I recently had the chance to sit down with and pose some questions to Laurie Goulding, Arch-Heretic and Herald of Pedantry, the man responsible for shepherding the colossal Horus Heresy series for Black Library. It’s not all Heresy though as Laurie also writes under the name LJ Goulding, and has his first full Black Library novel due for release early in 2017 – the Space Marine Battles book Slaughter at Giant’s Coffin.
Over a pretty wide-ranging interview we discuss his route through the hobby, how he wound up responsible for editing and commissioning the Horus Heresy, why he chose the Scythes of the Emperor as the subject of his first novel, and much more. In fact we covered so much ground that I’ve split the interview into two parts – in this first part we talk about Laurie’s background and how he found himself working for Black Library, and take a look at his work as a Black Library author, including the upcoming Scythes of the Emperor novel.
Without further ado, let’s get straight on with the interview…
I read in another interview that you come from a literary family. Did that lead to you getting heavily into reading from an early age?
LG: It absolutely did. My grandma on my mum’s side became a writer after she retired, and she had literally dozens of short stories and poems published in magazines, anthologies and so on. She didn’t make huge money from it but she always had notebooks and scraps of paper with ideas scribbled on them, and they’d sort of migrate over to her computer desk where she had this ancient-looking Amstrad word processor and a stack of floppy disks, and an actual old-school ribbon typewriter. She wrote a novelised version of her childhood in South Derbyshire, and it got a lot of recognition at the time. Somewhere in all of her old things, there is a folder full of notes for the sequel she was planning – her eldest son, my uncle, has talked about the two of us maybe writing it someday, just as a pet project. I think that’d be a nice way to remember Grandma Pat!
My parents were both teachers, and they made a big deal out of me and my sister both learning to read and write as early as possible. I think I used to read Ladybird storybooks to my parents when it was my bedtime, before I even started primary school, so a bit of a role-reversal there! I read The Hobbit aged 7 and The Lord of the Rings aged 8, because my mum promised me £10 if I could finish it. Easy money, or so I thought! Certainly, that was what interested me in fantasy literature from a young age.
I also realised recently that I used to listen to a LOT of read-along books on tape, like Transformers, Star Wars, Thundercats, Mask, Centurions and things like that. That has almost certainly been what sparked my interest in audio dramas, and I’ve done a lot of work developing the audio range at Black Library since taking it over from Christian Dunn. I also listened to a lot of radio plays when I was a teenager, which was partly what made me want to get into media production at university. James Swallow often talks about the awesome Independence Day: UK (by the genius, visionary Dirk Maggs) as being an inspirational piece of audio drama storytelling – I loved that when I was a teenager as well, and it turned out that Toby Longworth was in it, too.
I gather you’re a keen gamer, but that – like myself and a fair few others I know – you moved away from the hobby at around university age. Did you keep up with what was happening in terms of Black Library stories, or was it a complete break?
LG: It was a complete break for me, at least in theory. I followed the traditional path of becoming more interested in ’girls and booze and rock and roll’ around the age of 16 and sold all my hobby stuff, even though I still worked at Spirit Games in Burton on Trent at the weekends. I remember very specifically taking all of my White Dwarf magazines in there one time, to sell for cash to pay for a night out where I intended to impress a girl from my English class in school. That’s quite a potent, symbolic image that I imagine quite a few lapsed hobbyists can identify with!
When I was at university in Winchester, I started painting Babylon 5 Wars ships on commission, and slowly but surely started to accrue paints, glue, dice, rulebooks again. It wasn’t until I was working on a pitch for a script agency in London in 2005 that I thought about it seriously again – I was trying to describe how difficult it would be to pick a good topic for a Warhammer 40,000 film, because the Horus Heresy was such a fundamental part of understanding the 41st millennium. Then a while later I happened to be in Waterstones and I saw Horus Rising on the shelf, as a new release. I bought it and read it in about 12 hours, and then started feeling the familiar hobby itch once more.
My old gaming buddy from school was reading the HH books too, and we started talking about doing pre-Heresy Legions, to play games using the normal Codex Space Marines rules at the time. He was really interested in the Emperor’s Children, and I jumped at World Eaters. This was well before Forge World, you realise! We had to CONVERT old armour marks, and trawl bits sites looking for the most appropriate stuff. There was a whole community starting up around this niche-niche, and I got involved really heavily as soon as I could. #InB4Resin, you know.
I still suck at Warhammer 40,000 though. Seriously, anyone can beat me. Easily.
A quick check of LinkedIn has you listed as Black Library’s Publishing Editor & IP Curator. How has your role changed over time, from when you started with Black Library.
LG: Well, I was originally the ‘Submissions Editor’ when I started in 2011 – my job was reading and making notes on any pitches or samples that came into the office, either in a defined submissions window or just people trying their luck. We got some really crazy stuff sometimes, like hand-written manuscripts on tea-stained sheets of paper with the edges burnt. It was like arts and crafts more than writing, sometimes.
Very quickly, my managers realised that I knew more about the Horus Heresy than was probably healthy! Within a year, I was working as a second editor on every single Horus Heresy story, as well as pointing out continuity opportunities in Warhammer 40,000 books as well. Then, over time, working on Horus Heresy material for Forge World and Black Library became my full-time job, because of the sheer volume of content. I’ve advised on every Horus Heresy project produced by Games Workshop since 2013, and commissioned everything in the series from Black Library. Not bad for a nerdy super-fan who hadn’t read a single Black Library book before Horus Rising, eh?
In a similar vein to some of your colleagues, you also write for Black Library (as LJ Goulding). What are the challenges combining those two roles – do you find it easy to compartmentalise/wear different hats?
LG: At present, only two Black Library staff are actively writing for the brand – that’s Nick Kyme and myself. We have others who still work in Games Workshop, like John French, Andy Smillie, Darius Hinks, C Z Dunn (who’s not Christian when he’s writing) Andy Clark, Phil Kelly, Graeme Lyon, people like that. And also, we have LOADS of ex-GW employees who have gone on to write for BL – Graham McNeill, Gav Thorpe, Anthony Reynolds, Guy Haley, George Mann, Ian St. Martin, just off the top of my head. That should tell you about the level of experience, expertise and inside knowledge that these guys bring to their writing.
When you tread that line between day job and freelance, you have to really carefully demarcate your own interests from your actual responsibilities. It’s the same for artists, graphic designers, whatever. Games Workshop employees follow a really simple rule, all the way from retail staff up to the top level of management – ‘Always put GW first’. That doesn’t mean sacrifice yourself for the company, it just means that you have to think about what is good for Warhammer as a brand and a property, above what is good for you, your career, your bank account, your favourite bit of the lore.
It’s the same, in a way, for editors who also write. I can see projects being handed out to other authors and I’d be thinking ‘Oh my gods, I want to write that! Give it to me instead!’ but a lot of the time that’s just because the idea is a good one and I get excited by it. I also have to be careful not to think about how I MIGHT have written something, or what I would do differently, when reading another author’s work. Editing is a collaboration with an author, not changing their work to fit your own ideas – otherwise we’re back to that thing of not staying true to the work itself.
I can tell you, Black Library editors are under about five times as much scrutiny as any other author. We can’t miss deadlines, we can’t turn in shoddy stories, we can’t edit ourselves and we can’t promote our own work or interests as freelancers. This is why, for the longest time, several of us shied away from Facebook and Twitter. When Games Workshop was very much against social media, it just didn’t seem worth risking the trouble of saying something on a personal account that undermined our reputation at work. Having said that, it’s not like commissioning a fellow editor takes ‘a slot’ away from another writer. The Black Library machine is always hungry for the prose! It’ll never be full! The more writing by different writers we can publish, the better… and the brand would suffer if I couldn’t commission Nick or John for Horus Heresy stories, for example.
Basically, the easiest way to keep editing and writing separate is to do them at different times, in different places. I write at home, I edit at work. That separation really helps with resetting my mental state between my job and freelance. I know Nick sets aside a certain number of hours every week day for writing, but he’s super-disciplined and much more experienced than me. If I have a deadline looming, I do what Christian does, take some holiday time and book into a hotel to finish my project. In fact, I jetted off to California earlier this year to finish Slaughter at Giant’s Coffin, and just spent five days in an air-conditioned apartment writing with the sun shining in through the windows. It was bloody lovely!
Do you think your editorial experience helps you as an author, ensuring you’ve got one eye on what you’re writing from a more objective perspective, or does it hinder you, slow you down or cause you to second guess yourself?
LG: Oh, it’s absolutely a benefit. When you coach writers in their craft, you tend to pick up a few tricks of the trade. Also, I know EXACTLY what Black Library is looking for in terms of products, plot, characters, sales opportunities and stuff like that, so I know what sort of thing is likely to make the first cut as a pitch. Having said that, I have a day job so it’s not like I can take on masses and masses of freelance writing work. I spend 7.5 hours every day talking about the worlds of Warhammer, so my evenings are usually spent doing something else, like playing ice hockey or roaring around on one of the motorbikes. I’m also a dreadfully slow and careful writer, which means I prefer to work on shorter stuff! That’s really bad, isn’t it? Ha!
It felt like I came to Black Library as a Horus Heresy super-nerd first, an editor second and a frustrated wannabe-author third. Christian Dunn used to handle submissions before me, and he knew that Graeme Lyon and I had both submitted work to the open calls in the past. When the editorial need arose for more short stories, and fast, he asked us to revisit our rejected pitches and have another go – that was where my Kharn the Betrayer story The Weakness of Others came from. I submitted that as a 1,000-word writing sample the year before, then with a little bit of adjustment it was turned into a self-contained short. My first original commission was The Oberwald Ripper, for the Gotrek & Felix series. Weirdly, when I was a kid we were on holiday somewhere like Great Yarmouth, and White Dwarf had the William King story Skaven’s Claw spread over two issues – I picked up both of them during the holiday, and read that story over and over again. I never thought at the time I’d be commissioning the final books in that series, let alone writing short fiction of my own for it.
At the end of the day, writers who get commissioned for Black Library are generally just huge fans of the setting, as well as being capable wordsmiths. When you are elbows-deep in a fictional world that you’ve been enthralled by for nearly thirty years, it’s hard NOT to get excited about working on new stories and background at every available opportunity.
In terms of your own writing, you’ve written about short fiction featuring ogres, necrons, Legion of the Damned, Grey Knights, Kharn the Betrayer…why did you choose Scythes of the Emperor for your first Black Library novel?
LG: Well I loved Advanced Space Crusade when I was much younger, when I first got into the hobby. I always loved the little snippets of background here or there, and with the Scythes of the Emperor it felt like they got such a terrible humbling by the tyranids, but that they only seemed to exist in the background to show how terrible the tyranids were. I thought there were a lot of opportunities there, based on what people had done with other Space Marine chapters that we didn’t know so much about to begin with. People have created such fantastic universes around these chapters and what they get up to in different periods of time.
Richard Williams had written Orphans of the Kraken [check it out in Legends of the Space Marines], and the first time I read that story I just thought it was so awesome. It felt like a game of Advanced Space Crusade but if you weren’t just moving miniatures around a board, you were actually watching a film. It’s as though Advanced Space Crusade was the board game of the film, when the film was Orphans of the Kraken. It felt like there was a lot more depth to it, a lot more character exploration to do.
Another reason why I chose the Scythes, and I can’t really explain it yet without spoilering what’s coming after the next books, but there’s a fantastic idea that Richard Williams and I talked about way back for the way the story could be progressed beyond Orphans of the Kraken and the situation that the chapter’s in. I just thought ‘oh wow, I have to do that!’ I wanted to lay as much of the groundwork as I could in short stories and then build towards the Slaughter at Giant’s Coffin novel, and then on from there with the idea that there could be more of a progression along the timeline for the Scythes of the Emperor. They don’t just end at a certain point. Whether that’s good or bad for the chapter at this point I’m not going to say, but it was an idea that I realised had not been done in Warhammer 40,000, which was why I just had to tell that story.
So did the short stories come first, specifically to pave the way for the novel?
LG: Originally I just had the idea that there would be essentially a sequel to Orphans of the Kraken, except written by me, taking the story in the direction that Richard Williams and I had discussed but he never went on to write. When I then went back and did the first short story – Shadow of the Beast – I was setting up characters and ideas from before the fall of Sotha that I would like to pay off later. There’s a couple of really, really tenuous links in there that people might not have noticed on the first reading, but hopefully when people have read Slaughter at Giant’s Coffin they’ll start to see things slightly differently for some of those characters.
In fact as much as the other ideas would be a sequel to Orphans of the Kraken, Slaughter at Giant’s Coffin is a direct prequel while Shadow of the Beast is a direct prequel to that. The stories that I’ve written so far have not been in a chronological order at all, so only by buying, reading and enjoying all of them will people build up that picture! Orphans of the Kraken has always been the lynchpin around which I’ve turned my stuff, but then hopefully when people go back and read that again they’ll see stuff in there and understand what’s being hinted at.
Will the Scythes of the Emperor anthology collect all of the existing short stories alongside Slaughter at Giant’s Coffin?
LG: It’s going to contain the Slaughter at Giant’s Coffin novel and all of the stories that are related to it – not all of the stories that I’ve written, but everything that’s directly related to the novel. For example the story Heloth, from Visions of War: The Art of Space Marine Battles, is in there as it’s literally a scene from the novel seen from a different point of view! I’d actually written Slaughter at Giant’s Coffin before I wrote Heloth – it’s been ALMOST ready for a while.
I’ve also got an upcoming Scythes of the Emperor audio drama called Scythes of the Emperor: Daedalus. Daedalus is one of the hive ships – the Scythes of the Emperor have their code names for the hive ships, which we’ll go into in Slaughter at Giant’s Coffin as well in terms of why they name the hive ships. Again, something from Orphans of the Kraken that I thought was really interesting – why do they name them? The tyranids don’t name their ships! And then they’ve got a code AND a name, and they always give both the code and the name – I thought it was interesting to look at why that came about, and why the Scythes have such idiosyncrasies in how they wage this war. You realise that they’re tailoring their entire chapter to just fight this one war…
Back to Daedalus, which is a story that’s linked by a character who appears in Slaughter at Giant’s Coffin. You realise how much time has passed by what’s happened to him in the meantime.
Then there will be other short stories which will be part of the links between those two, and you see that the story is building around it in pieces. Somebody asked me how I would describe the structure of the story – it’s kind of like the Marvel universe or the Horus Heresy in microcosm. There are lots of different stories, all of which can be enjoyed on their own, and you can take what you like from those stories. Or…if you look at them all together it becomes a mosaic of a much larger, wider story. A seemingly insignificant detail from one story goes into another and you realise that essentially the entire point of that story was the name of that character – ‘oh, but I thought that he went missing? Then what happened to this guy, and why has this guy got this strange rank that doesn’t seem to exist anywhere else in the Space Marine chapters?’
One of the stories you’ve written so far (The Blood of Sotha) features Vosok Dall, previously seen in Graham McNeill’s The Skull Harvest. Is that an example of a story less linked in to the key narrative of Slaughter at Giant’s Coffin?
LG: Dall is named in Slaughter at Giants Coffin, but the question becomes ‘why is he not here?’ His story has been told – we know that he didn’t like what happened at Sotha, then he dedicates himself to Khorne and eventually gets killed by Honsou in the Skull Harvest. We already know what his story is, but it’s the way that other people might notice that he’s disappeared – nobody else knows what he did, apart from the Scythes he killed!
I love the idea of looking through other people’s stories and finding little details that seem insignificant, like why is there a renegade Scythes of the Emperor warrior? Is he a captain? What made him change? Dall even talks about Sotha, so he knows that it’s fallen. The idea when I came up with that story was just ‘if he knows about Sotha then he was probably there, and if he was there then why has he turned to Khorne instead of fighting tyranids?’ He’s just reached that point where he’s just had enough.
That’s really interesting – Dall’s story seems to tie in to some of the Ultramarines fiction we’ve seen before around how the world that an aspirant hails from can impact on how he copes in training and so on. Was that a deliberate reference?
LG: Well Sotha was originally part of Ultramar and the Five Hundred Worlds, and the way I imagine it all of the planets from the Sotharan League were part of Ultramar originally. When Ultramar was collapsed down and made smaller after the Heresy they were kind of left to be autonomous – there’s more about that coming in Slaughter at Giants Coffin covering the socio-political structure of that world, and why and how it was allowed to remain that way.
There’s a fantastic website (the-scythes.com) which explores every facet of the Scythes of the Emperor background as much as they can. They’ve started to piece together all the stuff that I’ve written and they picked up on the idea of this social injustice within the Sotharan League and really seemed to like it. Someone wrote an article saying ‘it seems like there’s this fantastic mismatch in the way that Sotha has always been seen as this great place, and it’s such a tragedy that it’s been lost…but it doesn’t sound that great! It sounds a bit racist actually!’
It links back to Pharos as well, by Guy Haley. We worked very closely on making sure that everything he wanted to write in there also left the way clear for everything I had already written or was planning to write for the Scythes of the Emperor, like the names of the cities and the idea that Mount Pharos is still named Mount Pharos in the 41st millennium but they don’t necessarily know the full history of this.
I’ve written another short story – I can’t give too many details yet but it will be out soon. It’s somewhere in between 40k and Heresy, but it goes some way to explaining how they’ve managed to forget everything that’s happened at Mount Pharos. I mean, it’s a pretty important part of the Heresy and yet nobody knows anything about it by the 41st millennium…including the people who live in the shadow of the mountain! How has that been kept secret for so long, and indeed HAS it been kept secret?
One last thing about the preceding Scythes stories – Tiresias (from Orphans of the Kraken), is he dead or alive?
LG: As I understood it, Richard Williams’ intention was for him to be dead. It was his body that the other Scythes found at the end of the story, he wasn’t actually in suspended animation. But it’s the little links – Quintos, the sergeant with the bionic arm (who is actually one of the neophytes that Tiresias recounts losing earlier on), appears in Daedalus, while Tiresias appears in Slaughter at Giant’s Coffin. I’ve written about him, he’s alive and has some dialogue, but I’ve not changed what Richard said – as far as I’m concerned he’s dead at the end of Orphans of the Kraken.
I don’t really want to tie all of the storylines off though – someone else might decide they really like Tiresias, and tell a story about him. He’s just not a part of the story I’m going to tell.
That all sounds really good, and I’m sure I’m not the only fan looking forward to Slaughter at Giant’s Coffin! Keep an eye out for part two of the interview, where we get onto the important topic of the Horus Heresy!