The first author writing for Black Library to feature on the New York Times bestseller list (with the superb A Thousand Sons), Graham McNeill is also one of their most prolific writers, penning tales of action, adventure and depth set in both the Warhammer and WH40k universes (and elsewhere, but his Black Library releases are where I know him from best).
This year sees the release of a clutch of novels by him, so I was delighted that he took the time to answer some questions about his novels, writing, synaptic Brownian motion, and more.
First, some questions about your various series for Black Library, which I’ll deal with individually if that’s OK.
Your Horus Heresy novel A Thousand Sons was Black Library’s first New York Times Bestseller. Your fifth Horus Heresy novel, The Outcast Dead, will be released in November 2011. What’s it like working on such a large, momentous project, from so many different perspectives, and what can we expect from The Outcast Dead?
It’s like getting to play with all the biggest toys in the biggest toy store. It’s something I have to remind myself every now and then what a big deal it is. You start each one in a vague state of terror, knowing the level of scrutiny each book’s going to undergo, but I find that helpful, as it drives me to make it the best I can make it. I mean, I do that for all my books, but for a Heresy novel, I need to dig deeper and find more in me to really push it to be something special. It’s always a kind of draining process, as the perfectionist in me won’t settle for anything less than the best of my best.
And given the company of authors (is that the right collective term for authors?) in the Heresy stable, no-one wants to be the weak link in the chain. We work together to make sure there’s a level of continuity between the books, and I’ll always look for the character, event or other nugget from another book to reference in mine, whether it’s from a book I’ve already written or one of my compadres’. It’s something we consciously try and achieve, weaving that connective tissue into the books that binds them more closely together, so that they read like living, breathing worlds, where events in each book matter, where events don’t happen in isolation and each is part of a larger puzzle, not jut the stepping stone to the next.
The Outcast Dead is going well, and the action has well and truly kicked off, so I think people are going to enjoy it. It’s a change of pace from the last few Astartes-themed books, taking the action back a notch to Terra and the little-understood City of Sight. This is where the Imperium’s Astropaths are based, and we gain an insight into what the life of an Astropath is like, and how the events of the Heresy are affecting them. Events of galactic magnitude have some far reaching consequences for telepaths, and there’s going to be a few upsets along the way…
Does the “New York Times Bestseller” title ever make you nervous? Do you think the success of the Horus Heresy series will have an impact on how tie-in fiction is perceived more widely?
Nervous? No, should it? I think it’s a great title, and one which I encourage everyone who meets me to greet me by! It’s a great tag to put on a book, and it’s a real achievement to have written a book that’s been so well-received, but that just means the next one’s got to be even better… I think when people see that books like this are cracking the NYT bestseller lists, they might give them more credence and appreciate that they’re great books in their own right, that they’re not just for fans of Games Workshop. It’s an attitude that’s being challenged by writers from ‘mainstream fantasy’ (if that isn’t an oxymoron, I don’t know what is…) dipping into the waters of tie in fiction. Just last week, I watched an episode of Doctor Who written by Neil Gaiman, and isn’t someone like Joss Whedon or Kevin Smith writing extended runs of Astonishing X-Men and Daredevil the same thing? If folk like that are joining the ranks of those who’re writing tie-in fiction, then I think it has to be taken seriously.
Graham’s Horus Heresy Novels
Your longest running series for Black Library focuses on Captain Uriel Ventris of the Ultramarines. The series’ sixth novel, The Chapter’s Due, will be released in paperback this June. How does it build on the series thus far, and where do you see the series going in the future?
The Chapter’s Due was the ‘series finale’ to the second arc of books, so it was always going to be a biggie. When I first started the Ultramarines books, I just kind of wrote them in isolation, one book having only minimal impact on the other, and the first three are pretty much standalone.
But with the second arc, I wanted to tell a single story broken into three parts, each of which built in scale from the last. So, with The Killing Ground, it’s just Uriel and Pasanius; in Courage and Honour, it’s them and the 4th Company at war; and in The Chapter’s Due, it’s the entire Ultramarines Chapter that gets into battle. And that was great fun to do, using the big boys from the Codex and dragging entire companies into battle. It’s a fitting capstone to the second arc of stories, and sows the seeds for a number of other storylines that are going to play out in the third arc (and possibly fourth…). Seeds of corruption, burgeoning ambition, miraculous rebirth and a revelation that might match some we’ve uncovered in the Horus Heresy series for its scale…
Moving to Warhammer... You wrote the Sigmar trilogy for Black Library’s Time of Legends series (the second of which, Empire, won the Gemmell Award). What was it like, taking on such an important character to the Warhammer mythology? Will you be revisiting any of the characters in the future?
When the Time of Legends series was first put to me, I don’t remember whether BL asked me to write Sigmar or I asked if I could take on those stories. I like to think it’s the latter, as I’ve always had a fascination with Sigmar’s story. How could an ordinary, mortal man take on such a challenge? This wasn’t a god (yet), a primarch, or a man who was in any way special… The only thing that really set him apart was that he had vision to see beyond the petty tribal rivalries that had kept humans at each other’s throats for generations. What would make a man like that, what would drive him and how would he do it without ‘super powers’? Admittedly, he has a magic hammer, but that’s not where the source of his power lies, it’s in his natural charisma and strength that makes men and women want to be better than they are and gives them a glimpse of the better future Sigmar sees for his race.
Originally, Heldenhammer was planned as a one off book, but it did very well and I had such a blast writing the story that the epilogue I had envisioned for the book that gives a brief, evocative sign off for the last part of Sigmar’s life was jettisoned. We knew there was much more life in the character and setting that we knew a trilogy would be the best way to tell the story. And two books later, we’ve still only scratched the surface of Sigmar’s story. Empire broadened and deepened the setting, and God King gave us an insight into how the Empire might run as a loosely unified nation.
The third book offered enough closure to enough of the storylines that we could have finished the series there, but the more I wrote of this age of Sigmar, the more stories suggested themselves. These were sub-plots of the books, to be sure, but ones I felt could be expanded in really interesting ways. They weren’t right to tell in the context of a Sigmar novel, but with the freedom to tell their stories in other ways, I knew we could have a fantastic playground to tell the stories of the other counts, other regions of the Empire and other kinds of stories that just wouldn’t fit within an Age of Legends novel about Sigmar. So, long story short, yeah, in one form or another, Sigmar and his companions will march again.
Defenders of Ulthuan will be re-published this September, along with a new sequel, Sons of Ellyrion. How would you introduce new readers to this series, and how does the sequel build on the first?
I’d tell them that if they wanted a tale of high fantasy with a real grounding in heroic, flawed characters who get drawn into a war that will decided the fate of the world, then they’d be onto a good thing by picking up Defenders of Ulthuan. The High Elves are a classic fantasy race, and it’s fun to write characters who are so much more than humans with pointy ears. The first book sets up the characters and the settings and kicks the action off, but it’s just the beginning, and what happens there is just the beginning of a much broader, epic battle for survival. It’s a story that loves the big, epic, world-changing storylines, but doesn’t sacrifice the smaller, character moments along the way.
I wanted to tell a story where the characters were the most important pieces of the jigsaw, the meat and muscle that drove the story on. Though events of great magnitude are playing out on the stage, they never get swallowed by the story, they’re very much front and centre. By the end of the book, you’ll be exhausted from the pummelling battle scenes and emotionally wrung out from the highs and lows experienced by the characters.
What made you decide it was time to revisit the characters, and how was it returning to them after so long?
I’d long wanted to get back to the High Elves, as it’s not fair to leave people hanging on for so long after such a monstrous cliff-hanger. But bigger stories and projects kept elbowing the High Elves out of the way for a few years until there came a point when I looked at my schedule and realised that if I didn’t get Sons of Ellyrion written now, then it wasn’t going to get written for at least another four years or so, and that was just silly, so we found some time and got it written, and I have to say I’m incredibly proud of that novel, as I think it’s got some of my best battle scenes and most poignant character moments in their midst.
I reread Defenders of Ulthuan before I came to start the sequel, and I was surprised at just how much I enjoyed it. That might sound silly, but it’s rare that I go back to reading something of my own (aside from reference-checking) and to re-read an entire novel and not pick a hundred holes in it was a real thrill. I read the novel as a novel, not as a final proof check, and it was great to find that it excited me as a reader even though I’d written the thing in the first place. And for years I’ve been sitting on the payoffs for these characters’ stories, so to finally get to write scenes I’ve had in my head for around four or five years was simply fantastic.
Now on to some a few general questions: Where do you draw your inspiration from? Who and what would you say are your biggest influences?
I get my inspiration from all around me. Every book I read, every film or TV show I watch, every overheard remark, misread sign and collaborative thought process is all grist for the mill. I like to think of my mind as a spinning collection of junk, random thoughts, half-formed ideas and trivial clutter that float about in some strange synaptic Brownian motion. These things bang into one another and form strange bonds that may make a story come to life, suggest a character or a plot twist. Sometimes it’ll be an idea in search of a story, or a story in search of characters to populate it, I never know. The secret is to keep feeding it fuel, and that’s why I’m a voracious reader, avid cinema buff and accumulator of the random book, magazine or TV show.
Dramas, comedies, documentaries, anything that looks interesting, I’ll read or watch and feed the random chaos in my mind. It might go in looking like one thing, but it won’t come out that way, it’ll have been mashed, subsumed, agglomerated and reshaped by a dozen creative impacts and come out as something shiny and bruised, but which will make for a cracking read… Okay, that went a bit surreal, so to bring it back to something approaching useful, I’d say my biggest influences outside of BL authors are, without a doubt, David Gemmell and Clive Barker. Their writing styles and stories have kept me coming back for more for decades and I’d recommend their books to everyone.
How do you enjoy being a writer and working within the publishing industry? Do you have any specific working, writing, researching practice? Specifically, how do you juggle so many different series and projects at the same time?
I love being a writer, and wouldn’t change jobs for the world. Despite what movies and TV shows tell me about the publishing industry, I’ve found it to be a fantastic place of incredible people who’ve been amazingly generous to me in terms of their time, advice and bar tabs. It’s an industry that thrives on creativity and folk getting together to throw ideas and concepts of fantastical things around, so to be part of that excitement is about the best place in the world I could imagine being.
I don’t have any particular practice I stick to rigidly, that’s kind of the point of being a freelance pirate: you can make your own rules of work and change them as you go along. Having said that, I have an office I rent so I can feel like I’ve got a proper job and be away from distractions such as the DVD collection and the X-Box. When I start a project, I’ll read lots of books and watch a few films that will either be direct research on the subject I’m writing about, or will get my head in the right thematic space. Again, it’s different for each book, so the process will be different for the next Ultramarines book as it will be for my next Arkham Horror novel.
As to how I keep it organised, I have lots of notebooks filled with assorted jumbled notes. I have a pretty good memory for this stuff, as it’s hard to forget the things you’ve worked on for so many months and into which I’ve poured my creative juices. And I have good editors who keep me on track.
When did you realise you wanted to be an author, and what was your first foray into writing? Do you still look back on it fondly?
I think I always wanted to be a writer, at least that’s my memory of it, I’m sure Fighter Pilot and Train Driver factored in there earlier. Though my mum tells me that when I was very young I told her that I wanted to either be a writer or a binman. I think I chose the right career, though when I saw how much binmen were making in overtime on the news the other day, I’m having my doubts…
My first foray into writing was a fantasy novel called Blood Magic, which I wrote when I was just starting high school. I never finished it, but I still keep all the type-written pages and look back on them now and again with great fondness. It’s very derivative and is riddled with typos and overwrought description, but there’s some good stuff there, and it’s good to look back every now and then to remind yourself that it’s taken many years and a lot of effort to come to a place where I can actually make a living from my words. I still have the print out of the first piece of writing I did in the GW Design Studio, and there’s more corrections in red ink than black ink from the printer on that page, which is another great reminder that we all need to start somewhere, and that – unless you’re very lucky – you’re not going to be an amazing writer straight out of the gate, you’re going to need to learn your craft and spend a lot of time becoming the writer you need to be. It’s also a great reminder that no matter how good you think you are, or how may people tell you that they love your books, there’s always something more to learn.
What projects do you have in the pipeline?
At the moment, I’m still finishing The Outcast Dead, and then I’m getting onto the second book in my Arkham Horror trilogy. The first book, Ghouls of the Miskatonic, is out later this year, so I’m gearing up for some watery horror in Kingsport just now… There’s rumours of a new duology of novels, some short fiction and another big Heresy novel in the new year. Looking at the schedule on my wall, I’m wondering if I can bend the laws of space-time to try and get them all done by the time my deadlines mug me.
Who are you reading at the moment (fiction and/or non-fiction)?
I’ve just finished David Simon’s Homicide, a book written after he’d spent a year with the Baltimore homicide department. It’s a book that gave rise to The Wire, and is an utterly compelling read, with characters that might have stepped straight from a hard-boiled detective novel. But that it’s real is never far from the surface and it was incredible to read of the dark underside of Baltimore, a city I’ve visited many times.
Fiction-wise, I’ve just read World War Z, which was great, though it did get a bit samey the longer it went on. As to what’s on my reading horizon, I’m going to read some Lovecraft and some Robert E. Howard to get me in a properly bonkers place for when I need to write my Arkham Horror book.
What’s something readers might be surprised to learn about you?
That I sleep with an axe under my pillow. Or maybe that I’m still in a state of shock that I’m allowed to live this life and that no-one’s made me get a proper job yet.
What are you most looking forward to in 2011?
The birth of my daughter, which will hopefully be in late July (but not too late, as I’ve an Iron Maiden gig to go to…).
Visit Graham’s Website to learn more about his novels