In the Black Library with Dan Abnett | Interview Part 1

For me this is the interview to end all interviews.

Photograph by Adelie High

It’s not often one gets to interview a personal hero; I suspect this is mostly because heroes don’t enjoy mopping up fanboy drool, and frankly, who can blame them? This is going to be a little different from my other interviews, because while the others have been with relatively new talent, Dan Abnett has been writing for around 27 years and has done everything, and I do mean everything, from Marvel comics to Mr. Men, as well as a phenomenal novel set in a world of his own creation.

My familiarity with his writing is largely confined to his genre-shaping work for those lovely people at Black Library, which he’s been doing since 1996.  To be sure, I’m going to ask plenty about that; but for me this is also an opportunity to get to know the man and his mysterious past before he popped up on my personal radar, as well as to explore those parts of his work that I’ve yet to get into. You’re all very welcome to sit in on the conversation; so grab a bean bag and your beverage of choice, and make yourselves comfortable.

Phillip Sobel: Dan, first of all welcome to BSC Review, it’s great to have you here. In 1996 you started writing for Black Library with First and Only, the first volume of the hugely popular Gaunt’s Ghosts series. Based upon most online accounts you were writing for around ten years before that, so, before writing in the grim darkness of the far future, what were you up to?

Dan Abnett: Comics. I started out in the mid eighties on staff at Marvel in London, where I began freelancing as a writer. Most of this was junior and nursery licenses: Ghostbusters, Transformers, Thundercats, Action Force, Care Bears, Mr Men, that sort of thing. Ghostbusters mainly. I was Egon Spengler for about two years, writing Spengler’s Spirit Guide. Then I started working on projects like Knights of Pendragon and Death’s Head, which led in turn to work for the US, Marvel and then DC, and also 2000AD. BL hired me because they wanted an experienced comic writer for their new comic, and I’d just done a couple of issues of Conan for Marvel.  I “got” their world quite fast, in terms of tone, because of my background in RPG (I’d been a big fan of White Dwarf in the early days, and was familiar with Games Workshop even though I hadn’t played 40K). Comics led to short stories (including the first Gaunt story) and then novels. Of course, I STILL write comics ;)

Bloody nora, Death’s Head! That really takes me back, I’m sure I still have them buried somewhere, yes?

I had fun with Death’s Head. I took over from Simon Furman and re-invented the character with Liam Sharp for the “Death’s Head II” version, which was one of marvel UK’s most popular runs at the time.

I know that you’re working on a number of Marvel projects and that your recent Marvel releases have received a great deal of critical acclaim. Could you explain the overall storylines for those of us who aren’t as into Marvel comics as we once were?

A lot of what I’ve been doing has been about the “Cosmic” side of the Marvel Universe – stuff happening off Earth, through series like Guardians of the Galaxy and Nova, and events like Annihilation, War of Kings and The Thanos Imperative. We’ve really been able to shape the grand continuity and scope of the Marvel‘s Cosmic side. Now we’re taking it further in a team book called the Annihilators (the cosmic ‘big hitters’ like Ronan, Beta Ray Bill, Silver Surfer, Gladiator and Quasar). I’ve also been working on a series called Heroes For Hire, which is (deliberately) the other end of the scale – the Marvel street level vigilante heroes like Punisher, Moon Knight, Paladin, Ghost Rider, etc.

Of all the projects you worked on before Black Library, are there any personal favourites that you’ve yet to return to but would love to revisit? And are there any high points along that road that stick in your memory?

Well, Knights of Pendragon (which has just been republished as a trade), Force Works and the Punisher for Marvel, Terminator: Cybernetic Dawn (an official “sequel” to T2), Lords of Misrule. There were a lot of things back then I loved doing. It was also just before I started working for BL (I think) that I created and started writing my long running 2000AD strip Sinister Dexter.

So, the writing lark. Did you always know you wanted to be a writer, or was it an unexpected turn of events that to this day has you shaking your head in wonder?

I know that if I wasn’t being paid for it I’d still be doing it. I’d always wanted to write. And draw. I used to draw my own comics. One day I realised I couldn’t draw them fast enough to tell the stories I wanted to tell. I think I was doomed to do this. Or destined. Depends on your POV.

This next question is a bit of an interview trope, but I’m curious:  if you weren’t a writer what would you want to pursue instead?

For a long time I thought I’d teach. My parents were both teachers, and it was something I thought I’d be good at.  Though I wanted to write, the OPPORTUNITY to write happened by accident. I also still sometimes wish I’d tried harder to make more of the chances I got at University to act and perform. I’d probably be unbearable now if I had. Yes, it’s true, even MORE unbearable.

Happened by accident? I sense a story there…

Not a great one. ;)  I got an editorial job at Marvel UK out of University, and they encouraged people to write some stories for character properties as a way of getting experience of story structure and how to edit other people’s stories.  I liked doing it.

Much has been written about the experience of the creative endeavour.  Would you mind sharing with me some of your experience of it? Are there any time-honoured rituals in your process that are indispensable?

Keep a notebook. Read regularly. Get a good night’s sleep (the work will still be there in the morning). Don’t try to write all the time – downtime and thinking time are as important as time spent writing. You can jam your head up otherwise. Talk. Spitball. Get a trustworthy beta-reader. Like what you do. Write the story you’d most want to read (caveat: within the parameters of the franchise!). If you get stuck, jump ahead to something else, and bridge the gap backwards later. Brush your teeth. Carry loose change. Be kind to strangers. Eat fibre…

You say ‘read regularly’, and I remember you saying that if you want to get words out you have to put words in; so, who and what do you like to read?

Lots. Lots and lots. Tons of non-fiction, and lots of proper classic literature. In terms of genre, I have favourites like Lovecraft, Bradbury and Vance, but I actually don’t read as much SF these days because…well, that’s what I do all day and I can either see the strings if it’s not good, or get depressed if it’s great. For a fiction fix, I tend to read crime – the Australian thriller writer Peter Temple is favourite, so is Martin Cruz Smith. On my bedside table right now: Umberto Eco, Patrick Harpur, Julian May, Kelly Link. Two of those are re-reads.

The old adage of writing what you know is somewhat challenged by writing SF and Fantasy, particularly when writing about war. My experience of your writing is one of extraordinary verisimilitude. Would you mind sharing some of the research process that brings your worlds so vividly to life?

It’s almost all imagination. But I don’t think my imagination is any better than anyone else’s, I just seem to be lucky in that what I imagine and then articulate resonates with people. I like “authenticity” (or the appearance thereof) in fantasy and SF, so I tend to carefully research the closest real-world analog to the thing I’m writing about, and then fabricate the SF from that. For example, I’d write fantasy as though it was a historical novel, and only confect the stuff that simply didn’t exist in a real world. I wrote about Kislevite hussars in my Warhammer novel Riders of the Dead, for instance. So I researched Polish lancers, and then translated them into the Warhammer world, with added magic and hijinks. Okay, it was a lot more complicated than that, but you get the idea.

I do indeed, but I like complicated, so, would you mind talking about the work of (for example and entirely at random…) translating Viking culture into your most recent Horus Heresy novel Prospero Burns?

It’s hard to describe. It’s a long process of synthesis – reading around the subject and related subjects, cherry-picking interesting ideas and concepts – sometimes words and phrases – blending them together. It’s not an exact science.  I think you just develop a feeling for spotting useful things as you’re reading.

I can imagine that writing is a very solitary occupation, but there are a number of your books both within and outside of Black Library that you’ve written together with others, including your very talented wife Nik Vincent. How has that collaborative element affected the work and your experience of writing?

I’ve always enjoyed collaboration. In comics, I’ve worked with a number of people, especially Andy Lanning. Comics are, of course, a team process anyway. In the Heresy books, there is a collaborative effort to the planning and development. Writing can be a very lonely, isolated job, and to brainstorm and spitball with someone else enlivens things, takes your ideas and imagination to places they might not otherwise have gone to, and keeps you fresh.

On a more serious note, you’ve been really open on your blog about your Epilepsy diagnosis; could you share with us how you’re coping with it a year on and how it has affected your day to day writing timetable? And, dare I ask, have you found yourself recognising a silver lining?

It seems to be well under control, now I’ve got the right meds and found the right balance. Although I’m looking forward to getting my driving license back, everything else really has been a silver lining. I feel better than ever, more productive, more effective. I sleep well and rise very early, fired with huge enthusiasm. My work ethic was always good, but it was also wayward. On days where things were going well, I’d keep working until I was exhausted. Now I have extremely full days AND time to relax. I get more done. I enjoy it more.

I wanted to ask you about your novel Triumff; what was it like to step out of the warm embrace of Black Library to publish a novel in your own world, and what was your overall experience of the fan response?

A delight, just the sheer change of pace, the alternate historical craziness and the mad-cappery (yeah, not a real word). The fan response has been slower to build than the big explosion of a 40K release, but it’s been very positive. A lot of readers say it’s their favourite Abnett book.

To be frank, I really loved Triumff, and it was clear from every page that you were having enormous fun. Can we hope to see more of Triumff in the future?

Yes. Absolutely. I just don’t know which of the next four or five books the next Triumff will be.

Gaunt’s Ghosts have been a popular series from day one and have gathered a huge following the world over. What does the future hold for the men and women of Tanith/Verghast? Can you see a time when you lay those stories to rest once and for all?

I’m working on the next volume, Salvation’s Reach, right now, and it takes the characters back into the front line on a major mission.  It’s really major, arc-building stuff, and the inter-character dynamics are like a dynamo driving it all along. I guess I’ll keep going until I run out of ideas. Or characters. Which ever comes first.

In terms of your preferred Games Workshop sandbox, Warhammer Fantasy or 40K, and why?

40K, because I spend more time there, I find more room for creativity, and I’ve contributed more. But I need a fix of fantasy every now and then.

What has your experience of writing  the very first 40k movie, Ultramarines, been like? Looking back on the finished product, are there any things you’d change?

It was fun, and very educational for me. I”m pleased with the end result – they achieved an awful lot from a standing start. There are always things you’d want to improve – that applies to any work, not just films.

Is there another movie in the pipeline?

I hope so. I think of the first movie like the first few BL novels – we put it out there to see if people wanted more, and now look where we are!

Very true! If there was another movie, do you have any thoughts about what part of the 40k universe you’d like to give the movie treatment to?

The Horus Heresy. That’s probably not going to happen, mind. More realistically, Tyranids. Titans. Eldar.

Are there any Warhammer Fantasy, 40k or Horus Heresy stories on your personal ‘tales-I’d-love-to-tell’ list that you’d be willing to share with us? A sort of watch-this-space teaser if you will.

I do have one cracking idea for an Imperial Guard novel that, by its very nature and content, can’t be a Gaunt book. We’ll have to see.

I’d like to thank Dan once again for joining us here at BSC review. More about his work, upcoming book signings, and other Abnettesque wonderfulness can be found at his blog http://theprimaryclone.blogspot.com. Or for those of you who prefer the full frontal Abnett website experience, he can also be found at http://www.danabnett.com.

Watch this space for part two of the interview, in which you will be hearing voices…

Phillip Sobel

Phillip is an Existential Psychotherapist and Teacher by day and a writer, gamer and all round geek in the hours of darkness. He claims to be enjoying the creative process enormously and secretly harbours the hope of publishing a novel one day...

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