Gav Thorpe Talks Twenty Years of Black Library – Part Two

In the first part of my interview with games developer, Black Library author and all round top guy Gav Thorpe we talked about his early career with Games Workshop and Black Library, and his first couple of stories in Inferno! magazine. In this second part we talk more about his ongoing work with Black Library, as well as a little bit about what he’s got coming up, and the realities of life as a freelance author.

ToW: Over the time you’ve been involved with Games Workshop and Black Library lots has changed in the various settings and even the business overall. What’s been the most fun for you to work on?

GT: In terms of writing for Black Library, other than that couple of years where there were difficulties with the processes, it’s always been great, because I’ve always had a good relationship with the editors there. With events like the Weekender and Black Library Live, and when a few of us [Black Library authors] went over to Canada because someone had organised an expo, there’s quite a collegiate atmosphere amongst the writers. You get a little of that at some other publishers with your stablemates, but I think it’s quite special at Black Library because we do so many events together.

So that’s one of the most important things really, the relationships. The stories are cool but actually it’s the people – the same at Games Workshop, getting to work with some very clever, talented people. While these days much of my time is spent at a computer on my own, the best memories are the collaborative ones – either working with the games designers, sculptors and artists to create a new race, or having cool Horus Heresy meetings or conversations with an editor where it’s not just been me spouting an idea but we’ve been discussing something together. I inherently approach things as a problem solver, which is why I always challenge myself to do stupid things like having Exarchs talking in haikus – I like to set myself problems that I then have to solve. If I’m the one setting the problems then it can be a bit too easy, so I like having a conversation with an editor who sparks off me and throws questions at me which I then have to solve.

Angels of Darkness was that in a nutshell, because it came about when Black Library wanted some Space Marine novels and Mark Gascoigne asked me if I wanted to write one. At the time I wasn’t sure, because in terms of the background Space Marines weren’t narratively very exciting – they’re all psycho-conditioned killing machines really, who don’t have interpersonal relationships and so on. I was going to say ‘no, not really – shall I do another Last Chancers book?’ but then it occurred to me that that’s the challenge. It’s easier to write another Last Chancers novel because they’re all human – ‘how do you, Gav Thorpe, get your head around writing Space Marines novels? What would you do with that?’ I laid the gauntlet down to myself to come up with a novel that I wanted to write about Space Marines, which is how I ended up with the Dark Angels and a story that’s essentially 50% people talking.

That’s what I’ve always enjoyed, I suppose. As much as everyone says ‘you’re writing within existing background and you’re quite limited’, while I’ve gone back to the same themes again and again I’ve written loads of different types of stories and loads of different characters in different ways, all within the settings of Warhammer and Warhammer 40,000. They’re such broad settings that although there are certain parameters to work within, like physical action and the war setting, actually you can get all sorts of themes in there.

Especially on the Warhammer side I’ve written all kinds of stories – like Shadow King, which is about unrequited love and being rejected! Just because some of the setting has already been created doesn’t preclude any of those stories being told. So that’s what I’ve loved, and I’ve found that I’ve been able to indulge most of my writing desires within the context of Warhammer and Warhammer 40,000, which is quite cool actually.

ToW: What about the more physical side of the changes in Black Library releases, like the success of audio. You’ve been a strong proponent of audio – how do you feel it’s impacted Black Library and your work in particular?

GT: Well for Black Library it’s been hugely lucrative and popular! The fact that they’ve been able to invest in their own audio studio, and the amount they now put out, is very telling. They’re now up there with the likes of Heavy Entertainment and Big Finish in terms of audio production and sales volume – I can’t quite remember the figures but I think they might be the largest UK audio creator now.

Again it goes back to that collaborative thing for me – I write something but actually that’s not the final deal. Matt Renshaw the producer, and all the actors and effect artists, have to turn it into a finished product, and I can listen back to something and it’s different to what left my computer. I can enjoy it in a way that I don’t necessarily do with the written word – it’s been typeset and the copy editors have done a few things to it but it’s essentially what I created, whereas the audio process adds something to my words. I really like that idea.

I think because it’s very dialogue-focused as well, with very sparse narration, which suits my style already, it’s honed my natural inclination to sparsity. When I’m working on a script it’s very visually obvious how much narration and how much description I’ve got. Especially if I’ve written a couple of audios back to back and then go back to prose, I find I have to unwind slightly and allow myself a bit more scope for description. On the flip side though, more and more – like with Eye of Night and Hand of Darkness that I did recently – I’ve really pushed it with the audio directions. Not necessarily taking control of it but just challenging the producer to come up with cool soundscapes.

That’s always been there, but it really started when I wrote Honour to the Dead, because that was all about Titan war-sirens and big guns shooting and shattering windows. I really loved that – I think very visually when I’m writing, so when I do an audio I try to think in an auditory way as well, which pushes my cinematic camera for when I’m writing. I then try to incorporate that back into my ‘normal’ writing, to try and provide a more surround sound-style experience.

ToW: A telling word you used there was sparsity – in recent years you’ve written Asurmen: Hand of Asuryan and two books in the Beast Arises series, all of which were shorter novels. To me they were great examples of sparse, stripped-down writing. Do you think your work on audio might have helped you when writing novels that length?

GT: I think so, yeah. It’s interesting to try and work out how much story you can fit into a certain word count, how many plots and subplots and characters you can deal with. Audio, a bit like film or comics where you have a different medium to play with, allows you to mix things around – you can tell more story in a ten thousand word audio than a ten thousand word short story, for example. The other thing with audio is that you don’t want scenes that go on too long, not least because the actors will get tired, so again it focuses you into scene construction – how you do it, how you get in and out with the minimum of fuss.

I find audio also helps me to find the voice of my characters more easily. With Kage for example, it’s his internal voice that you’re hearing, which is a very definitive voice, but it’s not always as easy to find that. Because audios are narrated by actual actors, it’s not something I have to worry about so much. Also, audio allows you to do things that you can’t necessarily do in prose. My favourite audio scene is in Aaron Dembski-Bowden’s Butcher’s Nails where Angron’s fighting the dark eldar, and Gorechild is whirring noisily, until the nails kick in and it just fades into auditory whiteness as he achieves this blissful state. It’s just brilliant, and you can’t write that – you can’t do that in prose because you’re relying so much on people imagining it. You have to do it in a different way.That’s what I always say when I talk about audios and the stuff you can do with them – you can make things subtle. If you describe something in detail in prose, like a wolf howling, it has the same amount of attention and focus from the reader as a gunshot or anything else. Even though it says ‘howled in the distance’, it doesn’t matter because it’s still got the reader’s full attention. Whereas with an audio you can have a sound effect instruction of ‘a distant howl’ and it won’t necessarily intrude in the same way as it would on the written page. That scene in Butcher’s Nails where the sound fades out is a perfect example of that, of just being able to convey a concept immediately and subtly using sound rather than words.

ToW: That’s really interesting. I guess there’s so much to think about with audio that as listeners we don’t necessarily consider – it’s like one of those ‘invisible’ jobs where if you do it right the listener doesn’t consciously notice it.

GT: I hope so, yeah. I wrote a Deathwatch audio called Mission: Purge in which the starship they’re on is going to crash into the atmosphere, and there’s a countdown running. Which of course is nice and easy to write but actually Christian [Dunn] who was the editor and producer at the time had to get the timing exactly right. You can’t have a servitor doing a countdown that’s wrong. I’ve had this conversation with Laurie [Goulding] who did a lot of the audio later on, that the passage of time works slightly differently in audio than it does in prose.

If you say ‘he waited a moment’ and you have to actually wait a moment, it feels weird because you have to have a physical break in the sound. So you have to construct things slightly differently, and that countdown was one example. They had to record the entirety of the countdown and then splice in the relevant bits and time it with the running time. It’s a bit like chase sequences in movies – you know it’s artificial but you don’t mind because you just go with it. It’s a similar thing with timing in audios. You sort of pause your brain during the narration but it can’t take up too much time between a guy swinging his axe and you finding out when it hits. It’s good fun, but luckily something I don’t have to worry too much about in the script!

ToW: You’re known as being one of the most knowledgeable Black Library authors in terms of the lore. You’ve covered a huge amount of ground with things like your eldar work, really digging into their culture and history – have you got your sights set on anything else in that vein?

GT: Well at the moment I’m writing Imperator: Wrath of the Omnissiah, which is set on a Titan and deals with a lot of the cool new Adeptus Mechanicus stuff. That’s not the point of the story, but I’ve been absorbing the Cult Mechanicus and Skitarii codexes and there’s loads of cool stuff in there. I’ve got a few ideas about this and in future I’d like to do some stuff looking at Knights more as part of the Titan Legions rather than the Knight Households, so there’s stuff like that.

At the moment though, with all the big changes, the eldar are keeping me busy. I’m trying to absorb all the Ynnari stuff in the background, and the stuff I’ve been spinning around with the Phoenix Lords series, and I’m trying to conjure some sense out of all that.

It’s another holdover from when I was a games developer at Games Workshop, which was that you couldn’t necessarily choose your next project. It would be the case that ‘somebody’s got to write the Salamanders codex and somebody’s got to do the Vampire Counts…and it’s you, because you’re the next up on the schedule.’ So you have to create an enthusiasm for it, and find out what you think’s cool about it, what everyone else thinks is cool, and work that until you think it’s awesome, that it’s an army you want to play. Or in this case a book you want to read.

I think that’s why I’ve covered so much ground, because I don’t mind turning my hand to something. For example the Dark Angels weren’t necessarily my first choice after Angels of Darkness, but actually once I start thinking about something I get involved in it, and that’s when I start throwing questions at myself. The Raven Guard in the Heresy are another good example, in that Raven’s Flight came about from asking myself the question of ‘how did they get off Isstvan?’ I hadn’t necessarily chosen what I wanted to do, but that was the genesis of what led to me writing Deliverance Lost and the Corax series.So it’s a case that whatever gets put in front of me eventually becomes a bit of an obsession in terms of trying to get it to work in my head and work out why I think it’s cool, which is hopefully what the fans think is cool as well. I think for the eldar in particular, and the dwarfs in Warhammer, I’ve always been big fans of those so I’ve got a natural advantage for those particular subjects, but I try to do the same for whatever I write about. So the Dark Angels are all about conflict and mystery, or I’ve just done some Space Wolves stuff and that’s slightly different.

I’ve got Ghost Warrior coming out soon which is cool, and starts looking at the Ynnari, and then after that I don’t know. I’ve got to pitch a bunch of stuff, so we’ll see what comes out of that. I’ve already mentioned more Last Chancers but I’m also looking at rather than doing more Dark Angels, doing something with one of the Dark Angels’ successors. It’s another one where I don’t know if I can write much more Dark Angels stuff in 40k at the moment, as I’ve written my story for the Dark Angels. I need some time away from them, but could maybe come at it from a different angle.

I had a conversation with a fan actually, as I had some fun in The Unforgiven, particularly with the Consecrators, and that obviously sparked off some ideas in this guy’s head. He’s been collecting Consecrators and has modelled up Grand Master Nakir, and that’s fed back to me as he’s been showing me stuff on Facebook. So that’s really cool, and I’m now enthused again about not just the Dark Angels but that character I created, and I’m thinking it would be cool actually to do that. It’s the ultimate version of secondary characters taking over – I’ve done Azrael, he had a novel to himself, so it’s a case of finding a story that hasn’t been told yet. That’s what you want to read, so therefore that’s what you need to write.

ToW: So, Imperator: Wrath of the Omnissiah – is that a novel?

GT: Yes! I don’t know quite when it’s going to be released but it’ll be part of an ongoing series that focuses on Titans, that started with David Annandale’s Warlord: Fury of the God Machine. So it’ll be part of that irregular series. The one line pitch that I gave to Nick [Kyme] and has pretty much sold it to everyone else since is ‘it’s The Hunt for Red October with an Imperator Titan!’

[That sounds awesome!]

ToW: How about the Inquisition, as we’ve seen quite a lot of them recently? You were heavily involved in the Inquisitor game and working on the accompanying lore but we haven’t seen much of that sort of thing from you for Black Library.

GT: I think it’s just timing, really. Dan did Eisenhorn directly related to the Inquisitor game, and then later on things became much more focused on the mainstream armies so there was a dearth of those sorts of background-to-the-Imperium style stories going on. Now there’s been a resurgence, John [French] is doing Covenant, and I think there might even be a Witch Hunter Tyrus in the works, so that’ll be all three of the Inquisitor characters making it into print. Actually I’d love to do some Inquisition stuff but everyone seems to be doing a very good job of it at the moment!

In a way that’s kind of nice. It feels more of a legacy to me than having to write it myself! I set the ball rolling, and it’s crazy to think about some of the stuff that I just made up on the fly fifteen years ago. Well, it’s not necessarily made up on the fly but so much of that’s just ingrained in the lore now. Stuff like the Crone Moriana – Aaron’s been doing stuff with her in the Black Legion series and I revisited her in Eye of Night, but she was invented in a piece of colour text that I did in White Dwarf. I think it was part of the Battlefleet Gothic background and she was just a crone in a cape! It was actually a bit of a nod to the hag in Blackadder with her ridiculous prophecies, but here we are years later and she’s a massive part of the Abaddon storyline.

The Ynnead thing was another one that was a bit of colour text I made up in the Craftworld Eldar codex and has been resurrected [not sure if that pun was intended or not!] since. I quite like that. Someone was asking the other day if I felt precious or jealous about stuff like this, but for me that’s a big compliment really – somebody taking an obscure bit of the background that I made up, or even a large chunk of the background like Covenant and the Inquisition, and wanting to run with it. I like inspiring people, I’ve always thought the background is there to inspire people to collect armies and write stories, so if people want to do that then that’s a thumbs up to what I’ve been doing.

Also…it means I won’t get it wrong! I’d just end up contradicting myself…

ToW: You’re one of the most visible Black Library authors online, with a strong presence on social media as well as your own website. Is that a conscious effort, thinking that as a freelancer you need to have a brand?

GT: When I left Games Workshop I had a conversation with Mark Gascoigne who’d left not that long before me. I don’t think he’d set up Angry Robot yet, he’d just been offered a couple of editorial jobs, and we just sat down and had a catch up. One of the things he said was ‘just keep writing – start a blog and keep writing, even if it’s just what you had for breakfast, just write regularly’. That’s how it started, with the first iteration of the blog which was Mechanical Hamster.

I’m not a particularly public person, which considering what you’ve just said sounds weird, but I wasn’t about to use it as a journal to share my hopes and fears with the world. I ended up taking the angle of offering writing advice, because it was something I knew I could talk about a little bit without leaving me too vulnerable to the readership, as it were. So that’s how that bit started.

A few years ago I had another conversation with Mark, about marketing I suppose, but also just about engagement. I think that’s the thing – what I try to do online is authentic. When people talk about building a brand I try not to think in those terms, because I am the brand. As individual authors that’s a really weird place to get to if you start thinking of yourself in that way. So accessibility was one of my USPs I suppose, to put on the marketing speak again, but also it just helps me keep engaged with who’s on the other end.

You sit at home and you don’t really see many people, and you’re typing away – you need some connection beyond people giving you a 5-star review or a 1-star review. Occasionally you get to talk to people at events, which is awesome, but actually just an ongoing presence and interaction helps me and inspires me to keep working as well. It’s a two way process, and part of the blog was that I’d get stuck on something so I’d have to reexamine my process or look at what the issues were, and writing an advice post about thing would often – in managerial speak – turn it into a conscious competence. What I used to do without thinking, I would have to think about. Writing a blog post would help me unpick what the problems were.

I think these days it’s just where it’s at. You don’t get to sit in an ivory tower and just dispense books unto the masses, people want to know where you’re from and what you’re about. Author’s notes, sharing playlists, people like it and it adds a human face to a name on a page. I’m in the very privileged position that my partner Kez works for me and does a lot of that stuff in terms of organising it. She runs the website, puts the books pages up there and makes sure the newsletter goes out. I can create the content, write the Q&As and so on, but she’s much better at organising all that stuff and getting it out there, tapping me on the shoulder asking if I’ve contacted podcasts to give interviews about the next book that’s coming out.

She does all of that stuff for me so I can concentrate on the writing. A lot of authors don’t have that luxury, so their headspace has to be in a different place whereas I can generally maintain my headspace in the writing side of things for most of the time and let Kez worry about the mechanics of it. But also it’s just procrastination, being able to go online and retweet reviews and comment on stuff. Sometimes I do have to switch it off because it is a bit too distracting!

ToW: I’m a big fan of your Author’s Notes, Q&As and the interviews you conduct with people from other aspects of the publishing spectrum, which provide added value to readers of your blog. What prompted you to start doing those specifically?

GT: Well the reality of publishing these days is that unless you’re a bestseller or a debut, you don’t get much marketing, and I’m neither of those things! Most authors these days have to do their own marketing – you’re not going to get a budget from a publisher. Black Library are getting better, but they went through periods where there were so many releases they only supported the ‘release of the week’. There was no promotion of back catalogue, nothing promoting me as an author that I didn’t do myself unless I had something coming out there and then, on that day.

So I had to step up into that void if I wanted to continue to have some kind of presence, in a marketing sense. But that only works, like I said, if you’re authentic. Nobody likes a Twitter account that’s just a link to somebody’s book without anything else; you have to engage in a conversation, you have to be a part of the community. That’s what I try to do. These days on Facebook I very deliberately have a professional Facebook page where I do all sorts of gaming and writing stuff, and then I have my normal Facebook profile which is a different thing entirely, more for friends and family and for showing pictures of my little boy.

You have to give people something interesting. The Q&As actually came out of my time at Games Workshop, because very early on one of the things as an Assistant Games Developer it was my job to do was to answer the post. Back in the days when people actually sat down and wrote letters in, with suggestions for new eldar Terminators or Warhammer Armies: Horses, or whatever it might be. The edict was ‘everyone gets a reply’, even if it’s just ‘We got your rules’ – on a postcard – ‘we can’t really reply in too much detail but thanks!’ and I still live by that ethos where possible. If you take the time to get in touch by email, or a comment on the blog, I’ll at least acknowledge that I’ve seen it or read it, even if I can’t reply to it in detail.

Quite often, though, it just gets into a discussion – if you’re going to ask me in-depth questions about eldar that get me thinking, then I’m going to share the answers! The newsletter then has evolved as a very effective direct marketing technique, but also as just a way of talking to people. The introduction is like a blog post in its own right, just a bit of ‘what have I been up to, what am I thinking about’ once a month which allows me to step back a bit and take stock of what I’ve been doing. Sometimes I can easily just go from one project to the next to the next without actually thinking about what I’ve been doing, so I plan to carry on with the newsletter for a long time!

ToW: After twenty years you’ve amassed an impressive back catalogue – does anything stand out that you’re particularly proud of?

GT: I guess I have favourites in terms of finished books, and the general process of working on them. I’m really pleased with Jain Zar actually, in terms of recent work which worked on a number of levels and hit all the notes I wanted it to. It’s that blend of delving into the history and doing a ‘current’ story that I came up with for Asurmen. The thing is, I love journeys. All my eldar stuff is about journeys the characters make, like a lot of writing is, but it stems from the eldar ‘Path’. This idea of transitioning their personality from one thing to another, but actually that cycle of myth as well.

Probably Master of Sanctity as well, because I just loved the dynamic between Asmodai and Sapphon – I should have just written a trilogy about those two having arguments! For Warhammer, Shadow King is one of my favourite stories, and I LOVED writing The Doom of Dragonback. I enjoyed Grudgebearer but I think I refined a lot of my dwarfisms in The Doom of Dragonback, and it’s a better-constructed story.

ToW: You’ve mentioned Imperator, but can you talk any more about what you’re working on now and next?

GT: Well there’s Ashes of Prospero, a Space Wolves novel which is part of the new Space Marine Conquests series. It goes back to The Thirteenth Wolf, my Horus Heresy audio, about Bulveye getting lost in the Portal Maze. It’s what happened ten thousand years later, and ties into the idea of the Wulfen returning and all that stuff. I’ve very deliberately not picked a specific time for it to be set, other than it’s set in the Dark Imperium, after Guilliman’s return and the introduction of the Primaris – all though there’s not very many of them in there! It’s focused on this Jason and the Argonauts-style quest that Njal Stormcaller has to go on, leading back to Prospero.

I’ve also written a Harlequins audio drama – the series is called Heirs of the Laughing God, and the first story is called A Deadly Wit. I’m pitching some more audio stuff as well. I want to do more Inquisitor Greyfax, because I just loved the performance [of Emma Gregory] in Eye of Night! I think it’s the first time that happened – just hearing her performance and thinking ‘she’s amazing, I want to write more about that character!’ Even though they were my words, it just changed so much. So I want to come up with a Greyfax series, and I’m revisiting the idea of an Artemis-focused Deathwatch audio series.

And then I’ve got more of the Rise of the Ynnari, which is the new eldar series [beginning with Ghost Warrior] – the second one of those is called Wild Rider. The idea is that each of the titles might give you an idea of what might be involved!

ToW: Final question. I asked this of John French, and it certainly seems appropriate to ask here – which Inquisition faction do you most relate to?

GT: I would have to admit to being an Amalathian, I think. More gets created through cooperation than competition, and as I mentioned earlier I get a kick out of collaborative projects.

***

Once again, I’d like to thank Gav for giving up his time to do this interview – I hope you’ve enjoyed both parts of it! On the off chance that you’ve got this far without going back and reading the first part, you can find that here.

If you want to 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. Also do visit Gav’s excellent website and sign up to his newsletters – they’re really worth it!

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.

Leave a comment