Recently we were lucky enough to sit down and talk to noted Xenos expert, all-round Ork Fanatic, and the Black Library’s newest Xenos scribe Nate Crowley for an interview.
SPOILER WARNING: This interview contains Spoilers for The Twice-Dead King Ruin and Reign, so be warned!
Aaron: Hi Nate! Thanks for coming down to talk to us today! Just to start off. Could I ask you to kind of introduce yourself in your own words, so that I don’t mangle an intro for you?
Nate: I’m Nate Crowley, the author of (so far) Ghazghkull Thraka: Prophet of the Waagh, Twice dead King Ruin and sequel, Reign, the novella Severed and 3 short stories – The Enemy of my Enemy, Empra and Mad Dok. I’ve been writing for the Black Library 3, maybe 4 years now. I’m delighted to find I have something like a decent reputation for writing Xenos stuff which pleases me no end. I love aliens -I’ve been playing 40 K intermittently since 1995 but I’ve been obsessed with the lore pretty much continuously, and I’ve always been an Ork player. I’ve got other bits and bobs but my heart is green.
Aaron: You know, fair enough, and pretty wise as well.
Nate: Absolutely definitely. They’re the best, and every new model that comes out is an Ork model if you try hard enough.
Aaron: So you got involved in Black Library fairly recently. How did you get writing for them?
Nate: I started writing professionally in 2015, and my debut novel, well, it’s not really a debut novel, because it came out as 2 novellas that were then sort of Frankenstein together. It was a book called the Death and Life of Schneider Wrack, and you could charitably call it Weird fiction, I suppose – I’ve heard it described as whale core, which is exciting. it was a book about a bonkers far future setting where political prisoners were executed, and then reanimated to work punitive sentences on massive into dimensional whaling vessels. Really in my heart I think I wanted to write a K novel and one of the staff at Black Library at the time I came across it and I bumped into them. I was really shy about approaching them, I was desperate to write for Black Library one day and then they said they’d read the story. They said it felt an awful lot like 40K, “would you like to have a go at a short story?”
So that’s when I wrote The Enemy of my Enemy. It was answering a question that I read on the internet probably every other week, and is a staple of gaming tables – under what circumstances would Orks ally with the Imperium, and how badly would that end?
Aaron: It’s a cool story! I actually read it in prep for this interview – and it’s harking back a little bit to some of the older Ork fluff as well
Nate: Yeah, first time I ever encountered Orks actually was a bunch of blood axes that my mate, who had Guards, were fielding as allies. The story is about Blood Axes, and funnily enough, the main Blood Axe in it subsequently…
Well, no, I won’t spoil it, but there’s a connection with with Ghazghkull there…
Aaron: I think people will be on the lookout for that now! So you started off with an Astra Militarum story. I’ve noticed that lots of authors who are new to the Black Library seem to start off with guard stories. Is it something that the Black Library encourages you to do on your first one?
Nate: I think it depends on the person and their interests and what there’s demand for any given time. I think the Guard are a good entry point, because I think you’d be hard pressed to find someone who’s interested in 40K and isn’t to some extent interested in war. The Guard have everything from sort of Poundland Mongol riders – we’ll, with the new models they’re not like pound land anymore!
You know what I mean though, they’ve got everything – your Catachans, your Starship Trooper adjacent aesthetics, there’s a military unit in the guard for any period you might know about. Everyone can find a look they’re familiar with, and I am really interested in the First World War, so that’s the setting I chose for my first story. It was a an endless trench style conflict, but with Orks.
Aaron: From the Guard you’ve ended getting this rep for being really good at the alien stuff as well – how did you end up with the Xenos?
Nate: Under most circumstances I would say I love writing from the perspective of villains, but in 40k villainy is an interesting question. Isn’t it? So I suppose i’d say I like to write from the perspective of outsiders to the frame of reference. Most people come at the IP from the perspective of good and evil. I don’t want to sound really pretentious, but I think most evil is unfortunately, people doing what they think is the right thing even if it’s fucking horrendous.
So that’s the kind of thing I’m trying to model. What does a completely bizarre morally alien perspective look like? How does that work? How is it built? I find it a really fun writing challenge from the big moral questions down to the little tiny things of their lives. For example with Necrons if you don’t have facial expressions, but presumably you evolved with them how do you signify very subtle emotion? I love problem solving like that. I ended up going to cuttlefish for that one. Do you know how cuttlefish communicate
Aaron: Pulsing lights and things? Right?
Nate: Photophores, yeah. So I used the core flux, the plasma the Necrons have inside them, and you know it’s sort of twinkling all over them. You’ve got the big blazing bit in the middle, but I thought it would be interesting if they could vent tiny amounts of that like little photophores, so they could indicate sarcasm with a ripple of light across their ribcage, or something like that. Of course Rob Rath, who is a bolder man than I just had Trazyn move his face, which I really respected.
Aaron: It’s two quite different perspectives on on the Necrons – You’ve got Infinite and the Divine, and you’ve got Twice Dead King. I think they do come at things from a very different perspective. How did you arrive at that perspective?
Nate: That’s a really good question. Funnily enough I met Rob [Rath] for the first time in person a couple of weeks ago, and we were having the Black Library unofficial Christmas at Warhammer World, both wearing our Necron Christmas jumpers and we have a long long chat about this. Neither of us were Necron fans when we started writing them. I would say I had a passing familiarity, but it was very much with, what I think commonly referred to as the “old-Cron” lore now.
So when I was sort of set the challenge writing something about Necrons. I sort of took a whole fresh look at them. Yes, there are the big questions “what is right to a Necron”. “What is good?”
But then I think the entry point for me was the small things and it was in when I was writing Severed, which is about Zahndrekh and Obyron, there’s a scene, it was one of the first things I wrote and it really informs my whole view of the Necronss to really let me step into their horrible metal shoes. It was the same where Obyron’s going down into the atmosphere of a planet and he can see that his necrodermis is heating up to white hot temperatures, but he can’t feel anything, and that gives him a moment of deep unease, because your hands shouldn’t be on fire.
You know you can be pretty divergent from a human baseline anatomy, and still have that as a ground rule, you don’t want to be on fire. I think we can assume the Necrons didn’t like their hands to be on fire but his was, it’s one of those things he’s never quite gotten used to. It gets him every time, and he has to really nail his thoughts down. and that was really a way into just the immense sadness and hubris of the Necrons, because they’ve given up everything for a war that’s been over for millions of years. It was just that little thing like “wouldn’t it be weird if your hand was on fire”.
Aaron: It’d definitely be very strange. That kind of unease and that kind of emotion is all the way through, particularly in Twice Dead King which I think has to probably be one of the more emotional books of in the Black Library.
Nate: Thank you
Aaron: When you make that pitch and you go to the Black Library editors look, I want to write a book about Necrons and I want it to be about memory and mental health and anxiety, and what it’s like to be inside this immortal body, how did that go?
Nate: Well, I actually pitched it as reverse Battle Star Galactica where the humans are chasing the robots! I’m quite a chaotic author as Nick or Kate, who edit me would hasten to agree and I often don’t know the themes I’m looking at in something until i’m quite away through writing it. A lot of the a lot of the really emotional scenes for me just sort of happen on an impromptu basis. It was like that with Obyron’s hand – it’s when I notice a little detail, that’s really interesting and then I tear off into a whole strand I want to pursue through to the end of the story. So I tend to write fairly dry, and very plot based to determine what actually happens, and then I feel my way from there.
With Twice Dead King, the flayer curse is the major issue there. I knew the mood I wanted to go for and I said to Nick that I wanted to really get into that traditional Gothic territory of a house fallen to ruin. The thing that’s done it best in modern culture to me is – have you ever played Darkest Dungeon?
Aaron: Yep, I know what you mean there
Nate: The Darkest Dungeon narrator just says depressing things to you every time you go to the menu screen. That’s pure Gothic to me, a pure gothic setting. I also wanted to do the journeyman Sci-fi rite of passage of retelling the Odyssey a bit! So Oltyx’s name is transfigured from a version of Odysseus, and people spotted some other name checks in the book as well. So it was a Reverse-Battlestar-Odyssey.
Aaron: A perfectly non-ambitious really practical aim there! I think in Twice Dead King the bits that stuck out to me were those about mental health – what Oltyx and the other characters are going through really resonates with me as someone who suffers from depression and anxiety. It’s really important to have someone in the Black Library – even an Immortal robot! – talking about their mental health!
Nate: I mean thank you! It was a part of the process, a few years ago I was diagnosed with C. Ptsd – I always really grit my teeth when I say it, because I feel like I’m pretending to be a soldier or something, the associations with that condition. That went into Twice Dead King. I’ve had a lot of therapy for that, but I really struggled with it – if a car suddenly blares it’s horn going past me, I’ll be in a state of hyperaware terror for a while. I’m doing better with it but it’s all pretty vivid to me. I think whether a character is, and this goes back to where I start the writing process, whether they’re good or evil by our or anyone’s measures you need these empathic touch points, especially in the 40k universe.
I think if there’s one thing in 40k where everyone’s in the same boat – apart from perhaps the Orks – it’s misery. I was browsing Reddit, which authors really aren’t supposed to do, and there was a thread which is like, what’s the most horrifying bit of 40k, I don’t know if it was one of the top comments, but someone to put an extract of Oltyx just losing his nut over not having a heartbeat. People were saying that is terrifying, and that really made me feel happy because I was just trying to describe how real, deep, bone deep irrational fear feels. I guess I did alright.
Aaron: It’s horrifying, and one of the enduring images of 40k I think. It’s the extremely depressing equivalent of like Know No Fear when Guilliman’s punching the head off Word Bearers in space. It’s like that. But horrifying.
Nate: Oh I love Know No Fear. I always remember the starship crash from that. I think a lot of people who don’t read Black Library books miss out on the fact that we have such a good toybox to play with in terms of getting to do some bombastic proper SF stuff, like 15 kilometer long starships crashing through the atmosphere!
Aaron: Speaking actually of bombastic spaceship stuff, the way you did the Imperium in Twice Dead King is really interesting – could you talk a little bit about that?
Nate: Yeah! Again it’s about outsider perspectives. I love looking at the familiar through an unfamiliar lens. So you put yourself in a different perspective and think ok what’s going to happen to me that would surprise my human consciousness on a day to day basis. Then I look at the familiar aspects of the setting and think “ok how does that look?”
Music is a huge part of my work. I need to be listening to music constantly when I write and I really often get the feel of a scene or a whole theme in a book from a piece of music. The Imperium in Twice Dead King for me is a riff from Mad Max Fury Road – the track “Brothers in Arms”. It’s this demented string riff that fades in nauseatingly whenever Immortan Joe’s big nightmare armada is on the horizon. It’s a wonderful bit of music – these big aggressive drums under it, and then these strings! You know they’re not a credible civilisational force, they’re a load of angry men with spray paint on their mouths. That’s the Imperium from a Necron point of view.
They’re a credible threat, they’re immensely powerful but they’re culturally a spent force. The remnants of a Golden Era that have fallen to seed, just haring around the galaxy on incomprehensible religious wars you can’t reason with. The idea of this incredibly zealous, totally irrational pursing force, really exciting villains.
Aaron: yeah, that reversal from the norm is really interesting there
Nate: My favourite bit of writing I’ve ever been privileged to do was when the Angels Encarmine board the bridge in Twice Dead King Reign. I’d sketched the notes out for that scene probably about two weeks into writing the books. I love the idea of Necrons trying to figure out Space Marines, because Marines are tragic, you know?
They’re not mechanically comfortable beings. There’s a lot of foreign matter grafted into them, a lot of genetic work and mechanical work. To a Necron, it’s like “Wow, you put these things through absolute hell just to be slightly less inferior to us?” They are horrifying right, and they are outstandingly competent. I don’t think Oltyx would argue on that front, but they’re certainly not Noble. Not from the Necron point of view.
Aaron: That scene leads to my favourite bit of the book – with the Dreadnought and Olytx fighting.
Nate: So again, that was that was something that came completely on an impromptu basis. I changed around a lot of the physical and chronological points of the big beats at the end of Reign. Originally – spoiler for the books here – Oltyx was going to give into his craving right at the end, but it felt a little late in the game. It’s the longest stretch of action in the books by a long way, this gruelling shipboard battle, and it gets really nasty. You’ve got Borakka the Destroyer just picking up a Chaplain and flattening their skull against a beam. I really enjoyed writing that. It’s very very visceral and nasty all throughout the books – the first image Ruin opens with is a Grot bleeding and it gets on Oltyx’ foot, and from then I amped up the organic nastiness
When I’d written that battle and Borakka had done the battering, it seemed to have reached an appropriate fever pitch. Dreadnoughts are absolutely horrifying, and this was a Death Company one too – it’s a bloody monster, real body horror! That’s a nasty thing to open up and find, you prize open this machine and find a raw snapping skull inside. I think that was one too many chicken nuggets in Oltyx’ happy meal.
Aaron: It breaks him doesn’t it? In that moment it breaks him. It’s sad, but it’s great.
Nate: I enjoyed that because Oltyx has these temper issues as well, like the Death Company. You know, I think quite often people use rage as a way of circumventing their fear if they’re in a situation where they don’t know what to do. A bad leader gets angry and bullies the situation into shape, and it doesn’t help that Necron culture absolutely codifies that with the concept of Heka and Kingly Will. So Oltyx has been dodging the issue for a long time at that point, and I think his fury is indistinguishable from his fear. It all comes together in that moment.
Aaron: It’s quite a comment on 40k more generally right, where rage is this very holy thing – that anger is good, when anger is shit, right, it’s a poison
Nate: and it’s the poison that a 1 million worlds run on! They couldn’t do without it. You know that’s being that’s one of the beautiful things about the Imperium as a piece of science fiction. Everything that makes it so broken is essential to its function.
Aaron: yeah, I think I think that’s kind of a bit of a flip side to that though where some of the things that made it excellent satire in the 90s have aged poorly. It’s satirical that anger is the fuel that keeps the Imperium going, but today anger is seen as positive, particularly Male anger. One of the things I liked about Twice Dead King was to show how hollow that anger is.
Nate: Yeah, it is. I mean I’m fully aware, that it would be a very weird thing for a 40k story to have a moral about the power of friendship, but if there’s a happy ending to Twice Dead King – or mitigating circumstances to the ending at least – its that Oltyx does find his redemptive path, and it’s through letting go of what he’s been holding. There’s a very sad relationship with Yenekh, and in the scene where they finally meet up and he comes clean. I wouldn’t want to moralise in a story like this, but it shows that Oltyx is finding ways to adapt through his relationships.
In Schnieder Wrack, something early on in the book is about the dead staging basically a mass mutiny on this ten mile long whaling vessel. They’re all, well, it’s all very bleak because they’re literally rotting and falling apart. There’s no way they can ever come back to life. There’s nothing they can do, but they have each other. It could always be worse! No matter how bad the situation is, a problem shared might not be a problem halved, but it’s a problem diminished somewhat through other peoples empathy. I think that’s what all the Necrons have to cling to at the end – it’s not a grand situation but they’ve embraced it together. They’ve got each other’s backs.
Aaron: Their horrifying skin-encrusted backs
Nate: Yeah, someone’s got it.
Aaron: So moving away from the books to the hobby – what are you up to right now in gaming, making, whatever you want to chat about!
Nate: The big thing I’m doing at the moment is my Orks actually. I’ve got an incredibly weird approach – you might see around my office which is a nightmare of stuff [Lenoon: actually it was a hobby paradise – loads of bits boxes!], I’m making 150 vehicles. None of them are finished and I’ve been working on them since January!
I’m making them from my entire collection of Warhammer. I’ve never so much as thrown away a bit from a garbage old Leman Russ tank from the early 90s. I get people when they’re cleaning out attics and find old airfix models too, I get them sent to me and then I just kitbash! I’m making something out of a Bagger 228, this enormous mining machine in Germany. It’s got an almost rotary blade style thing, but covered in giant buckets. It looks like it was designed by Orks! I bought a scale model of one and I’m turning it into an Ork refinery. Tremendous fun!
I’ll probably never paint any of it, but every morning I spend a nice little half hour searching and looking to see what bits might go together.
My daughter, who’s four, refers to the whole project as Goblin Cars. She saves the lids from Fruit Shoot bottles because they make good turbines, she comes up to me and says “this is for your goblin cars!”
Aaron: That is super cute! Did you play Gorkamorka?
Nate: That was my spiritual home to some degree. I loved it. It wasn’t the best game, certainly, perhaps lacking a bit in balance, but I thought it was great. That and Battlefield Gothic were my old favourites. That John Blanche design of the Imperial warship is just one of the most gorgeous things ever committed to paper. That and Gorkamorka did a lot of heavy lifting in my 14 year old psyche.
Nate: Have you read Double Eagle?
Aaron: I have.
Nate: Yeah, remember the land carriers in that? I’m making a scale one of those, looted by Orks. I have an old model of the ArK Royal and a load of spare war trak treads. My head canon is that after all the business in Double Eagle, a massive swarm of Orks floods the planet, kills all the protagonists and loots the land carriers, so I’m making one. Sorry Dan, but that’s what’s happening.
Aaron: What’s it like going from fan to Black Library author, working with all these people like Dan and Gav and Nick?
Nate: They don’t realize they’re living legends! You know them because they were the cool guys in White Dwarf, and then you’re working with them. I meet Gav a few times a year and I still can’t quite have a normal conversation with him, because it’s like I’m talking to like, you know, Edward the Confessor. Some historical figure is just hanging out in the pub, you know you can’t quite just take that in. But they’re all lovely people.
Aaron: Thanks for talking to us today Nate – before we go, is there anything you want to say to the Goonhammer readers?
Nate: Thanks! Thanks for buying my books, friends. Thanks for being interested in in Necrons and Oltyx. I’ll keep doing what I do as long as you’re interested. I can’t talk about what I’m doing at the moment, but it’s good!
Aaron: That’s a great teaser, and I think a great point to end on. So, Nate, thanks very much. It’s been an absolute delight!
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