BLOG Queen Of The Silver Skulls: An Interview with Sarah Cawkwell

Sarah Cawkwell is one of the Emperor’s favourite chroniclers. As at home working in short and long fiction, with a chainsword and bolter, or sword and buckler, she’s quickly established a name for herself as one of the best writers working for Black Library’s Warhammer universes. She’s also just had a story in Fox Spirit’s Tales Of The Nun And Dragon and her novels, Valkia The Bloody and the The Gildar Rift are both out now. I spoke to her about Black Library, how she got her start, working as a female writer in a male-dominated industry and what’s next for her.

How did you get started writing?

“I’ve always enjoyed being a ‘teller of tales’. One of my first school memories is of writing a Mr Men story for my teacher. I fail to recall the exact specifics, but it involved Mr Happy standing in his garden watching an acorn and waiting for it to grow into a tree. What I do remember is that it made my teacher laugh. And even at the age of five, I recall thinking, ‘This is it. This is what I want to do. I want people to enjoy things I’ve created.’ Although, being five, it was probably more like, ‘Heh! She laughed. That’s cool!’”

What early piece are you proudest of?

“A non-published piece, actually. I have written several Doctor Who stories for my own purely selfish gratification since the new series started up and I was a little woeful about so few people writing for Christopher Eccleston’s Doctor. So I had several attempts, but never managed to find his ‘voice’. And then I wrote a piece which flowed and when I re-read it, I heard it. His ‘voice’. And I was really proud.

“Should I be saying my first published? Because, you know, I’m proud of that too. But this was a personal triumph.

“My first published piece for the Black Library was the short story ‘Primary Instinct’. I was hugely proud of it and still look back on it with great fondness. The characters in that story  have survived to live on through more short stories and who knows what else may be in store for them?”

How did you get started with Black Library?

“Through their open submissions. I then got into conversation with one of their editors over my first BL short story, Primary Instinct, and they helped me develop it. Following that, I was invited to submit an idea for a full-length novel, then more short stories… a novella… it’s been a whirlwind and I’ve loved it.”

Warhammer‘s unusual in that it’s several very well defined fictional universes which are also vast enough to allow you some room to move. How restricted were you in who you could deal with and where you could go?

“There are some obvious restrictions; the Horus Heresy series, for example, is an invitation-only group so writing things in the 30k universe was a no-no. I think it’s perceived that ‘certain chapters belong to certain authors’ and whilst this isn’t exactly true, I didn’t want to go where others had trodden before. As such, I picked one of the lesser-known chapters and rolled with them instead. This gave me a certain amount of leeway with developing their unique characteristics – but always within the boundaries of the Greater Warhammer world at large.

“The Warhammer fantasy universe is an entirely different kettle of fish to write within. The 40k universe is just that. A universe. So what happens OVER HERE doesn’t get felt OVER THERE. In the WHF-verse, ripples move much faster and across a much smaller distance. You need to be more careful with what earth-shattering events you create, because their impact is that much greater.”

How are Black Library for a new writer?

“Make no bones about it – it’s hard work. There’s a lot of research involved; I’ve spent a while digesting a lot of the background material, a lot of the novels and spending time just listening in to the other Black Library authors when they’re on panels and the like. The backgrounds for both universes are incredibly rich and detailed and the research is, by itself, really rewarding.”

Who’s your favorite character so far?

“Sergeant Gileas Ur’ten of the Silver Skulls Tenth Company. Why? Because he’s a noble savage with a chainsword. What’s not to love?”

Which is your favourite chapter and why?

“Well, removing my bias for the Silver Skulls, I’d have to go with the Blood Angels. Jim Swallow’s Blood Angels books were the first 40k stories I read and I fell in love with them as a chapter. It’s all about the nobility, you know. But it’s hard to totally pin down a favourite, because they all have their own unique quirks and appeal, both Loyalist and Traitor.

“There’s a lot of chapters I’d love to have a crack at writing for, definitely. So far, I’ve managed to utilise the Silver Skulls, the Red Corsairs, the Star Dragons and the Blood Swords. Oh and the… no, I’d better not mention that one, it’s from my work in progress… but they’re not good guys, put it that way.”

You’ve worked in both short and longform for Games Workshop. Which do you prefer?

“That’s a harder question than it seems, because every different form has its own challenges. I’ve written everything from a 1,000 word piece of flash fiction, through 10,000 word short stories, via 50,000 word novellas and 100k+ novels. And I love the differences. With short stories, the challenge is to keep the story contained. The shorter the story, the bigger the challenge. My ‘casual’ writing background has always been based on 1,000-ish word short stories, so I can fire them off reasonably quickly, more or less making it up as I go along.

“The opposite is obviously true with novels: keeping things going; building the momentum; and keeping it rolling. I’d never written a full chapter-by-chapter breakdown before I wrote The Gildar Rift and the end result, whilst deviating in places, always pulled back onto track. They’re all just as much fun to write as each other, though!”

What advice would you offer female writers working in a field which, erroneously perhaps, is viewed as largely male?

“Keep on keeping on. It’s an old adage and maybe not very helpful. But the truth of the matter is, there is a huge lean towards male audiences for this sort of genre tie-in stuff and whilst the demographic is clearly shifting, it’s likely to remain that way. I’ve been pretty lucky to tell the truth – most people are really receptive and some are actively interested in seeing things written from a female point of view. It was really nice to write for a female protagonist as well – I believe wholeheartedly that it allowed me to bring something unique to it.”

What’s next for you?

“The manuscript for my third BL novel is in the hands of my editor even now, no doubt undergoing the very scary dissection process that editors undertake. (They all have labs and scalpels. It’s true. You heard it here first!)

“I have a couple of short stories in the hands of the lovely Adele over at Fox Spirit and have a few more short stories submitted to a variety of other places for consideration. I love the Black Library and I very much hope to keep on writing in their worlds, but it’s a great challenge for me, as a writer, to prove that I’m not a one trick pony.”

Thanks for the interview, Sarah.  Full details of Sarah’s work can be found here: http://pyroriffic.wordpress.com/about/

Alasdair Stuart

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