Rob Sanders has been writing Black Library fiction for a little while, from short stories to novels. I particularly liked his debut novel, Redemption Corps, and have since been reading everything by him that I can find. With the upcoming release of his anticipated Legion of the Damned novel, I thought it would be a great time to ask him some questions about his latest novels, his writing practices, background and more.
Your first novel for Black Library was Redemption Corps. How would you describe it to a prospective reader, and how did you conceive of the premise and plot?
Redemption Corps is an Imperial Guard novel following the death-defying missions of a Storm Trooper outfit, led by Major Zane Mortensen. Mortensen is a respectably tough son-of-a-bitch. His homeworld of Gomorrah had been struck by a comet and decimated. The major had been burned from temple to toes in the apocalyptic fires that followed resulting in some seriously ugly scarring but also desensitisation of the flesh. He’s not invulnerable or anything, but he can certainly take a pounding. Mortensen and his ‘Redemption Corps’ storm troopers are a mixed group of specialists recruited from the Imperium’s Schola Progenium facilities that specialise in deep strike assaults, infiltration and rescue operations. They are a mobile unit making use of Valkyrie Assault Carriers and Vulture Gunships who have built their reputation on the inventive and bloody accomplishment of missions other Imperial Guard contingents wouldn’t even consider.
Redemption Corps started life as a short story for Inferno! Magazine – the print precursor of Hammer and Bolter. My Warhammer short story ‘The Cold Light of Day’ had been picked up off the slush pile by Christian Dunn and has the honour of appearing in the same issue as Nick Kyme’s first fiction. With Christian I arranged to work on a sequence of Imperial Guard stories for Inferno! and it was within these that the Storm Trooper ‘Redemption Corps’ outfit was born. Inferno! Magazine was benched about that time but BL liked the characters and premise and asked me to work on a title for their Imperial Guard series.
I liked the idea of working on a Storm Trooper novel. Storm Troopers are the elite of the Imperial Guard and operate at the peak of (un-engineered) human combat perfection. Ordinary regiments of the Imperial Guard all recruit from the same world and share a similar culture. Storm Troopers are unusual in as much as they all come from different worlds and bring specialised skills and natural abilities. This made working with different characters within the unit interesting and fun. The position of the Storm Troopers within Imperial Guard hierarchy also made them an appealing choice. They are the 40K equivalent of Special Forces and so can bring it when encountering the enemies of the Imperium. They also, however, have an uneasy relationship with other Guardsmen, that under certain circumstances they might be called to act against. This earns them little camaraderie with the other regiments who regard the Storm Troopers as ‘Glory Boys’ and ‘Tin Soldiers’. For the premise, I wanted to do something unusual. I don’t want to go into it too deeply because it will simply ruin the story for people who haven’t read the novel. The Redemption Corps are called to the Kaligari Cradle to brutally put down tech heretics on an Adeptus Mechanicus Fabricator moon, but events turn out to be a great deal more complex than the Imperial forces in the sector believe. Before they know it, heresy blooms into open rebellion of Imperial worlds in the area which in turn heralds an unstoppable xenos invasion.
Atlas Infernal, your second novel, takes a different approach, focusing on the exploits of a radical inquisitor. What sparked the idea for this novel, and what do you see as the main attraction to writing novels about the inquisition?
I feel very at home with the Inquisition. Their novels combine investigation with the grim action of the 40K universe. They are satisfying in so much as they provide answers to questions rather than the more straightforward overcoming-obstacles plots that dominate Space Marine and Imperial Guard fiction. The idea for Atlas Infernal came from several different sources.
Firstly, I am a big fan of Dan Abnett’s Eisenhorn – although I was sure that I didn’t want to write a book like it. Secondly, I found the way in which quotations from Czevak can be found in various rulebooks and codexes, both old and new, intriguing. This character seemed to have been ghosting around for decades in the background. Examining the material a little closer it became apparent that he was involved in some fairly significant events in the 40K universe. Thirdly, I wanted to write a slightly different kind of BL novel. The Warhammer 40k universe background is a boon to a writer but it also presents limitations. Travel is one such issue. Characters in 40K novels don’t tend to move about their universe with any great speed or efficiency. This is part of the grim darkness of that setting – the isolation of mankind in a large and hostile galaxy. I love that aspect too but, without serious point of view changes and skipping ahead in time, human characters can’t move from world to world with narrative ease. Czevak’s possession of the Atlas Infernal – a living map of the ancient Eldar webway – and his invitation to the Black Library of Chaos, meant that he not only had the tools to travel great distances in a short period of time but also the knowledge to cope with whatever he encountered there. Setting the novel amongst the myriad worlds of the Eye of Terror then sealed the deal for me because this is where the limits of the Warhammer 40K universe can really be tested: a location where the rules of reality, let alone physics, don’t apply. It is an inquisition novel but whacked up to eleven.
Will there be more novels featuring Inquisitor Czevak? Can you share some of the potential ideas you’re currently mulling for him?
I’d love to write more Inquisitor Czevak novels. Ultimately though, that’s down to readership and demand. As an author I wanted to make sure that everything was nicely wrapped up at the end of the novel with the ready promise of further adventures. This should satisfy readers who want to dip their toe into Inquisitorial fiction and those that want to commit to a series. Atlas Infernal deals largely with Inquisitor Bronislaw Czevak, his history and how it catches up with his present. It explores Czevak’s mind games, played out on a galactic scale, against the Chaos Lord and sorcerer Ahzek Ahriman of the Thousand Sons. Czevak is largely alone during his webway travels, but comes to inherit a retinue of radicals from amongst the ranks of heretics and madmen engaged in a quest to locate him. Chief among these is Raimus Klute, an Inquisitor in his own right, and former interrogator of Czevak’s. Klute has falsely hired the services of Rogue Trader Reinette Torres and her vessel the Malescaythe with his Inquisitorial rosette. Some muscle is provided by Saul Torqhuil, a Techmarine of the excommunicate Relictors Chapter, who like Czevak is a hunter of ancient artefacts and weapons of Chaos. Czevak and Klute are guided in their travels by Ephiphani Mallerstang, a blind warp seer and prognostic – who not only helps to navigate the Rogue Trader vessel through the Eye of Terror when no navigator could, but also helps warn the group of impending disasters. The retinue is complete with Hessian, a daemonhost. Hessian is a malevolent spirit trapped in the body of a comely youth and enslaved to Klute through runes and incantations. Epiphani treats him very much like a childhood pet but in reality Hessian revels in the desperate situations in which the group find themselves. The creature hopes that situations might necessitate the loosening of his bonds and that he will be allowed to unleash the havoc he exists for.
The great thing about BL novels, and Czevak’s story particularly, is that they really allow the imagination to run wild. This is science fiction, after all. Readers are different, obviously, and some prefer a rather more straightforward interpretation of alien worlds and infernal dimensions. On the other hand, many readers of Warhammer fiction are players – whether tabletop strategists, games masters and roleplayers, or computer gamers – and they are used to investing in their vision of the bleak 40k universe. I would encourage them to share their visions with others by submitting their work through great publishing opportunities like Hammer and Bolter or on forums like the Black Library Bolthole. Other readers come to the novels and short stories in a more traditional literary way, simply wanting to immerse themselves in the fictional world of an imaginative author. Black Library understands this and produces a range that has a little of everything, bringing authors and readers together who share particular galaxy-views (as opposed to world-views) of the Warhammer 40K milieu. I hope that my little corner of that universe stretches boundaries and pushes the imaginative envelope.
Subsequent adventures for Czevak would concentrate on his galactic cat and mouse game with Ahzek Ahriman and the race for damned artefacts across the raging insanity of the Eye of Terror. One such chase can be read in Necessary Evil, one of the stories for the Black Library Live 2011 Chapbook. Ahriman intends to use these powerful artefacts to exalt him to Chaos godhood and has the resources of a Traitor Legion and innumerable cultist followers at his disposal. Czevak, on the other hand, wishes to get ahead of Ahriman and destroy these abominations before the sorcerer has chance to acquire them. Czevak can’t compete with the number and reach of Ahriman’s followers – in fact, Czevak’s own Inquisition want to hunt him down for his heretical transgressions – but he does have the extensive knowledge of the Black Library of Chaos to aid him and the Atlas Infernal itself, allowing him to cross great distances in short periods of time. With these advantages, Czevak just manages to stay ahead of the Thousand Sons and the nefarious schemes of Ahriman. It is a situation that lends itself to countless future adventures.
Your next novel is Legion of the Damned, part of the Space Marine Battles series, which I’m very much looking forward to. What can readers expect from the book? Also, could you tell us about how you approached writing about this mysterious Legion, and again what’s the most attractive thing about writing about them?
The Legion of the Damned are a galactic enigma: spectral warriors who appear on the battlefield where and when they are most needed. When the forces of the Imperium are in peril, when defeat seems certain and enemy victory assured, these accursed crusaders manifest and fight at their brothers’ side. It would be unsporting of me as a Black Library author to demystify and explain away the Legion of the Damned. The mystery surrounding them is their most enduring and fascinating quality. So, while retaining the macabre darkness of the Damned Legionnaires, I wanted to explore their dynamic: the Imperium in danger; Space Marines out of their depth; the supernatural nature of an intervention that seems neither alien nor Ruinous but still unsettling and threatening. I knew early on that as a phenomenon, they would struggle to function as point-of-view characters: I’m also pretty sure that Black Library would have asked me to think again. We need to experience the Legion of the Damned through the eyes of others. Since it was part of the Space Marines Battles series, it made sense that these characters should be Space Marines. Naturally I read all the material, both old and new, on them and wanted to reflect their character in the background. The Legion of the Damned feature all the way through the novel but once again, staying true to their nature, they are expected to come to the party late.
In regard of what readers can expect from the book: an Ordo Obsuletus investigation into manifestations of the God-Emperor’s divine will, a Space Marine Chapter called the Excoriators facing their darkest days garrisoning the Eye of Terror, the Feast of Blades, an Adeptus Ministorum cemetery world besieged, a Khornate Blood Crusade of cultists, daemons and crazed World Eaters Traitor Space Marines on the path of a crimson comet that is blasting its way towards Ancient Terra and of course, spectral warriors from beyond the grave that are standing in their way. That enough for you?
[Legion of the Damned is published in April 2012, but Black Library has already made the eBook available for download.]
What projects have you got in the works at the moment?
Unfortunately, I’m sworn to secrecy on some of the works in the pipeline at the moment. In terms of what I can tell you, I was due to be part of a Horus Heresy anthology part way through the year but due to a scheduling conflict I created with Legion of the Damned, I swapped with another BL author and took his place on a Heresy Anthology coming out a few months later. I’m looking at returning to Warhammer Fantasy in the near future and also reacquainting myself with the Alpha Legion.
Are there any other areas, armies, or topics you’d like to tackle from the Warhammer/Warhammer 40k universes?
Both Warhammer and Warhammer 40k have such rich settings that I can honestly say that there are innumerable topics and areas that I’d like to cover. If you selected a random army or topic from either setting and give me five minutes, I’m pretty sure I could come up with the germ of a good idea for a short story or novel that does that aspect of the settings justice. This probably says more about the fertile possibilities presented by these fictional universes, however, than my abilities as a writer.
My first fiction for Black Library was set in the Warhammer universe, so I’d be lying if I said that I didn’t want to return there. I’m actually looking at the possibility of doing just that with my editor Laurie Goulding now, so stay tuned. In terms of Warhammer 40k, I’ve really grown to like Space Marines and would like to work with them more. This wasn’t always the case, but after writing the short story The Long Games at Carcharias (for the anthology Victories of the Space Marines), in which I got to build a full Adeptus Astartes chapter from scratch and then do some absolutely terrible things to them, I was hooked. I always understood how Space Marines could be at the heart of some of the most exciting and action-driven fiction in the Black Library range, but The Long Games... helped me become aware of the possibilities different chapter cultures and characters offered. I suppose that I discovered a subtlety and complexity that I had formerly not appreciated.
A particular ambition, like many Black Library authors, is to write a Horus Heresy novel. I look forward to the opportunity, but recognise the need to be patient and wait my turn. There are many thrilling stories left to tell. I am proud to be part of the Horus Heresy team, however, and this started with my contribution to the short story anthology Age of Darkness. My story was called The Iron Within and it deals with the galaxy-wide war that envelops the Imperium on the run up to the Battle of Terra, and sheds some light on some of the darkest days of the Horus Heresy. Since I had not contributed toward the HH series before and had been really honoured to be asked, I really wanted to hit it out of the park. I wanted to put the magnifying glass on a Legion that had received little attention up to that point in the series and decided upon the Iron Warriors. I loved the Iron Warriors’ pride and skill in fortification construction and how they were both experts at garrisoning strategic objectives as well as laying siege to enemy positions. It was contemplation of their pride – one of their Primarch’s deepest flaws – that led me to consider how Loyalist Iron Warrior garrisons, away from the heat of the Heresy, might take the news of Horus’ betrayal and the reality that they were going to have to turn traitor. Iron Warrior against Iron Warrior: siege layers against the besieged. This put siegecraft and fortification right at the centre of the story and so I decided to have the Iron Warrior defend a fortress the likes the Imperium had never seen before... I was really happy with the way Iron Within played out and even more thrilled when Black Library decided to market the Age of Darkness with Iron Within in terms of early extracts and taster appearances in Hammer and Bolter. The experience has made me admittedly hungry for HH success on a larger scale. I was, at first, a little intimidated by the 30K setting and reader expectations, but after Iron Within feel that I could bring yet another exciting voice to the series.
What’s your opinion of the genre today, and where do you see your work fitting into it?
I think that Fantasy has been on the ascendant for a while now. Publishers are really taking it seriously: you can see this in the way that new imprints are springing up. Science Fiction is following the same path and so I have high hopes for the both of them. Developments in reading trends – like the impact of e-book readers and eBooks will further fuel this. It is an exciting time to be an author in these fields. In terms of where I feel I fit in, I always wanted to be a signature author. Readers demand variety. I have my own style and approach to fiction and this will continue to develop – but I’d like to believe that I offer something a little different within the field, regardless of what I’m working on.
When did you first realise you wanted to be an author, and what was your first foray into writing? Do you still look back on it fondly?
It is fair to say that I always wanted to be a writer. Many people have the freedom and opportunity – whether they become successful or not – to jump straight into writing and give it a try. I didn’t have that opportunity. I originally come from a very deprived background in which education, let alone creativity, wasn’t encouraged. When you come from such a place you don’t just ‘try your hand’ at writing for fun. Not if you want the guarantee of food on your table and clothes on your back. It is quite ironic, but school was a complete wash-out for me. I worked with some inspirational teachers but I simply wasn’t there enough to benefit and so much of what I learned I taught myself. Without backing, university was a financial challenge, but I made every minute count and achieved as highly as was possible to do so. This in turn led into a career in teaching English and Literature. I explain this because it is important to understand that during this time, I desperately wanted to write and be an author. I simply did not have the luxury of the set-up and support required to make that early leap.
With the security of a mainstream career, I started experimenting with a bit of poetry and fiction. Any writer who juggles the demands of a job (and teaching is extremely demanding), the responsibility of a family and the commitment of being either an author or aspiring author will know the fortitude and belief that this requires. It is not the same as simply sitting in front of a laptop after breakfast and deciding what you are going to create today. For writers like myself, you can sometimes only get to that same moment at ten o’clock at night after a busy day. It can be frustrating, but it also tempers within you an unbreakable desire to write, write well and keep writing until you achieve the success you envisage for yourself and your future.
I was looking for writing opportunities when I came across Inferno! Magazine – Black Library’s print precursor to Hammer and Bolter. I had played Warhammer and Warhammer 40K when I was younger and was well acquainted with the setting. I’d had a love of early Warhammer fiction also – particularly William King and Jack Yeovil/Kim Newman. Yeovil’s The Ignorant Armies is one of my all time favourites. [Mine too! - Stefan]
Inferno! Magazine was open to submissions, so I decided to try my luck. I sent in a Warhammer short story called The Cold Light of Day about a Kislevite Whaling vessel hunting a Chaos-corrupted whale across the freezing seas of the North. The story was picked up by the magazine’s editor, Christian Dunn and published. As you can imagine, I was made up. Beating the tall odds of the slush pile was extremely gratifying. I took an instant liking to Christian and was really pleased to be working within the Warhammer setting.
While looking for writing opportunities, I came across a BBC Writing competition called End of Story. The competition involved famous published authors writing the first half of a short story and competition entrants writing the second half and completion of the story. Harper Collins handled the selection of competition finalists and the BBC produced a series based upon the competition to then judge the finalists’ entries. Ian Rankin is Britain’s most popular crime writer and he wrote the first half of a story set in his native Scotland. I had read a few of Rankin’s novels and decided to write the second half of the story and send it in. A few months later, I was contacted by the BBC. They told me that Harper Collins had selected my ending to Rankin’s story as one of the six finalists. They also told me that the competition had been huge. End of Story had officially become the UK’s biggest new fiction writing competition and my entry had been selected from amongst 17,000 others. Naturally, I was blown away. It was great to be involved with the television series. It was weird having BBC camera crews around to your house, interview your friends, family and work colleagues. I then spent a couple of days in London with the other finalists and a judging panel of publishing industry experts. Literary Agent Carol Blake had some particularly nice things to say about my writing style and ideas. Ultimately it came down to a vote and one of the other entrants beat me. It was a great experience and I’ll never forget it. I’m fairly pragmatic about the competition result. The real win for me was getting through the slush pile. It encouraged me to keep trying.
Following this I entered a further competition called The First Twin run by Literary Agent Peter Cox. Mr Cox is famous for securing first time author Michelle Paver a £3 million publishing deal for her book Wolf Brother, including film rights that were sold to director Ridley Scott. Mr Cox asked for short stories based simply upon the title The First Twin. I entered the competition and sent in my entry. A few weeks later Mr Cox was kind enough to announce that I had seen off the hot competition and won the contest. As a Literary Agent he runs a weekly podcast on developments in the publishing industry and was kind enough to read out my story and give it a thirty minute critique. It was a real thrill to hear so many nice things about my writing from Mr Cox and I really enjoyed writing the story. Ultimately, these were my first forays into writing and I look upon them very fondly.
Where do you draw your inspiration from in general?
My mind is always busy, translating inspiration into the possibility of a future project. I get inspiration from everywhere. I might be watching a film, catching a bit of a cartoon that one of my sons is watching on television, teaching a text for the umpteenth time, doing historical research for another project, reading something for pleasure, listening to the news: anything, really. Among other things, I teach Literary Theory. A critical movement called New Historicism claims that there are no works of isolated genius: there are only creative products of time and place. All authors, whether they are aware of it or not, create texts that are a result of their personal histories and the times in which they are living. I am no different. It seems uncharitable to say that there are no new ideas in fiction, but there is certainly an element of truth in the statement. There are, however, endless new twists and explorations of old ideas. I’m really passionate about this and feel that some of my skill as a writer derives from my ability to juxtapose two ideas or concepts that previously no-one else had combined. This in turn creates a new experience for readers. All texts can be reverse-engineered to their constituent elements in this way and it would take a foolish author to claim that their novel or story was completely original and free from influence.
When it comes to this process, I don’t mind admitting that I am an absolute machine. I can’t help myself. Some ideas seem to have promise but then are discounted, after a little mulling, but those that ‘have legs’ get stored in the back of my mind and allowed to percolate while I’m working on other projects. In this way, I’m always buzzing with new ideas competing for attention. My only issue is having the time to make them a reality. Some of these are ideas for fiction set in either the Warhammer 40k or Warhammer Fantasy universes, respectively. Many are for projects in a whole range of different genres and sub-genres.
I believe that writers intrinsically know they’re writers because creativity is a reflex action within them. They can’t stop creating. It is part of the way their mind naturally works. Inspiration fuels this process and inspiration is everywhere.
How do you enjoy being an author while maintaining a day job? Any specific working and/or research practices?
I try to get up early and put in some time on my writing before leaving for work each morning. I’m probably at my creative best during that period. Everything seems clearer. All the ideas that have been percolating away in my head during the night seem to have got themselves into some sense of order. Most of my time writing tends to be done in the evenings, however. A lot gets done during the school holidays, when I – like full-time authors – can give my all to the process during an uninterrupted day. My wife and children are extremely supportive and, although I don’t shut myself away or go off to a shed at the bottom of the garden, I do use music, particularly soundtracks, for both inspiration and isolation. My sons both like Warhammer and therefore understand and appreciate what I’m trying to achieve. We all sacrifice a little time to the process, however. My wife is an English teacher also and is an essential sounding board for my creative output. Although not a follower of the genre, she’ll point out technical errors and has a good ear for extricating wonky prose.
In terms of the future, teaching has been a very rewarding profession for me but it is time to move on. I have taken steps to reduce my commitment to teaching bit by bit over the next few years and put more and more of my creative energies into writing opportunities. Teaching provided me with a secure past. The future for everyone is a scary unknown, but I hope that my future – in whatever form – will be dominated by my work as an author.
What are you reading at the moment (fiction and/or non-fiction)?
On my shelf currently are books from Mark Charan Newton’s Legends of the Red Sun and Gav Thorpe’s Crown of Blood series. I’m also further indulging my love of Jonathan Green’s excellent Pax Britannia books. Among the classics, HG Wells’ The Time Machine is getting a well-deserved re-read and as far as non-fiction is concerned, Bill Bryson’s A Short History of Nearly Everything is very enjoyable.
Any plans for fiction outside of the Black Library settings?
This really relates back to some of what I was saying in my previous answer. The competition successes detailed above happened just before I started working for Black Library. I love working with BL and am very passionate about the setting. I’m building a following there and naturally I want to continue my commitment to both the company and the readers. During this time – as well as holding down a pretty demanding full time job – I haven’t had time to capitalise on these earlier successes. I suppose I should get my finger out and start approaching agents with my other fiction. In truth, my head is bursting with projects that I believe have ‘legs’ for a variety of different genres: Science Fiction, Fantasy, Young Adult Fiction, Literary and I have an absolutely killer (if you’ll excuse the pun) plan for a Crime novel.
What’re you most looking forward to in 2012?
I think it would have to be working more on the Horus Heresy series. I loved writing The Iron Within and feel quite at home in the 31st millennium. Really, though, I’d like to be cheeky and say further success with Black Library and beyond.
What’s something readers might be surprised to learn about you?
Hopefully, I’ve included a number of things that readers might be surprised to learn about me in my earlier answers. Perhaps too many – I’ve run on a little. Something readers might not know is that as well as being an author I am also a regular blogger. Naturally I blog about my creative work, events and fiction releases but I also like to expand my focus to interesting developments in the genre and related fields. Check it out at: http://rob-sanders.blogspot.com/
Thanks for reading. I’d also like so say a big thanks to Stefan at Civilian Reader. Civilian Reader is such an excellent site – a great platform for reviews and insights. It does a great service to the genre and I hope it continues to go on from strength to strength.