Interviews With The Fantastic
InterGalactic Interview With Chuck Wendig
by Lawrence M. Schoen
Chuck Wendig is the very definition of a working genre author. He writes horror novels. He
writes games. He writes comic books. He writes thrillers. He writes screenplays. And YA. And
urban fantasy. And media tie-ins. And writing advices. He bobs and weaves, astounds and
terrifies, befuddles and inspires. And he blogs. He's been a finalist for the John W. Campbell
Award for Best New Writer and has hit the New York Times Best Seller list at #4. He pulls no
punches, offers no apologies. He's known to rant. He works in a little writing shed surrounded on
all sides by forest. More than once I've thought how glorious it would be to grow up to be just
Schoen: In a recent blog post, you've noted that while much of what you're writing is horror,
it's actually marketed as urban fantasy. Can you expand on your take on the differences between
horror as a genre, a marketing label, and a writer's perspective?
Wendig: Horror is something altogether more visceral, more real, and relies less on the
tropes of fantasy--and that's not to say there's anything wrong with those tropes! I like them
quite a lot. But for me, there is real value in being scary, both as a surface thing ("boo!") and as
an existential thing ("have you considered the horror of XYZ?"). Horror in marketing is--well, I
don't know! Marketing is its own special animal beyond my mortal ken. I think publishers tend
to be wary of using horror as a label, and that's true sometimes too in film or other media.
Schoen: Every writer has their own process, and for many it's a thing that's in flux, ever
changing, ever evolving, meshing differently from book to book. At this moment in time, what
does yours look like? Where do you start? How much of the book do you know when you begin?
Do you compose the entire thing in your head before putting words on a screen or page, or do
you write and rewrite and rewrite some more?
Wendig: I am a pantser by heart, and a plotter by necessity. I begin with some kind of
outline, and that outline almost literally takes a different form for every book I write. Then I sit
and I write it out, start to finish. I used to write freelance (and still do, sometimes) and that means
my prose is clean--and so, rewriting rarely requires cleaning up my language and more requires
something developmental and altogether deeper if such a fix is necessary. But outlining helps me
get ahead of having to do countless drafts. Writing Blackbirds took me five years. Writing its
sequel (meaning, after I learned to outline) took me 30 days.
Schoen: And as a follow-up to that last question, and as someone who has written for a range
of editors on a range of projects, what's your experience with the author-editor process? What
tends to work for you, what's a nonstarter, what's a deal-breaker? And also, what's your track
record like with copyeditors?
Wendig: I have had very good author-editor relationships--publishing is full of wonderful
editors and as with covers, I've been very lucky in who I've worked with. I like editors who are
there to fulfill my vision of the book, not theirs. I like copyeditors who are comfortable with my
stylistic choices, and don't try to correct away from those--but who also recognize when that
style is overdone, and needs a flag.
Schoen: I'd like to ask you about your Miriam Black series. Blackbirds was my first
exposure to your work and it hooked me at once, which surprised me because I don't think of
myself as a horror reader. But my biggest question arising from that series is: Is Miriam an anti-hero because she's the protagonist of a horror novel, or is she protagonist of a horror novel
because she's an anti-hero? What would have to change for her to be a hero instead? Or for the
book to be something other than horror? Or are either of these things possible without breaking
something essential to the character?
Wendig: Miriam is an anti-hero because she's in a horror world, which is to say, the world
of that novel, yeah. And here maybe is one of those possible (if not concrete) distinctions
between urban fantasy and horror--horror leans more toward the darker end of the protagonist
spectrum and toward the darker side of the world in general. In urban fantasy the world may be
dark, but the protagonist is there to navigate it with hope. Miriam is almost that--but the world
has mostly taken that hope out of her, and that's where it gets fun to navigate. If you break that
part of her, she becomes far more Harry Potter, and far less Hannibal Lecter.
Schoen: I have to say, your cyber-thrillers scare me in a ramped up kind of way that Cory
Doctorow's Little Brother just scratched the surface of. You go out of your way to acknowledge
that technology in and of itself is value free--it's up to us to use it to heal the world or end
civilization as we know it. The need of a good story's conflict aside, are you feeling more
optimistic or pessimistic when it comes to the rapidly changing world of tech? Will we survive to
reach the singularity, or should we just give up and now and leave it all to the ants?
Wendig: Leave it all to the ants. They've been here longer than we have been, and they'll be
here far after we go. They're the curators of this world, not us. That sounds pessimistic, and
maybe it is, but I'm also optimistic toward the nature of survival, at least when it comes to
Schoen: Media tie-in authors often take a lot of abuse among other authors. You've obviously
been very successful at it, and even managed to have your byline leap out where so many others
vanish beneath the name of the franchise. But you've also stirred up some controversy (which
may well be part of the other bit). Are you finding new readers are "discovering" your other
fiction because they've read your Star Wars novels and want more of your stuff? And too, more
generally, given that you write across such a range of genres and formats, do readers even know
to track you from other areas, like your YA novels to thrillers to horror? Can you be all things to
all readers, or are you just following a model of diversification so that if one area goes pear-shaped you're still sitting comfortably with multiple revenue streams?
Wendig: Nobody can be all things to all readers, so I only worry about being me to my
readers. Which is to say, I didn't write the Aftermath trilogy with the only goal being to write a
Star Wars story. I had the goal too to write a Chuck Wendig Star Wars story. That part is vital for
me. I don't want to strip the "me" part out of that, because I'm the author who has to show up
and do the job. I don't want the book to be some neutered, wibbly-wobbly version. I want it to be
me, for all the good and the bad that come with that. What that means practically speaking is,
people who hated the style and the social choices in the book won't ever follow me, and that's
fine, because they won't like my other books. But those who do will recognize this as feeling
different, and they are likelier to pursue my other work.
Schoen: Another follow-up, if you don't mind. And I ask this as someone who is more in the
Star Trek camp than the Star Wars, but I hope you talk to me anyway. So here's the thing. Is there
any way that you (or some other SW novelist) can redeem the horror that is Jar Jar Binks, or is
that so far down the rabbit hole of drug-using fan fiction--e.g., Jar Jar is actually a midichlorian
science experiment intended to overwhelm the dark side with innate goofiness--as to be beyond
Wendig: On this, I have to plead the fifth. Smoke bomb. Ninja escape.
Schoen: You wrote the first book of your Heartland trilogy on little more than a dare to
invent "corn punk." This is terrifying to me. How do you refrain from using this kind of power
for evil, or, if I were to double dog dare you to write 100,000 words and create the new sub-genre
of "dark chocolate punk" (not to be confused with "grimdark chocolate" as a sub-genre) should I
go looking for a publisher? Because, boy howdy, there's an audience waiting for that. Let's cash
Wendig: Who said I was refraining from using it for evil? MUAHAHAHA, ahem sorry.
You wanna write about chocolate, man, I'm in. We'll get sponsored by one of the chocolate
companies. One of the good ones, too. Though I'll be honest, I'd much rather a genre around ice
Schoen: Your nonfiction includes works with titles like 250 Things You Should Know About
Writing, 500 Ways To Be a Better Writer, 500 More Ways To Be a Better Writer, 500 Ways To
Tell a Better Story, and 1001 Ways to Write Great Fiction, just to name a few. Can you pick two
or three pithy bits of advice that you think are the most essential things a writer needs to know or
Wendig: All advice is nonsense, which is to say, it works for you or it doesn't, and that's
okay. But for me, I'll give you one piece that is true always and throughout: Finish your work.
Finish it. Complete something. First, completing something is huge because most wanna-bes start
stuff and never cross that finish line--most people finish one book every never. Second, because
finishing teaches you something. The end of a book is as important as the start, and if you never
learn to write that part, you're doomed. Third and finally, because finishing work gives you a
sweet dopamine boost, and tickles your self-esteem gland. It's good to finish things. Not
everything. But most things.
Schoen: You blog. A lot. And you've been doing it for a long time. I hope you don't terribly
mind the clichés, but you neither suffer fools nor take prisoners. What started you down the path,
and what has kept you at it? Does blogging utilize a different part of your "writer's brain" or
otherwise free up your ability to craft fiction, or are you drawing from the same pool for the
words you post to your blog as the words you pour into novels? And is there some final goal,
some target that you'll reach some day and then say, "That's it, I'm done blogging?"
Wendig: I started blogging MANY EPOCHS AGO when my site was just a static site I had
to update in HTML. I had no metrics, no statistics, and so I had no idea if anybody was reading.
As such, I blogged to me about me--about problems, about challenges, about questions or things
I found funny and interesting and scary. I carry that through today, even though I know how
many people read my blog. At the end of the day, it's still me about me.
Schoen: Was there some illuminating moment in your youth that you can look back on when
you realized you wanted to be a writer? What triggered the dormant gene and released your
mutant power? What circumstance shaped the young Chuck and set in motion the life choices
that led you to where you are today?
Wendig: Eighth grade, two things happened: First, I had an English teacher correct me on a
word, telling me it did not exist. That word was 'rictus,' and it does exist, so nyeah nyeah boo
boo. Also, I was reading a ton of horror at that time, and somehow it dawned on me that people
are doing this and publishing novels and, lo and behold, doing it as a (gasp) career. So I decided
that's what I wanted.
Schoen: Last question. Let's look to your future and prognosticate. You're clearly
comfortable writing wherever the work leads. And you've built up a solid reputation of getting
the job done. What work is on the horizon for you, and what would you like to write (other than
the aforementioned "dark chocolate punk") if you had your druthers (and a friendly publisher
waiting in the wings with a reasonable contract)?
Wendig: The work I want to write is a list as endless and evolving as the human genome.
Next up for me is a book I've been hankering to write for a long time, Exeunt, which is my own .
. . spin on an unfolding global apocalypse. It should be fun and scary and epic. It'll be out in 2018
with Del Rey.