Author Interview - Graham McNeill

We speak Warhammer and beyond with the best-selling sci-fi author

Welcome back to the second in our weekly series of author interviews to usher in the Summer Of SF Reading online and in SFX magazine. In case you missed it, last week Dan Abnett was the man under spotlight, but this week we turn our attention to A Thousand Sons author Graham McNeill.

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SFX: Hi Graham, well to start with would you mind telling me a little bit about yourself and how you got into a career as a writer, was this always your intention?

GM: My name’s Graham McNeill, and I mainly write for the Black Library, penning thrilling action/adventure novels for the 40k, Warhammer and Horus Heresy ranges. I’ve worked for Blizzard too, and my next book is for an American company, writing a trilogy of novels based on one of their most popular games. I got into writing by being an inveterate teller of stories when I was younger and then writing them down when my love of Choose Your Own Adventure books outstripped the pace of their publication. From there I started writing campaigns and stories to link our group’s wargames. That eventually led me to Games Workshop, where I was employed as a Staff Writer – though I did very little reporting as was originally envisaged. I worked developing background and writing White Dwarf articles for a few years before making the move to Games Development, which was tremendous fun, though I always kept writing short stories in my spare time (as well as a sprawling novel I’d been working on since university). I submitted them to Black Library and they liked them, which led to a novel offer, which, 10 years later…has led to me answering this question. Looking back, yeah, I think I always wanted to be a writer, as it allowed me to unleash my creative urges in a healthy way, tell stories and keep hours that weren’t nine to five. Apparently I decided at a young age that binman was also on the employment cards, though I think I chose the right career path. Guess all that time spent at Firetop Mountain wasn’t wasted after all.

SFX: What was the appeal of the Warhammer universe for you and what is it that has kept you writing in that world for more than a decade?

GM: I grew up with the Warhammer universes, as my exposure to SF/Fantasy had been fairly minimal at that point in my life. Warhammer came along (for me) in the mid eighties, and I’d never seen anything like it. It just blew me away with the grim setting, the dystopian vision of the future and the bleak, rainy style of fantasy. Of course, as I’ve got older and read more widely, I see where a lot of that came from, and while it might have been pretty derivative in its original form, the decades have allowed it to mature and take on its own distinct flavour. As much as I love many different shared world universes, I keep coming back to Warhammer because it’s evolved in such a deep, rich way. The stories and universes have so many layers that there’s always so much to learn and add to that it never gets stale. There’s always more to read about or write about.

SFX: Did you play table-top war games like Warhammer before you started working in that world? If so was this a big part of your youth?

GM: Oh yeah, it was a big part of my youth. Too much of a part if you listen to my parents, though I think eventually I struck a good balance of gaming and other activities. I played Warhammer a lot, then moved to 40k when it came out, but I’ve always loved Warhammer and love writing in that universe. Joining the GW Design Studio made having a love of toy soldiers a necessity, so I’m glad I got to know the universe we write in from a player’s point of view as well as a storyteller’s.

SFX: What do you think gamers and readers find so attractive about Warhammer and Warhammer 40,000 in particular?

GM: Pretty much the same as me, as I’m a gamer too. I think they like that there’s such depth to the background that there’s always a reason to take it further than just the tabletop. As a gamer you want to see how your army works beyond the battlefield, and as a reader, a good book will make you want to break out the toy soldiers and get a game in. I know that’s how it works with me. I’ve just finished God King , the third Sigmar book, and can’t wait to dig out my Empire army…

SFX: Have you ever felt restricted writing almost exclusively for the Black Library and in the Warhammer universe? Have you ever had the urge to branch out and write a nice period drama for example?

GM : Ha…If I went down the period drama piece, I think my writing habits would see me do something like Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters , but then others have done that already, so maybe not. I have stories that don’t fit any shared world, so if I get the time between the many projects I have lined up, then you never know what I might get to write. Though it’s a shared universe, I’ve never once felt restricted by the 40k or Warhammer worlds. They’re so vast and complex that there’s always some unexplored corner to mooch around in. And my creative gears are pushed up a notch in worlds like this, as you have to really up your game when you’re working within a defined playground (no matter how large) as you need to make sure you’re doing something clever and interesting with a background that’s been established for years.

SFX: You’ve worked on several game codexes over the years, how much work goes into creating one of these? Is it up to you to come up with the new rules, if not how much of it is a team effort?

GM: There’s a LOT of work involved, from concept designs, miniatures designs, themes, background, rules, art and photography and a dozen other aspects of the process. It could never be a one-man show, and that’s one of the aspects I loved about working on codexes; its collaborative nature. You got to work with some of the most talented people working in the field, and it was amazing to see the work that was being done. We managed to inspire each other, pushing each other to fresh heights of creativity, which is one of the reasons I think Warhammer has endured for so long. The work that goes into these books is phenomenal, and if it wasn’t a team effort, it’d be a poorer product.

SFX: Were there any additions/changes you were particularly proud of?

GM: I worked on Witch Hunters and Daemonhunters , which were two codexes I think helped put the gothic madness back into 40k that had begun to slip out of the rules. It had begun to get a bit “clean” and generic SF, so with those two books, we put some of the crazy back into 40k. I’m very proud of that.

SFX: Your latest novel, A Thousand Sons , is about the destruction of Prospero but only tells one half of the story alongside Dan Abnett’s Prospero Burns , how did you go about that process?

GM: We sat in some inspirational meetings where we discussed the “facts” of the Prospero story and talked about the key players: who they were, what they wanted and why some of the story didn’t make, on the surface, much sense. The challenge was how to make those stories work and fit without changing what had been said before. We wanted to craft stories that stood on their own, but worked as a duology. You needed to come away from each book thinking that particular Legion was in the right, so that by the end of it you were left with an ambiguous feeling of what actually happened. Who was right, who was wrong? Those are the sorts of things that we want people to debate, to start threads on forums and get talking about. We originally planned to do a chapter by chapter hand off of each other’s work, but with Dan’s unexpected illness, that didn’t quite work out. The way things worked out has proved to have some unexpected and wholly welcome bonuses to the stories. There was a lot of back and forth once the meetings were over. I called Dan a lot and we e-mailed each other throughout the process, where I harassed him with questions, plot points and general bits and pieces to make sure what I was telling would match with what he wanted to do. Again, a very collaborative process which all worked to the good of the stories.

SFX: What opportunities did creating a story in this way open up and were there any restrictions?

GM: It opened up a great sounding board in the shape of Dan Abnett, which is something to be recommended to anyone who’s lucky enough to get the chance to work with him. Dan’s a creative mind I love throwing ideas at, as they always bounce back in a new, strangely unexpected shapes that always sparks up more ideas, leading to a frenzied period of note taking as I try to cram every one of them into a story somewhere. I never felt any restrictions in telling my half of the story, as we’d talked the ideas and stories through long before either of us started writing. Knowing where we were both going meant that any problems got dealt with before they arose.

SFX: From the outside being part of the Games Workshop team seems like one big collaborative effort. Is this the case and do you find yourself interacting with other writers regularly, or is the experience more like being an average lone wolf author with occasional meetings?

GM: It’s a bit of both. With the Heresy , it’s very much a gestalt mind meld, though we like to pretend we’re snapping lone wolves to maintain an element of writerly cool. We’ve gotten a lot better at just putting things out there for each other to shoot down/rave about and generally pass information around. We also throw things around that it’d be cool for the other guys to reference or take notice of, allowing more connective threads to run through the books and give them that bit more gravitas. When it comes to 40k and Warhammer, we’re much more loners. Or maybe that’s just me…

SFX: A Thousand Sons has been a huge critical and commercial success do you think this is the point where Warhammer 40,000 has hit the mainstream or do you think there is still work to be done?

GM: I think its certainly starting to shift. I think genre tie-in fiction has (and continues to have in some circles) a very bad press – being thought of a cheap, cash-in knock off stories without merit. But that’s just not true. The work I read from the Black Library stable is of great quality, and the majority stands up to pretty much any “original” fiction out there. I think folk are beginning to see that it’s as valid a form of fiction as any other, but it’s going to take a while for that to become entrenched. People have to be willing to try tie-in fiction, and we have to make sure that it’s as good as can be. After all, writing a story in any universe, shared or original, needs great characters, a driving plot and interesting ideas. You get them and you’ve a great book.

SFX: Do you think it’s possible for someone who isn’t interested in the Warhammer games to find the spin-off novels accessible, interesting and entertaining?

GM: Absolutely. I never write a single line assuming that people know what I’m talking about. That way lies losing the reader’s interest if they can’t figure out what you’re talking about. It’s a fine line between needless exposition for the folk who know what you’re on about and explaining what’s happening to those who’re new to the universe. I like to hold up the beginning of the movie Serenity as one of the best examples of that, where the ’Verse and current setup was explained and given enough depth for those that had never seen Firefly , without boring those of us who’d obsessed about it and lamented its premature demise.

SFX: Finally, what are you working on at the moment and what can we expect from you in the future?

GM: As I type this, I’ve just this morning finished God King , the third Sigmar book in Black Library’s Time of Legends series. It’s the story of Sigmar’s war against the recently returned necromancer, Nagash, so it’s full of undead action, sweeping epic battles and a few surprises that the readers won’t see coming. I know that because I didn’t see them coming until they happened in the book. With that in the bag, I’m working on the first novel of another trilogy, set in a different universe, though since it hasn’t been announced, I think I’d better hold off on saying which one.

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Check back next week for an interview with Shadow King author Gav Thorpe.