An interview with Gav Thorpe

Yes, my extraordinary jamminess continues with yet another interview. This time with author and Games Workshop living legend Gav Thorpe.

TSC: Gav, thanks for taking the time to chat with The Shell Case. During your 14 years at the Games Workshop, am I right in saying you worked on 18 books across the 40k and Gothic? Which one are you most proud of and why?

Gav: Codex: Sisters of Battle. It was my first Codex and is still my favourite. It was a chance to delve into an area of the Imperium that had only been mentioned previously in passing – the Ecclesiarchy. These days the imagery and background of the Adeptus Ministorum is well-established and has seeped into other armies of the Imperium, but at the time the possibility to write mad Confessors and Missionaries and, of course, shape the Sisters of Battle was an incredible opportunity. Not only that, I was allowed to detail the rise and fall of one of the Imperium’s best megalomaniacs, Goge Vandire.

TSC: It was a cracking book. For me it was a big leap forward towards creating 40k as a Universe. You’ve also had the opportunity, and challenge, of writing Black Library novels for the Imperial Guard, Eldar, Space Marines and the Horus Heresy series. Which book was your biggest challenge and which was the biggest achievement?

Gav: Each has its own challenges and rewards. Deliverance Lost for the Horus Heresy came with the burden of expectation, given the success of the series as a whole, but I would say that Path of the Warrior was the greatest challenge. Eldar had not been that well-served from BL previously, and I had taken it upon myself to rectify that, so I put quite a lot of pressure on myself to deliver not only an interesting story, but a narrative that could only be based on an Eldar character, as well as wanting to delve into the roots and background of the Eldar as I went. The fact that I also then decided that three inter-woven novels was the best way to go, with each giving a unique viewpoint on the same sequence of events, pretty much moved the challenge level up to eleven in terms of writing the actual books.

TSC: Three books retelling the same story about an incomprehensible Alien race from three different totally different perspectives on existence does sound like quite the challenge. Deliverance Lost, the 18th Horus Heresy novel, came out not so long ago, written by your good self. For those that haven’t read it, give us an overview of what we can expect?

Gav: Deliverance Lost focuses on the Raven Guard Legion, who have fallen victim to the traitor ambush at Isstvan V. Suffering about 95% casualties, the Raven Guard seem to be out of the war, but thanks to divisions in Horus’s followers they are able to escape from Isstvan. Their Primarch, Corax, travels to Terra to seek advice from the Emperor and eventually takes possession of an important gene-resource that will help him rebuild his Legion for the war to come. This task is made all the more complicated by the fact that the Alpha Legion have infiltrated the Raven Guard and plan to steal the gene-data for themselves and destroy Corax’s Legion.

The book concentrates on the Raven Guard post-Isstvan, but readers also get to see flashbacks of Corax’s early days during the uprising that took him to power, as well as the continuing story of Alpharius and Omegon.

TSC: Sounds awesome. Everything I’ve read or heard about the Raven Guard makes me crave an army so Deliverance Lost hasn’t helped and it’s no surprise that reviews have been hugely positive. How did you go about tackling the task of writing about the Raven Guard and how much freedom were you given to develop the legion’s background compared to Dan Abnett with Prospero Burns?

It all started when I was thinking about the Raven’s Flight audio drama. The extant background of the Heresy doesn’t deal with the Raven Guard very much – the Collected Visions book barely mentions them and their old Index Astartes article doesn’t explain how they managed to survive the massacre (TSC: That’s easy – they’re space ninjas!) or what they got up to other than Corax’s misguided attempts to rebuild the Legion. So the first thing I did was to compile a list of questions and outstanding issues that could be examined in the HH novels and stories.

In regards to the freedom I was given, really the biggest controls came from myself – wanting to adhere to the letter of what had been written already as much as possible, even if there was an extra layer of complexity behind the ‘official’ history. The other factor to be borne in mind was how much of the Raven Guard of the 41st millennium already existed at the time of the Heresy, and how much of it has developed over the ten thousand years since.

For example, the Raven Guard as a Chapter of about 1,000 space marines have this behind-the-lines, hit-and-run approach to warfare. That works fine for a few models on the tabletop, but what does that mean for a Legion of 80,000+ Space Marines? They can’t all be jump packers, they need fire support & flexibility. On top of this, I looked for an area that meant that they were unique from those around them. They weren’t constantly mobile attackers like the White Scars, and their guerilla warfare had to be different from the subterfuge of the Alpha Legion and the terror tactics of the Night Lords. In the end, there is a self-sufficiency, make-do-and-mend, adapt and overcome attitude in the Legion. They are very pragmatic in their approach, adapting to the changing needs of the battlefield, but always with one central tenet: attack, withdraw and attack again.

This tenet was created by Corax during the rebellion of Lycaeus before the coming of the Emperor and it is not only a tactical doctrine for his Legion but a personal mantra; stay mobile; never get caught; always be ready to respond; do everything that must be done for victory; keep fighting until the last. These qualities have been adopted by his Legion and taken to heart.

TSC: The whole ‘bodge it and make do’ attitude is very British. I like it. What’s it been like to work on a project as huge and as awesome as the Horus Hersey series?

Gav: It’s great, but it comes with a lot of difficulties, such as the continuity issues. It’s easy enough to write a 40K story, separated from any wider narrative. With the Horus Heresy all of the authors are sharing a timeline, a narrative and a cast of characters. I might not be the next person to write about Corax, for instance, so my treatment of him has to be such that another author can take on his story and bring their own take on the matter. The logistics of it – who is where, and when, and at what events, and communicating with the other authors – is another thing that takes more time than on other series. On the flip side, I get to be part of this huge story, one that is the most successful range of Black Library books, and it is a beast that has far outgrown its original stature and taken on a life of its own. It is a third setting, and in terms of novels bigger than the 40K universe that spawned it. I’m glad I am able to find little pieces and areas where I can lay down my mark on what is going to be a sci-fi series that will live long in the memory.

TSC: It really is a great series. And more than a few people, I’m sure, would love to see alternative Warhammer 30,000 rules released. Moving away from GW, back in September 2010 Angry Robot published the first part in The Crown trilogy; your entirely original fantasy series. Can you tell us a bit about the trilogy?

Gav: The setting is quite different from Warhammer, with a, bronze age, Roman and Persian feel to it. The main character, Ullsaard, is a general of the Askhan Empire, and a very good one at that. He has a problem though – the expansion of the empire has stagnated of late and he is chafing to push back the boundaries even further. The empire is ruled over by the Blood, descendants of the First King, a man called Akhos. Despite the name, the Blood are not vampires, as some people have assumed. When the heir to the Crown of the Blood falls ill on military campaign, one of Ullsaard’s allies, Prince Aalun, drags him into a conflict for the succession, and soon the future of the empire is up for grabs.

It is a very ‘adult’ book, in that it has sex and swearing and a healthy dose of violence. It deals with the psychology of conquerors and men of power, and has a healthy dose of real politik as various factions and individuals vie for control of the Askhan empire.

TSC: Sex and swearing? I’m on board! How did you find it moving away from Games Workshop IP and creating your own? Were there any moments in editing the trilogy when you suddenly realised you’d taken a wrong turning and found yourself in downtown Middenheim?

Gav: I deliberately took The Crown of the Blood a good distance from Warhammer, in setting and tone, so there has never been any clash in my mind. The only thing they share, I suppose, is a military angle. It was good to have a clean slate and just get on with the storytelling, the world-changing to the needs of the narrative rather than trying to fix a particular story in a world already defined. The downside is that it’s nobody’s work but my own, so if there is something a reader does not like, it’s always going to be a decision I have made rather than, perhaps, something I have inherited from the existing background.

TSC: Again, the reviews thus far have been very positive so I’d say you’re on to a winner. With Deliverance Lost already out and part three of The Crown trilogy out in August, what are you working on next? And what are you allowed to tell us about it?

Gav: What I am working on and what comes out next aren’t the same thing… Part three of the Path of the Eldar will be out in September – that’s Path of the Outcast, and deals with the character Aradryan, who leaves Alaitoc to find purpose in his life and ends up getting involved in rather more than he can handle. I’m just about to start Ravenwing, the first in a new Dark Angels trilogy that follows on from Angels of Darkness. The trilogy is called Legacy of Caliban, but I’m not sure when it will be coming out. The title sort of tells you what that is about. At the moment, I have a Horus Heresy novella being serialised in the e-mag Hammer and Bolter, and that will also be published in an Anthology called The Primarchs. The novella is simply called The Lion and deals with what the Dark Angels have been up to since Aaron Dembski-Bowden’s short story Savage Weapons in Age of Darkness. Iron Hands and Death Guard get involved too. After that…well, things get a lot more vague. Hoping to do some more Warhammer for Black Library, maybe something involving a Dwarf and some beer. I’m also hoping to do more with Angry Robot, but whether that is Crown-related or something totally different we’ll have to see.

TSC: So it’s reasonable to say, you’re quite a busy chap, then. But, if you could work on any IP, be it a game, novel or script, what would it be?

It would be something new, that nobody has seen yet. If someone gave me a big bundle of money, some talented artists, sculptors and about a year, I would love to see what sort of game I would come up with. Failing that, a video games development studio and a few million pounds would be nice. Really I’m at a place now that being involved in the creation of something new from day one is where I really want to be. The Crown of the Blood is cool, but the universe I’ve invented for that is very much suited to the purpose of the story I wanted to tell, although there might be some room for expansion. Given the time to indulge myself, I would create something more suited to multimedia exploitation – RPGs, miniature games, novels, comics, and so on.

TSC: You can come work with me then, I’ve been trying to get my game finished for years!

Gav: In relation to existing IPs, then my favourites would have to be those of 2000AD when I was growing up – Strontium Dog, Judge Dredd, Rogue Trooper. There is so much that could be done with them, in terms of stories, games and other applications.

TSC: You’ll have to get Dan to have a word. And finally, because I have to ask; what advice would you give all us budding writers?

Gav: It’s hard to give catch-all advice to would-be writers because each has a different path to follow, and each stumbles at different obstacles. With that in mind, I have two pieces of advice:

The first applies to many things, but ‘keep it simple’. Do not try to write your magnum opus straight out of the gate. I’m almost into double digits now for the number of novels I’ve written and I still think my best is yet to come. Find some good characters and an interesting story and don’t go overboard with trying to be revolutionary. Most readers just want a good story, well told. Work on your style and structure on something straightforward before trying to get too fancy.

Secondly, find your writing process. Lots of starting writers over-think while they are writing. They agonise over every word, comma and clause, thinking that through sheer persistence they will stumble upon their style. Don’t. Concentrate on story-telling, style can come later. To that end, I always tell people to Think-Write-Think. That is, think about a scene, chapter or the entire story before you start trying to write it. Make notes if you need to. Come up with cool lines of dialogue. Fix an image and a purpose in your mind – why this scene? Why this character and how does he or she act? What is the point of what I am writing? Then just write something. Write the scene or the chapter. DO NOT read what you have already written until you have finished the scene or chapter. DO NOT edit as you go along, just leave in the typos and the mistakes. Do this quickly, go with the flow. When you have words on the page you have a raw material to work with, and then you can think again. This is the edit stage – look at what you have written and think about what you were trying to achieve. This is where the style and the language can be finessed. Most of all, though, find what works best for you, and remember this: writer’s write, but authors finish!

TSC: Great advice that I know many of my readers will appreciate. And I do too actually. One more question for the road; fancy a game?

Gav: Yes, in theory, though I have not played Warhammer or 40K for about four years, and I am horribly out of the loop as far as the game system goes. So don’t expect anything competitive, or even competent. Always happy to try out new games though.

TSC: That’s fine, it’ll just make me look like a half competent gamer for a change. Gav, it’s been an absolute pleasure, thanks for taking the time.

Deliverance Lost is out now and available from Games Workshop hobby centres, the Black Library website and all good book stores. The Crown of the Blood & The Crown of the Conqueror are available through the Angry Robot website and all good book stores. The concluding part, The Crown of the Usurper is available later this year.

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