Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Author Interview - Juliet E. McKenna - Fear the Alien

Image created by Jeff Porter
First I'd like to say how excited I am to be writing this blog post. I've been searching for good Tyranid Black Library writing for a while now; it seems like I've not been able to connect with any until I read Fear The Alien which had quite a few stories with a great deal of Tyranid material.

My favorite story from the novel was Fear Itself by Juliet E. McKenna. In this story an Imperial Guard outfit is tasked with defending an outpost from an overwhelming Tyranid attack. I won't spoil the story for you but it is a must-read. If you play a Xenos army at all I'd definitely recommend the book - it is much different from your typical power armored gods striding around killing dozens of enemies with a single swipe.

I enjoyed the story so much that I looked up the author, Juliet E. McKenna, and found her website. She is very accessible and was gracious enough to answer some questions!

How did you get started writing for Black Library?

When the Solaris imprint was first set up, it was a Games Workshop subsidiary and staff from BL were working on both lists so I got to know them well. Though as it happened, I was already familiar with Black Library since my sons are WH40K fans and avid readers of the books.

What kind of background research did you do to start writing 40k fiction?

I needed to get to grips with the world, so I read through the rule books and Tyranid and Imperial Guard codexes, where my own gaming background was invaluable. Then I read some of the novels, starting with Gaunt’s Ghosts, to get a flavour of the ways in which the facts of the gaming world both informed and constrained the fiction and to see how and where a writer’s creativity could have a freer rein.

The 40k setting can be very grim. How did this affect your writing style? Is this a setting type
you're used to writing in?

Grim has its place in all good fiction; you can’t have light without shade. If there isn’t some kind of peril or the threat of loss, then where’s the success, the growth, the forward movement for the character? If it doesn’t count, then it doesn’t matter and then why bother reading the story? That’s as true for chick-lit (yes, honestly) as it is for 40K. (Okay the body count is lower in chick-lit, merely one reason why I rarely read it.)

Granted, any story with a military setting will have Grim in a much more literal fashion. Since I am well used to writing battle scenes in my own epic fantasies though, turning that same focus on clarity of description combined with engagement with the emotions of characters in the thick of combat wasn’t too much of a stretch for me.

I’ve also read a great deal of military fiction and non-fiction over the years as well as watching endless war films as a teenager when there was nothing else on telly on Saturday and Sunday afternoons except sport, back in the Dark Ages of only three channels here in the UK and not even VHS cassettes to fall back on. I was surprised how useful those recollections were when it came to finding the right mindset and style, as well as more recent reading and viewing, like Band of Brothers.

What did you use as background to begin writing about tyranids?

The Codex first and foremost, then recollecting the best of the ‘creature feature’ SF/horror movies I’ve seen over the years. I’m not a horror fan as such but I do like a good monster (in the unremitting, unrelenting evil sense of ‘good’, clearly).

The story was pretty gory in parts - is this something you've done with previous writing, or
was this new for you? How did the specific setting and characters influence your writing?

A convincing degree of realism is vital if readers are going to engage with a story. Once again, I’m well used to grounding my epic fantasies with fact and information, not necessarily with so much blood and guts unless I am writing a battle episode but by focusing on the telling details of a given time and place and the characters involved. Writing a short war story like this though, the gore does tend to predominate.

Setting and the individuals within it always influence my writing, in whatever I’m doing. Here I was focusing on the claustrophobic atmosphere of the besieged fortification, not just in terms of the tactical situation on the ground but as far as it affected the men trapped there too. Given the anthology’s theme, I really wanted to look at different types of heroism and the different ways in which soldiers react to fear and the shock of battle, especially when there seems little or no hope of a way out. Since I find the Tyranids the scariest foes in the 40K Universe, they were the obvious choice for the enemy.

Many 40k players are of the opinion that it would be impossible to write from a tyranid point
of view. Any thoughts or opinions on that?

I’d pretty much agree. What makes the Tyranids such an appalling enemy is their mindless, animal nature and their lack of any individuality. They’re driven by instinct, not any kind of rational thought, so there’s no hope of reasoning or negotiating with them. I certainly can’t see how I could write from their point of view, though it’s always possible some other writer will find a way.

The back of the Codex does say they are the most rapidly evolving race, so I suppose future developments might include some individual sense of self... but even then, could readers identify and engage with Tyranid characters still driven by those overriding imperatives to hunt, kill and eat? Those are hardly sympathetic traits in a point of view character.

What did you like best when writing about imperial guard and tyranids?

I really enjoyed creating the camaraderie between the soldiers and detailing the background of the Stone Bears Imperial Guard. Finding new words and ideas to expand on the role of the Officio Medicae was also great fun.

What did you like least when writing about them? Any challenges compared to other fiction
you've written?

Writing the specific detail of a Tyranid attack wasn’t exactly pleasant but it was a test of my skill as a writer and I always relish those. I knew I was doing my job right if I felt a bit queasy after describing what really happens when a Lictor gets hold of a Guardsman...

The main challenges of writing this story were making sure I had all the fine detail correct when it’s not a world I’ve created and when there is so much material to assimilate. Fortunately I have my own walking WH40K wiki in my elder son, so quite a few times I would just shout out a question to him rather than try looking up some specifics.

Then, as with doing any licensed fiction, there’s the challenge of finding the creative room for a writer’s individual voice while staying true to the overall atmosphere and culture of the wider shared imaginative realm.

Are you going to be doing any more Black Library work in the near future?

There’s nothing in the pipeline at the moment because I’m fully committed elsewhere. But when I see the other BL authors and the editorial chaps at conventions, we have chatted about how much fun it would be for me to do something more. I do find myself wondering what Field Surgeon Catmos and his medicae support squad are up to these days.

What have you been working on recently? (Is there a website you'd like to mention? A book
on Amazon?)

I’ve just finished writing the second book of my current epic fantasy trilogy; that’s called Darkening Skies and follows on from Dangerous Waters which was published earlier this year in the UK and the US. This is a series exploring what happens when someone decides to break the Archmage’s Edict that wizard’s don’t get involved in warfare...

Dangerous Waters (The Hadrumal Crisis) UK

The Hadrumal Crisis: Dangerous Waters USA

There’s more on all my books and my other fiction at my website: www.julietemckenna.com

Anything else you'd like to mention?

I keep getting asked when my backlist will be available as ebooks. I am working on that at the moment with some talented and dedicated fans, so it won’t be too much longer, all being well.


  1. GREAT interview.... was nice to read... and informative.

  2. Thanks dude! I'm super pumped to have done this interview with Juliet.

  3. A great interview, Muggins! I might pick up the book now!

  4. Our review of the book can be found here:


  5. Enjoyed the read; and nice to see someone else jonesing for something from the Tyranid perspective. Pretty sure it could be done starting from a genestealer infestation perspective, and I've given it a good deal of thought on how to attempt it from the hive mind standpoint without getting too far. Best bet I can think would be to go from a hive tyrant or maybe swarmlord's perspective - looking at the traps and things swarmy pulled on Macragge.

  6. The great thing about Fear the Alien was the new talent inside, J. McKenna being one of them! I would love to see more her, on whatever subject anywhere....in WH40K.