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Surrealistic Planet

Damien Larkin: The Interview

Blood Red Sand, the latest novel from military science fiction author Damien Larkin, hits the shelves on October 3rd.

In my opinion, Damien is at the forefront of this genre. His stories possess a realism that comes from his own military experience, you can hear it in the dialogue, feel it in the life/death situations faced by his characters. Action is rooted in reality, these are not stories with the Hollywood version of warfare, it’s bloody, visceral and violent. His characters are also the types you’d expect to find in any military unit, the good, the bad and the ugly, in terms of their motivations. For these reasons, I’ve called him a modern-day Robert Heinlein, there can be no better compliment in my opinion.

Blood Red Sand takes us back to Mars to fight the rogue Nazi regime that escaped from the Allies in the 1940s. In this third book, events have become way more complex. There are new factions, each with their own agenda. Enemies have become friends and vice versa. It’s a story filled with twists and turns, capturing the chaos of war in all its horrific beauty.

The blurb for the book reads as follows:

After World War Two, Sergeant McCabe knew the British army could send him anywhere. He never imagined facing down another Nazi threat on Mars.

In New Berlin colony, rivalry between Generalfeldmarschall Seidel's Wehrmacht and Reichsführer Wagner's SS threatens bloodshed. The Reichsführer will sacrifice everything to initiate the secretive Hollow Programme and realise his nightmarish future for humanity.

McCabe, Private Jenkins, and the Mars Expeditionary Force must overcome bullet, bomb, and bayonet to destroy the Third Reich. While Jenkins fights to stay alive, McCabe forms an uneasy alliance with MAJESTIC-12 operatives known as the Black Visors. Will this be the final battle of World War Two or the first confrontation in an interstellar war?

I interviewed the man himself, to find out more about him and the Big Red series.

1. Tell us about Damien Larkin, especially your military background. How did it influence you as a writer?

I come from a generation who lied about our ages to enlist in the Reserve Defence Forces (it’s a lot stricter nowadays). I joined at 16 and rank it as one of the best decisions I’ve ever made. I learned so many practical skills that I still use today, made life-long friends, and got to share some fantastic experiences that will always stay with me. It was tough, exhausting, and at times boring, but I wouldn’t trade those seven years in the RDF for the world.

On the writing front, I consider myself extremely disciplined, and make sure to carve out time for myself to write daily (whether that’s on my lunch break in work or right after I finish). I also draw on my experiences of taking part in section, platoon, and company battle drills to make the war scenes as realistic as possible. Something I find really interesting is how often people (mostly veterans) comment on a recurring theme in my books – how the soldiers most often don’t have the equipment they need to get the job done or are let down by logistical issues. It’s funny because it’s true as most veterans and serving members can attest to.

2. Give us your ‘Elevator Pitch’ for Blood Red Sand.

British soldiers with PTSD kill Nazis on Mars while dreaming of home.

3. Tell us about your journey as an author.

Deep down, I always wanted to be a writer, but I kept putting it off. It was one of those situations where I told myself I’d look into it when I’d done X or completed Y. The real catalyst for me was when I was working part-time to look after my young children and set up an app development business as a side project. Despite the exhaustion of looking after two children while my wife worked, I managed to land three significant contracts and thought that was my breakthrough moment.

It wasn’t. I might as well have set fire to what little money I had. I built all three apps but for a variety of reasons, didn’t get anywhere close to a return on my investment. I distinctly remember having a ‘dark night of the soul’ where I questioned what I wanted to do with my life. I then realised that one of the core things driving me was to create a passive income so I could wind down my part-time job and focus that time on writing. It was like getting struck by a lightning bolt.

I wound down my app development business the next day, opened a Word document and gave myself until the New Year (three months away) to have a first draft written. With hours to spare on New Years Eve I had a story just over one hundred thousand words long completed. I later went on to self-publish ‘Children of the Dying.’

It was terrible. Like, truly awful in every sense of the word. I made so many amateur mistakes but learned a lot from the experience. After unpublishing it, I started writing a book based on a horrible nightmare I once had. That novel was ‘Big Red’ and the rest is history!

4. Your books are published by Dancing Lemur, how did that relationship come about?

All thanks to the power of ‘Twitter Pitch events.’ At the time, I’d never heard of a Twitter Pitch event and stumbled across it randomly. These events are set up by different organisations sometimes for a variety of genres and in a nutshell, writers pitch their books in Tweet form during a certain time frame and with relevant hash tags. Agents and publishers will them review these tweets looking for books that might fit their wish list. If they find something that captures their interest, they’ll ‘like’ the tweet, inviting the author to pitch to them directly.

I took part in one run by the Insecure Writer’s Support Group (IWSG) and ended up getting three likes from different publishers. I researched them, eliminated one and pitched Big Red. In the end, I opted for Dancing Lemur Press due to their professionalism and belief in my story. I rank that as an excellent decision. I learned more from L. Diane Wolfe about writing (and the business of writing) in the first month compared to twelve months of research I’d done myself.

5. The characters in your stories, men like McCabe and Jenkins especially, possess such a ring of truth, they sound like they might exist. Are they based on people you’ve known?

They’re not exact copies of people I know, but I’d definitely draw on personality traits of different people to add realism to their personalities and actions. From my RDF days, every platoon had a Jenkins character. Someone who tends to be the butt of jokes or messes things up on a semi-regular basis, but who can surprisingly step up when needed or under pressure.

Likewise, McCabe is a mixture of some fantastic NCOs I had the pleasure of serving alongside. A good NCO drives you hard and pushes you to your limits, but also looks out for the enlisted under their watch.

6. You have a day job and a family, I imagine the opportunities to write are not easy to find. How do you find time?

Through sheer force of will! I’m grateful for being able to continue working from home so much in this post-Covid environment. Due to wanting to spend time with my family or doing a million other things that require my attention on a daily basis, I need to be strategic about my writing time.

In my work, I get two fifteen minute breaks and a forty minute lunch a day. I combine my first break and lunch together and spend those fifty-five minutes pouring out the words. On a good day, I can break the 1k words marker during that time, sometimes more if I’m in the zone. If I’m low energy or exhausted, I’ll focus on editing one of the billions of projects I’m working on at the moment. No rest for the wicked!

7. Tell us about the importance of research in these stories. Your description of a Martian colony sounds so well informed, you must have investigated how this would be achieved. The same is true for the attitudes, strategic complexities and personalities of the Nazis in the books.

One of the things I enjoy about speculative fiction is how we can bend, or sometimes even break, the rules on storytelling, but something I’ve noticed is how readers do enjoy a certain sense of realism. For the universe of Big Red, I’ve put in countless hours researching time travel, potential plans for colonising Mars (and other planets), interstellar travel, UFOs, and conspiracy theories. If you put in the work to create that sense of realism (especially in an unrealistic scenario) I think readers will pick up on the confidence of your writing.

I’ve always enjoyed history too (I know – surprise, surprise), so I take what I’ve read about, whether that’s certain attitudes or personality traits, and blend them into characters. For me, it’s about blurring the lines as much as possible and utilising misdirection to keep the reader engaged and unable to predict how it’s all going to end.

8. Action sequences are never easy to write. It’s a tough job, maintaining the right pace while making it clear to your reader what’s happening. Give us an example of one of the many set pieces in your story that proved a challenge to write (without spoilers!).

Great question! What I call ‘the Battle of the Spire’ was, without a doubt, the most challenging of all the action scenes in Blood Red Steel. If you look at Blood Red Sand, most of the action takes place out in the open or within a sprawling city-sized domed colony. This gives plenty of room to manoeuvre, allowing multiple operations across different fronts and the use of artillery or mortars as support weapons. In Blood Red Steel, most of the action is confined to a claustrophobic Forward Base meaning there can’t be any huge set-piece battles. Instead, the action is in your face and very close quarters.

With the limits I imposed on myself, I had to work out how these opposing groups could duke it out in a large-scale manner. My solution was to fight a 3-D style battle by blowing up the floors in the innards of Forward Base Zulu. Instead of having soldiers fighting each other across the different levels, have the battle raging up and down as well. I thoroughly enjoyed penning that mayhem!

9. Prejudice in its myriad forms, is played out in the story vividly. It’s a strong motivator to many of the characters. Was this a deliberate decision on your part?

Yes, absolutely. I always enjoyed history as a subject and to this day read history books non-stop. One of the things I’ve never been able to wrap my head around is the drive to ‘whitewash’ history and gloss over subjects. History is history. It happened. Good things and bad. I believe it’s important for us to study and learn from the past, in the hopes that we can prevent history from repeating itself.

One of the things I set out to do when writing the Blood Red books was to shatter the ‘Clean Wehrmacht’ myth. This was a school of thought that became very popular in post-WW2 Germany that stated the atrocities carried out by the Germans was primarily by the SS with little to no support from the Wehrmacht. Evidence proves otherwise, though and it’s something I wanted to hammer home in my books.

10. Having been a soldier yourself, I suppose you must have one character who is your favourite. The guy you relate to most easily. Who is it? Likewise, which character have you enjoyed writing because of their villainy?

Without a doubt, that’d be ‘Captain’ Eddie Lockhart. In Big Red, and Blood Red Sand he’s a secondary character, so I was delighted to promote him to POV status in this one. He’s someone who’s clearly troubled and suffers with addiction yet is a skilled pilot and firmly loyal to his friends. There’s something about his rebellious streak I find so entertaining to write.

For the villains, there’s one character I enjoyed writing and was utterly shocked by her actions (who sadly, didn’t make the final cut to Blood Red Sand). I wrote four chapters from the perspective of Martha Haas, the leader of a werewolf terrorist cell in New Berlin who wages a one-woman war against the MOF parallel to the events happening at Forward Base Zulu.

In the end, I decided to cut her as I realised her scenes detracted from the overall story but getting into the headspace to write her utterly chilled me. This was a woman who left her own children to callously target off-duty MOF personal, even utilising child suicide bombers. I intend on self-publishing her stories as a companion piece to Blood Red Steel at some point in the future under the working title of ‘The She-wolf of New Berlin.’

11. Situations faced by many of your characters involve them dealing with the real possibility of death. In my introduction, I mentioned the “death or glory” approach we often see in Hollywood films. That is not so in your stories. Because it’s not “one size fits all” is it? There will be different reasons for risking their lives. How do you go about creating characters who must face up to this reality?

When people sign up to serve their countries they do so for a variety of reasons. For some it’s out of love of their country, others, it might be as a job, a steppingstone to college, or juts straight up adventure. In the end, it doesn’t matter. After experiencing gruelling training for days and weeks, with little sleep and pushed to your limits everything revolves around your buddies. You endure and suffer for them, the same way they do for you.

I’ve never been in a combat situation, so I try and draw from the experiences of veterans who have as much as possible. In Blood Red Steel, the men of the MEF endured horror for two years and the survivors heavily lean on each other to get through the day. During the fighting, they don’t want to die, but they’d rather take a bullet than seeing one of their mates getting killed which leads to some personal acts of heroism. Not out of ideology or loyalty to the state but for their mates and the people they’re assigned to protect and lead.

12. What’s next for Damien Larkin, the author?

So may projects, too little time! I’m aiming to get back to my self-publishing roots by releasing two books next year (hopefully). The first is ‘The Truceless War’ a sci-fi retelling of the First Punic War (between the Romans and Carthaginians). If the Roman Empire in space sounds like your thing, let me know!

The second project is ‘Lizard Skin and Sharpened Steel’ which is a fantasy swords-and-shields novel following the exploits of a mercenary company tasked with visiting an isolated landmass and retrieving dinosaur eggs. Yep, that’s right. Swords, shields, and dinosaurs.

On top of that, I’m currently working on two WIPs. One is a sci-fi story involving AI, androids, and the end of the world. The other is a satirical alternative history novel. As if I’m not already a glutton for punishment, The Green Horizon audio drama creator Paul Walsh and I are collaborating on a sci-fi horror novel, but no timeline for that at the minute.

Long story short; you ain’t seen nothing yet!

Want to find out more? Here are the links!

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