Interview with NY Times Bestselling author Kevin J. Anderson

MICHAEL A. VENTRELLA: I’m pleased to be interviewing author Kevin J. Anderson, the author of 120 books, 51 of which appeared on bestseller lists; he has 23 million copies in print in 30 languages. KJAlibraryKevin coauthored thirteen DUNE novels with Brian Herbert, as well as their original HELLHOLE trilogy. He followed his epic “Saga of Seven Suns” series with his “Terra Incognita” fantasy trilogy, and wrote the novel CLOCKWORK ANGELS based on the new Rush album. He recently launched a hilarious new series featuring Dan Shamble, Zombie PI. In addition to numerous STAR WARS projects, he wrote three X-FILES novels and collaborated with Dean Koontz on FRANKENSTEIN: PRODIGAL SON. He is also one of the founding members of the premiere seminar for writing careers, Superstars Writing Seminars. His web page is here.

Science fiction and fantasy can often overlap. Do you tend to think about balancing the two in your books?

KEVIN J. ANDERSON:No, I think about the story and not about the genre. Much of my science fiction epics are modeled after fantasy epics and tropes, but they are still science fiction. My Saga of Seven Suns and the follow-up the Saga of Shadows are like big fantasy series in the plot structure, character archetypes, and the sweep of the story.

VENTRELLA: As a scientist, do you try to find scientific ways to explain magic?

ANDERSON: I apply my scientific experience in my worldbuilding, which is what I’m probably best known for. kd3f If it’s a fantasy series, I develop the magic system as rigorously as I develop alien cultures or environments. In the only big fantasy trilogy I’ve done, Terra Incognita, I have a very complex system of sympathetic magic (no wizards waving wands at singing elves), but the culture and history are based on meticulous research into our Age of Discovery, Prince Henry the Navigator, the Crusades, sailing ships. I like to get the details right.

VENTRELLA: Would you ever consider writing a standard fantasy with wizards and elves? If not, can you think of an example where it would interest you?

ANDERSON: I did write a trilogy — GAMEARTH, GAMEPLAY, and GAME’S END — set in a Dungeons & Dragons type of role-playing game, which has dragons, ogres, big evil. But it’s also got some interesting twists, a meta-fiction both inside and outside the game. That was how I made it interesting to me.

VENTRELLA: Do you find yourself creating the setting first, characters first, or plot first? How do you organize your work?

ANDERSON: You don’t build a giant cathedral without drawing a blueprint first. My big novels — the Dune series, Hellhole, the Saga of Seven Suns, Terra Incognita — are all immensely complex with myriad plot strands, interacting characters, choreographed battles. I create the setting, characters, and plot all together interactively.

VENTRELLA: You’ve also written superhero stories — do you consider those science fiction or fantasy or neither?

ANDERSON: I wrote THE LAST DAYS OF KRYPTON, a detailed science fiction epic about the fall of the planet Krypton, written with as much ambitious plotting as my own big epics. kryptonENEMIES & ALLIES is a very rational superhero story set during the Cold War, with Bruce Wayne trying to analyze scientifically how to reproduce Superman’s superpowers.

VENTRELLA: Do you like writing in someone else’s universe? What are the advantages and disadvantages?

ANDERSON: I am a fanboy and I love the media universes I work in. I grew up with Superman and Batman; I saw Star Wars when it first showed in theaters; I watched every episode of Star Trek, day after day. I love writing those stories, even if it means headaches with the licensor’s lawyers or continuity experts. You certainly get a lot of readers who come to those books, and many of those readers go on to read my other work.

VENTRELLA: It seems that the advantage of novels over graphic comics is being able to get into the heads of your characters more -– is that what attracted you to the idea?

ANDERSON: I got into writing comics much later, after having published many novels. There are different strengths to the mediums. My first comics were for Star Wars, which is an amazing visual property, and I leveraged that with my comics.

VENTRELLA: When writing about Batman or Superman, do you have a specific one in mind? A specific writer or actor? Or do you create your own version?

ANDERSON: I had my very favorites among the comics and movie versions, but I tried to make it all fit into an original interpretation.

VENTRELLA: When adding new Dune stories, have you tried to copy Herbert’s style at all? kja2Did you feel limited in any way?

ANDERSON: Not at all. Brian Herbert and I each developed our own styles over the course of our careers, and Frank Herbert was such a master with his own distinct voice we would never try to copy it. We set our stories in the world Frank Herbert created, but we don’t try to imitate him.

VENTRELLA: Of all of the other universes you’ve been allowed to play in, which is your favorite?

ANDERSON: Oh, don’t make me pick! If I had to, I suppose Star Wars and Krypton were my favorites.

VENTRELLA: How have you handled collaboration? Do you and Rebecca (for instance) plan out a story together or does one do a first draft and the next polish and so on? Is it different with other collaborators?

ANDERSON: Each collaboration is different, each partner is different. In my collaborations, we follow the same model: we discuss the complete novel, work out all the plot details together, then write the outline. We divide up the chapters, each writer taking half, then we each write our chapters and swap them for as many edits as it takes.

VENTRELLA: You maintain a great presence with your fans — an active blog, convention appearances, Facebook posts and the like. How do you manage to find time to write? And is this all that important?

ANDERSON: It’s extremely important to maintain contact with your fans. 9780758290106_p0_v1_s260x420They are the ones who keep your books alive, who tell their friends and spread the word. Social media makes it much easier and much more personal. I make the time for it because I think it’s vital. If I didn’t have dedicated fans, I wouldn’t be able to have the job I love.

VENTRELLA: Do you think it is important to fight back politically against those who would deny science?

ANDERSON: That is such a hard one. I used to get involved in vocal arguments over political disagreements, but that absorbed huge amounts of my time and energy … and I lost a lot of readers. I now keep my politics to myself.

VENTRELLA: Many established authors are now self-publishing their back catalogues themselves, avoiding the big publishers completely. Some are even handling their new releases on their own. What are the disadvantages of doing so?

ANDERSON: You have to do all the work, and many writers don’t know how to do all of those steps. That’s the pitfall. You can do it all, but sometimes you need a professional. Kind of like putting in new plumbing. That said, I’ve spent the past twenty five years learning all the steps and i feel I do know what I’m doing. My wife and I are the publishers of WordFire Press, which now has over 80 titles up, not just of my own back stock but of other authors as well, including Frank Herbert, Brian Herbert, Bill Ransom, Doug Beason, Neil Peart, Brad R. Torgersen, Michael A. Baron, and Pulitzer prize winner Allen Drury. We’ve done very well with it.

VENTRELLA: What book do you advise for the starting Anderson reader and why?

ANDERSON: I think I would suggest CLOCKWORK ANGELS Layout 1(a wonderful steampunk fantasy based on the new Rush concept album), CAPTAIN NEMO (an alternate historical about Jules Verne and his creation), and especially the Dan Shamble, Zombie PI series. Those were the books I had the most fun with.

VENTRELLA: What criticism of your work do you disagree with the most?

ANDERSON: When people dislike a book I wrote before they even read it (this from some die-hard media fans who refuse to consider anybody else’s interpretation)

VENTRELLA: All writers basically write what they would like to read. So what do you like to read? Who are your favorite authors?

ANDERSON: I like to sink my teeth into big epics, such as the works of Dan Simmons, Larry McMurtry, and Frank Herbert.

VENTRELLA: What advice would you give an aspiring author that you wish someone had given you?

ANDERSON: Learn your business and treat writing as a business, a career, not just a creative exercise.

VENTRELLA: What projects can we expect from you next?

ANDERSON: I’ve got more Dan Shamble Zombie PI books coming, then MENTATS OF DUNE in March, a new trilogy set in the Seven Suns universe, THE DARK BETWEEN THE STARS, out next June, and the third and final HELLHOLE novel out next August.

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Interview with author A. C. Crispin

MICHAEL A. VENTRELLA: Today I’m pleased to be interviewing A.C. Crispin, whose new novel is PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN: THE PRICE OF FREEDOM. She’s best known for the novelization of the 1984 V TV series, but also for her bestselling Star Wars novels THE PARADISE SNARE, THE HUTT GAMBIT, and REBEL DAWN — although I first discovered her through her Star Trek novels: YESTERDAY’S SON, TIME FOR YESTERDAY, THE EYES OF THE BEHOLDERS, and SAREK.

Ann, You’ve been able to write novels in some of fandom’s favorite stories. How did you manage that?

A.C. CRISPIN: After I wrote YESTERDAY’S SON and V, publishers with franchises approached my agent when they had projects they thought would be a good match for my skills.

If your readers want to read about how to get an agent, soup to nuts, they should read “Notes on Finding a (Real) Literary Agent” on my website.

VENTRELLA: Do you make proposals or do the studios come to you directly now?

CRISPIN: For original novels I write book proposals. For tie-in work, they pretty much come to me.

VENTRELLA: Let’s discuss THE PRICE OF FREEDOM. How much freedom were you given to develop Jack Sparrow’s background?

CRISPIN: After a considerable amount of back and forth on the part of the Disney studio liaison, during which several detailed outlines were not approved, the studio liaison decided that instead of writing the project I had been originally hired to write (the story of the Isla de Muerta mutiny re: the Aztec gold) I should instead write the story of how Jack Sparrow worked for the EITC and wound up making that bargain with Davy Jones. So I knew where the story had to end up. How I got there was left pretty much up to me.

I did consult with both my editors on the book, the acquiring editor and the editor who completed the project. For example, they both agreed that there should be a “Lady Pirate” as a character, so that’s how Doña Pirata was born. The Legend of Zerzura plotline was my creation, but my editors suggested having talismans as a way to get into the Sacred Labyrinth and reach the treasure. So I then came up with the bracelets.

By the time I finished with my outline, it was over 70 single spaced pages long. Of course, THE PRICE OF FREEDOM is a long novel, some 235,000 words.

VENTRELLA: Did Disney censor any of your ideas or tell you to make major changes?

CRISPIN: My Disney editor (somewhat regretfully, because she really liked them) bowdlerized my hottest sex scene. I’m not sure you’d call that a major change. After all, we are talking Disney, here. (The scene was hot, but not graphic — she felt that it was a bit too hot.)

VENTRELLA: What were your main goals in trying to develop his character?

CRISPIN: To create the character of “Jack becoming” so that people would recognize Jack Sparrow, but also know this wasn’t quite the Jack they see in the films … this was a younger, more vulnerable, more trusting and less cynical Jack. He gets more cynical and “savvy” during the course of the book. He’s not the same Jack at the end as he was at the beginning. Of course that’s the goal of good fiction, right?

VENTRELLA: What adventures in your novel help shape Jack into the character we all know?

CRISPIN: Oh, Jack experiences betrayal, disappointment, fear of imminent death, hatred, and as a result learns to be much more wary and cunning, and to trust almost no one. Readers who want teasers can read the excerpts on my website. There are six there.

VENTRELLA: Do any other characters from the film appear in the novel?

CRISPIN: Edward Teague, Cutler Beckett, Hector Barbossa, Pintel and Ragetti, and a certain squid-faced Captain.

VENTRELLA: Were you given a peek at the script for the most recent film in order to work in some foreshadowing?

CRISPIN: No. I was given the script for “At World’s End” before the film released, but my book was finished before the script for “On Stranger Tides” was written.

VENTRELLA: The most recent movie is loosely based on Tim Powers’ novel ON STRANGER TIDES. Did you use that novel at all for reference?

CRISPIN: I’ve read ON STRANGER TIDES a couple of times, but aside from the fact that it’s an excellent pirate yarn, no.

VENTRELLA: Will there be more books in the series?

CRISPIN: That will be Disney’s call. I imagine they’ll base that decision on how well THE PRICE OF FREEDOM sells.

VENTRELLA: What’s your favorite of the Pirates movies?

CRISPIN: The Curse of the Black Pearl.

VENTRELLA: Do you find using established characters in your media novels to be a limitation?

CRISPIN: Nope. I find it a challenge to have them grow and change in ways so subtle that the studio doesn’t realize I’ve done it.

VENTRELLA: You’ve also written your own series: Starbridge. Tell us about this!

CRISPIN: Funny you should ask about that. There’s a good chance that the seven StarBridge novels will soon be re-released as e-books. There have been quite a few requests for them from readers, over the years. The series is about a school for young people from the Fifteen Known Worlds who come to an asteroid in deep space to learn to be diplomats, planetary advocates (known as “interrelators”) and explorers. The books focus on First Contact, and explore what it would be like in a galactic society.

VENTRELLA: Do you find writing books based on your own work easier?

CRISPIN: Not really. I put my full efforts into both my media tie-ins and my original novels. With the original novels, it’s generally a bit more work, because I have to create the world, the technology, the history, the geography, the society, etc. World-building and universe-building have to be done well if you want to create the illusion of reality –- something that’s essential to writing s.f. and fantasy.

VENTRELLA: We met at Balticon this year. Do you enjoy conventions and do you advise authors to attend them?

CRISPIN: You can learn a lot at conventions, and once you’ve gone pro, you can do a fair amount of networking and business at gatherings such as the Nebulas, Worldcon, etc. I enjoy conventions, still, even after all these years.

VENTRELLA: Let’s talk about Writer Beware. How did the idea for this come about?

CRISPIN: Back in 1998, Victoria Strauss and I both realized, independently of each other, that writing scams were proliferating on the internet. At some point our investigations brought us into contact with each other, and we decided to do something about it. SFWA gave us its blessing and sponsorship, and that’s how Writer Beware was born.

VENTRELLA: I meet many authors who have gone the vanity press or self publishing route and then wonder why no one takes them seriously. Other than “don’t do that” do you have any specific pieces of advice for these authors?

CRISPIN: I advise them to go to Writer Beware and read our articles about POD, vanity publishing, etc., so they’ll go into self publishing with a clear vision of what it can and can’t do for an author. E-publishing has taken off in the past six months, and it can now be a realistic way (provided the author has the sales numbers) to break into commercial publishing (advance and royalty paying publishing with a major press, that is). This is generally not true for POD and hardcopy “self publishing.” But there are exceptions.

The main problem with “self-publishing” is when authors confuse it with commercial publishing and expect their books to be on the shelves in bookstores nationwide, plus have other unrealistic expectations. It is really not a shortcut into a successful writing career for the vast majority of those who do it. I believe it’s still true that most POD and self published novels still sell fewer than 100 copies.

VENTRELLA: What bugs you most about the publishing industry and what would you change about it if you could?

CRISPIN: Here are my top two picks for that:

(1) I’d go back in time and eliminate the Thor Power Tools Supreme Court ruling. That had a terrible effect on a publisher’s ability to keep books in stock. Look it up.

(2) I’d get rid of the Internet for two reasons (A) the internet has given aspiring writers the idea that they’re entitled to be published, no matter how well or poorly they write, and (B) because of the internet, writers are getting scammed at an appalling rate.

VENTRELLA: Who do you like to read for pleasure?

CRISPIN: Terry Pratchett, Elizabeth Peters, Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, Margaret Mahy, Ursula K. LeGuin, George R.R. Martin, Lois McMaster Bujold, Charlotte Bronte, and too many others to name.

VENTRELLA: Of what work are you most proud?

CRISPIN: I do my level best on all my books. I’m pretty proud of PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN: THE PRICE OF FREEDOM, because I had to do so much research. It took me three years to write, and the whole time I was writing it, I was doing research on the historical period and the nautical stuff.

VENTRELLA: What is your writing process? Do you outline heavily, for instance?

CRISPIN: For tie-in work I HAVE to produce detailed outlines, so I’ve gotten used to working that way. I don’t like writing myself into corners, and a good outline usually prevents that.

VENTRELLA: Fantasy has grown tremendously in popularity over the past twenty or thirty years and now outsells science fiction. Why do you think this is? What is it about fantasy that appeals to readers that they can’t get from science fiction?

CRISPIN: I have no idea. Personally, I prefer science fiction, though I read both.

VENTRELLA: What advice would you give to a starting author that you wish someone had given you?

CRISPIN: Learn to read and analyze publishing contracts. Agents aren’t perfect, and you really need to be able to read a proposed contract and spot pitfalls.

VENTRELLA: What is the biggest mistake you see aspiring authors make?

CRISPIN: Here’s my top five list:

1. They spend years writing a Star Wars or other tie-in novel without ever researching whether they can actually submit the thing and have a chance of having it published. (With Star Wars, for example, they won’t even read the book; all Star Wars novels are contracted for in advance.)

2. They look for shortcuts, such as “self publishing” or POD publishing, often with a scammy publisher like PublishAmerica or Strategic, because it’s the easy thing to do.

3. They develop “golden words syndrome” and can’t see any flaws in their writing, and if someone points them out, they get mad. This is death to any aspiration to ever be a pro.

4. They submit first drafts.

5. They want to write fiction, but they don’t read it. I’ve never yet encountered a single writer, in the dozens, maybe hundreds of workshops I’ve taught, who wrote fiction well but wasn’t a reader. In order to write well, especially fiction, you must be an inveterate reader. No exceptions.

VENTRELLA: What question do you wish interviewers would ask you that they never do?

CRISPIN: Where readers can buy my books. There are links to purchase all my books on my website.

Interview with Alan Dean Foster

I am pleased to today be interviewing Alan Dean Foster, someone whose work I loved long before we ever met. Alan was one of the first subscribers to my magazine Animato, published in the 80s and early 90s, and later worked Animato into one of his novels (Quozl). I was quite honored!
Author and friend

Besides sharing the name “Alan” (mine is in the middle), Alan Dean Foster is also a political science undergraduate, but there we split; Alan went on to get a Master in Fine Arts in Cinema at UCLA. Behind all that was, of course, a love of writing, and after some short stories were published, his first novel THE TAR-AIYM KRANG was published in 1972, and many more soon followed. Among his series include 14 novels in the “Pip and Flinx” series, the Commonwealth novels, and (my favorite) The Spellsinger novels.

His Star Trek “Log” books kept fans entranced between the end of the animated series and the start of the movies, and his Star Wars novels include the hugely popular SPLINTER OF THE MIND’S EYE.

He has written the movie novelizations for (among others) Alien, Clash of the Titans, Outland, Starman, Alien Nation, and the most recent Star Trek movie.

Alan lives in Arizona with a beautiful wife and a beautiful house (well, I’ve seen pictures anyway). They love to travel the world.

I really shouldn’t have to go into too much detail about Alan; if you don’t know who he is, you probably wouldn’t be reading this blog!

His web page is www.alandeanfoster.com.


MICHAEL A. VENTRELLA: Alan, your first published work was with the Pip and Flinx series (unless I am mistaken) in the 1970s. How has publishing changed since then for beginning writers trying to break into the field?

ALAN DEAN FOSTER: First publications were a couple of short stories in 1971. I don’t believe it’s that much more difficult for new writers trying to break in, but the advances have shrunk and there’s more competition, thanks to the use of computers. More importantly, and especially for SF, the short story market has contracted enormously even from the ’70’s. So writers are almost forced to break in with an entire novel, which is obviously more difficult.

VENTRELLA: Too many starting authors get frustrated with trying to obtain an agent and/or publisher and turn to self-publishing as a way to get noticed. Is this wise, in your opinion?tar

FOSTER: Fifteen years ago I would have said no. But the line between “real” publishing and self-publishing grows more blurred every day. Now you have sites like Scribd that allow writers…and would-be writers…not only to self-published, but to do so easily, cheaply, and still get paid for their production. No one knows what the future will bring for this new technology, but it’s very exciting for published as well as newbie authors.

VENTRELLA: Similarly, do you advise starting authors to go with small but reputable publishers in order to gain some attention first before approaching agents and editors?

FOSTER: Not in the case of writing. Always start at the top and work down. If your work is good, why not have the best markets and the best people see it first?

VENTRELLA: Do you personally plan out series in advance or concentrate on each book on its own? Do agents and publishers want to know that a beginning author has ideas for sequels or a series?

FOSTER: It depends. With the Commonwealth and Flinx & Pip books I had no idea it was going to turn into a series…much less one that is still on-going after thirty-seven years. It just kind of growed. But with a trilogy, the entire story arc is indeed planned from the beginning. And yes, publishers are always interested in knowing if a new author has ideas for further stories in the same setting. trekcover

VENTRELLA: What really pushed your career was being approached by George Lucas for the Star Wars novelization. How did that come about?

FOSTER: Actually, my career got its first real push from the publication of a book called ICERIGGER, which went through several printings right away and spawned two eventual sequels. As to the SW novelization, my agent was contacted by Lucas’s representatives. I met with George, who though somewhat busy gave me a fair amount of his time, and all went well from then on.

VENTRELLA: You’ve done dozens of movie novelizations. Do you have your agent approach Hollywood agents for these or do they call you these days?

FOSTER: They contact me. Quite unintentionally, I’ve developed something of a reputation for them.

VENTRELLA: What’s the biggest mistake you have made professionally?

FOSTER: I’m not very good at promotion. I’m much better and more comfortable praising someone else’s work than my own. And I probably am too polite when it comes to matters that affect publication of my work. But it’s just the way I am. My wife says I have no taste…that I like everybody.

VENTRELLA: When people look back on your work, what would you like them to remember you for? What are you particularly proud of?

FOSTER: That I never sacrificed story for the sake of “art”, and that I managed to slip in one or two thoughts about the nature and future of humankind without lecturing the reader or otherwise belaboring the audience.

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