Interview with John French

After much faffing around here is the awaited interview with Black Library writer John French, just as we leave March allergies and April foolery.

Courtesy of The Black Library

Can you tell us about your novel Ahriman: Exile? The story and characters, specifically Ahriman. Is it action-oriented or slow-paced?

Ahriman: Exile is about Ahriman (of Chaos Sorcerer infamy) in the time after his banishment from the Planet of the Sorcerers. It starts with Ahriman in a very different place to what most people would expect. He has watched his Legion be destroyed by the Rubric he cast to save it. For once he has seen the limits of his knowledge, and seen that there are things that are beyond his grasp. The novel then follows his rise from that state to… something else.

How did you go on with writing for a famous Codex character such as Ahriman? Did Black Library approach you with the idea or was it your idea all along? I know that Black Library writers have favourite characters they want to write about.

It was an off the cuff remark that started it. I was trying to pitch another novel, and my editor was lukewarm about my idea. I said something like ‘well, I will just do an Ahriman book instead,’ and my editor blinked, then said ‘Ok, what would you do?’. It was not the response I was expecting, at all. At the time I thought that the Thousand Sons and Ahriman were being worked on by someone else. I also was fairly sure that they would not let me roll straight into such a key character. But there I was, with a big open ‘what you’ll you do?’ waiting to be answered. Luckily an idea came along just in time for me to reply. It changed a bit as I flesh it out, but the essence of that first idea became Ahriman: Exile.

What was the writing process for the book? Can you describe how you go about working on a novel?

I tend to start with a single event, character or circumstance. I prod that first concept around in my head. Then I talk to people about it (editors, friends, other writers), and see if their eyes glaze over. If I get that response then I start again. I am lucky in that I have very inspiring friends and colleagues, who are not short on opinions. The best reactions are the negative ones, the times when they think that I have missed the point, or ignored something important. That’s the really good stuff, because it adds layers and hard edges to bounce off.
After that I write the idea down in as few words as possible. Can the idea be expressed simply and directly? Yes – good. No – start again. I plan. Bullet points and key story beats are hammered out.
I realise that I need an extra subplot because otherwise the whole thing is going to be like head butting through breeze block walls. I change the plan. I start writing, and try to hit key milestones by set times.
I realise, yet again, that the plan is just a map to save me if I get lost, and will have to be changed
Characters come and go, change names, change gender, change their role in the plot, and generally cause trouble on the page.
Eventually – after all the ups and downs of thinking its going well, knowing it’s not, believing it’s great, and being convinced it’s not – a rough draft turns up.
My long suffering alpha reader gets to batter through my mistakes. I redraft, moving big chunks of text around, scrapping scenes, burning word count down, adding stuff in and chopping it out.I put together a reading draft that looks close to the finished deal. The reading draft goes out to my beta readers (thanks, guys). I wait in a state of nervous tension for them to tell me it’s dull, or makes no sense, or that the bit that I really like is, in fact, pointless. The comments come back. I read them, alternating between joy and despair.I redraft again.
It goes to the editors, and the nervous tension starts again. Comments come back. More drafts appear. It goes to the copy editors and proof readers. More drafts.
Print galleys appear – ‘last chance to change that hideous typo you spotted on page 76…’ And then, at long last, like a dust covered traveller riding through a city’s gate, it’s printed, and becomes real. Simple, no?

Is Ahriman a favourite character of yours?

So much hubris, so much self delusion, and so much power… Yeah, he is a lot of fun to write.

Did you draw inspiration from any outside influences such as films, books and music?

Music more than anything. Books and stories often have a song that just ends up bonding to them, and I suppose influencing the feel of the story. The Last Remembrancer and a song called Sanvean by Lisa Gerrard are linked in my head. For Ahriman the track Surface of the Sun from the soundtrack to Sunshine got played a lot.

Can you mention your favourite parts and least favourite of the book? The ups and downs?

I am fairly convinced that the bits which writers like about their own work are not the bits that others like, and it’s same with the stuff that writers don’t like. What I like or don’t like is really bound up with the writing process. For example I was so tired when I was doing the last sections of Exile, that I always flip back to feeling less than good when I think about them. On the flip side of that coin, I really enjoyed doing the cross cutting between characters when they are on the dead Astropath station.

What do you prefer to write, action scenes or character driven stories?
I love writing dialogue. For me that’s really were you see characters emerge, but if I didn’t like writing action 40k would be a hard setting to work in.

Writers have different patterns when they’re involved in their writing. Is the writing process for you a lonely one or do you become more social?

It’s essentially solitary for me. I write on my own, with the internet shut down, listening to a long playlist of music on big headphones. So… yeah, I shut the rest of the world out as much as I can. Having said that, when I am not at the keyboard I develop ideas by talking them through with other people.

What made you write for Warhammer 40k? Was it by chance or was it intended all along? If so, are you a big 40k fan?
I am a lifelong fan. I think I wanted to write professionally for 40k ever since I first encountered the setting.

Do you have any plans writing for Warhammer Fantasy in the future?

It would be interesting, but no plans at present.

Will you continue writing Arkham Horror novels? Do you see any similarities writing Lovecraftian horror and 40k fiction? Are they part of the same for you?

The Lord of Nightmares trilogy was a complete blast to write. In particular because I got to collaborate with Alan Bligh. It was also a great change of gear to write in the (well maybe a version of) the real world.
I think they are both very distinct worlds. I suppose there are common threads of horror, and the supernatural, but 40k has such a strong style that it is difficult to put it in the same pool as anything.

As a big Lovecraft fan I have to ask : Short fiction or novels, which one do you prefer?

The short fiction, no doubt. But I have to confess that I prefer Chambers and Clark Ashton Smith.

Can you remember what it was like when you started writing, and do you have any advice for aspiring writers?

Professionally, or in general? In general, hmmm, not really, I wrote stories when I was young enough that memory gets a bit blurred.
Professionally, oh yeah. I still have the commissioning paperwork. I was so excited, but I was also terrified that I now had to actually deliver.
Advice…
Get proper, harsh feedback, and listen to it. You don’t have to follow it, but you should always listen to it, and spend time considering it. Get to know yourself as a writer, good and bad. This thing we do is a craft first and an art second; learn your craft. Don’t do things by accident.
Keep going.

What are your biggest influence in your work? Any films , novels, music, people?

Everything and anything.
But seriously, it’s difficult to pin down because some of the strangest and tiniest things might be the seed of an idea. I got the some of inspiration for the details of the summoning scene in Ahriman: Exile, from watching a video of people releasing lantern kites. Sometimes I think it would be cool to take a chapter from a book, and get a writer to do a big exploded multi-media mood board, showing some of the things that nudged into their mind as they wrote it.

Can you tell us about your interests?

I have a fairly varied set of interests, including a poor taste in music, running, history, a bit of philosophy, gaming, eating, sleeping, talking, and generally being a bit of an intellectual butterfly.

It seems that many fans of Black Library started reading fantasy as young children. Can you name your favourite books from your childhood?

Tricky…
Depends how young, but if you take a large chunk of time running from when I started to read books that just had words (or mainly words) to about 13, and in no particular order:
The Hobbit, Watership Down, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. I was completely obsessed by Agatha Christie for two years somewhere around the 10 year old mark… Asterix and Obelix, everything by Terry Pratchett, all of the Sharpe books, The Witches, The Wooden Horse, The Lord of the Rings, I, Claudius (yes I was a bit young for it, but it’s a hell of a book), The Chronicles of Narnia (the demon god in The Last Battle left marks in my mind I am sure)… err, probably a quite few more that have slipped my mind.

Favourite music?

The choral Music of Thomas Tallis, most of DJ Shadows work (particularly Entroducing), any film score by Hans Zimmer, The Chemical Brothers, The Prodigy, Bruce Springsteen, Portishead, Faithless, The Portico Quartet, almost anything with Daniel Hope playing a violins in it…Yeah, you weren’t expecting that to make consistent sense were you?

Bestest food?

Pizza. Food of the gods.

Chaos or the Emperor? Describe why.

Chaos, because it is everything.

Best replies in my opinion, pizza and Chaos couldn’t be a better combination. Many thanks to John French for having patience with obsessive fan questions. Images courtesy of The Black Library.