Forgotten Texts: Dan Abnett on Ghostmaker

Regular readers will have seen my recent interview with Dan Abnett, and may also be aware of my Forgotten Texts series, where I look back at stories from the earlier days of Black Library. I recently covered Dan’s short story Ghostmaker for Forgotten Texts – you can find that article here – and while I was chatting to Dan for the main interview I asked a few questions related to that short story to use as an accompanying interview.

I had planned to ask the same sort of questions as the other Forgotten Texts author interviews I’ve done, but we actually ended up with fewer questions, answered in more detail. It’s also a lot longer than usual, but hopefully you won’t mind having more to read, given how interesting Dan’s thoughts were on these topics.

Without further ado, let’s get straight to the interview…

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ToW: Ghostmaker is the first ever Gaunt’s Ghosts story, from way back in 1997…how did it come about, and why did you choose this particular story to tell?

DA: It was probably actually written in 1996 – I was writing comic strips for Games Workshop, and that was the point at which they started to ask if I wanted to write short prose stories, before I started writing the novels. I think the first story I wrote was a Gilead story [Gilead’s Wake], which was then fixed up into the first Gilead novel, and then I wanted to do a 40k story, and was being encouraged to do that because it was their big seller at the time. I looked at 40k…and there’s a sort of semi-mythological story that I didn’t want to write Space Marines, which is sort of true.

I looked at it and thought ‘Space Marines…I cannot see how I’m going to get any characters out of those, they’re brilliant but I don’t see their potential in stories as easily as I do writing about ‘regular’ people’. So I asked if I could write an Imperial Guard story, as it would be about regular people and I could relate to that, and understand it. I thought that would be a really good way for me to get the hang of writing 40k. Having written Gaunt now for many, many years I now write Space Marines with great confidence because I’ve found out how I can write those, but Gaunt and his soldiers were a very good way of me finding my way into 40k.

There’s another myth, which is that it’s Sharpe’s Rifles with the names changed, which is…again, a misunderstanding of what I said about it! I wanted to capture the spirit of the Sharpe books, which is to say a brave and capable leader with a group of men who will often find themselves doing really unlikeable missions because they’re essentially disposable, and to have that sort of feeling about it. That was as close as it got in terms of having any modelling of it, it was more of a vague template than anything else!

But yes, Ghostmaker was the first story. When I was writing that short story I had no idea that it would grow into what it would grow into – as far as I was concerned it was almost disposable, I got to the end of it and thought ‘that was fun…I might write another one about those guys’. That was it. It really was just an opportunity to write a story about some Imperial Guardsmen in a 40k battle zone, to try and capture the spirit of what I wanted to talk about, and then see what happened next. It was that simple, and it was long before any of the novels came along. When they did come along, Games Workshop said ‘well Gaunt’s Ghosts is proving to be quite popular, would you like to write a novel about them?’ Their first idea was for me to take what was by then four or five short stories, including Ghostmaker, and fix them into a novel to make the first Gaunt novel.

I didn’t want to do that, so I said “if I’m going to write a novel, it’s got a completely different shape to it – can I not write an original Gaunt’s Ghosts novel?” Which is what I did – First and Only was written as a novel, and then when that was successful and Games Workshop wanted novel number two, I thought ‘ok well now I’ll do the fix up of the earlier stuff, just to make sure it’s got all of the material in it’. So I took all those short stories and wove them together, expanding some and re-writing some, and made them into the second novel – Ghostmaker – much of which is set before the first novel. But the context is very clear, as they are Gaunt’s memories.

So what you’ve got in Inferno! issue four is really a try-out for me; not trying out for Games Workshop but me trying out for myself to see if I could write 40k. It’s almost like an audition, and oddly is the foundation from which so many novels have come – that short story is responsible for a million and a half words [including Warmaster] and counting!

ToW: Why the Tanith? Why go for scout-type soldiers over Cadians or Catachans, or even another more standard regiment?

DA: It’s difficult to answer…I think it appealed to me because I didn’t want to use an existing regiment, I wanted to create my own. It’s that thing about world building, about how 40k was already created but I wanted to create my own bit of it. If I created a regiment I could do whatever I liked with it and say anything I liked with it! I don’t know why I chose the name Tanith, other than that it has mythological meanings and that vaguely Celtic overtone.

Indeed the spirit of the Ghosts themselves, I’m not quite sure where that came from, but I hit upon the idea of these sort of woodsmen who were really good at stealth and scouting, but when it comes to a fight are deadly even though they’re comparatively underpowered. They haven’t got heavy weapons or anything but they make up for that just by being the sort of ultimate black-ops guys. It was just very appealing, but also kept them very much on that Sharpe level of just being standard riflemen, like ‘the poor bloody infantry’, which I liked. I think I was channelling a very Napoleonic/World War One feeling in those early books, with the idea that the war zone was this horrible landscape of mud and wire and mines, and people died and nobody noticed.

The story I suppose has all sorts of…I guess, mistakes in it. There are several things in that story, and even in the first Eisenhorn novel, where I’ve put something in and people have said “that’s not 40k!” Well yeah, I know it isn’t now, but I didn’t know that when I wrote it! We could go back and do a revised edition, but what’s the point really – just leave it!

So, for example, the use of land speeders in Xenos – well it doesn’t really matter, it was just that planet! The universe is almost infinite, so that’s just what happens on that planet – forget about it. I mean I made Gaunt a Colonel-Commissar, in my complete innocence! If I was pitching that now, Games Workshop would say ‘well he can’t be – he can be one or the other, not both! They’re very different things.’ But they’ve become much more different things these days than they were back then, I think the Astra Militarum portrayal of what the Commissars are is much more extreme than it was back when I was first writing this. So the idea of making him a sort of split-rank officer was less shocking and therefore raised no eyebrows and got no objections at the time, in 1996 and 1997!

It obviously would now, but that’s true of a lot of things I’ve written – Fell Cargo wouldn’t be commissioned today, probably Double Eagle wouldn’t be commissioned today, simply because they’re outliers. But the point is, particularly with the Gaunt’s Ghosts series, wherever I’ve become aware of what might be loosely regarded as a mistake, I’ve tried to own it and make it part of the series. Ibram Gaunt is a Colonel-Commissar, I’m living with that!

I’ve made it come to the point now in the novels where people will talk about how exceptional that is, and how it probably isn’t a very good idea, and he probably isn’t doing either of those jobs well! I’ve tried to take the real world response of ‘well I don’t know how that works…’ and put it into 40k context, having people in the stories echoing that and saying the same thing. It’s too late to go back and change that, and I think it would take away the spirit of Gaunt’s character – he is both a soldier and a disciplinarian.

There have been many other similar occasions; juggling a cast as big as Gaunt’s Ghosts has become, you make mistakes! I keep a regimental list to update, so that I can kill people, a list of names…sometimes they’re just names, just so I know who’s in whose platoon and that sort of thing. When I write a big battle scene, I’ll put a line through the characters who die, but every now and again I forget to put a line through one. Three books later I realise I’ve been writing about that guy…but he got shot three books ago! It’s too late to change it, because those books are published, so whenever I discover I’ve made a continuity error like that I go back and have a look, and see what I can do to fix it. And then make a point of it!

There are two really good examples of characters I did that with. Bonin, the scout, dies at the end of Necropolis – he falls off Heritor Asphodel’s enormous war machine. We don’t see him die, but he falls off, and he’s clearly going to die! Two books later I was gleefully using him again, but then I thought ‘oh, wait a minute’ and I realised he should be dead. So I then digressed, and wrote in about how he had fallen off and been badly injured, but he’d miraculously survived and that’s why his nickname is ‘Lucky’, and he’s got a cybernetic spine, and all this sort of thing. The character then grew out of that; he was a very minor character, but when I realised what I’d done, in fixing the mistake he became a more important character, in fact one of the most important ones.

Similarly, Merrt – the sniper with the augmetic jaw – who’s one of my favourite characters, he died in Ghostmaker [the novel, not the short story]! He’s shot in the face! I found that I’d used his name a couple of times, so I looked back into Ghostmaker to see how he died and realised that I’d just said he’d been shot in the mouth – not that he’d been killed. So I then came up with this excuse that he’d been crippled, and therefore had this terrible augmetic jaw that didn’t work properly, and so on. Again, his character – which I think is one of the strongest ones in the series – came out of a continuity error. I developed the character out of something which, initially speaking, was just a mistake on my part, but which I owned and used!

I have to say, one of the major strands of the latest arc, in Warmaster and Anarch, one of the big things going on there has arrived from me repairing a mistake I made in Necropolis! I made a tiny error that no-one’s ever really noticed, but it bothered me and unlike, say, Merrt and Bonin who’ve survived, I couldn’t fix this as easily. It was a very definitive statement. I thought ‘do I just get them to reprint the next edition and correct it?’ but decided to stick with it, and work out the implications.

It’s become this immense plot point, and I think that’s good. It’s a good, organic, creative way of writing novels. People can read this story and hopefully enjoy it, and go ‘gosh, that was so big and exciting and enthralling!’ and if they then track the story all the way back to where it started, to this almost throwaway line, they’ll go ‘oh my gosh! Eight books ago it was there already!’ And I think that’s part of what you do when you’re writing a long saga. You go ‘well I did that, I’m stuck with it, what can I make out of it?’ What you make out of it, in that moment of inspiration, is often better than what you would have done instead, without that spur of making sure things are consistent.

ToW: Ghostmaker was published in 1997, First and Only was the first ever Black Library novel…there’s not very many people who were involved right from the outset and are still writing now! How do you feel things have changed in the settings, since you wrote those early stories?

DA: Well I have a professional obligation to follow the settings, for sure. I have long continuity sessions with the editors and everyone at Black Library, just to make sure I’m getting it right and I haven’t missed a memo and discovered that things have changed. I think there’s an excuse for historical stories, that is to say stuff that’s already been published, to have got it right under its own terms, but things have changed since then. There’s been a progression. I think in Warmaster actually, there are several moments that I think people will pick on and think ‘oh gosh, he’s brought it up to date. He’s sort of changing and revising, organically in the story, some of the things that have changed since he started writing it’.

That’s inevitable, it happens in everything. I’ve been writing for Marvel for 20+ years and similarly, Captain America isn’t the same character he was back then. The same with other things I’ve been doing exclusively. Last year or the year before was the 20th anniversary of Sinister Dexter in 2000AD, which I created, and I’ve written every episode…I’m the only person responsible for it, but that itself has changed massively. You’re aware of that progression, and the fact that characters grow, and change, and alter, and do those things, but with Warhammer it’s the world itself that’s being refined all the time. I always embrace that. I think at the moment, Games Workshop is having a bit of a renaissance in terms of quality. The quality of the rulebooks, the fantastic quality of the miniatures, they’re really doing some amazing things.

There’s a sort of bravado, almost, in what they’re doing. It’s still the same static universe, but rather than keeping it feeling like nothing’s moving they’re really moving things along, stirring it up and doing exciting things. To me that’s great, and I think – and I’m certainly not taking sole responsibility for this – that in some respects that’s a response to the fiction. The game designers are looking at the fact that the fiction is exhilarating, and moves forward and progresses, and are going ‘it’s about time we did some of that in the game, rather than just creating an environment for people to play the game in!’

That’s exciting to see, and therefore you embrace it. When I get a visit to Games Workshop and they show me the latest tank, or the latest flyer, or whatever they’ve just designed, I’ll say ‘that’s great! Can I get some pictures?’ Because they’ll appear. They’ll be flying past in the background. It’s not product placement, it’s me trying to echo the way the universe has shifted, and hopefully suggesting that these things have been there all along…you just haven’t noticed them before!

I think when you talk about changes though, there are obviously huge changes in the way the universe is designed. The games designers will, at regular intervals, refine the universe and make substantive changes to how it works, and what the rules are, and what things are called. That’s the natural progression of refreshing the franchise to make sure that it stays true, and things are maybe tidied up that are not as clean as they should have been early on. But, when you’re looking at the early fiction – and the early comic strips, if you’re looking at Warhammer Monthly – it is still absolutely what it should be, because that’s what it was at the time.

It’s like looking at a 1960’s Jack Kirby Fantastic Four and thinking ‘well, it’s fantastic! It’s not what the Fantastic Four are now, but it’s still the same thing’. Inevitably, any ongoing fictional universe – Star Wars, Doctor Who, Warhammer, Marvel – will evolve over time. Otherwise nobody would read it, because it would become stagnant. I think that’s what it is – you’re looking at a simpler time when there weren’t as many stories to compare it to, when people weren’t looking as hard to find new ways of interpreting things, and therefore the stories were comparatively straightforward. Possibly delightfully so! Nowadays I wouldn’t pitch Ghostmaker to Black Library because it’s been done a thousand times, now! I’d have to think of something else to do.

I like looking back on them as well, and not just my own stories but the stories that we were all producing at that time. I think they stand up well, they were some of the first times that these things had been done and the first opportunities for people to read about this universe in prose form. They were sort of an introductory thing to do.

I’m incredibly fond of Ian Watson’s Inquisitor novels for Boxtree [Inquisitor – subsequently renamed Draco – Chaos Child, and Harlequin], and sometimes marvel at how insane and bonkers they are. Brilliantly so, given that they were technically speaking the very first ones! You’d think they would have been safer, more ordinary and inviting. Even though they are SO not canonical any more, compared to modern 40k, I think they are great novels. They, and I suppose John Blanche’s illustration work, to me are always lurking there – those and Rogue Trader – in the back of my mind whenever I write for Black Library, especially with the Horus Heresy. They are my touchstones. They are the true spirit of weirdness in 40k and the Horus Heresy, and if we can somehow reflect that in what we’re writing, even though we’re writing modern Games Workshop fiction, they should have some of that insanity in them. Otherwise we’re missing the point of what 40k is all about!

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There you have it. If you haven’t already, check out the Forgotten Texts article on Dan’s short story Ghostmaker – and if you haven’t read that story, I would urge you to check it out! It’s excellent, either as a reminder of where it all began, or a great introduction to the Gaunt’s Ghosts series.

Also, if you can get hold of a copy of any of those early Ian Watson books that Dan mentioned, I would absolutely recommend checking them out. They’re truly bonkers, but great fun. So much fun in fact, I could be tempted to re-read one of them for a future instalment of Forgotten Texts. If that sounds good, let me know in the comments below!

Don’t forget that Dan’s next novel – Warmaster – is due out towards the end of 2017! Keep your eyes peeled around that time for a review on here, once I’ve got my hands on a copy.

Check out the rest of the Forgotten Texts articles here.

2 comments

  1. Once I’m ready to move onto 40k reading, I’ve been thinking about doing it all in release date order (codices & Black Library back catalogue), so those Ian Watson books may be some of the very first ones I’ll read! 🙂

    1. You’re in for a very interesting experience if you go for publication date! Those old Ian Watson books are wonderful, but they’re mental 🙂

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