., her primary beat is primetime television. But Barbara writes on an everything from film to politics to technology to all things pop culture and spirituality. She is a contributor to the book called Spiritual Pregnancy (Llewellyn Worldwide, January 2014) and has a story in Riverdale Ave Press' new anthology of zombie romance, Still Hungry for your Love. She is hard at work on what she hopes will be her first published novel.