An Interview with Kevin J. Anderson

Portrait courtesy of the author

Kevin J. Anderson is the author of hundreds of stories of words set in a multitude of worlds. His latest books include: Clockwork Destiny, the conclusion to the Clockwork Angels trilogy he co-authored with Neil Peart; Gods and Dragons, the final volume in his Wake the Dragon series; The Lady of Caladan, co-authored with Brian Herbert the second volume in a trilogy that leads up to Frank Herbert’s first Dune novel; and Sands of Dune, a collection of novellas also co-authored with Brian Herbert.

Interzone Digital spoke to Kevin about his writing, his relationship with the legendary Neil Peart, and much more.

Here on IZ Digital you can also read an interview with Sean O’Connell, the cover artist of numerous recent Dune releases, and an interview with Brian Herbert himself.

Without further ado, our interview with Kevin…

IZ Digital: You wrote Ruins and Ground Zero, right when The X-Files was huge. You also wrote the Jedi Search trilogy during the pre-The Phantom Menace boom in Star Wars novels. Those books are when I first discovered your work. Prior to Mulder and Scully, and the Skywalkers, you published dozens of short stories, the Afterimage duology with Kristine Kathryn Rusch, solo novels, and collaborations with Doug Beason. Prolific is an understatement. In the eighties and nineties, which writers did you find most inspiring?

Kevin J. Anderson: Wow, trying to get my mindset back to those days. I should say from the start that I grew up in science fiction, rushing home from school to watch Star Trek reruns. I saw Star Wars opening week in the theater with some high school buddies. Those movies and shows, as well as Dune, The Lord of the Rings, Ray Bradbury, Andre Norton, Arthur C. Clarke were formative for me in my life, as well as an author. So when I was offered the opportunity to write in those universes, to contribute to some of my great fandoms, it was like a dream come true (and many of those books are still in print almost three decades later).

When my work started to be published, I became a colleague instead of a fan, and I got to know many writers, and (as a friend) I read all their work. My first novel, Resurrection, Inc., was inspired by an album by the rock group Rush… and that connection resulted in a 30+ year friendship with Neil Peart, the lyricist and drummer for the band. (More on that later.) I read Greg Bear, Gregory Benford, Dave Wolverton (one of my closest friends in the field, who passed away this last January). And of course I was so busy writing, who had time for a lot of reading?

IZD: If you could offer one piece of advice to writers starting out, what would it be?

KJA: Be persistent and keep getting better. Compare yourself to a professional athlete – you don’t just walk on a field and play in a championship. Writing is never-ending practice, exercise, improvement, and trying to be your best.

IZD: Your Wake the Dragon fantasy trilogy concluded last year with Gods and Dragons. Is that a story you’d been cooking up in your mind for a long time?

KJA: For at least a decade. I really like BIG stories with huge multi-character arcs and storylines that need several books to complete. I wrote my BIG seven-volume Saga of Seven Suns science ficton epic, and followed that with my BIG sailing-ships-and-sea-monsters Terra Incognita epic fantasy trilogy, then a BIG follow-up trilogy to my Seven Suns books, and now Wake the Dragon. And throughout, Brian Herbert and I have continued writing our immense Dune trilogies. (And yes, I do still write an occasional short story, if I can constrain myself.)

IZD: There must be a vast amount of worldbuilding involved in writing book series like Wake the Dragon or Saga of the Seven Suns. How do you keep everything in order?

KJA: Yes, but that’s the fun part. Developing the world, the culture, the history, the arts and sciences, the geography, the climate…all of those are springboards for characters and plot points. It’s like making a banquet for a large group of people. I have taught many workshops and spoken on panels about the process, even wrote it all up into a book Worldbuilding: From Small Towns to Entire Universes. I have disorganized notes (because I hate taking notes) but mostly it’s all in my head. The hard part, though, is when I go away from a universe for a few years and then come back to it (as when I did a sequel to the Seven Suns series). Then I have to do a lot of cramming and refreshing my memory.

IZD: Which characters from the Wake the Dragon trilogy might you revisit in the future? What stories live in your mind, or notes, but not yet on the page?

KJA: One should never say never, but I feel that the trilogy, and the story, is FINISHED. I plotted the entire three books, beginning to end, and brought everything to a very satisfying closure. Brian Herbert and I did the same with our Hellhole trilogy. The story is wrapped up. That doesn’t mean someday there isn’t some new adventure or character exploration to look into, but right now I’m very busy chasing numerous new projects, as well as film/TV work and a great many comics projects.

IZD: When you look back at your own worlds, and also the stories you’ve told in shared worlds, do you see any common threads in terms of themes or characters? Are there any types of stories, regardless of genre, that particularly appeal to you?

KJA: It’s always dangerous to analyze your own work! Yes, I am a university professor with an MFA, but I teach publishing, not writing. I love redemption stories, finding the nugget of worth in a broken character; I love coming-of-age stories. But my themes and interests change as I myself change. For instance, the story in Clockwork Destiny (ECW, 2022), my just-published final novel with Neil Peart, is partly about a grandfather rediscovering his sense of wonder in the world through an adventure with his grandson. I just turned 60. I have three grandsons. There is a different connection to me now, and I could never have written this novel, say, twenty years ago.

IZD: Clockwork Destiny (ECW, 2022), the final volume of the Clockwork Angels trilogy, is a steampunk adventure trilogy based on the story and lyrics by your close friend, the late, great Neil Peart. You must be immensely proud and happy to know that this story is out in the world.

KJA: Yes, this was a tremendously heavy lift for me, and is probably the hardest, most personal novel I’ve ever written. Neil and I both loved Clockwork Angels (2012) and Clockwork Lives (2016), and we started developing this grand finale before he was diagnosed with terminal brain cancer. He passed away in January 2020, and I had to set this all aside for more than a year before I could look at it again…but when I wrote it at last, the story poured out of me. I wrote an Afterword about the whole project. I even narrated the audiobook myself. It’s just come out, and the readers, and especially Rush fans, have universally embraced it. That makes me feel good.

IZD: What are some of your best memories of working with Neil Peart on this project?

KJA: My favorite memory is after Neil asked me to write the first novel, Clockwork Angels, which is based on the lyrics he was writing for their last studio album. We needed time to brainstorm together, so when he came to Colorado on tour (where I live) I took him on a climb up a 4200-metre mountain. Along the strenuous hike, we plotted the whole novel and did a lot of the worldbuilding. It wasn’t a typical office setting…

IZD: The blurb for Clockwork Angels contains this excellent hook: ‘Imagine if someone had written the novel of The Wall, Tommy, or Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band when those classic albums were released.’ Aside from those, what other albums do you listen to and think have the potential to become novels? What other works of art, whatever the medium, would you like to adapt, or expand, if you had the chance?

KJA: I have always thought the different art forms are intertwined. Neil Peart and I discussed for many years how we could do a novel and an album together. Some writers are inspired by paintings, or symphonies. Prior to my work on Clockwork Angels, I wrote the lyrics for and co-produced two rock albums tied to my Terra Incognita fantasy trilogy, with performances from some of my rock idols – Steve Walsh and David Ragsdale from Kansas, John Payne from Asia, James Labrie from Dream Theater, Michael Sadler from Saga. I was just playing those CDs again only a few days ago. I enjoy listening to all of those bands, as well as Within Temptation, Styx, Audioslave, Rush of course, and others.

IZD: Sands of Dune collects four Dune novellas written by you and Brian Herbert. Then in November this year, the final volume in the Caladan Trilogy will arrive. What is it like collaborating on stories set in such an influential world?

KJA: Dune has always been my favorite science fiction novel. It changed my life when I first read it at age 11, and each time I read it, I draw more and more from it. (I’ve read it more than 20 times now…and Brian and I just finished adapting the original novel into a 3-volume faithful scene-by-scene graphic novel.) Brian and I have worked together in the Dune universe for nearly 25 years now, and we keep finding new areas to explore…not surprising, since Frank Herbert mapped out more than fifteen thousand years of history. When our first collaboration House Atreides came out in 1999, it sparked a very large resurgence in Dune fandom, and Frank’s original novels found a whole new audience. The same thing happened last year with the release of the new Denis Villeneuve film of Dune.

Brian and I went back to that universe after about a 5-year hiatus to write the ‘Caladan’ trilogy which all takes place in the year before the events in Dune, with all the political machinations in ousting House Harkonnen from Arrakis and replacing them with relatively unimportant House Atreides. But (despite my answer above about liking to write BIG stories), sometimes Brian and I had ideas to explore a certain scene or a certain character, and those resulted in much shorter works. Sands of Dune collects four of those – to keep readers happy, until Heir of Caladan comes out later this year.

IZD: What can Kevin J. Anderson fans look forward to next? What hints can you give about future projects in the pipeline?

KJA: Unfortunately, because contracts and negotiations generally take longer than it takes me to write a whole novel, I have a couple of big new books in the works, but I can’t announce them yet. We did recently announce that Brian and I will be doing 12-issue comic adaptations of House Harkonnen and House Corrino…so that’s two years of work. And I have several other film/TV projects in the works (even besides the Dune work)…and I’m teaching our largest cohort of graduate students ever for my Masters degree in publishing.

KJA: Right now, as I type these answers, I am high in the mountains of Colorado at a camp site. I did a 6-mile hike to a lake and waterfall this afternoon; I have a 14-mile hike set for tomorrow up to a high mountain pass. So, yes, I do take time to enjoy myself, too.

IZD: Finally, which books or writers have you enjoyed recently? Is there anything you would like to signal boost or recommend?

KJA: Right now I’m alternating between reading two different thriller series – the Joe Ledger series by Jonathan Maberry, and the Harry Bosch series by Michael Connelly. I enjoy them very much (listening to one audiobook after another), and they will keep me busy for some time to come.

IZ Digital is Interzone’s online sister zine. Become a member of the IZD Ko-fi for a euro a month to get EPUB editions of stories. Or just buy IZ a digital coffee/tea/raktajino – it is hugely appreciated and helps a lot.

You can also start a 6-issue EPUB subscription to Interzone and get even more amazing writing delivered electronically, bimonthly.

Reader memberships and subscriptions are the lifeblood of zines like IZ Digital and Interzone – thanks for reading, and supporting!