Author Interview – Sarah Cawkwell

Friend of the site, fellow author, and newest addition to the BL ‘writers of ruin’ took a little time out of her busy schedule to sit down with me for a chat.  Our inaugural Author Interview here on TFF is also Sarah’s first official interview as a published writer. It’s a wonderful chat about life, liberty and the pursuit of… word count?  Have a look!

Interview with author Sarah Cawkwell

Commissar Ploss: I’m pleased to have the opportunity to sit and chat with you Sarah. It’s always nice when we get to chat, and i always love every minute of it.

Sarah CawkwellWhat’s not to love? Seriously though, I love talking about all this. It’s all exciting stuff.

CP: Lets start by talking about writing in general. I’m interested to know, if you’d be so kinds as to elude, how you originally came into writing? Have you always been an auspicious weaver of words? Or has the knack for pushing pencils sparked within recent years?

SC: I’ve always enjoyed writing as a creative outlet. At school, writing stories was always my favourite thing to do and I was actively encouraged by a succession of great English teachers. All of them told me that I should keep at it; that I should read as much as I possibly could and expand my vocabulary. I didn’t find that side of learning to tell stories hard, of course: I grew up in a house where books were all over the place and was encouraged to read from a very early age. My mother was an avid fantasy and science fiction reader and so I came into the genre a long time ago and it’s formed the backbone of my library from as far back as I can remember.

I’ve always enjoyed having the ability to communicate well with the written word. I love to tell stories and more, I love when people enjoy what they’ve read. There’s something eminently satisfying about creating a story that people can lose themselves in, or watching their reaction as they read the thing you’ve formed from nothing. I have a very clear memory from when I was five years old and had just started school. Our teacher challenged us to write a story that made her laugh. Obviously, she laughed at everyone’s (because you know, what sort of malicious teacher would destroy five year olds?) but when she read mine, about a man standing in his garden waiting for a tree to grow, periodically tapping his watch impatiently and laughed, I thought ‘this is what I want to be. The person who makes the reader react’. Only I was five. So I probably thought something like ‘I made her laugh!’ But the desire to do it again was there, certainly.

I dabbled with poetry in my teen years, but that’s a period of my life I think we should gloss over quickly. Did you ever read teen poetry? Cripes. I now keep my lyrical leanings towards Doctor Seuss-style comedy Christmas poems for my work colleagues. It’s safer that way.

I’ve been a tabletop roleplayer for many years and always enjoyed writing up my character backgrounds. More recently, perhaps in the last ten years or so, I started writing stories to go with them. This developed into something more solid. I dabbled for a while in the murky waters of fanfiction (although there’s a lot of that which terrifies me). Then we started playing a game of Dark Heresy and I discovered writing in the 40k world was something that not only I enjoyed, but suited my particular style perfectly.

CP: I can only assume that you’ve been a player/lover of 40k for quite some time now. When did you first discover the hobby?

SC: I’ve been well aware of Games Workshop for many years. In fact, during what we shall refer to as ‘the wasted years’ (what other people call adolescence), I frequented Games Workshop to purchase Citadel miniatures. I harboured this great desire to become a fantastic painter of fantasy figurines. I subscribed regularly to White Dwarf, was laughed at by my peers at school for being the resident ‘nerd’ and discovered a great ability to lose interest in painting after the base coat! It was no fluke, either – this happened model after model until I finally realised that my days as super-painter had come to an end.

I still have some of those figures somewhere. In a box, half-painted. Perhaps I might dig them out someday and finish them. I wouldn’t hold your breath, though.

40k was but a spark in the design eyes of the creative team back then, so my introduction to that world didn’t really come until about five years ago. My husband and I were talking about science fiction books and he mentioned the Horus Heresy. He painted such a vivid picture of this world with primarchs and super-human warriors that all of a sudden, those misshapen figures in the window of Games Workshop took on an entirely new appeal for me. I sat down with his copy of ‘Horus Rising’ and was riveted from the outset. I have no shame in acknowledging a complete crush on Garviel Loken. Since then, I’ve played the Fantasy Flight Games W40K roleplays – indeed, we’re part of the playtest team now and we playtested both Rogue Trader and Deathwatch – both of which I love as much as Dark Heresy.

Since then, we’ve introduced my son to the hobby as well and he’s an avid collector and painter of orks. I’m ashamed to admit that, but yes. Orks. Still – at least he actually gets past the basecoating stage. The painting talent skipped a generation there. So all in, I’ve only really been a part of the 40k-verse for about five years.

CP: I’m sure everyone wants to know, how did you end up landing this spot as an author at BL? Was it by chance, or did you go through the full submission process?

SC: My work was submitted, in the same way as everyone else who wants to be published, with a wing and a prayer. Only on this occasion, it worked. I was contacted by one of the BL editors who said that my stuff was ‘almost there’, with a few hints as to how I could improve on it. I took the hints on board and resubmitted the piece… and the next thing you know, he’s buying it off me and I’ve realised a lifelong dream.

CP: All authors have an influence in their writing, now matter how much they would like to admit to the contrary. Who, if you can recall has been the biggest influence in your writing author wise? Do you find yourself emulating a certain style at all?

SC: Strangely, when I started writing in the 40k-verse, I found myself unconsciously trying to emulate everyone who currently writes for them! Best bit of advice I’ve had so far came from Nik Vincent, who very firmly told me not to live my life doing impressions of other authors and just be happy being myself. I tried applying that to my writing and it flowed a lot better.
Of course I’ve been heavily influenced over the years – I was an avid reader of Enid Blyton when I was growing up and although she may be a children’s author and her books are hardly literary classics, I loved her ‘Enchanted Wood’/’Magic Faraway Tree’ books. Latterly, Douglas Adams and Terry Pratchett were huge influences in the more light-hearted stakes, along with Jim Butcher, Robin Hobb and – in the 40k stable – James Swallow. I’m a particular fan of his work. I’m sure he won’t mind me admitting that publicly. More pretentiously, I love Charles Dickens. I love how quirky he was, particularly with the way he named his characters. And he made his name writing serialisations – something a lot of people forget.

CP: Aside from influences, i’m sure you’ve got a favorite author or authors. Who might they be?

SCLots, actually. I love Jim Butcher’s ‘Dresden Files’ series and was riveted from book one. I also love Mike Carey’s ‘Felix Castor’ books. Robin Hobb is a definite favourite. She gives you such richly detailed worlds and characters – I adored her Liveship trilogy. My bookshelf is a mish-mash of all sorts of things, really. My taste in reading is a little like my taste in music – if I read it and I enjoy it, then I consider it a good book.

If I was forced to pin down my favourite book of all time, one of the hardest questions ever, it’d probably be a kid’s book which I think has long gone out of print called ‘The Land of Green Ginger’ by Noel Langley. It’s the sequel to Aladdin. The villains in it are Prince Rubdub Ben Thud and Prince Tintac Ping Foo. How can you go wrong? Our teacher read that book to us when we were ten years old and I have great affection for it. In terms of ‘grown-up’ books… I love Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, as much for what it was and what it represents for women in literature as the story itself. I will gladly chew the fat with anybody over that book.

CP: Of the various places to talk about writing online, for example, all the forums, where do you find you spend the most time? Are there multiple forums you enjoy visiting?  Some may not e aware that you actually run your own forum as well!
SC: I frequent a number of the Warhammer forums, although I have a tendency to lurk rather than post. Plus, I never have time to actually read much of what’s there, so it all tends to be a bit ‘hey Sarah, have you read this…’ I practically live on Facebook and Twitter; these are always open, even when I’m working. Writing’s a pretty solitary thing to do, so it’s almost like having people around you, with the added bonus that they aren’t trying to engage you in conversation about ‘Desperate Housewives’. Unless they like ‘Desperate Housewives’ and are talking about it on Facebook. Then I can just ignore them without seeming rude, though.
Yeah – my own little forum – the Black Library Bolthole. My pet project, created when the old BL forums were taken offline, created as a place for all the fanfiction writers to take refuge. It’s been a great little forum; indeed, I’d actually dare to suggest that it’s more of a community than a forum. Everyone there is very keen and enthusiastic about writing and as the site is geared to that rather than the tabletop side of the hobby, conversation tends to be about writing more than anything else. People often post non-WH fiction there too. It’s a pretty cheery place and you can pick up some great tips.
I visit the blogs of all the other BL authors on a regular basis, too – many of them have good suggestions. Gav Thorpe, for instance, has a section where he shows sample story synopses. They came in invaluable when I was planning my stuff.
CP: I’d like to hear more about your future projects if you’d care to talk about them.  Your debut story with BL was a short story called “Primary Instinct”. It was a rather wonderful yarn, i might add. Care to tell us about your future projects at all?
SC: I’ve been thrilled by the initial response to ‘Primary Instinct’ and am very happy to tell you that the Silver Skulls chapter will be unveiled more fully in my next project. I’m working on a Space Marines Battles novel called ‘Gildar Rift’. Beyond that… it’s wait and see, I guess.

The idea for ‘Gildar Rift’ came straight out of the Space Marines codex, where there are about three sentences describing the War in the Gildar Rift, where Red Corsairs raiders tried their luck but got their asses handed to them on a plate by Silver Skulls warriors. I happened to mention to my editor that it was cool that there was something about the Silver Skulls in the codex that could be stretched out to a novel and he told me to have a chapter by chapter breakdown on his desk. He’s like that. Manipulative. That’s completely not fair, of course – the editors at the Black Library have been awesome, frankly. 

I’m still writing a lot of stuff ‘behind the scenes’, largely just ideas that pop into my head and which could be turned into full-blown short stories and/or novels at a later stage and I also have one or two independent projects that have been on the back burner for a long time. Now seems the appropriate time to pull them forward again. Add into that the fact that I’m still holding down a full-time job and life is extraordinary just now.
CP: not a thing you can leak huh? nothing discussed past Gildar Rift yet?
SC: In true Horus Heresy style… I can’t say. More seriously though, I certainly hope to be doing things past Gildar Rift. That does mean writing it, though, and not having some sort of nervous breakdown on the way the sees me live out my days rocking in a corner talking endlessly about Silver Skulls.
Wait… I’m doing that now.
I’m doing well mind – I’ve set myself bite-size chunks as targets. And I’m way ahead of myself. It’s nice that I’ve underestimated my own writing capacity, whilst at the same time a bit of a negative. Because now I’ll set myself bigger targets and get depressed when I don’t hit them. I know all of this and I’ll still do it. This is how I react to targets. You know. Oddly.
CP: Ok, so now that you’ve gotten your exposure with ‘Primary Instinct’, you’ve gotten a chance to know some of the people inside the company. I guess my question is, what are the people like at BL, how are they to work for?
SC: Without exception, every single person I’ve had reason to deal with at the hallowed BL Towers has been utterly fantastic and incredibly supportive. The other writers, who I’ve met at occasions like Black Library Live! and Games Day are brilliant – full of wisdom and advice. I feel a special shout-out has to go to James Swallow who puts up with my fangirl screechings about the Blood Angels whenever we meet and never bats an eyelid.
CP: Now it comes time for a question that i’m going to be doing in all of my Author Interviews. Is there anyone out there right now in the writing scene, be it fan-fiction or otherwise that you recommend we should keep an eye out for? A diamond in the rough so to say. Anyone you want to give “The Founding Fields BUMP”? Something of a shout out?
SCThis is a question that I can’t answer impartially, and I’m diplomatic at heart. What I will say is that there are many writers over at the Black Library Bolthole who are deserving of mention. There’s a lot of real talent over there, and I’m incredibly proud to be hosting it.
CP: And of course, the obligatory: If you could, what advice would you give to new writers/fans who want to aspire to your position?
SC: Several things really, most of which is regurgitated from advice I was given myself. Write. All the time. I have a hard and fast rule that I must produce a minimum number of words per day, whether that be in the story I’m working on, or on my blog (where you can find much brain-dumping). Read everything you can lay your hands on – even if you know you’re going to hate it. Read the classics and try to understand why they are considered classics. One of my favourite books of all time is The Three Musketeers by Alexander Dumas with Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein coming in a close second. Those are the books that made me want to be a writer. Go back to your favourites and remember why it is that you’re putting yourself through the sleepless nights.
Learn to touch type! This sounds stupid, but really is a great skill as a writer. For me, it’s much easier to watch the story appear on the screen as it makes the journey from my imagination to my fingers. Sometimes my brain intervenes, other times it doesn’t. Being able to see that you’ve just typed a sentence of gibberish is much less of a shock than looking up from the keyboard and going ‘what the…?’
If you do find yourself in the position of having something published, though – the best bit of advice is to listen to what your editors tell you. They know their business. They aren’t telling you to rewrite paragraph ninety six out of spite.
CP: Last question: where’s your favorite place to read book reviews, discover fiction news, find author interviews and read about other topics concerning writing?
SC: Wait… what’s this bolt pistol being held against my head? The Founding Fields, of course!
CP: You’re truly a classy chick Sarah Cawkwell. You’ve got my undying love, admiration, adoration, and best wishes as a fellow writer, freak, geek, fan, and friend. I love the times we get to chat, and wish you nothing but the best. Lets do this again some time ok!
SC: Any time. Any reason to procrastinate. xxx
And that does it folks. Make sure you come back for more Author Interviews! Hope you enjoyed this one. :)
Commissar Ploss

David Ploss

I’m a bit of an awesome person. :) I’m a semi-famous 40k Intellect and the Business Manager of Chique Geek Entertainment, LLC. I’m a book reviewer and the owner of Beware my wonky-ness…