Friday, May 3, 2013

Interview with Chuck Wendig

Chuck Wendig is a new discovery for me. I planted my flag in his upcoming novel The Blue Blazes not too long ago. Long story short, I loved it and I immediately went looking for more of Chuck's particular brand of word salad. I found his blog, the excellent Terrible Minds, followed him on Twitter, and picked up another of his novels for my "to read" pile. Then I asked him to answer a few questions for me. Those questions are below, I hope you enjoy the answers.

52 Reviews: Robert Jackson Bennett talks a lot about the Big Ideas that drive his stories. What central theme or idea is at the heart of The Blue Blazes, and was this something that informed the writing from the beginning of your writing process, or did it develop more organically?

Wendig: I like to think that at the heart of many of my tales is family. What family means. How a family is ruined, and how it puts itself back together. The Blue Blazes, like with many of my stories, features a truly fucked up family: Mookie Pearl and his estranged daughter, Nora, who just so happens to be trying to steal a slice of his criminal operations right out from under his nose.

Family is fascinating. We all have it. And each of our version is a thing that is often equal parts love and dysfunction, and so I think one of the powers of fiction is to stick a thumb into that particular sponge-cake and see how it feels.

52 Reviews: I would agree that my favorite part of The Blue Blazes is the family drama between Mookie and Nora. What I found equally fascinating was the way you interposed the wholly non-existent character of Mookie's ex-wife into the tableau. While we know next to nothing about her role in the relationship between these two principals, she still manages to exert an almost tidal pull on them both. Mookie's arc with the ghost of his marriage is much more visible, but the reader can't help but wonder how she may have shaped Nora's character and choices. Was it your intention from the start to create this Unholy Trinity of Father, Daughter and Holy Ghost?

Wendig: Not an intention in the religious sense, but in a lot of my books you'll find that one parent is distant or estranged somehow -- Miriam Black's mother has been off the radar for years, her father long gone. Atlanta Burns is without a father. In my upcoming YA book, Under the Empyrean Sky, Cael McAvoy has both parents, but his mother is sick and bedridden with tumors. And here in The Blue Blazes we have the absent father -- Mookie Pearl -- actually being the protagonist of the book, and Nora, the poor daughter, becomes (in part) the antagonist. The disturbed, imperfect trinity is key, I think.

52 Reviews: Wendig does YA. I can't decide if I shudder with fear or quiver with excitement at that prospect. As someone who has only recently started reading your work, which of your other works would you recommend to someone who enjoyed The Blue Blazes and why? And just to get this out of the way early, are there plans for more novels featuring Mookie and Company?

Wendig: I'd like to think that anybody who likes The Blue Blazes will like anything I do because I try to inform all the work with my voice and whatever motifs and themes that obsess me and ALSO BECAUSE I HAVE THIS GUN POINTED AT THIS PONY.

But, really, if folks are looking for a next place to jump from The Blue Blazes, they might want to check out Blackbirds and Mockingbird, the first two Miriam Black books. Also by Angry Robot.

As to whether or not there will be more TBB -- well, hopefully. I have two more books planned to make it a trilogy. If Angry Robot says they want more, then the world gets more. If not -- well, maybe I'll still write them some day.

52 Reviews: As an author who has a very distinct voice, what would you recommend to aspiring writers who are struggling to find their own voice? Are there specific exercises you used or was your experience more organic?

Wendig: Here's how this works, I think:

Every author decides to go on a grand adventure one day, and that grand adventure is to find her voice. She leaves the comfort of her own wordsmithy and she traipses through many fictional worlds written by many writers and along the way she pokes through their writings to see if her voice is in there somewhere. She takes what she reads and she mimics their voices, taking little pieces of other authors with her in her mind and on the page.

Is her voice cynical? Optimistic? Short and curt, or long and breezy? She doesn't know and so she reads and she writes and she lives life in an effort to find out.

This adventure takes as long as it takes, but one day the author tires of it and she comes home, empty-handed, still uncertain what her voice looks like or sounds like.

And there, at home, she discovers her voice is waiting. In fact, it's been there all along.

Your voice is how you write when you're not trying to find your voice. Your voice is the way you write, the way you talk. Your voice is who you are, what you believe, what themes you knowingly and unknowingly embrace. Your voice is you. Search for it and you won't find it. Stop looking and it'll find you.

So, no exercises really teach you voice, I don't think, save perhaps for the exercise of simply writing.

52 Reviews: Speaking of 'simply writing' do you prescribe to the notion that success as a writer is more a measure of effort and dedication than actual talent? Creativity, in and of itself, seems to be pretty easy to come by while the tenacity to commit to the act of actually creating seems to be much more scarce.

Wendig: Talent is a function of excess desire. You really, really want something bad enough, you tend to manifest a "talent" for it. While I'm sure there's some argument to be made for the expression of genetics, I think mostly it's just -- if you really like architecture and have the desire to create architecture, you're probably going to manifest the "talent" as an architect.

Dedication and effort then turn that desire and talent into craft and creation. At least, in a perfect world

52 Reviews: If I can dig into your writing process a bit, could you tell us a little about the genesis of The Blue Blazes? Did you start with character, plot, or world building? Is your starting point the same for each novel, or does it change from project to project?

Wendig: The genesis for the book is remarkably ludicrous, but perhaps shows how long a story can gestate:

When I was a Wee Tiny Human, somewhere around 8-10 years old, I used to press my thumbs against my eyelids so I could see colors in the dark of my eye. Like, I dunno, elementary school hallucinogens or something. It's like, they tell you not to look at the sun and what do you do, first thing? Go and look at the sun like a dummy. Because all children are stupid.

One time I did it and received the most marvelous colors and then, just after and not coincidentally, I saw a lion in my backyard. I grew up in Pennsylvania so the likelihood of this being a lion -- in this case, a lion reclining as if after a glorious meal -- was nil. And yet it was so crisp, so clear, I was at the time convinced it was real, missing the connection that maybe, just maybe, I'd invoked the lion as a vision by thumbing myself in the eyes like a stupid person.

Years later, that story reoccurred to me as an adult and I thought, there's something there, yeah? Something about the eyes, something about the blue blazes seen behind the dark of the lid, something about how it reveals things you don't want to or don't expect to see.

And even there the story lived with me for the last six, seven years. Slowly growing. There came a point in the last couple years where the most excellent Robin Laws was editing an anthology called The New Hero, Volume One, and he wanted a story of an iconic hero -- iconic meaning a hero that changes the world but is not in turn changed himself. I came up with Mookie Pearl, bad dude with a heart of gold, head-breaker, knee-cracker, goblin-masher, a man with a tricksy daughter, a man with an impeccable taste in charcuterie, a man ultimately alone. From there I envisioned a whole novel with him at its fore -- and so, THE BLUE BLAZES was born.

52 Reviews: With Mookie serving as the rock that all the other players in the novel break themselves against, was it much more important to show character growth in the supporting cast?

Wendig: I'm less concerned with growth and more concerned with depth -- and, to a lesser extent, change. At the bare minimum, supporting characters need to be compelling in their own ways. Supporting characters don't know they're supporting characters. They're the main characters of their own lives.

52 Reviews: One of the things that I noticed in The Blue Blazes was that the end of one of the principle character's arc was heavily foreshadowed and telegraphed without diminishing the reveal at all. How do you strike a balance between revealing too much through foreshadowing and being so vague that most readers miss the anticipation and the payoff?

Wendig: A great deal of writing is drunkenly threading a needle. Thankfully, for during those times you prick your finger like a fool you have power of editing and rewriting to pull back on the obvious and push forward on the all-too-subtle.

Writing is one of the only jobs where you get a nearly endless amount of do-overs and take-backs.

52 Reviews: Editing and rewriting are often the bane of the aspiring author. Some can never seem to finish a project due to the need to get things 'just so', while others are daunted by the task after putting so much on the page. What approach do you take to editing and what advice would you give to those who are facing this issue their own writing?

Wendig: The worst advice is also the most tried and true: just do it.

For those looking for more nuanced advice, I offer that one approaches editing the way one approaches eating an elephant: one bite at a time. Editing a particularly troublesome novel feels dire because it's OH SO MUCH, a big bloated behemoth of problems and errors and plot tangles. But it's like cleaning a messy kitchen: it all starts with one dish. You move one dish, then another, then another, eventually you start to see it get cleaned up.

In terms of editing, I write in the mornings, and edit in the afternoons. That way I can work on two projects separately.

Oh! One more little piece of advice for editing: give yourself as much time away from the thing as possible. The ideal scenario is coming back to it like someone else wrote it. When we edit too soon we're filled with love for things that don't work and hate for things that do. Have to get our head clear and come at it as objectively as possible.

52 Reviews: The Blue Blazes is what I would consider a genre bender of a novel in that it takes elements from more than one genre and performs a sort of mystic authorial origami on it, with the resulting work being more than the sum of its parts. With that in mind, what do you think about the genre system as a whole? Is it an important tool for getting the right books into the hands of the people who are apt to enjoy them, or is it a limiting system of pigeon holing that authors are forced to abide by due to editorial or consumer fiat?

Wendig: The genre system is theoretically useful to the audience -- I mean, hey, if I want an epic fantasy, I can go to that shelf. But it's also hopelessly restrictive and what happens is, some authors get stuck on a given shelf and can never leave. (This is why author "branding" can be dangerous -- let's remember that a brand is the symbol a cattleman burns into the hide of his steers to signify ownership.)

Authors of my age, I think, were raised on a steady diet of pop culture from across a variety of genres -- my mother will read anything with the words "Robert" and "Ludlum" on it, but people my age often read widely beyond a single genre. And that shows in our writing, too -- we blend and mix and mash it all up in some new pulp slurry.

I suspect that one possible future is that authors become their own genres. Hell, Stephen King is his own genre. He's not a horror writer anymore. He's just… Stephen King. Doesn't matter what genre his novels are, his voice, his style, they're his own.

52 Reviews: For my last question, I'd like to try something I started in my last interview. Let's call it a Writer's Soapbox. Here's your chance to pontificate on your topic of choice, promote an upcoming project, or give the alchemical formula of Patrick Rothfuss' beard shampoo. The floor is yours, do your worst.

Wendig: *dons self-promotional cap*

*which is actually just a beanie with a propeller on it shut up*

I'm a lucky little writer-monkey because, by some weird confluence of fortune and hard work I have four novels coming out in the next couple months. So, I'm going to gesticulate wildly and froth a little at the mouth and point at those.

Because I'm wearing my beanie, you see.

So, let us begin.

First up: Gods & Monsters: Unclean Spirits. The gods fell to Earth. One man wants revenge on them for taking his family away from him. It involves various divine wangs and vaginas. No, really.

Next: The Blue Blazes. Which we have in part already talked about but hey, I'll entice with: mystical drugs! goblins! roller derby girl gangs! the criminal underworld! the mythic underworld! subterranean zombie town! charcuterie! family betrayal!

Then: Under the Empyrean Sky, which is my young adult novel in a sunny dustbowl cornpunk future where a scrappy scavenger named Cael finds a secret forbidden garden in a world where their floating Empyrean overlords only allow them to grow a bloodthirsty variant of corn. It's got young love and adventure and piss-blizzards and motorvators and an agricultural pro-farmer pro-food message nestled in all the trappings. John Hornor Jacobs called it Of Mice and Men meets Star Wars, which I quite like.

Finally! Beyond Dinocalypse, book two of the Spirit of the Century trilogy. Pulp heroes. Two-fisted jet-pack action. An apocalypse of psychic hive-mind dinosaurs. PROFESSORIAL APES IN KILTS.

*removes beanie*

I feel so dirty.


  1. Good interview Matt and Chuck. I've bought the Miriam Black books, which I really want to read, not long ago. I think I'm going to motivate to just read them before this month is over.

    1. You just need to get on it already man. You will piddle yourself with awesome.

    2. Bastard,

      If you haven't tackled Blackbirds yet, don't wait. Dive straight in. Chuck had a hook in my jaw by page five. Posted my review today.

  2. I had a great time with this interview, glad to see it shows. I am holding back to not flood the site with Wendig, but I'm itching to read the first Miriam Black novel myself.

  3. I have a ridiculous nerd crush on Chuck.

    Thanks for the great interview.

    1. There's more Wendig on the way. I reviewed Blackbirds today, and there's even more coming soon. Follow us on twitter, so you don't miss any of the awesome.

  4. Matt, if you enjoyed The Blue Blazes, you should read the Miriam Black novels ASAP. They're excellent - even better than TBB, I'd say.

    1. Reviewed Blackbirds today per yours and many other recommendations. Thanks for directing me to Miriam Black's world. Excellent stuff.

  5. This is awesome, and I loved doing this interview. Thanks for having me!

    -- c.

  6. Hooray for the Truly fucked up families! Please don't shoot the pony I will read I swear. One of the best interviews I've read - but possibly because I'm a twisted nut fan of Wendig so yeah - creepy stalker? Can't wait to read them all! Thanks for giving us some insight into your world/process.

  7. This interview was magnificent to read as an aspiring writer. You've earned Mr. Wendig and 52 Reviews a new fan.

    1. Thank you for the kind words. Chuck is absolute pleasure to work with and there is more Wendig goodness coming. Be sure to follow us on Twitter so you don't miss it. I also reviewed Blackbirds today, if you are interested.