One of the newest authors in the Black Library stable, Ian St. Martin’s debut novel Legends of the Dark Millennium: Deathwatch has just been released, with the hardback edition due to hit shelves this weekend. Ian has kindly taken the time to answer some questions about his work for Black Library so far (including the new novel), his influences and his writing background.
Read on to find out more about this Chaos loving, rain dancing, robot alien fan!
You’ve had a few short stories published by Black Library so far, and a novella – sort of (more on that later). How does it feel now your first full novel has been released?
ISM: It’s all quite surreal actually. I love doing the shorter pieces that let me dive in for snapshots of a variety of topics within the IP, but I think anyone who is passionate about writing dreams about their first novel. It is a tremendous act of faith on the part of a publisher to entrust you with putting 50-90,000+ words together in (hopefully) some semblance of order, and I am incredibly grateful to Black Library for trusting me to handle this one.
Yours is a fairly new name to Black Library fans – can you tell us a bit about your background, your involvement with the wider hobby, and how you came to write for Black Library?
ISM: I have been reading Black Library for well over a decade, though from a production standpoint I’m relatively new, having only gotten into writing four years ago. I was working in a bookstore, trying to sell copies of Soul Hunter to anyone who would listen (Aaron is really to blame for all of this), when I decided to give it all a go myself. I had a submission accepted by Black Library, spent a little time with GW’s Citadel Studio team in between freelancing for BL, and now I’m back to being a pen for hire in the grim darkness of the far future.
In terms of the game itself, I haven’t played it (I will pause now to dodge metaphorical rotten vegetables and other such refuse), though I put a lot of effort into making sure my writing reflects the game and inspires people to play it. I have enormous respect for the skill and artistry that players demonstrate with their armies. It’s unbelievably impressive to me.
What is it about Games Workshop’s intellectual properties that appeals to you? Why did you want to write for Black Library specifically?
ISM: I think the biggest appeal with the IP for me is in its tone. I love science fiction, especially when it’s dark and gritty. Throw that in with a dash of ancient mythological influences and some daemons and that’s Black Library in spades. Black Library publishes the books I love to read, and so I naturally wanted to see if I could help with creating some of those stories.
Have you always been a fan of science fiction and fantasy? What got you interested in the first place?
ISM: I’ve always been a big sci-fi and fantasy fan, ever since I was a kid. As I’ve grown, I love more and more the way that sci-fi can be used to discuss complex themes and situations in new and interesting ways, but at the end of the day robots, aliens, spaceships and robot alien spaceships are always going to light my eyes up.
Did you have a book-filled childhood?
ISM: Absolutely! My folks made a bargain with me when I was younger that in exchange for cutting the cable TV off, I could get as many books as I could read. I really made them pay for that.
At what point did you decide you wanted to write? Can you remember the first story you ever wrote?
ISM: I didn’t really think about writing until after I got out of college. I had graduated with a degree I didn’t want to work in, and found myself in the ‘now what?’ stage of life. That’s when I decided to give writing a try. My first efforts were some woefully bad pieces of 40k fan fiction starring the Punishers, and I would really love to redeem myself by doing something with them in the future.
In terms of your writing process, do you write at certain times or have a set routine that helps you get in the swing of writing?
ISM: This is one of those questions I am asked often. My thoroughly unsatisfying answer is that when I figure out what my process is myself, I will let you know. I personally think that parts of writing are esoteric, like doing a rain dance. You try to find a routine or ritual that will repeatedly catch that proverbial lightning in the bottle, but the majority of the time it is simply a matter of putting your head down, concentrating and doing the work. Waiting for inspiration to strike as a freelance writer is an excellent way to starve.
Deathwatch: Swordwind is the first story you wrote for Black Library – where did the inspiration for the story come from? Why the Mortifactors?
ISM: I really think that oftentimes the best stories come from simple questions. I was briefed that my first story was going to be about the Deathwatch, but beyond that the editors really gave me free reign. So I thought about them and questions inevitably popped into my head. My favorite question, which ended up being the basis for Swordwind, was ‘what happens when a member of the Deathwatch dies?’ I wanted to talk about what it would be like to carry your brother’s remains home to your family, and never being able to tell them how he died. I think that it provides an interesting look into a Space Marine’s psychology, their obsession with honor and legacy, and the problems that arise when honor and legacy conflict.
I picked the Mortifactors because I found their death-obsessed culture incredibly fascinating, and because there isn’t much of anything written about them other than in one of Graham McNeill’s Ultramarines books. Feral cannibals from a world of endless night raised to demigodhood to wage war without end across the galaxy? Sounds good to me.
You worked on the Deathwatch: Ignition project, with City of Ruin – how collaborative was that project? Did you discuss your story with any of the other authors?
ISM: Truth be told, I might not be the best person to weigh in on how collaborative Ignition was, as I ended up being brought in at the last minute to pen City of Ruin. I think it is safe to say though that as with Black Library’s other collaborative projects, like the Horus Heresy and The Beast Arises, it was likely very well-orchestrated between the contributing authors. I would have loved to have picked Ben Counter’s brain, as I cut my teeth reading 40k with Soul Drinkers. Getting to be featured in an anthology alongside him was surreal.
Speaking of the other Black Library authors, are there any of the more established authors who you feel have particularly influenced your style of writing?
ISM: Oh definitely. I doubt there is a single person writing for Black Library who isn’t influenced by Dan Abnett, whose Eisenhorn and Ravenor trilogies I maintain are the best place to introduce someone to Black Library. I absolutely inhale anything written by John French, as he has a poetry in his writing that really cannot be taught. But overall I can definitively say that Aaron Dembski-Bowden is the reason I am where I am today. If I had not read Soul Hunter a few years ago, I don’t know what I would be doing but it likely would not be writing about 40k.
You also contributed In Wolves’ Clothing to 2015’s Call of Chaos Advent Calendar, a story about Lucius the Eternal. How did you find tackling such a well known and loved character?
ISM: Daunting? Lucius is a big name and definitely an interesting challenge. While the other three champions of Chaos (Kharn, Typhus, and Ahriman) could be considered as being relatively of the strong, silent variety the majority of the time (except for when Kharn is angry, don’t make him angry), Lucius the Eternal is not, and I love him but quite honestly, the dude is a jerk. He’s a jerk, but by being the Eternal and suffering multiple deaths and resurrections, he’s experienced something that no other character in 40k has. What impact does dying and being resurrected dozens of times have upon a mind? How do you make him relatable? What does he want, and what are the stakes for someone who can never truly die? Lucius raises some really interesting questions, which as a writer makes him a very fun puzzle to play with.
Your novella Medusan Wings was released under the pseudonym Matt Westbrook – now that it’s public knowledge that you wrote it, what are you most proud of with the story?
ISM: Other than being my first solo work to be released in physical form and getting to play with the Iron Hands and Skitarii, I was happy with how I was able to lay down connective tissue between the novella and the new flyer rules in 40k. Incorporating things like specific maneuvers and formations from the rules into the story in an organic way to help make it feel like one cohesive experience was great.
I was impressed by how much of Medusan Wings was given over to details of the Iron Hands and Medusa before all the shooting started – was it a conscious decision to focus on that, or did it happen organically?
ISM: It was definitely something I wanted to do. I was eager to explore the Iron Hands as a Chapter, where they lived, their language, culture and internal politics, and how they felt about their Primarch. In the case of Medusan Wings I focused on doing that in a way that was in line with the story and themes present in the novella. I also liked giving the characters a deeper foundation at the start, which would then inform and give context to their actions once the blades and bolts started flying.
Let’s talk about your new novel – what can you tell us about the plot of Legends of the Dark Millennium: Deathwatch?
ISM: With this novel, we were looking to take the Deathwatch and put them front and center in ways that Black Library hasn’t before. Whereas most of the Deathwatch fiction that has been published up to this point deals with small teams of operators, to celebrate them receiving their own Codex and the ability to now field them as a full army, the Deathwatch will appear in this novel in the hundreds, a scale never seen before. And it’s a good thing too, because they are squaring off with the threat of not one, but two xenos races, with their combined might numbering in the billions. Planets will die, the void will burn with enormous battles, and at the center of it all is Watch Captain Artemis, fighting to do what the Deathwatch does best: cutting the head from the beast(s).
Did you pitch the idea of writing a Deathwatch novel, or was it suggested by your editor?
ISM: After I had finished In Wolves’ Clothing, Black Library approached me with the idea for Deathwatch. When I agreed and was brought onboard to write it, there was a specific brief set, which established the particular setting and elements that are in the novel.
Why did you go with Artemis as the protagonist? Long-term fans may remember him from the Inquisitor game, but what made him interesting to you?
ISM: Artemis was set to be the main protagonist from the get go. He has been the face of the Deathwatch since its inception, so it makes perfect sense to have him as the star. There’s a lot to like about Artemis. He’s a Mortifactor (keep a look out for some connective tissue with Swordwind in the novel) so his views on death, duty and sacrifice will be different than those of other Space Marines. The novel also gets to look at him in two different periods, and see how his actions in the past might have come back to haunt him. And while Artemis was set in the brief, I had a lot of flexibility with the supporting cast, both the established characters created by Gav Thorpe and some new characters of my own.
With the new Games Workshop codex for Deathwatch we’re able to see them in a different light now – as an army, not just a compact kill-team. What impact did that have on the story?
ISM: I think it was essential for this story. Because it is on such a massive scale with everything ramped up in size, being able to field an entire Watch Fortress worth of Deathwatch Space Marines not only lends itself to some massive battles, but it also is reasonable for the plot. At the same time, we still get the perspective of the individual kill-teams that readers know and love.
How did you find the editorial process for the novel? Was there anything you had to edit out that you wish you could have kept in?
ISM: It was actually quite surprising. The book was written in a very, very tight window (very), and so I was expecting a relatively substantial level of rewrites for it. Getting it back from editorial, I was surprised to find that they were quite happy with it, and only wanted me to add a little bit more in some spots. Being told not to cut anything, but rather to add more in, is always the kind of feedback you hope for as a writer, and it was a huge relief for me.
You’ve now tackled the Deathwatch, Space Wolves and the Iron Hands, and dabbled a little with Chaos. Are these all factions and characters that you were already familiar with, or have you had to do lots of research?
ISM: I am pretty familiar with most of the Space Marines, especially those of the more prominent Chapters. Chaos is where my heart lives, so writing about them is more a labor of love than work. The majority of my research is done to really drill down and get comfortable with a particular group or character, to make sure they come across faithfully in the narrative. Luckily for me I find the research to be a very enjoyable part of writing for Black Library.
What’s on your wishlist? Are there any characters or events that you’re dying to get your hands on?
ISM: How much time do you have? There is so much amazing stuff in the IP to work with. I’d love to do more with the Mortifactors, and I would also really enjoy doing something with the Astra Militarum. After writing a lot of Space Marines, it would be really fun to write characters who can be terrified, cowardly and frail, but still march into the meat grinder of the 41st millennium. As far as events go, I’d love to get in on the Scouring if anything covering that comes around in the future.
What’s been your experience of writing for Black Library so far? Have there been any particularly difficult challenges, or any aspects that you’ve especially enjoyed?
ISM: I love writing for Black Library. It is an amazing experience to work with a group of creatives that know their IP to an encyclopedic degree, and are extremely passionate about producing great stories. From the moment I decided to try writing, I wanted to work with Black Library, so it’s incredible to have accomplished that goal. I think that in terms of challenges, distance can sometimes be tricky, as I am in the States while Black Library is in the UK, so time zones need to be navigated a bit, but it’s nothing too difficult.
Is there a single story – whether it’s a book, a short story, a TV episode, a film, or any other medium – that you wish you had written?
ISM: I would say no to that, because if I had written, say the 1986 Transformers Movie (the only Transformers movie), it wouldn’t provide me the enjoyment or inspire me the way it does. If I absolutely had to pick something, I suppose Twilight? That way I could write my grimdark in a mansion on the moon, attended by hovering robot butlers than run on champagne.
Aside from writing, have you got any interesting skills or hidden talents that we should know about?
ISM: I’ve dabbled in stand up comedy and done a little MMA fighting in the past.
Now for perhaps the most important question – if you were a Space Marine, what Chapter would you belong to?
ISM: Tough call, but if I had to pick, I suppose I would probably go with the Black Legion. I hear that Abaddon fella is really going places.
Can you tell us anything about what you’re working on at the moment, or what you might have coming out in future?
ISM: I recently sent in the script for my first audio drama for editing, as well as another short story, and I am about halfway through my next novel. As to what they are about, unfortunately, I can’t say.
I’ll let the final words be yours – anything else you’d like to add?
ISM: First of all I would like to say thanks to you for the interview. I’d also like to thank everyone who has read my work and allowed me to make up stories for a living, and anyone who picks up a copy of Legends of the Dark Millennium: Deathwatch. I hope you enjoy it!
Huge thanks to Ian for taking the time to talk to us. All of Ian’s work for Black Library is available to buy at www.blacklibrary.com – his new novel Legends of the Dark Millennium: Deathwatch is available in ebook format now, while the hardback hits shelves Saturday 26th August.