Interview: Dan Abnett

We talk to Dan Abnett in a wide-ranging interview, covering Warhammer, the Ultramarines film, Doctor Who and his original novels.

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You’ve recently released Triumff, your first original novel.

Yes. After, I think, 35 or 36 novels published, I thought it was about time to write my own.

Have you been happy with how it’s performed?

Yes, very happy, very pleased with the way it’s been received and all that. It’s been great fun to write something that is off on a tangent that you wouldn’t normally get to do. I have absolutely no complaints about working in the universes of [Warhammer] 40k, or of Marvel or anything else that I do. One of the reasons I do them is because I love doing it, and there’s never any sense of creative restraint, writing other things. But this is one of the ideas that I’ve had kicking around for ages and of course it’s one of those things where you wonder what it would be like to do something where I’m not relying on handholds or training wheels.

So how did the writing process differ for you, as you’ve spent a great deal of time in the universes of licensed properties with established canon? Was it nice to have the creative freedom to go mad, as it were?

Yeah, I think it was. Weirdly enough, going mad was one of the things that I realised I sort of, couldn’t do. Triumff has been around in my head as a concept for a long time, I think a lot of writers when they start out, they have projects they’d like to develop, and Triumff – bits of it anyway, are getting on for 20 years in terms of an idea. Way back when I was first getting into comics I was thinking ‘Can I make this into a comic? Is there a book lurking there?’ All sorts of things like that. So when I finally got to write a novel of my own for publication, one that somebody was actually going to buy and publish, it seemed that by dint of seniority it deserved the chance. The idea had matured – I want to say ‘festered’, but that’s not right, is it? It had matured over time, it was a real pleasure because I’d thought about it and come back to it on and off. But also, I had this great experience of writing within, as I said, the 40k universe or Marvel, or… I don’t know, Bananas In Pyjamas or Postman Pat or anything else that I’d done, I understood that successful universes operate on very rigid rules. They have to obey them, or people get very upset by them, I mean Star Trek is a great example, and so is Doctor Who, and any of that stuff. If it’s in its own universe, the first thing that’ll happen to make the fans complain is if something contradicts what they understand that universe to be. So in many respects, and I didn’t do this in a deliberately conscious way, it’s very much a franchise that I happen to own. I set my own rules and the experience of working on licences for other people gave me a good insight into how to make it work, on what the important things are that you have to bear in mind. So the dangers of going completely bananas and saying ‘Haha! I’m the only one who can stop me doing this!’ – there was a real level of self-control going on, because there’s usually a reason that people stop me doing these sorts of things, because people don’t like to read it.

So how did you get involved with [HarperCollins imprint] Angry Robot? Obviously, you’re associated with Black Library, so it wouldn’t be entirely out of the question to assume you’d have gone through Solaris for Triumff?

Angry Robot came to me. I know the person who is essentially running it, he had a high regard for my ability to write a story. I think that’s one of the things, and again, there are many of us who write for, or largely write stuff that is tie-in fiction, there’s a terrible rap sometimes that they’re not proper books or comics. And thankfully, Angry Robot said ‘No, he writes damn good stories, it doesn’t matter what it is.’ So there was that lovely opportunity there, and it’s great fun because it means that I can write something like Triumff, and then I can go and blow the universe up in 40k, and then I can come back and do something like Triumff, and then I can go and blow another universe up. It works rather well.

Can we talk a little about your upcoming novel, Embedded?

Embedded, yes.

The premise sounds really interesting, could you expand on your inspirations behind it?

It was one of those things that just sort of came along. Obviously through 40k, I am associated with what’s commonly known as, or officially known as Combat Science-Fiction. Military SF. Which I’d probably been writing for four or five years before I realised that it was a subgenre – I had no idea. In fact at 40k, in Black Library and stuff we always referred to it not as Combat SF, we referred to it as ‘shooty-death-kill-in-space’, which is a much better name for it. Anyway, if I’ve got a reputation based on anything at all, it’s probably that, because the bulk of my novels are those. The Gaunt’s Ghosts stuff particularly falls into that category. So one thing that Angry Robot said was ‘If you’re so damned good at that, can you put out something that plays on those strengths but has that universe stamp of being your own product’. So what I didn’t want to do was take the tried and tested Gaunt’s Ghosts formula, change his name to Gant, and they can be Gant’s Phantoms. You know, just transferring them across and crossing out 40k.

Just removing the vowels?

Yeah, exactly. Really, really not what I’m interested in doing. So although Embedded is very much a hard Combat SF novel, I wanted to create both a universe and a situation, which was something that I could never do in 40k, or in any of the other places that I’ve written before. And ‘embedded’ is a very… one of those modern words like ‘redacted’, a very War On Terror word. But in this case, it’s a very literal thing. The setting is a human colony world where there is essentially a war of independence going on, and a reporter – I’m putting it in very simple modern terms – a reporter is going in to cover the war, and he is embedded. Literally implanted into one of the Government forces going in to this situation, so we get an eye on the battlefield. So essentially, his mind and his point of view is riding piggyback in the mind of the guy on the battlefield. And the guy is shot, so because of the damage to the soldier, the reporter can’t pull his mind back out of the body. He’s essentially trapped, and has to take over the operation of the soldier’s body to get it out of the warzone.

It’s quite an intriguing set up, particularly at this time when there’s a lot of controversy about journalists being embedded in military units. There was the unfortunate incident with poor [Mirror journalist] Rupert Hamer recently, of course. Did that have an impact at all on what you were writing?

It did. It did very much, and it’s one of those weird things. I always think it’s a sign of good creativity when coincidences occur around what you’re doing. I don’t know if I’m rare in this, but I am absolutely plagued by coincidence. I don’t get freaked by it though, I think it’s a good sign, that I’m tapping into the zeitgeist. So I think it’s a good sign of science-fiction, even if in this case it’s science-fiction for the purposes of entertainment rather than anything else, I’m not pretending that this is some profound treatise of whatever because it’s not. It’s an entertainment thing that has perhaps some reflection on the way the world works, but it’s back to good science-fiction, which does speculate on that. If you see commonality with the world around you, maybe you’re doing something right, even if you’re rejecting it to some kind of imagined conclusion about what it will be like. I suppose the downside is that the worst thing that can happen to science-fiction is that the world overtakes it by the time that it gets on to paper. When the idea first came to me there was a sensation that there’s this line between genuine experience of combat, and someone who is caught up in combat, and then another line where you have to ask how having someone there transforms combat, do people do things differently because there is a sense that things will be remembered where they otherwise wouldn’t have been? Do they clean up their act, or do they act more recklessly. So yes, I was very aware of it, and if I read a report in the newspaper tomorrow saying a reporter has been shrunk down to microscopic sizes and put into the head of a Royal Marine, I think I might just say ‘Right, my second book’s going to be something completely different’.

Do you know when it’s going to be released?

It’s going to be – Angry Robot can confirm – it’s going to be August, the end of the summer.

Next: Gaunt’s Ghosts, health scares and the real story behind the origin of the Horus Heresy plotline…

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