AndyO Blog

Monday, April 15, 2013

Leaving the cave with Kevin J. Anderson

It was a bright Easter Sunday, and I was sitting across from author Kevin J. Anderson at Elliott Bay Brewing Company in Burien, Washington. We were eating burgers, drinking beer, and talking about the world.

Kevin was in town on a book tour for his latest novel, Hellhole Awakening, which he'd co-written with Brian Herbert. We'd actually met for the first time on Friday at the book signing, which was held (of all places) in a church. (Kevin made the observation that we were in a church on Good Friday talking about a novel called Hellhole.)

After the signing, Kevin had stayed over the weekend as a speaker for Norwescon, the largest Northwest Sci-Fi convention. Since I knew he was in Seattle for a few days, I'd invited him to lunch.

Brian Herbert, Kevin J. Anderson, and Sandtrooper

As we drove to lunch (before I got us lost -- another story), Kevin talked about how he'd just finished a panel discussion called "Reasons to Leave Your Cave." He explained how writers, typically more comfortable with solitude, needed to push themselves to get out and meet people. Going out on a book tour, like he was for Hellhole Awakening, was how you connected with your audience and created awareness for your books. (Even for a New York Times bestselling author like Kevin.)

As a writer and introvert, I knew what Kevin was talking about. I had to push myself out of my cave on a daily basis. Our lunch was a great example.


The Paths of Two Rush Fans

Though we were meeting in person for the first time, I'd known Kevin's writing for many years. He first came to my attention with a spooky short story he wrote with Neil Peart (the drummer for Rush) called "Drumbeats" (part of the short story collection Shock Rock II). That story, about a drummer touring Africa by bicycle who finds a very unique drum, had always stayed with me. The writing was cinematic, and like a lot of great stories it got better with each reading.

A few years later, I saw Kevin's books show up in Neil Peart's Bubba's Book Club reviews, including Issue 3 (Scattered Suns (The Saga of Seven Suns, Book 4) and Issue 9 (Metal Swarm (The Saga of Seven Suns - Book 6). Here's an excerpt of what Neil wrote about Kevin in Issue 3 (from 2005):

Full Disclosure: Kevin J. Anderson has been a friend of mine for about 20 years, and I have recently written an introduction for a forthcoming book of his stories [Landscapes]. A few years back we even collaborated on a short story called "Drumbeats" -- though Kevin did all the work; I just supplied some African background and French dialogue.

Having stated that, I truly believe Kevin is a great writer. ...

Kevin Anderson sent me his first published novel, Resurrection Inc., in the late '80s, and I was extremely impressed -- it was so original, so imaginative, so profound, and at the same time so true to life.

Around the time I read "Drumbeats," I'd actually been trying my hand at creative writing (screenplays, short stories, novels). But after years of rejection letters, I found another path as a technical writer at Microsoft in 1996, where I've been ever since.

Being around all those technical people at Microsoft helped sharpen my technical skills. But it was other writers there, namely my friends Cheryl Lowry and Charlie Montgomery, who helped demystify the web publishing process. And so my Neil Peart fansite launched in 2004.

At first, it was a one-way platform where I shared my appreciation of Neil's work (for example: Best Beats). Then people started sending me email, telling me how they appreciated the site. (Some thought I actually worked for Neil.)

What had started out as was a virtual thank you card to Neil Peart and Rush had actually been a beacon to other Rush webmasters, fans, musicians, and (of course) drummers. And like my lunch with Kevin, I would sometimes meet some of these people in person.

In many ways, this website helped get me out of my cave and into the real world.

Clockwork Angels

Early in 2012, Kevin announced that he was working on a novelization of Rush's forthcoming album, Clockwork Angels. For Rush fans, this novel would turn out to be an unexpected gift -- a bonus companion volume to one of Rush's best albums in their long career.  

For this reader (or listener, since I actually listened to the audiobook version read by Neil Peart), I was struck again by Kevin's visual prose. Here's a great passage:

The clanging bell and hiss of steam grew louder as he raced to the tracks. Upon landing on the glowing rails, the train transformed into a narrow stampede of mammoths, a long line of heavy cargo boxes and passenger gondolas lit with phosphorescent running lights, balanced by graceful balloon sacks. A geyser of exhaust bubbled out of the lead engine like the breath of a sleeping white dragon. Steel wheels rolled along the metal lines, and the engines huffed. 

(The Rush fan will notice how Kevin sneaks in a Rush reference from the song "Countdown." I loved finding those "Easter Eggs" throughout Clockwork Angels: The Novel.)

During our lunch (and at his booksigning), it was clear that Kevin was a big Rush fan. Like many of us, Rush inspires Kevin. As he wrote in the press release for Clockwork Angels: The Novel, "You can find Rush references sprinkled through many of my Dune novels, the Saga of Seven Suns, my Terra Incognita trilogy. Probably more than even I can identify, because the music is so intertwined in my imagination."

Which is what made this a dream project for him.

As he told me over lunch, he and Neil had wanted to collaborate on a larger project for years, but the right idea and timing hadn't come together. Then during a lunch that Kevin and his wife Rebecca had with Neil in Santa Monica, Neil was talking excitedly about a new album he was working, Clockwork Angels. He said excitedly, "Someday there'll be a Broadway Musical, and a Novel -- even Ice Follies!"

Rebecca said, "Novel? Who's going to write the novel?"

Neil answered: "Well, Kevin is of course!"

Back at our lunch, I told Kevin that I really enjoyed how he'd expanded the story from the lyrics. He told me that Neil had actually worked out many of the details behind the lyrics himself. When Neil was between Red Rocks shows on the "Time Machine Tour, he and Kevin brainstormed much of the story during a hike up Mt. Evans (one of Colorado's 14,000 foot peaks). Then it was up to Kevin to write. He said he wrote the book very fast, but that's how he always writes. (This is a writer who releases multiple books a year, after all.)

During the writing process, there was a feedback loop between Kevin, Neil, and artist Hugh Syme, as they traded work back and forth. The result, if you haven't seen it, is a beautiful, full-color book that spent two weeks on the New York Times Best Sellers list.

Since I'm a big Rush fan, I ended up buying the Gold Edition (#274), which included a framed original manuscript page and Hugh Syme lithograph (all signed). Kevin told me when they put these on sale, the demand for the Gold and Silver editions was so high it brought down the Rush server!


Lost in the Burien Triangle 

On the drive back from Burien to Kevin's hotel in Sea-Tac, I got us lost for the second time that day (yes, a second time). As we got back on course (thanks to Kevin's iPhone), Kevin looked out the window at the massive apparition rising to the south and asked if it was Mt. Rainier. I said it was.

I knew Kevin was an avid climber (having scaled all 54 of the 14,000 foot "Fourteeners" in Colorado). I asked if he'd ever climbed Rainier. He said he wanted to, but never had. He talked about how it's much easier to climb to 14,000 feet when you start from 5,000 feet (instead of from sea level, like Rainier).

I pulled up to the Doubletree hotel, and we shook hands. Then Kevin was off to work on his latest book, and I was off to my Mom's 70th birthday party at another restaurant. As I drove on, I started beating myself up for getting lost. Kevin was totally easygoing about it, but it was embarrassing for me. In the end, I had to concede that driving around Burien was like driving in a foreign city (especially when your phone navigation fails).

As I approached the exit for I-5 North, I saw a message on one of the traffic signs: "5-MILE BACKUP. EXPECT DELAYS!" I decided to drive home the long way, on I-405 around Lake Washington, and then across the 520 floating bridge.

It would take longer, but at least I knew where I was going.


To commemorate my adventures with Kevin, I hereby name this area of Seattle The Burien Triangle. Consider yourself warned...


Read more about Kevin J. Anderson at his website,

Read about how Resurrection, Inc., was inspired by Rush's "Grace Under Pressure.

Listen to Kevin J. Anderson talk about Clockwork Angels.

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posted by AndyO @ 12:25 PM   0 comments

Sunday, April 07, 2013

Photos from March 2013

Here are some pictures from the mad month of March, which includes three birthday celebrations (my Mom and Dad, and son Drew).

March 3: Drew's family birthday celebration at Cucina! Cucina! in Issaquah with his Grandma, Grandpa, Uncles, Aunts, brother, and parents


March 4: Drew's actual birthday: Here he's inspecting his Oreo birthday cake.


March 7: Drew and I spend the night at the Seattle Aquarium with his class. (You can imagine how much sleep I got.) Here, Drew poses the next morning.


March 16: Cameron and I go inside the Shuttle Trainer at the Museum of Flight (an amazing experience).


March 20: Brenda and I help Drew complete his Scooby Doo Pinewood Derby car. Even using a pre-made kit, this car took us hours!


March 21: Family Dance Night at Drew's school (we got the start time wrong and actually walked in right before Drew's class danced). Note Drew in the background. (Hey, at least we made it.)


March 21 (after Family Dance Night): Velveteen Lotharios perform at the High Dive.


March 23: Drew's friend Ansel's birthday party. We watched "Escape from Planet Earth." Lots of fun; lots of chaos.


March 27: A tour of Seattle Fire Station 31 with Drew's Cub Scout troop


March 28: Jazz concert at Cameron's middle school


March 29: Book signing event with Kevin J. Anderson and Brian Herbert for Hellhole Awakening. (Yes, that's a Sandtrooper accompanying the two authors.)


March 30: Cameron practices on the V-drums.


March 30: Drew and his friend Max take part in the greatest Easter Egg hunt of all time.


March 30: Brenda makes the Greatest Chocolate Strawberries of All Time (these lasted all of a day).


March 31: We celebrate my Mom's 70th Birthday Party at Palisades. Here she's having some fun with her grandkids.



posted by AndyO @ 9:20 PM   0 comments

Thursday, April 04, 2013

Roger Ebert and me (updated)

Today I heard the sad news that Roger Ebert passed away at age 70. Ebert is one of my favorite writers, and his voice will be missed. Here's Ebert's final work, "A Leave of Presence."

As my own tribute, I'm also reposting my blog from June 12, 2011, "Roger Ebert and me":


Originally posted on June 12, 2011

I've always been a fan of Roger Ebert's writing. I still remember the day in the 1990s when I was browsing his movie review book in The University Bookstore in Seattle, and I read his review of Peter Greenaway's The Cook, the Thief, his Wife, and her Lover. I had absolutely hated the movie; it had almost made me physically ill. But then I read Ebert's review. Here's the passage that made me realize I didn't know anything about this film:

So. What is all this about? Greenaway is not ordinarily such a visceral director, and indeed his earlier films ("The Draughtsman's Contract," "A Zed and Two Noughts," "In the Belly of the Architect") have specialized in cerebral detachment. What is his motivation here? I submit it is anger--the same anger that has inspired large and sometimes violent British crowds to demonstrating against Margaret Thatcher's poll tax that whips the poor and coddles the rich. Some British critics are reading the movie this way: Cook = Civil servants, dutiful citizens. Thief = Thatcher's arrogance and support of the greedy. Wife = Britannia Lover = Ineffectual opposition by leftists and intellectuals.

� I think "The Cook, the Thief, his Wife & her Lover" is more of a meditation on modern times in general. It is about the greed of an entrepreneurial class that takes over perfectly efficient companies and steals their assets, that marches roughshod over timid laws in pursuit of its own aggrandizement, that rapes the environment, that enforces its tyranny on the timid majority--which distracts itself with romance and escapism to avoid facing up to the bully-boys.

Needless to say, I bought the book. And I continued to buy them about every year. (This was before the Internet, where you can now read Ebert's reviews online.) As I read through his reviews of four-star to one-star movies, I started to see film in a different way. Ebert brought an amazing amount of knowledge to his film reviews. In many ways, Ebert became my film professor.

When I would tell people of Ebert's clear writing and insight, some would laugh and say when they watched him on TV they thought his reviews were off the mark. They would said they liked Siskel better. But then I'd tell them I wasn't talking about his TV show, I was talking about his writing (for which he'd won a Pulitzer Prize). Such is the power of television.

My wife also started reading Ebert's reviews. She made the interesting observation that his reviews evoked the feeling of the movie. Somehow, whether a movie was good or bad, Ebert could get at the heart of the movie through his writing.

Then, for some odd reason, I decided to thank Ebert for his work. I was able to do this thanks to the CompuServe account at my work (a competitor of AOL in the early days for those who've never heard of CompuServe). Ebert was on CompuServe, and you could write directly to him. So I did.

A day or so later, Ebert wrote back personally. I have a copy of that exchange somewhere.

As the years went by, I continued to read Ebert's reviews -- either in his annual review books or on the Internet. (He was also part of Microsoft's Cinemania CD-ROM project, which a friend of mine worked on.) Ebert's reviews were a voice that was always with me.

Ebert's world changes, and so does mine

In 2002, Ebert began a long battle with cancer. Being caught up in my own world of kids, job, and marriage, I didn't hear anything about this -- except when a friend mentioned he'd heard Ebert was sick. During his sickness, Ebert continued to review movies. But then on July 1, 2006, Ebert's carotid artery burst, a side effect of the radiation treatment. He almost died.

I was still totally unaware of Ebert's condition. One day I saw an interview that Leonard Maltin did with Ebert, and the man who was supposedly Roger Ebert didn't look anything like him. He also couldn't talk. I had no idea what had happened to him.

It was around this time I started following Ebert on Twitter, and through his blog, Ebert wrote about his condition after surviving cancer and near-death. I learned that he couldn't eat or drink anymore (in addition to losing his voice). I was surprised that he said he didn't really miss eating or drinking anymore:

What I miss is the society. Lunch and dinner are the two occasions when we most easily meet with friends and family. They're the first way we experience places far from home. Where we sit to regard the passing parade. How we learn indirectly of other cultures. When we feel good together. Meals are when we get a lot of our talking done -- probably most of our recreational talking. That's what I miss.

Shortly after this blog entry, an Esquire article appeared that detailed Ebert's new life, as well as his ordeal with cancer and near-death experience. Starting off the article was a photo of Ebert, his lower jaw gone, mouth drooping. It was a courageous thing to share all of that with the world. 

I was so moved by the article, I commented on a post Ebert wrote about the Esquire article, with1000-plus comments (and, once again, Ebert responded):

By Andy Olson on February 19, 2010 7:52 PM


I wrote to you once before -- on CompuServe of all places -- about 15 years ago, to thank you for the insight your movie reviews brought to me. To my delight, you actually wrote back to me.

And now I feel compelled to write to you once again to say, "Thanks."

The article in Esquire, and your commentary about the article, was an interesting window into your world. I realize now I've always heard your voice through your writing (and it's different than your voice on TV). And while I know things have changed for you, the voice I've grown used to is still there -- and is stronger than ever.

Ebert: Compuserve was like a little private club in those days. All of 4 million members.


posted by AndyO @ 7:32 PM   2 comments