by Special Agent Laura Davis (a.k.a. Hex Quillion)
One of the best things about getting to hear writers speaking at a con is that it’s one of the few times many fans get to hear them actually talk about the craft of writing, and their particular stories of becoming writers. At WonderCon this past weekend, Kevin J. Anderson shared his own story with fans: his beginnings as a writer, and the precipitous chain of events that has led to Anderson publishing more than 120 books, at least 50 of which have been best-sellers.
Anderson grew up in Franksville, Wisconsin, which, at the time, had a population of 250, and its only industry was a sauerkraut factory. He mentioned how the factory would release its wastewater into open drainage ditches, and that water would rot when the weather turned warm. “We lived downwind from the sauerkraut factory. And now I write zombie fiction. There may be a connection there.”
He revealed his earliest influence toward becoming a writer: “When I was five years old, my parents let me watch The War of the Worlds … and I remember, I’m watching, and my eyes are like the size of an anime character, watching the Martians come in with their space ships with their heat rays, and they’re leveling the city, and they’re destroying buildings … And then, all the Martian ships just sort of waver in the air and they slowly crash and they land. The hatch opens on the bottom and this three-fingered Martian hand comes crawling out, and it’s got blotches all over it because of some disease, and [it turns out] that the atomic bomb doesn’t kill them, but the common cold killed them off because they have no resistance to Earth organisms.
“That was it for me. As soon as I saw that, I thought, ‘I want to write stuff like this. I’m into science fiction. I want to be a science fiction writer.’ The only problem was, I was five, and I didn’t know how to write anything. But that didn’t stop me. So, I got the notepad from beside my parents’ phone with little scrap sheets of paper, and I started drawing pictures. I drew pictures that I remembered from the movie … and I laid them out on the floor, and I told the story of The War of the Worlds to anybody who would go by. It was like my first foray into comics. That was it. I was hooked. It was the bug: the bug of writing.”
It was another three years before young Anderson decided he was ready to write his first novel. After reading Arthur C. Clarke and plowing his way through the adult science fiction section of the bookmobile, and devouring the 125-book collection of classics his parents bought for him, Anderson took over his dad’s study, his stack of bright pink scrap paper, and his manual typewriter. “Now, for some of you, a typewriter, it’s kind of like a steampunk version of a laptop. I was eight and a half years old. I sat down and I rolled one of those pink pieces of paper in the typewriter, and I started typing away. Over the next three or four days, I wrote my first novel. It was three and a half pages long. I write longer ones now.” He holds up a hardbound copy of The Dark Between the Stars: a 700-page tome. The audience titters.
“It was called The Injection. It was about a mad scientist who invents an injection that can bring anything to life. The other scientists don’t believe him, and so he gets mad and he gets his revenge. Because even at eight and a half years old, I understood character motivation and archetypes, and I knew that mad scientists always get their revenge. So, he goes to the wax museum and uses this injection to bring to life all of the wax museum monsters … and then he goes to the natural history museum and brings a bunch of dinosaur skeleton’s to life. They go on a rampage through the town. Because, again, I understood character motivation; mad scientists go on the rampage. It’s actually a cool scene: we’ve got these movie monsters from the wax museum marching along, and dinosaur skeletons, and our mad scientist is riding the back of a triceratops skeleton as they’re leading this army of monsters into town. I liked the idea, but I also understood that characters have to have a character flaw. My mad scientist had the character flaw of hubris … he didn’t remember that re-animated triceratops skeletons have a tendency to rear up at inopportune times. And this triceratops reared up right when it was under the electrical wires, and it electrocuted my mad scientist and he dies and that was the end. That was my first novel.” He pauses and smiles. “I think it’s better than some movies I’ve seen recently.”
By age 10, Anderson had saved enough money to buy a new bicycle, “like any normal kid,” but, instead, spent his entire savings on a high-end Smith-Corona electric typewriter. He kept writing stories and honing his craft, and when he was a sophomore in high school, he took a world history class. Anderson managed to convince the teacher to allow him to write a story, rather than a term paper, for class credit. It was a heart-wrenching saga of two brothers during the time of the plague. He got an A on the paper, and when he gave it to his mother to read, he came back to find her sitting on the sofa, reading his story, with tears pouring down her face. “And I went ‘Holy cow! I wrote something, and it made that much of an impact on somebody!’ So, I thought, ‘This must be a pretty great story! I got an A on it, and it made my mom cry! I’m going to send it somewhere to get published!’ I mailed it off to Boys’ Life magazine, which seemed the obvious place to send it. And after about six weeks, I got my very first form rejection slip. The first of many, I might add.”
It was also during this time that Anderson discovered two things that would shape his career in huge ways: the Dune series and the music of Rush. He went on to college, earning a degree in Astronomy with a minor in Russian history, all the while writing and submitting more stories and attending writers’ conferences, and won his first writing award. “I went to a writers’ conference and I got a trophy. Big trophy, marble base, with fluted columns and the golden-winged Victory on the top, and an engraved brass plate on the front that named me ‘The Writer With No Future,’ because I had more rejection slips than any other writer at the entire conference.”
While working as a tech writer at Lawrence Livermore Lab (LLL), Anderson wrote his first real novel. While the novel was in development, Rush came out with their Grace Under Pressure album. “All of these songs are science fictional songs, and as I’m listening to these songs, I thought, ‘Hey! That fits right in with my novel! That fits right in with my novel! I can use that for chapter 12!’ And as I started realizing that, I thought, ‘I’m going to make every song in this album fit into my novel, Resurrection, Inc. I’ll get it, but nobody else will get it.’”
Resurrection, Inc. was the first novel Anderson sold, and selling it qualified him for membership in the Science Fiction Writers of America (SFWA). “The coolest thing about that was that by joining it as a professional, I got their membership directory. And their membership directory had Frank Herbert’s home address in it … I decided that I wanted to send my very first copy of my very first novel to Frank Herbert because he had influenced me so much … about two months before my book was published, Frank Herbert died.” Even all these years later, Anderson’s voice strains a bit as he continues, “So, I wasn’t able to send it to him. I also put in the book that it was inspired by the album Grace Under Pressure, and I listed in it that I thanked Geddy Lee, Alex Lifeson, and Neil Peart, who had created that album that had inspired the book. When the book did finally come out, I packaged up a copy for each member of the band, and sent them off to Mercury Records, where it promptly went into storage with the Ark of the Covenant.”
A couple of years later, Anderson, still working at LLL, had a really bad day. There were foul-ups at work, which caused him to get chewed out by his boss, twice, and a reviewer from Asimov’s Science Fiction magazine tore Anderson’s second novel to shreds. “They absolutely eviscerated it, hated that novel. So, it was an awful day. I went home and I got the mail and there were Safeway flyers and bills, and there was a letter with the return address of Neil Peart. I opened it up and there was a seven-page, single-spaced letter from Neil Peart, the drummer from Rush, the guy who wrote the album that inspired the novel, telling me how much he loved my novel.” Anderson pauses, then chuckles. “No longer a crappy day! We corresponded, we’ve been friends for over 25 years, now.”
He explained how his editor got him involved with writing the Jedi Academy trilogy, and how that led to him writing the introduction to the Dark Horse Star Wars Dark Empire collection, which, in turn, led him to working on the Ralph McQuarrie art book, the Young Jedi series, and, eventually, the X-Files novels. Throughout all of that work, Anderson kept writing and publishing his novels of his own, and, of course, his love for the Dune series never diminished.
“When Frank Herbert wrote his last Dune book, Chapter House Dune [co-written with his son, Brian Herbert], it’s this whole new section of the storyline, and it just ends on a cliffhanger. And then Frank Herbert passed away. So, it was clear that there was more to this story. Somebody needs to tell this. I contacted Brian, made this whole pitch letter, and here’s my writing credits and how much I love Dune, and are you ever going to finish writing this Dune story, and if you’re not going to finish writing it, can I work with you on it?”
Brian Herbert did his homework, then called Anderson to discuss the project. As Anderson explained it, “My wife was sitting in the room as I’m talking on the phone and she said, ‘After like 30 seconds, you guys just started speaking another language.’” And so the magic began.
Herbert told Anderson that his father never wrote any outlines, and there were no notes to work from, so there was no way to tell what he’d planned to put into the story. The pair plotted their first trilogy, House Atreides, House Harkonnen, and House Corrino, wrote up a proposal, sent it to publishers, and got a significant offer on doing that trilogy. They were about to start writing in earnest when, “the estate lawyer for Frank Herbert called up Brian and said, ‘It’s been 10 years since Frank Herbert passed away. We’re going to put everything into storage, we’re closing out the files, and what do you want us to do with these two safe deposit box keys that are in the file?’ Brian said, ‘What safe deposit box keys?’ They took them to this bank in downtown Seattle, in fact, it was so old, and so unused that they had to drill out the lock. Inside the safe deposit box, there were some letters, some jewelry, some recipes that Frank Herbert had written down, and the full and complete outline for the grand finale of the Dune series. So, that’s what we used as our background for a bunch of these.”
As amazing as that was, Frank Herbert had one more gift for his literary heirs and their readers. “Brian came out to visit me at my house in Colorado. I’ve been a full-time writer for a very long time, and Brian was still working, he ran his own insurance agency. But, now, we were going to be full-time writers and he just had a little corner of the desk in the den off the kitchen. I had my own full-size writing office. He saw my office and decided he needed a writing office, too, because, you know, testosterone. He has a three-car garage at his house, and, like most people with a three-car garage, that means you park cars in two of them and pile junk in the third one. Well, the third garage was the perfect thing to be remodeled into a writing office for him. So, they’re cleaning out everything, taking out all the old bicycles and lawnmowers, and baby clothes, and clearing out the garage, and they find a Xerox paper box, stuck up in the rafters, who knows how long ago. [It has] Frank Herbert’s handwriting on the side of it that says ‘Dune Notes.’ About 3,000 pages of Frank Herbert’s Dune notes: character backgrounds, histories, those epigraph quotes from the beginnings of the chapters. All of this stuff that we were also able to use.”
To bring the story full-circle, Anderson explained how his early inspiration in the music of Rush led to his involvement in their latest project, Clockwork Angels. Neil Peart is a huge fan of steampunk, and had read Anderson’s steampunk work, and one day he called Anderson to ask whether Anderson thought steampunk was going to be around for a while. “I said, ‘Yes, I think it is.’ And he said, ‘Cool, because we’re thinking of a concept album that’s like a steampunk fantasy adventure, and I wanted to bounce some ideas off you.’ I’m sure when Neil Peart wants to bounce ideas off you, most of you would say, ‘OK.’ So, we’re bouncing and brainstorming ideas, and he’s got this idea for this steampunk carnival and a watchmaker, kind of a Big Brother guy who watches over the world, makes sure all the trains go on time … I’m a Rush fan, and he’s sending me lyrics as he’s writing them, which is really cool!
“My wife and I have lunch with [Peart] in Santa Monica, and he’s just bubbling about this project and he’s thrilled about everything they’re putting together … it’s going to be not just an album, it’s going to be a Broadway musical, and it’s going to be a novel, and it’s going to be Ice Follies, and I’m like, ‘Rush fan. Cool. Ice Follies.’ My wife, though, goes, ‘Um, ‘scuse me. Did you say novel? Who’s going to write the novel?’ And he says, ‘Well, Kevin is, of course,’ and then he goes on about the Ice Follies. So, Neil and I did Clockwork Angels, the novel.
“It came out, and it hit the New York Times Bestseller list on Neil’s 60th birthday. So, I was able to text him, just before he went onstage for the beginning of a concert, to say, ‘Not only are you an adequate drummer, you are a New York Times bestselling author.’
“Because that sold so well, Neil and I just finished a sequel called Clockwork Lives, which will be out in September , but also, the publisher of Clockwork Angels was able to re-issue my very first novel, Resurrection, Inc., the one inspired by Grace Under Pressure. They re-issued it with a brand new cover by Hugh Syme, the guy who painted the cover for Grace Under Pressure, that inspired the whole book in the first place.” Anderson pauses for a moment as the audience catches up.
“So,” he concludes, “I have the coolest job in the world, and you don’t.”