Author Interview – Graham McNeill

Happy New Year folks! Hope you have all had a great ending to 2011 and an equally great beginning for 2012. We took a break during the closing week of December but now we are back and with our biggest author interview yet. Today, we are going to be meeting with Graham McNeill, who has been a part of both Games Workshop and Black Library for a long, long time. He has worked on several codexes and armybooks over the year and was a White Dwarf writer as well.

He is the author of the long-running Ultramarines novels featuring the Fourth Company under the atypical Captain Uriel Ventris. He has written various trilogies and duologies for Warhammer Fantasy, particularly the Sigmar novels for Age of Legend. He brought the Iron Warriors to life with his early novel Storm of Iron and later with the Iron Warrior novella. Over time, he has moved on to the Horus Heresy series where he is the most prolific writer yet and all his HH novels have been fantastic.

One of his previous Horus Heresy novels, A Thousand Sons, that focuses on the mysteries and motivations of the Thousands Sons legion and their enigmatic psyker-Primarch, Magnus, was the first Black Library novel to make it to the New York Times Bestsellers List on its release. It debuted at number 22. This was also a first for Graham McNeill, and given that the Horus Heresy series is already a top-selling brand from Black Library, the popularity of everyone involved just soared in its wake.

In short, he is one of the most well-known, respected, prolific and fun writer for Black Library.

Shadowhawk: You have worked with the Games Workshop Design Studio in the past, and your credits include several codices of the early 2000s. How did you get started with all of it?

Graham: I’d always been a Warhammer fan from back in the day, and even before that I’d loved designing games: boardgames based on Rogue Trooper and Judge Dredd from 2000AD, card games based on the Tarot and so on. I’d been a player and collector for many years by the time I applied for the job at GW, and had already written my first novel (though I hadn’t done anything with it) so I reckon I was in a good place to try my hand at writing for the Design Studio. My original title was Staff Writer, and I was originally hired to write painting articles, reviews of tournaments and the like, but as it turned out I ended up mostly writing up battle reports, background articles for White Dwarf and extra text for Codexes and Armybooks. Over the years, that role developed into writing rules for Inquisitor, and then onto the actual rulebooks.

Shadowhawk: How did the switch to being an author for Black Library come about?

Graham: Writing stories was always in my DNA, and I’d kept up with writing alongside the games development role, and eventually when I had three stories I was happy with, I submitted them to Black Library and went through the wringer of Marco (the head of BL at the time) and his harsh-but-fair-and-totally-useful feedback. That honed the stories, and they liked them enough to publish them in Inferno! The stories went down well and soon Christian Dunn asked if I’d like to write a novel for them, which was a bit of a no-brainer really. That first novel was Nightbringer, and I wrote a bunch of novels for BL while I was still part of the Design Studio. But after a while, it became apparent to me (after the third go-round on the Codexes and Armybooks) that my real passion was long-form fiction and it became increasingly obvious that was the road I should take.

Shadowhawk: Your first Black Library novels were for Warhammer Fantasy, later collected as part of the Ambassador’s Chronicles anthology. What interested you about the setting and these characters?

Graham: Actually, my first novels were Nightbringer and Storm of Iron. The Ambassador books were a few books into my career as a novelist, but the setting of Kislev was always one that had fascinated me. I love the snow-drenched setting, the cold iciness of it and the pragmatic, fatalistic mindset of the Kislevites. They live on the edge of the Chaos Wastes, always living on the brink of destruction and keeping the southern nations safe by the blood of their warriors. As far as why I wanted to tell these stories, it was because I wanted to tell a story about a character type we’d not seen before, an old guy at the end of his career instead of a Witch Hunter or Bounty Hunter or some other Warhammer archetype. Like a lot of stories I tell, I try to look for the gaps in the range, the characters, stories and settings we’ve not explored before.

Shadowhawk: You eventually branched off to write about Uriel Ventris and the Ultramarines 4th Company. Why Ultramarines and why a character like Captain Ventris?

Graham: I chose Ultramarines because I felt they had a bad rep of being boring, which just wasn’t true. I love their ‘classical’ feel and the purity of who they are and what they represent. Also, we didn’t have any archetypal fiction for Space Marines in print at the time. Bill King’s excellent Space Wolf novels were in print, but they aren’t exactly poster boys for what’s ‘typical’ of a Space Marine. So my brief was to tell a novel about a codex Chapter, and they don’t come much more codex than the Ultramarines.

I chose a character like Ventris, as it’s always good to explore a culture or archetype by breaking it. But you have to build the archetype before you break it, hence Nightbringer and Warriors of Ultramar laid the groundwork for the character, which I could then break and use that to show up the characteristics inherent to the Ultramarines and what makes them cool.

Uriel’s a great character to write. He’s pretty straight up and down, but he does have a wry, sardonic sense of humour that’s nicely counterpointed by Pasanius, and he’s a true hero in a galaxy that delights in anti-heroes and which is a morally compromised grey. By being a real white hat, he highlights just how grim a galaxy it is and why it needs warriors like him, who remember what it is they’re fighting for – doing the right thing no matter the cost.

Shadowhawk: The Ultramarines series now encompasses six full-length novels and several short stories. What has this nine-year journey been like for you?

Graham: It’s been a blast. Since Nightbringer came out in 2002, I’ve written twenty four novels, three novellas and nearly thirty short stories. It’s been great telling stories about the Ultramarines, as it indulges my passion for heroic tales of derring-do in space. 40K is a place of shadow, where even the good guys have to do terrible things to achieve victory, because the doom that awaits if they don’t do them is far, far worse. Seeing the characters grow has been a real pleasure, and having folk come along who might originally have been ‘hostile’ to the Ultramarines has been really rewarding. Where once I planned books out as individual, stand-alone titles, now I’m planning the books out as arcs, and knowing that there’s readers who can’t wait to come along for the ride is a great feeling.

Shadowhawk: Any plans to do novellas and/or audio dramas featuring Captain Ventris and his men? What is the future for warriors of the Fourth Company?

Graham: I’ve an audio drama out next year that deals with Torias Telion and his Scouts, which is set during Honsou’s invasion of Ultramar. I’d like to explore other ways to tell stories about Uriel and the growing roster of characters in the Chapter. I know Christian is very keen for more audio, so I think it’s only a matter of time before I do a Uriel audio. And I have BIG plans for the Ultramarines, and have planned out the next three books in the series in outline form. It’s going to be big and will take the Chapter and characters in directions that will be shocking, bloody and hopefully moving.

Shadowhawk: You have continued to work for the Warhammer Fantasy setting as well, particularly with Sigmar, the man who united all the human tribes of the Old World and forged the Empire all those years ago. Why Sigmar?

Graham: If you’re going to tell stories in a series called Time of Legends, then the first port of call is Sigmar. He’s such an interesting character, and I wanted to explore what kind of a man would have the vision to unite the tribes of man. He’s a man who went on to become a god, so to explore how that came to be was a thrilling experience. To get behind the legend, to explore what made a man like that tick was both a challenge and privilege. And it meant I got to tell some of the most iconic battles and character moments in the history of the Empire.

Shadowhawk: How does writing for Emperor Sigmar compare to writing for General Kaspar von Velten?

Graham: When I was writing the Ambassador books, I was going for a real gritty, dirty feel to the books. I wanted the reader to feel the dirt on the streets, the smell from the alleys and the blood, sweat and grimy darkness of the Old World. With the Sigmar books, the tone was more epic, more grandiose. With Sigmar, I wanted to capture a sense of the grand fantasy, stories where Kings and Emperors shaped destines, where the fates of nations were steered by the main characters. Kaspar was much more concerned with keeping himself alive to see the next day and doing his duty as opposed to fulfilling some grand destiny, which made it much darker tonally. They share a DNA of style, but are both very different books.

Shadowhawk: You are also one of the many writers on the Horus Heresy series with five novels under your belt and all of them being some of the best in the entire series. What are the challenges of writing for the Great Crusade/Horus Heresy in M31 compared to the Time of Ending in M41?

Graham: In 40k, the clock is always at two minutes to midnight, the end of the world is nigh, and that informs the mood of each novel. They’re dark, twisted and almost never end well. With 30k, we tell our tales with a much brighter palette, where the sheen hasn’t yet worn off the glitter of the Imperium, where there’s still hope for a better future. That makes for an utterly different mindset, both for the reader and the writer, so you get yourself in a certain headspace before you write. Both are interesting, both offer a different set of challenges, and each gives a different sense of satisfaction in getting the book written.

Shadowhawk: Your latest novel is The Outcast Dead, part of the Horus Heresy and is one of the non-standard novels in the series because the novel isn’t about the Astartes but about Terra itself and Astropaths. How and why?

Graham: Like a lot of my work, I like to look for the gaps. Character types, settings and plots we’ve not seen before, and I knew that Astropaths were a much overlooked part of the Imperium’s mechanism. I wanted to explore Terra, and see how things in the Heresy were being perceived by the folk relaying the messages of treachery and massacre. I wanted to change the pace a little, to tell a thriller novel instead of a war novel. I wanted to use Space Marines, but to do it in a way that made them feel different and used them in an original way. So we had heroes who were – on paper – traitors, but who were our heroes of the book who had motivations that wouldn’t become clear until the end of the book.

Shadowhawk: Priests of Mars is your upcoming novel and its premise is extremely interesting: the adventures of a Mechanicus Explorator mission. Tell us more!

Graham: Priests of Mars is a book that takes us (you and me!) out of our comfort zones. It’s a chance to do something different, to stretch myself with character types I’ve not used and to delve into the strange mysteries of the Martian Priesthood. All the usual crutches of 40k are going to be stripped away, as I’m taking the characters beyond the edges of the galaxy where I’ll get the chance to throw them into situations where they’ll encounter things they’ve never seen, face challenges they never expected and find allies and enemies they never thought they’d meet. Its grand space opera and I can’t wait to get started on it, as I think folk are going to really love it.

Shadowhawk: What is a usual day like in the life of Graham McNeill?

Graham: It’s going to sound depressingly mundane, I’m afraid. It begins pretty early when our two kids get us up for breakfast, and once everyone’s up, fed and showered, I drive to my office and get to work. I try to keep my day just like as if I worked in an office with a boss looking over my shoulder. So I take some time at lunchtime to eat and read a book, then carry on and finish up around half five so I can get home in time to spend some time with the kids before they go to bed. Other days I take the laptop out to a little tea shop and spend the afternoon there with a pot of Almond and Cream tea and the hubbub of the world going on around me.

Shadowhawk: You have a mammoth THREE omnibuses coming out next year: Iron Warriors, Ultramarines (Second) and Sigmar. How does that make you feel?

Graham: Incredibly proud. To have written so many books and to have them well regarded enough that they’re being collected together is incredibly satisfying. I have my copy of the Iron Warriors omnibus, and am writing the extra story to go in the Sigmar omnibus, so I think they’re going to go down well.

Shadowhawk: You recently published an original novel, Ghouls of the Miskatonic which is the first book in the Dark Waters trilogy. What can you tell us about this project and how would you introduce fans of your BL work to this new setting?

Graham: It’s a horror novel based in the Lovecraftian universe as written by H.P. Lovecraft back in the twenties and thirties. It’s being published by Fantasy Flight Games and is loosely based on their Arkham Horror boardgame. I’d done a few bits of text for Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay, and when Fantasy Flight were looking for writers to work on their new novel ranges, I was hopping up and down with my hand in the air. I think the book will appeal to BL fans, as it’s packed with strong characters, monstrous beings, dark gods and heroes fighting to save the world.

Shadowhawk: What are your thoughts on self-publishing versus traditional publishing?

Graham: It’s not something I know much about to be honest. I think that traditional publishing is more of a guarantee of quality, as a book like that will likely have gone through an agent, an editor and proofers. Self-publishing means that absolutely anyone can get their novel out there, and while some of these will be great, I imagine the vast majority are likely to be of…varying quality. The competition in an arena where everyone can publish is bound to be fierce, so I reckon it would be next to impossible to sort the wheat from the chaff. Though, since I’ve never read a book that’s been self-published, I can’t speak about this with any real authority.

Shadowhawk: You have also worked briefly with Blizzard with your novel I, Mengsk. What interested you in the StarCraft universe and why the Mengsk family?

Graham: I’d enjoyed playing the StarCraft game, and had always found the story of Arcturus Mengsk an interesting one. It seemed like quite a leap for the changes his character went through, so getting the chance to explore that and find a credible back-story that made sense of his motivations and character was a real challenge. Like choosing Sigmar for Time of Legends, if you’re going to write for StarCraft, the obvious character to focus on is Arcturus. For me, what attracts me to stories are the characters, and StarCraft had more than its fair share of interesting, complicated characters, so that was what really drew me to the StarCraft universe.

Shadowhawk: So what is next for you with regards to Warhammer Fantasy, Warhammer 40,000 and all its different sub-brands like the Horus Heresy and Time of Legends?

Graham: That’s a long list… Once I get the Sigmar story finished, it’s on to Priests of Mars, then my next Heresy novel, Angel Exterminatus, then the third and final book of the Dark Waters Trilogy for FFG. Then it’s the second part of the Priest of Mars story, then onto another Heresy project, more Ultramarines, more Sigmar, perhaps a Space Marine Battles book… It’s a packed schedule that stretches out over many years. Which is the best place for a freelancer to be.

Shadowhawk: How do you get yourself in the writing mindset, and what is the most important thing for you when you sit down to write?

Graham: I’m always in a writing mindset. Part of what makes writers write is the fact that they’re always thinking about stories and characters. I’ve always got something percolating in the back of my mind, and I’m always itching to get to the keyboard to write. In fact, the hardest thing is getting out of the mindset of writing and dealing with other stuff that’s not related to telling stories. The most important thing for me when it comes to sitting down at the keyboard is knowing what I have to do that day. I like to have a plan of what I’m doing that day, robust enough that I can reach my word count, but flexible enough to accommodate spontaneous ideas that combust along the way.

Shadowhawk: What are you most looking forward to the most in 2012 in terms of your own work?

Graham: I can’t wait to get onto Angel Exterminatus, and the second half of the year will be about endings. I’ll be finishing off my Arkham Horror trilogy and finishing off my Martian duology. I’ll be doing quite a bit of travelling too, so next year’s shaping up to be a pretty good year from what I can see so far.

Shadowhawk: In an all-out duel, which of your characters from across the two GW universes would you be rooting for?

Graham: I’d have to say that the one I’d most like to see left standing at the end of a no-holds-barred slugfest would be Uriel. I reckon it’d be good to have him still around to defend the world when the horrors that lurk in the Warp/Chaos Wastes realise that most of the folk who can stand against them have been killed in an all-out duel…

Shadowhawk: One last question: any chance of an Ultramarines Space Marines Battles novel? And if you do get to write one which battle would you like to write about?

Graham: That’s a no-brainer, that one! I’d love to do a Space Marine Battles novel, and if I get the chance, it’d have to be the Battle for Macragge. I wrote that battle many times in Space Marine Codexes, and one of my early gigs at GW was a big article about that battle in White Dwarf many years ago. It’d be great to see some of those characters in a longer piece of work, so for sure, The Battle for Macragge!

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Now that was a lot of information to digest all at once! 2012 is definitely going to be a stellar year for Black Library in general and Graham in particular given all his new releases and the omnibuses coming out. Priests of Mars is definitely one novel that I am dying to read since it is about those mysterious and cranky Tech-Adepts of the Adeptus Mechanicus.

In the meantime, if you cannot wait for his new releases this year, then you can check out all his recent releases like Horus Heresy: The Outcast Dead or his short story Apostle’s Creed in the Sabbat Worlds Anthology or his short story The Heraclitus Effect in the Planetkill anthology.

11 thoughts on “Author Interview – Graham McNeill

  1. Very nice interview, thank you. Looking forward to more about Uriel, although I already feel some apprehension 😉 for whatever is going to happen to the poor boy…

    And I sure hope that Mr. McNeill will be the one to give Perturabo a personality. The guy has been neglected terribly so far…

  2. Nice one. 🙂
    Wow, 24 novels.
    More Ultramarines, that sounds promising. Wonder how long we have to wait for any new books. There is much to look forward to. Yes!
    Ghouls of the Miskatonic, I had no idea! Now I’ve to put this on my wishlist.

    Good work with all the pretty cover art.

    • Its amazing the kind of information that Amazon can give you re: Ghouls of the Miskatonic.

      As for more UM novels, Graham has mentioned before that he has been working on a synopsis for the next three books. Given he also has Angel Exterminatus to write, I’d say we are looking at third quarter of 2013 at the latest for more Ultramarines. -Shadowhawk

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  5. In your new Heresy Novel, Angel Exterminatus, it features the Emperor’s Children and Iron Warriors. I was just wondering if it will be a novel that stars both of them together, or one a little bit over another.

    • I’ll forward the question to Graham. However, it is best to ask him directly on facebook where he masquerades as Fortress of Hera. -Shadowhawk

    • Here you go:

      “Both will feature heavily, as they’re on a mission from God(s), but all does not go smoothly…”
      -Shadowhawk

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