A Conversation With Kevin J. Anderson Part 2 of 3

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

Part I | Part II | Part III



This will tell you about the very first Green Priest, a woman named Madeline Robinson and her two sons. They make an amazing discovery --- they are looking through Klikiss ruins and they accidentally wake up the first Klikiss Robots.

Yikes! (laughing)

Yes -- Now those guys are villains!

They are so scary. Robots that lie. They lie…and boy do they have a lot to cover up.

Weren't you mad at me for leaving that cliffhanger at the end?

Oh, I was so irritated! I thought, "Wait, what's going to happen??"

But it's one of those things that's really obvious. It's right in front of your face all along that these guys are lying. But because they are robots, the reader never suspects that they are lying.

That's so true. They are so sophisticated; they know so many things, yet somehow they "don't remember" what happened to the Klikiss race?

You know where they came from? They are based on Gort from The Day the Earth Stood Still. That was the scariest robot that I had ever seen. This came from a conversation that I had with some another science fiction writer. It was about robots. How all robots look the same, like Asimovian robots. I said that was ridiculous, because if you had an alien race that looked like insects, then they would build robots to look like themselves, not to look like people. The author responded, "oh cool". So I had beetle robots. My love for Godzilla movies I think also came through there, too.

There are so many things in this series. But one of the things that was kind of shocking for humans -- and certainly for Basil -- to come to terms with was the fact that, hey, we may not be the center of the universe. There are lot of really great lines in the book, but one where Tasia says, "We're like mice on the battlefield" -- referring to the fact that humans are really just onlookers to this huge battle between titans -- was very insightful. Humans don't like to think of themselves as just mice on the galactic battlefield.

I'm delighted that you got that. Because I had to clarify that for my Warner editor. When she was editing it, she made a comment about "Shouldn't this be more significant -- that the humans are getting more into it?" And my answer back to her was, "Jaime, with the humans getting into this war (once you get into Forest of Stars and learn how incredibly big this war was) this is like Liechtenstein threatening to get into World War II. I'm pretty sure -- because I'm already up to Book 4 -- and I'm trying to remember what happens in each book - I think there's a scene where the Klikiss robots want to wipe out the humans. The Hydrogues answer, "Why are you wasting your time with these guys?" They've got their own agenda, as you'll see in Horizon Storms, the next book.

Will Veiled Alliances go into the history of this great war that happened long before humans got into space?

Veiled Alliances is set about one hundred years before the origins of all these books.

So we find out about the origins of this great war in the next novel, then?

Yes, you find out about it in Book 3, and you'll have a lot more questions, too.

Let's talk about the Roamers. They are rebels, they are totally independent.

Not everybody wants to be a part of the big Hanseatic League. They're doing just fine on their own. Brian Herbert was worried a bit that the Roamers were too similar to the Fremen in Dune, but I think their entire culture is totally different from the Fremen. They are still the renegades from society.

I think they are different culturally -- they trade with the Hanseatic League. They way they make their living is so incredibly dangerous, trying to mine the ekti that is the major fuel source for space travel. It would certainly shape your culture, when everything you do is horrifyingly dangerous.

These are the guys that are literally living in the places where no one else is going to go. They'll live on this molten planet to mine the metal. No sane person would do that. Or they are grabbing comets and doing other types of crazy things. That's the irony that these people are treated like dirt by the civilized society, but they are the ones that are doing all the work that no one else wants to do. They are the illegal Mexican immigrants who do this work, and are treated like crap. But getting back to the fantasy trope here, they are taking the "treasure" which is guarded by a "giant dragon" -- the Hydrogues, who live in the gas giants.

Let's talk about romance. Romance is definitely in the series. It's one of those subjects, where some people think it belongs in fantasy and science fiction novels and some people think it does not. (Mystery readers have the same debate). I thought it worked well because, ultimately, this is a story about people.

You need the romance. It's not a book about romance, certainly. The whole plot is not about the main characters getting into a clinch. You have to have heroic, archetypal characters and when you're following the epic storylines, there has to be the greatest love in the universe, the star-crossed lovers who somehow can't ever get together (you've probably noticed that storyline going through the book).

Absolutely.

Kevin and wife Rebecca Moesta in Morocco
Kevin and wife Rebecca Moesta during their travels.
If your characters aren't "human" enough -- and I use that word to cover all the different species -- to fall in love passionately, then they aren't interesting people to read about. You need people who are willing to go the extra mile. I just thought that it belonged in there. There is grand romance in The Lord of the Rings. It's an important part of epic literature.

Can you give us a sneak peek into the next book?

A lot of things blow up, more people die, a lot of people don't die… (laughing) I read a lot of books that are like this: a really long, epic series. I've done some things in this series that I paid attention to as a fan that either I liked or didn't like from other people. One of the technical things that you'll notice right away is that, at the beginning of Book 2, I did a summary of the story so far, just because the books come out a year apart. If you read them when they come out, you'll want some kind of refresher to remind you.

I like that, by the way, I think it's a very smart thing to do. It's really helpful for people, like me, who read a lot of books.

As a reader, when I pick up Volume 4 in a series, and it's been a year since I read Volume 3, I hate it when they jump right in, because, although I liked the previous ones, I just can't remember all the details. The other little technical thing I put in is a very detailed glossary at the end. So if you can't remember who somebody is, you can look it up.

I like that too. Otherwise, with these really big series, you almost need a notepad next to you as you read to keep up with who's who.

Right. I don't think the author should make the reader do that much work to remember who somebody is. That way the information is at your fingertips, if you need it. But it's not in the way, if you don't need it. Book 2 starts out when I reintroduce one of the characters, I don't want to say, "This character, who did this and that…" And go through this entire summary first.

That's tedious.

Right, I don't want it to be tedious. The books are fat enough, as it is. On a more general level, though, reading some of these long, epic sagas, a couple of times I've gotten the impression that the author was treading water or didn't know where he was going, or was just tying to squeeze an extra book out of it. In every one of these books, and all you can look at now is the first two, I want to make it so that so many things happen in them that you didn't expect would happen in this series, that you realize that you have to read every one of them. That it's not like an "Insert Adventure Here" novel. A lot of stuff at the end of Forest of Stars is very different than at the beginning of the book.

The introduction of the Wentals, for example.

Yes, the water elementals, the Wentals. You've also seen the Fire elementals: the Faeros, the Air elementals: the Hydrogues, and the Earth elementals, the Green Trees. So those are all classic fantasy ingredients.

I can't wait to see what happens to poor Jess Tamblyn, who's floating around in an ocean, filled with the Wentals.

Everybody was most upset about Nira, the little Green Priest, being taken off to the breeding camp.

That was actually pretty horrifying, I have to tell you. It was very upsetting to read about. If you're writing an epic series, I suppose bad things must happen. It was pretty disturbing, though.

Well, she gets better though! Another character is her lover, J'orah, who gets his balls cut off to become Emperor.

Boy, does he pay a big price to be Emperor, and to gain access to the thism, the telepathy that bind the race together.

Well, wait for the next book where he has to start running everything. He, essentially, is like someone who has been suddenly put in Hitler's shoes. He wonders "What do I do now? I can't just shut everything down immediately -- the whole Empire will fall apart." So he's in a really fascinating situation.

As you read the book, you do believe in the concept of the thism -- a sort of psychic connection to every person in the Empire that only the Emperor can see the entirety of. What was so fascinating to me was, before the coronation I was wondering how real it was…but afterwards, it becomes quite real and important.

That scene was basically like just after FDR died, Truman being brought into the White House and told, "Oh, by the way, we have this atomic bomb you can drop on Japan tomorrow." And the successor's reaction is basically, "Oh, no. I didn't know about any of this stuff. Now I'm in charge?"

J'orah is such a good person coming to the throne, now he's taking over for this horribly evil person, his father. I guess after he finds out what all his father was doing -- and why -- and he finds out what he's made of.

You'll learn in Book 3 what's really going on and why it's happening.

How interested are you, generally speaking, in mythology?

I don't consciously study it to see what storylines I could take from it or anything, but I've read tons of it, and I've read tons of it second hand, because I've read so much fantasy and historical fiction, which has it kind of built in. If possible, I like to have the things that I make up be grounded in something, instead of just off the top of my head. That's why, as I mentioned before, you can see "now this is the dragon and these are the elves" and that kind of stuff. I try not to make it really overt, but I at least try to know that it's there. I'm not sure if I finished one point before. I want to make sure that you finish each book it's not just another adventure, that starts and finishes. I want after each one, you to think, "I can't believe he did that. He killed off a main character, he's introducing new main characters." Each book will have a lot of cliffhangers, because I like that. I know it makes everybody crazy, but… (laughing) I will promise that the booka will come out when they are supposed to. I won't get you hooked on this and then go away for five years for you to wait. The first two are out, I've delivered Book 3 to the publisher, and I have a draft of Book 4 already. I know what's going to go on. I always turn in my books on time, so you can always count on a book coming out when it's supposed to.

That's rare.

That is another thing that I learned from reading these other series. I hate it when an author gets me hooked and leaves me dangling for way longer than he's supposed to. Leaving you dangling is one thing if you know that next Saturday morning you'll see the next part of the serial, and they left you on a cliffhanger. That's ok, you're supposed to wait a week, and everybody's happy. But I don't think it's fair to leave you on a cliffhanger and then not meet your responsibilities and delay and take five years for something to come out.

Authors that do that run a risk here. I feel like we have this "Cultural ADD" -- people's attention spans aren't what they used to be. They seem shorter, and you might lose those readers along the way.

The attention spans are shorter. It used to be that if somebody was writing a 700 page book, you would give them a couple of years to write it. You really couldn't expect it any faster than that. Now I'm writing a 700 page book in the Seven Suns series and an 800 page book in the Dune series with Brian every year, plus two or three other books.

Let's talk about Dune now. First off, how did your collaboration with Brian Herbert come about? You didn't already know him, did you?

Dune Books in Chronoligical Order of Events:

·The Butlerian Jihad
·The Machine Crusades
·The Battle of Corrin
·House Atreides
·House Harkonnen
·House Corrino
·Dune
·Dune Messiah
·Children of Dune
·God Emperor of Dune
·Heretics of Dune
·Chapterhouse Dune
No, I didn't know him. But the science fiction community is like a small, tightly-knit dysfunctional family. We all either know each other or have mutual friends. So it's not really hard to get in touch with someone. I was always such a huge Dune fan, and had read all six of his books. Frank's last Dune book was called Chapterhouse Dune and it ends on a cliffhanger. It builds up, and then it just ends. As a Dune fan, I couldn't stand it. I mean, Frank Herbert died, so I couldn't expect him to finish it, but his son Brian was an established science fiction writer. In fact, Frank's last published book, entitled Man of Two Worlds, was co-written with Brian. So I knew that they had worked together and that Brian had obviously followed in his father's footsteps. But after ten years of waiting, I was beginning to lose hope that Brian was going to write the next Dune book that I wanted to read. Finally, through a mutual friend, I sent a letter introducing myself. By this time, I had quite a few credits, some award nominations, and had written a bunch of Star Wars and X-Files books, so that proved not just that I'm a hack, but that I could write in somebody else's universe and do a good job at it. So I sent him some samples of my books and asked him if he was ever going to write this book, because if he was, that I wanted to read it. And, if he was putting it off, or didn't know what you were going to do the rest of the Dune story, could I help you with it or offer my assistance -- or if you're not going to do it at all, could I do it. The first line of my letter was, "What you just heard was a shot in the dark." Because I had finally convinced myself that I had nothing to lose anyway. If he said no, well that was all there would be to it. But Brian called me a little later after he received the letter and -- not surprisingly, although I didn't think of it at the time -- Brian had many people who had asked to write more Dune books.

Probably some pretty big names, too, I would say.

Cover of The Butlerian Jihad by Brian Herbert and
Kevin J. Anderson
Click here
for ordering information.
Yes. But he called me and we started chatting. My wife was in the room, and she loves to tell this story…. "Kevin," she says, "After about three minutes you and Brian just started talking a completely different language." Because I am not just a Dune fan, I had read absolutely everything else that Frank Herbert had ever written. And I've read everything he's written several times. So when he started going into the details of obscure Frank Herbert novels, I picked right up on them and responded in kind. He wasn't testing me, we just got into this conversation.

It's such a huge, complex universe, you would have to become totally immersed in it to carry it on, I would imagine.

Right.

It's such a huge task that you took on. Was it a bit scary?

Well, it was really. Because Brian and I hit it off so well, even though it must have been an hour or two into the conversation, we just got lost in all these things we were talking about. And we realized that we could work well together on this project. Brian told me that plenty of other people had approached him before, but none of them seemed to have the enthusiasm or the knowledge or the spark. I mean, I wasn't stupid. I knew we'd make money and sell a lot of Dune books, but I didn't write him a letter saying, "I have a way we can cash in on this and make a lot of money." I wrote him a letter saying, "Your father left this story obviously unfinished, somebody's got to finish it." Clearly, he saw that we were going to be able to do it.

But yes, you're right. This was an incredibly intimidating prospect. It seemed like something where the shoes were just too big for Brian to fill by himself. But with the two of us, with two different sets of feet, we tried to fill them at least. We decided to do this. I asked Brian if his father had left any notes or outlines. Obviously, I wanted to know how the story ended for Chapterhouse. But Brian said that, unfortunately, he didn't think that his dad ever wrote with outlines or notes. That he didn't know of any notes or papers we could use. I flew up to meet with him for a weekend -- he lives in the Seattle area -- and we just spent this exhausting couple of days brainstorming like crazy. We decided what we were going to do, which turned out to be the first three Dune books that we did: House Atreides, House Harkonnen and House Corrino, which are immediate prequels to Dune. We could talk about why we did prequels instead of Book 7 first, but that conversation might go on forever. Well, here's the short answer: By now it had been almost twelve years since Chapterhouse Dune was published. We felt that we wanted to do something that would re-energize people about Dune, that would make them remember why they liked it so much. That required us doing a story that, even if they had just read the first Dune book and not picked up anything else, that they could still relate to it.

It might be a bit intimidating to readers who aren't familiar with the series, to know where to sort of dive into it.

Cover of The Machine Crusade by Brian Herbert and
Kevin J. Anderson
Click here
for ordering information.
Yes, if we were to have jumped in and say, "Here's the long-awaited Part Seven of the Series" you would only get the people who had read all six of the first books and still remembered what the mystery was. So we wanted to write the first prequels as a story that anyone could pick it up. 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.

By the movie, maybe?

Well, maybe by the movie. But I won't diss the movie, because it brought lots of readers to the original books. But my Star Wars readers knew they liked my writing, and decided to give my Dune books a try. By the time they finished those three books, they could jump right into Dune. I met all kinds of fans who came up to me and said that they started reading the original Dune books because of our prequels. And that made me feel really cool. Also, since our prequels have come out, the sales of Frank Herbert's old books -- the ones that have been out forever and ever-have somewhere between tripled and quadrupled. So readers are coming in from all over the place. If we hadn't done something to shine the light on this great series, then I don't think it would be getting nearly as much attention.

So back to the story. Brian and I met together to decide what we were going to do with our three prequels, because we didn't have the outline for Dune #7 and didn't know anything else. Then I came home about four days later and the attorney for the Frank Herbert estate called up Brian (this is twelve years after his father's death and three days after we had decided what we were going to do). The attorney called up and said "I've just found these two safe deposit box keys in Frank Herbert's old files." So Brian went to a bank in the Seattle area and they opened up the boxes that had been there unknown and untouched for all these years, and there were some old disks, some recipes, some letters and things …and the full and complete outline for Dune 7.

Unbelievable.

"I was watching when we went into Iraq and I thought 'This is scary, because it's like the Emperor Shaddam going to fight the Fremen.' It looked like Bush was acting like Emperor Shaddam, as in 'Well, we have the right here, we have the bigger armies, so we're going to walk in and take over everything.' He's fighting against the Fremen, these people that are disappearing in the night. They lob a couple of grenades at us and then disappear. It was so creepy that Frank Herbert set all this stuff up ....40 years ago, now."
So, when you said that maybe Frank is watching over us, this is one of the things that makes us shake our heads and say, "Wow." So now we have the end point of the story and we know where everything ends up. But there were a lot of things that we needed to establish and build. We were starting work on House Atreides, and Brian came out to visit me. I have a fairly decent-sized writing studio here in my house. At the time, Brian wasn't so much writing at home; he was a full-time insurance agent. And he was doing a few other projects. But when he realized that we were going to be tackling these big projects that he needed to have a big writer's office himself, like I did. At home, he has a three-car garage. And like most of us with a three car garage, he parks cars in two of the spaces, and piles junk in the third space. So they cleaned out all the junk from the third garage , all the bikes and boxes and old things, to make room for his writing studio and there, up in the back corner, by the rafters that had been stashed for fourteen years or so, was a big xeroxed box of papers on which Frank Herbert had written "Dune Notes". There were like 3,000 pages of Dune notes. There were character sketches, a lot of the epigraphs that go at the top of the chapters, files and files of those.

It's like finding treasure.

Oh, it definitely was. There were outlines and notes and stories. We found a couple of chapters that he had cut out of Dune: Messiah that had never been published. By some other very weird coincidence, my letter to Brian asking him to consider me showed up at Brian's house on Frank Herbert's birthday.

This is just too weird.

Yes. So, I'm not entirely joking when I say there may be some sort of approval from beyond on this project. The coincidences are just a little too freaky.

So now we've gone back 10,000 years in time for this prequel? The next book is The Machine Crusades.

Cover of Dune: House Atreides by Brian Herbert and
Kevin J. Anderson
Click here
for ordering information.
Yes, and the one that I'm just finishing tomorrow, and sending it to Brian on Wednesday is The Battle of Corrin, which is the third book in that trilogy. That's basically the genesis of everything in the Dune universe. It will tell you the formation of the Spacing Guild and their Navigators and the War against the Thinking Machines. We've got the Swordmasters and the Mentats. They are created over the course of this centuries-long war.

Well, when you read the original Dune books, there are quite a few references to things -- such as the war to free the humans -- that make you wonder, "I wonder what that was anyway?" How much of those things did Frank Herbert already have mapped out?

Once you read our books, you will say, "Oh, that's what it's all about." Frank Herbert did seem to have it all mapped out. And what's amazing to me is that - and remember, that I've re-read these six books over and over - but now we have to be like these religious devotees, looking over every little niche here and there. He did this all without computers -- he did it all in his head. It's just all notes on note cards and things. I defy anybody to find any major mistakes in the original six books which took him approximately twenty years to create.

I don't understand how he kept it all straight, really, because it's so complicated.

It's amazingly complicated. There are one or two little glitches, that if you are a fanatic like we are then you could maybe spot them, although if we have spotted the glitches it's our job, as Kevin and Brian, to find some explanation that makes sense. In fact, I did that with Star Wars quite a few times. On the first couple of pages of my very first Star Wars book, I explained what Han Solo really meant when he said "The Millennium Falcon is so fast it can do the Kessel run in under 12 parsecs," so it makes perfect scientific sense now.

(laughs) There are so many people who have written in that universe, which must also make it difficult to keep straight what everyone else has said. In addition to correcting errors like distance measurements for time measurements. Although I suppose they have bibles now.

A lot of it was compiled while I working on Star Wars. I did a total of fifty-four projects for LucasFilm: I did novels, anthologies, a young adult series co-written with my wife (Rebecca Moesta), comics, pop-up books and all kinds of things. I was lucky in that I was one of the first writers to do it. I don't know how a new author can pick it up now, just because there are so many books to follow.

Now it's at Del Ray, right?

Yes, it's at Del Ray. But it's still owned by Random House, which also owns Bantam, the imprint I worked with. The Del Ray people -- most of their books now fall in something called "The New Jedi Order" which is a big, cohesive story that has been outlined from start to finish. Each author is just writing a piece in it. When I started doing it, the playing field was pretty much open. They told me to tell whatever story I wanted, in any timeframe I wanted. The books were coming out, not necessarily in chronological order. And this is, of course, a group of fans that gets really upset.

Perhaps too easily upset?

Cover of Dune: House Harkonenn by Brian Herbert and
Kevin J. Anderson
Click here
for ordering information.
Well, they know everything about the Star Wars universe. They probably don't know if they've got fresh milk in the refrigerator, but they know what color the button is supposed to be on somebody's control panel. And if I'm going to be writing in that universe, then I have to know all that too.

The one thing I don't understand about those people is, if they hate the series so much, why in the world do they keep reading/watching it? Some of the Star Trek fans do the same thing…they are just rabidly negative it seems.

Claire, if you can answer that, you will destroy sff.net and starwars.net. Their standard routine seems to be, "We hate everything as it comes out until it comes out…until the next one comes out and we hate that one even more."

But yet they're going to rush out to buy it, then get on message boards and talk about how awful it is? It's illogical.

That's the point where I decided not to get upset about it anymore. Rebecca and I did this series called "The Young Jedi Knights," which was fourteen volumes long and on these discussion groups they would just be yelling and ripping them to shreds every time each book came out, even though they kept selling like crazy, won awards and we got wonderful fan letters like you wouldn't believe. But these discussion group people, there was one guy who posted a review of Volume 13 of "The Young Jedi Knights," and he tore it to shreds, saying "This one is just as bad as the other twelve books that I hated so much I could barely read them!" Well, why would he keep buying them? If you don't like them, you don't like them. But it's sort of like saying, "I hate eggplant, so I'm going to eat more eggplant and hate it even more."

But that's really just a small minority of the fans that do that. A small, vocal minority.

Yes, it's actually a very tiny group of people. I'm playing amateur psychologist here, but these are very diehard fans and I think there's a little bit of jealousy here. I think they wish they had gotten picked to write Star Wars books.

I'm sure you get asked all the time how to become a Star Wars author.

I do. But the answer to that is you must develop your own work, become established as an author, before you would ever be asked to work in an established universe. We had this experience with Dune, which was one of the uglier ones. I still kind of shake my head over how unfair they were. Before House Atreides came out, there was an "uprising" on one of the Dune fan boards about: how dare we do this? Even though Frank Herbert was obviously going to write more Dune books, even though he left copious notes behind, and even though he had asked Brian to write a Dune book before he died…but these people just thought it was terrible and they got together and they posted sixty one star reviews of our new book (which wasn't out yet) on Amazon.com. The catch is, the book wasn't even out yet. And the posts would say, "I don't even need to read this book to know that it sucks."

That's just absurd.

Amazon.com has rules that you can't post unless you've read the book, so we were able to get those removed. But it was disturbing how nasty these people were. The light at the end of the tunnel, or the silver lining or whatever cliché you want to use, is that after House Atreides came out, Brian and I received a bunch of apology letters from these people. So we thought, "Well, that's about as good as we can expect." They said that they felt that we had really captured Dune and had not disgraced Frank Herbert's name and they appreciated what we were doing, even they had been against it in the first place.



Part I | Part II | Part III



More from Writers Write