Interview: Dan Abnett

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

n24365Coming back to 40k for a moment, you have a new Gaunt’s Ghosts novel out next year?

Yes. My schedule actually got slightly upset. As I said earlier on, I’m 36 novels in with this ridiculous writing lark, and with comics as well, 2000AD and all this, I’m stupidly prolific. At the beginning of last September I actually alarmed myself and everyone around me by starting to have seizures, which wasn’t a particularly pleasant thing to happen. They kept giving me tests and MRIs – I broke an MRI machine, an unusual thing to put on your CV. And after a few months they established that I had developed, for reasons that nobody could explain, epilepsy, which is now under control and I’m managing. In fact it was a huge relief, because there are many other things that seizures point to that could have been a great deal more severe or alarming. But I had two or three months of quiet concern. Anyway, that did spoil my schedule somewhat because it not only disrupted work, but the thought of it disrupted work, so I’m now trying to catch up and make everything fit into place. The one that was most seriously affected was for Black Library, which was my next Horus Heresy novel called Prospero Burns and is the latest in that series. That should have been out now, and actually will be out – it sounds like ages – but actually will be out next year. I think it was delayed simply so that they could make the best of it and get the best trail in time. The readers have been really supportive though, not a single one of them has sent me a message going ‘For goodness sake, where’s my book?’ Which has been very nice of them. And then after that it will be the Gaunt series. I think that will be book 13. For people who haven’t read it, it is the story of an officer, Ibram Gaunt, who has a regiment called that Tanith First, who are nicknamed the Ghosts because they’re very good at stealth and reconnaissance work. They’re the Tanith First-And-Only because they’re the last to get off their world, the last of their kind. And because the 40k universe is so big and scary, you know, ‘There is only war’ and all this kind of stuff, they’re very much overlooked and very much abused by their commanding officers and sent in as cannon fodder. But they’re slowly making a name for themselves. I break the series down into story arcs, so the first three were number one and they collect them in omnibuses. The most recent book, which came out last year, was Blood Pact, the fourth arc. What I get the impression of what brings people back to the series is that they’re attached to the people now, it’s about the characters, if it was just about reading action sequences they’d be sick of it now. But they’re really attached to these people and how they’re going to survive and what they’re going to do next, and that’s very gratifying. I had people come up just this weekend when I was at the Black Library headquarters in Nottingham for one of their events, and they were fantastic, just the interest in particular people… it’s not so much asking when the next book is as whether this character is going to play a prominent role, or is this character really dead.

How long do you envisage the series running for? Is it until the stories run their course, or is it indefinite?

Yeah, I think so. I have joked in the past that it will run as long as there are characters and I haven’t killed them all off. Definitely, the next arc – I’m just about to produce the second of four books – that’s definitely not the last arc. There’s more story after that, so we’re definitely looking at a series that will run. But my main criteria is that I keep writing these books and all the while I’m excited about what happens next, whether it’s a different theatre of operations or a different take. For instance, Blood Pact, I don’t really know where the idea came from but it’s not a war book at all. It’s a book set when they’ve been retired from the front line, they’re on what should be a perfectly safe Imperial world, they’re all getting bored and there’s no action going on. And into the middle of that I drop an individual threat that turns the book into a thriller rather than a battlefield story and the readers go ‘Wow, I wasn’t expecting that’. And while I can still come up with a dynamic story but where it’s not like the previous books, I’ll keep on doing that.

Are you going to be planning any more Inquisitor books in the vein of Eisenhorn or Ravenor?

Well, yes, absolutely is the answer to that. If only I could write them faster. The Eisenhorn books, there were three of them and they were always intended to be a little trilogy, and they proved to be remarkably popular. But because I’d only ever planned a trilogy I’d sort of vowed that I’d leave the character where it was. That’s why I had Ravenor, who’s essentially his pupil and successor, that was going to run on but it worked so well as a trilogy that I stopped after three books with that as well. My plan now is to write a third and final trilogy, so it becomes a trilogy of trilogies.

With new characters?

Well in the same way that the Ravenor books took a character out of the Eisenhorn books and ran with them, that’s sort of what I’m going to do. There’s a character called Bequin, who appeared in the Eisenhorn books and indirectly the Ravenor books, and this will be a trilogy about her. But this final trilogy will effectively be Eisenhorn versus Ravenor, master and pupil brought together through the agency of their various friends and associates into one final confrontation. I’m really looking forward to that, but of course with the slight delay to my schedule, I’ll get to it as soon as I can.

Now the Horus Heresy books have, of course, enjoyed widespread popularity. Have you enjoyed fleshing out such a pivotal part of the Warhammer 40k story?

Yeah, absolutely. If nothing else it’s been enormously flattering. Warhammer’s been going for about 25 years now I think, I’ve lost track of when they started, but it’s a fundamental part of so many gamers’ lives. It’s had a huge impact, and the Horus Heresy was one of those things that was in the background fluff from day one, with a little bit of throwaway colour just to get people into this game. One of the things that it did extraordinarily well was build up this idea that while it might be science-fiction rather than fantasy, there is a real sense of gothic, mythical vastness to both the scale of the thing and the timescale. The Horus Heresy was something that happened 10,000 years before the 40k adventure, and was this, almost, battle of the demigods that set up the universe that you now adventure in. So a few years ago, one of the writers invited me to write these novels and said ‘Dan, we’d like you to write the first one’.

No pressure, then.

No pressure at all! It was a very exciting experience and a very fun experience. There’s a guy called Alan Merritt, who is sort of in charge of the lore there at Games Workshop, and we have regular brainstorming writers’ summits. And he comes in with armfuls of books, ancient copies of stuff that’s no longer in print and explains to us all of the stuff that’s been written about a particular subject in the past and indeed, how they’ve contradicted each other over the years in copies of White Dwarf and everything. From that we devise our schemes and it’s not just a matter of – well, it is world building for a start because this isn’t really a world that’s been imagined in any complete way, and everybody’s got their own idea of it. And it’s not just a matter of regurgitating the same story because – it’s like Titanic, everyone knows what happens at the end. So we set out to find a way of telling these stories and at the same time revealing all sorts of things that people know, filling in the gaps. And it’s been gigantic fun, because either we’ve been able to reveal things that have been hidden there all along, or we’ve said ‘We’ve had this great idea, can we say that Horus was really doing this?’ And generally speaking they’ve said oh yes, let’s do that. And you find things out, I have to say you find things out. We discovered that the Horus Heresy – and this is probably heresy to tell you this – but the Horus Heresy originally started right in the very first version of the game. They’d made these lovely plastic models in the game and [Games Workshop] were a young, little company and they were doing so well, and they couldn’t afford to sculpt moulds to make ones for them to fight. The only thing they could do was to use the same moulds, but mould things out of a different colour plastic. I think it was red and blue, the same models of Space Marines and everything, but some were red and some were blue, and they had to come up with a reason for why they’d be fighting themselves, so somebody went ‘Oh, it’s a civil war!’ And somebody else went ‘Let’s call it the…oh I don’t know…Horus Heresy!’ So that obviously won’t be in the books.

Next: Ultramarines, provoking Judge Dredd fans, and working with Doctor Who…