Sunday, June 26, 2022

Twitter Q&A with Josh Reynolds about Manflayer

The following is a conversation I had with Josh Reynolds on Twitter in July 2020 about the third and final novel of his Fabius Bile-trilogy, Manflayer. Josh Reynolds commented on the tweet in which I shared my review of the novel, which I took as an opportunity to ask him a few questions about his thoughts behind the novel. What ensued was basically an interview’s worth of Q&A about the process behind writing Manflayer, thoughts on plot and themes of this final novel and the series as a whole, as well as alternate endings and cut content.

While you could read the conversation by looking through the comments of the aforementioned tweet, I edited the whole thing together here for better readability. We discuss the ending of the series in detail, so beware that this is a full-spoiler discussion.

I found it absolutely fascinating to hear Josh’s thoughts on all of this and am very grateful that he took so much time to answer me.

Here's the interview:

Tim: If I may ask: Was that the ending you (roughly) had in mind for the trilogy when (if?) you laid it out before you? It's just that Manflayer feels like it's in conflict with itself about how it wants to end and what's it going to be about (and therefore say about it's characters), so I wondered if that was part of your creative process as well)

Josh Reynolds: It is, and it isn't. I always knew that it would have to end with a reset to the status quo, but I never intended to address it so explicitly.

JR: The conflict is perhaps largely due to what I had to cut out. The initial draft was much more sedate, a sort of winding down rather than a fiery crash.

T: One wonders what would have been...Can you talk a bit about what was left on the cutting room floor? Even if there are plenty of fireworks on the surface, I feel like this mood of "winding down" is still true and very present for the emotional journey of the characters.

JR: A good deal of it was just character bits, fleshing out the new Consortium members, and the old...but there was a lot more discussion of Fabius' then-current state of mind, which went into why he makes the decisions he makes.

JR: There was also a bit with a Chaos banquet + ball on a Black Legion garrison world that I thought was fun, but it threw off the pacing a bit.

T: 1. I can see how that might have stalled the plot for too long 2. ...but what a shame, that sounds wonderful. I'm glad you could at least share Fulgrim At A Banquet in Palatine Phoenix with the world

JR: Most of what was cut was done so to improve the pacing. There was also a whole bit with Oleander being the prisoner of Lady Malys, before being turned over to the 13 Scars, which plays a bit on the harlequin/Malys connection. But it made the opening of the book a bit slow...

T: I think I can see the empty spaces where those bits used to be. The new Consortium members all sounded very interesting (a Consortium-anthology would be great). And the nature of Fabius' first "black lassitude" & character change after his time in Commorragh was left a bit open

JR: Yeah, a lot of that was explained/described in that original first draft. It was a monster - around 160 - 170,000 words. Way too big for a BL novel.

T: Interesting. While we're at it...what did you think changed so fundamentally for Fabius in Commorragh? On the surface it should habe been business as usual for him (dealing with monsters in monsters), but something seems to have shook him to his core about it JR: IMO, it was a matter of Fabius seeing what he might become, exemplified by the covens. An ageless monster, birthing endless horrors for the amusement of abominable masters…

JR: Basically, Fabius fled Commorragh in an effort to further distance himself from his inevitable fate. The covens never go forwards, never go back, they just create horrors, forever and ever. And the longer he stayed, the more like them he became.

T: That makes a lot of sense, especially in the context of all the mirroring between Fabius & Hexachires. A perfect choice for an antagonist for this story, btw, for sheer entertainment value but especially thematic resonance.

JR: I'm glad you think so. If Fabius is Peter Cushing, Hexachires is Vincent Price.

T: Oh gosh, VP would be perfect as Hexachires. Now casted as mental voice actor for re-read. Would it be okay if I ask a few more questions about Manflayer? I don't want to steal an unruly amount of your time and would understand if you'd want to let the work stand on it's own.

JR: Sure, as long as you don't mind me not answering immediately.

T: Of course, no problem. So: I wondered if you abandoned part of the "crystal network implanted into Fabius' students brains to turn them into copies of himself"-plot? Bc it seemed like a major deal and a new low, but didn't really feature into the finale (as far as I could see)

JR: I did cut a bit - essentially, it was going to factor into Oleander's final fate, before I decided to go a different way for various reasons. There was also a bio-plague sub-plot that got cut.

T: Ahh, is that alluded to in one of the "alternative ends" that Veilwalker mentions? I assume the bio-plague would have given Khorag more to do?

JR: Yep. The bio-plague would have also been the primary motivating factor for Hexachires. The plague would have warped cloned flesh into a physical copy of Fabius, leading to scenes of Aeldari-Fabius monsters, among other horrors...

T: Yikes. Were Bat-Fabius and the Shriekers intended as early set-ups for this?

JR: Nope. Just extra horrors. There was a scene where part of the Tower of Flesh was slowly turning into a tumour of thrashing Fabius heads and scrabbling fingers.

JR: Basically, the plague was spreading through all cloned flesh in Commorragh, leading the 13 Scars to cover up their involvement with Fabius (and derive a cure from his body) before the other covens (and Vect) find out.

T: Again: yikes. But I guess that's what happens when the two craziest fleshcrafters in the universe are set loose against one another.

JR: Yep. I trimmed a lot of the nastier stuff. Especially where the Tower was concerned.

*T: Wouldn't have figured that by reading the novel. Tower of Flesh sure worked as body horror. The next question goes into territory that could be considered too personal, so feel free to pass on that if you don't feel comfortable with it.

T: So, Melusine obv played a big role in Manflayer. Her importance surprised me, bc she didn't strike me as a major player before (contrary to Igori). Was the importance of the daughter-father-relationship something you feel somehow developed out of your own parenthood?

JR: That is entirely possible, yes.

T: For being so small, they make quite the impact, eh? I really loved that scene with Fabius' memory of Melusines first steps. Quite touching and relatable (and bittersweet in context of their history with each other after that).

T: Something altogether different: while I loved Clonegrim's part in Clonelord and didn't expect him to be important in Manflayer, his utter omission without even a mention of him seems...quite intentional. Did you want to avoid further "Next Returning Primarch?!"-debates?

JR: Yes. I was quite surprised by the reaction to the character, and I wanted to avoid any theory-baiting with this book, if possible. Mentioning him might imply there were further plans for him. Too, bringing him back in the same book as Original Recipe Fulgrim seemed unnecessary.

T: I feel you. Not to seem arrogant, but most debates about him...kinda missed the point of what he's doing in the story in the first place and why he's an interesting part of Fabius' arc, imho. So I get why you wanted to avoid further kindling that fire.

JR: So folks informed me. Frankly, people should be happy - my original idea was to have him killed by the Emperor's Children in a barbaric pantomime communion (eat of my flesh, drink of my blood...). At least this way, the possibility of his return exists, however remote.

T: That's disgusting. I would have loved it.

JR: I figured it'd be a step too far.

T: Depends on the execution, I guess, but indeed, sometimes less is your final version shows,which was in terms of violence basically just Fabius snapping his fingers,but pure emotional impact. The...sterility of it made it even more impactful. Still sounds cool, though.

T: While there are several themes that carry over the whole trilogy,I'd say none is more present than "stories":why we tell them, how they shape us, how they form ones image before others and oneself.Not what one would immediately associate with Fabius Bile. How did that come about?

JR: It's just something I'm interested in, really. There's a book called Wisdom Sits in Places by...Basso, I think. I read it way many years back, but it engendered an interest in me in how stories can entwine with history and perception - and how they repeat.

JR: The W40K-verse has always seemed cyclical to me. Its all about repeated mistakes and ignored lessons. The stories the characters tell (and live) hold the answers, but also hide the truth. Fabius tries to write his own ending, but his story is already set. Or is it?

T: Well said. Narrative is such a fascinating part of psychology and sociology. A big part of what has made your Fabius novels so captivating is that they capture something...real about human nature. Sure it's Madmen & Monsters In Space, but they are in touch with a very human core

T: And in the context of the 40k-verse at large: while plot-wise they are (propably quite deliberately) removed from the big action and meta-narrative, they sit right at the heart of what makes 40k tic thematically

T: Fabius, Arrian, Igori, Oleander, even Hexachires...all struggle with the narratives that define their world, try to shape their perception of the world and the possible paths in front of them, often thrust up on them by parents or peers. Story shapes reality shapes story.

T: In Manflayer, I feel that the various endings of the characters all are pretty ambiguous, as in they allow a range of pessimistic or optimistic readings on how "good" that ending was for the character. Was that something you did deliberately?

JR: Yes. Every character is somebody's favourite, after all. Some of it was in service to potential spin-offs, as well (Savona, for instance - for a short time, there was talk of a Savona-centric EC series, but it never came to anything).

T: Oh, Savona and her entourage would certainly make for an entertaining travel group. Shame that nothing came from it - which reminds me: I'm still waiting for that Oleander Travelogue you mentioned a few years ago! (which is also obv not happening any more)

T: Hooks for further story-branches aside,I think it's quite fitting for a trilogy about characters as story-telling-beings & beings-shaped-by-stories that their endings allow for individual readings, too, making the partaking of the reader in the story-telling-process salient

T: Was there a character you felt particularly sorry about having to say goodbye to? A favorite or someone you loved to hate? Was there a character you had a more grim/happy ending for in mind, but changed because of your feelings for them or bc how the character evolved over time?

JR: I had several versions of Arrian's end written. My favourite was an homage to Skurge's Stand at Gjallerbru from Simonson's run on Mighty Thor, with Arrian barring the drukhari from the Omega Redoubt. In the end, I decided to do something a bit less on the nose.

JR: Though, looking back now, I regret not yielding to the temptation. Besides Arrian, I think I went back and forth on Oleander's ending the most. I know I decided on anti-climactic deaths for most everyone, rather than big set-pieces, just to hammer home the sense of futility.

T: Bc Arrian was the most caring and, dare I say, healthy parent-figure for the New Men in the trilogy, I certainly wouldn't have minded for him to get a more heroic send-off. At least he seemed content with how he went out at the end, which was a nice touch. He deserved some peace.

T: What made Oleander so particularly hard to pin down the "right" ending for? And thanks for mentioning Skurge At Gjallerbru, now I know what inspired his end in Ragnarok (beautiful page, that is)

JR: Mostly, I wanted it to feel earned, and be appropriate to the character. I'm still not sure I managed it.

T: Hmm. He propably had the harshest fate of any Book 1 character & certainly endured enough punishment to deserve the small victory & mercy he received by the end. His was a tragedy cruel enough for an Oedipus.

T: Was that what you "wanted" for him in Book 3, thematically? The blind Greek hero, punished? I was under the impression that you had deliberate passed him over when writing Clonelord, so I was (positively) surprised when he showed up in Manflayer, as a prominent character, no less

JR: Pretty much. I'd always intended to bring him back, as part of an attempt to bring things full circle - or as close as I could manage.

T: Apropos full circle: I really love the mirroring/the dark inversion that's going on between the opening of Primogenitor and the Epilogue of Manflayer. Back to square one, but the board has changed.

JR: Yep. Toys all back in the toy-box.

T: Talking about the ending. The ending I'm most ambiguous about is Melusine's and Igori's. I'm torn between seeing them seizing a small victory againat literally impossible odds for the "Bile family" versus them falling into a devious trap by Slaanesh et al.

T: Would you be willing to talk a bit about your thoughts behind their arc and its conclusion? I know, Death Of The Author and Spoiler Alert for those reading along, but I'd be interested in your perspective on it.

JR: I knew what the conclusion would be before anything else. But originally, I'd envisioned their arc as much more antagonistic, or perhaps horrific, in nature. That changed over time, obviously.

JR: As to what it means, well, it's intentionally ambiguous. Did they fall prey to Slaanesh? Did Bile? Or is it yet another dodge, another scheme to buy time?

T: So I guess originally more "one twin swallowing the other" rather than "estranged siblings coming together"? Okay, that's what I took from the ending, too (although I tend towards a slightly optimistic reading). Thanks.

JR: Pretty much. They wound up being quite different characters, personality-wise, where originally I had intended them to be more mirrored. One idea, abandoned very early on, was that Igori and Melusine were the same person, just at different points in their life.

T: Again, I really like that idea - but I'm a sucker for time-travel-shenanigans in general. Although the current version is ultimately propably the more satisfying one. Ying and Yang, balance of opposites, finding synthesis between thesis & antithesis and all that.

T: It's a good thing I'm not your editor, bc my response to those early ideas would unequivocally be "Sick, man! Go nuts!" Apropos editors: Was there something you thought was propably too risky/wild, but were suprised by being waved through by editorial?

JR: Everything I thought might get cut, got cut, honestly. The books are fairly tame, despite their subject matter - and intentionally so. I knew when the first book was announced, people would expect something quite visceral, so I wanted to thwart expectations a bit.

T: I think the focus on characters and weird science instead of gross-out horror is amongst what that make these stories what they are, so that's a choice that paid off. Just wanted to say huge thanks for taking the time to answer all these questions! It's been quite enlightening

JR: No problem. Thank you for reading them!

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