Monday, 18 January 2010

Author Interview! Aaron Dembski-Bowden

In one of those strange twists of fate, my Year's Resolution to include more interviews on the blog came at roughly the same time as reading 'Soul Hunter' and thinking that I wouldn't mind asking Aaron Dembski-Bowden a couple of questions. Thanks go to Aaron who got the answers back to me in double quick time! Here they are (and they're good)...

Hi Aaron, thanks for agreeing to answer a few questions!

S’cool. I charge by the word. You know that, right?

Your author bio says that you’re a big fan of Warhammer 40,000 so I have to ask, when writing your books do you use Space Marine figures to act out the scenes? I would...

Don’t give me ideas. I have enough trouble trying to grow up as it is. I do have a squad of unpainted converted scouts on my desk right now, and when my mouse cord inevitably knocks them over three times a day, I do their voices as they go flying. “Officer down!” “Medic!” “Argh, my fucking pancreas!”

I’m 29 years old, by the way. My parents aren’t proud of the fact I still think ThunderCats is rad.

Thundercats are cool, no question about it. Your hobbies also include helping people spell your surname correctly; I have a similar issue with people who flat out refuse to spell my first name correctly (it’s not hard people!) What methods do you have for dealing with persistent offenders...?

I’d like to say I have some tried and tested technique that helps people get it right after a while, but that’d be a lie. I’ve perfected the art of sneering at them, though.

Do you have a Warhammer 40,000 army? If so, how successful are they?

I did have one (shock horror, Space Marines) but they did nothing except suck and die. We could blame my skills as a general. I mean, we could, but we won’t. Let’s blame every other guy for cheating, instead.

Me, my fiancĂ©e Katie, a few of our friends, and Salamander author Nick Kyme have vague plans for 40K weekends once in a while (read: an excuse to get drunk) at our place in the wilderness of Northern Ireland, and for that I’m trying to raise a Black Legion force. But really, my painting skills haven’t evolved since I first laid siege to my copy of Space Crusade as a kid, and destroyed all the models with thick coats of primary colours.

While I understood on some level that mixing the three primary colours could somehow make every other colour in the visual spectrum, this was like some alien lore that never actually bore fruit. Everything I did made brown, so it was either sticking to red, blue and yellow – or making stuff brown.

My genestealers were unshaded, unhighlighted, and a delicious full-body lemon yellow. They had brown eyes, which was my nod towards making them masterpieces. If that’s not appealing, I simply don’t know what is.

There are a lot of authors writing in the Warhammer 40,000 universe, how do you all decide which Space Marine Chapters you will write about? Is it something that authors can choose or do Black Library make the decisions here?

We choose that stuff. The obvious exception is when someone else already has a recent claim to a specific faction. F’rex, if I wanted to do something about the Ultramarines (and I don’t; the only thing I do want to do to them is kill them all) I’d have to fight Graham McNeill in the Thunderdome. They’re his babies, after all.

Don’t get me wrong, I’d totally win. He’d stick to notions of honour and nobility, and expect me to do the same. I’d actually stab him in the throat with a broken bottle while he was still bowing at the start of the match.

That’s how I roll. That’s how legends are made.

One thing that I’ve often wondered about tie-in fiction is how restrictive authors find it writing in a universe where endings to a story are often out of their control (I’m thinking Star Wars here). Is this the case with the Black Library? Past events in the Warhammer universe are pretty much set in stone but do the ‘present day’ books form a larger arc going forward?

This is a pretty tough question to answer. Bear in mind that the past events ‘set in stone’ are – let’s be honest – often little more than minor mentions in pretty ancient source material. I’ve come to the Black Library with an immense love for 40K’s lore and all the source material, but I’m not blind to what it is, y’know? It’s not utterly holy and sacred stuff that must never be changed or retconned: the fact is, a lot of it doesn’t make much sense in the context of a story, or even consistent realism within its own universe. Stuff changes all the time, and it’s a nightmare.

I stick to the lore whenever I can because I love it, because it’s great, and because that’s my job as a hired gun for the 40K license. But there are plenty of moments that you take a step back from a paragraph in some forgotten codex and think: “This is clearly just a quick mention by a game designer who didn’t reeeeally care if it would make a good story or novel.”

And that’s cool. They’re game designers, after all, not veterans of writing a thousand novel synopses. They made a universe that I’ve loved for 20 years, and I like to play in that sandpit 99% of the time. But I don’t think it’s black-souled heresy to change 1% in the name of a better story. I’d never do it for a quick fix, but sometimes you have to. Otherwise, it’ll be dated/senseless/silly/lame/worthless in a novel.

The great thing about 40K is that no one, not a single person, sees the universe and its themes in exactly the same way as anyone else. If I ever wrote about the Space Wolves and Ragnar Blackmane, they’d be nothing like Bill King’s or Mike Lee’s. That doesn’t make me right, or those guys wrong. It’s just the nature of 40K.

With the greatest respect, some fans never get that. A story can be beautifully-written, but because it doesn’t match what they’d expect from a faction, they call it out as crap. I can understand their frustrations as a reader myself, when Author X zigged instead of zagged on my favourite factions, but I recognise the writer’s right to run with whatever he wants to run with. He sees it that way, I don’t, end of story.

‘The Horus Heresy’ series is the Black Library’s flagship series right now, are we going to see a ‘Horus Heresy’ novel from yourself at some point in the future (especially having just written a book about the Night Lords)? If you were to write a book, how would it feel using characters that you’ve already written about ten thousand years down the line...?

I’m almost halfway through my first Horus Heresy novel. It’s called The First Heretic, and it’s about... the first heretic.

I wouldn’t use characters from 40K in a 30K book; at least, not ones of my own making. I think that’s crass and lame. I wouldn’t mind inferring their presence, but actually naming them? Giving them some “LOOK AT ME” dialogue? I don’t see that as a DVD Easter egg or anything. I find it sort of tacky.

The Horus Heresy series doesn’t need to ‘join up’ perfectly with the universe as presented 10,000 years later. The entire drive behind 40K is that it’s a future history of stuff that’s been forgotten, misunderstood, altered and corrupted by a dozen species with staggeringly different outlooks and their own versions of things. And in each of those species, especially humanity, you have squillions of factions that see history in their own ways, too.

(Random sidenote: It could be argued that this is an excuse for authorial laziness, right? That you can do no research and make mistakes that can be blamed on “Uh... different lore”. That’s a pretty vicious argument, though. It also misses the point of the setting by nine thousand miles. If everything added up, it would suck, and there’s a difference between realistic interpretation and simply making a mistake. Interpret all you like, so long as it’s interesting, consistent with the universe, and benefits the lore. Don’t use it as a cover for errors, though. That’s not cool.)

Re: the Night Lords of 30K and 40K, one of the great things about a Chaos series is that most of your characters were there in the Horus Heresy anyway, so you can have your cake and eat it. I can write about all the awesome ancient stuff without needing to force it into an actual Horus Heresy book. The Heresy has its own jazz already, and there’s plenty for us there to write about.

The Nightlords live in perpetual darkness, did you ever find yourself turning off all the lights in the house while you were writing (just to get into character)?

Nope. I have quite severe Nyctophobia, actually. I’d say something funny about it, but I’m reaching the point now where I’m considering therapy to get rid of it. It can be incapacitating.

One of the things that’ll get more and more attention as the Night Lords series goes on is what it’s like to live in a place where light is a sin, and you have to grow used to the darkness, or go insane. Learn to focus on other senses and maintain compensating technology, or dwell in senseless nothingness. I think that’s a pretty powerful theme, and something all the Legion’s serfs and slaves have to overcome.

What influenced your decision to write about the forces of Chaos instead of the forces of the Emperor or the Xenos races?

Because Chaos is awesome. Duh.

Essentially, Chaos is relatively unexplored, and there’s so much you can do with it. With Astartes fiction, I’ve always been most interested in how they relate to humans (and vice versa). Where Chaos Astartes are concerned, the appeal is magnified. All the eerie inhumanity of Astartes, plus the unnatural madness of Chaos. How do people deal with that stuff? How do the Astartes and their human allies survive? How do they fight their wars? How do they win?

Those are the kinds of questions I care about.

If you had command of your own Space Marine Chapter for one day, what organisation (that really gets your goat) would you choose to bring into ‘compliance’?

The Inland Revenue. Filling out self-employment tax forms is like punishment from some soul-sucking hell realm of accountancy. I hate, hate, hate it.

“Tax needn’t be taxing”, they say. It needn’t be? Oh, but it is, my number-crunching friends. It really is.

Finally, why should ‘Soul Hunter’ be the book that anyone checking out Warhammer 40,000 fiction pick up first?

Because Jon Sullivan has done the single greatest cover in the history of the Black Library. And because the book’s really, really good. But mostly, because of the cover.

Thanks for your time, I really appreciate it!

You’re welcome. Now leave me alone, I’m going to play Left 4 Dead 2.

And there you have it! While you're here, have a look at my reviews for 'Cadian Blood' and, if you haven't read it already, 'Soul Hunter'...


Mardel said...

Reading your interview brought me back a few years. Back when my 29 - oops he just turned 30 - year old had hundreds of little figurines to paint. He had one special paintbrush that had ONE hair on it, for fine detail. At the present time,I believe he has over 1000 warhammer figurines. I'm just guessing, I know he has spent years (at least 15) collecting and painting them. He was introduced to Warhammer by his dad's friend, who is also obsessed.

It's great to have a hobby that's important. Even better when you can create novels out of it and make money.

Magemanda said...

I really enjoyed that interview, Grame - lovely questions that show you know the 40k universe yourself. It was especially fun to read now that I've actually read and reviewed my first Horus Heresy book (currently reading False Gods, and enjoying it very much!). Would love to see more of your author interviews this year!