Our first interview will be with Peter Fehervari, author of Fire Caste, which is one of the best (and certainly deepest) novels put out by The Black Library.
Mr. Fehervari has been very supportive of the blog since it's beginning, and I am honored that he was gracious enough to take the time to open up and answer some questions.
Better yet, he provided some fairly intense and in-depth answers to the questions I pitched. Therefore, I will be breaking this interview into two or three parts. Enjoy!
H.S.: First of all, prior to your works being published with the Black Library, what was your personal background with the Warhammer/Warhammer 40,000 universe? Which armies did you field? And, going from this, how did it feel to have your first novel released by them?
P.F.: In one way I was there right at the beginning, but in another it took me a long time to get involved. Throughout my teens I’d make regular pilgrimages to Games Workshop’s original retail store in Hammersmith to pick up D&D related stuff, including the first wave of lead miniatures from Ral Partha and Grenadier. Though I collected the models obsessively it was the RPG aspect of the hobby – the stories and characters - that had me hooked, so I didn’t pay much attention to the wargaming side. I’m a little embarrassed to admit that I dismissed Warhammer Fantasy as just another generic fantasy universe at the time, mainly because I was caught up in my own world-building, so it passed me by completely. But there was no missing the advent of 40k.
That first set of plastic Space Marines and the Rogue Trader book that accompanied them were total game changers for me. Even after all this time the picture that adorned both the model box and the book remains the iconic, perfect 40K image for me. Those embattled warriors making their doomed last stand against an unseen, but undoubtedly numberless horde caught my imagination as nothing had done since Star Wars overran my childhood. I had no idea who these guys were or why they were fighting, but I knew I had to find out.
So I read the book and in that labyrinthine, often chaotic – almost primordial – first incarnation of 40K I found the twisted evil brother of Star Wars who’d left his lightweight sibling whimpering in the playground with a bloody nose and a harsh dose of dark future shock. There’s so much about that book I could talk about, but I’ll content myself with the gloriously demented quote that crystallised this new background for me: ‘In a mad world only madmen prosper.’ Hellfire, this was the grim and grandiose SF mythology I’d been waiting for without even knowing it!
And yet… I confess I never actually played the game. At least not as it was intended.
I took what I loved from the background – along with as many models as my gaming group could afford – and remixed it into a bizarre fusion of RPG and wargaming where every model had a personality and a backstory and combat used D20s (because they were cooler than D6s!) and the plot always overruled the rules. Every game took days to play and the over-arching campaign… dear god, that’s still running almost twenty years later, though it’s a miracle if we play once a year these days. The first casualty of getting old is time so we probably won’t finish the arc we started in our teens until we’re pensioners!
So, from a gaming point of view I’m a heretic and would be at a loss if I attempted to play by the official rules. Besides I’ve never been anything but a games master because it was always about stories for me.
I guess my ‘heresy’ towards the game also comes through in my approach to the background because everything I’ve written has tended towards the eclectic, pushing at the edges of the traditional IP, but hopefully always staying true to its mad, dark spirit. And having said that, I’ve made a point of researching any faction I write about with a fastidiousness that borders on the obsessive. When writing within a shared universe, especially one as long running and intricately constructed as 40K, respect and due diligence for what’s come before must be a writer’s starting point. And I’d be lying if I didn’t say fear also plays a part in that equation. There are a great many passionate, highly intelligent people out there ready to send a storm of vitriol your way if you get something significant wrong - or for that matter something insignificant, because that little detail you missed or misrepresented or plain screwed up will matter to someone.
But it’s not just fear, there’s also a sense of responsibility. You don’t want to let those people down because you’re one of them and always will be. You just happen to be one of the lucky few who’ve been given the chance to put something back into this universe you all love so much. And in your heart you know there are countless talented people who’ll never get that precious chance so you really, really don’t want to squander the privilege. It’s a matter of honour to do the opportunity justice.
Which answers the last part of your question: how did I feel about getting something published by Black Library? Honoured and terrified in roughly equal measure pretty much sums it up, with the highs and the lows vacillating back-and-forth with every bit of feedback I got, even when it was a throwaway comment on an obscure forum. When you’re a new writer (and quite possibly long after) everything gets through to you because you go looking for it. You know you shouldn’t, but how can you not when you’ve sweated blood over getting that story out there? I’d be very surprised if most newcomers don’t feel this way and make the same mistake. And though I understand this intellectually I’m still doing it!
H.S.: What was your favorite Black Library title?
P.F.: Perhaps unsurprisingly I have a particular fondness for Simon Spurrier’s ‘Lord of the Night’. It’s an intense, often disturbing novel that’s bleak and bitter to the core. Consequently it’s not always an enjoyable read, but for me it captures the madness of 40K in a way that few other BL novels have done. There’s a grubby authenticity to the hive world and its seedy, broken inhabitants that grounded the action and made everything feel visceral and believable. I don’t mean to imply that this approach is the best or the right way to approach 40K, but it’s the one that resonates most with my perception of the background.
H.S.:Your debut novel, Fire Caste, is quite an exceptional book. There are so many aspects to it, which combined to elevate it to that level. Let’s talk about a few of them…
A cursory review of Fire Caste might term it as “Heart of Darkness (or Apocalypse Now) in Space”. Now, even though there are some similarities in structural elements, the notion of a man’s slow boat ride to Hell goes back to the most ancient of mythologies. Why was this theme such a linchpin to the narrative?
P.F.: It’s difficult, perhaps impossible, for me to speak objectively about ‘Fire Caste’ because I’m still so close to it, but it was certainly written with passion and conviction. I was given a lot of creative freedom with that book, which accounts for its eccentric style and individualistic take on 40K. Other than the title (which isn’t the one it was written under) not much changed from the first to the final draft so the responsibility for it’s success or failure, including the controversial ending, is entirely mine. And for that I’m very grateful to BL, because whatever else it is, that novel is personal.
Which kind of brings me to the ‘Heart of Darkness’ question.
OK, I have to hold my hands up here and admit I’m not a fan of Conrad’s novel. Despite its brevity I found it virtually impenetrable when I first read it in my teens. I revisited the story years later, but once again the dense slabs of prose and paucity of paragraph breaks made it a chore and I abandoned it halfway through. My third visit to Conrad’s Congo was prompted by the comparisons (both favourable and mocking) that ‘Fire Caste’ drew, which made returning an obligation of sorts. If nothing else, I had to know what people were talking about.
This time I saw the novel through to the end – finally - but try as I might, I still couldn’t click with it. Beyond my continued dislike of the style, it was the Kurtz figure (the original Kurtz in this case, so perhaps I can’t say ‘Kurtz figure’) that left me cold. He repelled me, but never disturbed me. He didn’t make me stare into a dark mirror and think ‘But for the grace of god, there go I’, which was surely the point.
So Conrad’s ‘Heart of Darkness’ wasn’t a direct influence, but the theme of his novel – the journey into a darkness that’s both physical and spiritual, a journey that’s really a downward spiral that both repels and attracts, yes, that’s definitely something the books share. Like ‘the Fall from Grace’, the ‘Journey into Darkness’ is one of the great archetypal stories of our dark side. In essence it’s a true story, which is what makes it worth telling over and over again.
But why did I set my version on a river?
Well of course ‘Apocalypse Now’ was a loose inspiration for that, along with a more obscure film by Werner Herzog called ‘Aguirre, Wrath of God’, which was about a band of demented conquistadores travelling up the Amazon in search of gold (I highly recommend it if you like dark and strange films), but ultimately it came down to the specific qualities of a river journey – the notion of a path that will carry you deeper into the unknown even if you stop trying, a path that can twist and turn back on itself – into itself - going everywhere or nowhere and challenging you to see a difference… which is how I interpret the ‘downward spiral’ of the human soul. That delirious geography makes for a striking metaphor for the long, dissolving fall into darkness, which is why the drowned wilderness in the book was called the Dolorosa [or Sorrow’s] Coil.
Reflecting on all this – and particularly writing it down! - I realise I’m running the risk of coming across as pompous or pretentious, and undoubtedly some readers saw the novel exactly that way (and tedious to boot). If you buy a book called ‘Fire Caste’ you expect a story focussed on tau warriors fighting courageously for the Greater Good, hopefully with some insights into their culture along the way. What you definitely don’t expect is a story about the Imperial Guard going insane along a river haunted by ghosts, daemons and fungoid mutants to cheer them along. Hell, this isn’t even a regiment you’ve ever heard of! And anyway, is this the kind of story that’s even appropriate for a 40K tie-in?
Well, I can offer no defence for the title, though I take no responsibility for it either. The novel was pitched as ‘The Long Road to Hell’ and written under the name, ‘Thunderground’ (the spiritual testing ground that underpins the Arkan regiment), but the final title was out of my hands. The rest of it, as I’ve said, is entirely my responsibility so I want to say a couple of things on that.
First, I’d suggest that the dividing line between pretension and depth is drawn by sincerity. If a writer’s exploration of ‘the deep’ is driven by a genuine desire to make sense of things then it’s a valid journey, even if it ultimately fails. However, if it’s only a veneer of pseudo-intellectual sparkle then it’s just bullshit and deserves only contempt. Of course I don’t have many – any! – real answers to the Darkness, but ‘Fire Caste’ was a journey I made in good faith. The criticism that hit me hardest wasn’t from the Amazon reader who was outraged by my use of civil war imagery (apparently he was waiting for Lincoln to pop-up in a stovepipe hat…), but from a very measured reader who felt the book was ultimately ‘409 pages of misery and suffering without a real point.’ I’m still thinking about that because if he’s right then I failed utterly.
Second, is a 40K tie-in the right place to tell this kind of story? Hell, yes! My love for 40K wouldn’t have lasted over twenty years if I didn’t believe it could embrace such stories. The scope of its mythology, cultures and characters is virtually limitless and the metaphysics underpinning it all – Chaos – is a masterwork of twisted psychology. It’s a universe steeped in darkness, within and without, therefore it offers the perfect canvas for weighty, challenging stories, as the best of BL’s authors have demonstrated many times. Equally it can accommodate lighter, more action-oriented tales (and the overall balance should probably tilt towards those), but it would be a tragedy if writers didn’t make risky forays into its depths, even if they occasionally drown. Sorry, I’m overdoing the metaphors…
H.S.: Fire Caste has an undeniably emotional tone throughout it, and I would wager that it is a very personal work. There is an old story that when members of KISS stopped by Marvel Comics to check on the progress of a comic book being made about them, they donated some of their own blood to mix with the red ink. How much of your own blood did you leave on the pages you wrote?
P.F.: Honestly… a lot of blood. ‘Fire Caste’ was written during a very challenging period of my life and I’m sure that shows through on every page, which is probably why some readers found it hard going. Getting it finished was my ‘Thunderground’ (one reason why I passionately wanted to retain that title) and Commissar Iverson and I became very close during that struggle. I don’t know whether that’s a good thing or a bad thing, but it’s how I know the journey we made was true, if not necessarily real. And why I’ll have to continue it someday, somehow. There’s unfinished business between Iverson and myself.
Well, that's it for Part I. Hope you enjoyed it!
Peter's debut novel, Fire Caste, was released by The Black Library in 2013. He has also released various short stories with The Black Library, many of which are set on the hellish jungle world of Phaedra. His latest story is Vanguard, which focuses on an elite detachment of Adeptus Mechanicus Skitarii warriors, sent behind Tau enemy lines to retrieve a precious asset.
Legal Disclaimer: The views and/or opinions expressed in this interview and in all articles of this blog are entirely the view of the author and are NOT in any way representative of Games Workshop PLC. All names, insignias, illustrations, et al. are the property, copyright, and/or trademark of Games Workshop Ltd, PLC. All names, titles, and illustrations used without permission, with no challenge to copyright/trademark status intended. All rights reserved by the proper owners.