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Author Appearance: Warren Ellis at Foyles

I have been very fortunate to see several of my favourite comic book creators giving talks or in conversation – Alan Moore and Alan Davis in the same day, and Grant Morrison at a similar event at Foyles – and this was another enjoyable personal appearance from a favourite creator. Warren was in The Gallery at Foyles on Charing Cross Road in conversation with journalist/author Sam Leith, specifically to talk about his new novel, Gun Machine, but conversation obviously took in comic books, as would be expected, and Warren – smartly dressed in jacket and waistcoat and with a freshly shaved head – was in a warm and funny mood with a desire to share. These are my hastily scribbled recollections of the night.

We were told to turn our phones to silent at the start – we could keep them on and tweet about the event, as would be expected of @warrenellis, but Warren said that we would only be tweeted by his friends with horrible questions to ask him. Before talking about Gun Machine, Warren was asked about his first book, Crooked Little Vein. Crooked Little Vein was written to shut up his new literary agent (he was with an agency in LA, but the New York office took over and he was inherited by a new agent who constantly pestered him until he wrote 10,000 words of something he considered unsellable; however, two weeks later she phoned him to say, ‘I’ve sold it’, which is why she is still his agent). Crooked Little Vein, Warren said, was written to prove to himself that he could write a novel – if he hadn’t been pushed into it by his agent, he probably wouldn’t have tried prose for a few years, which was something he was thinking about. Now, with Gun Machine, he wanted to see if he could write a good novel (‘But please buy copies’, he joked). He had the spine for the novel and proceeded to write it from page one, word one through to the end, with only one jump when the Warren of that day didn’t consider himself up to the job of writing that passage, so he jumped to the next section and returned to it another day; he said that you are only as you can be on that day, which could be due to something like having only five hours sleep because the cat jumped on his head, but you just have to keep writing – write, write, write and get the bad stuff out of you.

Another thing about Crooked Little Vein: the cooking recipe at the back of the book was the editor’s idea, taken from Warren’s website, and something he’d only put up as a joke. He gets mocked by his daughter when he cooks at home – she pretends to swing a plague bell, shouting ‘Unclean!’. He said she texted a friend ‘Dad cooked and unusually I didn’t die’. ‘Horrible child’, he called her, but you can tell it’s a joke – why else would he have got her a horse?

Gun Machine came out of discussions with Legendary, the studio adapting his Gravel comic book; they wanted to keep the story based in the UK because they thought the USA didn’t have the necessary history, whereas they thought the UK had the weird history that the book needed, calling it ‘mystic’, to which Warren thought, ‘Yeah, we walk around with twigs in our hair and live in Stonehenge’. It got him thinking that the US did have a lot of history, particularly New York. He hasn’t been to New York in over a decade, since he nearly took a flight from Los Angeles to New York on 11 September 2011, but changed at the last minute to reroute the day before via Chicago. He admits that it can keep him up some nights. Anyway, the idea started there, with Mulholland Books saying they wanted a book but it had to be a mystery/suspense book because that’s what they publish, so the two things came together. He used his own memories of New York, used a friend who lives there for research and Google Street Maps to virtually tour the places he used to walk around – it showed him a tree where he knew one didn’t exist 12 years ago, so he put it in the book as a location where a victim was found pinned to it.

He said he used the James Herbert trick – he didn’t describe his male protagonists, and figures showed that something like 95% of his books were bought by men, because they could all project themselves onto the hero without being taken out of the story by physical descriptions (something used in manga, which Warren said is called masking). Tallow is not described in Gun Machine, which is why Reg E Cathey, an African American actor, could do the audiobook and it doesn’t conflict with the book.

Leith asked him about cities, which play an important part in the novel, mentioning Jack Hawksmoor as a previous example. Warren said that cities are an inherent part of his being – half his family is from the East End and he’s lived in or near London all his life – and he can feel the many different levels of history around him when he walks around a big city, feeling the layers beneath him when he walks around London.

He knew Gun Machine would be a novel instead of a comic because it was going to be a very internal story, which wouldn’t work as a comic book (imagining telling his artist, ‘Pages 19 to 45, Tallow looking sad’, in nine panels per page). An aside: he mentioned an anecdote about working on The Authority with Bryan Hitch – they used to discuss scenes before Warren scripted, which Warren thought Hitch would remember, so when it came to the double-page spread of the alien armada in battle with the US Air Force above Los Angeles, Warren wrote ‘The fleets engage’. He got a phone call from Hitch, ‘spitting blood and nails’, because it took him a week and a half to draw it. An interesting aside: when describing Alan Moore’s ultra-controlling scripts and his possible attitudes to the artists who will read them, because Alan wants to control EVERYTHING, Warren used the phrase ‘human meat puppet’ – he said he wouldn’t go that far, but you got the idea.

Warren talked about comic books and how he got into them: he started at the age of three with the weekly comic that had strips based on television shows of the time, such as Doctor Who, Thunderbirds and Star Trek, then he had 2000 AD at the age of nine and he was never the same. As he said, when you open the first page of 2000 AD and see a dinosaur with a mouth full of chewed-up cowboy, Superman comics paled in comparison. But that’s Brit comics for you – he mentioned reading a Dan Dare strip at a young age (which he thought was stuffy at the time) where there was a splash page of a spaceship over Jupiter with a hole in the side and people falling out and their stomachs expanding and exploding due to the vacuum – ‘I never want to read anything else ever again!’ He talked about how comics for him were about generating new ideas, telling new stories, reflecting the times as you go along. He doesn’t want to do the new versions of the company-owned mythologies the way Grant Morrison does. It’s a personal thing, and he doesn’t have the same affection to superheroes because he didn’t read them growing up.

He talked about the difference between prose and comics – in comics, you have to be a journalist, keeping to a word count (citing the maxim of ~28 words per normal-sized panels) and chiselling sentences to full effect and with minimum words, always bearing in mind the artist (he cited that for Colleen Doran, he only has to write the acting of the characters because he doesn’t have to worry about the background and mise-en-scène, whereas other artists require more detail and cinematography). Also, the 20-page limit is a very restricting amount of space to tell the story effectively and requires a lot of craft and effort. However, a novel has no word limit – he could keep on going and take his time.

For someone who has written so much, he said he still dislikes what he has written, even what he wrote the day before. (My theory: he’s mentioned before that the pace of monthly comics meant that he was essentially writing first drafts – therefore, he didn’t get the luxury of disliking what he turned into his editor, and so he kept writing and we got to enjoy his output.)

He said that people keep asking him when he’s going to bring back Spider Jerusalem, which he can’t understand because he finds the character so annoying. He was asked about writing comics set in the US – crass commercialism, on his part, because ‘they don’t want stories set in Southend’. Although it was mostly a chat between Warren and Leith, there were some questions at the end, such as what is his next book about; however, Warren said he couldn’t say anything because he’d been muzzled by his publishers.

A few name drops: Michael Moorcock told him that Elric and Jerry Cornelius were his way into the worlds he wrote, which isn’t the way Warren thinks; he doesn’t return to old characters because he always thinks that new stories demand new characters. William Gibson said, about Gun Machine, ‘this is a compliment, but I found it peculiar’.

An hour in Warren’s company wasn’t long enough – I could have listened to him discuss his work and his approach to writing for hours (we did get to hear him after the talk because he was still miked up, which I found rather amusing), because he’s a smart chap with a very thoughtful, analytical mind when it comes to his craft. He’s also very funny, with an infectious laugh and a desire to entertain and amuse, borne of a natural storyteller (although don’t expect him to direct – he specifically said that he’s only a writer when asked if he wanted to take after Garth Ennis). If you get the chance, I would recommend seeing in Warren in person.

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