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An Interview with Kevin J. Anderson
conducted by Kilian Melloy

© Kevin J. Anderson
Kevin J. Anderson
Kevin J. Anderson
Kevin J. Anderson was born in 1962 and was raised in Oregon, Wisconsin. At 10, he had saved up enough money from mowing lawns and doing odd jobs that he could either buy a bicycle or a typewriter -- he chose the typewriter and has been writing ever since. He sold his first novel, Resurrection, Inc., by the time he turned 25. Anderson worked in California for 12 years as a technical writer and editor at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory where he met his wife Rebecca Moesta and his frequent co-author, Doug Beason.

Kevin J. Anderson Website
ISFDB Bibliography
SF Site Review: Landscapes
SF Site Interview: Kevin J. Anderson
SF Site Review: Horizon Storms
SF Site Review: A Forest of Stars
SF Site Review: Dogged Persistence
SF Site Review: Resurrection, Inc.
SF Site Review: Dune: House Atreides
SF Site Review: Lethal Exposure

Landscapes: Stories by Kevin J. Anderson
Horizon Storms
A Forest of Stars

Dave Dorman
Dogged Persistence
Resurrection, Inc.
Dune: House Atreides
Lethal Exposure

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According to Kevin J. Anderson's biography section -- a wittily assembled page with a scattering of hilarious author photos -- at his web site, wordfire.com, "Kevin J. Anderson was born March 27, 1962, and raised in small town Oregon, Wisconsin, south of Madison -- an environment that was a cross between a Ray Bradbury short story and a Norman Rockwell painting."

That combination of futuristic wonder and earthly humor with a heart has found its way from Anderson's youthful stomping grounds and into his richly imaginative novels -- some fifty-odd in number so far, 32 of which have appeared on best-seller lists.

Many of Anderson's novels are media tie-ins to movie or television series, but make no mistake: though Anderson collaborates with Brian Herbert, the son of the late Frank Herbert, on new installments of the legendary SF Dune saga, and though he has explored worlds of wonder from George Lucas' galactically heroic Star Wars franchise to the gloomy recesses of Chris Carter's paranoid, paranormal TV sensation The X-Files, Anderson also has fantastical worlds of his own devising to plumb, and even as he busies himself co-writing 700-page tomes for the ongoing Dune epic, he is equally devoted to the massive undertaking of his Saga of Seven Suns solo series.

But wait -- that's not all. Anderson may enjoy spinning elaborately plotted tales that require the vastness of interstellar space -- and plenty of bookshelf space too -- to accommodate them, but he's also adept at delivering the concentrated punch of the short story, as his newest collection of tales, Landscapes, from Five Star Publishing, makes abundantly evident. Packed with two dozen selections -- including two essays about his mountaineering and hiking -- Landscapes is a big book of wonders, offering cool hunting expeditions to alternate universes, horror stories that chill the blood and tickle the funny bone, and -- with co-author Gregory Benford -- an audacious, moving story about the re-creation of an extinct species threatened all over again by unthinking human savagery.

Kevin J. Anderson took the time recently to chat about his long and -- pun intended -- storied career.


Neil Peart, in writing the introduction for your new collection of short stories, Landscapes, quotes from letters you and he have exchanged. At one point, you speak about a condition called "hypographia," the irresistible impulse to write, and you describe a sensation of "absolute euphoria" while plotting out a 112 chapter novel. Where does that euphoria come from? The act of putting words to paper? The creation of a story, from general structure to detailed characterization?
Imagine one of my Seven Suns or Dune novels -- around 700 pages each, a dozen story lines, characters ranging across the whole spectrum of human (or inhuman) personalities, plenty of amazing and alien worlds, all of them intertwining and coming together as a big tapestry. I love just drawing all the different colored threads and arranging them into a complex fabric. In the creation stage, it's all blossoming in my imagination, all the characters are in play, and I can send them to anyplace I can imagine. It's a real rush as it all clicks like the perfect pieces in a puzzle.

I find I really get most exhilarated when playing on a very big canvas. The Saga of Seven Suns will be seven volumes long, each one 700 pages, and it all tells one giant epic, which has been in my head since before I wrote the first page of the first volume. It's not one novel plus a bunch of unnecessary sequels. I planned it that big. The same goes for the Dune books I write with Brian Herbert. Our two trilogies were each conceived as a continuous three-volume story (like Lord of the Rings), not actually as three separate novels. Our current project, the grand climax of the whole Dune chronicles, is based on Frank Herbert's last outline for Dune 7.

And the big finale is going to be two big books, is that right? That is huge! Are they both based on the outline and notes left by Frank Herbert?
We have Frank Herbert's outline for Dune 7, which is his grand climax for the series. When Brian and I read the outline, we were blown away, such a huge story, with so many threads tied together from all the previous books. After studying the story he had laid out, it was clear this would be a giant novel, close to 1400 pages long. We wrote the novel straight through, though it'll be published in two (more-conveniently-sized) 700-page novels, Hunters of Dune and Sandworms of Dune. We also plan to do another trilogy about Paul Atreides, and maybe something more with the Butlerian Jihad time frame. Frank Herbert left us 15,000 years of history -- plenty of room for stories. If we can develop stories significant enough to be part of this great universe.

Going back for a moment to the letters Neil Peart quotes in the Introduction to Landscapes, at one point you say something to Peart about having a hyperactive Muse, and writing as hard and fast as you can to keep up with all the story ideas that occur to you. But surely not every idea springs up so fully formed, not every notion for a book comes complete with a built-in professional level of quality -- does it? How much do you have to winnow and sort your ideas?
An idea is just the starting point. "Let's go to Chicago." Then you have to get the map and plan your route, do research on where you want to stay and what you want to do, then you make the actual drive. Okay, maybe I stretched that metaphor a little too much. I find I have lots of smaller ideas, and some big ones, that float around in my head, and they collide, join with each other, and grow into bigger and bigger components of a story. Some of them are interesting characters, some of them are fascinating settings, others are visual scenes that I see like snippets from a movie trailer in my mind. I had a great idea for a novel: Tell the life story of Captain Nemo. From there, I had to reread 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, then read or reread about a dozen other Jules Verne novels, then read several biographies of Jules Verne, some history books about the period, all the while coming up with ideas for the actual adventures that would form the fictional person's life story. I then decided for the story that Nemo must have been based on a real person, a friend of the real Jules Verne, who actually had the adventures that Verne wrote about in his novels. So, Nemo goes aboard a sailing ship, fights pirates, gets shipwrecked on a mysterious island, finds a passage to the center of the Earth, and so on... all leading up to how he built the Nautilus, why he declared a war upon war. For romance, I added a female character whom both Verne and Nemo are in love with. Stir it all up, and -- after about three years of work -- I had a finished novel. (This one took longer than most of mine, because of the sheer research involved.) Pocket Books published it, and so far it's been optioned three times for a movie or TV mini-series.

Reading the blogs you post on the Dune books web site (http://www.dunenovels.com/dune7blog/dune7blog.html), it looks as though the new Dune novels are something of a family business -- your wife, Rebecca Moesta, and your father-in-law, as well as a small legion of test readers, all put time into the manuscripts for the upcoming two-book Dune finale.
No matter how much time and concentration I put into a novel, I'm not perfect. And I want each of my books to be as perfect as possible. My wife has fifteen years experience as a professional copy-editor (in addition to being a bestselling author in her own right), and she spots details and contradictions that slip past me. Her father is a retired English teacher, and his perspective allows him to catch things that we miss. I also have my assistant Catherine (who transcribes all my tapes), and Rebecca's sister Diane (who has a good instinct for what's missing in a story) reads every manuscript at least once. In short, I am open to comments and suggestions, and I want to get the input to make each novel as good as it can possibly be. Frank Herbert once said, "You never want to receive a letter from a reader that begins 'Dear Jerk' because you missed something."

On occasion, you have collaborated with your wife Rebecca Moesta, who is a best selling novelist in her own right. How does that work? Is it an extension of the marital bond into the creative realm? Or do the gloves come off for some four-square "creative tension"?
Rebecca and I have been married over fourteen years and we've coauthored 25 books together, so we've managed to work out the most effective "creative process" -- and stay together, too. She also goes over every one of my solo manuscripts. We've learned how to interact, criticize, and improve manuscripts -- though she sure bleeds on the text sometimes!

I couldn't help noticing that the story "Collaborators," in your new short story collection, Landscapes, was a joint project between yourself and Rebecca Moesta. It's a love story of another sort, exploring the push and pull of two people who are committed to one another -- and the impulse, in life and art, to draw together into a unified being, while still needing to define personal boundaries.
That story was written in the first few years of our marriage, so we were just figuring out how to be two creative imaginations, constantly working in and around each other's writing. Very few married couples have so much everyday thinking intertwined.

In another form of collaboration, you've had the opportunity to play with the toys and in the universes of other writers on many occasions, from The X-Files novels to Star Wars adventures. What draws you to certain franchises rather than others? Why Star Wars rather than Star Trek? Why The X-Files instead of, say, Babylon 5?
Not good examples, Kilian -- I have done several Star Trek projects, and I was actually tapped to do the first B5 novels (but I ultimately couldn't do them with my Star Wars assignments)! Most people don't realize that writing in an established universe (whether it's Star Wars or Dune or The X-Files) takes a great deal of attention and research, and a writer can't pull it off unless he's an actual fan of the show -- because the SUPER-fans are going to read the tie-in books with sharp eyes for any minor flaws or errors. So, I would only consider doing a book in a series that I already loved.

Sorry, of course -- I was so focused on the subject of prose novels that I overlooked the graphic novel you wrote with Rebecca Moesta, the Next Generation adventure The Gorn Crisis that was so beautifully painted by Igor Kordey.
And we also wrote a young adult Deep Space Nine novel, Highest Score, under a pen name.

But I had no idea you were the original choice for Babylon 5 novels. What aspect of J. Michael Straczinski's universe would you have chosen to focus on, had you written a B5 book?
That's impossible to say at this point. I was asked to write a novel that would have been a big hardcover blockbuster to be launched right at the debut of the second season, but they eventually changed their minds and did a much less ambitious program. We never got to the point where I actually started work on developing a story.

Speaking of your X-Files books, as we were a moment ago, I was impressed with the level of detail you brought to your description of a Central American archaeological site in the novel Ruins. Did you actually go to a Mayan pyramid and crawl through its tunnels to research the book?
We went to the Yucatan while I was writing Ruins and toured every Maya ruin we could find -- Chichen Itza, Tulum, Coba. We went through the jungles (and, of course, stayed in the fabulous resorts in Cancun). Before actually going to the sites, I had done all the research I could, studied the picture books, watched the National Geographic specials -- but it was all so different actually being there. My proudest moment was at a book signing for Ruins when a big beefy man came up to me, looked me in the eye and handed over his book. "You were really in those jungles, weren't you?" When I told him I was, he said he had spent several years in Viet Nam in the jungles and that he'd never read anyone describe jungles so accurately. I try to do my research -- and, of course, it was a wonderfully fun trip.

You've been all over -- your author bio says you've been to FBI headquarters, mountain peaks, the Grand Canyon, the labs at Los Alamos, and many other exotic places. Was this all in the course of researching books? Or do you find your way to, say, the aircraft carrier Nimitz for some other reason and while you're there a story idea strikes?
It works both ways, although I usually go to a distant obscure place with a specific research intent. For instance, before starting the Dune prequels, Rebecca and I spent some time in Morocco, the Sahara, seeing souks and mosques, even riding camels. It's an old adage, "write about what you know about" -- therefore, the more I know and experience, the wider my creative palette.

You and Rebecca Moesta have both written scads of Star Wars novels. Given that the movies left a lot unsaid about the Star Wars universe, were you fairly free to invent political histories, cultures, etc., on your own?
Because I was one of the first writers doing Star Wars novels, a lot of the landscape was very open and Lucasfilm gave me a great deal of freedom. They are very intent on keeping the continuity intact, and the newer writers have a lot less elbow room because of all the adventures that have already been told by myself and other writers. They were great to work with and we didn't feel constrained at all. All told, I did 54 separate Star Wars projects.

You've recently completed a novel called Slan Hunter. Is that Slan, as in the A.E. van Vogt novel?
Yes, van Vogt started writing his own sequel to Slan in 1984, but managed to get only an outline and about a hundred pages of draft scenes and text, before his Alzheimer's progressed to the point where he couldn't write any further. He died in 2000, and last summer his widow Lydia contacted me through a mutual friend to ask if I would finish the novel. To complete the last novel of a great Grand Master -- how could I refuse? I had read Slan and a lot of van Vogt classics when I was in college. I considered it a great honor. Slan Hunter is very much the same type of novel as the original Slan, but written for a more modern audience. It has got all the twists and turns, big ideas, and even one of van Vogt's signature surprise endings. Lydia van Vogt has already read and manuscript and gave it her enthusiastic endorsement, as has her son. I think fans of the original novel will enjoy this one.

Under the name Gabriel Mesta, you wrote a book about the "secret history" of H.G. Wells' War of the Worlds that incorporated many of Wells' novels into one epic adventure -- much as you did with the novel Captain Nemo. Rather than trying to reconcile Wells' understanding of science with a contemporary view, you adopted the 1890s / early 1900s style of sci-fi storytelling. How did that all come about?
Captain Nemo was first, as I described above. When I sold the book to Pocket, they asked for a companion volume. Because I have a great connection with War of the Worlds (the first movie I remember ever watching, one of the very first "adult" books I ever read), it was a natural for me to turn to Wells. I went through a similar process to the writing of Nemo, rereading most of Wells's best novels, researching the man, the history of the time, building a story that weaves biography and history with the fictional themes and characters from the classic novels. So, H.G. and his biology teacher T.H. Huxley go to Mars to prevent the Martians from launching their invasion. On the way he meets the Invisible Man, Dr. Moreau, the Grand Lunar, and others. My friend Steve Baxter put me in touch with the estate of H.G. Wells to get their official OK on the project.

You also have a graphic novel out featuring an "orc." They're the heavies from The Lord of the Rings, right? Do you revisit Middle Earth in that story?
The Orc's Treasure is a black-and-white graphic novel drawn by comics legend Alex Nino -- it was amazing to work with him. Orcs are monsters who appear in Lord of the Rings, of course, but they're also in traditional folklore, just like goblins and trolls. The orcs storm Castle Rohem because they've heard it's full of great treasure -- and the pages are full of wonderful drawings of the monsters ransacking the rooms, throwing aside paintings and sculptures and tapestries, unable to figure out that's the real treasure. It's a beautiful book, and I'm very pleased with Alex's work.

If it were up to me to mix and match you with a writing project for a pre-existing franchise, given the fun you had with Wells' oeuvre, I'd love to see you write a Doc Savage story. What do you think? A good pairing?
I used to love Doc Savage, and it certainly would be a project right up my alley. I wish somebody would resurrect it -- he was a great hero.

When writing a multi-volume series set in a world entirely of your own devising, as with the Seven Suns series, do you feel significantly more free to do weird or drastic things with the story and characters? Or is there still a lot of creative freedom when playing in someone else's sandbox and using their toys?
I do find plenty of creative freedom writing in someone else's sandbox, especially in something like the Dune universe, where Brian and I can make all the decisions we like.

However, I think the Seven Suns series is really my masterpiece. I've brought in all of the things I love about the whole SF genre, told a story as big as I can imagine, and it's very exciting just to plot and write each volume. I do have the full control over, say, killing off main characters or changing the whole scenario.

I enjoy working in both types of fiction.

In general, what is your view of the state of sci-fi / fantasy these days? The genres do well at the box office and on TV -- Time magazine called the new Battlestar Galactica "the best show on television" for 2005. But does that reflect the level of quality and invention that characterize the works coming out now?
I love the new Battlestar, and we watch both Stargate shows, [and] Smallville, along with most of the genre TV. I'm basically a fan at heart. In literature, the science fiction I enjoy most are the big space operas by Jack McDevitt, Peter Hamilton, Alastair Reynolds; unfortunately, the best science fiction being written is "hardcore" enough that you have to be a deep fan and well-read before it's really accessible. For instance, a lot of people can enjoy a good Star Trek episode, but not everybody can pick up Chasm City and get into it. There is great stuff being written and published for all different audiences, from general readers with an interest in SF, to die-hard fans who want only the most complex and self-referential works.

And, um, you can read a lot of different types of SF and Fantasy in my new collection Landscapes...

Right you are, let's talk about Landscapes long at last... yes, there are many different examples of the various speculative genres represented in the mix of stories (sci-fi, fantasy, horror... well, I'd classify them as horror stories, though they are included in the fantasy section) and even two essays that talk about enjoyment of the great outdoors. How did you select the stories for inclusion in this collection -- especially the two non-fiction essays?
The two essays were easy, and the story "Landscapes," which is about hiking on an alien planet. Working in the outdoors, hiking, mountain climbing, exploring is such an important part of my life, and my creative process, that I wanted to include the essays. "Above the Crowds" is my ambitious attempt to explain to people why I do crazy things like scaling 14,000-ft peaks. Most people -- my wife included -- just don't get it. The other stories in the collection were chosen among my personal favorites, mainly to show a range of types, not just the same old stuff.

In addition to the essays about hiking and mountaineering, there's a sci-fi environmental story you wrote with Gregory Benford called "Mammoth Dawn," about the re-creation of extinct species, including woolly mammoths. In the story's introduction you cite the existence of real efforts to clone mammoths -- and real world resistance to the idea. I just don't understand opposition to bringing back species that we, as a species, are responsible for wiping out. When you were researching the story, what rational or even irrational objection did people you spoke with articulate?
To be honest, I don't understand it myself. Even when Greg Benford and I were talking to people at the La Brea Tar Pits museum -- not just other visitors, but the actual workers, professionals in charge of picking through bones of extinct species -- we received such a visceral knee-jerk reaction that we were surprised. People immediately said, "Oh, you wouldn't want to do that! Why bring mammoths back? They're extinct. They should stay extinct." They were so emotional they couldn't articulate reasons other than their instinctive revulsion to the idea. It baffles me -- here, a lot of dedicated people are vigorously trying to keep species from going extinct, but why would they be so vehement against rectifying that mistake, especially if a species went extinct because of mankind? Like the dodo or the passenger pigeon. There's a lot of evidence to suggest that primitive man wiped out the woolly mammoths. Shouldn't we feel some sort of racial guilt and try to make amends, if we can?

Was that story in part a projection of the fear and outrage that preliminary technologies -- cloning, stem cell research -- have elicited?
A lot of the printed objections [to the idea of restoring extinct species] -- like the radical "Evos" in the story -- rely on technophobia, as you suggest. No stem cell research, no nuclear power plants, no genetically-modified organisms, no cloning, etc. Of course we need to be careful and approach any new technology with all due caution, but this vehement reaction makes them all sound like true Luddites. A few months ago I was having dinner with my UK editor in London, and I grumbled about all the possibilities of stem-cell research we won't even consider looking at. She just shrugged and said, "Just because the US isn't doing it, doesn't mean the breakthroughs won't happen. We're doing that research, Japan is doing it, dozens of countries in the world are doing it. It'll happen, but the US won't be responsible for the miracles. You'll be at the back of the bus." I just had to sigh. She's right.

Another "Mammoth Dawn" question: This story is part of a larger planned novel. You mention that the problem with writing the novel is finding someone willing to publish it. In the wake of smash hits like Jurassic Park, which explores similar technological ideas, why isn't this book a shoe-in for publication?
I haven't got a clue. Greg and I certainly have a lot of impressive credentials, and -- in my opinion -- the resulting novel would have been a genuine blockbuster. We loved it... but no publisher would touch it. We received the same visceral, knee-jerk responses. "Why would anybody want to clone a mammoth? Why would any reader care about mammoths?" The research programs are underway right now, and within five years or so, you'll probably see at least a mammoth-elephant half-breed in the zoo. Then, once the first mammoth is a big splash on the news, publishers will be scrambling to get a book about it, but then it'll be too late. Another sigh.

Speaking of stories that could easily make for full length novels, I found "Collaborators" (which you and Rebecca Moesta collaborated on, fittingly enough) to be so evocative in terms of the world in which it was set that I found myself wishing for it to be a novel. Do some of your novels start off this way -- as stories that play out against a future that's so intriguing you just have to revisit it and explore it in more depth?
Sometimes novels start that way, but I usually come up with an idea that "feels" like a novel, or "feels" like a short story. My friend Mike Resnick tells me that I never write short stories at all, but just "micro-novels." Most of the time there isn't room, or the need, to do any more with a story idea than 10-20 pages.

Although those stories can be interlinked: Landscapes starts off with five stories about parallel universes that are linked by recurring characters and by a company called Alternitech, which sends prospectors into other realities to discover and bring back cultural and scientific material that were never generated in our own reality. Any thoughts about a collection, some day, of all-Alternitech stories? Given the range of plots these five stories represent, it seems that you could easily fill a big book, or even generate a few novels.
I wanted to collect all the Alternitech stories in one place, and I can certainly write a few more of them, but I don't know if I'd ever get around to a full-blown novel. It's not a matter of running out of ideas, but not having enough time to write everything I want to.

For yourself, if you were in the shoes of your Alternitech prospectors, what would you want to know about alternate-reality Kevin J. Andersons? Whether one of them won a Nobel Prize, maybe, or scaled Mt. Everest?
Actually, I think about the opposite. I love what I'm doing right now, and I'm very pleased with how my life and career have turned out. I'm making a living doing something I absolutely love, married to my perfect companion, and enjoying my success. However, I think of all the ways I could have taken a wrong turn along the way -- I could have stuck with my day job, I could have turned down the first Star Wars projects (which made my career skyrocket), I could have decided not to write Brian Herbert and suggest doing Dune novels. In my early 20s, I had a brief and unhappy marriage to a complete Mundane, who had no aspirations beyond working a day job, living in a tract home, and bowling on Thursdays; I could have decided to give up my dreams and stay in that dull life. I'm glad I made the right decisions, for the most part.

I couldn't help noticing how two back-to-back stories in Landscapes examine politics from different angles: "Job Qualifications" is a shocking look at the realpolitik behind what it takes to make a successful galactic leader; "Rest in Peace" looks at how politics sometimes rises above its own baser instincts to create something that truly is better for everyone.
Hmm, I didn't even think about that when I put those stories together. The irony is that "Rest in Peace" -- the optimistic and heartwarming view of politics -- is one of the oldest stories in the collection, written when I was in college, while the jaded view of politics is one of the most recent stories, written just last year.

Several of the stories in Landscapes have a humorous tilt to them -- "TechnoMagic," "Paradox and Greenblatt: Attorneys at Law," "Special Makeup," and, of course, "Santa Claus is Coming To Get You!" (to name just a few). Do stories of this sort start off as comedies, or do you realize during the outlining or writing that they would work best if told in a lighter vein, and compose them accordingly?
I can always tell if something should be light and funny, rather than grim and dark. The idea itself usually lends itself to a more absurd treatment. Lawyers fighting over time-paradox cases? An actor who turns into a werewolf on the set every time the lights come on, whether he wants to or not? Of course those have to be funny.

Stories can come from any spark of inspiration, of course, but it's kind of marvelous that "Sea Wind" was inspired by a Kansas song. There are other things in the story that read like real points to kick-start the imagination: the layout of the city of Lisbon, the time in which the story was set (a time at which, as you note, maps still read "Here There Be Monsters"). What goes into combining various elements into a single story? Is there a big sifting process where you have to sit with various elements that have suggested themselves and mentally work through what will harmonize into a story, or does a story perhaps draw the appropriate elements to itself as the words go onto the paper?
I've been inspired a lot by music -- the intro to the book is by rock legend Neil Peart! -- and images from the songs get transformed into stories. Sometimes I start with a "What if?" and figure out a plot that showcases that idea. Sometimes I'm asked to contribute to an anthology with a specific theme. (Rebecca and I were asked to do a story about "magical clothing items"... so we decided to do a story about Tarzan's loincloth, which brings out the savage in any man who wears it. We haven't written the story yet, but (as in the answer above) we already know that story has to be funny.) Stories are piecework for me, quick projects that I do in between major novels. I always have a few ideas kicking around in my head, waiting to crystallize. Then I write them.

Copyright © 2006 Kilian Melloy

Kilian Melloy is the Editor at Large for wigglefish zine, and a columnist and reviewer for EdgeBoston.com. Hoping to make a living at this some day, for the moment Kilian is thrilled just to be talking to the creative, intriguing people he has the chance to interview for these and other web publications.


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