Aaron Dembski-Bowden is a new author for The Black Library, Games Workshop’s publishing arm. Though only three novels into his Black Library writing career, he has fast developed a devoted following of both die-hard Warhammer 40K fans and people only recently brought into the fold. His radical approach to writing and his outspoken and uncensored view of both the 40K world and the challenges of writing within it have sparked discussion and controversy in equal measure.
His standing as a fan of the very world in which he writes is for me the key ingredient to what I can only describe as his meteoric rise as a writer. This is, of course, as an aside to his prodigious talent. Every book he’s written demonstrates a deep understanding of the 40K universe and leaves the reader in no doubt that this is a writer who loves the world he’s writing in. For a hardcore fan like myself, one amongst millions, there can be no greater reassurance.
As an unashamed fanboy, I’m very grateful that he took some time out of his very busy writing schedule to talk to me about his work and the world of the 41st Millenium.
Phillip Sobel: What part has writing played in your life before Black Library?
Aaron Dembski-Bowden: I’ve been writing full-time pretty much since I left university. In a lot of ways, I was dead lucky to hit the ground running like that. My insane good fortune isn’t something I’m blind to.
I knew I wanted to be a novelist eventually, but “eventually” is a powerful word. I had it in my head that I should bounce around first and try to get into all the other areas I was interested in (especially if they, ahem, paid more). I hopped from RPG to RPG, then dabbled a little in video games, until making up my mind that none of those were exactly the life-changing thrill-rides I’d hoped they’d be.
When I hit my late 20s, I figured it was time to stop delaying. That was when I started hitting fingers against keys in a slightly more serious manner. It was also when I realised I could probably make a living from writing novels. I mean, before that realisation, I’d kind of laboured under the fear that novelists were only self-sustaining creatures in middle age and onwards.
So the terror of abject poverty kept me at a distance for a while. Y’know, because I’m a coward.
I know you’ve been involved in the Games Workshop hobby for a while, but what made you take the jump from hobbyist/fan to writer?
Where Warhammer 40,000 was concerned, it was (again…) just luck. I was working on a video game with a couple of guys who – among their bajillions of other projects – also let Black Library publish some of their fiction.
That was kind of like a bolt from the blue. I’d read 40K novels before, in fact, I already had a massive mancrush on Dan Abnett and his work, but I’d never even considered writing anything but my own original fiction. Getting to play around for a while in a license I’d loved for 20 years was just too awesome, and felt way too unlikely. It’d never even crossed my mind to try.
Glad I did, though. Another example of how you should dive right in, instead of waiting for ages and hoping you’ll grow some balls.
The 40K universe has held me enthralled for the best part of two decades, as well, What is it about this universe that so inspires you?
I’ll try to keep this brief. 40K has, at its core, a simple dystopian premise: “What if everything that could possibly go wrong in the future actually did go wrong?”
It’s a setting like no other, where every Fantasy and Sci-Fi trope is rusted, ruined, and tarnished.
The human race has reached out to explore the stars, but all we’ve found is a galaxy at the mercy of advanced alien races that are inexorably driving mankind to extinction. We’re capable of making interstellar cruisers the size of small cities, but they are born from forgotten technology, powered by thousands of slaves, and are all devoted to an endless war. Humanity is on the edge of evolutionary ascension, but it feeds its psychically-gifted souls into the tyrannical engines of the Golden Throne, to power the machinery – and the dictator – that makes space travel possible. Society spans millions of worlds, but most of them are hellholes full of nameless citizens living lives of indentured slavery and drudgery.
We’ve raised unbelievably huge armies…yet we feed them into the ceaseless meat-grinder wars against the enemies attacking the edges of our failing empire. Most unique of all, mankind has perfected the most incredible genetic engineering, but this most precious of lore is used entirely on stolen children to create an autistic warrior caste that live their lives in war.
I mean, it’s 38,000 years in the future, but invention – the very act of societal progress – is heresy.
The desperation in all of that inspires the hell out of me. Yeah, you’ll get some who are in it for war porn with chainsaw swords, and that definitely has its place. Chainswords are impractical but awesome, after all. But for me, I’m fascinated in the human stories that rise from trying to live in that decadent, dying empire’s boundaries.
For over twenty years the 40K universe has grown and evolved together with a legion of loyal fans, each with their own unique take on the details. How have you approached this particular minefield and what has been the overall fan response to your ‘take’?
I’ve been very, very lucky.
Like you said, everyone has their own perspective on the setting, and I’ve been fortunate in the sense that pretty much all fan response to my stuff has been either that they agreed with my angle, or liked it enough to smile at book signings and not stab me in the throat.
Which, by the way, I totally appreciate. Thanks, guys.
I think a lot of fan reaction comes down to what you do once you’re in the sandpit. If you take all the toys and break them to bits, you’re going to piss off the fandom. There’s a fine line (and one that’s easy to cross) where originality in a narrative becomes a grind against established canon. When that happens, it’s a little like that how that fat guy died in Jurassic Park. You can see people smiling at you, but you can tell they’re thinking about what your blood tastes like, and any second they might pop up a neck-frill and spit gross black ooze into your eyes.
The flip side of the coin is to come at it from a new angle that people find new enough to be original, but intriguing and familiar enough to be comfortable. But that’s true in any writing, in any genre, when an author is looking for their niche. It’s just more obvious when writing stuff in an established universe.
I’ve mentioned the 40K universe’s long development and consequent depth. When writing your novels, have you tried to make the books accessible to anyone, or have you written for devoted fans?
This is a tough call. I’m not going to lie, a lot of my stuff so far has presumed a certain level of foreknowledge, but I think that’s probably the wrong way to do it. I’ve stopped that recently – it always made me uncomfortable doing it, but I was new and still finding my feet. I like the sense of completion you get from a novel that doesn’t assume anything. Trust your readership, absolutely. But don’t assume they’ve wasted (uh, I mean “spent”) the last 20 years of their life reading the exact same stuff as you.
That’s not cool. It’s dystopian sci-fi and it rocks for that fact, there’s no need to screw around with the formula.
I think that presumption has harmed a lot of 40K fiction in the past, leading it to be overlooked in the wider community’s eyes. That’s changing now, so it’s a killer time to be part of everything.
Based on your recent (at time of writing) online conversation with Black Library stalwart, Dan Abnett, it seems as if he’s become a mentor of sorts to you. What have you learned from that relationship and have there been any insurmountable differences?
Oh, man. I need to be careful here.
I’ll never be entirely casual around Dan. I can tell that bugs him a little – he’s a modest guy, very grounded and sane for someone with sales figures that size, and was only flattered by my trembling praise for about 3 seconds. But he’s one of my favourite authors, so them’s the breaks.
Again, I’ve been extremely lucky with how my publisher treats me. I was invited into the inner circle (the Horus Heresy team) before my first novel was even published. Beyond the obvious ways that’s been awesome, it also had the effect of the veterans seeing just how absolutely terrified I was. Like slightly-amused wolves, they circled me, scented my fear, and were pretty gentle with me when they welcomed me into the pack.
Jim Swallow and Dan Abnett have been more useful and more appreciated, than just as mentors. I think we shuffled fairly quickly into being pals, which is more down to them being decent human beings than me being easy to hang out with. We discuss each others’ work, but that’s actually the least of what goes on. They’ve got the funniest, best stories about the industry you’ve ever heard. They know everyone. They have educated opinions on everything, and they can actually voice them without insulting people, which is a skill I’ve never learned. They’ve written their own fiction, and they’ve written fiction in every freaking universe you can imagine.
Now, unlike me, they carry themselves with dignity and professionalism, while still being cool and interesting behind closed doors. I appreciate that, and the marketing division at my publisher is always keen to point out that this is how I should be acting. They say “What Would Dan Abnett Do?” as a mantra for me to stop turning up to signings hung over, or wearing sunglasses indoors, or whatever else I’ve done that particular week.
I mean, I don’t actually listen, but it’s good to have role models.
Unlike many of the old school writers, you seem to engage with your fans very directly by participating in online discussions, most notably on the Heresy-Online forums. Would you describe the experience as a positive one or are you slowly coming around to the old school approach to the internet–i.e., steer clear?
Seriously, there’s a reason they warn authors against interacting too much. Actually, several reasons.
Firstly, it takes time. Fuck me, it takes ages. I reply to about 10% of my private messages, forum posts, blog replies, Facebook posts, and whatever else out there. And that’s considered serious interaction compared to a lot of writers. In a good week, I’ll reply to 20% of it, but that’s face-meltingly rare and means I’m trying to avoid doing any writing.
Secondly, it’s the internet. The internet, as we’re all well aware, is a shitpit of faceless, deliberate obtuseness, where people miss the point with ball-aching regularity, and seem to be born with the desire to start fights based on their own primitive opinions. I know this because I have a bajillion primitive opinions myself, and I like to annoy Star Trek fans by voicing them in tones of sneering condescension.
Now, where I’m concerned, 99% of the time I get positive responses and the kind of feedback that borders on overwhelming. I wouldn’t trade my fan response for anyone’s. But there’s always an annoying side. Once in while, you come across That Guy who says your writing is “shit because X doesn’t do Y”. And it’s almost always down to his perspective of the license’s ‘loose’ canon. (Loose cannon? Get it? I kill me.)
It’s not that your writing is actually bad. It’s not even usually that he hated the book up until that point. It’s that he “hates this novel” because of some minor point of canon that he doesn’t see the same way you do. It doesn’t matter that his source is outdated or was retconned 10 years ago. It doesn’t matter that you have 800 sources to back yourself up, and 6,000,000 people telling him he’s insane. You were “wrong” to him, and he. Will. Not. Shut. The. Fuck. Up. About. It.
Think of the veterans who have 12 times more novels out than me. Think of the writers that deviate further from the canon, by choice or otherwise. Now you can likely see why they avoid getting into this jazz online.
There’s a debate online that has raged for ‘millennia’ regarding the quality or status of tie-in fiction. Where do you stand on this hotly debated topic?
The debate here is slowly dwindling in professional circles, but I think it’ll always exist. It’s not something I concern myself with all that much, at least not to the degree a lot of the Big Names in licensed fiction do. Part of that is because I’ll do more than licensed fiction soon enough: my career isn’t likely to be “a licensed fiction author” much past age 30, it’ll be “an author”, who sometimes loves to write licensed fiction. Neil Gaiman did episodes of Babylon 5 and Dr. Who. Michael Moorcock is writing a Dr. Who novel. Most authors who write for licenses also do their own original fiction at some point. Many authors who do their own stuff will also show their own take within a license at some point. Swings and roundabouts. Depends what you like.
However, I think a certain bias lies in the fact that plenty of them don’t do anything more than licensed fiction. They remain purely tie-in writers, and to the layman’s eye, that can look like “they’re only comfortable writing in other people’s universes”. That’s a shame, and it’s bullshit. People don’t write in licenses because it’s easier. They do it because they love the licenses. Do you like Buffy? What if Joss Whedon asked you to write an episode of a new season of Buffy the Vampire Slayer? Do you like Star Wars? What if George Lucas asked you to write a novel about the Clone Wars? Wouldn’t you be thrilled and honoured? Is it a sin to like something, and to add to it, if you didn’t gestate and breed the entire thing yourself? It’s not like it’s any easier to write a whole novel just because the guns and planets already have names.
When I was asked to be on the Horus Heresy team, I didn’t think “I’ll be judged for writing in an established setting”, I thought “Jesus Christ, I get to write about something I’ve loved for 20 years.”
But I digress.
Writing for a license rather than publishing your own stuff comes equipped with irritating prejudices. It’s seen as easier to get into, and you know what? I’m sure that in some licenses, that’s absolutely true. In others, it’s a publishing house like any other. What I find interesting is that in no other arm of publishing is a blanket prejudice applied. I’ve seen plenty of people say “All Star Wars novels are badly written” (or whatever). You don’t see “All Random House novels are badly written” or “Penguin publishes nothing but bad writers”. You have loads of very skilled, very good writers publishing their work in the Star Wars setting, but they often get tarred with the same brush. The sins of the least among them will stain the talents of even the best. Tie-in fiction gets a lot of that.
I’m not a fan of most novels set in licenses I like. I admit that. I’m not big on most Star Wars novels. I’m not even a fan of most Warhammer 40,000 novels. But I don’t look at everything Harper Collins, Penguin (or whomever else) releases and say “Everything with this publisher’s logo on sucks”, because I recognise they have dozens/hundreds/thousands of different authors. A publisher is an engine to release work. Not an arbiter of quality.
Tie-in fiction lacks that crucial defence. It’s all lumped together, considered the junk food of literature. Some of that is justified – standards have been low in a lot of licenses, as luring decent writers past the prejudice has been hard. But a lot of it is just bullshit, and part of the whole writing deal.
I know that this question is an author interview regular, but I have to ask: who would you say have been your main inspirations as a writer?
Inspiration is a strange beast. I have several authors that I absolutely adore – I have their work on eternal preorder, and take a day off with every release to read their stuff immediately – but I don’t really want to write anything like they do. They already write like that, after all. They do it better than I would, anyway. I write like me.
My favourite author is Robin Hobb, for her detailed, immersive worlds and ludicrously-, painfully-, deliciously-involving characters. No one makes you feel someone’s life story like Robin Hobb does, and her worldbuilding is so nuanced, subtle and careful that I can’t help but fall in love with everything she does.
Conrad Williams is a British horror author whose mind is forever zigging and zagging to the coolest, darkest places. His work is both vicious and surreal, which is incredibly difficult to combine, and resonates with me for months after every book. When I’m reading his stuff, I go back several times a chapter to read a previous paragraph, because I’m amazed at how it all makes a sick kind of sense. A dead man appearing in your bedroom to watch you sleep, after having been buried under the floorboards. A tumour under your armpit that wriggles and contains the embryonic queen female of a race of monsters. Ugh. He makes weird, wacky stuff very gritty, realistic, and personal. That’s the trick. I don’t usually even like horror, but his prose is incredible and keeps me hooked.
Dan Abnett needs no explanation, but it’s my interview, so I’m doing it anyway. Dan turns a poetic phrase in a war story like no one else, and makes you care (or hate…) characters as well as any writer that ever lived. That’s one of the cruxes of brilliant writing, and he never seems to struggle with it. He also writes some ferocious battle scenes, by focusing on the human elements among the surreal madness and insane scope of it all. That’s how you write classic fiction. Dan’s practically the only writer I’d listen to when it comes to offering writing advice. When he talks, common sense outweighs my arrogance, so I shut up and listen. I sent him an early draft of The First Heretic, and he sent it back with the suggestion I look at it again, and try to chill out and write like I usually do, rather than writing with stage fright. That helped immeasurably. “Kick in the door and take no prisoners”, he said. That changed my entire perception of the book, and I rewrote huge chunks of it.
Neil Gaiman is…Neil Gaiman. Nothing I say can do that guy justice. He has the most amazing vision, and takes his ideas to the most amazing places. He’s a genius. I feel retarded just talking about him. I feel pretty much the same way about David Gemmell. There’s a reason he’s considered the king of heroic fantasy, and that’s because he earned it through telling great stories.
Edgar Allen Poe is, y’know, dead. But he’s not included here as a nod to the classics – I genuinely go back and read his work every year, the same way I re-read Frank Herbert’s Dune, and a bunch of Arthur Miller plays. I also know a bunch of Poe’s poems by heart, which I thought was really clever until I saw Tom Hanks do it in The Ladykillers remake, and now I feel like a copying asshole.
What are you working on at the moment and what projects are you pursuing for future publication?
I hate this part. The part where it’s so obviously totally an advert for your future stuff. This is the part where it always feels crass, and now I’m doing it, because I have to. Most authors use their blogs for this kind of thing, but as you might know, I use mine to discuss why I’d join COBRA (and other fictitious cartoon terrorist organisations), or to judge the merits of 1980s theme tunes.
I just finished The First Heretic, my first Horus Heresy novel, detailing how the Legions begin their descent into Chaos. It’s essentially the story of the very first Possessed Astartes, and how he witnesses (and contributes to) the events that lead to the greatest civil war in the history of the species. That’s coming out in October/November, as far as I know.
Currently, I’m heading into Blood Reaver, the sequel to Soul Hunter. (Marketing totally annihilated my preferred names for these books, by the way: Birthright and In Midnight Clad.)
Blood Reaver focuses much more on getting behind the eyes and into the skull of the main characters: how they see the world, how they see their ignoble, endless defeats, and so on. In the way Act II is often the darkest part of any play, that’s what happens here. Talos is much more driven, and sees that it’s no longer enough just to survive. The galaxy hates them, and everything is going to hell. It’s time to deal with that, else they’ll all die in silence, forgotten and irrelevant, starved of the vengeance they profess to desire.
Happy days ahead, clearly.
– originally published 8/11/2010
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…