Dan Abnett (2010)
I did this interview with Dan in 2010, prior to the release of the Warhammer 40,000 animated movie Ultramarines, for SFX 201.
He’s the man with the golden pen – a 3000-words-a-minute model that can lay waste to whole star systems…
Dan Abnett is one of the UK’s most prolific SF authors, producing up to 300,000 words a year (his estimate, probably conservative). Beginning his career at Marvel UK in the 1980s, Abnett became a mainstay of 2000 AD in the 90s. For years comics of all kinds provided his bread and butter – he was SFX’s regular comics reviewer, too – before he began penning novels for Games Workshop’s Black Library. Work on Torchwood, Doctor Who and Primeval followed. With his first non tie-in novel Triumff out last year from Angry Robot and his first movie, Ultramarines, in production, the fickle gods of SF have amply rewarded Abnett’s industriousness.
Ultramarines is Games Workshop’s first foray into motion pictures. It’s set in their dystopian 41st Millennium where mankind’s Imperium stands on the brink of destruction, and features their signature Space Marines – genetically modified warriors. The company has licensed out its intellectual property in the past, but it’s long been wary of dipping its toe into the murky pool of Hollywood, fearing a loss of control (think Stallone, Dredd, no helmet…). Not so here, with London-based Codex Pictures making the feature and Abnett providing the script, we’ll be getting a proper Warhammer 40,000 film.
“Retaining the essential atmosphere was the key thing,” says Abnett. “My focus was a story that was absolutely true to the spirit of 40k. I needed it to fit inside the production constraints, ‘Listen, Dan, this may be an animated film, but you simply can’t ask for eighty million Space Marines to come galloping out of the Eye of Terror on choppers’, they said, and I was determined not to dilute the very bleak but heroic feel of the universe. Most of all, I wanted it to be a story that suited a film, rather than something designed to fit a novel or a comic. From what I’ve seen so far, it’s fantastic. The action, the amazing voice cast (John Hurt, Terrence Stamp, Sean Pertwee, Johnny Harris etc). And, my god, it’s got mood and atmosphere. It’s been a very interesting, educational job. The producers have been very good to work with, and I’ve learned a lot. I want to do more work for film, and I have two or three immediate opportunities to do so.”
Although GW provides much employment for Abnett, he continues to work for others. He’s still writing strips for 2000 AD, and together with Andy Lanning he signed a deal with Marvel two years ago to work on their cosmic characters. These are but two of his regular gigs.
The secrets of Abnett’s success are several. Although he tells us his specialisation was entirely accidental, he has an affinity for his “SF war” niche, so much so that real veterans sometimes assume he’s served in combat. Chiefly he’s done so well because he doesn’t hold anything back when he’s writing for other people’s worlds.
“What is generally termed ‘tie-in’ fiction gets a really bad press,” he says. “It’s not ‘proper’ books. It’s reheated crap churned out to cash in on a property. Bollocks to that. There is a vast audience that wants to read good stories connected to their favourite show or film or whatever. If you think tie-in books are ‘cheap’ then you’re saying that the audience is cheap too, so shame on you. If they’re prepared to shell out for a book and invest the time reading it, someone had bloody well better have written it properly. I am constantly amused by the notion that I have two ‘grades’ of writing in me, my everyday style I use to lob out tie-in potboilers, and my Sunday best, proper quality style I only get out on special occasions to write ‘real books’ with. Yes, that’s exactly how it works. If you sit down and consciously think to yourself ‘I can knock this out using my economy rate writing,’ then step away from the keyboard. The book’s going to be shit, and you’ve got no business ripping readers off.”
Having said all that, for such an imaginative man, you would have expected an original novel from him earlier than last year.
“I write whatever comes next,” he says, “and for a long time, it was hard to find a gap in the schedule for Triumff. But it was immensely rewarding. I’m finishing my second Angry Robot novel now. It’s called Embedded, a combat SF thriller, but in a rather different vein to the war stories I write for BL.”
Another novel, on top of everything else?
“I work a lot because I love what I do,” he says. “I’m not suggesting it’s never hard work – everyone has bad days at the office. But I’m doing what I really want to be doing. But I have had to slow down. In September 09, I was suddenly pole-axed by seizures,” he says. “Turned out, after two anxious months waiting for a diagnosis, to be ‘just’ late onset epilepsy. Considering what it could have been, that was a relief. I had to gently get back on the horse, re-invent my working day, reduce the stress, work around the anti-epilepsy meds etc. This is going to sound strange, but it was an oddly satisfying experience, very liberating. I had been working ridiculously hard for too long. I got time to take stock. No more late-nighters for me. Lots of relaxed, clean living. I go to bed, get a good night’s sleep, rise early, get started. I’m sitting here at 6.30am. I can’t believe I’ve been missing out on such a great time of day for so long.”
Occupation: Freelance author
Born: 12th October 1965
From: Maidstone, Kent
Greatest hits: Sinister Dexter and Kingdom (2000AD), Gaunt’s Ghosts and Eisenhorn (novel series, Black Library), Guardians of the Galaxy, Nova, Star Trek: Early Voyages (Marvel Comics), Legion of Superheroes and The Authority (DC/Wildstorm).
Random fact: His great-great-something-something grand mother was Lady Emma Hamilton.