An Interview with James Swallow

They say never meet your heroes because you’ll only be disappointed. To those people I say poppycock and balderdash! I met the sci-fi legend that is James Swallow at Salute and was fortunate enough to have a good old natter with him about, amongst other things, Primarchs having Daddy issues and the Emperor never really being able to replace the adoptive fathers that raised them. It was, for me, an utterly awesome few minutes.

And if that weren’t enough, James being a thoroughly nice chap, kindly agreed to answer a few of my questions for The Shell Case. The mad fool.

TSC: James, thanks for taking the time. Now, you’re quite the sci-fi household name with huge success working across a variety of IPs including 2000AD, Stargate, Doctor Who, the latest instalment of the Deus Ex video game series and you’re the only British writer to have worked on Star Trek, specifically Voyager. So the question I have to ask is; did you get to meet Jeri Ryan?

JS: Nope, although Jeri was very complimentary about one of the stories I wrote for her character (a story called “One”)… I have met a fair few Star Trek actors in my time on the show and hung out on the sets of Deep Space Nine, Voyager and Enterprise, which was fun. I guess I’ve been pretty lucky to work on IPs from fictional worlds that have given me a lot of enjoyment over the years.

TSC: The temptation to bellow Get off my bridge would be too much for me, I think. As I say, you’ve got a huge number of projects to your name including the all new Blake 7 stuff, the Blood Angels novels, the Horus Heresy, Stargate, Star Trek, what’s been your favourite to work on a why?

JS: I can’t really pick a favourite; I like each of them for different reasons. Each story presents a different set of challenges, each fictional world a different tone and texture to write.

TSC: Fair comment. So, what’s the one project you’ve not worked on yet that you’d love to take a crack at?

JS: If we’re talking about tie-ins, I’d love to do something for Star Wars, Halo or Marvel comics. I’m a big fan of all those universes. Beyond that, maybe write an action movie or a modern-day thriller novel.

TSC: I vote for Halo. Maybe a tie-in between Halo’s 3 & 4. Working with so many different IPs and Universes, do you ever get muddled up? Do you start off on Baal and end up on a Battlestar?

JS: No, the tones of each fictional world are very different. What works in a Star Trek story would not feel right in a Stargate tale, or vice-versa. It’s an important part of the tie-in writer’s job to maintain the correct texture and “feel” of a universe, otherwise what you’re writing doesn’t fit.

TSC: The Blood Angels series is now available in two anthologies. What drew you them to write about over the other Chapters?

JS: They’re cool! At the start, when Black Library asked me to write for the Warhammer 40,000 universe, I thought long and hard about what I wanted to do, and I considered all the factions. The Blood Angels stood out to me because they were a first founding chapter that no-one had really written very much about at the time – and they have a great dramatic concept at their core. The thing about the Blood Angels is, their greatest gift – the noble bloodline of Sanguinius – is also their greatest curse. That’s a dynamic spur for character conflict and good drama, and when I saw that I knew that I wanted to write about them.

TSC: Deus Encarmine & Deus Sanguinius were awesome and incredibly bold considering you basically plunged the Blood Angels into a civil war. Aside from being hugely fun to write you must have felt a great deal of responsibility in writing what I think is a very brave story. Were the any anxieties from the Black Library?

JS: Exactly the opposite, actually. Right at the start I pitched two Blood Angel stories; one was a more conventional action story (kinda ‘Black Hawk Down’ with Space Marines) and the other was called ‘Sacred Blood’, the civil war story which eventually became the Deus duology. I honestly thought Black Library would pick the conventional idea, but they went straight for the more contentious one and suggested I make it two books instead of one. It was very rewarding to have that level of trust from the editors, and it seems to have been the right choice, as the Blood Angels books have sold very well and readers keep asking for more!

TSC: They are way cool. I even wrote a prototype army list around the loyalist faction. Flight of the Eisenstein is one of my favourite Horus Heresy novels and introduced us to Nathaniel Garro who is, without question, one of the coolest characters ever made. Possibly even more so than Ravenor (sorry Dan). You’ve had the awesome task of writing the Garro audio books which introduce us to the fledgling days of the Grey Knights. How did you go about tackling such an important story and were there any details you had to be especially careful of?

JS: Everyone assumes there is a connection between Garro and the Grey Knights, but I have to say it’s not as clear-cut as people think it is! Things are not exactly as they appear; but we’ll reveal more as the Horus Heresy saga goes on. Garro is a great character, and I really enjoy writing him. I’m pleased people have latched on to him; after I wrote Flight I didn’t intend to return to him for a while, but the reader response was so strong I couldn’t let him fade away! Obviously, ever story we tell in the Heresy era is important to a greater or lesser extent – even those that may not seem important right now may take on greater meaning as the series continues. Garro is cool because he is a viewpoint figure, someone who had his own story but who can also observe other major events in the Heresy era. We have a strong arc for him across the whole of the narrative that will play out as things progress. How that may or may not connect to the origins of the Grey Knights…I can’t say.

TSC: Ooh you tease! Am I right in saying there’s another Garro instalment out at the end of the year? What are you able to tell us about the plot?

JS: The next Garro story is an audio drama – a two-disc tale this time – called Sword of Truth. Originally, my idea for the story was to make it a prose tale for a future Horus Heresy anthology, but Black Library wanted to make it an audio instead. Sword of Truth takes place between the events of Oath of Moment and Legion of One and it shows the introduction of the character of Macer Varren to Garro’s band of brothers. And there are plans for more Garro stories beyond those.

TSC: Sounds awesome. I’ll be getting it, that’s for sure. Now, Nemesis made it into the New York Times bestseller list, which is an incredible achievement. It was a real change of pace compared to some of the other Horus Heresy novels. How did you go about constructing, what I think is, a very elegant and atypical 40k novel whilst still keeping it, well, 40k?

JS: The concept for Nemesis came from a couple of places. The core idea spun out of one of our regular Horus Heresy writer meetings, when Dan Abnett, Graham McNeill and I were discussing the Thousand Sons/Prospero Burns books. The subject of assassins came up and I immediately knew it would be a cool area of story to examine. Once I decided to write it, I realised that Nemesis could be a vehicle to show that the Heresy isn’t all about Space Marines – ordinary people and different factions are also affected by it. I really liked the idea of being able to show how a normal person  – someone like you or I – would be affected by living on a world under the shadow of Horus’s rebellion. I wanted Nemesis to be a Robert Ludlum-style thriller in the 30K era, and I feel like I hit that mark. It’s also an interesting story, because it shows how one small event could have totally changed the course of the Heresy, if things had gone a different way.

TSC: I think you did it very well. Like Legion, by Dan, it was a very clever story that forced you to look beyond the war, and, as you say, the Space Marines knocking seven bells out of each other. Fear to Tread, out in September, is a Horus Heresy novel, surprisingly, about the Blood Angels. What can you tell us about it without giving the game away?

JS: The short answer is: the Blood Angels go to the Signus Cluster, and all hell (quite literally) breaks loose. As part of his plan to rebel against the Emperor, Horus sends Sanguinius and his legion to a remote star system on a fake mission – but it’s actually a trap for the Blood Angels. A huge army of daemonic creatures is waiting to destroy them. Of course, Chaos being Chaos, there are plans within plans and internal conflicts on both sides. By the end of the story, the Blood Angels will be changed by their experiences and set on the road toward the Siege of Terra and that final reckoning between Sanguinius and Horus. Fear to Tread is the biggest book I’ve ever written for Black Library, and there’s a lot going on in there. It’s been very challenging, but I feel it’s all up there on the page.

TSC: The buzz on the interwebs surrounding the novel has been very positive and excited so far so I think you may have another hit on your hands. And, finally, because I ask this of all the writers I’ve interviewed; what advice would you give to those budding writers, be they novelists or script writers?

JS: The advice I always give is two words: Finish It. Lots of budding writers start and stop, dropping out of a project when things get tough or when a better idea comes along – but that never advances your craft and your skills. I’ve lost count of the number of wannabes who say “I have great ideas but I can never finish writing them”; those people will never be writers. You have to stick with it and finish the job. It’s important to be able to see a piece of work through to the end, because no matter what you think of it when you are done, you will have become a better writer for it and earned yourself some XP.

TSC: James it’s a been a real pleasure, thank you very much and I look forward to all the new releases.

2 thoughts on “An Interview with James Swallow

  1. Excellent interview. I wasn’t a massive fan of his Blood Angels novels, but was incredibly suprised by the quality of his Heresy books – he really excelled himself there. I liked it so much I’ve recently picked up one of his Doctor Who books to read, looking forward to that.

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