Author Interview – James Swallow

The author interview for today is with one of my top favourite authors currently writing for Black Library – James Swallow. His work and I have had tumultuous relationship over the years and lately it has gotten stronger and stronger because whenever I read any of his novels or audio dramas of late, I continue to be impressed. He is one of the most prolific authors, in terms of both output and diversity, I know and certainly one of the most consistent in recent years.

Jim is also one of the few authors writing for Black Library who have been featured on the New York Times Bestsellers List, for his Horus Heresy novel Nemesis, a story about assassins and their mission to kill the Warmaster Horus. His upcoming novel Fear To Tread, another Horus Heresy story, has already generated a lot of positive buzz given that it features the Blood Angels Legion and their angelic Primarch Sanguinius himself, both of which he has a lot of experience with, the former more so. Let’s see what Scribe Award winner has to say about his work.

Shadowhawk: For those unfamiliar with the wide variety of work, spanning as it does so many different formats and universes, could you give us a quick run-down?

Jim: Basically, I’m a writer of stuff.

I’ve written over thirty novels, dozens of scripts and short stories. I’ve worked on television, audio and videogames projects. Some of my writing is original fiction, like my Sundowners novels, but a lot of it is tie-in stuff – stories from the worlds of Star Trek, Doctor Who, Stargate, 2000AD and of course Warhammer 40,000.

Shadowhawk: How did you get started with your writing career and what has the journey been like after so many years?

Jim: I started writing seriously in my teens; I wrote articles for fanzines and eventually, I made the jump to getting paid for writing articles for pro magazine markets. That in turn led me to writing prose fiction and scripts. I quit my day job in 1997 to write full time and I’ve never looked back.

I guess I got started when I was a kid; I loved writing stories and reading, and I always wanted to be a writer in some capacity (at least, after I realized that ‘astronaut’ and ‘international assassin’ would be the harder career choices). I’m still doing it because I like to think I’m good at it, because people keep asking me to – but mostly because I love it.

It’s been a long, strange trip, and not without its rocks and shoals, but I wouldn’t give it up for anything. After all this time, I’m still thrilled that I get to make stuff up for a living.

Shadowhawk: How did you get started with Black Library and what was your first project?

Jim: My “audition pieces” were a couple of short stories for BL’s now-defunct Inferno! magazine – the first was a Doom Eagles/Flesh Tearers tale (‘Crimson Night’) and the second about the crew of an Imperial Marauder bomber (‘Wings of Bone’). They liked my writing style and they thought I had a good grasp on the universe of Warhammer 40,000, so they offered me the chance to write a full-length novel.

My first BL books were the Blood Angels duology Deus Encarmine and Deus Sanguinius. I wanted to write the Blood Angels because I was fascinated by their dual natures – noble heroes with this terrible dark side to them. I pitched two ideas at first; one was a regular sort of “marines on a planet fight chaos” story and the other was this big widescreen epic about the second coming of Sanguinius and a civil war in the chapter. I didn’t think they’d go for the big story out of the gate, but Lindsey Priestly immediately asked for it!

Shadowhawk: Your work includes Space Marines in both M41 and M31, Sisters of Battle, Assassins and more. What is your inspiration behind the stories for these different factions and what keeps you going?

Jim: A lot of the initial inspiration for the BL stories comes from reading a codex or looking at the artwork and the figures. That’s certainly true of the Sisters of Battle and the Assassins; I wanted to write a Sororitas novel because the Sisters were a cool faction and because they had never had the spotlight to themselves in a story.

The Assassinorum are another great game faction and they were crying out to get some coverage. It’s a lot of fun to write Space Marines, of course, but the Warhammer universe is so vast and there are so many interesting groups and aspects in it.

Shadowhawk: Sergeant Rafen of the Blood Angels has had a tumultuous journey over the years, having been involved in some really important events in his chapter’s history. How did the character come about?

Jim: I wanted to write a hero who had somewhere to go, and something to lose. He’s grown into a complex, layered guy over the course of the novels and I’m really pleased with how he is evolving. At his core, Rafen allows me as a writer to explore the central themes of the Blood Angels – the questions of nobility and sacrifice, of brotherhood and secrets – he’s the Blood Angel everyman, the soldier who was in the wrong place at the right time…

Shadowhawk: What is the future for Rafen and his squad after the Second Blood Angels omnibus?

Jim: Rafen’s story is a long way from being over; I have many more tales to tell about him. The last time we saw Rafen, at the end of the chapbook Bloodline, he had almost died carrying the blood of his primarch back to Baal. In future stories, he’s going to find himself facing old enemies and new challenges that will test him to the limit. I’m also thinking about doing a flashback story to his younger years as a scout.

Shadowhawk: Sisters Miriya and Verity have shared some really trying experiences themselves. What was the inspiration behind these two?

Jim: It’s the classic buddy-movie pairing, two very different people working together toward a common goal. They both come from the same place, relatively speaking, but one is a hardened soldier and the other is a field medic, one outwardly strong and the other outwardly weak. They compliment each other’s skills and their personalities reflect off one another. In some ways, Miriya and Verity are two sides of the same coin.

Shadowhawk: With your second Sororitas novel only recently released, will we be seeing more of Miriya and Verity?

Jim: I certainly want to write more stories about them. I have a concept for a third novel kicking around, and I’ve also been thinking about bringing them back in another medium, maybe in an audio or a short story. I wrote a prequel story (Red & Black) showing a younger Miriya, and I like the idea of doing the same for Verity, showing her before the events of Faith & Fire.

Shadowhawk: Nathaniel Garro has taken on quite a life of his own through your audio dramas and more is on the horizon as recently announced. What has it been like to write a character who went from a nobody to being so popular among the fans?

Jim: I was discussing this very point this week with Toby Longworth, the voice actor who plays Garro in the audios. We both agreed that he’s really struck a chord with the Horus Heresy readership; he’s a “viewpoint” character like Loken, and through his eyes we can see the way the galactic civil war unfolds. But more than that, I think it is his noble bearing and innate heroism that the readers are attracted to. I feel like I’m just part of the group who brought Garro to life – with Toby giving him a voice, and artists like John Gravato and Neil Roberts giving him a face. I’m really please people have responded so strongly to him; I honestly didn’t expect to spin him off into his own stream of stories when I first wrote him in Flight of the Eisenstein. We have a plan for him; we know where he’s going, and how his story is going to play out – and it won’t be what you think.

Shadowhawk: What can we expect from Garro: Sword of Truth and its announced sequel?

Jim: Sword of Truth is a 2-hour tale, two CDs’ worth. Originally, my idea for the story was to make it a prose tale for a future Horus Heresy anthology, but BL wanted to make it an audio instead. Sword of Truth takes place between the audios Oath of Moment and Legion of One – it shows the introduction of the World Eater Macer Varren to Garro’s group. After that comes a half-hour story called Burden of Duty, where Garro will cross paths with Rogal Dorn and the Imperial Fists…and not on good terms.

Shadowhawk: What is the most challenging aspect of writing short stories and novels compared to doing audio dramas?

Jim: It’s all story when you get down to it, but I think what changes is the mechanism of the narrative. You have a different set of tools to tell your story depending on what medium you are writing for. Long-form fiction gives you a lot of control, whereas with an audio you lose a little of that, but you gain with the work of the actors, director, sound and music designer, etc. Short stories are different again, because you have to hit the ground running and get your ideas over quickly and cleanly – but then in a short story you can be a bit more experimental and try stuff that you perhaps couldn’t sustain for something of novel length. I like all the mediums for different reasons, and it’s interesting to write for each, to find the strengths and make them work for your story.

Shadowhawk: Speaking of audio dramas, you are quite prolific in that regard and your body of work consists of Stargate and Doctor Who audio dramas among others. How did you set upon this fork in the road?

Jim: I like radio as a way of telling stories. My first audio drama gig was writing Judge Dredd stories for the 2000AD audio series for Big Finish, and Doctor Who and Stargate grew out of that. I’ve also worked on stories based on Blake’s 7. All of it comes from enjoying radio dramas when I was younger (and I still do). When the chance came to write them myself, I jumped at it. Audio is a brilliant medium for storytelling, especially with science fiction, because you have the greatest special effects budget in the universe – the mind of your listener! Right at the start, I was the guy who pushed the idea of BL producing audios and initially there was a fair bit of resistance; but I’m really pleased to see that they are selling so well.

Shadowhawk: What are the challenges of writing for Stargate, Star Trek and 2000 AD compared to Warhammer 40,000?

Jim: As a tie-in writer, you’re essentially playing with someone else’s toys, so you can’t break them. Different fictional worlds are run in different ways – some licensors have little interest in tie-ins, and they’re indifferent to the whole process, while others are very invested in the project. Both approaches have their positives and negatives. Something like Stargate or Star Trek has a large cast of characters that are the focus of the franchise, whereas Warhammer has a strong fictional world at its heart. For the former you write stories about the characters, and in the latter you write stories set in that world. Working inside those constraints is a challenge. You have to work harder to tell a tale under these conditions, but that can be a spur to good story. Part of the challenge is to not only tell a tale that fits the texture of the fictional world you’re writing in, but also to bring your own unique authorial voice to bear.

Shadowhawk: You have written several Star Trek and Stargate novels. What can you tell us about them?

Jim: For Star Trek, I’ve written a number of books an short stories; Day of the Vipers is a prequel to the Deep Space Nine series about the Cardassian invasion of Bajor; Synthesis is set on Will Riker’s starship the USS Titan after the events of Star Trek: Nemesis, and features the Titan crew getting involved with a race of artificial intelligences; and my most recent Trek novel is Cast No Shadow, which is an espionage thriller featuring the Klingons, set after the events of Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country. I’ve also written for the Star Trek collections The Sky’s The Limit, Distant Shores, Shards and Shadows, Myriad Universes and Seven Deadly Sins. I’ve also got some plans for a few more Trek tales to come.

For Stargate, along with the four audio dramas I’ve done, I wrote four novels; Halcyon and Nightfall are Stargate Atlantis stories, Relativity is a Stargate SG-1 time-travel tale and Air is an expanded adaptation of the first three episodes of Stargate Universe.

Shadowhawk: Among all your Star Trek novels, which character(s) have you enjoyed writing the most? What about Stargate?

Jim: It’s tough to pick just one. Will Riker is one of my favourite Trek characters – but to be honest, I got a serious fanboy buzz when I wrote scenes for Kirk and Spock in Cast No Shadow! As for Stargate, Jack O’Neill is great to write for SG-1, the acerbic Rodney McKay in Atlantis and a toss-up between Nicholas Rush or Eli Wallace in Universe.

Shadowhawk: One of your most recent writing credits is the story for Deus Ex: Human Revolution as you were one of the writers on the team and also wrote a companion novel. How did you get started with the project?

Jim: Lucky for me, a friend turned down the job but suggested me instead; the DXHR team called me after seeing some of my writing and offered me the job; when I found out it was Deus Ex, one of my all-time favourite games, I almost offered to pay them to work on it. I came on in 2008 and wrote story, script and world-building stuff as part of the team over a four-year project cycle. At the end, we produced something I am fiercely proud to be a part of; I got a BAFTA nomination for my work on DXHR and we just recently won Best Writing at the Canadian Videogames Awards, which was very rewarding. I also worked on The Missing Link DLC pack for DXHR, and when Del Rey announced they wanted to publish a novel connected to the game, I was the best fit for the job with experience in both books and games writing.

Shadowhawk: You have written for several other video game franchises as well. What is the attraction for writing for this medium?

Jim: I love games, and it’s great to be involved with making them. I’ve been playing videogames pretty much since they were invented. It was something I’d wanted to get involved with for a while, and then in 1999 I hooked up with a company producing a Star Trek title to act as a consultant. Since then, I’ve been working on one or two games every year. My most recent project was a fantasy title for the Kinect called Fable: The Journey. I’m currently working on some other titles, but I can’t talk about them yet.

People ask what a “games writer” does, and that’s a big question. Some games have a lot of narrative in them, and a games writer’s job can be creating the world of the game, creating characters and factions, writing in-game dialogue, scripting cutscenes, writing text for in-game items (books, screens etc), localizing the translation of a foreign game script; designing quests and missions…and more. It’s an interesting job, and because it is so multi-faceted, it’s never dull.

Shadowhawk: What can you tells us about your Sundowners series and how would introduce fans of your BL fiction to this series and its characters?

Jim: It’s a steampunk western, written for a young adult audience but with enough action for older readers. The DNA of Sundowners is a mix of all my favourite western movies with a sci-fi/supernatural twist, plus a little Raiders of the Lost Ark and a dash of The X-Files. Set in the late 1880’s, over the course of the four books – Ghost Town, Underworld, Iron Dragon and Showdown – a gunslinger named Gabriel Tyler and a native American shaman called Jonathan Fivehawk find themselves working together to thwart the plans of Robur Drache, a ruthless rail baron who has come under the influence of something malevolent and alien. They’re a fast-paced, action-packed read.

Shadowhawk: You are a New York Bestsellers List author as well as a Scribe award winner. What were your thoughts when you found out both the honours?

Jim: Pretty awesome! It’s very rewarding to have the respect of the industry and the audience with this kind of praise; but at the same time it’s important not to lose sight of the realities of the biz and let something like this give you a swelled head! At the end of the day, you’re only as good as your next book, but my hope is that having these accolades means that my work will get exposure to a wider audience.

Shadowhawk: How is Fear To Tread progressing and could you share some tidbits from the novel?

Jim: Fear To Tread is now done, delivered, and working its way up the production cycle. The short synopsis of the story is: the Blood Angels go to the Signus Cluster, and all hell (quite literally) breaks loose. As part of his plan to rebel against the Emperor, Horus sends Sanguinius and his legion to a remote star system on a fake mission – but it’s actually a trap for the Blood Angels, and there’s a huge army of daemonic creatures waiting to destroy them. Of course, this being the Heresy, there are plans within plans and internal conflicts on both sides. By the end of the story, the Blood Angels will be changed by their experiences and set on the road toward the Siege of Terra and that final reckoning between Sanguinius and Horus. Fear to Tread is the biggest book I’ve ever written for Black Library, and there’s a lot going on in there. It’s been very demanding, but I feel it’s all up there on the page…

Shadowhawk: Sanguinius will be the second Primarch you are writing about after Mortarion from Flight of the Eisenstein. How different is it writing a Primarch character compared to an Astartes?

Jim: All Space Marine characters have a mythic quality to them, but none more than the primarchs. When you’re writing them, it’s important not to lose sight of that; I always try to think of the primarchs as the modern-day avatars of the heroes of Greek myth, big, larger-than-life figures who are epic in and of themselves. But at the same time, you have to keep them grounded to a degree so that the reader can find a way to relate to them. Juggling those two elements and striking the right balance between them is the key to writing a primarch well, I think.

Shadowhawk: You were a contributing writer for Games Writing: Narrative Skills for Video Games. What can tell us about this book?

Jim: Basically, it’s a guide for people who want to write for videogames written by people who have been at the sharp end of the business, people who have war stories about the best and worst of the industry. Each of us wrote a chapter in a kind of “from the trenches” manner, about different aspects of the work. It’s a good book, very informative, very direct. And I’m not just saying that ‘cos I’m in it.

Shadowhawk: When sitting down to write, what is the most important element for you to get into the writing mindset?

Jim: Coffee. I also need head-space and a bit of privacy to get my focus, and sometimes quiet if I’m working on something that it particularly thorny.

Shadowhawk: Any particular music you listen to while writing?

Jim: Lots. Movie soundtracks and classical music mostly. I find that songs with lyrics interrupt the flow of my writery voice, so I stick to anything instrumental. I have a massive collection of soundtracks, a lot of them from movies I’ve never even seen. Some of my favourites are Inception, the Halo series, Tron Legacy, King Arthur, Lord of the Rings, Battle: Los Angeles, Mass Effect, Clash of the Titans… I also have some playlists for when I need a bit of aural motivation; I have one called “Anthems of Epic” which is just hours of bombastic, loud action music…

Shadowhawk: In an all-out deathmatch between your leading characters from Warhammer 40,000 which character would you be rooting for?

Jim: I wouldn’t take sides. I would just get the hell out of the way, because it would probably be a brutal and hard-fought battle with a whole lot of collateral damage going on.

Shadowhawk: Given the chance to have lunch with any of your characters from across all your works, who would you prefer?

Jim: Oooh, good question. I think I’d prefer an evening in the pub with a few of the guys; James T. Kirk, Adam Jensen, the 10th Doctor and Nathaniel Garro. That would be a good night out.

Shadowhawk: What are you currently working on, both for Black Library and outside of it?

Jim: I’m developing an as-yet-unannounced thing for BL, so the answer to that question is… I can’t say.

As for other stuff, I’ve just had a new Stargate SG-1 audio drama (Half Life) released as part of a box set by Big Finish and I’ve got a Star Trek eBook on the cards for early 2013. There’s also a couple of other book and game projects out there, but they’re all top secret right now.

Shadowhawk: What are you looking forward to the most for 2012?

Jim: A holiday. Seriously, I’ve been working my ass off…

Actually, there is a BL thing I am very much looking forward to that is super-cool and buried so deep under layers of “talk-about-this-and-you-die” that I’m probably already in trouble just for thinking about it too hard. You’ll all know it when you see it; the OMFG! explosion will be visible from space.

Shadowhawk: Anything else you would like to tell our readers?

Jim: Hello there. Thanks for buying my books. Thanks for your boundless enthusiasm. Thanks for supporting my career and helping to keep my larder well stocked with vodka and cheese. You guys and girls are awesome.

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Well, that’s all for this time!! You can find Jim on twitter as @jmswallow and you can check out his journal Red Flag at http://jmswallow.livejournal.com/

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