Kevin J. Anderson's latest novel, Clockwork Angels, officially hit the bookshelves this past Tuesday (September 4). Set in a quasi-dystopian steampunk and alchemy-infused world, the novel is a collaboration with his longtime friend, famed Rush drummer and lyricist Neil Peart. We recently had a chance to talk to Anderson about his experience working with the prog rock legend and what we can expect in his new book.
Your relationship with Rush and Neil Peart goes back a few years. Can you tell us how your friendship started?
Neil and I have known each other for more than 20 years. My very first novel Resurrection Inc. (1988) was inspired by the Rush album Grace Under Pressure — which I acknowledged in the book. I sent copies off to Mercury Records, expecting they would vanish into a black hole somewhere, but about a year later I received a letter from Neil telling me how much he liked the novel, and we struck up a correspondence, met in person, and have done plenty of things together over the years, but Clockwork Angels is our most ambitious project yet.
You've mentioned that Rush has been a major influence on your work. How so?
Ever since I was a kid in a small town in Wisconsin, listening to Rush (which I chose from the Columbia Record Club because their covers looked cool, even though I had never heard them), I found that the stories in the songs inspired scenes and ideas in my mind. Their concept album 2112 is a science fiction dystopia; "Xanadu" is a big fantasy epic based on the Coleridge poem; "Cygnus X-1" and "Hemispheres" together are a science fiction epic. But the Rush songs didn't just tell me stories; the lyrics and music made me think of my own stories, and I liked to think of them as the soundtracks to what I was writing.
Fans of Rush will be thrilled to discover a number of clever references and homages to the band sprinkled throughout the story. What is it about Rush fans that sets them apart?
Rush fans are very devoted; they are not casual listeners who pick up a song or two. They immediately buy the whole album and listen to every track. When Clockwork Angels was released, it immediately became the #1 bestselling album in North America…and the band has been together 38+ years. The library of songs (20 studio albums now) is so rich, covering so many thematic landscapes and so many moods, it was a large treasure chest for me to draw from. The Rush lyrical references sprinkled throughout the novel are natural extensions of the prose, not shoehorned in with a big grin and a wink. If you catch them, you catch them, but if you don't get the references, it should not affect your enjoyment in any way.
Neil and I plotted this story from its inception; he approached me with his own ideas for scenes and characters, and he knew the lyrics he was writing, so we built the world, the storyline, the villains and heroes around the songs; but it also had to work as a novel, too. Clockwork Angels should be an enjoyable steampunk fantasy regardless of whether or not you're a Rush fan.
After Neil and I had mapped out the blueprint of the novel, I wrote drafts of the chapters and sent the roughs to Neil every day, and he read and commented, usually within hours. Some scenes he suggested; others he wrote himself. (Neil has published several of his own books and is an accomplished author in his own right.) We went back and forth, sometimes with a dozen emails a day. He was so pleased with the finished manuscript that he offered to read the unabridged audiobook himself-so if you listen to the audio, it's his voice carrying the words.
Collaborations are now something you're quite experienced with. What are the most pronounced benefits of working with another creative force? How do you resolve creative differences?
Some writers prefer the solitary experience, being the sole arbiter and inspiration behind a story. I like the "let's pretend" aspect of collaborating, bouncing ideas back and forth, building one idea upon another, drawing the best from my partner's imagination as well as mine. My most frequent collaborations have been with Brian Herbert (on the Dune novels and the Hellhole trilogy), my wife Rebecca Moesta (the Young Jedi Knights series, Crystal Doors, and Star Challengers), and Doug Beason (numerous high-tech thrillers). Collaborators have to choose each other well, someone to work with, someone whose intellect and experiences will complement your own. After talking through a project, exchanging ideas, being open to other ideas, we really don't have any creative blowups…we always try to steer through to a finished book we're both proud of.
My other collaborators were experienced novelists, but Neil brought a different perspective to the table, approaching it as a lyricist and musician. His insights and images made the story blossom in ways I would never have been able to do myself.
Clockwork Angels takes place in a hyper-regimented dystopia. How did the steam punk elements help you convey the "clockwork" nature of this world in a way that conventional science fiction could not?
Even though the Watchmaker makes certain that every tiny detail of society is rigid, on schedule, and well planned — sort of a Big Brother figure — the land of Albion isn't a particularly unpleasant place. It's bucolic, clean, colorful…you don't really see steampunk and dystopia together. Neil in particular thinks it isn't a repressive or bad place to live…but the regimented rules could feel like a straightjacket to a dreamer. On the other hand, we try to convey that the opposite end of the spectrum, the "freedom extremist" Anarchist, is just as unpleasant.
The steamliners, the alchemy, the lost cities, the pirates, "magical" Clockwork Angels, the Watchmaker all give this story a sense of wonder and high adventure that you don't see in grim dystopias.
Alchemy plays an important part of your world-building. What was it like being able to infuse this element into your story?
Neil was fascinated with the history and beliefs of alchemy and spent a lot of time researching the various aspects so we could include it into the world-building. "In a world lit only by fire…" Clean and abundant energy as well as readily available gold — that would radically change the economic and social landscape, allowing the Watchmaker to create his perfect world and meet the needs of all his citizens. We added the Alchemy College, the backstory of the Anarchist, and the extensive mines in the mountains of Atlantis.
How do the struggles and desires of your protagonist, Owen Hardy, compare to your own? Is Owen more like you or Neil?
Many Rush songs are about dreamers struggling to find an outlet for expression against tough obstacles or repressive societies ("2112," "Red Barchetta," "Middletown Dreams," "The Enemy Within," "The Analog Kid," "The Body Electric"), an independent explorer going to see what's beyond the horizon ("Cygnus X-1/Hemispheres," "The Fountain of Lamneth")…that's by no means a complete list.
For myself, I grew up in a very small farming town, dreaming about becoming a writer and seeing the world someday. I can definitely relate to Owen in a very deep and personal way. There's a lot of my upbringing in his character, and a lot of my grandfather in the frame story (with Owen as an older man). One of the key lines in the album is "In a world where I feel so small, I can't stop thinking big" — and I think that sums it up perfectly.
What are the modern day analogues to the Watchmaker and the Anarchist?
The Watchmaker and the Anarchist are opposites, and both are relevant. Some people insist on absolute Libertarianism, with utter freedom and no safety net, which might work in a theoretical sense but can only function if everybody accepts responsibility. Others don't want to think for themselves and want all decisions made for them, to let the safety net wrap them up like a mummy so they forget how to be individuals. I want to emphasize that the Watchmaker is not portrayed as evil — he's just more extreme and stifling than a dreamer can be comfortable with. But not everybody's a dreamer.
We have one small scene in the carnival with a fabulous contraption called the Cage of Imaginary Creatures, with colored-glass portholes for viewing. Customers peer inside to see what their imagination inspires; one frumpy woman demands her money back in a huff because "there's nothing inside!" And for her, alas, it is the truth.
What's next for you? And do you have any further plans to work with Neil and Rush?
Released simultaneously with Clockwork Angels is the first in my new "Dan Shamble, Zombie PI" series, Death Warmed Over, a humorous horror series about a zombie detective solving cases with monsters, vampires, werewolves, mummies, etc. I've already written the first three of those books, and they were enormously fun and entertaining; next week is the reissue of my steampunk alternate history The Martian War, in which a young HG Wells and his college professor head to Mars to prevent the War of the Worlds. Brian Herbert and I have our next original novel, Hellhole Awakening, out in February, and I'm just starting a new trilogy set in my Saga of Seven Suns universe. So, plenty busy.
Rush are just embarking on a full US concert tour for Clockwork Angels, which will then lead into a European tour, and then (my guess, at least) another US tour leg. Neil and I loved working on this project and I expect we will do something together in the future, but no definite plans yet. (It took us 20 years to figure out this one!)
You can find out more about Kevin J. Anderson at his website.