From the Last Church to the last word: An interview with Graham McNeill
KHAN: It is fair to say that you are a pillar, if not some of the base and roof, of the monolith that is Games workshop. With almost one hundred written works of fiction under Black Library, and a number of game design credits spanning a career that reaches back almost two decades. What was it like in those early days?
GM: That’s kind of you to say so, though I continue to stand upon the mighty shoulders of those who came before me, writers, artists, and miniature designers who dared to dream the monolith into life and then poured the foundations for its building. When I joined the Games Workshop Design Studio, 40k had just entered its third edition, Warhammer was just about to enter it’s sixth, and Lord of the Rings and Age of Sigmar weren’t even a glint in the games’ designers eyes… But, yeah, those years still feel wonderfully formative to me, as the incarnations of those games were starting to properly take the shapes we know today. With all that said, my time there was some of the best years I’ve ever known, working with the most insanely talented people imaginable in an atmosphere of unrestrained creativity. I worked alongside Karl Kopinski, Tuomas Pirinen, Phil Kelly, Brian Nelson, Jes Goodwin, Anthony Reynolds, Andy Chambers, Gav Thorpe, and Rick Priestley, as well as many other giants in their field.
It was an amazing, collaborative place, with genuinely inspirational people all around. I learned so much from my time at Games Workshop, about writing, about creativity, and how to work in teams when you’re surrounded by literal geniuses. I also learned a work ethic I never knew I possessed, but I suppose that’s maybe a natural byproduct of working in a job you love. So, yeah, it was a fun place to come to work every day; writing fiction, rules, and articles for Codexes, Army Books, and White Dwarf. Playtesting, brainstorming, and talking to our players about gaming and the lore. I met some of my best friends there, folk I continue to game with to this day, and who inspire me at every turn with their creativity.
KHAN: Obviously game design and fiction present very different challenges. However, if I were to say you had to choose one. Which would you say is your preferred arena?
GM: My preferred area is always the thing I’m doing at any given moment. If it’s a novel, I love novels the most – the depth, the scale, the room to breathe in its creation. If it’s short stories, I love them the most – the discipline of the word count, the tightness of the prose, the get in-get out of short fiction. If it’s games design, then I love the mechanical smoothness when a rule works well and plays nice with others, building a system where absolute clarity is uppermost in the hierarchy of needs.
So, yeah, while I love pretty much all forms of writing, long-form fiction writing is probably my happiest of happy places, the style where I feel at my most creative. But I like to regularly stretch myself in terms of what I’m writing, whether it’s novels, audios, short stories, worldbuilding text, scripts, VO work, games rules, etc. Obviously, I get to do much less tabletop rules writing these days, but varying up my diet of writing is a way to stay fresh, keep my excitement levels high for each type of writing, and not get stuck in too much of a rut. If I do lots of 40k back to back, I like to ‘palate cleanse’, so to speak, with wizards, goblins, and dragons, whereas if I’ve done only short stories or audios, I like to get stuck into a months-long project like a novel. And once I’ve written a novel, I like to get into something less dense, like a short script, where I have to pare back my wordy excesses to craft something that’s like a finely detailed blueprint.
KHAN: I am always interested in where people find their inspiration to take up writing. Their origin story if you will. I personally was always around fiction growing up, and even into my university days studying creative writing (do not study creative writing at university it is a fool’s errand). How would you outline your own origin story?
GM: That’s a story I’ve told quite a few times. I grew up surrounded by books. My mum and dad filled our house with books and were always reading, so it was natural for me to do the same. I read plenty of comics growing up (and still do…) and always had a book on the go. At a very young age (still strapped in a car-seat age) I told my mum I was either going to be a writer or a binman, and so it turned out… I got into Fighting Fantasy books when my mum bought me a copy of The Warlock of Firetop Mountain when I was eleven, and that was it, I took my first steps on a path that’s still stretching out in front of me. I read all the Fighting Fantasy books, and they were my gateways into D&D and other roleplaying systems. And while I enjoyed being a player, I quickly recognised that I was a DM at heart, and spent more time designing adventures for my players than I ever did exploring a dungeon. I wrote loads of adventures with ever-grander plots, that usually ended up in big, world and fate deciding battles, but since RPGs aren’t built to handle those kinds of conflicts, I sought out something that could handle mass-battles… Enter Warhammer.
I fell in love with the brutal, gothic aesthetic of the Old World, and pretty soon wargaming took over from roleplaying, but I kept up the storytelling aspect of the games, building out narrative campaigns for us to play – detailing why that battle was taking place and what its outcomes would mean for the next one. I was building out narrative campaigns before I even knew what they were. I kept reading through all this, of course, and had been trying to write a fantasy novel of my own after reading David Gemmell’s novel, Waylander, when I was a teenager. I was a dabbler in the writing field until I read a fantasy novel that was so bad that, at the end, I said, “I could do better than that!” So I decided then and there to put my money where my mouth was and try. So I wrote a 40k novel I felt wasn’t too bad and took it with me to my first interview at Games Workshop, back in 2000. The guys there seemed to think it was okay too, so it definitely helped me get my first job in the Design Studio.
KHAN: You have also had experience in a somewhat unique arena of writing in working for established IPs as a freelancer. With Warhammer, Starcraft, and Arkham Horror all under your belt. It is common for fans of franchises to desire to break into writing for them. What advice would you give to aspiring writers out there who want to write for their beloved fandoms?
GM: First off, let’s ditch the ‘aspiring’ part, if you write, you’re a writer. Maybe not a published one yet, but you’re still a writer. I like the term, developing writer, because it applies to all of us, no matter where we are on our journey and speaks to the idea of always being open to new ideas and new ways to improve. In the end, most writing advice can come across as pretty generic or trite, while at the same time being absolutely spot on, and that’s because a lot of what makes a good writer is pretty common. But the truth is, a lot of people don’t want to hear the reality of what it takes to ‘make it’ as a writer, they want the magic bullet, the secret sauce to skirt around the fact that they’re going to have to put in a shitload of work to maybe get to write for their beloved fandoms in a professional capacity.
Because the truth is, writing and living as a
writer is hard work. It’s many things, but a few standouts are being a good
reader, a disciplined worker who gets their ass in front of the computer, day
in, day out, who has and almost limitless sense of perseverance and a
determination not to quit in the face of seemingly insurmountable obstacles.
And, finally, let’s not forget that we all need a hefty dollop of luck, as
without that final magical ingredient, you’re out of, well, luck. I think most
writers can admit to a healthy respect for luck in their career, whether it was
meeting the right person who inspired them, seeing the right job opportunity,
taking the right chance, reading the right book at the right time, or whatever.
And before you throw your arms up in despair, you can do things to make
sure that when luck turns your way, you’re ready for it. As the golfer, Gary
Player is often quoted as saying, “The more I practice, the luckier I get…” So work
on the things you can work at and improve them so that when the luck
strikes, you’re ready to take advantage of it.
KHAN: In a recent interview with ‘The Heresy Lodge’ you talked about writing space marine and rememberancers. You touched on using flaws to make the characters. How important do you think it is to have characters with flaws?
GM: It’s vital, as what human being (or alien or Space Marine) do we know that doesn’t have flaws? Everyone, and I mean everyone, has flaws, and the unique mix of our virtues, vices, flaws, and exemplary traits that bubble within each and every one of us are what make us unique and interesting. It’s the same with our characters. If they’re perfect, they’re boring. We follow their stories because we want to see them put through the wringer by the writer and see how their character emerges under the pressure of the consequences of their choices. Their (usually increasingly poor) choices are the drivers of story and generate plot that takes us to their next decision and turning point in the story. A flawed character is interesting, because we want to see them overcome their flaw, to triumph by mastering it or at least coming to terms with it.
KHAN: Do you have a process for creating your characters, or do they more or less
come fully formed to you?
GM: It depends. Usually when I’m working on a story, there’s at least some notion of what it’ll be or what it’s going to be about, so for my main character(s) I try to think of the worst psychologically-equipped person to encounter that particular story and who’ll be challenged the most by going through it. A mountain rescue? Then I want someone who’s afraid of heights, a desperate chase through the sewers, someone who’s claustrophobic. A drunk cop who has to get sober enough to confront his demons and solve the case, and so on. I mean, those are cliches, but the principle is still sound, I look to see who will be an interesting enough character that a reader will want travel alongside them for the journey of the novel. Same with the supporting cast and bit players in the drama, I want to make them feel authentic, like they have their own life beyond the page (unless I kill them off…) or at least had one beforehand. Everyone in a scene wants something, so thinking of what traits would make that character interesting, however long they get to shine on the page, is important.
KHAN: Being no stranger to the online community you may have seen the discourse
that tends to circle around about whether 40K is a ‘satire’, ‘tragedy’, or
something perhaps taken too seriously. How would you describe the nature of
GM: That’s a discussion I try not to delve
into, as it’s so easy to have your intentions misconstrued and weaponised. I
certainly can see the tragedy angle, especially when you consider how close
humanity was (in the latter days of the Great Crusade) to actually achieving what
it set out to do. I’ve seen the satire argument trotted out over and over, but
I don’t think it really holds water anymore. Sure, the early work written for
40k was born out of the 80s, when a lot of SF fiction was blatantly inspired by
the policies of the UK government, the rule of Margaret Thatcher, and the state
of the nation at the time. As time has moved on, the thing the writing was
originally satirising has either been forgotten or wasn’t really known first
hand by players younger than forty, so to continue to call it satire when
what’s been written since either hasn’t gone back to the primary sources or is
basing it on the books written after the books that were written after the
books, etc. tend to lose that element over distance and time, so I don’t really
consider it satire now of what it was satirising then. But I could see it as a
cautionary tale of the current state of affairs, a reflection on rising
autocracy around the world, since the Imperium pretty much follows the
authoritarian playbook (albeit, the monsters and daemons it’s preachers
warn of are very real…). I prefer to think of it simply as a setting for cool
stories and games, as 40k isn’t advocating modelling behaviour on any one
faction, as I certainly don’t think any of the forces in the 40k universe are
to be emulated or overly admired as they all have terrible darkness in
them. That it attracts a certain element of gamers who see something to glorify
in the Imperium and use it as a means to promulgate abhorrent beliefs, just
tells me that they don’t understand the setting at all.
KHAN: Perhaps an intriguing, if not challenging, aspect to 40K is answering newcomers when they ask that question ‘Who are the good guys?’. It is somewhat like panning for gold in a sceptic tank. The setting has so many factions who justify their own position. In the Horus Heresy we see each side making arguments for their position. Are there any ‘good guys’? How do you as an author approach this?
GM: I approach it by imagining that each
faction truly believes they’re the ‘good guys’ and writing from that place. In
their minds, their personal survival justifies everything they do, no matter
how heinous, so I’d say there aren’t any good guys, per se, but perhaps there
are some less evil than others. What makes 40k such a great setting to explore
is that it’s wreathed in shades of grey, where evils both epic and banal are
justified by whatever reasons are necessary to get through the day. And of
course, evil is sometimes dependent on which end of the boot, blade or bullet
you’re on. To the Imperial settlers being murdered by Aeldari in service of
some inscrutable plan, the aliens are pretty evil, but to the Aeldari watching
the settlers strip mine their ancestral home, the humans look pretty bad. The
lists go on, and even the Drukhari justify what they do in their own minds,
fighting against the selfishness of other races who hold their suffering from
them and thus deny them their life…
KHAN: Do you think 40K has an element of ‘unreliable narrator’?
GM: In an in-world, historical sense, yeah, I can see that. An Imperial citizen is fed a steady diet of propaganda, but unless I’m setting a story up with an unreliable narrator, I think you take the stories as they’re written. The histories of 40k are so wrapped up in myth and legend that the truth of the galaxy’s earliest days are all but forgotten except as over the top stories. Think of how little we know of history only a few thousand years ago, imagine how much we don’t know of ten thousand years ago. For all that we do know, there’s infinitely more we don’t.
KHAN: Everyone has an opinion about the actions, choices, and even the very plan
that the God Emperor had. He is almost the centre point the setting revolves
around. Earlier I asked about 40K potentially being a tragedy. Do you think the
path of the God Emperor, and character, are tragic in nature?
GM: Like I said above, I think the Horus Heresy is a story of tragedy, loss, and the crumbling of what could have been. What’s happened since then is a slow decay from stagnation. There’s a great irony in the Emperor dreaming of such a golden future, then being forced to watch the very things he didn’t want to happen coming to pass before his eyes; the rise of his godhood cult, the constant incursions of Chaos, and the metastasising of his once dynamic empire into a crumbling echo of its former glory.
KHAN: Not to talk down any of the other works that you have done. However, I have to admit that ‘The Last Church’ is perhaps my favourite. Was it particularly daunting having to write one of the most intimate stories about essentially such a massive character?
GM: Thanks! And as to it being daunting… no and yes. No, because once I’d chosen to write that story, it was a challenge I’d given myself so it didn’t feel as daunting as it might have done had it been handed down from on high. Since I chose it, I felt it was a story I could tell, so that in itself gave me confidence that I’d be okay. But once the words are flowing, yeah, I did feel a sense of building pressure to show the Emperor in an authentic light of a godlike being, while also highlighting his cruelty and his towering sense of moral superiority. Given that he’s not identified as the Emperor until right at the end, I had a pretty free hand to depict him how I liked, and use the ending to really ramp up His terrifying nature.
KHAN: Some time ago now I wrote about the direction that Games Workshop and its fiction were heading () It seems to be adapting and changing to modern audiences. Yet maintaining that ‘Grimdark’ flavour we have always known. How do you feel things may have changed?
GM: I see a welcome and much needed move towards diversity in GW’s lineup in models, representation both within and beyond the company, as well as a broader variety in the types of stories and the people they’re told about. Let me be absolutely clear; this is a good thing and I welcome it wholeheartedly. The grimdark flavour of Warhammer is still present and correct, and is not going away in my books or anyone else’s. It’s still the bleakest, harshest regime in the galaxy, with little hope, and an eternity of war...
KHAN: When I first reached out to you, you said something that sparked a question in me. So as a fun thought experiment you are the metaphorical Skynet and get to send a terminator back in time to stop an idea you had, or change something you have written. What, if anything, might you go back and change in your writing?
GM: Honestly, I don’t think I’d change any bit of writing, as I think every piece I’ve written has been a step on the path that’s got me where I am today. I was offered the chance to do a rewrite pass on Nightbringer back when it was coming out in, I think, the Masterworks edition, but I declined as I didn’t want multiple versions of the book out there or folk who had the original version to feel they had an ‘inferior’ version. And besides, it’s indicative of who I was as a person and a writer at the time, so it’s a nice literary time-capsule I wouldn’t want to change. And, to borrow/paraphrase David Gemmell, while, sure, I could likely improve the quality of the writing or story in various places, I don’t think I’d improve its heart or what it makes it uniquely my first novel. Whatever tiny percentage by which I could make it better likely wouldn’t be worth the effort I’d spend…
If I could advise earlier me or those I worked with into anything, I’d maybe say yes to more Starcraft books or give Fantasy Flight Games a hint that they should do more books in their Arkham Horror range, as I had the best time working with Chris Metzen at Blizzard on I, Mengsk, and Patricia Meredith for FFG.
KHAN: Finally in the spirit of hospitality I want to give you the open floor, and ask if you have any message, advice, or dare I ask for teases of upcoming projects you want to share with the readers of the Khanate?
GM: Be excellent to each other... and... PARTY ON, DUDES! Seriously, do be excellent to each other, play nice, don’t stand for bigotry or folk being assholes.As to upcoming projects, well, just had a chat with Nick Kyme earlier this week and let’s just say there’s a ton of interesting projects in the mix, some Heretical, some Red, and some very, very, Blue.
Feel free to continue the discussion in the comments, or over on twitter. As always remember hospitality is sacred.