If you play video games, read books, or watch movies and television, then chances are you’re familiar with the works of Gary Whitta, even if you don’t immediately recognize his name. This multi-talented man has written for several video games, including “The Walking Dead: The Game” and TV shows including “Futurama” and “Star Trek: Voyager”, comic books like “Death Jr.”, and movie scripts including “The Book of Eli” and “After Earth”. There’s another movie script he’s writing that you might have heard of, too: “Star Wars Anthology: Rogue One”.
His newest project is the novel Abomination, a work of fantasy set in Dark Age England that has been likened to both “Game of Thrones” and the cosmic horror of H.P. Lovecraft. You can read more about it here.
Unbound Worlds: You’re writing or have written the script for “Rogue One”. I imagine everyone’s eyes must be on you right now. Do you feel like you’re dancing on glass, both creatively and as far as your public image goes? I can only imagine that a lot of reportage begins with “Gary Whitta, writer of the upcoming ‘Star Wars’ movie ‘Rogue One’, said today…..” That has to be a lot of pressure.
Gary Whitta: Very much so, which is why I’m unable to say anything about it at all!
UW: When I heard about Abomination‘s mix of Lovecraftian horror and medieval action, I thought it would really hit a personal sweet-spot. I’m glad to say that I was right. This is a scary, wild book. How did you come up with this combination? Did this begin as a screenplay, or better yet, will it become one? I’m ready for “Abomination: the Movie”.
GW: The initial idea was to develop the idea as a film simply because that’s the medium I’m most experienced in, but I’ve also wanted to try branching out into another medium for a while and this felt like a great story to try that with. Rather than explicitly show the monsters in film, I thought it might be fun to try to conjure up the most appalling images in the readers’ imaginations. It was also an opportunity to really delve into the inner lives of the characters in a way that can be more challenging to do in a movie. It was really fun to experiment with interior monologue and backstory in the particular way that novels really allow you to do.
UW: Dark Age England is a favorite period of mine because it’s practically post-apocalyptic: The Romans left and took “civilization” with them. A lot of technological know-how was lost, and this mix of Romano-Celtic cultures which were never especially united anyway are struggling to survive inner turmoil and the pressure of outside invaders, like the Angles and the Saxons (and I mean, come on: When you know a tribe of people by the name of their favorite weapon — ‘Seax’ — they can’t be good news, right?).
GW: Yeah it’s a fascinating period in history and one that really allows for a lot of personal struggle because it was such a turbulent time. And because there’s still a lot we don’t know about that era it was a great opportunity to flesh it out with some of the fantasical elements I wanted to play with. I think the historical setting helps ground the magical elements more so than if it were an imaginary kingdom. As you mentioned Europe really fell into total chaos after the collapse of the Roman Empire so it’s a place and time rife with just as much violence and warfare as anything we’ve seen in Westeros or any other fantasy world you’ve read about — but it was all real.
UW: Aethelred was a historical persona. How on Earth did you stumble upon him and what inspired you to choose him as a protagonist? Some people might think “Bishop” and base their ideas of what the church was like then on what they know now. In the Dark Ages, the church was almost like its own empire, wasn’t it?
GW: I came upon Aethelred during my research into Alfred the Great. I always wanted Alfred to be a major character in the book, and the problems he has with his Archbishop of Canterbury, Aethelred, while a part of the central narrative, also play into the historical context of the conflict between church and state at that time. For much of early English history the church was incredibly powerful, just as influential as the crown. And as luck would have it the real Aethelred died at exactly the time in history that I needed him to for the purposes of this story so it worked out perfectly.
UW: Sorcery and the church might not have been bosom buddies publicly, but priests were the only people who had the literacy and resources necessary to explore magic. Aethelred seems more than acquainted with this kind of thing. How did you want to represent magic in the novel, and was there any concern in your mind with readers wondering why an Archbishop was casting spells?
GW: I tried to keep the magical stuff as vague and mysterious as possible. The details of it don’t really matter, it’s just a means to an end, and the whole idea is that it’s so arcane only a handful of people can even understand it, so trying to explain it to the reader just seems like an exercise in geekery for geekery’s sake, which doesn’t really interest me. And genre fiction has always explored the crossover territory that exists between the religious and the supernatural, so it seemed like a natural fit to me.
UW: Handling magic and monsters in a historical setting must be difficult: You don’t want to change history too much or you lose what made it historical in the first place. What were some of the advantages and obstacles of writing a story in the ninth century?
GW: Well the history of the Dark Ages gave me a head start in that there’s a lot that is still not definitively known about that period. And the events of the book don’t really alter the course of history, they just exist within that context. Part of the conceit of the book is that these events, like much of the history of the Dark Ages, has since been lost. Most of the historical stuff in the book is there to set up the world and the characters, but because it’s in many ways a small, intimate story nothing that happens within it really conflicts with the historical record.
UW: The creature in the beginning pages of the book reminded me of one of Lovecraft’s shoggoths from “The Mountains of Madness” which of course inspired the alien in John Carpenter’s “The Thing”. Was this intentional in any way? It’s a creepy critter.
GW: “The Thing” was a big influence on me for sure, as was Lovecraft. Someone described Abomination as “’Game of Thrones’ by way of HP Lovecraft” which is about the highest compliment I can receive, I think. Really I just wanted to create the most appalling, hideous, stomach-churning monsters I could imagine, things that are an absolute affront to the beauty of nature. Based on the reader reactions I’ve been receiving, that seems to have gone over pretty well. I don’t think of Abomination as a horror novel, but I did want the monsters to be horrifying.
UW: What is some of the research material that you relied upon when writing the book?
GW: I did quite a bit of research online about the time period. The BBC has some tremendous historical archives which I used in making sure that all the basic details, the times and places of battles and Alfred’s life were accurate, things like that. But the most fun part is when you get to leave that behind and start weaving in your own fantastical details. So long as I was satisfied that the historical parts that the book touches upon were accurate, I wanted to go as nuts as possible with the rest of it.
UW: Back to your background for a moment: You’ve written for (and about) a lot of video games. Has working within the narrative structure of video games informed your prose in any way?
GW: No I don’t think so, they are completely different forms. Writing for video games is such a complex endeavor, with all the non-linear branching pathways and player agency you have to account for, so to write for a traditional medium like a film or a book is quite the relief compared to that.
UW: So what’s next for you? You’re a busy guy. Also, where can we find you online?
GW: I’m working on an adaptation of the Mark Millar graphic novel “Starlight” for 20th Century Fox, and I have a bunch of other stuff that I can’t talk about yet but is going to be announced pretty soon. The best place to find me online is Twitter, I’m @garywhitta.