Hi David, welcome to WWaS (Written With a Sword). Congratulations for being nominated to the shortlist in the David Gemmell Morningstar Award. For those readers who have yet to ‘meet you’, tell us a little about yourself.According to my Goodreads profile I’m a fantasy author living in East Yorkshire. Add to that wargamer, scientist, comic book fan and Star Trek addict and we’re about there.
So, how did you go from being an occasional scientist to writing? Have you always wanted to be a writer?I’ll answer the second question first. No. I always wanted to be a scientist, which is what I trained to do and for which I wholly blame watching too much Star Trek in my formative years. The urge to be a writer came on gradually, these little ideas niggling away at my brain, growing fat on all the attention and ever more demanding until I had to start writing it down. I’d written material for roleplaying adventures and gaming campaigns before and at that stage it wasn’t a lot more than that, but that desire to tell a story with the world I’d made luckily didn’t stop there. My high fantasy opus has been half finished for a good 3-4 years now, but I still hope to get back to it one day.
Have you conducted any mad scientist type of experiments? In your debut novel ‘Headtaker’, we’re introduced to the Skaven, and for those not familiar with the Warhammer universe, the Skaven are a race of giant rats known for their dark sorceries, haphazardly brilliant engineering, and savagery. Any Skaven-esque inventions?I’m not particularly dexterous unfortunately. I get excited when I manage to change my bicycle tyre without detonating the inner tube. A little knowledge of genetics and technology though is certainly no hindrance to writing about a race that has successfully crossed rats with ogres and is responsible for giving the Warhammer world gas bombs, gatling guns, and the Black Death.
Seeing we’ve mentioned it, tell us about ‘Headtaker’ in 50 words or less – what’s your ‘elevator pitch’?A decades old feud between two kingdoms of dwarfs and orcs takes a turn anticipated by no one when the wildly egomaniacal and probably mad skaven warlord Queek Headtaker is assigned the task crushing the dwarfs. But Queek was never one for obeying so-called superiors.
How long did it take to plan and write the ‘Headtaker’? Do you have a writing routine?It took me about 6 months from the first plans to the final edits, which, though I’ve gotten a little bit faster since, is still about the time it takes me to complete a novel. On ‘Headtaker’ I tried to write 500 words a day every day, usually in the evenings after work, and then blitz it at the weekends. I still work on top of writing unfortunately, but I find it much easier to get 3000-4000 words done in a single sitting than I used to – which is convenient as I now have a 3 month old baby girl vying for my attention when I get home! On a related note, for anyone else wanting to squeeze more words out of less time I’d recommend 2K to 10K by Rachel Aaron. It’s transformed the way I write.
What inspired you to write ‘Headtaker’?The ugly truth is that I was asked to write it – I’d blooded myself on a few short stories for Black Library and they knew I was a bit of a “skaven guy” so it was a natural fit for everyone. The idea for the plot though came largely from reading ‘Thanquol’s Doom’ by C.L. Werner. The theme running through that book is about the contrasting attitudes of the dwarfs and skaven to progress and how the dwarfs’ resistance to it will ultimately be their downfall. Maybe this is also the contrast between an American author and a British one, but I thought the opposite could be the case and wanted to show the conflict between breakneck innovation and slow-and-steady from a different point of view. After that the various characters and storyline slotted in nicely and, thanks to a very willful and entertaining lead, was the easiest book to finish that I’ve yet written.
Now that ‘Headtaker’ has been released into the wild, are you happy with it? Anything you’d change?Very happy actually. My writing’s come a long way since which you’d expect so another round of editing probably wouldn’t hurt. I don’t think there’s anything I’d actually change though, except perhaps a few tweaks to the finale to tie up some loose ends
What was the hardest part of writing ‘Headtaker’?This is actually a much harder question than “what was the easiest part” as quite unlike my more recent works, ‘Headtaker’ pretty much fell out of my brain onto the screen. If I had to point the finger at one aspect in particular then I suppose it would be in writing some of the chapters, particularly in the middle, where several groups of characters are doing lots of VERY exciting things in different places. Making sure that all flowed naturally involved a bit of scene re-ordering and re-writing which was much less fun than writing it in the first place so I guess that must’ve been the hardest part!
The story follows two major storylines, that of the Skaven, and that of the Dwarves. Which are you more like?I so much want to say skaven, but I know I’m a dwarf really. I complain but don’t actually complain, don’t talk about my feelings, don’t spend my gold, assure the neighbours everything’s fine even when the garden’s overrun with goblins, and just have a beer instead.
I’m pretty sure that you’re not a mutant rat in disguise (and if I’m wrong please don’t eat me!), nor are you a subterranean miner with a thirst for ale and gold. How did you go about researching the characters’ roles and ‘getting inside their heads’?Which just goes to show how good my disguise is doesn’t it? I’ve been playing Games Workshop games and reading Black Library books for a long time so there was no difficulty for me in segueing between skaven, dwarfs, and goblins. Like any race born of the human imagination, they’re rather like actual humans but with certain characteristics taken to extreme. The skaven are fast-living, treacherous, and cowardly. Dwarfs are stubborn and prideful. Goblins are mischievous and cruel. The best characters I’ve found though, and this is based solely on reviews that I’ve read, seem to be those that are based within these traits but differ from them in some important and memorable way. So we have Queek Headtaker, so certain of himself that he actually leads his armies from the front; Sharpwit, a skaven of such experience and cunning that he’s lived long enough to see through the self-aggrandisiment of the skaven race; Thordun Locksplitter, a compulsive thief and an expatriate dwarf who was raised amongst humans. Give a character enough individuality and, though it’s kind of a cliché, they make their head a much more accessible place for both writer and reader
What would you like readers to take away from ‘Headtaker’?I hope they’ll go away smiling, taking the memory of Queek and Sharpwit and company with them for a long long time.
What does it mean to you to be nominated for the David Gemmell Morningstar award?As I mentioned to my editor when the longlist first came out – you only get one chance to win a debut author prize, so yeah it means a lot. It’s nice to just make the shortlist and get a day in the big city for the awards ceremony, but obviously I want to win it!
David Gemmell is regarded as the ‘big daddy’ of modern British heroic-fantasy. Who is your hero?I don’t know about “hero” as such, but there’s a lot of interaction between the authors at Black Library and plenty of names to look up to and aspire to emulate career-wise. I’m talking people like Dan Abnett, Graham McNeil (A Legend Award winner, as we’re on topic), James Swallow – people who’ve sold millions of books and seen it all. If I can take anything from reading their work and sitting politely in hushed reverie in their presence then I’ll be praiseful.
What can we expect next from you?I’ve recently taken over the Gotrek & Felix series so epically carried by first William King and then by Nathan Long. It’s the sixteenth book of a series that’s been running for twenty years so it’s kind of a big deal for me. The first of the new books, ‘Kinslayer’ is out later this year.
Do you read other books in your own genre? Who is your favourite author?I’m going to cheat and give my TWO favourite authors – Joe Abercrombie and China Miéville
Do you have any pearls of wisdom that you’d like to share with would-be writers?Write something and then get it read. Submit to competitions that offer feedback, join a writing group, taking a writing class – there’s no substitute for an external critique. I took a correspondence course before I had a short story pitch accepted through an open submission window at Black Library and it improved me immeasurably. It was stupid too because the stuff I was getting pulled up on was mostly stuff I knew was wrong but having it pointed out to me by another person really made me notice and address it.