Professionalism and Pageantry
An Interview with Kevin J Anderson
by Nick Gevers
Kevin J Anderson, born in 1962, is one of contemporary American SF's most productive writers, the author of numerous original novels as well as collaborations and media novelisations. Of his independent works, the most notable are perhaps Resurrection, Inc. (1988), Climbing Olympus (1994), and Blindfold (1995); together with Doug Beason, he has published such books as Lifeline (1990), The Trinity Paradox (1991), Assemblers of Infinity (1993), Ill Wind (1995), Ignition (1996), Virtual Destruction (1996), Fallout (1997), and Lethal Exposure (1998). Solo and with his wife, Rebecca Moesta, he has written a large number of Star Wars ties; three X-Files novels carry his name; and he is presently in the midst of a major effort to complete and elaborate on Frank Herbert's Dune sequence in company with Brian Herbert -- House Atreides (1999) and House Harkonnen (2000) commenced the Prelude to Dune trilogy, which finishes in late 2001 with House Corrino.
But amidst all this larger-scale activity, Anderson has found time for quite a few short stories, many of which are collected in the latest volume from Golden Gryphon Press, Dogged Persistence, published in June 2001. Interviewing Kevin J Anderson by e-mail in May 2001, I discussed with him various aspects of his very substantial oeuvre.
NG: You're the quintessential professional writer -- prolific, able to work in various genres, at series, novel, or short story length, in collaboration or on your own. How early in life did you resolve to become an author, and what shaped your particular ethic of professional writing? How long did it take you to make the transition from first published story to fully paid professional output?
KJA: I was only five years old when I saw George Pal's film of War of the Worlds, which changed my life. (Of course, at the age of five, a lot of things can easily change your life.) It literally ignited my imagination, and the next day I was drawing pictures and recounting the tale to anyone who would listen. Afterward, I became a voracious science fiction and fantasy fan of both movies and books, and I knew I wanted to tell stories like that.
My parents were hard workers and instilled within me a work ethic as well as a practicality. I approached the writing business with an utter devotion -- I really wanted to become a writer -- but also common sense, knowing that it would be a long road with a very small chance of ever making a living with my writing. So I studied eclectic subjects, got a full-time job out of college (as a technical writer for a large research laboratory), and wrote my stories and novels in every moment of my spare time.
I collected an enormous number of rejection slips (over 800 at last count), enough to earn me a trophy, "The Writer with No Future," at an authors' conference. But I never gave up, and all along I was getting better, improving my craft and my abilities, and eventually I got good enough to qualify as a professional. Thus, Dogged Persistence is not only the title of one of my popular short stories in the new collection, but also sums up my approach to a writing career.
NG: Noting your versatility across genres -- something impressively exhibited in Dogged Persistence -- would it nonetheless be accurate to say that you have a special affinity for Hard SF? What has influenced you in this direction?
KJA: While Hard SF has been an important part of my reading and writing, I don't think I would place that work on any special pedestal for me. I have degrees in physics and astronomy and spent over ten years writing technical papers and presentations for a research laboratory, so I would have to say that scientific accuracy (or at least "likelihood") is important to me. However, I also minored in Russian History and I have a personal affinity for history and fantasy. I just worked for a year and a half on Nemo, a novel that tells the fictional life story of Jules Verne's Captain Nemo, and you can see from many of the stories in Dogged Persistence that I enjoy historical accuracy as much as scientific accuracy.
My favorite types of books are like Dune -- yes, they are set in a science fiction universe, but they also have the color and scope of epic fantasy. I am not as much enamored with the equations as I am with the "pageantry" -- I like to view my best novels as literary "widescreen CinemaScope" productions, such as my Dune prequels with Brian Herbert, or my forthcoming multi-volume science fiction epic, The Saga of Seven Suns.
NG: Your bibliography contains many examples of collaboration with other writers, notably Doug Beason, Brian Herbert, and your wife Rebecca Moesta. What, for you, are the especial advantages of such literary teamwork? And how, practically, do you divide and co-ordinate the labour?
KJA: Ideally, a collaboration brings together the best talents of two writers. If the resulting work doesn't have a dimension or depth beyond what I could do alone, then there's no point in co-authoring with someone. (A collaboration is at least as much work as a solo story or novel.)
Doug Beason has a military and deep scientific expertise that surpasses anything I know; my wife Rebecca Moesta always brainstorms and edits my writing, but when we "officially" write together, the resulting fiction has a broader character and emotional focus and a better understanding of young adult audiences (we have won awards for our YA fiction). Brian Herbert, of course, brings with him a legitimacy and a deep understanding of Frank Herbert's work, but also a religious and philosophical bent that the Dune books demand (which isn't ordinarily my cup of tea).
With all my collaborations, it is definitely a 100/100 effort -- neither of us does half the work. It is always a full effort. We brainstorm the stories we want to tell, write notes, then generate a detailed outline that gets broken down into chapters. Co-authors should know each other's strengths and weaknesses, and therefore we assign the individual chapters according to our best abilities. After we write our respective portions of the novel, then we swap computer disks, take complete freedom to rewrite the other person's drafts, and then swap the draft again. This process continues until we feel the book is in its best shape. The Dune prequels, for instance, generally go through about ten complete drafts and polishes before we are ready to consider them finished.
NG: Another sort of collaboration is working with literary tools others first devised, as in your media tie-in novels and your Dune prequels. How greatly does such skilled literary impersonation contrast with writing entirely originally, in your own distinct and distinctive manner?
KJA: This question has always perplexed me, but because it gets asked so often, I presume it is of great interest to readers (and interviewers!). Yes, when I am writing within an "existing literary universe" -- such as Star Wars or Dune -- there are certain rules I must follow, but I don't see how that inordinately squashes a writer's creativity. All fiction operates within a set of guidelines and accepted parameters, and it's any decent writer's job to place his fiction within them.
For instance, in my historically-based fantasy stories, I have to follow the rules of reality. In "Scientific Romance" I was 'constrained' by the events in H.G. Wells's life; in "Canals in the Sand," I had to follow the historical details of Percival Lowell's activities; in "Final Performance" I had to shape my story according to the events surrounding the burning of the Globe Theatre. That's just the way it is -- I don't see it as a particular handicap. If I'm setting a story in the English countryside, I can't very well have a towering, smoking volcano on the horizon, no matter how spectacular it might make the scene (unless I've explained the reason). I don't see those facts as crippling constraints. I look at the "shared universe" books in the same way.
All of this is a roundabout defense to say that I feel I can tell just as good a story in a Dune novel as in a so-called "original" novel. One begins to develop and imagine the story within an accepted framework; I take out my handy Star Wars rulebook and start writing as if it were my own story and characters. Granted, some of the licensors can be a bit more difficult than others, but for the most part I have had extraordinary freedom to tell the stories I wanted to tell.
I am currently editing the first volume in a "completely original" science fiction epic, The Saga of Seven Suns, while simultaneously polishing the first volume in a new Dune prequel trilogy with Brian Herbert, The Butlerian Jihad. I leave it to the readers of this interview to compare those two works and see if they can discern any noticeable difference in quality.
NG: You've written or co-written many Star Wars novels. How did you first become involved in this franchise, and how large did your part in it become?
KJA: I had published ten original novels -- most of which were "critically acclaimed" but had not become wildly successful. However, my editors had gotten to know me as a writer who always delivered on time, turned in a good manuscript, and was easy to work with. Completely without my knowledge, my Bantam editor had submitted samples of my books to Lucasfilm, suggesting that I might be a good choice as a person to write Star Wars novels. Lucasfilm liked my books, and I received a surprise offer to write three sequels to the films.
Now, I had always been a huge fan of both Star Wars and Star Trek, and many other SF films and television shows. Some snobbish writers look down their noses at such things, but I recognize that these gigantic media successes are what has brought science fiction out of the pulp magazine ghetto and into the mainstream. I loved the chance to write in this universe -- it was like borrowing the best toys to play with.
I have produced more Star Wars novels, comics, anthologies, art books, young-adult novels than any other writer. Obviously, I got along very well with Lucasfilm and they continued to offer me many new projects. In many cases, I created all the history and backgrounds for them. Some of my comic series, Tales of the Jedi, are set thousands of years before the films, and thus I have a great deal of freedom. In one of the comics, the artist and I came up with an interesting "innovation" of a double-ended lightsaber, and George Lucas liked it enough to feature it prominently in Episode 1.
All in all, my Star Wars projects were an immense amount of fun, very successful around the world, and brought my name to the attention of a huge number of readers who might not otherwise have read the fiction of Kevin J. Anderson.
NG: And there are your X-Files novels, one of which in fact incorporates "Dogged Persistence", the title story of your new collection, not originally written with Mulder and Scully in mind. The atmosphere of The X-Files is very different from that of Star Wars, one of grim contemporary paranoia instead of space-operatic mysticism; how readily did you adjust to the state of mind of "Spooky" Mulder and Co.? Of course, you exhibit a natural aptitude for dark fantasy in any case in several of your short stories...
KJA: Ironically, I received the X-Files assignment because Chris Carter (the creator of the show) had read some of my Star Wars novels and thought that I had managed to capture exactly the right "look and feel" of the universe. Now, I worked for the US government for many years in a research laboratory, I had a security clearance, I had visited all sorts of classified facilities, and so I felt I could get a good handle on much of the background necessary for the X-Files.
Also, though many readers think of me as primarily a science fiction writer, I have spent a lot of time writing horror and dark fantasy, especially in short fiction. My first novel, Resurrection, Inc., was nominated for the Bram Stoker Award (given by the Horror Writers Association), and I have done a lot of work with suspense and mysteries. In fact, I'm not entirely comfortable with being crammed into a particular category -- I have used some of my best suspense/thriller techniques in science fiction novels; I have used big science and "sense of wonder" in my mysteries.
Yes, I know it sounds like a shameless plug, but we very carefully selected the stories in the Dogged Persistence collection to represent the different types of writing I like to do, science fiction, dark fantasy, historical horror.
NG: A further big project, now coming to completion, is your trilogy of Dune novels, written with Frank Herbert's son Brian; a shorter Dune tale, "A Whisper of Caladan Seas", appears in Dogged Persistence. Frank Herbert was a quite idiosyncratic writer, and Dune is a complex philosophical masterpiece; how successful, would you now say, has your posthumous collaboration with him been? (A tough question, perhaps...)
KJA: Nearing completion? Bite your tongue! Brian and I have uncovered over 3000 pages of Frank Herbert's working notes as well as the complete outline for the climactic Dune novel he intended to write. The Prelude to Dune trilogy -- House Atreides, House Harkonnen, and House Corrino -- is finished, with the final volume to be published this fall, but Brian and I are currently at work on The Butlerian Jihad trilogy, which will go back even further in time to establish the primary conflicts and settings in all the Dune novels.
Judging from the critical acclaim, awards, and fan reaction, our Dune novels have been extremely successful. Frank Herbert is a tough act to follow, but Brian and I understand the weight of responsibility on our shoulders and we have thrown our best efforts into these novels. Dune is my favorite SF novel of all time, and I have always modeled my most ambitious works on Frank Herbert. We have not attempted to imitate his style, but to write novels that "feel" like true Dune stories. I doubt any writer could ever surpass what Frank Herbert has done, but we think our novels are about as close as anyone can come. (And, best of all, because our new prequels have reawakened interest in Dune, Frank's original novels are gaining an entirely new audience and are selling extraordinarily well.)
NG: Looking specifically at Dogged Persistence now, the inevitable question: short stories, as your collaborator Neil Peart has apparently observed, are not lucrative, yet you write them regularly, and a collection has resulted. What does the short story deliver that novels cannot?
KJA: Many writers cut their teeth on short fiction because the task of writing a 500-page novel manuscript is just too daunting. I learned my profession -- both as a business and as an artist -- by writing story after story after story. Since then, I feel I have come into my own as a novelist, which is truly the length I prefer to write. However, sometimes I develop individual ideas, small concepts that fascinate me but do not bear the longer length.
Also, short stories can reach a wider audience in various publications. I see them as a way to draw attention to my novel writing, to interest new readers in my work (always assuming, of course, that the stories are GOOD!). Some of my stories have sparked additional ideas and expansions, which eventually developed into full-fledged novels ("Human, Martian -- One, Two, Three" became my novel Climbing Olympus, "Dogged Persistence" became Antibodies).
Finally, short stories are fun. I enjoy doing one or two in between large novels as a way to clear my creative palate, so to speak. Even though they don't pay as well as books, I still write many stories. Since when have you ever heard of an eccentric writer making particularly valid business decisions anyway?
NG: Many of your short stories focus on time travel, but time travel on a modest scale, for purposes of moral enlightenment, individual salvation, or (in the two "Alternitech" pieces), the sly acquisition of intellectual property from other time lines. Is this the best use for time travel -- as a form, basically, of memory retrieval, rather than as a means to grand discovery and large-scale self-aggrandizing alteration of the past?
KJA: This is an example of what I was talking about in the previous answer. I find that science fiction is rich in innovative ideas about time travel, but in a realistic and dramatic sense, the majority of those ideas (I hesitate to say "gimmicks") simply can't bear the weight of a novel-length treatment. Ray Bradbury's "A Sound of Thunder" is probably the perfect time travel story ... but how could it be anything other than a short tale?
Nevertheless, the ideas are fascinating to me and I like to pursue them. What if a religious group could go back in time a single day, for example, and use their knowledge to stop disasters from happening? (That's "Entropy Ranch.") What if you could go to a parallel universe nearly identical to our own and search for subtle but commercially viable differences, say if a famous rock star had never been killed in a plane crash ("Music Played on the Strings of Time") or if an accidental medical test had found an otherwise undiscovered cure for a fatal disease ("Tide Pools")? As a writer, I prefer the smaller scale and personal stories about subtle time travel, rather than giant epics (though H.G. Wells told quite a fine time-travel story at novel length, as I recall...).
NG: You've commented on your interest in history, and, indeed, many of the stories in Dogged Persistence are set in the past; they feature such historical figures as H. G. Wells, Charles Dickens, and Vlad Tepes...
KJA: I have always loved history, and fantasy, but sadly there is little market for "historical fiction." Nevertheless, I very much enjoy throwing recognizable and interesting figures from history into a story. Wells himself has always been a huge influence on me, and Dickens is a spiritual brother (a popular tale-spinner). And Vlad Tepes is much more interesting to me than all the watered-down Dracula stories. A great many of my published short stories could not fit into the Dogged Persistence collection, but I chose many of my historical fantasies, because I love them so much.
I have just sold a novel-length "fantastic historical," Nemo -- the fictional life story of Jules Verne's famous Captain Nemo, which will be published next January. In the story, Nemo and Verne are childhood friends, both in love with the same young woman, but while Verne stays home in France and pursues a quiet writing career, Nemo goes off to swashbuckling adventures. He encounters pirates and dinosaurs, is shipwrecked on a mysterious island, discovers a passage to the center of the Earth, takes a balloon across darkest Africa. Tragic experiences in the Crimean War leave him the prisoner of an evil caliph who commands him to build the Nautilus to prey upon merchant ships venturing through the newly completed Suez Canal. It's a wonderful adventure story laced with history and fantasy.
The publisher has also bought a second, unwritten "fantastic historical" novel -- who knows, it just might feature H. G. Wells in some fashion.
NG: "Canals in the Sand" is the story of how Percival Lowell encounters H. G. Wells's Martians; and in fact you edited a full anthology of similar pieces, War of the Worlds: Global Dispatches. How did the idea arise, and how critically and commercially successful was this SF anthology based on an SF story ("Night of the Cooters" by Howard Waldrop) based on an early SF novel?
KJA: Actually, adding the Howard Waldrop story was a (rather obvious) afterthought when I was putting the anthology together. While hiking in the redwoods of California, for no reason I can ascertain, I was literally "thunderstruck" with an anthology idea, to do short stories about Wells's Martian invasion, as written by other famous people of the day (such as Jules Verne, Henry James, Joseph Conrad, Mark Twain, Jack London, etc.)
As the editor of an anthology, naturally, you get first pick of which story you want to write. I had always been intrigued by Percival Lowell's fascination with Martian canals and had read a throw-away line in a historical book that Lowell wanted to dig giant trenches across the Sahara, fill them with oil, and ignite huge geometric symbols that would be visible to Martians. That idea sounded so incredible that I had to make it the foundation for a short story.
As to whether the anthology was successful or not -- one of the stories won the Hugo Award, another one was nominated for a Nebula, one received an Alternate History award, several were selected for Best of the Year anthologies and many were reprinted in SF magazines. I think that's worth a pat on the back.
NG: Your story "Prisoner of War" is a sequel to Harlan Ellison's Outer Limits teleplay, "Soldier", and appeared in an Outer Limits anthology you edited last year. Why a prose follow-up to a teleplay, and might your story itself be filmed at some point?
KJA: As for a "prose follow-up to a teleplay" -- I think the distinction is irrelevant. I am concerned with the story and the characters and the universe. Harlan Ellison's war-torn scenario and his tragic futuristic soldier are very real in my mind, and inspired me to create another story in that milieu. The format in which it was originally written matters not a whit!
I don't think the new incarnation of The Outer Limits is interested in doing sequels to their classic episodes ... and thanks to the various lawyers and companies and licensors involved over the past four decades, I suppose the whole question would be just too difficult to resolve!
NG: Your forthcoming writing schedule sounds quite packed. More Dune, some steampunk, grand space opera...
KJA: I always keep a full plate of intriguing projects. I am one of those authors who would rather be writing than doing most anything else, and so I never relax and ponder what to do next. As I mentioned above, I am doing three Butlerian Jihad Dune prequels with Brian Herbert, and I am writing at least three big SF epics in a new continuing series, The Saga of Seven Suns -- just finished up the first ms., at 750 pages -- and my Nemo novel will be out in January, after which I will begin working on another "fantastic historical."
And who knows, in my copious free time, I may write a few more short stories, maybe enough for another collection ...
Elsewhere in infinity plus:
Let us know what you think of infinity plus - e-mail us at:
support this site - buy books through these links:
top of page
[ home page | fiction | non-fiction & features archive | other stuff | A to Z ]
[ infinity plus bookshop | search infinity plus ]
© Nick Gevers 9 June 2001