Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Interview with Chuck Wendig, Texas Ranger

Today, I'm very excited to welcome novelist Chuck Wendig to The Corner. I first stumbled across Chuck's blog, Terrible Minds, about a year ago, and I quickly discovered why it's frequently cited as one of the best sites for writers. Every week, he slings solid, get-your-hands-dirty writing advice, and if you're a writer, you need to make yourself familiar with his work, post haste. After you read this, of course.

His first novel, Double Dead, was published last month. It's a fantastic story about a vampire named Coburn who wakes up after a long coma only to discover that a zombie apocalypse has wiped out most of humanity -- and, as such, most of Coburn's food supply. It's funny, scary, and action-packed -- one of the best books I've read this year. There's a scene set inside a Wal-Mart that alone is worth the price of admission. 

I am a loyal reader of his blog, and you should be too. But I wanted to know MORE, MORE about this very fine writer, and so I put my interview hat on. If you're at all familiar with Terrible Minds, you know Chuck is one prolific little writer, and I thank him for carving out some time for this interview. Below is the result of our exchange -- my questions are in bold. Enjoy. 

1. I always enjoy reading about the different paths that writers have taken in their careers. Can you share your background? Is it true that you slew the mythical creature known as the Wendigo?

Chuck Wendig (CW) - I slew him, but then I became him, and then slew myself and became myself. I also ate a lot of funny mushrooms in the woods that looked like Timothy Leary’s face. Is that what you’re asking?

My real background is: I always wanted to become a writer, so I worked a lot of shit jobs until I figured out how writing could pay me. That’s the long story made short, but there it is.

2. What are some non-writing jobs you've held? What do you think you would do if you weren't a writer?

(CW) I’ve: shoveled horseshit, slung books, made lattes, shredded ground test documents so the EPA wouldn’t see, crashed a van, mingled with librarians, soullessly administrated “systems” for a fashion merchandising company, etc.

If I were not a writer, I’d probably be, I dunno. A grave-robber? A horse thief? A Clinique lady?

3. What do you think makes a person a writer? Have you ever given up writing for any stretch of time? 

Being a writer is the sum of two things: a) writing and b) realizing that writing is not merely what you do but who you are.

I have not given up writing, not once since I was 18. I’ve thought about it. I think most writers think about it. And then I think most writers knock back another whisky to drown that rat.
4. How did you end up with your agent?

We were trapped in an elevator. I saved her from lions. The typical “writer-meets-agent” story.

Uhh, no, it’s quite a bit more mundane than that. I had a novel. I queried that novel. She liked the query. Ta-da!

5. What's a typical day like for you?

It’s all, you know, high-octane living-on-life’s-edge kicking ninjas and riding pterodactyls. Oh, and writing. Sometimes I write. On those rare writing days, I wake up very early (6AM) and start writing. And then something-something baby, something-something change-diapers. Something-something coffee-and-liquor.

6. Do you do much outlining in advance of starting a new novel, or do you just push the pedal down and go?

You don’t read terribleminds, do you?

Outlining: I am a reformed pantser. Or a pantser at heart and a plotter by necessity.

Every novel demands a different type of outline, but for me, every novel demands some kind of outline.

7. I'm fascinated by writers who can produce a lot of work in a short amount of time. I remember a few months ago, you Tweeted about a 9,000-word day. Talk a little about what that was like.

I tend to write 2,000-3,000 words per day. On those rare days I crest, say, 5k, I do so because the story has such momentum it cannot be contained. That often comes during the third act, if you will, when there’s just no turning back and the dominoes race to fall into one another.

8. Is there a particular area of writing you're focusing on these days, or do you split your time pretty equally between your various projects?

Fiction, mostly – novel-length. But I also do a lot of screenwriting work on the side, and have a couple scripts that should come to fruition in 2012.

9. I have a terrible habit of not shutting off my mind when I'm not at the keyboard. How do you turn things off when it's time to stop writing?


No, my brain shuts off all on its own. After a long day of writing and editing, my brain needs to cool-down, and so I let it. Plus: the baby is a mind vampire, in which he eats substantial portions of my brainpower. So that helps. Er, sorry—“helps.”

10. Who are some of the writers that have influenced you? 

Robert McCammon, chief among them. Joe Lansdale. Christopher Moore. Bradley Denton. James Joyce.

11. I don't want to give too much away, but let's talk a little bit about Double Dead. What was the inspiration for the story?

Inspiration? You know, I can’t point to any single source of inspiration. Abaddon said, “Pitch to us,” and I kind of hovered over it for a while and somehow, I didn’t just get a zombie story, but rather, a vampire-in-zombieland story.

12. I think Coburn is one of the more unique characters I've seen in a while. In some parts, I felt bad for him. In others, I just wanted someone to run a wooden stake through his heart. How do you maintain that difficult balance of keeping him sympathetic but making sure the reader never forget what he is?

Real people are hard to make sympathetic because we gain few glimpses into their internal lives, and any glimpses we get are potentially manufactured.

But fiction allows us authentic – if, again, fictional – glimpses into a character’s internal life, and that’s where we find sympathy. Coburn was basically a case of taking a real person and forcing him to be monstrous by dint of his vampiric condition. The human is still in there, somewhere, and it was key to sort of highlight that humanity from time to time. Can’t know light without darkness, can’t know good without evil, can’t know cats without dogs or clowns without mimes. Or something like that.

13. Why do you think zombie stories have become so popular? 

I have no good answer. All I know is, zombie stories are about us, not about the zombies. Zombies are an environmental hazard, dangerous the way a flood is dangerous, or a plague of rats or a disease outbreak. (The vampire is the opposite of this: meaningful individually, given strong characterization over the hollow shells that zombies become. That’s part of what to me makes DOUBLE DEAD interesting, but that’s neither here nor there.)

In a zombie story, the real problem is the people you’re with – you can tell a good zombie story because beyond all the gore and fear and the debate over slow-versus-fast, you find out that the real danger is in the other humans. Humans who will destroy you with their incompetence or their selfishness or their selflessness.

In this way, zombie stories are some of the most nihilistic and awful stories of them all. At least in terms of horror fiction.

14. Your publisher's website describes Double Dead as an Abaddon tie-in. What does that mean?  

Abaddon has a series: TOMES OF THE DEAD.

This is their IP, their book line, in which they say, “Author, write a zombie novel, any zombie novel.” While Coburn and the world in which he inhabits are all my invention, it’s based in Abaddon’s sandbox.

Financially, this means it’s work-for-hire, not a novel given over to standard “royalty/advance.”

15. You recently became a father. Has baby-daddy-hood influenced your writing style or work habits at all?

Yesterday I went to the dinner table and found a dirty sock there. A baby’s sock, not like, some hobo’s sock or anything.

Just the same, that’s our life, now. Socks on the dinner table. Poop and crying and sleeplessness and confusion and smiles and spit up and gurgles and coos.

That’s our life and that’s my brain, too – all that stuff mixing around in my head. So, it’s definitely affected my habits. Style, maybe not, but habits, most definitely. I still crank out the words, but they’re snatched out of the air as if I’m chasing swiftly-escaping butterflies. Harder. Still necessary. But harder.

16. Other than your family, what would you say is your greatest personal accomplishment? What are you most proud of?

Getting BLACKBIRDS out there will be a truly great accomplishment and one I’ve been really yearning for. Otherwise, it’s all the milestones: meeting my wonderful wife, marrying her, buying a house, forming Voltron, conquering Spain, uploading my consciousness to the satellite I had built. You know, the standard stuff.

17. What's the story behind the name Terrible Minds?

I started terribleminds like, eeesh, ten years ago? Maybe 2000 or something. And initially I thought it might be a kind of community site for writers—on a BBS years before that I’d done a thing called WAR, Writers Against Reality—and so the terrible minds were the minds of the writers.

But then I thought, “Man, fuck those people. Writers are cuh-razy. It’ll be all for me! For me!” And then I dipped my hands in piles of gold and let the coins tumble between my fingers like shiny urine. And I laughed. Oh did I laugh.

Kind of a “HAW HAW HAW HAW.”

Or maybe a “MOO HOO HA HA HA HA.”

I don’t really remember.

18. Is there a particular genre you like to read? Do you read much nonfiction?

I used to read a lot of horror. Not so much anymore. I read more nonfiction than fiction, actually. I think this is true of a lot of fiction writers.

19. What's your take on online "networking," for lack of a better word? With life being what it is, I personally find it difficult to establish deep connections with more than a few people. You have a pretty large audience -- is it just the nature of the beast that in most cases, writers can have a hit-and-run sort of relationship with fans, other writers, other people in general online?

I love social media and networking. It can take up a lot of time so I mostly let it fall between moments – but just the same, it’s allowed me to meet some incredible people and foster genuine and unexpected friendships.

The key is to engage. Make sure it’s a wide open two-way street.

20. You seem quite happy with your publisher, Angry Robot. What is it about them that has clicked with you?

Angry Robot? Well, they wanted to publish my book, for starters. That’s always a strong way to get on my good side. 

But they’re also very author-friendly.

21. What can we expect from you in 2012? 

I’ll be doing a nudie calendar.

But you don’t want to hear about that.

I’ve got BLACKBIRDS in May and its sequel, MOCKINGBIRD in… September, I think. Then at some point a pulp novel for Evil Hat’s SPIRIT OF THE CENTURY RPG called DINOCALYPSE NOW.

Plus, scripts and blogs and some more Atlanta Burns and possibly another short story collection and, like I said: nudie calendar.

Chuck, thanks again for joining me. 

And I think that's a very fine way to close down 2011. I'm slashing my way through the jungles of a new manuscript, and I plan to use the holidays to make some hay with it. 

So as Hans Gruber says in Die Hard, "be of good cheer and call me when you hit the last lock." 

See you in 2012, when we'll start our Mayan Apocalypse Countdown! 


  1. Thanks again for having me, Herr Doktor Kazzie.

    -- c.

  2. Wendig rules. Great interview. Chuck has made me a better writer, vastly, almost overnight. Do yourself a favor and buy his work.

    ya heard?

  3. Chuck and David, EXCELLENT interview.

    I would like to know how to interview for the "crashed a van" job position.

    And 9K words??? Holy prolificity, batman. You are now my hero.

    Seriously? A vampire-in-zombieland story. I'm SO getting this book.

    David, just wanted to drop by and tell you what a pleasure it's been! I've met some amazing writers over the last year, and consider you in the top five. May this next year bring much success and happiness your way! You deserve it! Happy Holidays!

  4. Chuck, thanks again for the interview. Great fun. Let's do it again sometime.

    Samuel and Anita -- glad you enjoyed the interview. Chuck made it easy for me to look *this good* as an interviewer!

    Happy holidays to all!