I’ve recently had the distinct pleasure of being able to interview the fantastic science fiction author Matthew Farrer.
Matt is reknowned author who is noted for his works within the Warhammer 40,000 universe, published by Black Library.
Be sure to check out his works at www.blacklibrary.com and his latest work Strange Flesh set in the Android universe.
1. can you please tell us a bit about yourself in your own words, who are you?
Canberra-born, Canberra-raised, middle-class public service drone who stays up too late and procrastinates too much. I think that gets the basics out of the way.
2. When did you first start writing and what attracted you to it?
I’ve been storytelling for as long as I can remember. I used to act out all manner of multi-part, cast-of-thousands epics in my back yard with an armoury of garden stakes and sticks, and then when I got enough schooling to be put to writing stories I started writing them down as well. I got introduced to Dungeons and Dragons when I was about nine or ten and jumped into that with both feet – stories I could tell that I could get other people in on! How cool was this?!
By the time I was in fifth grade I was getting special assignments from the teachers in Creative Writing and by the time I started secondary school I had already come to think of writing stories as my particular Thing, the way other kids were good at music or sports. By the time I was in about year 10, the school library got a subscription for a couple of years to Writer’s Digest magazine from the US, and that was a huge eye-opener. Here were people not just talking about storytelling as an exercise for one’s English teacher (which was still where I was doing a lot of my writing), they were talking about it as a craft, and an art, and a career. I went through those magazines over and over again, reading about exposition, subplotting, research, editing, markets, queries. I think that that was what sharpened my awareness of writing that people really, actually, did, and as a thing I could really, actually, do if I wanted.
3. Who are you literary influences and have there been any pivotal or defining works that you’ve read that really inspired in the early days?
The biggest one: Michael Moorcock, no question. I devoured every one of his Eternal Champion cycle books I could get my hands on, pushed them on all my friends and read them to tatters. The books had a breakneck, delirious quality that put me off a lot of other mainstream spec fic on the shelves at the time – Eddings and Feist seemed awfully slow and stodgy by comparison. In the middle of all that I moved on to the End of Time books, which fascinated me: I was too young to understand a lot of what was going on (I think I read them at about ten or so) but the stories were so vivid that they made me want to stretch my mind as far as I could, to take in all these new things and understand them.
Other authors who made me think “wow, I want to be able to do this” were Jack Vance and Ed McBain – polar opposites as writers, but they hit me the same way. William Goldman was one of the greatest influences on how I came to see and use rhythm in my word choices and sentence structures. Stephen King’ was responsible for a real lightbulb moment in my early teens when I realised I was reading adult characters who weren’t just The Hero or The Villain or whatnot, I was reading about people. I remember the exact moment the lightbulb went on: it was the conversation between the principal and his deputy about the Hargensen lawsuit early on in Carrie.
It’s probably a bit weird to cite a book I didn’t finish as a major influence, but I found Naomi Mitchison’s Memoirs of a Spacewoman in the university library, couldn’t borrow it for some reason, and ended up just having to inhale what chapters I could there in the stacks. Her heroine’s accounts of going among alien species and adapting her perception of the universe to theirs was a profound influence on how I came to write my fictional aliens and cultures. I’m delighted to have been able to get my own copy of the book online, I only wish I’d thought to do that sooner.
4. What drew you to writing SciFi? Was it just a natural extension out of the books you read and enjoyed or was there something that really stood out and drew you to the genre?
I have no beef with realist fiction at all; I respect it and read and enjoy plenty of it. But when it comes to my own imagination and my own stories, I seem to reflexively treat realism, the actual world out there, as a springboard rather than a platform. I love it when a story can give me that sensation of taking a running leap out of what I know and into some new space, I seek it out unconsciously when I start to think out a story and I deliberately look to create that sensation in readers.
5. You have written for The Black Library, writing stories within the Warhammer 40,000 universe. What is it like writing for one of the few really big scifi franchises? Do you find it inspiring and conducive to new ideas to have a pre-built universe to muck around in or do you find it limiting in anyway?
I’m not sure I’m the one to be asking what’s it like to write in Games Workshop’s universes, to be honest. Just about all of my published work has been for Black Library, which means that it’s become the baseline writing experience for me and it’s actually getting away from that and writing entirely original stuff that feels odd. That said, I’ve never felt particularly limited by the setting. I think there are a few reasons for that.
Firstly, the thing about these game-universes is that they were created from the start as backdrop settings. We’re not dealing with something that has a defining narrative like, say, Star Wars. The whole point of the various Warhammer universes was to provide a giant sandbox big enough to accommodate the ideas and stories of everyone who decides to get into it, and that explicit openness to new stories is great for writing fiction, as you’d expect.
Secondly, my personal approach to writing builds on that. My instinctive reaction to story ideas or background elements is to turn them upside-down and inside-out and look for the angle everyone else is ignoring. That means I tend to focus on the bits of the background that are much less developed and so offer much more room to move. The military SF that’s the core of the imprint isn’t really my thing.
Thirdly, the setting has the same effect on me that those Moorcock novels did back in the day, that springboard effect jumping out of the reality I’m used to into something unreal and amazing. The Warhammer 40,000 universe is a horrifying place, I’d never want to live there, but it’s also got this grotesque, fever-dream energy about it that I love, and want to capture and pass on. Some of the best distillations of that feeling come in John Blanche’s surreal concept artwork, and just recently I saw a review of the Calpurnia books that referred to my writing as “John Blanche in prose”. That’s a compliment I’m delighted with.
6 You’re well known for your Shira Calpurnia novels, that came together to form the Enforcer Omnibus. What was your inspiration for these novels?
I had had the character of Shira Calpurnia in my head for a while after I started publishing short stories in the old INFERNO! magazine – in fact her first appearances were in the micro-stories I wrote for my local shop’s Necromunda campaign newsletter. When I moved her to front and centre and started to build a story around her a few themes crystallised pretty naturally. I had read (or reread) Martin Cruz Smith’s Gorky Park, a murder mystery set in Soviet Moscow, and was particularly struck by the way the detective character’s ideas about crime and punishment came up against the rigid ideological framework his superiors forced him to work with. That set me rereading the pages on the Arbites in the old Codex Imperialis and wondering what it must be like to try and sort out your ideas of justice and law in a horrific totalitarian theocracy like the Imperium, where the ideals we associate with good governance have been distorted out of all recognition. Parallel to that I thought about the insane scale of the Imperium and its Adeptus, a civil service whose offices span continents and in which generations of clerks might grow up, grow old and die without ever meeting anyone outside even their own tiny sub-sub-branch of their own organisation, so gigantic are those organisations. Take the natural tendency of any human organisation to develop increasingly weird and inward-looking agendas as it gets bigger, feed it through the crazy distorting mirror of the 40Kverse and see what you get.
The final piece was Calpurnia herself, who owes a lot to one of my favourite Moorcock characters: the time-traveller Dafnish Armatuce, a dour puritan, inculcated to the point of brainwashing with maxims about austerity and self-denial, who finds herself in a fabulous post-scarcity society where those concepts have no meaning and who is utterly unprepared for it, mentally or emotionally. When Calpurnia dishes out some arse-kickings to witless, narcissistic aristocrats I like to think she’s handing out some of what Dafnish was longing to do at the End of Time.
7. Aside from the Enforcer omnibus, you have written an excellent short story in one of the Horus Heresy short story anthologies and numerous other short stories for Black Library. Do you have any new 40K projects on the cards that you’re allowed to speak about? Do you have any non-BL projects that you’d like to talk about?
My current 40K project isn’t in a good state to be talked about at present, but I’ll put in a word for my newest novel, Strange Flesh, which has just come out from Fantasy Flight Games. This is a real change of pace for me, owing more to the Goldman/McBain and less to the Moorcock/Vance side of my storyteller’s makeup. It’s a near-future caper thriller with a cyberpunk tinge, tougher and pacier than the Calpurnia books, more akin to my Necromunda novel Junktion in feel. (Or at least it was to write, I’m too close to it to judge how it reads, of course.)
It’s about Tallie Perrault, an investigative journalist who thinks she’s uncovered some game-changing information about Jinteki, a corporate juggernaut who monopolises the production of artificial clones for the artificial-workforce market. Her information about where the cloning technology really came from could pose a powerful threat to Jinteki, but predictably the corporation, wealthy, powerful and used to getting its own way, has stopped at nothing to deal with this threat. Now Tallie is telling her story to the cops, not knowing that the detective she’s talking to is herself a Jinteki clone, and one from whom not even Tallie’s own thoughts and memories are safe…
8. Do you have any advice that you’d like to give aspiring writers?
Far more advice than said aspiring writers have patience to listen to me, I suspect. I’ll stick to the most fundamental stuff. Read a lot. Write a lot. Read, and see, and listen to, things you wouldn’t normally. Pay attention to details. Be interested in everything (yes, you can teach yourself to do this).
It’s possible to take words and stories very seriously, while at the same time having ridiculous amounts of fun with them. Do both.