Author Interview – Gav Thorpe

Monday is here and that means we have another interview! The guest of honour on the blog today is Gav Thorpe, game designer and author extraordinaire. As he himself says in this in-depth interview, he has been with Games Workshop’s two settings for a long, long time and he has racked up a credits list like few others in that time.

He is most famous for his Last Chancers novels which star a remarkable Penal Legion regiment of the Imperial Guard, his Path of the Eldar novels which give some of the most in-depth look into this ancient elder race of the galaxy, his Slaves to Darkness trilogy which was written in the early days of the Old World and many, many others. He has also written rulesets and lore for a variety of factions in both settings, particularly the mid-generation rules.

He has enjoyed great success with his work over the years and the future looks bright for him. Let’s see what the man himself has to say.

Shadowhawk: Let’s start with a little introduction and how you got started with writing, especially with Black Library.

Gav: I’ve always been creatively inclined, and spent my teenage years reading, drawing and writing lots of fantasy/ sci-fi games and stuff. This helped me get into the GW games design team, which meant that when Black Library started up with Inferno! Magazine I was in the ideal spot to contribute. After some short stories for the mag I was asked if I wanted to turn the adventures of Lieutenant Kage into a novel and everything continued from there.

Random factoid – 13th Legion was originally called Deadly Redemption. I might use that again if I get to return to the Last Chancers.

Shadowhawk: Your list of works for both Games Workshop and Black Library is downright incredibly immense. You have written everything from articles in the various GW magazines, codices, armybooks, rulebooks, short stories, novellas, novels and so on. What has this journey been like?

Gav: It’s been a blast for the most part! Fiction writing and producing games material are very different disciplines, though they obviously both revolve around the same creative core of defining a narrative. I’ve been fortunate to work on some incredible projects over the years, both at GW and BL, and it really is the case that if I hadn’t been doing that I have no idea what else I might have done.

On a personal level I remember well arriving at the GW studio and being in awe of the folks I was working alongside – Jervis Johnson, Andy Chambers, Rick Priestley, Jes Goodwin and many others who had been a massive influence on me over the preceding few years. I find it hard to reconcile that young Gav with the fact that today lots of people see me in the same light as those true hobby veterans. It’s hard to believe that is has been almost twenty years now, and I still feel I have lots to learn from other folks.

Looking back at the work I have done, it does bring home what an incredible opportunity I have had to exercise my creativity, and have lots of fun along the way. It’s actually humbling to think that many parts of the 40K and Warhammer backgrounds that are now taken for granted started out inside my brain somewhere. It has never felt like I am trying to create a legacy or anything, but I am very proud of a lot of my contributions over the years.

Shadowhawk: You did extensive work for the 40k 3rd edition and the Warhammer 6th/7th edition rulesets and helped define those early days of the two settings. What was your goal when writing all that lore and the rules?

Gav: By that point a lot of the foundations of the two universes had settled down, so it was much more about adding some depth and finessing what were already well-established worlds. I suppose the main drive for me was to make the game worlds accessible through the rulebooks, trying to ensure that the background and imagery was front and centre and seen as just as important by hobbyists as the rules and points values. Rules come and go, and even parts of the background shift, but the fundamentals of 40K and Warhammer don’t really change and those are the things to communicate.

For Warhammer in particular, when I was in my role as Loremaster, I wanted to preserve the wonderful history that had been created and do more with the ‘current’ events. The example I always use is that the Warhammer world is meant to be at two minutes to midnight on the verge of the great Chaos incursion – what Tomas Pirinen dubbed the End Times. Rather than that being at some point in the future, I wanted to make the doom of the world feel more imminent. The final struggle had actually already begun.

Shadowhawk: Your work for Warhammer Fantasy Battles is as extensive as it is for Warhammer 40,000. What is the draw of both these settings for you?

Gav: The overall mood of both settings is the greatest appeal. Not just the grimdark, but also the examination of religion, authority, the meaning of heroism against inevitable failure. Unlike much fantasy and sci-fi of the seventies and eighties, these were worlds without hope where desperate struggle and all-out war meant only the means to survive for a little longer. Grittier, darker fiction is all over the place now and it’s easy to forget that Warhammer and 40K were pretty remarkable at the time in this regard.

They are also massive playpits where almost everything is possible with a bit of thought. Though they are highly-defined settings, they have been created in such a way that gamers and writers can expand them almost infinitely, so that it is possible to include all sorts of cool ideas for imagery and stories without breaking the essential themes and feel of the universes. Having a huge wealth of material as inspiration doesn’t hurt either, and the much more historical influences behind them are more rewarding than a lot of contemporary-themed settings. There is a different morality, a very archaic undertone to everything that is part of those worlds.

Shadowhawk: What was the transition like from working exclusively with the Design Studio to Black Library?

Gav: The transition from design studio to freelancer was, at the time, the obvious choice for me. Leaving the studio gave me the opportunity to stretch my wings in different ways. I like being my own boss and having a lot more freedom with what i work on. I do miss the collegiate atmosphere of the studio – designers and sculptors and artists working towards a common end. On the whole though, I am glad I made the move, I am a lot happier in myself these days than I was at the end of my tenure with games design. I was there for fourteen years, and it was definitely the right time to move on.

Going freelance full-time was the most terrifying and exciting thing I have ever done, including when I first moved up to Nottingham to work for GW. The whole Design Studio is a sort of safety net – regular wage, whole editorial teams to back you up, and a process that binds everything together. Going it alone meant leaving the creative and financial safety net behind, but this was tempered by the notion that I could do anything I wanted. There have been tough times – anyone who thinks you’ll get rich quick as an author is misguided – but I have weathered that and I’m now happy to say I feel much more secure about the future than I did a couple of years ago (not least due to finding a fantastic partner to help me along and some great friends – writing can be very trying and lonely if you don’t have support around you).

Shadowhawk: Which are your favourite Warhammer fantasy races and why? Similarly, which are your favourite armies for Warhammer 40,000 and why?

Gav: The Dwarfs are my favourite fantasy race. I started out with a Warhammer Empire army, back when they could have units of Dwarfs (as well as Ogres and all sorts of stuff). The number of dwarfs in my army kept increasing until I realised I really wanted to collect the short, beardy ones instead. I love every aspect of them – the imagery, both traditional and more outlandish like gyrocopters and slayers, the narrative, their playstyle. It all came together for me in a wonderful combination.

It probably is no surprise that the Eldar have been my 40K army of choice for a long time. I’ve mentioned again and again the impact that White Dwarf 127 had on me and I have never looked back. It’s the same reasons as the dwarfs – the look, feel and background all matches what I look for in 40K.

Runners up places in both universes go to the Orcs/ Orks. I dabbled with them for a while when ‘Waaargh the Orks! and ‘Ere We Go came out, but I’ve never collected them seriously (can you collect them ‘seriously’)? They are immensely characterful, and for such a crude and barbaric species there is actually a lot of depth and subtlety to their imagery and background.

Shadowhawk: The Raven’s Flight and Aenarion audio dramas, the Space Hulk novella, the Dwarf novels for Warhammer fantasy and the Angels of Darkness novel for Warhammer 40,000 are among some of your best known works, with most of them enjoying cult status as well. What is the experience like?

Gav: As I said before, it’s exceptionally rewarding for me to be able to splurge out the strangeness that goes on in my head and have other people enjoy it. Being a designer and a writer opens you up to criticism and that’s something I have got used to dealing with, but it also presents opportunity for praise and much-appreciated boosts to the ego. There is always some trepidation with every new release, and I would be concerned if I became so sure of myself I thought every word I wrote would be a sure-fire hit.

I can’t argue with the theory that lots of creative people are seeking validation from their audience, though you have to keep that in check. I delight in positive reviews but I am no longer crushed by bad reviews – everybody likes all sorts of different things for different reasons. I have to judge myself by my own standards at the end of everything and while there are always improvements to be made after something cannot be worked on any longer, I have learnt from my experience in the studio to move on to the next project without regrets.

Shadowhawk: You recently made a full transition to the Horus Heresy team with your Raven Guard novel Deliverance Lost and the Lion El’Jonson novella The Lion in The Primarchs anthology. What is the draw of the Horus Heresy-era compared to the more contemporary M41?

Gav: Can I say the sale figures? They are very compelling!

Away from my mortgage payments and food bills, there are two big reasons why I enjoy the HH material. The first is the chance to make huge statements about the nature of the 40K universe, the Imperium in particular, and why they are the way they are. These stories take place at the birth of the setting and even small things can make profound changes to the way readers view the universe of the 41st millennium they thought they knew. It’s a massive playground, a chance to juxtapose the hopelessness and superstition of 40K with the progressive and enlightened place it used to be.

The second appeal is Primarchs. On a basic level they are super heroes and give writers a chance to just write some damned cool stuff – smashing up tanks, hewing down swathes of foes with a single blow, and all kinds of hi-jinks. Like the best super heroes, though, they have depth and weakness too – not the physical kinds we all share but weakness of spirit and personality. The interaction of the Primarchs with each other and their universe, in a time when demi-gods really did bestride the galaxy like colossi, is the central theme of the whole series; a mythical time now forever lost due to greed, selfishness and the corruption of Chaos.

Shadowhawk: What can we look forward to for the Horus Heresy in terms of your future work?

Gav: In order of upcoming projects – can’t say yet and genuinely don’t know after that. There are threads with both the Dark Angels and Raven Guard (and the Raven Guard’s allies the Therions) that I would like to pick up again, but we are also moving into a period of the narrative that is empty as far as established background is concerned so all bets are off as to what might happen next.

In literal terms, I think the next thing you’ll see, I think, is a prose version of Raven’s Flight in Shadows of Treachery (though wait for any official announcements…) This is not just a transcription of the audio, there are actually a few extra scenes that were edited out due to length, which add a bit more context to what is happened both with the Raven Guard and back at Deliverance.

Shadowhawk: You have written two limited edition novellas, The Bloody Handed which features Dark Elves and Catechism of Hate which features Ultramarines Chaplain Cassius.

Gav: For The Bloody-handed I knew that there would not be room in the main trilogy to take a deeper look at Hellebron and her origins, and I figured that it would be of considerable interest to Warhammer fans. A novella-length piece seemed perfect to explore how the seeds were sown for the later emnity between Hellebron and Morathi, and I had the idea that Hellebron sought to equal the queen of whom she was jealous through the power of Khaine.

With regards to Catechism of Hate, I had been toying around with some ideas for a Chaplain-themed story. When Christian asked if I wanted to write a Space Marine Battles novella it seemed to fit. It was an opportunity to explore how authority within a Chapter works; an arrangement of mutual respect, seniority and personality far more complicated than the paper organisation. Cassius was the ideal character to show why it is that the Space Marines consider one of their greatest weapons to be righteous hatred.

Shadowhawk: In all your years working for Games Workshop and Black Library, which is your favourite rulebook (in terms of rules and lore) and your favourite novel?

Gav: Favourite rulebook is Inquisitor, both for lore and imagery. It’s one of those projects I mentioned earlier that was very exciting at the time, though sort of peripheral to the main 40K story. Since then the idea of Radicals and Puritans, characters like Eisenhorn, and the general theme of the Inquisition have become much more prevalent outside of the narrow context of a 54mm skirmish game. From subtle beginnings the implications to the background have rippled out in a very pleasing way.

Picking a novel is much harder. From a purely technique and narrative viewpoint I would say my ‘best’ has been Shadow King. It’s the complete package and I’m really proud of the finished article. As for favourite, I still have a big soft spot for 13th Legion, or perhaps Kill Team. There is a sort of purity in the storytelling and the simple interaction of a cast of interesting characters that I would like to recapture, even if some of the actual language and structure shows my inexperience at the time. The same could be said for my Slaves to Darkness trilogy. I suppose I was a bit more innocent in my writerly ways back then, and maybe it is just rose-tinted spectacles.

Shadowhawk: Your third Eldar Path novel, Path of the Outcast, comes out later this year. What can we expect from the conclusion of the trilogy and from the Ranger Aradryan?

Gav: Answers to why the Imperium is so pissed off at Alaitoc, for a start. The theme of the book is to get away from the craftworld to have a look at other eldar cultures. I was able to bring in rangers, harlequins, dark eldar and pirates, as well as some totally new concepts that suit a novel better than a tabletop wargame. It shows what can happen to the eldar mind when allowed to go off the rails, away from the strictures of the Path. It isn’t pretty but it is entertaining.

Shadowhawk: Your three Time of Legends novels are being collected together in an omnibus edition later this year. How has it been working on this series and what kind of bonus material can we expect in the omnibus?

Gav: Not sure yet. There was a short in the BLLive! Chapbook called The Dark Path that I expect will be included. I think it might be too soon for The Bloody-handed to get a reprint, I’m not sure. I guess there might be a couple of others bits and pieces but I haven’t heard anything finalised.

Shadowhawk: You have written outside of Black Library as well over the years, particularly your on-going Ullsaard trilogy for Angry Robot Books. How would you introduce fans of your Black Library work to this trilogy?

Gav: There are similarities with my BL work in that it does tend towards the military fantasy subsection of the genre, but apart from that it’s totally different. Well, I suppose it does pick up on themes I’ve explored in 40K and Warhammer too – the nature of loyalty and ambition, the balance between enlightened self-interest and external threat. It certainly deals with the law of unintended consequences.

The setting is more a sword-and-sandals bronze age world, and the main character Ullsaard is a general in the army of an all-conquering empire. He gets drawn into the politics of the king’s succession and from there is pitched into a series of events that turn his beliefs and the empire upside down.

The tone is different to my BL output. There is a lot of swearing, some sexy scenes and in general the prose is more stark, the narrative pushing along quickly rather than stopping to describe the smell of the roses.

Also there are giant cats and dinosaurs.

The three books run consecutively without much catch-up, so it is advisable to start at the beginning with book one The Crown of the Blood and take it from there. Judging by most the reviews, although they are quite thick books (around 130,000 words compare to most BL novels being about 100,000) people have been tearing through them quite quickly.

Shadowhawk: The third novel in the trilogy, The Crown of the Usurper, comes out in August. What can we expect from the novel and from Ullsaard?

Gav: It’s really hard to say without giving away too many spoilers for the earlier books. For those that have read the first two, I would say that there is a lot more from the Brotherhood and the sinister Temple priests, Ullsaard finds himself on the back foot again and he really is in dire straits, and a certain slimy, treacherous character finally gets what he deserves, though probably not in the way people are expecting.

Shadowhawk: How different is it writing original fiction compared to tie-in fiction. Any particular challenges you would like to mention?

Gav: I would say that they are 95% the same. Most of the work – characters, plotting, evoking the setting, getting the dialogue right and everything – is the same whether the world is shared or not. Although there is a lot of material for 40K and Warhammer, most of it is on a scale of the battlefield, and all of the narrative elements and detail needed to make a short story or novel work still need to be created within the context of that tale.

I suppose the biggest difference is that with tie-in fiction a lot of the boundaries and themes were established by others, whereas as a writer you have to establish those boundaries and themes. When it comes to writing the piece the same rules apply about creating a sense of verisimilitude regardless of the details of the setting. Internal consistency presides over whatever logic and ‘rules’ exist within the setting.

Shadowhawk: Your work for Black Library is always very thoughtful and nuanced whether it is writing for Warhammer 40,000 or Warhammer Fantasy. How do you prepare to go so deep into your protagonists and your characters and the settings themselves?

Gav: That’s one of the secrets of being a writer, isn’t it? It takes a while to get into a character’s head – a few thousand words at least, sometimes as much as a quarter of a novel – but once you are there the character will take over and it becomes natural. Where this can cause problems is if, whilst planning the book or writing the synopsis, you come up with a storyline that later doesn’t seem to suit the character’s personality or their mood at the time. You get a conflict between the character portrayal and the plot. In this situation, character should always win. Rework the plot to get to the same end result but in a manner that better suits the character.

Shadowhawk: How do you get yourself into the writing mood? Any particular music you listen to?

Gav: I sometimes have to do a lot of pacing or go to a drive if I have to do a think through of a scene or sequence, working over what is going to happen, visualising the setting and any action, and coming up with lines of dialogue. When I’m ready I’ll set to at the keyboard and let the words flow.

My music playlist for writing is mostly classical and soundtracks – I can’t have tracks with a lyric otherwise words work their way into my writing where they aren’t not welcome. Wagner, Hans Zimmer, Ramin Djawadi, Tyler Bates, Howard Shore, all kinds of stuff. I’ve had some very cool times where the soundtrack and the scene have come together, and it becomes part of the story for me.

Shadowhawk: Black Library Live! 2012 just passed a few weeks ago. How was the experience for you interacting with all the fans?

Gav: I have a great time at BLLive! and I’m really looking forwards to the Weekender and the BL Expo in Canada. The seminars always bring up interesting questions, and its fun to hang out with regular attendees and the other authors and artists in the BL stable.

Shadowhawk: What is your favourite format to write in – novels, short stories, novellas or audio dramas?

Gav: Love them all – each is its own challenge. Tricky word lengths are novellas – 30,000 words – and short stories less than 5,000 words. Getting a narrative that fits nicely into those lengths can be tricky. Really looking forward to doing some more script-related work, particularly audio.

Shadowhawk: In an all-out deathmatch between all your leading characters, who would you be rooting for to win?

Gav: Kage, every time. And if he can get the jump on the others, he would probably win…

Shadowhawk: In all your years of writing, what has been the biggest highlight(s) for you?

Gav: First story, first novel, first non-BL novel. Having the no.1 selling audio book in the UK with Raven’s Flight.

Shadowhawk: Any plans to delve into the world of self-publishing?

Gav: Not unless I have to… Have thought about making some short stories available, but I have a bunch of other things to do first, including a complete relaunch of my website and a thorough shake-down of my online presence.

Self-pub is good for some folks, but I work well with both my editorial teams and they make me better as a writer. I’m not yet convinced that the old dinosaurs of publishing are quite extinct yet – editorial, marketing and advances are all very nice things to have as an author.

Shadowhawk: How do you see the publishing industry in the next few years given the on-going changes with regards self-publishing and eBooks?

Gav: Top-tier publishing – the celebrity memoirs, the cookbooks and SAS thrillers – will be much the same. The mid-list publishers are the ones that are moving with the times, but in times of change always people think the world will turn upside but when everything had shaken through though the delivery changes the content is still what is important. Business models will alter, and the media changes but stories are stories no matter what.

Shadowhawk: Anything else you’d like to share with our readers?

Gav: Really glad the Rock beat Cena at Wrestlemania 28, though equally surprised.

*****

Well, that’s all what we got for you this time around. The year is certainly full of a lot of awesomeness from High-Thane Thorpe. The Primarchs will be released in June. Crown of the Usurper comes out in July/August. Path of the Outcast comes out in September. Shadows of Treachery and The Sundering will both be in October. And then he is starting 2013 with a bang as the first of his Dark Angels series, The Legacy of Caliban, comes out, titled Ravenwing.

Stay tuned to the blog in the coming months. We just might delve into the mysteries of the former First Legion and its successors with High-Thane Thorpe once again and find out just what makes them tick.

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