Interview: Kevin J. Anderson, September 2, 2012

Kevin J. Anderson is a well-known, best-selling science fiction, fantasy and horror author who's published over 50 books, including novels set in the Star Wars, Dune and X-Files universes, as well as numerous original works. A lifelong Rush fan, he and drummer Neil Peart have been friends for over two decades; they collaborated a few years ago on a short story, "Drumbeats." So naturally, when it became apparent that the band's latest album, Clockwork Angels, would not only be a concept album but would also be adapted into a novel, Anderson was the author Peart chose.

We got Kevin J. Anderson on the phone from his home in Colorado to discuss his friendship and collaboration with Neil on the book; how Rush's music has inspired and impacted his fiction; and much more.

How much input did Neil Peart have into the Clockwork Angels novel? Did you mail him chapters back and forth, or did you two come up with an outline together and then you did everything else yourself?

Well, Neil approached me when he was just starting the concept for the whole album. He was interested in steampunk and he had some scenes in mind for things that later became songs. And I've written some of the stuff—in fact, he had read some of my steampunk stuff way back in the late '80s—and we were just talking about what the genre was like and about some of his characters. He had made up the villain, and he had a couple of great scenes. So we talked about some of the pieces of the story, but this was just me chatting with him about a project he was working on. And as the story developed more and more with him, he started realizing how big it was. And he started thinking about putting the whole story together and started imagining Broadway musicals and ice skating shows and all kinds of things, and then he suggested a novel.
We were having lunch together in a café in Santa Monica, and he was telling my wife and I all these plans that he had and he mentioned the novel and my wife [author Rebecca Moesta] immediately said, "Well, who's going to write the novel?" and Neil stopped and looked at us and said, "Well, Kevin, of course." I was kind of hoping he would think of that as he was putting the story together, but he was just developing the framework of it. So from that point on, I was actively involved in working with him about how the pieces of the story would come together, that the character had to go through this and then the next thing and things had to get worse before they could get better and how the story would resolve. So we were plotting this from the very beginning. And one time—I live in Colorado, in the Rocky Mountains—he came out and stayed with us for a day, in between two Rush shows on the Time Machine tour. And we climbed a mountain that day, a 14,000 foot peak near Denver, and the whole climb, we brainstormed the character and the stories and how—'cause he had certain songs that he had come up with, and the songs are like pieces in a slideshow, but without the connecting stuff between. So we were thinking about motivations and some themes to the novel, which all sounds like boring English-professor stuff, but it really was talking about the story and the plot and what could happen and who the bad guy was and whether the bad guy's opponent was actually the good guy or not. We're talking about the Watchmaker and the Anarchist, and I was not particularly convinced that the Watchmaker was the good guy, either. I thought they were two extremes, and neither extreme was the right way to go.

That's the impression I came away with as well. If Owen Hardy is the hero, he's sort of being bounced around. Which brings me to something—there's a quote toward the end of the book, "the two men had caught him in their own trap, played a tug of war with him. Because he was so innocent and optimistic, they had fought over him, broken and humiliated him—all to prove a point." And that struck me as straight out of the Book of Job.

Exactly. Well, as we were developing this, Neil and I, all through this process, were up to a dozen emails a day, just back and forth with ideas. And Neil went off doing research into alchemical processes and symbols and he'd come up with some really cool thing that he would send back to me and I'd find a way to integrate it in. And as this was developing, the caught between two forces aspect, I said "This guy is sounding like Job, with God and Satan fighting over him," and Neil I guess was only vaguely familiar with the story, so he spent one Sunday reading the Book of Job, and he wrote back and said, "God, that's a terrible book!" I mean, I've got a whole letter from him where he goes on and on about how awful this thing is and the terrible stuff they do to some guy that they're trying to win over. Neil's not the most fundamentalist religious person in the first place, so it was me coming in with it. We both had [Voltaire's] Candide [as inspiration] in the first place, in that we thought it was a picaresque with this very optimistic young man sailing through adventures and being tugged all over the place by forces. I have not read the John Barth stuff [The Sot-Weed Factor], and Neil had not read the Job stuff, and so that's what a good collaboration is all about, that you're both supposed to bring new ingredients to the table. So we really interacted and mapped this story together very well. But I'm the novelist, and I write from a detailed outline, so I put together the detailed breakdown of the chapters.

Initially the plan was for one chapter to be one song, so that it would nicely fit together, but it turned out that was a little too constraining, and it turned out that some of the songs were relevant throughout the book rather than just to one chapter, so I think we made the right compromise in that we told the story that needed to be told, and it really follows the arc of the album, but there's a lot more in the novel, because there are major parts in the album, like the song "Carnies," where Owen gets the detonator and the crowd's rushing toward him and he's trying to get away, and then the next song is about the Seven Cities of Gold, so there's this giant connecting part of the story that doesn't have any songs with it. So we plotted it out, and then I went to town.

It was just flat out—I couldn't stop writing it. It was just coming out of me, and I was so in tune with it, and by this point Neil had sent me the lyrics of all the songs back in January, but I hadn't heard any of the music, but I got rough tracks in February, and it wasn't until then—I knew the story, 'cause we'd been talking about it, and I knew the lyrics, but it wasn't until I actually heard the songs themselves, with lyrics and music together, that it was like a catalyst, a way to inject it into my brain, and I really got it, I really understood all the details of it. So I wrote the novel really fast, and was firing off chapters to Neil sometimes hours after I wrote them. I would read it quickly, give it a very quick polish, and then shoot it off to Neil and he'd be reacting to things and suggesting things all the way through. And then we edited it together when it was done, and he would say things like "I really feel we need to emphasize this part more," or "We need to come up with something else." For example, it was rather late in the game when Neil decided he wanted Owen to spend more time in Poseidon City, trying to survive in the streets. So he came up with the character of Guerrero, the Artful Dodger-type kid he falls in with, who's stealing things...

And who has no counterpart in the album.

Right. And my reaction initially was "No, I don't want to write a whole new chapter and a whole new character," and I whined a little bit, but then I realized that really was a good addition, and I wrote all that stuff in like half a day and sent it back to him. And he was amazed, having read it before and after, how easily it fit right in. But to me, the best little suggestion, and this shows you how we worked back and forth, is we had finished the second draft, Owen was off doing his stuff, and Neil raised a question. He said, "So Owen's imagining that his mother didn't really die in the fever, that she's off exploring things, but he really knows that she died." And Neil wondered if we should do a little more with that, resolve it somehow. And I wrote back, "Well, she really is dead; I don't want to make her magically appear somewhere." But then I thought, Wait, we're talking about multiple parallel universes and what's to say she doesn't exist and didn't do that stuff in another universe. And then I had the idea that he finds the story of her adventures in Pangloss's little library, where he buys books from other dimensions. And I think that's one of the coolest little jabs in the heart in the book, when he finds the book that his "other mother" wrote. And after I'd written that scene and we went back and forth, I thought, I love the opening line of the book, "The best place to start an adventure is with a quiet, perfect life...and someone who realizes that it can't possibly be enough." So how about if Owen's mother's book oepns with that line as well? And we just did it back and forth and round robin, and there are some bits in there that Neil wrote the text of—obviously, he wrote the Watchmaker stuff, and the mechanical "percussor" robot that's drumming, that's Neil's stuff, because he knows the drums and I don't. But to emphasize, he really was fully involved in this. It wasn't "Hi, I'm the famous drummer, you write a book and I'll put my name on it." It was fully interactive from the beginning.

There are a bunch of nods to Rush in the book, whether it's names of things, or lines of dialogue, or just phrases in the text. I noticed a lot, but do you remember exactly how many there are?

Oh, they're all over in there. And it's not just the earlier work—there should be something from every album. I've lived with Rush for most of my life. In a way, my entire career has been focused around Rush, because my very first novel, Resurrection, Inc., was inspired by Grace Under Pressure. And that's how I got to know Neil. I can't even count how many stories or chapters or scenes in other novels have been inspired by Rush songs or Rush albums. So I know these lyrics like they're part of me, and as I was writing they just kept popping into my mind, obvious places to slide things that I knew from albums. But they were natural. I hope they don't stick out like a sore thumb. If you're not super-familiar with Rush, you won't notice that this was an awkwardly inserted phrase to add a nod to a Rush lyric. So there's constant ones in there, even subtle ones that I don't think people will spot, like when the Watchmaker is fixing one of the mechanical parts of the Clockwork Angels and he says "Animate," there's a Rush song called "Animate." It's just a word, but I know I used that word because it was from Rush. This is a project that I've been either unconsciously practicing for all my life, and just came out in the right place. I'm not some writer who came in, listened to a couple of Rush albums and wrote the book.

Learn more about Kevin J. Anderson at his website,