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.

Interview with Steve Parker

gym-wide
We interview Steve Parker about his latest novel Deathwatch. This is our longest interview so far, a fascinating, in-depth view into the writing process. Take notes, aspiring writers!

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

Deathwatch is the first Talon Squad novel and follows the origins, formation and first deployment of a Space Marine anti-xenos kill-team under the auspices of an Inquisition ‘handler’ known only as Sigma.
I guess the best way to describe it, or at least to describe what I was shooting for, is special-forces action in the 41st millennium – a kind of Tom Clancy or Duncan Falconer in space, if you will, but very solidly grounded in the 40k milieu.
The story is told via multiple viewpoints, but is mostly centred on Lyandro Karras, First Codicier of the Death Spectres Space Marine Chapter, who is sequestered to the Deathwatch alongside Siefer Zeed of the Raven Guard, Maximmion Voss of the Imperial Fists, Ignacio Solarion of the Ultramarines and Darrion Rauth of the Exorcists, all of whom eventually deploy with the dreadnought Chyron Amadeus Chyropheles of the Lamenters. Unfortunately, they don’t all get on very well.
I think it’s fair to say the book is definitely action-oriented, but action is nothing without slower-paced suspenseful elements that set it up. Hopefully I struck a good balance between action and suspense.

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

Deathwatch was announced rather a long time before it was completed, but that was nothing to do with any issues in the actual writing process. Truth be told, my life circumstances got shaken up a fair bit between signing the contract with Black Library and actually handing in the completed manuscript. I was never in any doubt about finishing the book, though. It was something I really wanted to write from the first moment my editor ran the notion up the flagpole.
Given the existence of the two short stories before the novel, I already had my characters, but I found myself facing a slight problem in that I didn’t want the novel (nor any future Deathwatch novels) to be bound by what transpired in those shorts. I mean, no one on the kill-team is immortal. If they make a big enough mistake, someone is going to pay the ultimate price. If one assumes the shorts take place quite a while after the origins story, it would seem that Talon Squad is going to be pretty safe for a long time. Nothing could be further from the truth. Don’t go thinking that because the kill-team is at full complement in the shorts that anyone is bullet-proof. They are most definitely not. Not all these guys are going to make it through. That’s just a reality of the Deathwatch.
So, to that end, I decided to treat the novel as a reboot. The short stories are what they are – brief, explosive action adventures based around a single mission and meant to be read in a single sitting – but I’d like readers to think of them somewhat in the same way as a Marvel Alterniverse story. If you’re not familiar with those, it’s where an established character like Spidey, for example, has adventures that don’t really fall within the accepted main story arc. They’re fun, but they don’t reflect actual canon, more just a chance to play with ideas. For me, the Talon Squad shorts were as much about prototyping my kill-team and working out the dynamics of the group as anything else.
In terms of the process I use for any novel these days, I work almost exclusively in Scrivener, which I know some other Black Library authors – William King to name one – also espouse. Scrivener is heavily geared towards authors and makes Microsoft Word all but obsolete due to features like the excellent corkboard. I find it a genuine joy to work with, though I’m still learning its ins-and-outs to a degree.
I spend a lot of time in the planning phase of a book and make copious amounts of notes. I’m not a ‘pantser’ who just jumps into the writing and sees where it takes him. I tried that. The results were a bit messy and tended to call for pretty massive rewrites along the way. That’s not for me. I’m firmly in the ‘outliner’ camp now.
I tend to write three drafts. The first is scrappy and as fast as I can make it, just getting it down without too much thought to the language and focusing on discovering story problems I hadn’t anticipated in the planning phase. The second draft is about fixing all those problems and fine-tuning the pace and the story beats, the interactions, how the action plays out, stuff like that.
The third draft is the spit-and-polish phase where I focus on turn-of-phrase and other ‘cosmetic’ issues. After that, my editor gets it, reads it, makes comments of his own, gathers feedback from proofreaders, and then it comes back to me for a final tweak before it goes off for publication.
Writing a novel is extremely labour-intensive and long, and yet an author is always hoping that the book will be a smooth read that fans will get swept up in, devouring in just a day or two.

Was there any outside inspiration for the book, such as films, books, music?

I’m sure I was subconsciously inspired by a great many things. It all counts. Conscious inspiration, though, was mostly drawn from my own reading and a couple of video games I’m fond of.
In terms of books, I’d have to list Rainbow Six by Tom Clancy as one influence, but also the works of Frank Herbert, whose Dune books were the reason I ever wanted to write in the first place.
Games that influenced me included the Ghost Recon and Rainbow Six series, but also a broad list of other modern military ‘shooters’. The risk there is in telling yourself, ‘I’ll just play the game for a little research,’ but actually, you end up getting into the challenge of it and don’t stop where you should. Gaming is probably my greatest weakness.
Music? I listened to the Predator 2 and Alien 3 soundtracks over and over again while drafting. I also like the Space Marine and Gears of War soundtracks. The Alien 3 soundtrack in particular was a good fit for writing the novel, I think.

Can you mention your favourite parts and least favourite of the book? What was a struggle and what just kept pouring into the pages?

I have a lot of favourite parts, to be honest, because I initially planned the book to satisfy what I personally wanted from a Deathwatch novel (hoping along the way that readers would enjoy all the same things). To that end, I included lots of things that appeal to me directly, from the extreme and unusual training at Watch Fortress Damaroth to the shadowy activities of Inquisitors and agents who operate on a need-to-know basis. The chapters featuring the Puppeteer were a particular joy to write, but so were the scenes in which I had an opportunity to bring the Death Spectres Space Marine Chapter to the fore. I also reveled in writing the interactions between the kill-team members. Those are some pretty messed up team dynamics.
What was a struggle? I’m not sure there was a particular struggle that stands out. Writing isn’t ever truly easy, at least for me, but the Deathwatch novel was a fairly even experience as these things go. That might be because of the work I had already done on character establishment in the short stories. I’m hoping it’s indicative of future novel-writing experiences.

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?

I’m not a very social being, even at the best of times. It’s my habit, and something of a preference, to lock myself away and live like a recluse whether I’m writing or not. I’m probably even more reclusive when I have a novel to write. Is that good or bad? They say no man is an island, but I dispute that. I’m North Sentinel Island, 400 miles southeast of Myanmar in the Bay of Bengal, and the tribe that inhabits me kills intruders on sight.

You’re a fan favourite despite not having an extensive Black Library bibliography. Does that influence your writing in any way or does the story always come first, the readers second?

Which fan said that? Was it my mum?
I don’t think serving the story and serving the readers can be separated all that much. There’s a certain level of mutual dependence there. A writer is an entertainer. Readers know what they like, and a writer working in an established universe needs to take that into account. I like to think that the readers and I want the same things from a Warhammer 40,000 piece. I’m a reader, too – in fact, I’m the first reader – so if I manage to satisfy myself (which can be pretty difficult), we’re probably all good.
I hesitate to say there’s any direct or specific influence from fan input, because that’s not really how I work, but a while back, I did ask readers to suggest kill-team compositions on my blog, mostly just for fun, but also because nobody knows Warhammer 40,000 like the fans. They’re so invested in the milieu. No matter how much reading I do, I doubt I’ll ever match the breadth and depth of knowledge some of them display. So, it’s nice to throw something out there sometimes and see what kind of replies you get. The kill-team discussion brought to my attention a number of Chapters I knew little about or had never even heard of before, so it was definitely interesting.

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 big WH40k fan, but I don’t come at it from the table-top, where my only real experience is Space Hulk. I was always attracted to the artwork, the models and the richly detailed background, but all my recreational gaming in my teens tended to be done on computer or console. So I largely lost touch with WH40k for some years. It never occurred to me that there might be opportunities to write stories in this particular milieu. As an author, I started out writing original fantasy and dark SF stories set in Japan. It was only after my first two story sales to US magazines that I discovered Black Library and the Inferno magazine. I think I had been prompted to check for Warhammer 40,000 fiction after finishing the awesome Dawn of War computer game. Sadly, Inferno had ceased publication by then. I was kicking myself for not discovering it sooner until I came across the call for submission to the Tales from the Dark Millennium anthology.
Six days of frantic catching up later, I had a story proposal featuring the Dark Angels and the Ordo Malleus. Happily, I got the go-ahead to write the story, and The Falls of Marakross was my first outing in the Warhammer 40,000 universe.

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

Hmm. Well, something I read recently really struck me, because I tend to be very hard on myself at the beginning of a book, and I typically trip myself up by incessantly editing as I write. Don’t do this. I think I do it because my expectations for the first draft are foolishly set way higher than they ought to be, which ends up causing me a great deal of self doubt and worry. This is something for aspiring writers to watch out for – don’t listen to the inner critic on the first pass. Just keep rolling.
The quote in question went something like this:
“Remember, everything great started out shit.”
Think about that. Think about your favourite book. Do you have any idea what it looked like after only one draft? You probably don’t, but chances are you wouldn’t have paid good money for it at that stage. You may not have liked it at all.
A first draft should, by its nature, be pretty scrappy, even deliberately so. Working from your plot outline (while still remaining open to anything new that suddenly occurs), try to write fast and free (and I’m painfully aware as I type this that I really need to follow my own advice). The faster you get the story down, the sooner you can start making it great, but that first draft has nothing whatsoever to do with quality. It’s all about getting the ideas on the page and discovering new ones along the way. The best ideas often come to you when you’re right in the middle of the work itself. From there, at the end of the first draft, you can really go to work on it and incorporate all the revelations you made while writing.
A lot of writers spend hours trying to make a perfect opening to a book right at the beginning of a project. I should know, since I was one. But you’ll do yourself a far bigger favour by just getting down a quick first chapter and jumping straight into the rest of the story feet first. You can refine that first chapter as much as you like when the time is right, but that time is not at the beginning of the first draft.
Once you have a completed first draft, print it out or copy it over to your e-reader (I prefer the latter myself), and read it start-to-finish, taking all the notes you’ll need to make it better in the second draft (I use a voice recorder for this). Again, don’t worry about literary cosmetics here, just focus on making it the best story it can be in terms of plot, scenes, characters, all the fundamentals. What would make each chapter or scene cooler and more exciting? What can you throw in to shake things up for the reader? Work up your second draft with all the changes you’ve decided to make, then sit down with that and, finally, start to think about the prose itself. Polish it up. Add your own narrative voice or style. Make it shine. Then finally submit it.
Other than that, be sure to study the craft of writing. The Writer’s Digest ‘Elements of Fiction’ series is great overall and does an excellent job of introducing all the aspects of story on which good fiction depends. There are some fantastic recent e-books on the craft of writing, too, which even experienced writers may get a lot out of. Amazon has literally oodles of them. Check the reviews before you buy, though.

Can you tell us about your interests besides writing?

A lot of the usual stuff like reading, movies, games, etc. No surprises there. I’ve no doubt that most of my favourites are also on the lists of the people reading this.
Since I was about sixteen years old, I’ve had a deep interest in martial arts and physical training. It hasn’t dissipated with time. I’d normally list body-building as one of my foremost interests, but I’m too far from my 2010 peak right now to say that and not feel a bit self-conscious, so I’ll just say weight-training instead and promise to do better next year.
Animal rights and wildlife conservation are really important to me, too, so I do what I can in the time I have available, whether that means signing petitions, copy-editing content for event organisers, designing posters or joining demos.
That’s about it, really. I like travel well enough, too, but I don’t get to do enough of it. I’d love to visit the Middle East sometime, or the ruins of the Aztec and Maya cultures. I’m also toying with the idea of becoming a slightly sympathetic super-villain and trying to obliterate (or at the very least sterilise) mankind. I think I’ve got the chops for it, but I lack the resources.

What are your biggest influences?


Literary influences? Definitely Frank Herbert, Clive Barker, JRR Tolkien and David Gemmell, all of whom still make me want to write despite the appalling money on offer to professional authors these days. Also, I don’t think there’s a 40k writer alive who hasn’t been influence at least a little by the great Dan Abnett. Aaron’s work, too, is so good that it’s surely having an influence on people in the same way now. I just read The First Heretic and enjoyed it immensely. I can imagine just how much insanely hard work went into it to make it read so well.
That said, no matter the influence, each writer needs to have his own voice. Influences ought to inspire, to bring ideas and techniques to your attention, but your voice has to be your own.

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

I was really into the Fighting Fantasy and Sorcery! series in my primary school days. I still have the complete Sorcery! collection, including the spell book, and I love to look at all that awesome, quirky John Blanche art.
Then there was The Hobbit when I was about ten years old, though I didn’t tackle The Lord of the Rings until I was in my mid-teens. When I did, it completely blew me away.
After that, I started reading science fiction a little more than fantasy – Herbert, Gibson, Card, Bear, Clarke, etc.
Other than that, throughout my childhood, I was into just about anything featuring ghosts, monsters, aliens, demons, spaceships… I was a very easy sell to anything with a good cover painting back then.

Favourite music?

I mostly listen to two types of music depending on my mood or needs. First, when I’m training or out walking around town growling at worthless humans, anything that makes me snort and twitch like a bull rhinoceros in mating season will do, so Sabaton, Powerwolf, Battle Beast, stuff like that. Music that gets my blood up and makes me want to charge through a brick wall or flip over a car Hulk-style, meaning metal for the most part.
When I’m feeling a bit more low-key and, perhaps, quietly brooding over how to destroy the abhorrent human race, certain movie and game soundtracks hit the spot. My recent go-to soundtrack is from the movie Zero Dark Thirty. I could listen to that all day, every day. I’m not sure why, but it just suits me.
I also use something called Skyrim Atmospheres to help me get to sleep sometimes, since I have some sleeping issues.


Bestest food?

I’m firmly into the whole ‘plant-strong’ thing, so anything vegan that complements my training goals and is ethically sound is best. Daily staples for me include beans, nuts, wholewheat/wholegrain breads, brown rice, tofu, fresh fruits and veg. All very basic (I can’t cook worth a damn, after all). The recent hit movie ‘Forks Over Knives’ was a pretty big influence on me, but I’ve been fairly regimented in my eating since my mid-teens when I started physical training. If you love stories about Space Marines or Catachans or any type of fictional character who is pumped up and combat capable – Wolverine, Hulk, Batman, whatever – why would you not go to the gym and try to emulate that? You’d be surprised at what you can achieve and the positive changes it will make to your life in the long-term.

Chaos or the Emperor? Describe why.

There was a time when I would have immediately replied Ave Imperator to that and made an Aquila over my chest, but I’ve recently decided both sides can literally go to hell. They stink of corruption and self-interest. So I’m signing on with the Tau and dedicating myself to the Greater Good… until they do something I don’t like, at which point I’ll go rogue and start assassinating corrupt Ethereals.
My name is Steve Parker and I am a flight risk. Good night.

We like to give Steve Parker a big thanks for taking the time to reply to our fan questions.

Coming this Thursday is the review of Malodrax by Ben Counter.