Hey, Kevin, thanks for taking some time out to chat with me. After tooling around your website, I can see you pack your days pretty full. So, to get started, give us a snapshot of KJA, your vitals, etc.: Books sold, genres published in, copies in print, all that stuff.
How many paragraphs can I have? Here’s the fast-forward rundown: Science fiction and fantasy author, about 100 published novels, 20 million copies in print in 30 languages. 47 national or international bestsellers. Probably best known for my work writing Dune novels with Frank Herbert’s son Brian, or Star Wars novels, X-Files novels ... a recent pair set in the DC Universe, ENEMIES & ALLIES (first meeting of Batman and Superman) and LAST DAYS OF KRYPTON. I’ve collaborated with Dean Koontz on FRANKENSTEIN: PRODIGAL SON. Worked on comics for DC, Marvel, Dark Horse, IDW, Wildstorm, Topps. Set the Guinness World Record for “largest single-author book signing” in history. I’m co-producer on the new Paramount film of Dune. I’ve been married for over 18 years to Rebecca Moesta, who is also a New York Times bestselling author and my frequent coauthor.
My original novels include the epic “Saga of Seven Suns” series, Captain Nemo, Hopscotch, and my new Terra Incognita fantasy trilogy about sailing ships and sea monsters. For Terra Incognita, I did an innovative crossover project by cowriting the lyrics (with Rebecca) and co-producing two rock opera CDs featuring performances by some of the legends of rock.
I love microbrew beer, hiking, mountain climbing; I’ve climbed all 54 of the 14,000-ft peaks in Colorado. That’s probably more than a snapshot, but you didn’t really narrow down the question very much!
Nope, that’s perfect. Thanks. We’ll cover a number of topics, but not surprisingly, I first want to dig a little on the TERRA INCOGNITA project. I’m fascinated by trans-media, intending to do some of that myself. Tell us more about the relationship between the INCOGNITA books and the music.
I’ve always known there was a strong link between SF/F and progressive rock music. Look at Rush “2112,” Alan Parson’s Project “I, Robot”, Kansas “Point of Know Return,” Todd Rundgren, Emerson Lake and Palmer, Styx, Jeff Wayne, and it goes on and on. A lot of that music inspired my writing, and a lot of the music was clearly inspired by SF/F (some even inspired by some of my own works). Over the years, because I was so passionate about music, I’ve gotten to know several musicians and even the owner of a record label, ProgRock Records, that releases exactly the kind of music I listen to. So, I suggested doing a crossover project, epic fantasy novel and epic rock CD as synergistic works, a rock opera that expands one of the storylines in the novel. Shawn Gordon from ProgRock loved the idea, and we worked together to round up the musicians we wanted, developed the story and wrote the lyrics, got artwork from SF artist Bob Eggleton as well as the cover artist for the novel, and we launched “Terra Incognita: Beyond the Horizon” at the same time as the novel, The Edge of the World. Music was written by keyboardist/producer Erik Norlander (Rocket Scientists). We had performances by James LaBrie (Dream Theater), John Payne (Asia), Michael Sadler (Saga), Lana Lane, Gary Wehrkamp (Shadow Gallery), Chris Brown (Ghost Circus), David Ragsdale (the violinist from Kansas), Chris Quirarte (Prymary), Kurt Barabas (Amaran’s Plight), and Martin Orford (IQ). It turned out great, and was named Best Progressive Rock Album of the year by several sites.
We’ve just wrapped the second CD, “A Line in the Sand,” to accompany the second novel, The Map of All Things. Because it tells a different part of the epic story, a darker grittier tale about the generations-long war and the spiraling cycle of violence, the music is harder and more guitar-driven. Henning Pauly (Frameshift, Chain, Shadows Mignon) wrote the music this time and played most of the instruments; we had a new cast of characters and a new set of performers, legends of rock music including Steve Walsh (Kansas), Sass Jordan (Album Rock’s female vocalist of the year), Michael Sadler (Saga), Charlie Dominici (original lead singer from Dream Theater), Alex Froese (Frameshift), Nick Storr (The Third Ending), Arjen Lucassen (Ayreon), and Juan Roos (Shadows Mignon). It’s a creative new direction and a way to tell the story.
I can give the thumbs up to the first CD, having just bought it myself. And I’m glad to see Steve Walsh on the second CD. With this project—or any other book you write—do find yourself either wittingly or unwittingly exploring particular themes? Bear with me, I’m driving toward something…
We’re really jazzed about the second CD. You can hear three sample tracks at www.progrockrecords.com. The themes usually come out after I’ve developed a story and characters. I don’t set out to “write a book about prejudice” but it arises naturally out of the story. The Terra Incognita books, and especially the second CD, are about religious intolerance and fanaticism. I don’t know that I revisit particular themes, but I might, since the stories come from inside me.
And so comes the “something” I was driving toward, which is this: Would you say that there’s any degree of autobiography in your fiction? I had a fascinating conversation with David Morrell once, and he has some interesting ideas along these lines. I’m not asking if writing is tantamount to journaling for therapy’s sake. Rather, afterward, when you look back, do you ever feel as though your fiction is revealing things about you? Again, not in any dogmatic or supernatural way, but well, I think you get the point.
The grand-scale adventures I prefer to write may be reflective of my imaginary alter-egos, thrilling lives I wish I’d had. I grew up in a very small town in Wisconsin, was always the odd duck because I preferred to read comics or SF when everybody else was interested in the high school football games. I dreamed of exotic worlds because my midwest existence was sooooo mundane. In my novels, such as the Saga of Seven Suns or Terra Incognita, there are dozens of viewpoint characters; they are all different, but I have to put some part of me into them, dark side and light side. But I can’t point to very many fictional scenes or events that are directly based on part of my life.
Right, neither can I—point to actual fictional scenes, that is. It’s more the former thought you share. And again, not every book, etc. But I think there’s something in what Morrell is saying. Anyway, let’s shift gears a bit. If you could be a character in anyone else’s novel, which character would you be? And, of course, how come?
Ah, one of those esoteric questions. The characters in the novels I enjoy most end up going through hell and tragedies, white-knuckling adventures, terrible ordeals . . . I don’t think I’d want to experience that first-hand. That’s why I read about them in books. Authors don’t tend to write about happy characters with loving families, nice houses, enjoyable jobs, and a good life — and that’s what I have now. I think I’ll stick with reality over fiction.
Hear, hear! Let me take another run at the general idea, though. Did you ever read a book and think, “Damn, I wish I’d written that!”
Oh yeah, I read plenty of novels that just leave me in awe. I like almost everything Dan Simmons writes. Peter F Hamilton creates astounding SF universes. Larry McMurtry’s Lonesome Dove, Mario Puzo’s The Godfather, Martin Cruz Smith’s Gorky Park — all jaw dropping. So I read them and study them and try to figure out how I can do better.
I’m a huge Dan Simmons fan myself. And I remember reading Smith’s NIGHTWING, and thinking, “It’s about bats, and it’s brilliant.” Anyway, I listened to Simmons speak recently at a signing, where he quoted someone—can’t remember who, saying, “If the writer knows where the story is going next, so does the reader.” And I’ve heard other pros give rules of thumb like, “Cast out your first and second idea, and go with the third—what others won’t think of—whether a story premise or scene selection, etc. On the other hand, some of my favorite (and most surprising), I happen to know were meticulously outlined. So … your process, do you just start and see what happens? Do you outline at all, or a lot? Does it vary by project? Let us peek behind your curtain.
I am very much an outliner. I know that all writers have different processes, but I write huge, complex, and epic novels with multiple storylines, many characters, interlocking plotlines. I would never hire an architect to build a large skyscraper for me if he said he doesn’t use blueprints but rather makes it up as he goes along. I need a map and a detailed plan. This is also especially important when collaborating, so that both of you are working from the same blueprint, and also vital when working for a licensed property such as X-Files or Star Wars, etc., so they can approve what you intend to do before you waste your time writing a whole manuscript they’re not interested in. By no means does this stifle creativity to plan ahead of time — my imagination is at full tilt during the plotting stages. I let my creativity roam free while I’m building the whole story. THATS the ambitious part of the process. Once I’ve ruminated and painted the whole picture in my mind, the actual writing part is just downloading the story I already created in my head. I don’t buy the line “if the writer knows, then the reader knows”-- the writer figures it out at some point in the process of putting words down on paper (or on screen). I like to think I’ve figured out how to put together a story that people want to read.
I like the way you think. A very cool writer I know by the name of Ray Vukcevich says it quite elegantly, I think, when he says on this topic: “It’s ALL writing.” You mention some pretty big IP there, both the universes of which you’ve written in during your career. What’s your take on the differences and your preferences between media work and your original fiction?
I do my best work possible, whether it’s an original work or based on someone else’s universe. I’ve been a fan all my life, so the opportunity to write in the Star Wars universe, or Star Trek, or DC Comics, or Dune — that is a genuine thrill and a challenge. It’s certainly not easy to “just” write a Star Wars book, for instance. The writer has the universe already developed for him, and a readership familiar with the characters and setting — but they also have very heavy expectations, and you have to deliver. It’s a big responsibility.
For my original work, such as “Saga of Seven Suns” or “Terra Incognita,” I have all the creative freedom I want, but I am also responsible for building and describing every aspect of a whole universe, all the politics, economics, history, religion, science, geography, culture, as well as the characters and story. People who write their novel in, say, modern-day Chicago have a much simpler job!
Okay, writing quirks. We all have ‘em, right? Stephen King listens to punk and rock and roll while he writes. I know writers who must sit in the exact same chair every time they create. You get the point. The weirder, the better …
My method is pretty well known — I do most of my writing with a hand-held digital recorder while I’m out hiking. I live in Colorado and I spend a great deal of time alone in the mountains, wandering the trails, inspired by the scenery, while I speak my prose aloud. It’s like an old verbal storyteller, like Homer (only I’m not entirely blind). I have taught myself to dictate nearly finished prose, then a typist transcribes it; I still edit everything five or six times, sometimes more, but I really like getting away from the office and the keyboard (and the phone and email and other distractions), and it gives me a chance to hike, too. I have written Star Wars stories about the polar ice caps while out hiking in heavy snow in the Sierra Nevadas; I’ve written scenes set on the desert planet of Dune while out in the canyons of Death Valley. It’s the way I love to work.
I remember reading that Hawthorne sometimes took lone walks to construct story before sitting to write. I guess it’s a trend. All right, I’ve got one for you. In your opinion, what’s the simplest thing aspiring writers overlook, but would make the most impact in their future success?
They forget to be courteous and professional. My wife and I have a private joke about “one-short-story-sale assholes” -- people who think that all it takes is to write one good story and they’re on the way. You still have to act like a professional, you still have to work with editors, fellow writers, and you still have to be a person that editors will want to work with again.
I know the type. I sometimes marvel when I go to a convention and see a panel of “pros” who each have one short story sale, and often to semi-pro markets. Many of these folks are very nice, and truly mean well. Others get a bit … shall I say, uppity. All well, let’s discuss more cool stuff. What’s your favorite music artist/band?
I suppose Roswell Six is a trick answer? I’ve been most faithful to Rush for decades, but I have many groups or bands that I really enjoy and am inspired by, from classic prog bands like Kansas and Styx, to modern groups like Tool, A Perfect Circle, Lacuna Coil, Within Temptation, Dream Theater.
Uh, well, I think we just became lifelong friends. You’ve hit some of my musical buttons there, most notably with Dream Theater. Kudos, sir. Kudos. Now, take it a step further. What’s the best concert you’ve ever been to?
I believe I’ve been to every Rush tour since Moving Pictures, and I’ve known Neil Peart since 1989. It’s really hard to narrow it down, though the Rush 30th anniversary tour was pretty amazing. I also remember, when I was just a sophomore in high school, going to see the Kansas “Point of Know Return” tour and the Styx “Pieces of Eight” tour — still two of the greatest albums I own. Those were amazing.
I think I hate you now. Peart? You know Peart? He’s like, well you know what he’s like, right? Okay, to wind down, let me ask you to ask your own question. What question are you never asked, but wish you were? And, of course, you know, answer it?
Could I ever go back to a regular 9-5 job?
I don’t think I’m capable of that anymore. I worked a great many jobs through college, then I spent 13 years as a technical editor for the government. But I’ve been a long time out of the timeclock-punching jobs I don’t know I could take it. I work all day long at home (it’s 10:30 PM now, and I have not taken a break all day since I finished my workout at 9 AM). I would just get bored in a regular office job. I’d rather be writing.
And I’ll let you get back to it. Thanks, Kev! Folks, Kev is a class guy. If you didn’t know it before, you do now. Check out his work at http://www.wordfire.com/. And check back here soon. I’m going to see how many more class guys and gals I can chat up before this internet thing goes away …