Joe Parrino, one of the Black Library’s newest authors, lets us pick his brain non-Hannibal style. We spoke to him about the writing process and he had a fair bit to say.
He2etic: What is the writing process like for you? If you were to describe the process in one word, what would it be?
I struggled a long time with answering this question, and then, like a bolt from the heavens above, it hit me. Systematic. I write in a linear fashion. I start at the beginning and chip away at something until it is written.
Then I comb through it, making changes both minor and major until it resembles something I am happy with. Very rarely do I jump about and write later sections before I’ve laid the groundwork.
That said, I do get flashes of words, often bits of dialogue or character descriptions that fly in at random moments. A prime example of this would be the prophecy scenes in Nightspear, but those are the exception and not the rule.
He2etic: Who are your favourite characters amongst both those you’ve written, and by other authors?
Joe: My favourite characters tend to be ones who wind up being rather minor in the story. Amonther Numeriel is one. I spent a long time thinking about his backstory. In my characters, I’m attracted a lot to tragedy. How much more tragic a backstory can you get with a survivor of Iyanden’s doom who thinks he’s failed his family?
“Places like Antietam and Gettysburg, Spotsylvania and Fredericksburg, held a mystique and influence over me. It instilled a love for history in me that I have never shaken.”
Prestoff is a favourite character of mine for an entirely different reason. I realised, on the train down to Nottingham for the Horus Heresy Weekender, just how much of me was in that character. His journey mirrored my own. I had just moved to the United Kingdom when I began writing that story and a lot of that uncertainty made its way into his character. Obviously our journeys diverge a bit.
He2etic: Speaking of characters… Going from writing about the Tau to the Grey Knights is a pretty drastic change in the philosophy of your characters. Aside from the codexes, what other sources did you draw inspiration from for your tales?
Joe: I grew up in Maryland and, about once a month, my dad would take me to the local battlefields of the American Civil War. Places like Antietam and Gettysburg, Spotsylvania and Fredericksburg, held a mystique and influence over me. It instilled a love for history in me that I have never shaken.
This is what first brought me to 40k, that sense of future history that is very much inspired by the past of our own world.
In writing Witness I actually drew a lot of inspiration from that childhood experience and what I was going through at the time. The American Civil War has always fascinated me and the Brindleweld are modeled very much after the armies of the period.
There’s even an explicit reference to this. There is just something about the long marching lines, the drums and fifes and the streaming flags has always resonated with me and this was distilled into the Brindleweld Ninth Division.
“I also watch HBO miniseries, period dramas, etc. I can’t really put my finger on specific works that inspire my writing… Generally, it is more a means of me absorbing the information and my subconscious synthesising it into useable material without my explicit attention.”
I spent a long time thinking about the Brindleweld regimental culture and what it would mean for the humble Guardsmen to encounter a Space Marine, let alone a Grey Knight. I wanted to bring across the religious rapture that would surely occur when encountering the very proof that the God-Emperor exists.
The influence for the tau came from a bit more esoteric place. At the time I was studying a lot of political theory and I spent a long time considering what tau political structures would work like. I found myself asking questions like ‘Do the tau believe in private property?’ and ‘What would the appeal of the tau be to the unwashed masses of the Imperium?’
Due to the constraints of such a short story the questions weren’t fully able to be explored, but they linger beneath the surface. As someone who has always had a keen interest in languages, I sat for a long time with the Lexicanum article on the tau lexicon and tried to immerse myself in their language. This led to the heavy use of tau words and concepts when we get into Vre’valel’s perspective.
For Nightspear, I tried to tackle the story in another direction and explore a different style. I wanted to delve into the eldar method of storytelling and veer the writing to mirror the non-human perspective and thought process. I looked at oral storytelling and how that functioned. Because I lived in Scotland, I also took inspiration from Scottish myths and legends. This is especially prevalent in the naming conventions for the eldar.
He2etic: Thus far, you’ve written 40k exclusively. Have you given much thought to Warhammer fantasy tales at all? If you could, what would you like to write about in the Fantasy universe?
Joe: Warhammer fantasy was actually my introduction to the GW IP.
Way back when, in the misted hazes of my youth, it was Trollslayer by William King that first caught my eye and started me down the path. Once upon a time I even started collecting and painting Fantasy armies (Dwarfs, Tomb Kings and Wood Elves). Very shoddily, I might add, but they still sit enshrined on a shelf in my house.
Since then, my tastes have been inclined towards 40K, but I haven’t forgotten my roots. I still pick up the odd book or three from the Fantasy side of things, especially if it has dwarfs in it. I was a huge fan of Stephen Savile’s Von Carstein trilogy.
The Vampire Counts have snagged upon something in my psyche (despite being a complete pansy about zombies) and I would love to write something involving them.
He2etic: Are there any dream characters or settings you want to write about? Such as in other franchises?
I would sacrifice my left eye to be given a chance to write about the Alpha Legion. I find them absolutely fascinating and would love to get a chance to delve into the XX Legion. The Inquisition is another area I would like to explore.
In terms of other franchises, there aren’t too many that I actually follow. I tend to read universes spawned by specific authors (typically fantasy ones) rather than other franchises. Growing up, I used to be a huge Forgotten Realms nerd, but that was replaced by Warhammer Fantasy and 40,000.
Maybe, given half a chance, I’d love to do something in Joe Abercrombie’s fictional setting, but I’m much too enamoured with his own take on it to slice off a bit for myself.
“I have recently started plotting, planning and writing a novel of my own devising in the aforementioned world loosely inspired by the Jacobite Rebellions of the 18th Century.”
I’m in the midst of planning, plotting and writing a fantasy novel loosely inspired by the Jacobite Rebellions of the Eighteenth Century. So obviously I would like to write something set there.
He2etic: We’ve asked other authors before what kind of music they listen to while writing and the answer is frequently “lyric-less soundtrack” type answers, so we’re spicing it up. What composers do you think best capture the tone of the Warhammer 40k universe? And of course, what do you prefer to listen to while writing?
Joe: When writing or planning I tend to listen to a lot of Hans Zimmer. His work conjures a sense of movement and excitement for me. Building from very slow parts to fast sweeping pieces, his work conjures a narrative of his own. Its much too light hearted in my mind, though, to perfectly encapsulate the grim darkness of Warhammer Fantasy and Warhammer 40,000. It does make for great pieces of music to write to.
For composers that capture the Imperium I would fall back to Strauss II. His waltzes are what an Imperial citizen (provided they had the wealth and status) would relax to.
The Brindleweld would listen to a variation on the music their real world counterparts once enjoyed. They’d kick back around a campfire and in their parlours and listen to fiddles, banjos, pianos and reminisce of the glory of war and the melancholic hope to return home.
Eldar music, in my mind, exists on several different planes at once. I think it’d be something that conveys emotion in a much better way than modern human music does, conveys images psychically and is heartbreakingly beautiful to listen to.
I’ve got a strange habit when it comes to music. I’ll often find and fixate on one track or one album and that will usually last a week or more. Then I jump off to something else that catches my ear. I do return to albums, but usually after a few months, when I happily rediscover them lurking in my library. The cycle then repeats.
He2etic: If you could cast anyone to play the roles of main characters in your work, who would you pick?
Joe: I don’t really visualise actors in the roles of my characters as I write. This question threw me for a bit of a loop.
He2etic: Do you have any long term projects for writing? For example, do you intend to someday spin your own franchise or complete a long novel series?
Joe: I have recently started plotting, planning and writing a novel of my own devising in the aforementioned world loosely inspired by the Jacobite Rebellions of the 18th Century. Not content to just use one aspect of history, I’m also lifting inspiration from the American Civil War and the American War for Independence. Basically, the novel and the series that may some day follow, are my love letter to the parts of history I have always been obsessed with. Hopefully, between projects for the Black Library, this series will take more shape and emerge onto bookshelves at some point in the distant future.
He2etic: Are there any novels you would consider required reading? Are there any movies or television series that inspire your work?
Joe: There are several authors that I always recommend to friends when they say they want to get into Fantasy or Science Fiction. Joe Abercrombie and George RR Martin always top the list.
In terms of TV, I watch a lot of historical documentaries and tend to derive a lot of inspiration from them. I also watch HBO miniseries, period dramas, etc. I can’t really put my finger on specific works that inspire my writing (outside of a few documentaries like the Civil War). Generally, it is more a means of me absorbing the information and my subconscious synthesising it into useable material without my explicit attention. Sometimes I will get inspired by a particular phrase of snippet of sound that I hear on TV or in a movie, but those are rare moments.
Big shout out to Joe Parrino for his time today! You can follow him @jtparrino