The Big Idea: Kevin J. Anderson
Dudes! Kevin J. Anderson worked with Neil Peart of Rush on a novel! How cool is that? Seriously, that’s all I’ve got by way of an intro here. The novel is Clockwork Angels, which is also the title of the latest Rush album, and no, it’s not a coincidence. Not a coincidence at all.
KEVIN J. ANDERSON:
As the Muse sings…
“In a world where I feel so small, I can’t stop thinking big.”
For some writers, their muse is an ethereal, feminine voice that whispers inspiration, a hint here, a metaphor there. My muse, on the other hand, has always been a lot more aggressive. In this particular case, it’s three guys named Geddy, Alex, and Neil with their vocals, bass, guitars, drums, and lyrics. Yes, it’s the progressive-rock band Rush.
The music of Rush has inspired many of my stories and novels over the years, but with their new album (and my new novel) Clockwork Angels, the music was more than a mere catalyst for inspiration; the songs were a full-blown kick in the teeth (umm, in a pleasant way). My book is a novelization of the intricate steampunk fantasy story told across the tracks of the album.
Like young Owen Hardy, the main character in Clockwork Angels, I grew up in a very small town (mine was in Wisconsin, while Owen’s is in the imaginary land of Albion). I was surrounded by cabbage farms that serviced the local sauer kraut factory; Owen is an assistant apple orchard manager—but we both had dreams of grand adventures and imaginary lands.
I wanted to be a writer and tell stories like the ones that inspired my overactive imagination. Our town didn’t have a record store, but I did join the Columbia Record Club—15 albums for a dollar. There were sheets of tiny stamps, each showing an album cover; you peeled off the stamps to choose the ones you wanted and affixed them to the membership sheet. With so many albums to choose from, how to decide? I’d never heard of many of the bands, but something intrigued me about “2112” from a group called Rush, and another one “A Farewell to Kings,” and “Fly by Night.” They seemed to have a science fiction or fantasy flair—so I took a chance.
They were wonderful! Songs that covered vast imaginative landscapes and told epic stories, rather than the tedious “oooh, baby baby” pop songs on the radio. (As a nerdy kid with bad haircut, thick glasses, and a fascination with monsters and aliens, I didn’t have much experience with girlfriends anyway.) As I created my stories, I drew inspiration from the music of Rush, feverishly writing down the scenes that those songs evoked in my head.
My first novel, Resurrection, Inc., was inspired by the Rush album “Grace Under Pressure,” which eventually got me in contact with the band’s drummer and lyricist Neil Peart, and we’ve had many exchanges over the past twenty years about creativity and inspiration, adding a few more ingredients to each other’s imagination. (Once, during a soundcheck for a concert, my wife Rebecca and I were listening to the band practice a few songs, including “Red Sector A”; Rebecca was test-reading one of my novel manuscripts at the time, and she recognized the connection. She looked over at me and said, “How many stories are you going to get out of that one song?” Several, actually!)
To me, music and prose are two different ways to convey a story, and I’m intrigued by the crossover. For my Terra Incognita fantasy trilogy, I worked with ProgRock Records to do two CDs that highlighted storylines from the novels; Rebecca and I wrote the song lyrics, and the music was performed by some of my rock heroes from the groups Kansas, Asia, Dream Theater, Saga, and others. (Neil’s schedule didn’t allow him to join the project, which we called Roswell Six.) The CDs added an entirely different dimension to the story.
A few years ago, Neil approached me as he was developing the overall story for a new Rush album. He had visions of a steampunk world and a grand adventure, and he had read my old “Gamearth” novels that featured Jules Verne, steam-engine cars, hot-air balloons, even a steam-powered atomic bomb, although those books were published years before anyone invented the term “steampunk.” I helped as a sounding board as he created some of the scenes, characters, plot twists, but it was obvious as it grew that this was a much bigger story. Could it be . . . a novel? Why, yes—yes it could.
Neil and I wrote a short story together years ago and were looking for a larger project to merge our different creative toolkits. Clockwork Angels seemed to be that project. When Rush played two shows near my home in Colorado, with a day off in between, Neil and I climbed a mountain together, 14,265-ft Mount Evans, brainstorming Clockwork Angels all the way. That was where the rest of the story came together (amidst gasping breaths and plodding steps). We were off and running, as Neil finished writing the lyrics to the songs, and I fleshed out the characters and mapped the details of the plot.
The outline was the bare bones of the story, but it wasn’t until I heard the rough tracks of the music that I really added rocket fuel and a match to my imagination. The music was that extra dimension that brought the story to life for me, shifting it from a black-and-white Kansas farm to Technicolor Oz.
I started writing the draft furiously, sending Neil draft chapters every day (and listening to the music constantly). I’ve collaborated many times before, but always with other writers. Neil Peart is a creator who approaches a story from a different direction, with a rhythmic/lyrical mindset. The project was very smooth and all the pieces slipped perfectly into place (and let’s not forget the fanboy joy of slipping in about a million little Rush Easter eggs in the prose!)
I love this novel, and I feel I’ve been preparing to write it for more than twenty years. I have always been inspired by music, but I previously had to slip in my lyrical nods in a stealth fashion. With Clockwork Angels, I could come out of the closet with an unabashed celebration of music and words.