Well after that really long break in between, we have another author interview for you guys ready to go. Today we are chatting with Rob Sanders, one of the best and brightest of the authors currently writing for Black Library as he explains his writing process and his thoughts about the Warhammer 40,000 setting. Rob Sanders has had success after success since he started writing in the war-torn galaxy of the far future and the future also looks bright for him as well. Especially since his two recent releases, the Space Marine Battles novel Legion of the Damned and his novella The Serpent Beneath in The Primarchs anthology have taken off at full speed. So let’s see what he has to say.
Rob: I’ve always wanted to be a writer. I’ve always written – even as a kid. My career as a teacher has been very demanding in terms of time and, in the past, its deadline-orientated approach has tended to edge out more speculative ventures like writing. I grew in confidence, however, and over time came to the realisation that I could and wanted to be an author. I entered several writing competitions at this stage. The first was a national short story writing competition for the BBC called End of Story in which I had to write the second half of a short story written by bestselling crime author Ian Rankin. The competition was huge, generating over 17,000 entries. My entry reached the top six and I featured on the television series that followed the competition.
The second competition was for Literary Agent Peter Cox of the Redhammer Management. Peter is famous for securing Michelle Paver a £2.8 million publishing deal for ‘Wolf Brother’, the first book in the bestselling Chronicles of Ancient Darkness series. I had to write a short story for the contest and once again competition was fierce. I’m glad to say that I won the competition and that Peter was kind enough to give my story a thirty minute critique on his ‘Litopia’ daily publishing podcast.
In terms of Black Library, I had always been a fan of the background and decided to send a Warhammer story in for consideration. I was picked up off the slush pile by Christian Dunn and published in Inferno! Magazine before securing my first novel contract – a Warhammer 40K novel called ‘Redemption Corps’. The rest, as they say, is history!
Rob: I love the setting and I always have. I’m a big fan of shades of grey. I’m not so enamoured of fictional settings where good and evil or right and wrong are plainly distinguished for the readers or the audience. I love that humanity (the race that we understandably root for in much of the literature) is at best tyrannical, superstitious and violent – and at worst both spiritually and physically polluted. It’s not that I enjoy those perspectives: it’s that I revel in the complex and contradictory nature of our species as it’s presented. In many ways I think it’s a brave, honest and probably accurate depiction of the human race, if you compare it to what you read in the history books.
Shadowhawk: Your first work for Black Library was the storm trooper novel Redemption Corps. How did the idea come about?
Rob: As usual, I wanted to do something different. For a writer this inclination is both boon and curse. The literature of any genre or sub-genre would simply stagnate without those authors that push the boundaries and approach the subject matter in daring and original ways. Doing something different is therefore a good and necessary thing. On the other hand, some readers are happy with the existing structures. Doing something different for those readers is problematic because anything other than the exact experience they are trying to reproduce with their favourite book is going to disappoint on some level. It’s tricky for authors to negotiate these contradictory requirements.
Up to the publication of Redemption Corps, Storm Troopers had received very little attention in the literature, which puzzled me. I appreciate the idea of exploring the plight of the average Imperial Guardsman and I think that Mitchel Scanlon does a great job of this in 15 Hours. The plot for Redemption Corps necessitated specialised, air-mobile Guardsmen and I really liked the idea of exploring the deployment of a ‘special forces’ troop-type that moved swiftly from warzone to warzone. One of the most rewarding elements to focussing on Storm Troopers was the fact that Guardsmen in a single unit could be drawn from a myriad of different worlds and cultures. This made for a cast of characters that were colourful and different. It created great opportunities for dialogue and conflict and helped to avoid a kind of similar-soldier syndrome where all the protagonists in a unit appear and act the same. Working with Storm Troopers also gave me great opportunities to explore related organisations like the commissariat and the Imperial Navy. So the ‘Redemption Corps’ and connected characters themselves worked very well in this regard.
Shadowhawk: Novels that focus on storm troopers are quite rare in BL fiction and they are usually relegated to the side-lines. Given how popular Redemption Corps has been, any chances of a sequel in the works?
Rob: I would love to write a sequel to Redemption Corps. Major Zane Mortensen is a great character to write for and storm troopers afford a writer a wealth of potential storylines and fictional scenarios. Also, despite wrapping events up neatly at the end of the novel, I left the galaxy in a bit of a tight spot at the end of Redemption Corps and I should really revisit that. There are two factors to be considered when weighing up a sequel. The first is that Redemption Corps is part of the Imperial Guard series and none of those books – well-loved that they are by readers – have sequels. The second consideration is that I have so many great projects in the works at the moment with Black Library that Major Mortensen is having to be a little patient (not his strong suit!)
Shadowhawk: Inquisitor Czevak is a old and persistent character from the lore in the various armybooks over the years. What made you decide to write about this unorthodox and itinerant Inquisitor?
Rob: I think you’ve hit the nail on the head. He’s unorthodox and seemingly everywhere. The background information makes reference to him in lots of different places. He seems extremely knowledgeable on a range of galactic topics, is involved in some pretty major events – like the 13th Black Crusade – and seems important enough to justify the attention of some of the setting’s big players, like Ahriman of the Thousand Sons. I was surprised to find that no author had touched upon Czevak before Atlas Infernal. There is an argument for more Inquisitors in the setting being like Valentin Malchankov from the novel – bloodthirsty, monodominant puritans who are more typical of the organisation. Not every Inquisitor can be an Eisenhorn, Ravenor or Czevak. Czevak was already an established part of the background, however, and so his unorthodoxy was part of the existing setting.
As a writer I also like a challenge. In the same way Dan Abnett set himself a difficult task in making Eisenhorn a first person perspective, I had the volunteered difficulty of weaving a plot that was simultaneously original and justifiably complex (the traps laid for the Inquisitor by Ahriman are realistically labyrinthine, convoluted and appropriately Tzeentchian) while at the same time needing to include Czevak’s background and earlier adventures documented in the background material. That is a big task. I like to think that I pulled it off but ultimately Inquisition novels like Atlas Infernal and Eisenhorn aren’t necessarily for everyone. If you like your action straightforward and your plotting simple then a galaxy-spanning Inquisitorial saga is probably not for you. Luckily, I get to write novels for all kinds of tastes and preferences under the Black Library banner. That’s one of the great things about the Warhammer 40k setting. There is something for everyone.
Shadowhawk: Atlas Infernal, focuses heavily on Czevak and is literally a fast-paced romp through pretty much the entirety of the setting as dozens of factions make an appearance. How was it writing this novel?
Rob: The honest answer to this question is loads of fun while simultaneously being mind-bendingly difficult. Those can turn out to be some of the most rewarding projects, however. In respect to the multitude of different factions that make an appearance, you are not the first to mention this. I never intended to include such a myriad of groups and troop-types from the background. Of course, I don’t advocate shoe-horning factions in for the fun of it but if you look closely at Atlas Infernal then you come to realise that each group is present as part of the plot requirement. Inquisitor Czevak’s background (even from the old codexes) involves him with a myriad of xenos, Imperial and Chaos factions. Inquisitorial novels by their nature tend to reveal more of the 40k universe than perhaps Space Marine fiction does. They are investigative as opposed to battle-centred. Ultimately I think that it is rewarding for fans to see both mainstream and peripheral factions feature in Warhammer 40k literature. There is a satisfactory neatness to tying details together that gives readers the sense of a complete and realistic setting. Beyond that, it’s just fun to get the toys out of the toy box and play!
Shadowhawk: What’s next for Czevak after the events of Atlas Infernal? What of all of his companions?
Rob: Czevak appears in Necessary Evil, a short story that appeared in last year’s Black Library Live! Chapbook. It was well received and I have hopes that it might become available as either an ebook or as part of Hammer and Bolter. In terms of future novel releases, I’m not done with Czevak yet. It simply depends upon scheduling and I’m pretty chock-a-block at the moment. His continuing story – and that of his companions – is something that I think needs exploring. There is very little like Atlas Infernal in terms of style and scope in the Black Library back catalogue and I think that it’s part of the Warhammer 40k universe that it would be rewarding to delve into deeper.
Shadowhawk: Your third and latest novel, Legion of the Damned, is in my opinion your best work yet and sets a really high bar for 40k excellence. What made you decide to pick the Excoriators and the Legion of the Damned?
Rob: Thanks for saying so. I’m really glad that it made that impression. When first considering potential areas for a Space Marine Battles novel, I examined a range of conflicts and engagements referenced in the background material. The ‘Legion of the Damned’ caught my eye and impressed upon me an opportunity to do something different. Rather than look at a battle already described in a codex, I decided that I wanted to explore the phenomenon of the ‘Legion of the Damned’. Fans have been fascinated by the Legion of the Damned for many years and I thought that they deserved some time on the page. I discovered that there were several engagements at which the Legion were present, identified in the background material and I selected Certus-Minor as one about which there was little written. This gave me freedom to explore the phenomenon in its entirety.
Space Marine Battles books are a lot of fun to write. They do come with certain limitations, however. In the same way that earlier books in the series faithfully dramatise famous battles from the background, Legion of the Damned dramatises the mysterious circumstances under which the Legion of the Damned intervene and the nature of that intervention. I can no more change the mystery of the Legion of the Damned than previous authors can alter the outcomes of the background battles they are dramatising. This led to my choosing the Excoriators Chapter as the Space Marines who require, at their direst moment of need, the supernatural intervention of the Legion of the Damned. The Excoriators were the natural choices in terms of narrative point of view but I didn’t want them to function as helpless victims and so their story – and specifically that of Zachariah ‘The Scourge’ Kersh – is tied to that of the Legion all the way through the book. It shouldn’t surprise the reader that, despite the Legion of the Damned’s involvement with Kersh throughout, they intrude at the very last moment to save the day. Readers aren’t surprised to find that the ends of other Space Marines Battles books reflect the background upon which they are based and it shouldn’t surprise them that Legion of the Damned conforms to the nature of the Legion of the Damned background. Any treatment of the Legion must reflect their rule-set in the Warhammer 40k game. Any other form of representation would have been a betrayal of everything readers and gamers know of the mysterious Legion.
It would, of course, have been cool to ‘ride along’ with the Legion of the Damned or make them focus characters with the narrative perspective – doing away with the need for the Excoriators. I considered this and discussed it with my editors but everyone agreed that, where the Legion of the Damned were concerned, less is almost certainly more and the greater the exposure to the inner workings of a mystery, the less mysterious and engaging it becomes. It would have been wrong for me to ruin that mystery for gamers, future authors who wish to include the Legion and readers who wish to enjoy them in accordance with their true nature and background. That said, I certainly intend to return to the phenomenon of the Legion of the Damned in the future.
Shadowhawk: Legion of the Damned is a really tight narrative that really gets into the culture of the Excoriators and in the mind of the protagonist, Zachariah Kersh. How was the writing experience for this novel compared to Atlas Infernal?
Rob: The experience was a good deal more direct. Readers should demand more from authors who don’t stretch themselves or who simply deliver the same product and approach each time just with a different title and cover each time. If Atlas Infernal is wandering through a twisted labyrinth then Legion of the Damned is a blood-drenched and gruelling marathon in which Zachariah Kersh and his Excoriators go blade to blade with some of the galaxy’s greatest warriors – the World Eaters Chaos Space Marines. Both were intense to write and both were enjoyable – just in different ways.
Shadowhawk: You have also written for the Horus Heresy series, with an Iron Warriors short story in the Age of Darkness anthology and the novella The Serpent Beneath in The Primarchs anthology. How has that experience been for you, especially since you have written completely different legions so far?
Rob: I relish the challenge of writing for Legions with different martial cultures and allegiances. I’d like to write for all the legions! Both the Iron Warriors and the Alpha Legion have their own personality – largely derived from their respective Primarchs – their own chequered histories and, uniquely for the setting, their own dark futures. The experience was similar for both. I knew that I had to zero in on the aspect of each legion that defined them in the background. I felt that for the Iron Warriors a siege was absolutely essential. Horus Heresy readers have seen little of IVth Legion and so I thought that a story featuring them needed to explore the nature of fortification – from both the perspective of those assaulting and those defending. For the Alpha Legion I wanted to write a novella that captured the essence of infiltration and subterfuge, the hallmarks of their flexible form of warfare. I wanted to follow a mission from beginning to end – demonstrating a range of different Alpha legion skills and strategies. I thoroughly enjoyed writing for both legions and would love to return to them in the future.
Shadowhawk: The Alpha Legion are becoming somewhat of your speciality as they have featured in three very different stories from you and in three different formats too. What’s the draw of the Twentieth Legion?
Rob: My favourite legion tends to be the one I’m working on at the time. It’s fair to say that I have a soft spot for the Alpha Legion – both as antiheroes and villains. In many ways I consider them the cleverest and most capable of all the legions. Their broad tactical range – from deception, use of cultists/specialised operatives and mobile, fluid combat – mean that they are incredible fun to employ in a narrative. If I was a Space Marine – I’d want to be an Alpha Legionnaire: after all, they think for themselves!
Shadowhawk: Can we expect a novel about these unpredictable and extremely devious warriors sometime in the near future?
Rob: Black Library have me working on a myriad of brilliant projects at the moment. I’d be lying if I claimed that the Alpha Legion weren’t in my creative crosshairs.
Shadowhawk: What is it that really attracts you to Space Marines? And if you had to pick a different chapter/warband/legion for your next novel, who would you pick?
Rob: I’m actually working on a number already but for the sake of argument (the one I’d have with my editor if I stated which ones) I’ll leave them out of this. My natural inclinations lean towards the unexplored – as exemplified by my choice of both the Legion of the Damned and the Excoriators in Legion of the Damned. If there is a legion or chapter that is being dealt with in a big way by another author then my instincts are to go in a different direction. I’d like to think, however, that a legion/chapter could be selected at random and I’d still be able to craft an engaging and exciting story about or involving them. Everyone loves Space Marines and so much material about them already exists that I tended to lend my interest to factions like the Imperial Guard, the Sisters of Battle and the Inquisition. Space Marines got me in the end, however. They are superhuman. They are demigods. They hold the same fascination as the heroes of ancient myth – they are simultaneously more than human but all too human. They have human flaws and failings but abilities that take them beyond ordinary human experience. It is no surprise that thousands of years later we are still enthralled by the same types of characters.
Rob: Good question. I’m not sure that it is so much getting into the characters as the characters getting out of me. Characters, with both their positive and negative traits, are all facets of the author’s personality. They might be extreme facets of that personality – especially in the case of the evil perpetrated by fictional villains – but they are aspects all the same. When audiences watch horror films, the camera angle often moves between hero or victim and villain. The audience enjoys both perspectives. Authors have to anticipate that in many ways and be those perspectives. Writing is intensely personal in this way, with the reader viewing the fictional world of a novel very much through the author’s eyes. If you believe that an author is good at getting into the minds of different protagonists – and I’m jazzed that you think that of me – then it’s likely to be that the author is generally insightful about people. Although I’m not sure my wife would agree in my case!
Shadowhawk: You are a teacher by day. Does that on-going experience translate into your works in any way?
Rob: I’m a Head of English at a secondary school so from a technical point of view I’d like to think that helps with my written expression and accuracy – but you’d have to ask my copy editors about that! I have a First in English Literature and History and my passion for my degree studies certainly feels similar to the intense engagement with my creative projects. My experience of both studying and teaching literature probably translates to me pushing the boundaries a little more in my BL fiction. I like to experiment with structure and this can sometimes come across as unusual to some readers. Just because I am writing action-orientated fiction doesn’t mean that I can’t be ambitious with structural elements. Science Fiction is one of the great homes of literary experimentation and I’m proud to be part of that tradition.
The most significant way that teaching impacts upon my writing is that it competes with writing for my attention. I have to be professional in both situations and this can sometimes mean one pursuit dominating at the cost of the other. This is why I’ve actively sought to reduce my teaching commitment in order to spend much more time on my writing. I see myself as a full time author in the future rather than a teacher. It’s an exciting time for me in that respect.
Shadowhawk: With all the work you have done so far for the grim darkness of the future, any plans to write in the bloody age of daemons and sorcery populated by space frogs?
Rob: Absolutely. My first fiction for Black Library was set in the Warhammer universe and I really enjoyed the experience. I have some Warhammer projects on my writing schedule for Black Library but unfortunately can’t go into them just yet. They’re just too damn cool and have yet to be announced. In terms of my Warhammer inspirations, I think that people forget how great the very early Warhammer novels and short stories were. William King, David Ferring and Brian Craig did some fantastic work – but my favourite author from that period has to be Jack Yeovil (Kim Newman). His The Ignorant Armies is just brilliant.
Shadowhawk: What is your current writing project and what you are looking forward to this year?
Rob: I’m looking at my writing schedule for Black Library right now. I don’t mean to tease or be a jerk about the question but the project I am working on right now and a significant number of the ones that immediately follow are so hush, hush and on the QT that I simply can’t tell you what they are. It is a testament to how cool both these future projects are and how excited I am about them that I won’t jeopardise their impact by even hinting about them. Sorry!
Rob: Black Library Live! was an excellent experience. It is such a great opportunity to meet the readers of Black Library books and enthusiasts for the background. I had a very busy day, moving from signings to seminars and was fortunate enough to spend time with some great people relaxing in the bar afterwards. I think that it is relatively unusual for authors to partake in such events and so good on Black Library for organising them and good on the readers for making them such a success. I look forward to Black Library Live! every year and am excited about the prospect of the Black Library Weekender in November. See you there!
Shadowhawk: Thanks for the drink at the bar and for that interesting non-GW discussion in the evening! It was most excellent.
Rob: I am incredibly impressed that you flew in from so far afield. Any person that traverses continents to honour their commitment to literature deserves a libation or two!
Shadowhawk: How do you prepare to sit down to write? Any music or other such aids that you use to get you in the mood?
Rob: I am not a musical person – I can’t play any instrument and I get my ass handed to me on the Lips console game. I do appreciate the art of others. I have eclectic musical tastes and use music to inspire me and get me in the right mindset for specific projects. I heavily rely upon movie soundtracks for this. There’s a good reason why I think they work so well for this. I’ve read that in nature when animals eat meat it can be good for building muscle in their own bodies. This has something to do with complex proteins already existing in meat that are chemically easy to transfer. I don’t know if it’s true, but I read it somewhere and it serves this analogy well. Movie soundtracks already have the representation of complex emotions and movements written into them. In this way, they are easy to transfer and serve to inspire visualised tableaus and interactions that can become part of a fiction project. This can work with other forms of music. I was writing about the Death Guard the other day and had Johnny Cash’s ‘The Man Comes Around’ on. It was perfect in terms of tone and content for the material I was writing.
Shadowhawk: In an all-out deathmatch between all your leading characters, who would you be rooting for to win?
Rob: Yeah, tough one. They’re all badasses in their own way. Zane Mortensen is a tough son of a bitch and Bronislaw Czevak a genius. Ultimately they are both only human. Barabas Dantioch and Zachariah Kersh are much more than human and have skill with both battlement and blade, respectively. Of all my leading characters, Omegon from The Serpent Beneath has all of the qualities identified above. Being a Primarch he has skill, intelligence and physical prowess to rely upon. Being Alpha Legion, he is able to use his enemy’s weaknesses against them and has at his command not only a cunning and battle-hardened legion of Legiones Astartes but also a myriad of operatives, cultists and allies that even unknowingly support his aims. There is little the others – tough as they are in their different ways – could do to match Omegon.
Shadowhawk: Any audio dramas we can look forward to from you for this year?
Rob: Not for this year but I will be doing some audio dramas in the near future. In the meantime fans of the format can enjoy Jonathan Keeble reading The Iron Within from ‘Age of Darkness’ or Sean Barrett reading The Serpent Beneath on ‘The Primarchs’ unabridged audio – both available from Black Library.
Shadowhawk: Any original fiction you are working on and have worked on in the past?
Rob: For a little while now I’ve been working on several original projects – some of which predate my work with Black Library. They move along slowly but steadily between my commitments to Black Library and my day job. One of these is a crime novel that I’ve been working on that has just the right blend of familiarity and originality that I hope will make crime readers very happy. I look along the crime shelves and see a lot of the same. The trick I think is to give readers enough of what they’re used to at the same time as getting them excited about a new approach to it. I’m encouraged by my success in the End of Story competition so I’m really hopeful about the project’s prospects. It is far from finished, however, and Black Library is more than keeping me busy and productive with my first literary love – fantastic science fiction and fantasy projects.
Shadowhawk: What has been the biggest highlight for you so far while working with Black Library and its editors and staff and the fans?
Rob: Working for Black Library is one big highlight. It is a real honour for me working with the editors and staff – all of whom selflessly work to make the BL authors look good. The Black Library fans really make writing for the genre a treat. I am always impressed with their passion and commitment for the setting, background and the fiction that furnishes the Warhammer universes. In terms of highlights, I have selected three. My first is receiving my first short story commission from Christian Dunn for Inferno! Magazine. That was a really special moment for me and I truly felt – to quote Star Wars – that I’d taken my first steps into a larger world. This year’s Black Library Live! would have to be my second: everything was perfect about that day and if I had to choose a day to re-live over and over a la ‘Groundhog Day’ then it would be that one. My third highlight is so cool and recent that I can’t tell anyone about it, so for now I’ll simply have to revel in its coolness on my own.
Rob: I’m a regular blogger. Naturally a good amount of what I blog about is project-oriented and features announcements and reviews of my word. I try to keep my subject matter broad, however, blogging about a range of different topics concerning writing, literature, film, television, video games and the science fiction and fantasy genres. Readers are encouraged to check it out at http://rob-sanders.blogspot.co.uk/ They can get regular blog updates by following me on Twitter at RobSandersspfic or clicking Like on my Author page on Facebook. They are of course welcome to do so because the more the merrier!
I would also like to mention a big thank you to Shadowhawk for asking me to do this interview. He also deserves a big thank you for his patience. Exam season at school put everything on hold for a while there and he was wonderfully gracious in waiting for my responses to his interview questions – so thank you Shadowhawk!
Thanks for the shoutout, Rob, and wish you the best of luck with future projects that we are all dying to hear about. Keep writing!
There are no other interviews scheduled as yet but I should be hearing back from one author in particular fairly soon. More info as I get it!