An Interview with Graham McNeill

It’s interview time ladies and germs and this time it’s none other than the saviour of Ultramar and all round nice guy; Graham McNeill. For those not in the know, Graham McNeill is responsible for the Ultramarines novels starring the stalwart Captain Uriel Ventris. He’s also been a key player in shaping the Horus Heresy series. So a pretty important chap all things considered.

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So without further ado…

TSC: Now, Graham; you’re widely considered to be the grand overlord of all things Ultramarines having penned the adventures of Uriel Ventris. You’ve also been instrumental in making the Ultramarines cool to many gamers who saw the Chapter as ‘the blue ones kids collect’. What drew you to the Ultramarines in the first place as an army to write about and what were you determined to bring to the fore?

GM: Why thank you. Yeah, that reputation as ‘the boring Chapter’ was one that really irked me, as I loved their classical background and was very much of the mind that you didn’t need to be a bloodsucking vampire or a space Viking (though those things are cool…) to be a great Chapter of Space Marines. I loved the epic feel of their back story, the nobility and the heroism of it all. When everyone else were being total sons of bitches, mired in shades of grey, these guys were the true white hats of the Imperium. These are the warriors who remember why they were created in the first place, to serve and protect mankind. When I was first approached to write a novel for BL, they wanted a codex chapter, as pretty much the only Space Marine fiction out at the time was Bill King’s excellent Space Wolf series. Which was cool, but not exactly representative of what the core Space Marine imagery was all about. So I figured that if I was going to show folk what Space Marines were like, I’d show them what the Space Marines were like. I wanted to break the idea that a seven-foot tall, genetically engineered killing machine who didn’t have fangs was boring…

TSC: And a bloody fine job you did too. I love my Ultramarines. All 215 of them… Since you set the bench mark of blue armoured awesome, both Nick Kyme and Dan Abnett have tackled the Ultramarines with the Fall of Damnos and Know No Fear respectively. What do you feel they bring to the Ultramarines and will it influence how you write about Ultramarines in the future?

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GM: I haven’t read Fall of Damnos, so I can’t comment on that, but Know No Fear was an excellent read. Dan’s Ultramarines are very different from mine, and that’s entirely a good thing. Ten thousand years separate the Ultramarines of the Heresy from mine, and there should be marked differences between the two iterations of Guilliman’s legion. I think Dan has really shown just how dangerous and how deadly the Ultramarines are in large numbers (and individually), and why they were so high on Horus’s kill list that they had to be eliminated before the real meat of the rebellion got under-way As to how it’ll influence my writing of the Ultramarines in the future, I’m not sure. In Heresy terms, yeah it’s already made a difference, and my Ultramarines in the novella, Calth that Was, are pretty much the same as Dan’s…though there’s already some changes in the wind. As to Uriel’s stories, I don’t really see much of an impact, as it would feel a tad forced if the Heresy-era Ultramarines terminology etc was to suddenly creep into Uriel’s 40k world.

TSC: Important to leave Warhammer 30k firmly in the past as it were. You’ve been heavily involved in the Horus Heresy series having written about some of the most key and iconic developments in the saga, most notably the New York Times best-selling A Thousand Sons. What was it like being involved in such an epic tale? Presumably you worked closely with Dan?

GM: I worked very closely with Dan, yeah. Originally, he was going to take the Thousand Sons, and I was going to take the Wolves, but the more we worked on the stories and characters, the more we realised we liked the other side more and switched halfway through the planning. Thank goodness we did. Telling that tale, was incredible fun, as it was a story that people thought they knew, so there was the opportunity to surprise them, to take them on a journey where they thought they knew where they were going before flipping them on their head. I wanted to tell a story where there were quite a few bits of the background that didn’t make a lot of sense, but which offered us interesting wrinkles to the story, and new ways to add to the mythos that didn’t break what was already there. It gave me a chance to add new layers to the story and invent elements that folk just weren’t aware of.

Dan’s book was supposed to come out before mine, but after some health issues, it was decided to put Dan’s back a bit, which meant I had to work closely with him to make sure that the Space Wolves I was depicting in my book would match up to what he was planning to do in his book. A lot of back and forth, a lot of e-mails and a lot of phone calls ensued, all of which made for a couple of great books that work very well as companion pieces.

TSC: I think they’re ace. Two of my favourite books in the series and I think they work very well with Prospero Burns as the ‘part 2’. Now, Angel Exterminatus was released back in October to critical acclaim. For those that haven’t read it, what can you tell us about it and how it fits into the Heresy to date?

GM: It’s a book that shows us the reality of being on the Chaos side of the fence, that it isn’t all unity and Down with the Emperor posters. It’s the Iron Warriors and the Emperor’s Children fighting side by side for an incredible payoff, but beset by their own internal hatreds, rivalries and bitterness and then throwing them into the most dangerous region of space while a rag-tag fleet of Imperials harries them all the way. It takes place some time after the Isstvan massacre, and comes at a crux point in the development of the Chaos legions, where they start to realise exactly what they’ve thrown their lot in with, where the crazier aspects of Chaos really start to come through. It’s a men on a mission movie, it’s an action movie, it’s a horror movie. All in one meaty hardback book. Out now.

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TSC: And sounds awesome. Having written across Warhammer Fantasy, Warhammer 40,000, The Horus Heresy and even Star Craft, what has been your favourite project to work on?

GM: The most obvious answer is ‘the one I’m working on right now’ but each project has its ups and downs, those moments that swing between just wanting to get the damn thing done, while simultaneously loving it and the characters and being sad to leave them behind. I love the sheer variety you can get with 40k, the breadth of a universe you can play in, but then I also like the claustrophobic grit of the Old World, where you can’t just blow up a world and not care. Everything you do there has to matter, so it becomes even more important to pitch the drama just right. And with Heresy, well, you’re getting to play with the biggest toys in the box and that’s always fun and challenging and terrifying all at the same time. Star Craft was enjoyable, because the characters were much closer to us than any we see in the Warhammer worlds. They’re recognizably human who live human lives, so it was fun to write people with ‘ordinary’ concerns who didn’t have to worry about being possessed by daemons or being eaten by aliens (yet). I’m also finishing off a trilogy of novels for the Arkham Horror franchise, and as a big Lovecraft fan, writing these has been a blast.

TSC: And what’s the one IP you’d love to write for but haven’t yet?

GM: I’ve written the first half of a novel set in ancient China, does that count? Hmmm, I’d love to do a contemporary/near future war novel, but what franchises those would represent I’m not sure. Doctor Who would be awesome, as would Star Wars or Star Trek. But you know what, I’ve a ton of original fiction ideas I’d love to get off the ground, but time is always the enemy, especially when your schedule is as full as mine.

TSC: I know the feeling. Although I could just do with putting the Xbox controller down. Back in 2010 you won the David Gemmell Legend Award for the incredible Empire. What was it like to receive such a prestigious award?

GM: As a lifelong David Gemmell fan, winning an award like that was a huge honour for me. I learned a lot from reading David Gemmell’s books, and even dedicated my novel Heldenhammer to him. To own Snaga is a big deal to me, and I’ve rarely felt prouder than when I stood on that podium with an axe in my hand thanking the members of his family and thanking the man himself for being such an inspiration. Moments like that don’t come along very often, and that night is seared into my memory forever.

TSC: And well deserved. You seem to have a knack for tackling the tough projects. If it’s not the Mechanicum, it’s the Thousand Sons and if it’s not them it’s Sigmar and the founding of the Empire. Where do you start and how do you keep it fresh when there’s so much background that the fans know and love and such high expectations?

GM: I start by remembering that I’m a fan too, so what would I like to see? What’s the quintessential essence of the project I’m taking on, what would I be mad as hell about if I didn’t see in this book if I was a fan reading it ten months later? You have to look at the core elements of what make the thing you’re writing about cool and magnify that tenfold, a hundredfold, to really grab the readers’ attention. I’ve been steeped in Games Workshop’s lore for nigh on thirty years now, so I know it pretty well and have been along for the ride for all that time, but I still set a good bit of time aside for reading and catching up before I put pen to paper. I look out all my codices, army books, reference materials, source matter and the like and give myself a 101 on what makes the Thousand Sons, The Mechanicum or Sigmar so cool. As to keeping it fresh, well, that’s a case of always being open to new ideas and understanding that there’s always something new to learn and always new ways you can grow and develop as a writer. Finding new was to express ideas is always useful, as it keeps your writing sparking and interesting, but in a way that still retains your voice.

Managing fan expectations is a tricky one, because every fan has their own expectation of what a given book should do or what a particular character should say or do at any given time. You can be aware of what the majority of fans might like to see, but in the end I have to write the book I want to write. Pandering is a slippery slope, so I always stay true to the vision of the book I set out to write. That might change as the book goes along, and that’s okay, it happens. I just go with it, as I’m still writing my book. The best I can do is to do the best I can do and hope people dig the choices I’ve made.

TSC: Couldn’t agree more. We don’t do pandering on The Shell Case. What juicy tid bits can you give us about what we can expect next for the Horus Heresy and the Warrior of Ultramar?

GM: After Angel Exterminatus (and then Lords of Mars) I return to the Heresy with a book called Vengeful Spirit, which I don’t think you need to be a brain surgeon to work out who’s likely to be centre stage there… It’s a chance to remind the readers why it’s Horus’ name on the banner, not Abaddon’s or Perturabo’s or any of the other Primarchs. And it’s a book where we’ll be bringing back a fan favourite character and really putting him through the wringer.

TSC: Okay, awesome.

GM: With the Ultramarines, I kind of blew the FX budget in The Chapter’s Due, so I’m taking the cast list down a notch or thousand. The second trilogy in the Ultramarines series built in scale from just Uriel and Pasanius, to the company at war to then being the entire Chapter at war. I pondered on where to go next, because you can’t just go bigger and chuck in a few extra Chapters and inflate the numbers. You increase the jeopardy and heighten the drama by taking away what gives the heroes their power, and Space Marine terms, that means taking away their armies and brothers. So the next Ultramarines novel is to be called The Swords of Calth and is a stripped down story of what happens when the war is lost on page 2 and you only have a few bodies around you to help you stay alive. This will be a novel that takes us through bitter defeat, as experienced by the Ultramarines, a Chapter that almost never loses.

TSC: Can’t wait for that. Let me know your going bribe rate for advanced copies. Kidding. Maybe. And finally, because I always like to ask – what’s the one piece of advice you could give to aspiring authors out there?

GM: One piece…? Okay, I’d say make sure that you spend a little bit of time every day writing, whether it’s for five hours, ten hours or five minutes. Getting that discipline in place, where writing is just something you do that’s as natural as breathing is half the battle. You want to get to a point where if you can’t write, you feel bad, you feel like there’s something wrong and you wish someone would just hand you a damn pen and pad of paper. And finish the things you write. So many people I talk to have a dozen or more half-finished stories that ran out of steam, ideas or motivation. Get. Them. Finished. You’re only dabbling if you’re not finishing, so get the story finished or you’re not doing the job right. Okay, that’s two pieces, but you can have that last one for free, as it was more of a rant than a piece of advice.

TSC: Graham, it’s been an absolute delight and I can’t wait for all the new books to hit the shelves.

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