A Conversation with Chuck Wendig

A few weeks ago Chuck Wendig wrote about his anxiety on Terribleminds. It was a fantastic essay, and I was incredibly glad that someone with a voice as powerful as his decided to write about a subject that really doesn’t get talked about often enough. I decided to bother Mr. Wendig until he let me ask him ten questions which elaborated on points he made in that essay.

I highly suggest you read the original essay, and a massive THANK YOU to the busiest man in the genre for letting me take up some of his time with my pesky interview. I’ve admired and followed Chuck for a long, long time, and being able to interview him was, hands down, one of the highlights of my six years in the genre.

chuck wendigAbout Chuck Wendig

Chuck is the author of the published novels: Blackbirds, Mockingbird, Under the Empyrean Sky, Blue Blazes, Double Dead, Bait Dog, Dinocalypse Now, Beyond Dinocalypse and Gods & Monsters: Unclean Spirits. He also the author of the soon-to-be-published novels: The Cormorant, Blightborn (Heartland Book #2), Heartland Book #3, Dinocalypse Forever, Frack You, and The Hellsblood Bride. Also coming soon is his compilation book of writing advice from this very blog: The Kick-Ass Writer, coming from Writers Digest.

He, along with writing partner Lance Weiler, is an alum of the Sundance Film Festival Screenwriter’s Lab (2010). Their short film, Pandemic, showed at the Sundance Film Festival 2011, and their feature film HiM is in development with producers Ted Hope and Anne Carey. Together they co-wrote the digital transmedia drama Collapsus, which was nominated for an International Digital Emmy and a Games 4 Change award.

Chuck has contributed over two million words to the game industry, and was the developer of the popular Hunter: The Vigil game line (White Wolf Game Studios / CCP). He was a frequent contributor to The Escapist, writing about games and pop culture.

Much of his writing advice has been collected in various writing- and storytelling-related e-books.

He currently lives in the forests of Pennsyltucky with wife, two dogs, and tiny human.

SARAH: You recently wrote a powerful article on Terribleminds about the anxiety you face. You said in that piece that anxiety isn’t something that you like to talk about because you feel like it gives the anxiety power. I’m wondering if writing that essay was hard, and what the reaction has been since you were so open about it.

CHUCK: Writing it wasn’t hard, exactly — it’s not something I’m ashamed of. It’s just not something I try to be hyper-aware of or vigilant about, because paradoxically, being hyper-vigilant about anxiety only tends to make me more anxious. It’s like breathing; if I worry too much about breathing, I start to have difficulty breathing.

There’s always the slight worry that a publisher or potential writing client will look at that post and think me somehow unreliable. Hopefully, that fails to be the case because I think I’ve proven time and time again to be a GET SHIT DONE kind of person, but one never knows. Some people stigmatize mental health issues.

The response has been amazing, though. The reality is, this is very common. It’s not odd to have this stuff going on inside my head. It’s not just me. It may feel that way, but it’s far from the truth, and it’s nice both to have the solidarity from people who have it happening, and who are themselves glad for the solidarity. We’re a community without realizing we’re a community, maybe.

SARAH: You said in that article that you’re talking about anxiety because, “Because some folks said it would be helpful to know. To know that you can do it — you can have this problem and live with it.” Do you think that mental health is, in general, misunderstood, and lacking in discussion and representation?

CHUCK: I think mental health is misunderstood, even by the professionals who practice its care. And I think the stigma and shame that come with various mental health issues prevent further exploration. But social media — for all its downsides — also allows us to talk about these things and share immediately in the realization that we’re not alone.

SARAH: Miriam Black has always been one of the most stand-out characters in all the books I’ve read, mostly because she looks death in the face, and has had to force herself to live in spite of that. It’s also managed to twist her. She’s very dark, and quite brutal. I didn’t realize until I read your article that Miriam Black, is in some ways, your way of dealing with the ugliness of death. Was it hard for you to write her character?

CHUCK: It wasn’t hard at all — it was very easy to write about her. In part because I think it’s removed one step from me directly. So, I can purge those toxins by proxy.

SARAH: You say that writing is purgative. You suck the venom out and spit it on the page. You also have said several times that many of your books you consider to be horror. Do you think the act of sucking the venom out is part of why some of your books are so dark (think Miriam Black, for example)?

CHUCK: Sure. I don’t think it’s just me, either. At the heart of a lot of great books is a core of darkness — some use their pages to defeat the darkness, others to confirm it, but lots of books explore it. Oddly, my books don’t tend to end on darkness, though. I like a few rays of light to poke through the shadows by the time the reader puts down the book.

SARAH: Your cyberpunk (is that the right genre to use here? Subgenres really mix me up) books, Zeroes and the upcoming Invasive are interesting because they deal with a darker near future world where a lot of power has been fed into technology. You elaborate on some current events, and grow on them a bit. You explore technology, and where you think it, and current events, could go/might be heading. It’s really well done and quite fascinating, but for someone with anxiety issues, I imagine that looking too closely at the news, the evolution of technology, and things of that nature was really hard. But writing is a purgative for you. So how did you balance all that out in your mind?

CHUCK: Haha, yeah, I don’t know if Zer0es is cyberpunk or near-future thriller or a cyberpunk near-future horror-thriller.

Really, the two novels — Invasive even moreso — are about tangling with the anxieties about the future. Not just personal future but the wider, impersonal one. Hannah Stander, the main character of Invasive, is the daughter of doomsday prepper parents, and it’s her job to consult with the FBI to help predict how technology could be used against us. Effectively, how the promises of the future can fail and harm us. Which is twisted, but true, right? Nuclear power, or nuclear bomb? All these resources at our disposal, and we can use them to help each other or kill one another. Or kill the planet. Climate change is a good source of anxiety, and we as people are sort of caught in this space — it’s hard individually to change it, and some of the language around climate change is so doomsday, you start to feel like you can’t do anything, so why bother? Just fiddle as Rome burns, just rearrange the deck chairs on the sinking boat.

Invasive is very much about dealing with that space. And, y’know, about creepy GMO killer ants, too. 🙂

SARAH: This might be a fairly generic question, but I don’t really know how to get around it. Have you learned anything about yourself, and your anxiety, through writing?

CHUCK: I don’t know if I’ve learned specifically about my anxiety, but I learn a lot about myself, and that’s a meaningful weapon against my anxiety.

SARAH: Social media is so important for authors and most artists. Heck, it’s pretty important for almost everyone these days. However, it can be overwhelming, and you’ve mentioned to me a few times, as well as in your article on Terribleminds, that it can get overwhelming and you prune that tree pretty regularly to keep it from being too much. Like the previous question, I guess I’m wondering how, as an author, you balance out your need for peace (of sorts), to not be bombarded by too much information, and your need to promote your books and all the other stuff you do. How do you walk that line and still stay active on social media?

CHUCK: I try to realize that my job is not social media, and really, promoting on that space is not nearly as valuable as people think it is. It’s useful, but not like, overwhelmingly critical. Some people can use it really strongly to their advantage, but lots of great authors succeed without it, and lots of great promoters fail even with it. For me it’s about remembering why I’m there, and trying to do right by others and by myself, and trying to be more vigilant and self-care in that space, lest I go drinking from the waterfall again.

SARAH: You said one of the ways you deal with your anxiety is to look for interesting news that shows you the wonders of the world. Do you ever integrate any of those news stories in the books you write? Related to that, do you have any interesting news stories that you’ve run across recently that you absolutely must share with the class here?

CHUCK: I talked about the hallucinogenic bee honey and the gorilla songs, and those are pretty great examples. I don’t know if I’ve ever integrated the stories themselves, but I do read a lot of non-fiction — reading about ants (a topic I’ve loved since I was a kid) lead me into Invasive.

SARAH: One of the interesting things about you, is that you’re such a well-known author and a powerful voice in the genre, and you’ve earned that spot through wildly popular books and a website that is off the charts. But you’ve also been the center of a bunch of controversy. The Star Wars stuff [relating to Aftermath] is the most recent example I can think of. I can’t imagine that controversy does anything nice for your anxiety. So, in the face of all of that sort of drama, how do you deal with it, and how does it impact your anxiety?

CHUCK: Star Wars made for me a weekend’s worth of anxiety — very intense, actually. I was in Atlanta for DragonCon and we did a midnight book release that Friday at B&N, which was great. Lots of people, high energy, a great deal of fun. And I got home that night around 1-1:30AM, and already there was like, ten negative reviews on Amazon. And I had no idea what was happening. I thought, unreasonably, OMG PEOPLE HATE THIS BOOK, even though it was impossible anybody had read it and formed such an intense opinion. And all weekend those reviews kept mounting, and at the time, I didn’t have a deal for the next two books. I thought, the publisher is gonna scrap me. Whatever this pushback is, whether it’s legit or not, it’s gonna bury me.

Over the course of the weekend, folks started telling me too and sending me screenshots inside these Facebook groups of people doing these rebel runs and jihads and stuff against the book — and I was like, this is really just starting. It’s just the beginning of something I don’t even understand.

And I kinda went through an anxious phase with it and came out okay on the other side, in part because people seemed really excited in person — and then the book hit bestseller and kept on selling well and I sorta took power from the folks who hated it. I thought, okay, they say not to feed the trolls, but I’m going to feed them. I’m going to feed them so much, they explode. I’m not trapped in here with them; they’re trapped in here with me.

I got the deal for the next two books, too, and y’know — I got over it. But it was a hard handful of days at launch, which was tough because I was so in love with getting to write for a franchise that had been a part of me growing up.

I know I’m in store for the same thing with Life Debt, too, but my heart is hardened, this time. I’m ready, damnit!

SARAH: Last question. Is there anything else you feel like you need to say? Any books/other things you want readers to know about?

CHUCK: Nope! Thanks for having me!

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