Gav Thorpe Talks Twenty Years of Black Library – Part One

From games design and White Dwarf to freelance Black Library author, Gav Thorpe has had a huge impact on Games Workshop and its intellectual properties over the years. September 2017 marks the twenty year anniversary of Gav’s first Black Library short story – Birth of a Legend – while 2017 has also seen Gav receive a prestigious Gemmell Award for his Age of Sigmar novel Warbeast.

With both of those milestones firmly in mind, I spoke to Gav about his twenty-year career as a Black Library author and how that fitted in with his time at Games Workshop, along the way discussing his first two Black Library stories, his work in the audio medium, and loads more.

As is often the case the interview ended up quite long, so I’ve split it into two sections. This first part is mostly about Gav’s early career with Black Library and Games Workshop, including a look at his first two Black Library stories and the future of the Last Chancers, while the second part – coming very soon – has a slightly wider focus and touches upon all sorts of other topics.

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

ToW: First of all, two sets of congratulations are in order; firstly for passing the 20-year mark, and secondly for your recent Gemmell Award victory, for Warbeast! How does it feel to have not just won that award, but won it in your 20th year of being an author?

GT: I suppose I feel that it’s partly a reward for those twenty years, not just for the book itself but for the audience that I’ve built up over that time and the work I’ve done on many books over twenty years. Although Warbeast was the book that was up for nomination – it was the catalyst I guess – I feel that it’s a nice endorsement of the work I’ve done before. It’s reassuring that people are happy to go out and vote for my books after all this time!

The thing about Warbeast, which I’ve talked about a bit on my blog, is that I had a fairly open brief, unlike a lot of the Realmgate Wars books at the time. It was a case of ‘we want Stormcast and we want Pestilens’, and that was the extent of the brief, so I could come up with what worked as a novel rather than trying to manipulate ongoing background events into a narrative. Black Library had confidence in me and gave me a free rein with it, and I was able to step away from the background narrative and show people what else can happen. There’s a lot more of that happening now as more of the books contain less centrally-driven content.

It was interesting, when we did the briefing for Age of Sigmar – individually and in little groups – the idea was that Black Library would be intrinsic to the ongoing narrative. That sounded cool, but I think that rather than getting Black Library to expand upon the narrative it ended up just repeating it. That missed out on the opportunity to make Black Library central to the ongoing storyline by actually deepening it and taking it in different directions to the background coming out of the main studio.

At the time of writing Warbeast there was a new IP, and I was trying to get my head around lots of research, and the communication between the writers and editors wasn’t great in terms of the process itself. Nick [Kyme] and I ended up exchanging quite terse comments in a Word document, to the point that we both realised it wasn’t working and we’d have to sit down and have a face to face conversation to thrash out all the issues. I’m pleased with the book in the end, I think it’s a cool book and I’m happy with the characters and stories I came up with, and all the hints to things like Kislev.

And hey, it won an award so it must be alright!

[It’s more than alright, it’s excellent – you can read by review here.]

ToW: How does it feel to have reached the 20-year mark as an author?

GT: It’s kind of crazy. Interestingly, it’s almost been in two halves – I left Games Workshop nine years ago, so I’ve been freelance full time for nine years after eleven [years of writing] at Games Workshop. So it’s been almost half of my career at Games Workshop and half not. They feel like quite different periods of my life. I suppose when I started, and it was just a nice little fun sideline that I was doing in my spare time and weekends, I would never have thought then that I’d be doing it more than the games design. I didn’t really envisage leaving Games Workshop – why would I? I was having an amazing time! So the fact that it’s flipped and writing has now become my full time career, wasn’t something that I planned, although looking back it kind of became inevitable. Although we’ll see, I might end up moving back into games design, who knows?

But it’s a lot of books and short stories – it just builds up. Particularly while I was at Games Workshop and it wasn’t paying the mortgage, I was very much picking and choosing cool ideas and pitching them to Black Library – Angels of Darkness, the Last Chancers, the Sundering, things like that. When I left it was much more like ‘ok, now I need to think of this much more in terms of a career, and building up a catalogue of work that’s going to continue to sell’ and all that kind of stuff.

My perspective on it is very different, I suppose. Thinking about 13th Legion for example, I can’t really remember writing it. Angels of Darkness I remember a bit better, because I lost half of it about a week before it was due, so I had to rewrite about 40,000 words in just over a week, in my spare time! That was kind of mad – it was two very busy weekends and some very busy evenings…

I suppose I mostly wrote on the Mac at Games Workshop. I had one that I took home, as I didn’t actually have my own PC. I had an old word processor I’d bought when I first moved up to Nottingham, which I’d been doing a bit of writing on, but was completely unsuitable for submitting any kind of files to a publisher! I think I ended up borrowing an old Mac that was going to get chucked out from the Studio and taking that home, and very likely I’d have been submitting on a 3.5” floppy disk. This was twenty years ago, so although technically there was an Internet, and I was probably on email at that point, I didn’t have email at home. So yeah, a very different experience to now!

ToW: Can you talk a little about how you got started working for Games Workshop, and then how writing for Black Library came about?

GT: I joined Games Workshop in 1993, when I was nineteen, which was a bit of happy timing really. I had spoken to Jervis Johnson at Games Day that year [incidentally, I was at that Games Day too – I was ten!] about some Blood Bowl rules that I’d written, and he asked me to send them to him at the Studio because he’d lose them if I gave them to him there and then. Past experience has now taught me that that’s exactly true – if people give you stuff at Games Day you will lose it! So I used my mum’s electric typewriter and typed up a load of games rules and sent them with a cover letter to Jervis at the Studio just saying ‘this is some stuff I’ve written, Games Workshop’s great, if you want to give me a job emptying the bins in the Studio that would be awesome!’

I was brought up for an interview for the Assistant Games Developer position, which had been advertised in White Dwarf previously but I hadn’t paid attention to because I wasn’t qualified for it, being too young for a start. That went well, and I started a week later in the Design Studio, at the tender age of nineteen. So that meant I was in Games Design for about a year. It was a two year contract initially so the first year was in Games Design, but for the second year and a bit longer I was in White Dwarf learning exactly how to hit deadlines and how if you want to hit deadlines you sometimes need to put in weekends, and so on.

It’s funny, I sometimes talk to the most prolific writers, particularly Black Library writers, people like Guy Haley, and a lot of them have got non-authorial writing backgrounds, whether that’s journalism or copywriting. It’s about getting the material out and hitting deadlines and being slick, so I think I learned a lot of that from games design and White Dwarf.

I then went back up to Games Development and I was literally sitting about three desks down from Andy Jones when he set up Black Library. Andy was tasked with, or rather proposed starting a new fiction line for Games Workshop and he brought Marc Gascoigne on as editor. I was available, and I just had a conversation with Andy Jones where he asked if I was interested in writing some short fiction, and it kind of went from there. And here we are twenty years later.

I still have the marked-up hard copy of Birth of a Legend actually, the first thing I wrote and handed in. The first page is covered in red pen with loads of notes on the back but I think he’d kind of given up by that point! I’ve done the same, people have shown me writing and it’s like ‘well I’ll give you commentary on the first two paragraphs, then you’ll have to apply the lessons from that to the rest of the story’. It was a good, solid story actually, but my writing was all over the place, so it was a very useful editorial lesson. And that was it really, that was for Inferno! issue two.

ToW: For anyone who’s not read it, could you give a quick overview of Birth of a Legend?

GT: Yeah, absolutely. I don’t think it’s really a ‘twist’ ending particularly so it’s not really a spoiler, but for my very first story for Black Library I went for the tiny, unimportant topic of Sigmar becoming Sigmar Heldenhammer, and the moment he gets gifted Ghal Maraz! Hence the Birth of a Legend, which now is obviously going to be the title of my biography!

It’s a build-up of Sigmar’s character and how he comes across these captured dwarfs and rescues them. As a story it’s fairly straightforward; he has a nickname throughout the story – Steel-Eye – so you don’t actually know he’s Sigmar, although you will if you know the background, but at the end he borrows, as it were, Kurgan’s hammer during the fighting. He’s going to return it but Kurgan basically says ‘I think you should keep it, it likes you. What’s your name, son?’ and he says ‘Sigmar’. And that’s it, the start of the Empire right there! It was Time of Legends before there was Time of Legends.

It was good fun, and I got to write about dwarfs as well which has always been one of my keenest interests.

[You can read my review of Birth of a Legend, which I wrote as part of the Forgotten Texts series, by clicking here]

ToW: Dwarfs notwithstanding, why did you choose this character and this moment?

GT: Well I like telling stories behind the stories, which is why I like the Heresy so much. It’s the personality behind this most significant event in the background, it’s the defining moment in the Warhammer world, which we didn’t really know a lot about. I suppose as a beginner writer I didn’t really have to think about the plot too much, because the basics were already there, and I guess it set the precedent for how I’ve approached writing ever since, which is that I always start with the ending so I know what the point is of the story that I’m working towards. There were also bits of the background that I wanted to get across. I wanted to remind people that he was sixteen, he wasn’t a veteran warrior he was just a gifted youth.

I can’t remember what I was working on in the day job, so there might have been something going on there which inspired me as well. But also, a lot of the story is just your classic barbarian adventure type of story as well, in the lead up to it, so it was a nice…what I’d now call a trope, but at the time was just a cool barbarian story. Although the subject matter was very ambitious I think the actual narrative wasn’t. I’d read a lot, but hadn’t really written a longer-form story before. I’d done bits of colour text for army books and things like that, but hadn’t written a story of several thousand words since I’d left school, perhaps.

ToW: What are your thoughts on it these days? What does it mean to you as your first story?

GT: I still like it, I think. I would edit the bejesus out of it now, and it’s really over-written in places, but structurally it’s sound. At the heart of it it’s still what I like writing about, which like I said is the stories behind the stories but also the character interaction and trying to get that personality across. More importantly it’s taking a part of the Warhammer world and delving into it historically – in this case the Empire – and trying to think of it in a different way. It’s the idea of these sort of Germanic barbarians roaming around, as opposed to the Holy Roman Empire, and reimagining things a bit. I think that’s cool, and it all still works, despite some flawed execution in places.

If it was available now I’d want to preface it with an author’s note paragraph that just said ‘this is my first story! If you enjoy it that’s cool, but please don’t judge all my work to this standard’. It doesn’t make me cringe to think about, though. In fact it’s a bit like applying for the Games Developer job in the first place, it’s one of those Sliding Doors moments where if I hadn’t written that story I’d have a very different life now. It’s impossible to go through all the permutations but if I hadn’t done that then what would I have ended up doing when I left Games Workshop? Would I have left at that time at all?

So it’s a pivotal moment, not just in my writing career but in my life. Although you only know that in retrospect!

ToW: Were you ever tempted, back when the Old World was still alive and kicking, to go back and carry it on, from either the human or dwarf perspective?

GT: I suppose I thought about it a little bit but I’d ended up going down a different route with the Last Chancers and some other stuff by then, in terms of a series. I don’t usually think in franchise terms as such, I tend to think more in terms of self-contained stories; because I’m so focused on the endings of things, when I’m done I don’t tend to be worried about picking them up again afterwards. I usually think ‘I’ve told that story, it’s finished’, so I guess I hadn’t really considered it until I had a chat with Graham [McNeill] when he started doing his Time of Legends stuff with Sigmar.

We just talked about a little bit of my thinking behind that particular scene, as I’d pre-empted one of the big moments of his series! He should have just freely ignored and done his own version of it, which is part of the ethos of Black Library – nothing’s really definitive, so if he’d wanted to write that differently he should have felt free! But he very kindly incorporated elements of it into the story that he wrote.

I’m always onto the next thing really, I don’t look back too much. Although saying that, I’ve been thinking about doing more Last Chancers stuff!

ToW: Well on that note, let’s move from Birth of a Legend onto story number two – Last Chance! Could you do the same thing, and give a quick summary for anyone who’s not read it?

GT: So the conversation I had with Andy Jones when we were coming up with the idea for Last Chance was ‘Flashman meets Sven Hassel’. He lent me Monte Cassino as some reference for what we were talking about – I had an idea of what he meant but he said ‘go and read this’ and that cemented the style in my head really. That very gritty, drudgery side of war.

Codex: Imperial Guard for second edition 40k had come out and as part of those codexes, special characters were being invented for each army. Rick Priestley, who had been writing the codexes, had tasked me and Ian Pickstock with proposing some special characters for this codex. We thought there was only so much you can do with individual characters for the Imperial Guard, because they’re all about mass, so we came up with the idea of a special squad. Our guys were originally based on the squad from the film Predator, which is where the name Schaeffer comes from – Major Schaefer.

Rick, from a slightly different movie heritage, morphed them into more like the Dirty Dozen in Space so he became Colonel Schaeffer and the squad became this new spin on the idea of the penal legion. So I came up with the concept of the story, the idea being that in a Flashman-esque way by trying to escape he ends up doing good. To get out of his predicament he ends up inadvertently leading a counterattack against an enemy trench!

There was another conceit I had at the time which I didn’t really follow through – there was a series on at the time called The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles, about the young Indiana Jones obviously, which always had a framing device where the old Indiana Jones would start telling a story that would segue into one of his adventures as a young man. I can remember one where the old Indiana Jones was talking in a bakery or some such place, something really mundane!

The concept for Last Chance was that within the context of him trying to get away, he’d fall in with these other characters and end up telling his story as part of that. Essentially it was backstory masquerading as story masquerading as backstory – Kage would be doing one thing but then he’d be relating another story in the midst of that thing, so you’d get two stories for one. The idea was that going forward that would be the format for the Last Chancers stories but it didn’t go past the first one, thankfully. It would have been such a pain to do, and I’ve given myself enough challenges over the years that I’m glad I didn’t follow through on that one!

That was an odd one actually, because the genesis of that was after a conversation with Andy, but the real beginning was actually the opening line – “Ever been ten strides from death?” It’s Kage running across no-man’s land towards the safety of the trench knowing he’s thirty strides away and in twenty the enemy marksmen will get him. Which I thought was cool!

The other interesting thing, I suppose, was choosing a first person perspective to get right inside his head, which helps to get across that idea that these guys are not us. Imperial Guardsmen and the people of the 41st millennium are not us, they don’t think like us, they don’t have our sensibilities. Kage, as much as it transpires is a fairly battle-traumatised psychotic killer, even before that he has a different value of life. It’s a very medieval mindset which permeates through into something which on the outside looks like a modern army.

I must admit, there’s also an element – not in a snarky way – of it being a reflection of the Imperial Guard that was opposed to Gaunt’s Ghosts. I wanted to show the dirty underside of the Imperial Guard – rather than a top down look at the guy who’s the leader, this was the guy at the bottom looking up. It wasn’t a case of ‘this is the way it should be’ but rather that ‘Dan’s writing that Imperial Guard story so I need to do something else, there’s no point replicating what he’s doing.’

[You can read my review of Last Chance, again as part of the Forgotten Texts series, by clicking here.]

ToW: That first person perspective for Kage – where did that irreverent, black-humoured style come from? We haven’t seen much more like it since…

GT: Well part of it must have been from me, I’m afraid! But another influence on it at the time was a series called the Quiller novels by Adam Hall, spy novels which I was very taken with. They were all done in first person and it was a very effective way of writing, and Quiller has this way of referring to himself in the third person almost, particularly when he’s in action. He refers to the organism, he talks about his arm almost detached from his body, which is how he can get shot and have all sorts of other bad things happen but continue on.

So as a perspective choice, that was a very effective way of getting straight inside somebody’s head that I’d read recently while I was writing this. And then Kage himself…I mentioned Flashman, and I’ve read quite a few of those books but I despise Flashman! I genuinely just dislike him as a character the more I’ve read of him, because he has no redeeming features whatsoever and I don’t actually want him to succeed. I couldn’t quite bring myself to write that with Kage so he couldn’t be a cad and a bastard completely, but he had to be close. There had to be just enough that you did actually want to celebrate his victories, just a little bit. Or at least I had to write him in such a way as I’d be pleased when he survived to the end of the story.

On the other hand he had to have this almost nihilistic viewpoint because of where he’s at – he’s on his last chance, he’s sentenced to death and on the equivalent of death row. Particularly within the story Last Chance itself, this is his bid for freedom, it’s him trying to get out – it’s his last chance to escape his last chance! I guess he just flowed as a character from there, once I started writing it just seemed to work. Particularly as he gets paired with these newbie recruits so there’s a bit of affectation there as well. He bolsters his own veteran-ness and his own worldliness even though actually when you delve into it, for the most part of his early career he was posted to this dead-end world where he did nothing before getting scooped up into the Last Chancers for killing a sergeant.

It’s also urban, as opposed to the forests of Gaunt’s Ghosts. Kage is the one who would just shiv you without thinking twice, because he’s a survivor rather than an idealist.

ToW: You mentioned earlier that you’re thinking of going back to the Last Chancers. Is that something you’re actively planning?

GT: Well yeah, we’ll see. The last conversation I had with Black Library was around a whole bunch of ideas and stuff to pitch, so I need to sort that out and come up with a way to pitch the continuation of the Last Chancers. I’ve had some ideas of how I might do that. Initially for the last few years my plans were that maybe I could do a novella prequel set on Ichar IV, but I’ve decided to try and be a bit more ambitious than that. When I get a bit of time I’m going to sit back and plan out a proper new three-book arc with the Last Chancers and a bit of shenanigans to see what I can do with the end of Annihilation Squad.

The end of that novel was a deliberate ending, but also it was very much a ‘Sherlock and Moriarty going over the falls’ sort of moment as well. You never see the bodies. My problem was that after three novels I was done! They’d blown something up, assassinated somebody, and so on, so what other missions can they do? Well actually there’s loads, if I’d thought about it – like I said, if I had more of a franchise-building head on me I would have done a lot more! Dan, for example, can write a twelve-book series and just keep going, because he’s forever creating and moving, whereas I’m heading towards an end. Kage’s redemption was an end – he’d redeemed himself, and that was it.

But actually I’ve done some thinking about how I can return to Kage maybe, and reinvent the series in a way that I’m happy to keep on writing it. It’ll still have the same vibe, and I’ve got some cool ideas to pitch to Black Library, to work on over the next couple of years. We’ll see what they think!

[I suspect the fanbase will react VERY POSITIVELY to this news! I know I would definitely buy more Last Chancers novels!]

I suppose it’s whether I can get back in Kage’s head, as well. I’ll have to read them again and get into that zone – it’s funny, somebody recently was commissioning some art for a friend and was asking about Lieutenant Kronin in 13th Legion. I couldn’t even remember which one that was! I’m a bit like the Colonel – they’re all just names that disappear! So I went back and flicked through the book just to remind myself who he was again. He’s the one who’d been banged in the head and could only speak in scripture.

That was the great thing about writing 13th Legion in particular, just inventing this crazy bag of characters and throwing them together. They didn’t have to work in the normal fashion as they’d just been scooped up from all over, so you could have a tech-priest who’s had all of his augmetics removed! Incidentally Gudmanz was named after a stereo system I’d had at the time which was broken – it was a Goodmans stereo, so I named a tech-priest after the piece of shit! Each of them has a handmade story. They’re in the Last Chancers for a reason, it’s not like they just got drafted as part of a normal regiment. They’re in the Last Chancers because a) they did something wrong and b) the Colonel’s decided to save them.

That’s what was good fun! I’d not had the chance to read it for years and years, but looking at it again, seeing the characters and remembering the fun I’d had with them, I was thinking ‘yeah, maybe I could do some more of this, actually’. It’s been long enough now, thirteen years since the last one came out, so I think I’ve got over being done with it! They were good fun to write, even though it got very dark in the end.

***

And on that note, the first part of this interview comes to an end. I hope you enjoyed that, and are looking forward to part two!

Thanks to Gav for giving up his time to do this interview. I’m sure you’ll join me in saying congratulations to Gav on both the twenty years and the Gemmell Award win – here’s to many more years and awards in future!

If you haven’t already, I’d definitely suggest checking out Warbeast, and if you want to just have a look at more of Gav’s writing you can find everything that’s currently available on his author page on the Black Library website or through an Amazon search.

You can also find all of the reviews I’ve written for Gav’s work here!

If you’ve got any thoughts, feedback or questions off the back of this interview, please do feel free to let me know – you can get in touch via the comments on here, by emailing me at michael@trackofwords.com or via either Facebook or Twitter.

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