I go to work every day in other universes. I make up stories. I play with imaginary friends (and put them in some very difficult situations). In my career as a writer, I have written for Star Wars, X-Files, Batman and Superman, Star Trek and Dune... but I'd never novelized a rock album. Until now.
The 20th studio album from legendary Canadian group Rush, Clockwork Angels, is a concept album that tells a "steampunk" fantasy adventure, a young man's journey across a landscape filled with clockwork contraptions, alchemy, steamliners, lost cities, a strange carnival, pirates, and a rigid Big Brother-style watchmaker and his nemesis, the Anarchist--a "freedom extremist." The songs give snapshots of the story, like scenes in a movie trailer; but music is different from prose, and there's so much more to tell. And so, Clockwork Angels: The Novel [ECW Press, $24.95] was born.
I've known Rush's drummer and lyricist Neil Peart for more than 20 years (a friendship that began, appropriately, when I acknowledged that my first novel, Resurrection, Inc., was inspired by the Rush album Grace Under Pressure). Neil approached me as he was developing the overall story for Clockwork Angels. He had visions of a steampunk world and a grand adventure; I helped as a sounding board as he created some of the scenes, characters and plot twists. We had written 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--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.
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 sauerkraut factory; Owen is an assistant apple orchard manager--but we both had dreams of grand adventures and imaginary lands. To quote the lyrics of "Caravan," the album's first track: "In a world where I feel so small, I can't stop thinking big."
I wanted to be a writer and tell stories like the ones that inspired my overactive imagination. Our town didn't have a library, but the Bookmobile came by once a month, so I could scour the shelves. Our town didn't have a record store either, but when I was in high school I opened a packet from the Columbia Record Club, 15 albums for a dollar if I joined. There were sheets of tiny album stamps; you peeled off the stamps to choose the albums you wanted, and affixed them to the membership sheet. With so many albums to choose from, how could I decide? I'd never heard of many of the groups, but something intrigued me about the album 2112 from a group called Rush. Their albums A Farewell to Kings, and Fly by Night also caught my eye. 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 those songs evoked in my head.
And I made a career of it, with over 115 novels published (50 of which have been national or international bestsellers).
I've collaborated with many other authors-- 14 Dune novels with Frank Herbert's son Brian, eight thrillers with Air Force Colonel Doug Beason, and over thirty Young Adult books with my wife Rebecca Moesta. I guess you could say my author scorecard says "Plays well with others." I enjoy the creative interchange, throwing suggestions back and forth like a beach volleyball game of ideas (but without the bikinis).
With Neil, over the lengthy development of Clockwork Angels, the story grew naturally, pieces fitting together as we came at the idea from our separate sensibilities. During their previous tour, Rush played two shows near my home in Colorado, with a day off in between--and so Neil and I climbed a mountain together, 14,265-ft Mount Evans, brainstorming all the way.
That was where the rest of the story came together (amidst gasping breaths and plodding steps), and I was able to outline the chapters. Neil sent me the lyrics of the songs as he finished them, and I could add more details, tie the threads together. Then, in January I heard the rough tracks of the album--not just the words, but with the added dimension of music, Geddy Lee's vocals and bass, Alex Lifeson's guitars, Neil's drums. And that was like adding rocket fuel and a match to my imagination.
I wrote Clockwork Angels: The Novel in a furious burst, chapter after chapter, sending drafts to Neil each day, rewriting as he made comments or suggested new scenes or characters. Hugh Syme, Rush's long-time artist and designer, interpreted the songs with illustrations for the CD booklet, and also read parts of the draft novel, adding imaginative artwork--the clockwork gypsy fortuneteller, the explosion of the alchemy college, the patchwork steampowered scoutship over a stormy sea--and all of those details went into the final drafts of the novel.
Canadian publisher ECW is releasing the hardcover (complete with full-color illustrations) and Brilliance Audio has the unabridged audiobook read by Neil Peart. The novel is a fantasy adventure that readers can enjoy with or without listening to the album, and Rush certainly doesn't need any help from me to explain their music, but together--I hope--the album and the novel have a synergy that makes the experience greater than the sum of the parts.
Every Friday, HuffPost's Culture Shift newsletter helps you figure out which books you should read, art you should check out, movies you should watch and music should listen to. Learn more