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On 21 June 2011, the day of the winter solstice, Kevin J Anderson brought some winter cheer to Dymocks in Melbourne. A small group braved the wet, cold weather and clouds of volcanic ash to hear Kevin speak and have their books signed. Below is a transcript of a recorded interview, slightly edited, which overlaps somewhat with Kevin’s author’s talk.
The new book we have out is called Hellhole, the first book in a trilogy that I’ve written with Brian Herbert, with who I’ve written a dozen Dune novels.
After doing a dozen Dune novels we decided we had practiced well enough. We were working in Frank Herbert’s universe but we proved that we could write books together and we enjoyed writing together. We enjoyed exchanging ideas and everything.
So we decided to come up with our own science fiction universe. Just to step you through how we developed the idea, this is going to be 3 books and six or seven hundred pages long, it’s going to be a big story.
I’d been reading about the crustaceous impact. The impact that struck Earth that made the dinosaurs extinct, but not just the dinosaurs, something like 95% of the species on Earth were wiped out with that one impact.
Imagine if that happened on another planet somewhere, it would be interesting to be able to look at that planet five centuries later. It would be still reeling but most of the worst part of it would be over. It would not actually be spring time, but it would be a place you could actually try to settle again.
We postulated a galactic empire where the humans are spreading out to new planets and that a new batch of planets have just opened up for colonisation including this one, called Hellhole because it’s not a very pleasant place. Hellhole is the last place on anybody’s list of where they would want to go. It’s not like going to some beautiful place to have an idyllic existence, only the hardiest of pioneers would go there.
Who would go to a place like this? Why would you choose this awful place?
Well obviously only the people who have no place else to go, and that means the outlaws, the people on the run, they’re misfits, they’re exiles, they’re criminals. It’s a lot like what Botany Bay in Australia was like, it’s a lot like what the American West was like.
The people who expanded and went into Deadwood, South Dakota, Utah and Tombstone, Arizona, those places, those weren’t the ones who had the comfortable life back in Boston or Chicago, those were the ones who had nothing left to lose, which makes for a whole cast of interesting characters.
In Hellhole we developed a bunch of conmen, exiles and convicts. The main character is a rebel general who almost overthrew the existing government but failed, so he was captured and exiled to live his life. So General Adolphus has failed in his rebellion and been exiled to this planet Hellhole and one of his phrases that he likes to say, his last words that he gave as he was convicted, was ‘It is better to rule on Hellhole than to serve on Sonjeera.’ (the capital).
On the planet he has been able to keep his people alive because of his resourcefulness, his leadership abilities and because of his sheer bravery. He’s managed to get the power running, the water going, industries going, everything to keep the colony alive and make them self-sufficient.
Because this is a science fiction story, not just a human drama of pioneers in a rigorous environment fighting against a corrupt government, we also have to have a science fiction element. They find alien artefacts and the remnants of the previous civilisation that lived on this planet that were all wiped out with the asteroid impact.
Once they start discovering these interesting artefacts, then the old government decides maybe they want this Hellhole planet back after all. The people who live there don’t exactly want to go away.
So there is this immensely convoluted story with lots of characters and because it’s a trilogy the story builds. Everything I just described is in book one setting up the situation.
In book two things get much worse, there’s another war for independence, there’s more alien technology appearing, then book 3 things are even bigger and maybe the preconceptions the reader had are not quite correct and we change a few things.
It’s a big story, we plotted it right from the very beginning. It’s a really ambitious thing we’re going to be writing in between Dune books. We’ll be alternating Dune books now since Brian Herbert and I have written 12 Dune novels.
The next one is called Sisterhood of Dune, which comes out in February. Sisterhood is all about the formation of the Bene Gesserit sisterhood, the spacing guild, the navigators, the mentats, all these classic and important great schools in the Dune universe. We’ve got that book, which is the start of a trilogy, then Hellhole which will be a trilogy, and we’ll be taking turns every year with those books.
How did you start working with Brian Herbert on Dune?
Frank Herbert wrote six Dune books when he was alive. His last book, called Chapterhouse: Dune, builds up a big climactic battle against a bunch of the main power groups. Then it ends on a cliff hanger and after that Frank Herbert died without finishing the story.
As a Dune fan myself, as somebody who loved reading all of the books, not just the Dune books but all of Frank Herbert’s books, I contacted Brian Herbert to ask if he was going to finish writing this story.
We talked and we hit it off right away. We realised we were very inspired just to brainstorm with each other. We decided to write the next Dune books together.
We didn’t have an outline because Frank Herbert supposedly didn’t write with outlines, but as we started working and digging into the files and looking at the original books that Frank wrote, there were a series of serendipitous events that eventually got us the last outline that Frank had written plus thousands of pages of his notes and that was all the ingredients we could possibly need for doing our own Dune stuff.
Please tell me about the Terra Incognita series and how that relates to Australia.
The last time I was in Australia was about 4 years ago, doing a book tour for my Seven Suns series and some Dune books. I was writing this big epic story about sailing ships and sea monsters and brave explorers who would be going out to the edge of the world. The places on the map that were marked ‘Here be monsters’ or ‘Here be dragons’ because nobody had discovered it yet.
I developed a big fantasy story about a religious war between to continents, very much like Christian Europe and Muslim Arabia back in the middle ages. The sailors in my stories, these captains from each side of the conflict, were looking for these legendary lost continents that are basically where Australia is on the map.
When we were here before I spent a lot of time down on the shipwreck coast not far from Melbourne. We were off in Perth and Fremantle and went into the shipwreck museum. A lot of the details we discovered there found their way into the plotting of Terra Incognita. I was also so enamoured of Sydney Harbour, I modelled my entire capital city of Calay on Sydney Harbour. I almost traced it on a map and put it as a fantasy map in my books.
There’s a lot of historical background of Australia in my books, both in Hellhole book and the Terra Incognita books. The third Terra Incognita book was just published, called the Key to Creation. The other two are The Edge of the World and The Map of All Things. That’s a big trilogy that’s all done. I have other things I’m working on too.
I’ve read some of your older Star Trek and Star Wars books. You’ve worked in so many different universes. What are some of the pros and cons of writing in someone else’s sandbox?
The pros are, first off, I’m a fan. I grew up as a fan, so just the idea of writing in Star Wars or Star Trek or X Files is enough to make my skin tingle and get all excited about working on stuff like that. There’s an excitement just as a fan to be working there.
The drawbacks are that I don’t own it, it’s someone else’s toys that I’m borrowing. A lot of the time the work I want to do has to be approved by groups of people that have to make decisions not necessarily for the creative reasons but because something has to match a new toy release that they’re doing, or other reasons that it wouldn’t necessarily be my choice to do that in the story.
I’ve never been one to believe that there’s only one way to write a sentence or only one way to tell a story so if I come up with a conflict where I can’t do the plot the way I originally envisioned it, then we just do it a different way. I come up with something else.
I love being the guy with my name on 50 different Star Wars covers or all the X Files books I’ve written and all the comics, working with Batman and Superman, working with Star Trek and it’s just very exciting for me to do that. It’s also very exciting to create my own world. The Saga of Seven Suns is my biggest series so far.
Creating all that from scratch was a wonderful exercise, a difficult exercise, because you have to create everything. The history, the planets, the ships, the cultures, everything.
Whereas in Star Wars it’s all made for you. You can still create parts of it, but you’re operating within parameters that are already laid down. It’s different to exploring brand new territory where nobody has hacked through the underbrush and made the trails for you. But I do both of them and I enjoy both of them and I continue to.
Would you like to share a bit about Seven Suns? I’m inspired to read that and the Terra Incognita series.
Good. That was the point of doing the talk. The Saga of Seven Suns is a seven volume science fiction epic. I planned it as 7 volumes. They’re all big, enormous books. They’re all out now so you can read the whole series from start to finish and it really is a start to finish, I’m not going to keep writing more books that drag the story on.
It’s about a giant galactic war among several races including the humans. Of course the humans, being humans, have a lot of factions and they’re all at war with each other as well.
It’s my love letter to science fiction. Everything I’ve loved about science fiction I’ve thrown into this project.
It’s got giant star ships and space battles, ancient abandoned alien cities, powerful alien empires, killer robots, alien creatures, space battles, interesting environments and giant cosmic ideas that could bring about the end of the universe if it’s not done right. I just put it all in there. It’s got a cast of characters in the hundreds I’m sure.
Each book was mapped out so I know where book 2 ends, book 3 ends, book 4 ends. It tells a giant War and Peace but on a galactic scale.
You’ve worked on a number of collaborations with a few different authors, what are some of the ways collaborations work?
Most of my collaborations have been done in the same way. It’s a true collaboration process.
I’ll meet with the collaborator whether it’s Brian Herbert or my wife Rebecca Moesta, or a previous collaborator was Doug Beason. I did a lot of books with him.
We’d brainstorm the book, we’d talk it out, we’d map out the chapters, the whole thing.
We’d divide up the chapters so each writer takes half of the work. By the time we started the writing we both had the same book in our heads because we’d talked about it so much.
We knew who the characters were, we knew what the scenes were, we knew what led up to the conflict that was going on, then we’d go off and write up our separate chapters.
Then we’d exchange chapters and edit them, putting it all together. It really wasn’t a one person lending his name and the other person doing all the work. It really was a collaborative process.
You have to be friends before you can collaborate because there’s to be a lot of discussion, a lot of give and take and negotiating that goes on. We’ve gotten through all of them and we really enjoy it.
My wife and I have written 37 books together and we’ve been married 20 years so that has managed to work out just fine.
Did the relationship come first or did the collaboration come first?
The relationship came first. I had published a few books of my own before I met Rebecca. She became my reader and editor. She’d go over all the manuscripts and tell me what’s wrong with them and she would fix things and proof read them. We started working on a few stories together, then some books together, and it has continued.
That’s wonderful. As an author, how do you feel about having an IMDB rating as an actor?
I can’t believe anybody knows about that. I’ve been in a few little fan films and I have no aspirations of being an actor. I don’t want to make cameos in movies that I’m doing. I like to do different things and experience different things.
I find it more impressive that I’ve written and produced two rock CDs. Being a record producer means more to me than the IMDB stuff. The two rock CDs are cross over albums based on my Terra Incognita books. There’s a rock CD that expands part of book one, and a rock CD that expands part of book two. We’re just starting to work on the third CD.
They’re performed by some of my favourite musicians. We’ve got Steve Walsh from Kansas, the guy who sang ‘Carry on Wayward Son’ and ‘Dust in the Wind’, he’s one of our vocalists. The lead singer from Asia, the lead singer from Saga, the lead singer from Dreamtheatre. All these people are performers I listen to, they’re my favourite guys, and they’re performing on this CD. I’m pretty excited by that.
The band is called Roswell 6. You can find it on Amazon I’m sure.
I will now. It seems that every website that has information on you, talks about your Guinness Book of World Record.
Because there’s nothing else! [laughter]
Why did you do it?
The publisher wanted to do a big promotion on a book I had out. They brought in lots of people, closed off some streets, they had a band playing and gave away free banana splits. I signed a couple of thousand books in one evening. And I have a Guinness World Record certificate on my wall. And by now my wrist seems to be healed, even though it’s been about 10 years from that.
I was going to ask about the RSI. You said last night that you’ve achieved all your ambitions, is there anything else?
I haven’t achieved all my ambitions. I was asked what universe I would pick to work in. My answer was that I’m working in it now, I am doing the stuff that I really really want most to be doing.
I enjoy my career, I enjoy my life, I’m telling the stories that I want to tell. I get to play with all the best toys. Batman and Superman and Star Wars and X Files and my own stuff. Dune of course is my favourite science fiction book and now I get to be working on new Dune books.
I’m very satisfied and very happy.
But I’m not complacent. Each book has to be better than the last one, and I have to try to find a way that I’m not just retooling the same thing all the time, that it’s genuinely the best that I can possibly do, and then I figure out how to do it even better the next time.
Are you trying to set the Guinness Book of Records for the most number of books?
Well that’s not going to happen. I’m a little bit over a hundred books right now I think. Isaac Asimov had three or four hundred I think. That’s not something I’m even trying to do. I’m just writing the books I want to write and hope to pay the bills with them.
You mentioned that last weekend you were at Sydney Supanova and yet you managed to write 3 chapters. How?
I had a morning off. I write with a digital recorder. I was in Sydney and our hotel was not too far from the Botanical Gardens and Hyde Park, which are just beautiful places to walk around. I went out for half a day with my notes and my recorder and talked to myself and I destroyed a planet and I considered it a good day’s work.
Joe Abercrombie mentioned he has been playing Red Dead Redemption as ‘research’ for his next novel. Do you have any unusual sources of research?
Well I do. I live in the mountains of Colorado back in the States and I do a lot of hiking when I’m out in the mountains. A lot of that is ‘research’ (with the quotes around it) because I’m out in spectacular landscapes and I find that inspirational.
I do all kinds of different things that could be writing related.
Like I said before, that trip to Australia was hugely influential on my research for the Terra Incognita books. I knew it was going to be, but I don’t think I realised just how much I was going to learn and be influenced by the stuff I experienced and saw.
Just last October we were the guests of a sheik in the United Arab Emirates, who had read one of the Terra Incognita books and had invited us over to be his guest authors at a book fair. Experiencing that culture from the inside was mind blowing, it was like encountering an alien civilisation, it was just so different from what we’re used to.
We’ve been invited to go to Abu Dhabi this coming fall, which will be another amazing experience. Everything that we see and do and participate in all adds to the ingredients of what I can draw on from my imagination, and it all finds its way back into the alien cultures I write about.
What are you most proud of achieving?
There are so many things. I’m very happy to have reawakened interest in Frank Herbert’s work because he was my favourite author. I feel like I’m paying back for some of the things that I got out of his stuff.
I’m thrilled to have been one of the first people writing Star Wars books. So many Star Wars fans say they never liked to read until they read these books, and that makes me very proud.
I’m writing original things that answer fan questions that have not been answered.
I did The Last Days of Krypton, which is the whole back story of how Superman’s planet was destroyed.
That’s not ever really been described before, so I put all that together. I’m just trying to do the best stories that I can and I’m entertaining myself and the fans seem to be entertained at the same time. What could be better than that?
That’s fantastic. Is there anything you’d like to say to either aspiring writers or fans in general?
Something I’d like to point out is – well, this could be a much longer conversation.
Because of the ebook revolution, where authors are able to put up their own ebooks, they’re able to put up books that might have lost their audience and gone out of print. I have a lot of my older books that have gone out of print but I’m making them available again.
The same with short stories that I’ve written that were published in magazines, but have never been reprinted again.
A lot of Frank Herbert’s books have just vanished. Now we’re bringing them all back. It’s WordFire, where all of our ebooks are published. They’re available in kindle and nook and all the basic formats.
I’m just very pleased with that way of going about it. It’s more of a direct contact from the author to the reader, rather than all the middle men and all the other process that’s involved with getting a book released and distributed.
I can put up a brand new short story in the Terra Incognita universe, which I just did, I wrote it and put it up just before the book came out.
There isn’t that entire year or more delay through the production and manufacturing process. I can write a story and you can be reading it within a few days. That’s a very exciting way to go.
We’ll see if I can make a living at it, because there’s a whole different model there. I’m just enjoying the added dimension of freedom that it allows, and to bring back books that should be in print that have been forgotten.
What is on the horizon?
Hellhole Awakening is the second one and I’m almost finished writing my chapters in it, Brian’s still working on his chapters. The third Terra Incognita book just came out, the Sisterhood of Dune comes out in February and I’ve got a new Seven Suns trilogy I’m working on. That’s enough to keep me busy for right now.
Thank you very much.
Thank you, Nalini.
Knowing that Amazon in the USA usually doesn’t sell books to Australia, I tested out Wordfire. I bought a book for my kindle surprisingly easily, at a cost of $4.99.