Interview: Kevin J. Anderson

Kevin J. Anderson is the author of a multitude of spin-off novels for shared world universes, the co-author with Brian Herbert of the sequels to Frank Herbert’s original Dune novels, the author of the Nebula-award nominated Assemblers of Infinity, and more recently of a new epic fantasy series from Orbit entitled Terra Incognita.

John Ottinger III: What led you to begin writing traditional fantasy after so many years of writing SF?

Kevin J. Anderson: I have always been a fan of both genres, interchangeably in fact. I have a degree in physics and astronomy, with a minor in Russian History. I love big epic stories with lots of characters and lots of drama; whether it’s a fantasy setting or a science fiction setting is, to me, secondary to the big saga itself. Dune is an SF novel, but it feels structurally like a big epic fantasy, with Dukes and Barons and Counts and an Emperor, with politics and intrigue set on various planets rather than in separate fiefs or kingdoms. My Saga of Seven Suns is science fiction, but it is modeled on ambitious fantasy series. Terra Incognita looks more traditionally like a fantasy, with Kings and castles, sailing ships and sea monsters (it’s even got maps at the beginning!), but I don’t approach the story any differently. It’s about the plot and the characters, not the stage dressing.

JOIII: You recently wrote Enemies & Allies, a novel about the first meeting of Batman and Superman in the 1950s. How did you translate graphic/comic book fiction which relies so heavily on artwork and succinct dialogue into the long form of a novel?

KJA: The previous year I also wrote The Last Days of Krypton, the story of the destruction of Superman’s planet, and I treated it as a big epic SF novel along the lines of Last Days of Pompeii. That novel was definitely along the lines of my usual epic storytelling. Enemies & Allies, though, is a much more intimate story about heroes that are well known to everyone. The challenge was to make icons (that you see on a comic page) into real characters. And that’s the advantage of a novel over the comics page, because you can really get into the thoughts, emotions, and backstory of Bruce Wayne, Clark Kent, Lois Lane, and even the villain Lex Luthor. I have more freedom with dialog, and I had to downplay the superpowers and fight scenes to flesh out the real drama and character interaction. The trick is to make it FEEL like the heroes and stories the reader expects, while also delivering something more—an adult in-depth novel about characters familiar from the comics page.

JOIII: One of the things you are known for besides writing is your community-mindedness. You send both a print and email newsletter to fans, maintain forums, do YouTube style videos, and generally make yourself available to your readers. Where does this focus on community building come from, and what added benefit has it had for your career, if any?

KJA: A writer is nothing without readers, and I try to pay attention to—and show my appreciation for—the many fans who have made me a successful author and who have allowed me to pursue this career that I love. One of my biggest advantages as a writer is that I am prolific and I write several different types of books; therefore, it is worthwhile for me to encourage the fans of, say, my Star Wars novels to check out The Saga of Seven Suns, or for the Dune readers to look at Terra Incognita. Some of the Dune fans might not be interested in Batman and Superman, but they may have friends who would like to pick up Enemies and Allies. I want to make sure they know about the things I’m working on. I have three MySpace pages and nearly 35,000 friends signed up there; I have a Facebook page, a Twitter account, an official Fan Club with about 5500 members in more than 20 countries, and there are fan groups on various social networking sites. I answer all my fan mail; Rebecca and I do numerous convention appearances, book signings, library talks, school talks. Last year we donated over 2000 signed hardcovers to charity auctions, libraries, and community organizations. You can’t just hide in a hole and write books; I believe you need to give something back.

JOIII: Your Dune novels have often been vilified by Frank Herbert purists. As a result, I’m sure you have had a number of irate emails, letters, or blog comments. How do you handle such negative reactions, and what advice do you have for writers who encounter the same?

KJA: Frank Herbert was a genius, one of the most brilliant writers ever to work in science fiction, and Dune is (in my opinion) the greatest SF novel ever. Those are awfully big shoes to fill, and even though Brian and I are putting forth all of our effort to make our novels worthy of the label, it’s not surprising that we can’t meet every reader’s expectations. A bit of a reality check is in order, however. Don’t misconstrue a lot of negative postings to mean there are hordes of angry purists. For example, for Paul of Dune, one guy posted attacking comments to 40 out of 42 five-star reviews on amazon, the same guy attacked 24 out of 24 four-star reviews, the same guy runs a hate site, and the *same guy* maintains a Twitter feed devoted solely to bashing our stuff. And when somebody posts with great vehemence how much they hated book after book after book, how can you take them seriously? Anyone who keeps reading the novels for the sole purpose of attacking them just has an axe to grind and is clearly biased.

In reality, our Dune books have garnered a great deal of critical acclaim, nominated or won many awards, received starred reviews in Publisher’s Weekly, were included on numerous Best of the Year lists, one was named as a New York Times notable book, another was picked as the Favorite Book of the Year by the members of the Science Fiction Book Club by the largest margin in the history of the award. We have received thousands of fan letters since we’ve begun writing them, and we get 24 positive letters for every negative one—I can live with a 96% approval rating.

My advice to other writers who face similar situations (and many of them have spoken to me) is not to let a couple of sour notes detract from the vast majority of satisfied readers.

JOIII: You are a prolific writer who has been writing for many years. What tips would you give to up-and-comers within the genre?

KJA: It’s awfully hard to break in as a writer at any time. When I broke in during the late 1980s, early 1990s, pundits were moaning that it was the end of publishing and the death of science fiction. Hasn’t happened. At any period, persistence and determination are a requirement. I am prolific because I love to write. I work on my novels seven days a week, 365 days a year. Each manuscript goes through 6-12 edits, and I don’t send it off until I am satisfied it’s as polished as it can possibly be. Writing, and promoting, is a long-term effort. Don’t expect to publish one book and be a star.

JOIII: Author Rebecca Moesta and you are husband and wife, and have collaborated on several novels. How has that worked? How have you been able to keep the husband and wife team separate from the professional team? Do you have an advice for writer who are married or in committed relationships that might be thinking about collaborating together?

KJA: We’ve been married almost nineteen years, and we’ve done close to 30 novels together. Even when Rebecca isn’t specifically collaborating on a book with me, she is still working on it, brainstorming with me, serving as one of my first test readers and doing the final copy edit. Since she’s a writer, too, we love to talk about our projects, work out plot problems, brainstorming, and she’s also the business manager. We are together more than most couples, because we spend all day together, we travel together, we appear together at conventions and workshops. We know how to listen to each other and accept each other’s ideas. It’s a matter of how personalities mesh (and there’s always a guest room if we need to decompress!)

JOIII: What are the distinctive elements of the Terra Incognita series? What do you think makes it stand out from other “secondary world” fiction?

KJA: For one thing, in a fantasy, you won’t find bearded wizards with pyrotechnic spells, or dragons, or elves or dwarves. You won’t find any enchanted swords, or a monolithic evil force that threatens to destroy all Good in the world. Though my novels take place in a world of my own imagining, Terra Incognita is more mainstream than outright fantasy, with only a hint of magic. Yes, I have sea serpents and mysterious unexplored lands, amazing legends that may or may not be true. At its core, these books are about sailing ships and brave explorers, along with a terrible religious war like our Crusades. And while I may have a sea monster or two, they are natural creatures, not magical monsters.

Some parts of The Edge of the World are very dark and tragic, as well as very passionate. I’m dealing with clashes of civilizations, intolerance, and fanaticism—as well as genuine faith. The story is certainly something that occurs all too often in real history: a series of stupid actions on both sides that have grave consequences, ratcheting up the violence and hatred beyond any possibility of a peaceful resolution. But the story also parallels our Age of Discovery, a time of hope and wonder, when people had a sense that there were marvelous things Out There just waiting to be found if only a sea captain sailed far enough and survived enough perils.

JOIII: How did the CD/Novel collaboration come about for the Terra Incognita series?

KJA: Since I began writing my first stories, I have always been influenced by music, especially the genre known as “progressive rock” (Rush, Kansas, Styx, the Alan Parsons Project, Pink Floyd, Dream Theater, Tool, A Perfect Circle, Lana Lane, Asia).

However, not only were many of my stories inspired by music, but a lot of the music I enjoyed was inspired by science fiction and fantasy. Clearly, the audiences have a lot in common.

I had become friends with Shawn Gordon, who owns the record label ProgRock Records, and we discussed the possibility of tying together a novel and CD as a sort of synergistic, crossover project. In 2007, as I began work on Terra Incognita, I suggested to Shawn that this might be the perfect subject for such a creative endeavor—an epic novel and an epic CD, written by the same author. Shawn immediately saw the potential, and brought aboard accomplished keyboardist/composer Erik Norlander (Rocket Scientists) to write the music and produce the recordings (he was also our keyboardist). I had enjoyed Erik’s solo work, and I particularly loved the music and vocals of his wife Lana Lane (“the Queen of Symphonic Rock”).

For our crossover album, I adapted a storyline that I thought could best be enhanced in music format. I worked with Rebecca to write the lyrics to all the songs. Erik wrote the music, Lana sang the demos, and the whole thing started to come together.

It turns out that a lot of the singers and musicians I had admired for years were indeed fans of SF/F and often fans of my novels. We put together a “supergroup” of some of the top names in the business, creating a band called Roswell Six. Vocals by James LaBrie (Dream Theater), Michael Sadler (ex-Saga), John Payne (Asia feat. John Payne) and Lana Lane. David Ragsdale (the violinist from Kansas) came aboard, along with Martin Orford (from IQ, who came out of retirement to perform on our CD), Gary Wehrkamp (guitarist, Shadow Gallery), Kurt Barabas (bassist, Under the Sun), Chris Brown (guitarist, Ghost Circus), Chris Quirarte (drummer, Prymary), and Mike Alvarez (cello).

JOIII: What has been your favorite part about working in this new medium of music and lyrics?

KJA: It’s not so much the new medium, but the synergy of having the music and words, the enormous talent we brought together in this supergroup, and how much energy and creativity that everybody poured into the CD to make the universe come alive. Writing lyrics is very different from doing a 600-page novel, like a brief slide show instead of a ten-hour miniseries. Every line, every word has to pack a specific punch, BUT you also rely on the power of the vocalist and the melody and the various musical performances. It’s a fully three-dimensional experience. We’ve got sample tracks of the songs up at

JTOIII: You have worked in several different universes, Star Wars, the DC Comics’ universe, Dune, and your own original worlds. Are there any you have preferred over the others? Why?

KJA: Dune has always had a special place in my heart and in my imagination, and I love working with Brian. Those novels have been ambitious and exhilarating, and I continue to find them challenging. Star Wars really launched my career and it was my first experience working in an established universe; it taught me how to deliver something the fans would love, and it gave me a chance to make a living as a die-hard fan. And as a life-long comics fan, getting to work with DC and bring alive the story of the destruction of Krypton, or the first meeting of Batman and Superman in the 1950s…how cool is that? Of course, being the person in charge of an original universe, writing books of my own creation and watching the fans of Dune, Star Wars, comics, Star Trek, etc. pick up my original books is quite a thrill.

So, the answer is—fortunately, I am prolific so I don’t have to choose one over the others. I can write them all and love every minute of it.

JOIII: Your works are widely varied in content, but are there any themes you find yourself coming back to you repeatedly? Why do you think these themes crop up in your work?

KJA: I have never had patience for writers who hammer the reader over the head with an overpowering Theme. Frank Herbert described the same thing when he was writing Dune, that he had gotten so engrossed in the message that the story had taken a back seat; then he rewrote the novel to put things in the proper perspective. The themes come out of my own innate beliefs, but I try to make them subtle and in the background. Over the course of the Saga of Seven Suns, I added some rather clear views on Bush policies and the war in Iraq; the Terra Incognita novels have a strong underlying message of how people use the mantle of religion as an excuse to commit inhuman acts. But the theme comes as a natural consequence of the story; I don’t consider myself a didactic writer or a proselytizer.

JOIII: When you take time to read for yourself, what are you reading? And which of those would your recommend to the readers who are your fans?

KJA: In science fiction, I also like to read big epic space operas and big epic fantasies—I like Peter F.Hamilton, George R. R. Martin, Orson Scott Card, Dan Simmons, Greg Bear, and Frank Herbert of course. I also read a lot outside the genre, from Larry McMurtry, Mario Puzo, James Clavell, Dean Koontz, Martin Cruz Smith, and Stephen King.


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