An Interview with Chuck Wendig
When LitReactor co-head honcho Dennis Widmyer asked me to describe the writing of Chuck Wendig, I more or less had to scratch my head and think about how, exactly, would I define it? He doesn’t exclusively write in one particular genre, so my catchall answer was Urban Fantasy. But even that doesn’t adequately describe Wendig’s style. The one thing I did say without hesitation was that Wendig was about two years away from being the next Neil Gaiman. Of course, I could’ve just as easily said he was the next Joe Lansdale, or Cherie Priest (albeit far more beardy and infinitely less attractive). Or William Gibson.
Wendig is a rare combination of an author who excels not only at writing a compelling narrative, but is adept at the business and marketing side of writing. His daily blog, TERRIBLEMINDS, has over the last several years become one of the premiere writing destinations on the web, and has produced five collections of writing advice, as well as the the viral column, 25 THINGS WRITERS NEED TO STOP DOING (RIGHT FUCKING NOW.)
I’m a longtime fan and supporter of Wendig—if you consider three years to be “long time”. And lets face it, with the nature of the Internet, it is—and I was thrilled to get the chance to interview him.
Keith Rawson: What's your latest novel, Blackbirds, about, and where did you come up with the idea?
Chuck Wendig: BLACKBIRDS—and its follow-up, MOCKINGBIRD—tells the story of Miriam Black, a deeply damaged young woman who can see how someone is going to die just by touching them. One might think this is empowering, as she could step in and avert the Grim Reaper's dread hand, but it ain't that easy. In fact, Miriam can't seem to change a damn thing. And so, at the start of the book, she's something of a vulture -- waiting for people to die, placing herself at the scene, and robbing from them like a true-blue scavenger.
But on the road she meets a trucker and bears witness to his death in her vision -- and the vision suggests she is complicit in his demise. Which leads her on a path that asks whether she'll try once again to thwart fate or whether she'll do as she's always done: exploit and thieve.
The book comes out of a place where I was transitioning from a young brash adult with no sense of death to a not-so-young dude where people were dying all around me and it was suddenly made clear that, oops, one day I was going to take the big damn dirt-nap, too.
KR: The imagery in Blackbirds is some of the most disturbing I've read in a while, particularly the dream sequences. Was there any point in writing Blackbirds where you censored yourself or were there scenes that you ended up cutting because you felt they were too graphic?
CW: I regret nothing! *pounds lectern* I didn't cut anything out of the book in terms of violence or sheer fucked-upedness. Anything that got cut was to tighten the story or focus the characters. But all the awful gnarly bits got to stay if they were appropriate ingredients. And I definitely didn't censor myself! Gods, could you imagine if this book was a result of me censoring myself? What would the uncensored book look like? I shudder to think.
KR: I've really been enjoying your Tumblr blog, This Is How You Die. If by some weird chance you met a person such as Miriam Black, would you want to know how you kick the bucket? Also, do you plan on keeping the blog going after the release of Blackbirds?
CW: I don't know if I'd want to know. Maybe? Control freak and all, be interesting to prepare. Of course, now I'm thinking, "I've got a book on death coming out and here Keith is asking me this question OH MY GOD I'M GOING TO DIE REALLY SOON." Here's hoping that's not the case. The blog will continue -- it doesn't require a lot of maintenance from me. Seems to have compelled people to check it out from time to time.
KR: Has becoming a father changed your views of life and death along with aging?
CW: It really has changed things. I used to be a rabid hypochondriac and then, when my wife got pregnant and had the baby... that pretty much just vaporized. Which was weird, and I don't quite understand it. My body and mind are secretly like, "You have bred true, penmonkey. Well-done. Go rest now. Go die of the bird-flu, your work here is done."
KR: Would you ever consider writing a long-term series character, such as continuing Miriam Black's story beyond the current two book arc? And what are your feelings toward writers who spend their careers writing the same character(s)?
CW: Miriam is ideally a long-term series character. Her story will most likely not be contained to the two-book arc (the third book in the series is tentatively titled THE CORMORANT). That said, I don't want to write her forever, either. Her story can't just go on and on and on. Her tale has an end. I'm not sure how long it'll take to get there, but (for now) I know what it is. That said, I don't begrudge writers who write one character for their entire careers. Long as that makes them and the readership happy, hey, fuck it. Do as thou wilt shall be the whole of the law.
KR: You've written some very strong female characters in the past couple of years. (Atlanta Burns from Shotgun Gravy and Miriam Black from Blackbirds). Do you approach writing women differently from male characters, or are they fundamentally the same for you?
CW: That's a tricky question. On the one hand, you have to acknowledge that women have difference experiences than men—some are biological (I will never give birth, for instance), while others are sociological (the current "war on women" by a bunch of rich white dudes with what I'm assuming are tiny withered penises). So, you have to take that stuff into account, but at the same time a "strong female character" really just has to be a "strong character." In that sense I try to treat the female characters as I would any character: nuanced, damaged, hopefully interesting with a bevy of hopes and fears to which the audience can relate.
KR: You've self published a gaggle of books in the past couple of years, do you prefer self publishing to working under a traditional publishing contract?
CW: I don't prefer one or the other. They both have features and bugs. These days a smart writer is a writer who survives through diversity—you gotta spin a lot of plates, and for me that means having one foot in each publishing world. And my fingers in lots of pies. Mmm. Pie.
KR: Would you encourage a new writer to go the self-publishing route, or pursue publication by more traditional means, i.e., agent, editor, and whatnot? And do you ever get tired of being asked this question?
CW: I do get tired of being asked it, and this is the straw that broke the camel's back. *kicks hole in computer monitor* No, it's a good question, I just don't know how to answer it. It's a definite "poll your intestinal flora" moment for authors. Each book needs its own path and I damn sure don't know what it is. I think some books will do very well as self-published entities, while others will travel the traditional route more easily. Traditional gives you easier access to awards and reviews and press and foreign rights and film rights and all that jazz. Self-published gives you better control and stronger returns on each book sold.
Best I can tell people is: write the best book you can, and then take an overall hybridized approach to publishing. Some for this venue, others for this venue. Diversity helps ensure survival.
KR: What prompted you to start your Kickstarter campaign for your next Atlanta Burns project? And is it going to be a full length novel or a novella such as the first installment, Shotgun Gravy?
CW: BAIT DOG will be a full-length novel. I went to Kickstarter because, while Atlanta Burns has garnered a lot of attention, I wasn't sure the attention was there to support a full novel. Turns out, the attention was able to support two full novels, so, hell, I won't complain. Kickstarter's pretty bad-ass, really. It has pitfalls. It has a downside. But to be able to canvass a crowd of fans and potential fans with this idea in your hand, it's pretty cool.
KR: What prompted you to start your blog, Terribleminds?
CW: I started the blog like, 10+ years ago. Nobody looked twice at it. It was—and to a degree is— a place for me to ramble about whatever's on my mind. Given that writing tends to consume my day-to-day existence, I end up talking about writing a whole lot. It is in many ways a blog where I yell at myself. Sometimes myself from 18-years-ago, sometimes myself from 18 hours ago.
KR: At this point with Terribleminds' massive following, does it still serve the same purpose as just yelling at yourself for writing mistakes you've made, or does it serve a greater educational purpose now?
CW: I like to think it serves a greater educational purpose for all those folks who cry foul about writing advice and how it's all bullshit and nonsense and urinal cakes. I receive weekly emails from other writers who say that the material on Terribleminds has helped them. And in some cases these are published authors, or soon-to-be-published. It's not that I seek to give hard-and-fast answers. It's that I want to use the space to talk about writing. Sometimes it's not about answers or agreement, it's just about getting these things into your head to break them apart and put them back together in the way that makes the most sense for your story and career.
KR: You wear a lot of different hats as a writer—screenwriter, novelist, blogger—do you approach each format differently, or is one form the same as the other?
CW: Oh, each format is its own beast that must be tamed, but at the core of each lies the idea of "story." You can be a writer of this and a writer of that, but at the end of the day you still need to understand how story works. The writing is key, of course -- you need a way to communicate it. But the story is what you're communicating.
KR: It's a cliche question, but what writers inspired you to start writing? What writers inspire you now?
CW: When I was a child, I used to wander around in the woods and eat all the strange mushrooms. I ate a patch of bright red mushrooms (along with some ant grubs) and found myself visited by three wise machine-elves who told me: "You will be a writer. Or we will inhabit your colon and build our industrial treehouse there to make cookies for robots." And I was like, "Whoa, no, fuck that." No, I don't know what it was. I always used stories as an escape. I found power in them. Kids -- notoriously powerless creatures -- reach out and find power however they can. For me it was in reading and one day telling stories.
KR: You have broad tastes in what you write, is there any particular genre you wouldn't write?
CW: Hard sci-fi. Because I'm just not smart enough to write it. Read it, maybe. But not write it.
KR: Do you believe in genre, or is it all just writing?
CW: GENRE IS JUST OUR COLLECTIVE ILLUSION, MAAAAN. ... ahem. Okay. I think genre matters in the sense that bookstores (online and meatspace) need to know where your books go, and readers sometimes seek the comfort of finding books in known spaces (genre being one such known space). But genre's tricky for the author, as it's not like you necessarily have all these check boxes to tick off -- well, some genres are more rigid than others, but for the most part, you write what you write and let it shake out when the words have hit the page.
KR: You started your career writing RPG's, do you feel that writing this type of material helped hone your work ethic?
CW: Writing freelance for games most certainly taught me a work ethic. Deadlines are lifelines. You don't write, you don't get paid. Don't get paid, you don't buy liquo... uhh, I mean, "eat food."
KR: What was your biggest obstacle in becoming a full time writer? And did you ever think of giving up and perusing an easier line of work?
CW: Biggest obstacle? I was born without a face. And hands. Very difficult, and yet, I overcame. No, I don't know that there was any one given obstacle -- writing is like an endless series of obstacles. You jump some and headbutt your bloody way through the others. They never stop and they always change but that's the price of doing business. I never really thought about giving up writing overall, but I did at times think, maybe I won't "make it," maybe I shouldn't try this as a career. Those are make-it/break-it moments -- you either roll over like a kicked puppy and do something else or you decide, y'know, fuck it. I'm stupid and stubborn and I don't care if this is the best course of action because it's my course of action. The world doesn't like it, well, the world can get fucked. You make peace with the obstacles and realize that no matter how hard it gets, this is what you love to do, and it's pretty awesome even when you think you hate it.
KR: With being a freelancer, have you ever taken on an assignment that you felt too creatively hindered by? And if so, how did you work past the hindrance?
CW: I've had plenty of hard assignments. Recently I wrote a pulp novel called DINOCALYPSE NOW and it took me many months to settle into it and find my groove. (I did, eventually.) You work past it by writing and thinking and writing and thinking until the one day comes where the thinking can stop and the writing can carry on.
KR: "Writer's block" is subject you tackle quite a bit over at Terrible Minds. Have you ever really dealt with "writers block" or do you think it's nothing more than an excuse writers use to get out of writing?
CW: I have never experienced writer's block. I've had bad days and I've had worse days, and on those days I wrote regardless. And surprisingly, the stuff I wrote on the bad days is often as good as— if not better than— what I write on what I perceived to be successful writing days. That said, I don't think it's an excuse, either. I think being blocked or creatively muddled is a thing, it's just not a thing unique to writers. Everybody feels that way, whether it's about school or parenting or accounting or whatever. I do think that some writers give the idea too much power. My advice is to rob it of its power. Give it no ground. Stomp on its fingers until they break and its grip is loosened.
KR: Finally, I want to get down to the true heart of this interview: How many tacos is too many?
CW: Infinity tacos. Because that would kill you. And destroy the world. But infinity-minus-one is still okay. Because fuck yeah, tacos.
KR: What's your favorite bourbon, and same question as before: How much bourbon is too much Bourbon?
CW: I am at present a Basil Hayden's fan. You can drink too much Bourbon. Bourbon is not a "get drunk" drink— it's a warm, fuzzy, scrape loose the mental barnacles, sink into the caramel burn drink. If you're getting shitty-pants drunk on Bourbon, you're doing it wrong. For that, just go with hull cleaner and vodka
KR: Once again, Chuck, thanks for your time.
CW: Thank you, sir.
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