Today we get to sit down and talk with author Dan Abnett, a highly esteemed Warhammer 40,000 fiction author. Among his works are the incredibly awesome Gaunt's Ghosts series, novels about the Horus Heresy, and the screenplay for the Ultramarines movie. He also has written numerous comics for Marvel and DC and comes with a list of credentials longer than your arm and twice as impressive. Unless you have like a robot arm or something, oh sorry, I forget myself at times. Anyway, Richard and I are fething thrilled to be interviewing Dan today who is a living legend in the field. It's good to have you here today, Dan.
Dan: Thank you for having me.
BAK: Now the first question that I like to ask is how did you become an author, however I want to add to that how did you get involved in writing for Warhammer and Warhammer 40,000?
Dan: I’ve been writing stories since I was a kid. I used to love drawing too, so when I discovered what comics were, I used to write and draw my own comics. Eventually, I couldn’t draw them fast enough for the stories I wanted to write. Jump forward about ten years, after taking a degree in English at University, my interest in comics led to me taking an editorial job at Marvel Comics in London, which is where I first started writing freelance - comic scripts for Thundercats, Ghostbusters, GI Joe etc. Eventually, I went freelance full time. After about a decade of doing that, I was contacted by Black Library, who were looking for comic writers to handle their proposed new Warhammer comic line (they’d seen some recent Conan stuff I’d written for Marvel). What they found was a guy who had also been a HUGE RPG player in his youth, who knew all about GW, and who ‘got’ the Warhammer Universes. They got me writing comics, short stories and, eventually, novels and.... forty novels later....
Richard: Have you ever played the table top game Warhammer 40k? If so, what influence, if any, does the experience have on the stories you write?
Dan: yeah, I have. I don’t get as much time to play as I’d like, but I’ve played pretty much every variation to get the ‘feel’ of it, and it greatly informs what I write. I get to see the different things players like to get out of a game, and try to put those things into stories.
BAK: A lot of Imperial Guard units draw some sort of inspiration from historical armies. Catachans look like soldiers in Vietnam, the Death Korps of Krieg could easily step into a World War I trench, so on and so forth. Was there any such inspiration for the Tanith?
Dan: To an extent, but more particularly historical settings inform the missions and adventures I send them on. I do a lot of ‘real world’ research: I think SF and Fantasy both work well if you research the closest real world analog to whatever you’re writing (I.e. you research something as though you’re writing a historical novel), then blend in the fantastical elements. So.. Straight Silver was WWI trench action, Guns of Tanith was Arnhem, Necropolis was Stalingrad, Only in Death was Rourke’s Drift, etc.
Richard: Do you find it challenging to write for a universe with such a specific look, feel and depth of history? Do you spend a lot of time reconciling what you want to write with existing canon?
Dan: Writing in a shared universe is always a challenge, and you have to respect the ‘core’ as much as possible. I hope I do that. And creative visions are very singular, so - yes - reconciliation does go on to make things work. I love the universe of Warhammer 40K, though, so that helps.
BAK: Among the fandom we like to joke that commissars are a trigger-happy bunch executing fleeing troopers right and left. However the commissars of the Tanith First-and-Only, Gaunt and later Hark, act in a far more reasonable manner. Did anything in specific motivate how you characterized these commissars?
Dan: I don’t think you could empathise much with a real trigger-happy bastard. Not over a long series of novels where character development and interaction drives the stories. You’ve got to care about the characters, and if the main heroes are as bleak and relentless as the Universe, that could get trying. I often feel that their effort to cling onto humanity in the face of such overwhelming horror is part of the power of the stories in 40K.
BAK: I think one of the main appeals of the Imperial Guard is that they're ordinary men and women with human emotions. To see even a commissar like Gaunt struggle and eventually triumph makes for a really great story.
Dan: Yes, there’s a very direct, visceral identification with Imperial Guard, more than any other army.
Richard: Are there any particular moth-to-a-flame topics in the Warhammer 40k universe that you'd love to explore, but have not yet made it into your body of work?
Dan: Some of the alien races I’d love to do more with: Orks, Necron, Eldar, Tyranids. Big fleet action too, though there’s a decent chunk of that in my next Gaunt, Salvation’s Reach.
BAK: In the handful of other Guard books I've read, if the Navy shows up at all they're just a means to get protagonists from point A to point B in the plot. In your books we see the Navy fight and die and sometimes come in conflict with Guard command. Have you ever thought about writing a book about the Imperial Navy?
Dan: I have many times. It’s tempting. It would be BIG.
BAK: In the introduction to The Saint omnibus you mention that Trooper Cuu was a last minute addition to Honour Guard. I'm going to be honest I hated Cuu so much, if nothing else than because he was messing with my favorite Tanith, Mad Larkin. How did you come up with such a character?
Dan: He came out of nowhere. He just appeared as a fully formed character and inserted himself into the book like he was alive. It was scary. Cuu may be despicable, but it’s antagonist characters like that that really fuel the success of a book by keeping the drama churning along.
BAK: Among your credits is writing the sceenplay for the Ultramarines movie. Did you have to get into a different mindset writing for Marines than you normally do for Guard?
Dan: Yeah, they’re tough. They have far less overt personality, due to their very nature. There is less to distinguish them. They are, in effect, less human. That makes them really hard to write - they don't even talk in contractions. I think I really began to get the hang of them in Brothers of the Snake and the Heresy books.
BAK: Yeah, I read once that Space Marines only vaguely remember feeling cold or afraid or tired, so their mindset is very hard for normal humans or even humans in the 41st millennium to understand.
Dan: You have to humanize them a little to make them work in a narrative, but you also have to remember that they’re super-men.
BAK: You've created a wonderful cast of characters with the Tanith First-and-Only, but obviously they're at war and people die. Is it hard for you to say goodbye to your characters when their time comes?
Dan; Of course. I need to care about the characters so that the reader does, otherwise the books are pointless. It also comes as a surprise sometimes - some deaths are unexpected!
BAK: Unexpected? I mean you're the author so I would figure if anyone saw a death coming it would be you. Do characters just have a time where they die?
Dan: Sometimes. Sometimes it’s planned. Sometimes they just die and it shocks me. Once in a while, I plan to kill a particular character and someone else takes the bullet for them.
BAK: Now here at I Smell Sheep we are famous for our Rapid Round questions. Basically we'll give you an either-or and you just pick the first one that comes to mind.
BAK: To please our slavedriver, Katie, Coke or Pepsi?
Dan: Neither :) Due to my recent ‘adventures in epilepsy’, I can’t drink caffeine. Can I get a ginger ale?
BAK: Well, Katie won't be happy, but I'll accept it.
Richard: Jimmi Hendrix or Billy Joel?
Dan: Hendrix. Unless it’s karaoke night, in which case Billy rules.
BAK: Commander Adama or Captain Picard?
BAK: T-rex or Velociraptor?
BAK: Turtles or elephants?
Dan: Uh, elephants?
BAK: It's all right, both are cool.
Richard: Converse or Doc Martens?
BAK: Elves or dwarves?
Richard: Shotgun or Chainsaw?
Dan: Shotgun *rrr-chakk!*
BAK: Plasma or meltagun?
BAK: Thank you so much for taking time to talk with us, Dan. Do you have any final things to say before we leave?
Dan: Thanks for having me along! See you all in the funny pages!
And a big thank-you to Dan for being so cooperative and patient with us. Now as you probably noticed there is in fact a prize giveaway. Dan has been gracious enough to donate a signed copy of his latest book, Embedded, as a prize for this interview. Now it may not be 40k material, but it's a science fiction story about soldiers in the near future so if you're a fan of Gaunt and his Ghosts, you'll probably like this book too. Now to be eligible for this prize you must do the following.
Leave a comment on this interview with the following two pieces of information:
1. A valid e-mail address.
2. Your favorite character from any of Abnett's books. (And preferably a little as to why.)
The polls will close on Thursday, 4th of August, 2011 at 11:59 PM Eastern Standard time. Double your chances to win by following our blog. Winner will be randomly selected and announced the next day, or Saturday at the latest if work gets in the way. Again a big thank you to Dan and I encourage everyone to pick up one of his books. Except for maybe Katie. They've got no smut in them so she'd just get bored. Everyone else should read them, though.