Those words ring loud and clear for two small-town boys who dared to dream big: renowned sci-fi novelist Kevin J. Anderson and legendary drummer Neil Peart, who teamed up to convert Rush’s latest album, Clockwork Angels, into a full-length steampunk novel.
It’s an innovative combination of music and literature, and the story of a young man on a quest through exotic carnivals, lost cities, and stormy seas, hoping to find the Watchmaker, a “big brother” figure who makes certain that every detail of society is on schedule and well planned.
Along with being the drummer and lyricist of the band Rush, Peart is the author of Ghost Rider, The Masked Rider, Traveling Music, Roadshow, and Far and Away.
Kevin J. Anderson is a best-selling author with over a hundred books that include spin-off novels for Star Wars, DC Comics, and the X-Files. With noted album artist Hugh Syme, Peart and Anderson tell a remarkable, magical tale about the forces of order, chaos, and love.
In an exclusive interview with Rock Cellar Magazine, Anderson chatted with us at length about Clockwork Angels, his relationship with Neil Peart, and being a lifelong Rush fanboy.
Rock Cellar Magazine: You’ve published 117 books. Where does Clockwork Angels rank for you, personally?
Kevin J. Anderson: You’d think I might get jaded by now and say, “Oh yeah, here’s another book out,” but I’m telling you, with this one I’m running around and showing everyone, like I’m showing off baby pictures because I’m so proud of this terrific project along with the book design, which is just so cool.
And of course because it’s connected with Rush and Neil Peart, who has been a friend of mine for over 20 years and we’ve wanted to do something together for a long time.
RCM: Why did it take so long for the two of you to collaborate on a novel?
KJA: I’ve always been ready to work on anything with Neil, any story here or there, but he wanted the right one. And I think he was correct in waiting for the right one to come along. Neil just got so excited when he started developing the Clockwork Angels story for the album, coming up with some of the scenes and characters, then bouncing ideas off me.
And while I approach these ideas as a novelist, trying to put the pieces together, Neil was looking at it as a lyricist to fit the songs. As a result, I think the story is really wonderful and the characters are great, along with all the little Rush references throughout the book where I got to show off my Rush fanboy nerdiness. In a way, I feel like I’ve been preparing my whole life to write this book.
RCM: When did you first discover Rush?
KJA: I remember joining the Columbia Record and Tape Club, where they would mail you a sheet with these tiny stamps of album covers on them, and you were supposed to pick 12 or 13 of them for a dollar, and those were your choices. I didn’t know what most of these albums were, so I’d pick five or six of the ones that I really wanted and then fill up the rest based on what I thought looked interesting.
I was into science fiction, and I thought, “Oh, this 2112 album by Rush looks kind of science fiction-ish.” I’d never heard of Rush but I thought the big red star on the cover looked pretty cool.
I’m kind of a completionist, I don’t buy just one album from somebody, so I ended up getting 2112, Farewell to Kings, Fly by Night, and Caress of Steel. So when my shipment arrived, I went from never having heard of Rush to suddenly owning four of their albums. Talk about jumping in head first! (laughs.)
RCM: Did the music appeal to you when you first heard those early Rush albums?
KJA: Oh yeah, because those songs were stories that really spoke to me. You see, I was this nerdy kid with a bad haircut and glasses and until then, I’d be listening to the radio and hearing songs about somebody complaining because his girlfriend left him. I was the kid who would say, “Well, it must be nice to have had a girlfriend.” I just couldn’t relate to all these “Ooh, baby baby,” songs I’d hear on the radio.
Then suddenly, I hear Rush for the first time and I’m listening to these epic 20-minute long songs about dystopian science fiction worlds, where this guy finds a guitar and learns how to play it, then gets stomped on by the system. Then I’d listen to Farewell to Kings and the song Xanadu, with the caves of ice and immortality. Then Cygnus X-1, which is about this guy with a space ship who flies off into a black hole and into another dimension. I mean, I had no idea this kind of music was out there, and it sure beat the heck out of “Ooh, baby baby!”
RCM: Did those albums influence you to become a writer?
KJA: At that time, I was already writing stories and knew I wanted to be a writer, so yes, those albums changed everything for me. Then a while later, Rush’s album Grace Under Pressure came out when I was starting to write my first novel, Resurrection Inc. It seemed like all the songs on that album were very relevant as I listened to lyrics like, “There’s no swimming in the heavy water, no swimming in the acid rain,” (from Distant Early Warning) or from Red Sector A, the lyrics, “Are we the last ones left alive?”
Then you have The Body Electric which is about an android man on the run, or The Enemy Within and the lyrics, “Every muscle tense to fence the enemy within.” I remember thinking, “Well, all this music just seems like the right way to focus my story,” so I put in the acknowledgments that the whole novel was inspired by Grace Under Pressure.
I mailed signed copies off to Mercury Records where I assumed that my books would be stored right next to The Ark of the Covenant in a gigantic warehouse (laughs). But a year later, Neil wrote me a letter back in 1989, and we’ve been corresponding ever since. So when people ask me how I pulled off working on a project with Neil Peart, I say, “Well, we’ve known each other for decades, so it was kind of a natural thing.”
RCM: Do you meet people who assume you’re an overnight success?
KJA: Oh yeah (laughs), I’ve had aspiring writers come up to me and say, “Wow, how did you get so lucky?” And my answer is, the harder I work the luckier I get. I’ve had 800 rejection slips. Sure, I’ve had 117 books published and 23 million books in print, but I worked my butt off for decades before I got to this point.
I actually give a talk sometimes on how to be an overnight success in 20 years or less.
RCM: Let’s delve into the novel Clockwork Angels. The story takes place in a hyper-regimented society where the Watchmaker keeps everything rigid and on schedule, but it’s not necessarily an unpleasant place, no?
KJA: Some people have portrayed this as a grand steampunk dystopia novel, but Neil was scratching his head a while back and said, “Dystopia? This isn’t really a bad place to live.” And I agree, it’s clean and colorful, and by no means is the Watchmaker this vicious figure. In fact, he’s great if you happen to fit within the middle of the bell curve where you are fine with having your expectations set out for you, and having your life laid out for you. It’s a comfortable existence for those people, and it’s kind of a cool place to live.
RCM: The rules could feel very oppressive to a dreamer and adventure-seeker though, right?
KJA: Yes, if you want to color outside the lines, then you might be in trouble. And of course, they have the Anarchist in there as well, from the album, and he’s the guy we call “the freedom extremist.” He just thinks everybody should be free no matter how much damage it causes, and feels that everybody should make up his own mind and shouldn’t rely on any kind of safety net. And we try to draw the distinction that both extremes are pretty much equally bad and you have to navigate between the two.
KJA: He’s such an optimist and believes in the legends and has a sense of wonder about the world. He’s kind of like me. I grew up in a very small town and I wanted to go to the big city and become a writer. I wanted to explore the world, while most of the people around me didn’t even have passports or had ever been outside the United States. They were perfectly content to have their lives, get married and have kids and live in a little house. And those expectations were met as long as the expectations were low enough. And that’s perfectly fine unless you’re a person who wants to go beyond that, and that’s how we portrayed the character of Owen.
RCM: Many of Rush’s songs convey this sense of an independent explorer, struggling against conformity and alienation…
KJA: Yeah, there’s probably about 20 Rush songs that have themes of middle town dreams and subdivisions, like The Enemy Within that talks about not giving up on a plausible dream, and that kind of thing.
I can’t really speak to his biography, but Neil was a kid who didn’t have a whole lot. I mean, he had his dreams, but he was not very happy in school and wanted to do other things and go off on his own. And he did. He turned out to be more successful than anybody could have ever dreamed.
RCM: So would you say there’s a part of both you and Neil Peart in the character of Owen Hardy?
KJA: I think so. I think we both relate to Owen in a very deep and personal way. There’s one cornerstone line in the album that goes, “In a world where I feel so small, I can’t stop thinking big,” and I think that summarizes my life and it summarizes Neil’s life perfectly. I think it’s one of the most succinct and perfect quotable phrases, although I also like Rush’s song Headlong Flight that goes, “All the journeys of this great adventure, It didn’t always feel that way, I wouldn’t trade them because I made them, The best I could, and that’s enough to say.”
I’ve gone backpacking and mountain climbing and you get yourself into some pretty nasty situations – like a blizzard on a mountaintop and you don’t know how you’re ever going to get down. You find yourself stumbling through rock and slipping while thunder is cracking overhead and you go, “After this is all over, it’s going to seem like a great adventure!” But it sure is crappy when you’re in the middle of it (laughs).
RCM: In the afterword of Clockwork Angels, Neil Peart wrote of how you and he together hiked Colorado’s 14,000-foot Mount Evans. What was that experience like for you?
KJA: We plotted the bulk of the whole storyline when we climbed Mount Evans together, and this was on a day in between two shows on Rush’s Time Machine tour. They were in the Denver area and played a show on a Tuesday, and had another one on the Thursday, so we climbed a 14,000 foot mountain on the Wednesday, because… what else do you do with your day off? (laughs)
I knew he was coming for some time and he tasked me to find us the perfect hike to do on his one day off, and I mean, Colorado has millions of hikes to choose from and they’re all wonderful. So I had to find something that was appropriately challenging and epic, but obviously not one that was going to kill either one of us, because he needed to get to his show the night after. We chose Mount Evans, which was the perfect backdrop for our own epic storyline that we were plotting. I remember sitting there with Neil on a mountain peak, eating our lunch and looking out at these huge vistas of the Rocky Mountains and the Colorado Springs. And if you can’t have your imagination unlocked in a situation like that, then your imagination is irreparably frozen.
RCM: How does the collaborative writing process between you and Neil work?
KJA: I already had the lyrics to the Clockwork Angels album when we began brainstorming because I’m a words guy, a literary guy who has always been inspired by Rush music. So Neil had given me the lyrics to the songs long ago, and I knew what the songs were about.
Then I would start incorporating the lyrics into the book. But it wasn’t until I got the actual rough tracks of the songs, where I could hear Geddy singing the lyrics and hear Alex’s guitars, and Neil’s drums, and how the music added a full dimension to it that the words alone didn’t have. I realized that it all had to work together as a unit, because once I heard the music, it made the story come alive in a way that was very different than just reading the lyrics.
RCM: Then there’s the dreamy and lavish illustrations by Rush album artist Hugh Syme throughout the book. Tell us about working with him.
KJA: I remember being on the phone with Hugh Syme, who has done every Rush album cover since forever, and I couldn’t believe this was the guy who designed the red star with the naked figure putting his hand up. And I kept thinking, “This is the guy who designed that!” (laughs).
It was very exciting to me to be walking with giants. And it wasn’t just a project about writing a book based on an album, but rather it was such an integrated project as we had Hugh reading sections of the book that would inspire his paintings.
I think there are four original paintings in the book that are not in the album. And the way it worked was, I would describe certain things, then he’d latch on to some little details that really amplified what he was trying to do. So I would go back and rewrite a section, as it was a back and forth between him reading what I wrote and me seeing the artwork. Then I would rewrite things again so my descriptions matched the artwork better. It was really a collaborative project all the way through, not just between me and Neil, but with Hugh as well.
RCM: Have you met Geddy Lee and Alex Lifeson?
KJA: I’ve met Geddy and Alex but I really don’t know them very well at all.
RCM: Can you share some insight on Neil Peart, from a personal perspective?
KJA: When our grandson was something like six or eight weeks old, Neil stayed at our house overnight, and my son and daughter-in-law were there with the baby and cooked dinner for Neil. This was the first time they had met him so they were talking with him about babies and the hike we took up the mountain. My son and daughter-in-law had spent some time doing volunteer work in Ghana, and Neil has traveled a lot around Africa so they talked a lot about that. Plus my son was a chef in a restaurant and Neil enjoys cooking, so it was a perfectly normal evening of conversation.
The following night we took my son and daughter-in-law to the Rush concert at the Red Rocks Amphitheatre. Rush is up there playing on stage and my daughter-in-law leaned over and said to me, “I can’t believe that guy was in our living room the other night and we just sat around having a perfectly normal conversation!” (laughs.) But that’s what Neil’s like. He’s not at all full of himself, he’s not an egomaniac, and he really doesn’t think he’s any better than anyone else. If you were waiting on him in a restaurant, and didn’t know he was famous, he’d be just like anybody else. He just doesn’t do the big rock star thing. I think he’d rather just ride his motorcycle, travel and stay in motels along the way.
RCM: Yeah, Neil Peart certainly doesn’t come across as a celebrity, though he’s regarded as one of the greatest rock drummers of all time…
KJA: I think Neil takes great pride in what he does, and he always wants to put on the absolute best show that he possibly can. And when he’s writing his books, he’s an absolute perfectionist and wants to put out the very best book that he can, that conveys his thoughts and ideas, but he wants the work to speak for itself.
RCM: He rarely does any interviews to promote his books.
KJA: Well, he’s not about beating his chest and bragging about what he’s done. One thing he said to me, I remember, he was talking about how when he and his band members are going back to the bus after a concert, there’s usually a crowd backstage cheering and whistling. And he said, “Why are they cheering? I’m just walking like everybody else? There’s nothing special about the way I’m walking.” And that kind of summarizes what he’s like.
RCM: Do you have a favorite song from the Clockwork Angels album?
KJA: I think there are some really profound things expressed on that record, and I think the message in the song Wish Them Well is a really important one. It’s got this amazing message that spoke to me, because I would always get so wound up when I would disagree with someone or watch somebody on a self-destructive path. I found it difficult to watch people screwing things up over and over again. And Wish Them Well basically says there are times when you just have to let go and let people do what they need to do, and you can’t change everything. And that’s sort of a Zen thing that you have to get through your head, that you can’t save people from themselves if they’re on a self-destructive path.
RCM: How many Rush concerts have you been to?
KJA: I’ve seen every tour since Signals (1982). I usually go once or twice on a tour, but I’m not one of these guys who follows them around from city to city. I don’t have a total count of how many shows I’ve actually seen. I guess my answer to your question is, “Not enough!” (laughs).
RCM: Do you have a dream set list or a particular song you wish you could hear performed live?
KJA: If they played every song that I wish they’d play at a show, we’d have a 12-hour concert! (laughs). But one song I don’t believe I’ve ever heard live in concert is The Enemy Within, despite all the shows and tours I’ve seen. Maybe one day I’ll see them perform that one live, because I really do love that song.
RCM: Rush still packs huge arenas across the world. Why do you think this prog rock trio from Canada has endured for over 40 years?
KJA: I think there’s substance to Rush. And there’s nothing wrong with eating a piece of candy – like I said earlier, Ooh, baby baby – but it’s hard to sustain yourself for a very long time if all you’re eating is candy.
And Rush is a very diverse and nutritious meal. There’s real meat to it, along with careful preparation. There’s fast food, then there’s a full blown banquet. And a banquet’s what you have when you listen to a Rush album.
RCM: You were a featured guest of the big RushCon event last month in Toronto, the largest North American gathering of fans celebrating the music of Rush. Are Rush fans predominantly male?
KJA: No, there are quite a lot of female fans. In fact, the whole RushCon is run entirely by women. But it hasn’t always been that way. Signals was the first Rush tour I ever saw, and there may have been one woman in the audience, and she was probably somebody’s mom (laughs). But when I went to see the Time Machine tour a couple years back, there’s lots of women in the audience. And a lot of them are young attractive women!
I realized many of these young women are the daughters of longtime Rush fans. It’s the next generation coming up. And I think that’s great, because when we were in high school, nerds were downtrodden and beaten on. Now nerds are kind of the heroes because everybody now knows that the big football player who beats up the nerd will likely one day be working for that nerd. And I think there’s now a much greater appreciation for thinkers and literary people, along with music with substance rather than just top-40 pop stuff. And Rush epitomizes that because their music touches people – both men and women – on so many different levels.
RCM: And because everyone likes a good story, right?
KJA: Exactly! When you listen to a Rush song like The Fountain of Lamneth, you realize it’s so much more than just a prog-rock adventure fantasy. You can listen to it over and over again and discover the lyrical depth and profound messages within the story, as it’s like reading The Lord of the Rings. If you listen carefully, you’ll see there’s this amazing epic story being told. And as Neil gets older, a lot of his songs are becoming more philosophical. They’re about things that he sees wrong with the world, or things that he wants to point out.
I think that’s why Rush fans are such a devoted bunch. They don’t just listen to a song or two that they heard on the radio. When Clockwork Angels was released, they go out and buy the album and listen to every track. Immediately, it became the #1 bestselling album in North America. Like millions of fans, I continue to be so inspired by the music of Rush.
Again, as Neil wrote, “In a world where I feel so small, I can’t stop thinking big.” That one line truly sums my life up perfectly.