A Conversation With Kevin J. Anderson Part 1 of 3

by Claire E. White
The Internet Writing Journal, October 2003

Ever since he was a little boy growing up in the tiny town of Oregon, Wisconsin,
Photo of Kevin J. Anderson
Kevin J. Anderson knew that he wanted to be a writer. Now an internationally bestselling author, Kevin remembers his childhood environment as "a cross between a Ray Bradbury short story and a Norman Rockwell painting." After watching The War of the Worlds on TV, a five year-old Kevin was hooked. He was so moved by the film that the next day he took a notepad and drew pictures of scenes from the film, spread them out on the floor, and told the story out loud. He never deviated from his goal of being an author and, in fact, was remarkably driven to achieve his goals. He began submitting short stories for publication while he was in high school. He never let rejection or disappointment stand in his way, collecting over 750 rejection slips and a trophy as "The Writer with No Future" because he could produce more rejection slips by weight than any other writer at an entire conference.

After college, where he studied physics and astronomy, Kevin worked in California for twelve years as a technical writer and editor at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, one of the nation's largest research facilities. Although he had a full-time job, he wrote nights and weekends, publishing his first novel at the age of 25. After he had published ten of his own science fiction novels to wide critical acclaim and many award nominations, he came to the attention of Lucasfilm, and was offered the chance at writing Star Wars novels. His Star Wars Jedi Academy trilogy became the three top-selling science fiction novels of 1994. He has also completed numerous other projects for Lucasfilm, including the 14-volumes in the New York Times bestselling Young Jedi Knights series (co-written with his wife Rebecca Moesta). He currently has over eleven million of his books in print.

Kevin recently signed the largest science fiction contract in publishing history, to write the prequels to Frank Herbert's SF epic Dune. Each book sold for seven figures. The three immediate prequels to Dune were House Atreides, House Harkonnen and House Corrino. Now, he and co-author Brian Herbert, son of Frank Herbert, are writing three more prequels, which take place earlier in time than the "House" series: The Butlerian Jihad (Tor), The Machine Crusades (Tor) and The Battle of Corrin (Tor). After The Battle of Corrin is published in 2004, Kevin and Brian will work on the sequels to the original six Dune novels, which ended on a cliffhanger due to the death of Frank Herbert.

Kevin's most recent solo project is an epic SF series, The Saga of the Seven Suns, published by Warner Books. The first two books in the series are Hidden Empire and A Forest of Stars. The third book in the series, Horizon Storms, is due out in hardcover in 2004. The books are set in Earth's future, when humans have moved out into the stars, with the help of the ancient alien race, the Ildirans, only to find out that the universe is more dangerous than they ever imagined. The series is receiving rave reviews, and is likely to land on future lists of SF classics. Publisher's Weekly says of A Forest of Stars: "He weaves action, romance and science with a rousing plot reflecting the classic SF of Clarke and Herbert and the glossy cinematic influence of Lucas and Spielberg…..Sparked with surprises, enriched by ecological issues that laypersons can appreciate, this saga soars as it exposes the inner and external roots of war."

Unlike some epic SF or fantasy books, which tend to drag on for chapters before anything interesting happens, his books will hook you by the first page. It is this ability to create an instant connection between the reader and his characters which may explain his immense popularity with his loyal fans.

He is known for his ability to create complex and interesting characters, fast-moving plots and his subtle sense of humor. He works at a pace that most writers would consider daunting: he is incredibly prolific. Most people think of writing as a sedentary activity, but not Kevin Anderson. He hikes through the Colorado Rocky Mountains as he dictates his current book into a hand-held tape recorder.

A world traveler, gourmet cook and avid hiker, Kevin lives in Colorado with his family. Kevin spoke to us about the Saga of the Seven Suns, his road to becoming a bestselling author and why he never even considered quitting, even when the rejection slips were piling up. He also talks about his deep love for Frank Herbert's SF classic, Dune, and why he and Brian Herbert feel that Frank Herbert is watching over them beneficently, as they continue his legacy.

What did you like to read when you were a little boy?

When I was a little boy, I was utterly enamored with
"Greg Benford....and I wrote a short story together and a pretty substantial outline for a novel together that we hope to do someday. Greg is a big Ph.D./physics/astronomy guy and I knew I wanted to basically turn a gas giant planet into a small sun to warm up the small moons around it, so people could terraform it. So we sat around on a hotel balcony with a bottle of wine and tried to figure out how you would go about blowing up a planet. That's the kind of conversations science fiction writers have when they get together. We don't talk about football or anything like that."
science fiction and fantasy, especially monster movies and superhero cartoons. I read comic books and Robert Heinlein and Andre Norton, who was one of my favorite science fiction authors. The first adult novel that I read was H. G. Wells' The Time Machine when I was eight or nine years old. I read it because I had seen the movie, and was so thrilled with it that I wanted to read more about the Morlocks. The first real experience I remember with this genre was watching the movie, War of the Worlds. I connected with H. G. Wells from the very beginning. I was five years old and that was the point at which I decided that this was the stuff was for me: the giant Martians blasting with their heat rays and dying because the germs killed them at the end. To a five year old, that took the cake. That was just the coolest thing I had ever seen. Somehow, right then, I made up my mind that I wanted to be involved in that. That is the main stuff that I read, although I went through plenty of history and adventure stories too. But science fiction was always my great love. As I grew up, I read most of H. G. Wells, and all the science fiction books in my local library. I'm very well-versed in Isaac Asimov, Ray Bradbury and Arthur C. Clarke. I went to the beginning and started with the A's and proceeded through the library. I read Frank Herbert's Dune when I was twelve years old. That was the best thing I'd ever read. That was a great influence on me because I wanted to be a writer and Frank Herbert was the perfect writer for science fiction Not only did he create terrific alien worlds and monsters and characters, he also had second and third order stuff in it as well, that you got if you really paid attention: all the politics, the economics and the "wheels within wheels" plots. I learned a lot about writing and plotting from studying his writing. I sold my very first novel when I was twenty-four or twenty-five years old called Resurrection, Inc.. It was not a copy of Frank Herbert, but it was clearly influenced by his work, with all the politics and the complicated plot. I had decided that I was going to send Frank Herbert the first signed copy of my very first book. So I got his home address. The book was then bought by Signet. But by the time that the book was brought out in paperback, nine months later or so, Frank Herbert had died of cancer. I just missed him. I was never able to send him the book and tell him how much I enjoyed his work. I guess I got the second best thing now that I'm writing Dune books myself with Frank Herbert's notes and with Frank Herbert's son.

Maybe he knows somehow.

Actually, it's weird. We think that maybe somehow he does know, with all of these strange coincidences that keep happening to us. We're very thrilled with it. Brian and I feel that this is the thing that we were born to do. And since I was always such a fan of Dune, it's amazing. If I could go back in time and tell my younger self that eventually that I'd become very successful writing Dune books after Frank Herbert's death, I would have laughed myself silly, I think, at how strange that prospect would be.

What else would you go back and tell your 16 year-old self?

Oddly enough, I wouldn't go back and give myself encouragement, because that wasn't necessary. I never, not for a nanosecond, doubted that I was going to become a writer. I always knew that I wanted to be a writer. I always knew that everything else I was doing in my life was leading up to it: every job that I had I was learning something that I would later apply to my writing. I went to college and took some creative writing classes, but my main focus was taking classes in physics, astronomy, history and sociology because I felt that was the stuff that I needed to know before I wrote books. I already had the mechanics, but I didn't have the ingredients. So, I wouldn't need to go back in time and tell myself "Keep at it, you'll eventually be successful," or anything like that, but I think that is something I would love to do and say to myself, "You know what, Kevin? You're going to be writing Star Wars someday and you're going to write more Dune books using Frank Herbert's own notes.

You probably wouldn't believe yourself.

I wouldn't believe it, because I'm not just a successful writer in the science fiction genre, I'm am just the geekiest fan boy in my heart. To think that I can pick up the phone and call Harlan Ellison or that I get letters from Arthur C. Clarke is just about as cool as it gets.

What did your parents think when you got so interested in writing?

Kevin at the top of Mount Elbert
Kevin at the top of Mount Elbert, the highest summit in the Colorado Rockies, 14,433'.
Well, they thought it was great as long as it was a hobby. My dad is a bank president and my mom was an accountant and they didn't think that seeking the life of a freelance writer was very practical, you see. Of course, I was just as determined to do it. They made me think in a realistic fashion. They could make their nice little arguments that, no, I wouldn't make enough money to live on and so forth. Because I was freelance writing in high school and college: I sold articles and short stories. My total year's income from working as hard as I possibly could from writing went from like $30 one year to about $70 the next year. And it made me realize that maybe you couldn't really pay the rent that way. So they taught me that I needed to make sure that I had a solid enough day job that I enjoyed so that I could keep writing during the evenings and the weekends. I did several interesting jobs, working in restaurants, I worked at a lab rat farm, feeding and watering all these rats. Then I got a full-time job as a technical writer for a large scientific research laboratory: Lawrence Livermore.

Did you work on any classified projects there?

Oh, lots of them. I could you tell you about them, but I'd have to shoot you afterwards. No, the great secret behind classified projects is that most of them are so utterly boring and uninteresting that James Bond wouldn't even take a second look at them.


Yes, the thing that makes something classified in a document is a number after a decimal point on a table on page 43 of a 300 pages document because it has something to do with a nuclear cross-section or something like that. There aren't folders full of stuff like secret stealth airplanes that are being built in Area 51 or something like that. In fact, I don't think I've ever worked on anything that was interesting and classified. But because of my background in physics and astronomy, and because I had a minor in Russian history (and this was at the time when the big Cold War was going on) and because I had a lot of freelance writing credits, I walked right into this job as a technical writer for a big research laboratory. I loved doing it. If you have to have a day job, this was a great one. I had an ID badge and a security clearance to go through the gate to go into a huge laboratory with the largest lasers in the world, the world's first supercomputer banks, energy research, and genetics research. It's like a huge toy store for somebody who's interested in science fiction. So I got to spend all of my time everyday at work reading and editing papers about cutting-edge technical research and getting paid for it. Then I'd go home at night and turn what I learned into science fiction stories.

"This is our typically American-centric idea.... sure President Bush can say that the U. S. government won't fund stem cell research, but believe me, Japan is applauding. Because they will just do it first and get all the patents. Does he think that by him saying that because the U.S. (who theoretically has the most ethical researchers in the world) will not fund it, that no one else will do it? Are you going to let Saddam Hussein's old chemists work on it instead? Do you think that everybody in the world is going to stop stem cell research? That's just dumb thinking."
That must have come in handy to get into the mindset for writing in the X-Files universe.

I did some stuff for the X-Files that are directly lifted from my daily work at Lawrence Livermore. I wrote a book with my frequent co-author, Doug Beason, called Virtual Destruction, which is a murder mystery set in the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. We thought having a crime investigator working inside this environment where people are classifying things and cleaning up things so that the investigator can't see classified material made for an interesting murder mystery. I've used that experience for quite a bit of good effect in five or six books.

Did you come home from your day job and write every night and every weekend?

Yes. Every spare second I would write, somehow. On my lunch hour, too. That's where I met my wife. She was my copyeditor at Lawrence Livermore. She wanted to be writer, too, but found that after editing and writing all day long, she came home so exhausted she just wanted to watch TV or veg out. But for me, I was writing all day long, but I kind of felt like it was practice and I got to do the real stuff when I got home. I was much more interested in writing a short story for Analog or anther magazine than writing this lengthy technical report for the International Society of Respiratory Protection. (laughing)

Well, that's not surprising!

But I always had this non-stop drive. I had to keep sending stories out and every once in awhile I'd get something accepted or get the little trickle of positive feedback like "That's something we could publish if you would try harder." Once I finally sold my first book, at the age of 25 -- this was after hundreds and hundreds of rejection letters -- once I got my foot in the door, it's like they grabbed my foot and dragged the rest of my leg in. Because I rapidly got a three-book contract after that, and consistently have sold book after book after book since then. I think now I'm up to something like 85 different titles that I've published.

So I understand that you also won the coveted Writer With No Future award?

Yes, that was when I was going to writer's conferences. They had this contest as to who could produce the most rejection slips. Everybody else was bringing in their little stacks in their hands and I had to come in almost with a wheelbarrow full.

You save all your rejection slips?

Of course! One of these days I knew I was going to say, "See, I told you so!" To get back to my work with Dune and Frank Herbert's notes, in Frank Herbert's notes and folders, Brian and I found Frank's rejection slips. We found out that Dune -- the bestselling science fiction novel ever written, which has won the Hugo, the Nebula and is basically the science fiction version of The Lord of the Rings, basically as good as it gets -- was rejected twenty-three times. So you look at these rejection slips and you think, "I guess I have a way to go on my own."

I'd like to talk about the Saga of the Seven Suns now. First off, I was struck by what a huge project this is. It's really incredible what a huge undertaking it is. How did this project come into being?

Cover of Hidden Empire by
Kevin J. Anderson
Click here
for ordering information.
Well, first, it's just so much fun to do. I'm just having a blast with it. Terry Brooks, the author of the Shannara series, is a friend of mine. George R. R. Martin is writing these big fantasy books that have gone on for volumes. Ted Williams, Robert Jordan and Terry Goodkind all write these big, fat fantasy series. I read them and I enjoy them, and they are very successful. One day, I stopped what I was doing and asked, "Why is everybody doing these as fantasies? I like science fiction." Then I thought, "Well, I'll do it then." What I did is I tried to pull together everything -- and I mean everything -- that I loved about science fiction, from Asimov to Zelazny, and threw it into this giant universe. I feel that I've been training my entire writing career to do this series. I've been learning all the different aspects of how to juggle multiple plotlines, how to build the worlds and the technologies and the characters, the monsters and everything, and I wanted to write something that was all my own, because my two biggest writing successes in my writing career have been the Dune books and the Star Wars books. Dune has all the big, epic vastness of the galaxy, with politics, economics, intrigues and wheels within wheels plots. But they don't have any aliens or anything. Star Wars has all the color, the humor, the action, the monsters and lots of aliens, so why not come up with an epic storyline that has all the politics, wheels within wheels stuff from Dune, but all the color and space battles and aliens from Star Wars, and just turn everything loose? It was like there was a pile of kindling that was in the back of my imagination just waiting there. Once I lit it, it just flared up and I kept getting ideas and ideas. I do a lot of hiking and walking and I carry my tape recorder with me to dictate writing, or I just think and put down notes. I just went out for days, and I couldn't stop talking about creating characters and building the worlds, and adding story ideas. I have enough notes and storylines that will carry this thing out to about seven books.

Oh, excellent! I was worried it was going to end after three.

Well, I wrote the manuscript for Book 3, and it turned out to be 1400 pages long. Since the other two books were each 700 pages long, I realized that I needed to re-write it and change the climax a little bit. So, I have effectively now written both Book 3 and Book 4. I've got the outline for Book 5 and I know what's going to happen at least through Book 6. But because the thing grows so much, I don't know exactly where the story will break.

Let's start with the first book in the series, The Hidden Empire. Now that was a first chapter that (literally) opened with a bang. It's just an amazing opening.

I blow up a planet in the first sentence or so, don't I? (laughing)

Well, at least in the first paragraph. The humans blow up a gas giant to turn it into a sun, using a device called the Klikiss torch. That's an amazing scene. How did you create it? I understand you had a little bit of help?

"This was somewhat of a surprise to me, but a lot of people picked up our books first without ever having read Dune. I have literally millions of Star Wars readers that like my Star Wars books. Some of them sort of 'knew' that they should read Dune but were perhaps somewhat scared off by it."
I envisioned doing it, and I have a physics and astronomy background. Another friend of mine is Greg Benford; he and I wrote a short story together and a pretty substantial outline for a novel together that we hope to do someday. Greg is a big Ph.D./physics/astronomy guy and I knew I wanted to basically turn a gas giant planet into a small sun to warm up the small moons around it, so people could terraform it. So we sat around on a hotel balcony with a bottle of wine and tried to figure out how you would go about blowing up a planet. That's the kind of conversations science fiction writers have when they get together. We don't talk about football or anything like that.

Like how to beam a neutron star into the center of the gas giant. That was so cool.

If you have the means to do what I described to do, the physics actually works. Because that's another thing. I have enough of a science background that it has to at least make sense. I don't have people opening their helmets in space and trying to breathe vacuum for awhile or some of the other bizarre things I've read in bad science fiction books. Even in my Star Wars books, I threw in details to explain some of the stuff that looked like it was a science glitch. The famous Imperial ships - the Tie Fighters, as they fly along, they have this weird roaring noise that they make. But of course you don't make any noise in space, because there's no air. So I threw in a line that the engines in the Imperial ships always made this strange feedback noise in the communication systems of all the other ships that they were near, so that makes scientific sense, even though it might not be rigidly accurate, at least it makes more sense than the ships making that noise in empty space.

The way you set up the different cultures in the Seven Suns Saga is so incredible. Let's start with the Hanseatic League. That's where we (Earth) would be far into the future -- we have a figurehead king, the church has been consolidated and humanity is moving outward to the stars. What are some of the things that went into your decision to create Earth's future as the Hanseatic League?

I wanted the feel in these books to be like an epic fantasy, with kings, queens, dukes and court politics, but of course like what I was explaining before, about making the science make sense, you have to make the politics make sense, too. You can't just say, "One hundred years in the future we've now got a king ruling the earth." But if you look at the British royal family and take away the scandals and the goofy stuff that's going on, people love to have this king to look up to -- the royals are like celebrities. And I thought, "If you're going to have a big boring commercial consortium that is run by the chairman of the board and diplomatic people, that's not going to make very good press, that's not going to keep people in this large expanding Empire happy. They need somebody whose face is printed on the dollar bill --

Whose attractive face, I assume --

Cover of A Forest of Stars by Kevin J. Anderson
Click here
for ordering information.
(laughing), yes, whose attractive face. The chairman of Sony is not on the Japanese currency. The people need someone they can rally around. I thought that you could just make up somebody. I remember watching a commercial, and there was Tony the Tiger as the spokesperson. I thought, "Well, why wouldn't a giant, commercial government come up with their own spokesman, who is designed to be attractive and fatherly, and people would listen to what he says?" So that's how I came up with the idea of a figurehead king, but he doesn't ever actually do anything because all the decisions are actually made by this consortium. In my story, the next king, unfortunately for him, is actually very smart and wants to do something because all the people think he's the one making the decisions. When things start going bad, the politicians want King Peter to take the fall for all these bad things. He realizes that if he's going to take the fall for all the bad decisions he never agreed with in the first place, he might as well start making the decisions for himself. Which does not go over very well with the people who have been running the show all along. That's kind of a standard "powers behind the throne wanting to manipulate the king," although here the king wants to make his own decisions. That in itself, is sort of a classic fantasy storyline or historical storyline.

Let's talk about the man behind the throne: Basil Wenceslas. What a great character. Is it Bay´-sil or Bah´-sil?

It's Basil (bah´-sil), like Basil on Fawlty Towers. One of my very favorite things to do is to write bad guys. Because I learned that bad guys never think of themselves as the bad guy. They always think that they are doing the right thing. You can't just have some cackling guy saying "I want to take over the world because, well, I don't know, but I just want to take over the world." Or, "I'm going to tie you to the railroad tracks, Nell, because I am EVIL." That doesn't work. You have to understand why they are doing things. In a certain sense, this guy -- who is one of the most evil people in the book -- he's not really that bad at running the show, because he knows what he's doing, he's smart and he's got the big picture in mind. He's like the Godfather, and if you read Mario Puzo's book, he's really a pretty cool hero. That's what I wanted my bad guys to be like. I wanted them to be suave and intelligent. I think Darth Vader is a better villain than the Emperor, because he's conflicted and he's got more personality. I wanted my character, who is the Chairman of the Hanseatic League, to be pulling the strings. He's got his own plan, but he doesn't have any patience with people who won't cooperate with him because he thinks he should be running the show.

He reminded me of the Ultimate CEO.

Well that's what he's supposed to be: the Ultimate CEO.

Let's move on to the Green Priests of Theroc: another fascinating culture in the book. The Green Priests seem to speak for nature in the story. They telepathically communicate with the WorldTrees and tend them. Is this Nature fighting back here?

Well, it is Nature, but it's not Nature fighting back. You can still have a very happy and productive and comfortable life if you are in a situation where you are fully cooperating with nature instead of cutting down the rain forest to build condominiums. It's not an overboard ranting ecological message, but because I've done these Dune books, and I'm a big outdoor hiker and mountain climber, I think that you can get along just fine with forests and things. In the book you have a planet where the trees are sentient and this special group of people can communicate with them. But instead of trees walking around like the Ents in The Lord of the Rings, these trees sit there and love to experience other things vicariously, because they have roots; they can't walk around and do things. The Green Priests, the humans who are connected to these trees, are almost like their ambassadors. They run around and experience things and places where the trees can't go, and the trees themselves store all of this knowledge. So this forest is like a gigantic library or databank, and they can tap into it to get any information they want. Because all these trees are interconnected, when a priest takes a treeling or one of the trees with him to another planet, he can instantly communicate with anyone else who has a tree. They are not a primitive culture, it's just that they don't really care about wealth and technology. They are doing just fine the way they are. They are on a planet that's like a South Sea island environment. It's very calm. The weather is nice, they temperatures are temperate, and there is plenty of food just falling off the trees all over the place. So they don't need to run around and colonize other planets and make fortunes for themselves. What the Terran Hanseatic League find maddeningly ironic is that these primitive people who talk to trees are the only ones who can communicate instantaneously across large distances. And this is the science being realistic. You can't just send a radio message twenty-five light years away and expect to have a regular telephone conversation. It would take twenty-five years each way. So they need the Green Priests to do communications for them, but the Green Priests aren't really all that interested; they have other stuff that they want to do. So that's kind of ironic, but it also makes them become pawns in some of these larger, "wheels within wheels" plans. Overall, if you break down the elements in Hidden Empire and the whole series, you can identify major fantasy icons that are all through it. The Green Priests are like the tree spirits or the people living out in the forest; you also have another group called the Roamers, who are like the Gypsies. The Ildirans, the old, dying empire that has been around so long that they are kind of on the wane, are like the Elves.

They are beautiful and have such an interesting culture. I loved the way you described the incredible Ildiran architecture. Did you have an artist work with you when you sketched that out?

I hired an artist to do a bunch of background work for me. His name was Igor Kordey. He was the painter and the artist who did a wonderful Star Trek graphic novel that my wife and I wrote called The Gorn Crisis. I loved working with Igor and as I was building this whole series, I ended up with one hundred pages, single spaces of just notes about people, the architecture and the city. I went to Igor and asked if he would read the outline and draw some of the things for me, so I would have a visual reference. He read it and just went ballistic with all these neat ideas. He was faxing me like twenty pages a day with sketches of the Prism Palace the Ildiran race, the spaceships, the costumes that the Roamers wear and on and on. Looking at his pictures gave me ideas for other storylines that I put back in. That's why Hidden Empire is dedicated to Igor, because he had such a terrific influence on this whole thing. Then when I sold the series to Warner Books, I had also done a bunch of work with DC Comics, and I took the sketches to them and said, "I would love to do a graphic novel in this universe; isn't this cool?" They looked at Igor's sketches and the outline and they went for it. So I wrote a graphic novel prequel, which comes out in December.

That would be Veiled Alliances?


I have never, ever heard of anyone ever doing that in the middle of a book series.

I don't think anyone ever has done it, actually.

So what did Warner Books think about that?

Well, since DC Comics is owned by Time Warner, it all worked quite well. I looked at a lot of other comic book companies, but that was one of the other reasons why I went to them. If you look at the back of Hidden Empire there is an ad for the Veiled Alliances graphic novel at the end. And when the graphic novel comes out, there will be a full-page ad for the book.

I saw the artwork. It's amazing.

Part I | Part II | Part III