A prolific author of comics and novels, Dan Abnett has been writing in one medium or another since the late ‘80s for publishers including Black Library, Marvel, DC Comics and 2000AD. Since his early work for Inferno! magazine, he has become one of most loved of Black Library’s authors, with the fourteenth novel in his Gaunt’s Ghosts series due to be published later in 2017. That’s not to mention the countless other novels, short stories, audio dramas, comics and so on…
I recently had the chance to chat to Dan and ask some questions about his work over the years. Given that Track of Words is primarily a website dedicated to books (and largely Black Library books) I wanted to focus on that aspect of his writing, but I was keen to talk about his career as a whole and to delve into the craft of writing as he sees it. I didn’t want to focus too much on any one book or series, so while we did chat about things like Eisenhorn, Gaunt’s Ghosts and the Horus Heresy, we covered a wide range of topics that I hope are a little different to the usual interview questions.
In this first part of the interview, we talk about Dan’s early years and how he got into writing, a little bit about his routine and his processes, and the implications of his way of working across multiple mediums. This part is the least Black Library-specific, but check out the link at the end for part two of the interview and more on the various novel series that he writes.
ToW: To start off, can you talk a little about your childhood? Was it filled with books, and science fiction in particular?
DA: Yes, it was very book heavy and not just science fiction. From an early age I was a very, very enthusiastic reader and read just about anything I could get my hands on. When I was about three or four years old I developed a condition called Perthes’ disease in my left hip, which meant that for about three years I wore a calliper – a metal leg brace. Basically I became that Dickensian cliche of the sickly child who couldn’t go out and ride bikes and stuff, so I read even more! I wonder what an influence that was, because I couldn’t participate in the normal sort of activities as a child so I would read a lot, I would draw a lot and I would write a lot. They were my three favourite things to do.
So I read broadly and widely, whatever I could get my hands upon, but I liked science fiction a lot. A very early influence I suppose would be Ray Bradbury, who was one of the first science fiction writers whose work I read and thought ‘wow, that was amazing!’, and who left a lasting impression. But he was comparatively literary, so the other extreme would be things like Edgar Rice Burroughs which I devoured all the time!
Then, about eight or nine years old roughly speaking, I moved school and made a new friend in my class, who was the other kid who was good at art. He would draw the most amazingly dynamic pictures which just astonished me. We became friends and it turned out he was an enthusiastic reader of Marvel comics, particularly the British black and white reprints of the time. That’s what he read, and what inspired him to draw the way he did, and I was quite taken by this!
In one of those tremendously symbolic moments in my life he just gave me a stack of the comics he didn’t want, as he’d got far too many. I took them home, in fact I’ve probably still got them somewhere, and I read them over and over again. That meant that two of my hobbies, writing and drawing, I could suddenly start doing at the same time! I started to write and draw my own comics, because I was so taken with doing my two favourite things at the same time.
The comics which he gave me, which as I said were re-read and re-read, none of them were complete stories! They were all serialised forms, and he’d given me this issue and that issue. Very few of them showed me the beginning, middle and end of a story, so I would read and enjoy stories that I didn’t know the beginning of, or the end of, or what happened in the middle of! I think that also made me imagine how stories could work, probably very poorly, but imagine how they would have worked if I’d seen the real thing. Also how I would have finished them, or started them.
I carried on doing that into my teens; reading comics, writing and drawing my own comics. I was always heading for art school. My parents were both artists and art teachers, and I thought that’s what I would do. However I had a very good teacher at school who encouraged me to think about doing English instead, as he’d noticed I was particularly good at that. I hadn’t really realised that I was better at English than I was at art, but he sort of intellectually sponsored me to pursue English and encouraged me to see if I could read it at university. He then suggested that I might even want to take the Oxbridge exam, which was something I’d never thought of! I did, and then ended up reading English at Oxford, which completely surprised me as it’s not where I thought I was going. At that point my capacity for reading increased enormously.
I always liked the polarisation of the very high-brow literature that I read, set against Edgar Rice Burroughs or a great run of Fantastic Four! As far as I was concerned, if it was a really good story and well constructed, it didn’t matter how ‘serious’ it was. It was all about the entertainment factor, the enjoyment and the engagement with a different world.
ToW: You mentioned that you were writing from an early age – do you remember the first story you wrote?
DA: I don’t – I wrote literally all the time, so I can’t really remember. I do remember even as a kid though, under the age of ten, starting what I considered to be novels and short stories; writing anything really! Probably about the age of ten or eleven, as I was writing and drawing my own comics, although I loved drawing I realised that I couldn’t draw fast enough to tell the stories that I wanted to tell. Obviously writing is a quicker way of telling a story than drawing it out painstakingly page by page, panel by panel.
And so I used to start creating comics that were sort of Issue Ten of an imaginary series; I wouldn’t bother with the issues before, I would just write and draw the bit that I thought was the interesting bit! They were sort of fragments; I didn’t think about it at the time but I guess they were almost like try-outs or auditions for imaginary pieces of work, which entertained me. By the time I headed off to university I had stopped drawing them, because I simply couldn’t do it fast enough, but at that point I was writing furiously.
On the other side of that, I do remember my first story that I wrote professionally. After university somebody suggested that with my interest in comics I could get a job in the comics industry. I didn’t know there was a comics industry, it never occurred to me that there was something like that, but I wrote off to Marvel’s London office to ask if they had any jobs. They said ‘yes come in for a chat, that’ll be lovely’ so I went off diligently with no idea that they were advertising for editorial trainees in the national press at the time! I arrived to find a room full of people waiting for their interviews and I thought ‘oh crap’! Nevertheless I took my turn in the interview and got one of the places, and started working at Marvel straight out of university, as an editorial trainee.
Marvel UK back then was very licence-based, doing things like Care Bears, Action Force, Transformers, Thundercats and all that kind of stuff. After a few weeks of tryouts in the colour separation department learning how the comics were put together I became the assistant editor on the Real Ghostbusters, which was just launching at that point. I used to write copy for that, but they encouraged all the editors and trainee editors to write at least one or two stories, so we could get a handle on how a story works, and could better edit the freelancers who were coming in and actually doing the heavy lifting.
I wrote on-spec an Action Force story featuring…the Scottish infantryman, I can’t remember his name…but I wrote it and submitted it to my boss, Richard Starkings, who was at that point one of the senior editors at Marvel UK. Now he runs Comicraft and writes Elephantmen. He was very encouraging; he gave me my unsolicited script back covered in red marks, completely deconstructed and telling me everything I’d got wrong, but on the upside he said “…but I’m going to buy it and we’ll use it! It’s rough-cut because you didn’t know what you’re doing, but with these changes we can do it.”
And so that was my first submitted professional story, and it was drawn by a completely unknown young artist who Marvel UK had just picked up by the name of Brian Hitch who now, of course, is extremely famous! So I remember that very clearly, but as to what my first ever story was, I couldn’t possibly tell you.
ToW: How did you come to be writing novels, and writing for Games Workshop?
DA: When I started writing professionally, I always wanted to write novels. I loved comics, but what I wanted to do as a kid was write novels. When I first ended up in the publishing industry working for Marvel, comics were the opportunity that I’d got to write as they were right there in front of me. It wasn’t something I was going to turn down, so I enthusiastically wrote comics, and eventually after several years working for Marvel went freelance as I realised I liked writing more than editing. I took the plunge, and became a comic writer working for Marvel UK and also Marvel US, as well as DC and latterly, since the mid-90s, for 2000AD and all sorts of other publishers. For the best part of ten years I was a comic book writer; that’s what I did, and I didn’t ever write anything else professionally…but I did want to do other things.
In that time, in what I might laughably describe as my spare time, I wrote a number of novels just to see if I could write long form prose, because it was the thing I wasn’t getting an opportunity to do. No-one was coming along asking me to write a novel, so I tried unsuccessfully to get those published and couldn’t, and so I carried on with the comic work. I’d been a comic writer for about ten years when Games Workshop reached out to me as they were setting up Black Library. They came to me first as a comic writer, saying ‘we want to make comics based on the Warhammer world and you’ve been recommended – are you interested?’
I went to talk to them and the audition was less about writing ability and more about the ability to understand their universe and its atmosphere. Luckily, one of the other things I’d done as a teenager was play roleplaying games. I was a huge fan of Dungeons and Dragons, Traveller, Runequest and Call of Cthulhu. That’s another thing I credit with my ability to weave stories on the spot because I used to make stories up on the spot as Dungeon Master!
I was very aware of White Dwarf and of Games Workshop’s in-house style. I hadn’t really played Warhammer because that came slightly too late for me, but I understood the John Blanche-style imagery of the grim, dark future of 40k. My auditions were then very successful, compared to other, I’m sure very talented and indeed more talented writers, who just didn’t get the feel of it. Games Workshop gave me some work writing comic strips and then short stories, for Inferno! magazine, and then at that point they said ‘do you fancy writing novels? Because that’s the other thing we want to do’.
Suddenly, ten years into my writing career somebody was actually going to commission me to write a novel! Rather than me writing a novel which would take me ten months, and then speculatively trying to sell it, here was somebody willing to pay me to do it!
ToW: You’re very much known these days for working across all these different mediums. Do you find when you’re writing that you jump around between them, or do you prefer to work on one thing at a time?
So my novel writing career started there with Games Workshop, and at that point I was doing both novel and comic writing, though I’ve since broadened out into games, screenplays and other things. The two core things though became novel writing and comics, and I had to find a way of juggling them both.
In terms of my working routine, there’s a very different feel between writing comics and novels. A comic is something you can write comparatively simply; for 2000AD for example it’s a five or six-page story, which should be no more than a day’s work. An American comic is usually about twenty or twenty-two pages. Back then it was twenty-two, but it’s shortened since then. That can take a long time, but if everything’s in place I can write one of those in a day or two. The time constraint is developing the ideas, but the actual writing process is comparatively straightforward. Even though comics are sequential and you’ve got to do the next episode or the next issue in an ongoing project like Sinister Dexter or Aquaman or whatever else I’m doing, these are long-term jobs. The actual work involved is incremental; it’s once a week or once a month or whatever.
So with comics, you sit down and do a job, you get it done in a day or so, you send it off, there’s a feeling of closure and satisfaction that a job’s well done and you’ve ticked it off your list. But a novel, with the best will in the world, is not something that you do in a day. It doesn’t work in the same way at all, a novel is three or four, or more, months’ ongoing work. You go to bed thinking about it, you wake up in the morning thinking about it, once you’ve committed to starting a novel it’s a weight you carry around in your head until it’s done. The sheer workload is greater, and the sense of closure and satisfaction is more delayed because it’s once every three or more months.
I worked out fairly early on that I didn’t want to do one in favour of the other. I didn’t want to stop doing comics to write novels, and I didn’t want to stop writing novels to do comics, so I had to find a way of blending them together. The best balance I could find was to have a novel on the go which I worked on every day, usually at the start of the day – these days certainly it’s the start of the day – and spend the morning doing the novels before in the afternoon switching to comics or whatever other project I had going on. In the course of the lifespan of writing a novel I would get lots of smaller hits of satisfaction from delivering the comic jobs that were going on at the same time, so it wasn’t that huge suffering of delayed gratification from finishing something. The comic jobs, both literally and metaphorically, supported me while writing the more heavy duty word count of a novel.
I find that works, and also I’ve learned that I work best if I’m slightly too busy; if I’ve got slightly too much going on I produce better work than if I’ve got slightly too little going on. If I’ve got ages to do something I will fiddle with it for ages, but if I go ‘I’ve got to do this job today because tomorrow I’ve got to do whatever…’ it comes out with greater vigour and clarity and vitality, and I just focus. Being too busy focuses me, and moving from one thing to another as often as possible really focuses me.
It wouldn’t suit a lot of writers, but doing a bit of a novel and then doing some comics every day suits me really well. Even in the comics I might be moving from 2000AD to DC to Marvel, with the different tonal qualities and age restrictions and subject matter. Even in superhero comics, writing Guardians of the Galaxy is very different feeling to writing Aquaman, so switching between those worlds, which some people find terribly confusing, I’ve always used as an asset to improve what I do.
So I don’t ever get stuck somewhere for so long that it becomes boring and monotonous and ‘oh God I’ve said this before…’ One thing informs and freshens another, and sometimes walking away to do another project and work on something else will subconsciously loosen the plot twists that I’ve got tangled up in on the thing that I was working on. If I can’t see my way out of the latest issue of Titans, how am I going to sort this problem out? I’ll go away and do something completely different, then come back to it and say “oh yes, that’s how I’ll do it!” Whereas if I just sat there and stared at it, it would never have fixed itself.
ToW: So do you find that ideas or themes cross-pollinate, working on multiples projects in a day?
DA: They do sometimes, but I’m actually quite good at policing it so they don’t, and I try not to take the specific language with me. Inevitably over the years I’ve seen echoes of one thing I’ve been writing in something else that I’ve written at the same time, and I’ve gone “oh gosh, that was clearly a theme that was sticking there”, but I think I’m pretty good at detecting it even if I’m doing things that are thematically similar. At the moment, for instance, writing Aquaman, I’ve made it quite political while at the same time I’m writing Grey Area for 2000AD and that’s also quite political, and they’re coming from a similar place. I’m aware of that, and I’m very careful that what I say in one is said and done differently from the other; it’s all to do with the tone of each one.
But yes, things do lodge in your mind. A few years ago, maybe seven or eight years ago, I fell ill. Basically I developed epilepsy. I didn’t know I was epileptic but I suddenly had a series of seizures, and it took them months to work out what it was. They finally said, “it’s just epilepsy, you’ve always had it, it’s just never manifested before”! That was obviously a very alarming experience, but also it was a very strange experience because I’d never had those sort of ictal or post-ictal experiences going on in my head. I’d never had that sort of out of body feeling and all the other strange things that are associated with seizures. It was extremely enlightening about the way my brain worked, and I didn’t make any secret of it. I talked about it, I had no reason to hide that this was going on.
Later on, people came to me and talked to me about the books that I’d been writing for both Games Workshop and for Angry Robot at the time – I’d been in the middle of them when this had happened. They would say “clearly that book was all about your experience with epilepsy… look at this, this and this…” And I went “oh gosh yes, it really is!” I had channelled all these strange experiences into Prospero Burns and into my novel Embedded, and other things, without really realising it.
So yes, I guess there are certain flavours in your head, flavours of your own writing that you can’t avoid. Even if you’re trying quite hard they inevitably surface in the stories you write, but I do try as much as I can to control the strands and keep them separate so, for example, Aquaman doesn’t sound like Titans, which doesn’t sound like the Horus Heresy, and so on.
I think the only time I’ve ever made a genuine mistake is with my invented swear words, where I invented swear words in both the Gaunt’s Ghosts series [feth] and also in Sinister Dexter [funt] for 2000AD. At one point I was writing a Sinister Dexter script and I was about to send it off when I realised that the invented swear words I’d used were all the Gaunt ones rather than the Sinister Dexter ones! But that was the only time I’ve really seen my worlds overlap, that I’m aware of.
ToW: How do you find other people – your readers – react to the fact that you work across so many mediums and IPs?
DA: One time I was in my local comic shop and another customer came up to me and said he was a real fan of the Gaunt’s Ghosts books, so I started having a chat with him. Two other customers overheard this conversation and came and joined in – one of them was a huge fan of Marvel comics and the other was a huge fan of 2000AD. So I was talking to all three of them and I knew what all of them were talking about, because I did all those three things, but each one of them was a very focused fan. The Games Workshop fan didn’t really read comics, the 2000AD fan didn’t read American comics or Games Workshop, and so on. It was like I was at the United Nations conducting a conversation in three different languages, because I had to translate between those genres for the three people I was talking to, as none of them spoke the same language!
It really brought home to me the fact that readers can be very specifically focused on one thing and not broaden out from that because they love one thing in particular. As a freelance writer I’m almost obliged to cast my net widely and embrace all sorts of different things, and try and get the feel and texture of them in order to be able to do different jobs. It was fascinating, because it really made me realise how my brain is so strange to be able to do this, and know as much about these things as these guys do individually, from the other side of the mirror.
Again, early on after I’d been writing novels for a few years, people would come up to me and say “are you the same Dan Abnett that writes the comics?” or “are you the same Dan Abnett who writes the novels?” People didn’t realise, they thought there was more than one – there was a novelist called Dan Abnett who wrote for Games Workshop and there was a comic book writer, and probably a 2000AD writer, and they were three different guys!
I always found that very strange, because I think I would have stopped, or at least changed, what I was doing if I’d stayed in any of those one places and just focused on that. And that’s not a reflection on any of those things being bad, it’s just the intensity with which you work. My output for Games Workshop has slowed down over the last couple of years because I’d simply done so much for them. I just couldn’t find new things to say or new ways of saying the things that I needed to say about people having gunfights with lasrifles!
I think if I had done that, if I had just stayed a comic book writer – or more specifically just written for 2000AD or for Marvel – after a while the joy would have gone. I can see from a reader’s point of view why it’s great to be a real super fan of one thing because that’s the thing you engage with, but from a creative point of view, thinking about trying to build those things, you need to step away from them sometimes to remind yourself why they’re fun. Otherwise they stop being fun.
ToW: People talk a lot about world-building when they discuss your writing. Do you have a different approach for an established IP as opposed to something new for you?
DA: Yeah, I very much do. I mean, most of the stuff I do is working on an established IP, as working for Marvel or DC is essentially working on long-standing characters that you’re just getting the opportunity to write. So you do your due diligence, you read back and understand and research and talk to people, and then you see if there’s a way of adding any kind of contribution of your own to it that doesn’t break the toys but possibly gives them a new gloss.
It’s difficult for me to say, as actually a lot of writers enjoy the complete freedom of just being able to invent wholesale, and don’t want to be constrained by tie-ins. In fact I think that’s why tie-in and licenced work has had such a bad rep for years, as you’ve got to work for somebody else and do it the way they want it. I never really felt that way though, as actually I really like the very tight demands of a job like that.
If a DC editor was to ring me up tomorrow and say “Dan, write us a story. It can be about anything you like at all, just come up with a really great story…” I’d probably flounder for days trying to work out what I could do. But if they rang me up and said “Right, we want Green Lantern, Black Canary and Bizarro…a twenty page story that’s got to be set in the Bottle City of Kandor…go!” then while that sounds very limiting, at the same time I’d think it was brilliant! It’s like being given a recipe, like getting a carrier bag full of ingredients on Ready Steady Cook [a BBC cooking programme, if you’re not familiar!] where you just find out what’s the best meal that you can make with those ingredients. I’ve always enjoyed that.
So, on the one hand, there’s an enormous pleasure in creating your own original piece of fiction and building your own world from scratch, but it’s also scary because you’ve got to do all the work to find the rules of that world. It can take a long time and you could be three-quarters of the way through that novel before you discover that you’ve got something wrong and you need to fix things, because it all depends on the way you visualise this world.
On the other hand, there’s something very constraining about working inside somebody else’s universe, except that what you do pretty rapidly is find the bits that they haven’t worked out that you can then develop; you can exercise your creativity there. There’s something reassuring about the DC universe or the 40k universe which allows you to concentrate on the story and the characters without having to worry about things.
I was very pleased to have the opportunity back in the 90s when I started writing for Games Workshop, as Warhammer 40k had been around for a long time and it was very well established. It felt like there was a huge bible of material that you could use for reference in terms of the way the universe worked, but when I finally came to write novels for them I realised there weren’t words for all sorts of things. The world had been very specifically built around the action of the tabletop games, but not about anything else, about how society works or what non-military life was like, or what everyday objects were called. Because they obviously wouldn’t be called what we call them now!
I ended up doing an enormous amount of world building in the 40k universe just sort of covertly, in order to make the novels work. I needed to have names for things and to be able to say how things worked, and so I did. I just invented things, and the editors liked them and kept them in, and I’m enormously gratified to this day that you pick up any 40k rulebook and they use the words I invented! Things like vox-caster and promethium, everyday objects are there in the rulebooks and used all the time.
It’s interesting that ostensibly working for Games Workshop, like working for anybody else, was working in somebody else’s universe, but there’s always a way of contributing and adding and building it out without damaging the IP. So I guess I’ve got quite sneaky at finding out how to do that – to look at something and say “right, you’ve got all this sorted out, but you haven’t even thought about this. Can I have a go at this bit because that will make the story more interesting?”
I’ve cut the interview at that point, as there’s still the same amount again to come…so it’s perhaps a little long for a single post. You can check out part two here, in which we talk about the impact Dan’s writing has had on the 40k universe, how the Horus Heresy series has changed since Horus Rising, and lots more!
For now, I’d like to thank Dan for taking the time out of his busy schedule to talk to me for this interview. I’m sure you’ll agree it’s fascinating to hear from him and get an insight into how he works and what led him to be where he is now.
Has this prompted any questions or comments? Feel free to let me know – you can leave a comment below, or drop me a line on Facebook, Twitter, or at email@example.com.