Hope in the Apocalypse: Talking with Chuck Wendig about WANDERERS

The Penmonkey himself, author Chuck Wendig

Chuck Wendig is the New York Times and USA Today best-selling author of almost two dozen novels and ten works of nonfiction on writing (including Damn Fine Story). For young adults, he’s written the Atlanta Burns series and the Heartland trilogy (beginning with Under the Empyrean Sky), and for adults, his best known projects include the Star Wars: Aftermath trilogy, the Miriam Black thrillers (which concluded earlier this year with Vultures, its sixth installment), and the Zer0es and Invasive duology. He’s also worked in games, film, comics, and television. You can find him on Twitter at @ChuckWendig and on his blog, Terribleminds.

Out today from Del Rey is Chuck’s modern epic, Wanderers, which follows a strange sleepwalking epidemic that starts with one teenage girl but soon spreads to a whole flock. The sleepwalkers cannot be woken or stopped, and they move with unceasing determination to some unknown end. The flock is accompanied and protected by “shepherds,” even as society around them collapses with fearful, violent responses to the mysterious event. The truth behind the epidemic? Well, you’ll have to read to find out. I’m so excited that Chuck agreed to chat with me about this apocalyptic saga, which some are calling his magnum opus.

ROTH: Wanderers, in so many ways, explores a wide array of experiences withand perspectives onan assortment of current events. Scott Sigler described the book as “a riveting examination of America.” What were some of the things you went to the page hoping to reflect in this book, and is there anything you hope readers take away from Wanderers?

WENDIG: It’s hard to say what I wanted to bring to the page because first and foremost, my job is to bring a good story. Everything else is in service to that, otherwise, what’s the point? And sometimes the things you reflect are not always intentional. They’re more instinctual, accidental, like the same way you get your fingerprints and DNA on stuff just by interacting with it—impossible to tell a story and not put some of your subconscious in there. It’s all greased up with intellectual and emotional fingerprints.

What I can tell you is this: the core idea of this book, with the sleepwalkers walking across country to unknown destination and for unknown purpose, has been with me for years. But it was a story I never knew how to tell. As the saying goes there was no “there” there.

But then, ha ha, whee, 2016 happened, and all my anxieties about the future formed together in what I’ve termed my Anxiety Voltron, and suddenly, the book crystallized—characters, story, themes, everything. The book grapples with a wide swath of fears, from antibiotic resistance to artificial intelligence to climate change to political division and religion and guns and white supremacy, and, and, and. But at the end of the day, the biggest thing I wanted to reflect was that it wasn’t all hopeless. I didn’t want some grimdark parade. If we want that, we can just turn on the news. I wanted a hopeful heart to be a bright beam of light in this seemingly impenetrable darkness.

This novel has quite a large and diverse cast: “A decadent rock star. A deeply religious radio host. A disgraced scientist. And a teenage girl who may be the world’s last hope.” And that’s just the beginning; all 800 pages are populated with vividly rendered, strange, beautiful, hurting, awful, kind, brave people. Where did they come from? How did you decide who to give voice to, and what went into creating those authentic portraits?

It’s a curious alchemy, trying to find the right voices, and though I am the first to say that writing is more stage magic than real magic, these characters found me more than I found them. I think just trying to find different entry points for the experience were key, and also doing some due diligence in trying to make sure it wasn’t necessarily the same POVs you might default to in a book like this.

Another reason Wanderers feels so hauntingly real comes from its portrayal of institutions and infrastructureschurches, news organizations, and the CDC, to name a few. What kind of research did you do for this book?

A fair bit—though some of that also comes through just from keeping up with news and such. And some of it is certainly made-up, too! It’s hard to do everything in the full, um, scope of reality, so the goal is to provide authenticity (which is very different from cleaving to specific fact). The science, for instance, I try to get right, and same with the structure of something like the CDC’s EIS (Epidemic Intelligence Services) but I also had to take liberties with those just to try to tell a good story. But the hope is they feel real.

Can you talk about how you approach structure when writing a story, and in particular, how you decided on and found the structure for Wanderers? The points of view, the epigraphs at the opening of each chapter, the interludes . . . what went into those choices?

It’s funny—we internalize, I think, as writers, The Way We Do Things. We take such a long time to find our process that when we do find it, we codify and canonize it just because we feel so damn fortunate to have found something that works. Then we become afraid to deviate. We carve it into stone. THIS IS OUR ONE TRUE WAY, we think.

But what I did before didn’t work with this book. The outline was more a loose synopsis with a ragtag collection of chapters so the structure evolved a little more organically—I kinda felt my way along so to speak, through the dark forest.

The epigraphs and interludes are me being greedy, I guess. An unfolding apocalypse is darkly interesting, right? And I don’t want to just see it from a limited handful of perspectives, I really want a lot of ways to lens it. So these pieces serve as, if not portals, then porthole windows that let us look at it from different angles, however briefly. The epigraphs are short version of that, and the interludes are bigger, sprawlier digressions—relevant, but not necessarily from the viewpoints we expect.

Given the book’s epic structure and length, what was the revision process like for Wanderers? Was it much different from how you’ve approached revising your other books?

Revisions on it were lighter, overall—some books demand hefty rewrites or rejiggering and this was not that. What it did require was a whole lot of going over it again and again just to tighten and focus. So much of the edit was line-level stuff just to make sure it was telling the story and all its details without bogging down in it. But the editing process is always a case of eating an elephant one bite at a time.

Are there any books that you feel Wanderers was shaped by or is in conversation with?

The book is definitely a conversation with some of the apocalyptic books I’ve truly loved: books like Swan Song or The Stand. (Both of which are cheekily referenced somewhat in Wanderers.) Station Eleven, too. But there are other little references in there, too—for instance, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.

What’s next for you? Is there anything in the pipeline fans should know about?

Wanderers right now is somewhat meteoric in my view— it’s hard to see past it! But I am editing a new standalone called THE BOOK OF ACCIDENTS. Think: creepy coal mines, a family in danger, cycles of abuse and trauma, entropy, multiple realities . . . it comes out in 2020, I believe. As long as I manage to wrestle it into shape.



About the Author:

A former Booklist intern and current Booklist reviewer, Ellie is a reader and writer based in Chicago. She holds a BA in writing from Wheaton College (IL) and is the assistant to the president at Browne & Miller Literary Associates.

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