In case you missed it, I recently posted the first part of an interview with prolific author Dan Abnett, whose work for Marvel, DC Comics, 2000AD and Black Library (among others) has earned him a (much-deserved) huge fan base. In that first part, we discussed Dan’s early career and influences, and looked at the craft of writing, and the implications of working across multiple mediums.
In the second part of this interview, the focus is very much on Dan’s work for Black Library specifically. We talk about the impact that his writing has had on Black Library, and indeed the wider Games Workshop settings, and touch on the Horus Heresy, Gaunt’s Ghosts, and the commissioning process for his work with Black Library. There’s also a little bit at the end of what’s on his radar next for Black Library!
ToW: Whether intentional or not, a lot of your writing has gone a long way towards defining things in 40k and the Horus Heresy. For example the way you looked at Space Wolves in the Horus Heresy, but also things like Eisenhorn. Is this a conscious thing that you particularly enjoy?
DA: I very much do, yes. I never want to develop something in such a way as changes it beyond recognition, then hand it back only for people to say ‘what have you done? We gave you these toys to play with and you’ve ruined them! They might be clever but they’re not what we asked you to do.’ It’s about the presentation of things. I think writing for Warhammer is probably the best example, where the imagery and iconography is very well established, and was even when I started. If you say Space Wolf, people know what that means. When you then come to write a novel about Space Wolves, I think it’s too easy to simply mimic what has been shown already.
A 40k novel has got to deliver something slightly different, it’s got to deliver the universe in a different form because for instance it doesn’t have amazing artwork to support it [like you’d get in a comic] and it doesn’t have those amazing pictures or the great miniatures. A novel is by necessity deprived of the things that make Warhammer cool, which are the miniatures and the rulebooks and that sort of thing, so what can I do in the novel to compensate for the lack of those things?
It’s a matter of, rather than just describing what a Space Wolf looks like in a very straightforward way, trying to find a way of describing that which makes it seem more vivid and realistic, perhaps even surprising. That way what a Warhammer fan gets from a novel is a different kind of exciting punch to what they get from buying a great miniature or a great art book. To me that’s really the essential part of it, it’s to take advantage of what a novel can do to describe minutiae and little details, and the sorts of things that you can’t get in other places. To try and make those live and breathe.
Oddly, I remember when I was a comic reader, before I was a comic professional, I used to love the comic artist John Byrne’s work on things like The Avengers and Superman. One of the things I loved about what he drew was that he’d have the Avengers walking down the street and be surrounded by ordinary members of the public and the press, asking them what’s going on, and he would draw them a head taller than everybody else. They would be very realistic but like amazing superhero gods, and the contrast was amazing. I always felt that was really effective. It’s all very well drawing a great character like Captain America, but drawing him surrounded by eager fans suddenly makes him seem to me more real.
So I guess I try to create that effect in prose, to say ‘whoa, a Space Marine’s cool…but we know what a Space Marine looks like. Here’s a Space Marine in a context that makes him cooler!’ I want to get that sense of authenticity that isn’t just a really cool design for a warrior in space, it’s a real thing. It has weight and substance and density and all those kind of things, and if anything I try and make them come to life in my imagination and try and put that on the paper, in the hope that it makes the novel a more compelling thing.
I think that’s true across the board with whatever I do, I try and think about these amazing, fantastical things and sort of ground them in something that makes them more real…but therefore more fantastical. It’s like the difference in a movie between bad special effects and good special effects. You can build the most amazing monster and if you can integrate it in the movie, and it moves brilliantly, and you believe it’s there, it’s fantastic. If it’s badly done and you can tell it’s not really there, the actors are just reacting to a green screen, it doesn’t matter how good the design is.
ToW: Do you ever think much about the impact that your work has had? For example the Eisenhorn series has had an enormous impact on 40k and really shown people that there’s more to 40k than just the battlefield.
DA: I don’t think I was aware of it at the time, when I started writing it [Xenos]. It was written in the strangest circumstances. I was writing Gaunt novels, which I love writing, and are now after fourteen novels essentially a big soap opera about people, which happens to be set in the 40k universe…with death. When Games Workshop was creating the Inquisitor game, my editor sent me a photostat of the rulebook that was going to be published a few months in advance. He said “There are some great images in here, you might find it useful for the Gaunt’s Ghosts.”
It was really just visual reference for me, but I looked at it and thought ‘this is brilliant, I want to write novels about this!’ I rang my editor up and said “Can I not write an Inquisitor novel, just for a change? That would be really good fun.” He said “Well, if you can write it quickly so that we can launch it when the game comes out and it looks deliberate…maybe!” So that’s where the first Eisenhorn book came from, I just sort of sat down…I wouldn’t say I made it up as I went along, but I just wrote myself into that, and got deeper and deeper into this mythology and world that I could invisage, to see where it would go.
One of the things that really appealed to me was that it was that it’s what we refer to as ‘domestic 40k’, inasmuch as it wasn’t set on the battlefield. Inevitably with Games Workshop, with 40k and Warhammer as well, the most work has been put into how the battlefield works because that’s what the game is. Very little work had been put into what life was like beyond it, but Eisenhorn needed to operate in a different place and it needed to know what life was like in places that the war was guarding. What life was like behind the lines, as it were.
That’s what really appealed to me, to do that sort of noir-ish detective thing in a beautifully realised universe but in a part of it we’d never seen, really. Once I’d written the first one and it was successful, and they wanted more, I realised that actually it was something very appealing to readers, which was why it was hitting a nerve as it was giving them something they wouldn’t get in their gaming experiences. So yes, in hindsight I can see that’s what I was doing, but I think I was just doing it intuitively at the time, because I was excited to find a bit of 40k that no-one had really explored.
I know that the Eisenhorn books were for a long time regarded as sort of the gateway drug to 40k. If somebody expressed an interest in 40k, Games Workshop would given them a copy of Eisenhorn and say ‘right, read that – that gives you the atmosphere, and then you can move on from there.’ Which is flattering and very amusing I suppose!
But yeah, I think that’s why all the Inquisitor books have got that slightly different feel to them, because they’re straying from the well-trodden path of what most fans’ experience of 40k is. Which is skirmish battles, or large-scale battles, or epic battles or whatever…but battles, anyway! But it was written for the pleasure of writing it, in the first place, and it was written for the excitement and the thrill of finding something new. It was written off the cuff, without months of preparation. I got the rulebook, three days later I’d had the phone call, and I think I started the day after.
I just started writing to see what would happen, thinking ‘I can fiddle with this as I go along, but let’s try and capture the spirit of what I want to say’. Yes, a weird experience but one that sort of opened a completely new part of the universe.
ToW: You mentioned the conversations with the editor – what’s the commissioning process like these days? Do Black Library come to you to say “please, please, please write another Gaunt book”, or do you go to them with ideas…? How does that work?
DA: It’s a little of both, and it’s always been a little of both I think. The initial contact with Games Workshop, a long time ago now, was ‘will you write this?’ and I would say yes, and do it, and then onto the next thing. It was mostly based on what they needed and when they needed it by, to begin with, but as I wrote more and more – and let’s face it I’ve written an awful lot – and the books would sell, they would be keen to take what I would want to write. I could be more selective, so I could say “I fancy writing this, is that alright?” They would say yes, so I could sort of digress into slightly less obvious territory.
The Inquisitor books are an example, as are Double Eagle, Fell Cargo, things like that where I’ve gone ‘well I just fancy writing that for a change’. In fact Fell Cargo, the Warhammer pirate novel, came about from even sillier circumstances. The editors rang me up one day and said “We want a short novel, and you’ve got a gap in your schedule – do you fancy writing the novel for us? It’s a Warhammer one, as you haven’t done a Warhammer one for a while.” So I said “Yeah alright, what shall I write it about?” I literally asked what I should write it about…they said “Hang on, we’ll call you back”. About five minutes later there was a phone call, and they said “We’ve just had a chat in the office…what about pirates?” And that’s how that happened, and I loved writing it, but it was one of those spontaneous things.
Obviously there are times, Horus Heresy being the most obvious example, where they specifically want me to work on something and put my effort into that, and when you’ve got series like Gaunt in particular, but also the Inquisitor books, they’ll want one of those on a regular basis just to keep those series ticking over. But at the same time if I say “I want to write Space Marines”, or “I want to go and do this…” they are open to those suggestions.
In fact I think that was one of the problems, as I was enjoying it so much that at any given time – going back ten years or so – I would be working on a novel and I would know what the next four or five novels were going to be. We had wrapped them up…we hadn’t officially scheduled them but we’d planned that I’d do this, and then a Gaunt, and then an Eisenhorn…and that’s great, because there’s a lovely sense of security for a writer to know that you’ve got all this work waiting for you. After a while though it becomes a real impediment, just a burden that you’re carrying not one but multiple novels around just waiting to be written.
That I think is what slowed me down a little, so nowadays it’s much more a case that usually they’ll come to me to ask if I’ll write a short story or an audio, or something like that, because they want it for a specific thing. Otherwise they’ll ask me what I want to write next, and I will simply do them on a case by case basis. I’ll say “right, I think it’s time for the next Gaunt, or I’d like to write another Horus Heresy book, or whatever it is, and they’ll see how that fits in. At the moment I know what my next two books are, simply because they are comparatively speaking time sensitive.
I’ve got to write them by particular times in order for them to fit into the publishing schedule. But that’s quite unusual, usually if I ring them up and say “I’ve got a real hankering to write X”, unless there’s a really good reason why I can’t do it, they’re quite happy for me to do that. But I’ve tried to sort of rein in my wandering enthusiasm and go ‘no, you’ve got several series here that you’re shepherding, you should stick to those before you go off on a tangent again’!
ToW: How has the Horus Heresy series changed for you? You were obviously in there right from the beginning…does it feel different? What’s changed?
DA: It does feel different, various things have changed simply because you learn things as you go along. Initially the decision was made by Games Workshop that they wanted to publish Horus Heresy novels, which was very exciting. They summoned about…I guess it was seven or eight of us to Black Library Towers, they sat us down and said ‘this is what we want to do, you’re the guys who are going to write it. It’s not going to be one person writing it, it’s going to be a team effort, and we’ll work from there’.
So from that point on we became a body, a sort of ‘band of brothers’ of writers who just got together on a regular basis to discuss what would happen next, and then plan out the schedule from there. It was great! Writers are notoriously solitary, we don’t really speak to people or see people. I mean, to me that’s leavened by working in comics which of course is a team effort, but being a novelist is usually very solitary. So this was a really interesting experience for all of us, and we all rose to it because we liked the idea of that sort of writer’s room, all sitting around and discussing ideas, and become very free with ideas.
One of us would suggest something, throw a great idea out onto the table, and it wouldn’t necessarily be because they wanted to write it. It was just a great idea for the story, and someone else would end up writing it. We were contributing together, en-masse, and the series went from strength to strength on that basis. We originally planned that we would have a trilogy at the beginning that would set up the Horus Heresy, and then we would treat the entire history of the Horus Heresy a bit like something big like the Second World War.
We would simply write novels exploring different aspects of it until at some indistinct point in the future we would tie everything up again. We thought there were all sorts of things we could do – an Imperial Army book, a book about the Alpha Legion, and so on, and they would sort of add together like a mosaic without having to be constrained particularly to some kind of spinal story. It was all ‘books set in the Horus Heresy’. Certainly, I think once we were passed the first three that’s how we worked, and people did enjoy that…
I think after a while though, fans were getting frustrated, not with the novels but with the sense that they weren’t sure how they progressed. They felt that there should be a timeline of ‘this happened, then this, now this is happening next’, which makes perfect sense. Once we were all aware of it we went ‘yeah, of course they do. Why are we doing this? It’s like we’ve written El Alamein before the Battle of Britain, or whatever’.
We’d done elements of the story in the wrong order, or at least we were in danger of doing that. So in the last few years we’ve really focused our attention on getting it back into the books that ‘matter’, so fewer of these very interesting but peripheral novels set in that period, and more novels that actively advance, book by book, the ongoing story so that there isn’t this slightly woolly sense of what was going on.
I think the other thing that happened in the period of the Horus Heresy novels is that Games Workshop itself went through a number of changes [see my interview with Laurie Goulding] where they made some policy decision about how they operated, which weren’t necessarily clever ones. We [the authors] all became quite disaffected, and one of the things that stopped happening for instance was the round-table meetings with all the authors. It would just be the two or three authors involved in whatever was happening next, so there wouldn’t be those spontaneous, happenstance moments. Some of the best ideas have come from people who happened to be there at the time, who weren’t actively writing but happened to be there. Those spontaneous things that you can’t plan for.
That sort of restriction I think hampered things slightly, and it discouraged us all from working. It’s one of the reasons that I’ve done less for Games Workshop in the last few years, it’s one of the reasons that other writers have done less for them, because it really was a sort of constraint. It rather took the joy out of it, took the imagination out of it and tried to industrialise the process rather too much.
Thankfully in the last two years Games Workshop have gone ‘that’s not working at all, why on earth did we do that?’ and they have essentially gone back to doing it the way they used to do. Not just the Horus Heresy, but everything. All the things that were alarming or discouraging from a freelancer’s point of view, they have put back to the tried and tested ways that they used to do them. Which is brilliant, because we’re all happily working again and enjoying it, because all the things that really matter, the sort of things you can’t list on an accountant’s spreadsheet but matter enormously in the creative process, are back in place.
So that was a slight hiccup, and one of the things that’s happened since that hiccup is that we’ve got the writer’s room process back together again, and we are now on a very, very determined and united plan to bring the series home. Which is great, and very, very exciting again! I think inevitably with any large project like that there’s a point of disaffection where things seem to be getting slow, but then they pick up pace again, and I think it’s remarkable actually that during that period of disaffection the quality of the novels remained high. The books themselves were great, but behind the scenes we were struggling a great deal more to retain the enthusiasm we’d had early on.
It’s now got to the point that all of us who were there at the beginning, you know ‘I was there the day Horus killed the Emperor’, and are still part of the process – which is essentially most of us – are slightly staggered that we’ve been doing it for as long as we have. Slightly staggered that actually the end is in sight, and that we’re actually going to do it and get to the Siege of Terra! Because we were always determined that we would, and we always felt and believed that we would…but it’s the difference between that and actually getting there, going ‘oh my god, we’re now up to book 43! We’ve now got to plan the Siege of Terra!’ because that’s coming up fast.
We’ve got to do it, get it in the right order and cover everything. Everybody’s got to gather together all the different elements and characters that have spread out across these 40+ novels, and make sure everything’s resolved. I think that sort of ‘enthusiasm slackness’ as it were, that happened a few years ago, is probably good because it was probably just that late afternoon moment when everyone’s had enough…now we’ve woken up, it’s dinnertime and we’ve got to get back into things, got to be serious about it.
I think that’s healthy, and I think Games Workshop deserves immense credit for first of all actually genuinely trying to improve and streamline what they were doing, even if it didn’t succeed. The fact that people cared enough to think ‘maybe there are better ways of doing it’. And then when they discovered that there weren’t better ways of doing it, to have the grace to say ‘right, ok…let’s stop. Let’s go back’. I think people always bitch about big companies like Games Workshop and Marvel, it’s just de rigeur to do that, but actually I think Games Workshop deserves credit for realising that they had sort of damaged the recipe.
It was like ‘New Coke’ – they’d damaged the recipe, and everyone had said ‘no! Don’t! Go back to the original, because that was really working!’ And they did!
It means that working there now is a very encouraging thing. From my point of view the best sign of that is that Warmaster, the latest Gaunt novel, which is so late now it’s not funny…had really fallen foul of that whole process. The fun of writing Gaunt was taken away from me completely by what was going on, and although I was determined to get it finished because I wanted to be professional about it, I could not find a hint of enthusiasm to do it, to make it the book it should be. I kept writing stuff and just thinking ‘that’s not good enough’. My heart wasn’t in it.
As I say, eighteen months, two years ago, they started to get themselves sorted out…and the moment they did, as I was talking to editors who were saying ‘no, we’re going to go back to doing it that way’, I suddenly felt the fire ignite again and the enthusiasm come back. I immediately sat down, picked up Warmaster, finished it. Wrote it. And wrote the book that I was always intending to write. In fact, better than that as it had been sort of mouldering in soft peat for three years. I produced it, and it was so easy – clearly it wasn’t the writing, it wasn’t the struggle, it wasn’t the word count, it wasn’t anything like that. It was simply the mindset, knowing I was in step with a company that really wanted to publish something rather than struggling against that. So like I said, they deserve credit for correcting their own mistakes, really.
ToW: So…Warmaster’s finished! Obviously everyone is very excited about this, and it’s due out at the end of 2017…
DA: It is, it’s finally finished! And the good news is, the gap between this and the next one – Anarch – won’t be anything like as long. The Gaunt’s Ghosts series is split into arcs, where Warmaster is the third book in the fourth arc and Anarch is the fourth. I really was aware that I was leaving people suspended with this, and worse still of course was that in the first three arcs of the series [i.e the first eleven books] each book was a separate adventure. There was continuity between the characters and some of the background soap opera carried on, but each book was a different story, with a different setting and mission.
With this fourth arc though, at the outset I very deliberately thought ‘I’m basically going to write one big novel, spread over four books – it’s about time I did something much more epic!’ So with Blood Pact, Salvation’s Reach, Warmaster and Anarch, it was meant to be the four acts of this enormous story. There was much more of a sense of unfinished business, of cliffhangers, of storylines left unresolved, than there has of any of the Gaunt books up to this point…and of course it’s in the middle of that, that this delay occurred! If Salvation’s Reach had been a completely self-contained adventure and then there’d been a long gap before the next one, I don’t think people would have noticed so badly. The very fact that it sort of ends on a cliffhanger has really, really frustrated fans; for which I apologise enormously.
ToW: In terms of that cliffhanger, what would you recommend fans do to prepare for reading Warmaster?
DA: Well if you want to do any re-reading of the series, I would at least go back to Blood Pact and re-read this arc. Brace yourselves though, as there are some really big shocks in it! I mean I’m known for killing off favourite characters [in this series] but there are a couple of unexpected twists that I think will cause people to say “oh my god, I did not see that coming!” Unlike other books, where people have said “I’ve had to go and have a quiet sit down because I was so upset when that character died…”, with this one I think people will just have to have a quiet sit down with their mouth open going “I don’t believe he did that!” Not because it’s horrible, just because it’s like…”WHAT?”
But yes, this really did emphasise the idea that this is unfinished business – ‘when’s he going to write the next one?’ And I get that. Even on Facebook, any time I post about anything, not even necessarily about Gaunt’s Ghosts, somebody goes ‘that’s all very good Dan, but when are you going to finish Warmaster?’ So finally I went ‘sod you, I’m going to do it!’ and I finished Warmaster, and I’m really, really pleased with it. When the information went up that I’d finished it, I think the first comment that came up was “ok, when are you going to write the next Bequin book?” There’s no pleasing some people!
ToW: No, indeed! And on that note, can you talk at all about upcoming Black Library projects?
DA: Well…very, very loosely. Obviously Warmaster is finished, but what I got Black Library to do was immediately commission Anarch so that I could get a head start on that – essentially the next Gaunt book is already underway. However, I might have to push pause on it, because the Horus Heresy is now kicking into high gear and there will be work involved with that, and there are a few other bits and pieces I want to do. There are obviously other projects I want to do as well, like the other Bequin books, the final of the three Inquisitor trilogies – I’m aware that they’re now overdue!
Inevitably people come up to me and say ‘when are you going to write another Iron Snakes book?’ or ‘when are you going to write another Titan book?’ or ‘when are you going to EVER write Interceptor City?’ The thing is, I can’t do them all at once, and I should have learned long ago not to talk enthusiastically about these things and then not do them! Also it’s not that I’m not going to do them, just that I am beholden to Games Workshop. To them the next Gaunt book or the next Horus Heresy book is a much more important thing than Interceptor City or possibly even the next Bequin book. That’s not because they don’t like them, but rather that Gaunt and the Horus Heresy are mainstays of their publishing schedule, and if there’s a big gap because I want to write Interceptor City and the next two Bequin books, and then I might do a Horus Heresy book…that’s not going to work as well for them!
ToW: Final question – how about the new post-Gathering Storm 40k? You’ve covered Guilliman quite a lot in the Heresy – how would you feel about writing a story with him in 40k?
DA: I could easily imagine doing that, yes – he’s actually a bit of a favourite character of mine! The Ultramarines have something of a bad rep, of being so ubiquitous and almost the vanilla Space Marines, and I think that’s a bit of a shame. Obviously Graham [McNeill] is Mister Ultramarines, with his fantastic Uriel Ventris novels, and I expected him to be the guy who wrote the novel that became Know No Fear, the attack on Calth.
It’s happened twice when we were writing the Horus Heresy, in fact. When Graham [McNeill] and I wrote Prospero Burns and A Thousand Sons we were going to do it the other way around; I was going to write the Thousand Sons and he was going to write the Space Wolves, because I didn’t fancy writing the Space Wolves. I thought they were slightly silly – they were brilliant on the gaming table but I couldn’t see how to put them into fiction. When we came to the point of writing them though, I said “you know what, I think I should write the Space Wolves, simply because if I can’t write them in a way that I believe in, I’m not going to be able to write their opponents”.
Graham was quite happy to take on the Thousand Sons, and that’s when we switched and I, metaphorically speaking, got my teeth into Space Wolves and tried to write them in a way that I could believe in fiction. I suddenly ended up loving them wanting to write more and about them – I think they’re fantastic!
The same happened with Know No Fear, I expected Graham to be the guy who wrote that novel. I just assumed that it would be his book, but when the time came he was busy doing something else and we thought ‘what are we going to do? Are we going to wait until he can do that one as well?’ Graham said “I don’t care, I don’t have to write Ultramarines all the time – somebody else can do it!” So I embraced the Ultramarines and wrote the Calth book, and loved it, and loved them so much I ended up doing The Unremembered Empire, following up with Guilliman and the Ultramarines. It’s at the point now where I’m now very, very fond of them as well.
So yes, writing Guilliman in 40k would almost be like he’s sort of come around through the centuries to meet me at the other end. Having written him in the Heresy, it’s about time I shook his hand in 40k to see what he’s like now! Although I think Graham might possibly want to have a go at that as well, so we might have to have one of our regular monkey knife fights in the car park to decide who gets the chance!
Thanks must once again go to Dan for taking the time to do this interview with me – it was an absolute pleasure to chat with Dan! I suspect I probably speak for a lot of people in saying that it would be GREAT to see Dan write a book featuring Guilliman in 40k! Perhaps the solution is to have BOTH Dan and Graham write one…recreate their Prospero Burns/A Thousand Sons collaboration perhaps? Make it happen, Black Library!
Anyway, I hope you enjoyed this second part of the interview. If you’re anything like me, hearing Dan’s stories about how Xenos and Fell Cargo came about will have been particularly enjoyable, and I’m probably not the only person to be very excited to get my hands on first Warmaster and then Anarch. A few people have mentioned the Bequin books to me recently, so I hope you’ll all be reassured from what Dan’s said here that he is definitely aware of how much people want to read the next two of those!
If you enjoyed hearing Dan’s thoughts on the period of change within Games Workshop, then (if you haven’t read it already) you might want to check out my previous interview with Laurie Goulding for some more information on that period. I think Dan really hit the nail on the head though when he talked about Games Workshop deserving credit for at least trying to make things work better, even if it didn’t quite pay off…and then for acknowledging that things weren’t working! I don’t know about you, but I’ve been SO impressed by Games Workshop (including Black Library) over the last few months…it’s all looking good!
On a final note, keep an eye out for one last snippet of Dan Abnett-related information – I recently reviewed his first Gaunt’s Ghosts short story for my Forgotten Texts series, and I’ll soon be posting a final short interview specifically focused on the early days of the Gaunt’s Ghosts series!
As always, if you’ve got any questions, comments or feedback – please don’t hesitate to get in touch, in the comments below, on Facebook or Twitter, or by emailing me on firstname.lastname@example.org.