Talking Star Wars: An Interview with Chuck Wendig
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Chuck Wendig is an urban fantasy and sci-fi author of the Miriam Black series, Blue Blazes, and Zer0es. He also writes YA in the Empyrean Sky and Atlanta Burns series. He also is writing a Star Wars novel trilogy (Life Debt releases on July 12, 2016), and over the past year he has forayed into comics with The Shield (with Adam Christopher and David Williams, Dark Circle), Hyperion (with Nik Virella and Emanuela Lupacchino, Marvel), and a comics adaptation of Star Wars: The Force Awakens (with Luke Ross, Marvel).
As a writer myself, I have had worship-level respect for this guy’s unique voice, dynamic characters, and wildly original and twisted stories ever since Blackbirds (Miriam Black #1) hit the shelves in 2012.
So when I realized he was going to be in my ‘hood for the Orlando Book Festival on June 18, I fangirled my heart out like I have never fangirled before. He was kind enough to give me a little of his time following the event for an interview.
You mentioned at the beginning of your talk [at Orlando Book Festival] that the first thing you wrote was a comic when you were seven. Can you tell me more about that?
Yeah, probably about seven. I didn’t really do it as a comic book at the time, but that’s sort of what it was. I don’t know why I put Pac-Man versus the Xenomorphs from Alien, I’m not sure what my thinking was there at the time, other than I had an Atari and I watched Aliens.
I certainly wouldn’t think it was any kind of good story [now], but they did battle, and chased each other around. For whatever reason, they had to do that.
It’s the Pac-Man mission.
Yeah, Pac-Man. Instead of chasing ghosts, chasing aliens. Maybe Pac-Man is an alien.
That seems right.
But since then—since you were seven—
Yes, I’ve hopefully sophisticated my work a little more.
You’ve been focusing more on the novels, but you did the gaming writing, and then the screenwriting.
What made you want to get into writing comic books?
I always read comic books and I have somewhat of a collector’s mind. I wanted to do a little bit of everything. Both because I want to diversify what I write because if one avenue closes up for me for whatever reason, I have others, and I just like comic books. So I wanted to dabble in that and see what I could do.
So the next step is to [see if I can find a way to create our own] material. My writing partner for The Shield and I have some ideas, so we’re gonna get them out there and see what happens.
How is writing comics different from writing the novels or the screenplays? I imagine your writing is probably just pretty flexible at this point?
Yeah, it’s pretty flexible, and once you do so many different types of stories, you start to see that there is a shared architecture to stories. There are certain things that work across all narratives. And yet at the same time, there are things that just don’t play well. A comic strip is not a novel, and it never will be.
But the comic is an interesting format because it kind of marries the television script with the novel, in that, just like television they tend to be episodic, and it tends to have certain breaks at certain times, there’s a certain rise and fall of action. And it tends to end almost in a cliffhanger-y way to get you to the next episode-slash-issue.
But unlike with television, there is a huge internal dimension, because there is this narrative component to it where a lot of times where you have characters who are narrating what’s happening and you get a sense of what’s going on inside their heads, which, you don’t really get in television.
So it’s sort of like if you smoosh novels together with the television format, that’s how I wrap my head around comics.
Do you find yourself thinking panel to panel? Or do you think bigger and then break it down?
I think bigger and then I drill down, and I try to trust [the artist]. I don’t want to do that rookie thing, like, “I’m going to describe a whole bunch of things on a single page,” it’s impossible because I can only capture a single moment of an action at a time.
I always put the disclaimer—and maybe this is a lack of confidence in my abilities to write comics, because I don’t know what I’m doing. I really don’t. No idea what I’m doing—so I’ll put a note at the fore of my graph and say listen, I’m just a pen monkey … I’ll give suggestions, but the artist is the one to be trusted in that.
How close is that collaboration? Do you just kind of write it and then they put the visuals to it?
At first it’s definitely just me writing it because I don’t know—especially with the Star Wars, I didn’t even know who my artist was at first, I had no idea. And with Hyperion too, I didn’t necessarily know who my artist was. Same with Shield.
But as you start to learn the artists, to me, it shrinks that gap considerably. And then you start talking to the artist and sort of directing, because you learn what they can do and what they’re good at. You sort of want to play to their strengths.
Nik Virella on Hyperion is astonishing. Like she brings all of the work to life in ways I could not possibly have.
Has there been any difference between how that collaboration works between The Shield and Hyperion?
The Shield and Hyperion are pretty close in that I know the artists, I know their strength. The Star Wars one, I wrote a lot of the issues first without knowing who was going to be drawing them. Now that I know, I’m very happy because he does such good work, but I wasn’t really speaking to him, in a sense.
But of course that’s a different kind of story anyway, because I’m not creating this thing out of pullcloth, I’m not like, “Imagine a place called Jakku.” We already know what it looks like, and there is enough about it that I don’t need to collaborate so completely with him. Mostly it’s about angles and things we don’t capture in the film, necessarily.
How did you decide to write about Hyperion? He’s got a history in the Marvelverse, and it’s kind of an odd one.
He is an odd one. Because he kind of pinballs between different kinds of characters.
Yeah. There’s different versions of him.
Yeah, there’s evil guys, and then there’s good–but-jerk guy, and then there’s generally-noble guy, and then he’s back to being a noble jerk, superpowers jerk guy.
I wanted to approach him like, here’s a guy who is from [Squadron] Supreme, I don’t want to say made some mistakes, but he’s pushed in ways maybe more, doesn’t fit with the morality of this world, and he’s a guy who’s got daddy issues in a way because his father was gone, his world is gone.
So I wanted to humanize him while still maintaining that sort of distance that Hyperion has. So humanizing him is part of the cast of characters that surrounds him, help to humanize him. It helps to make him more interesting—I hope.
And what made you choose the perspective of Doll to tell this story from instead of Hyperion himself?
I always like the Superman stories that aren’t from Superman’s point of view. Because Superman, it’s not that he’s not an interesting character, it’s just we’ve seen it so often. There’s not a whole lot you can do with him unless you really change the character. And while I don’t think Hyperion suffers from that quite as much, I do think there’s a definite richness to his character, it’s hard because he’s kind of a jerk and he’s got these sort of alien moral precepts that he follows.
But if we we’re going to tell this sort of smaller story, that crosses the Midwest and deals with sort of the tangle … it’s an area you just don’t really see all that often of the Midwest. It’s a smaller story about crime and superfreaks in the circus and everything. I thought it would be more interesting from her perspective.
And then also, she’s going to see things about [Hyperion] that maybe other people and other characters in the Marvel universe won’t. Not only because she needs him, but because they spend enough time together that she starts to to understand him a little more. Because she’s someone who also has father problems. And so having that sort of reflecting each other is kind of an interesting thing.
You do have a habit of writing really great, dynamic women characters, which for some reason some people struggle with. What is problematic about what we talk about when we talk about strong female characters, and what should we be talking about instead?
There is that thing that happens where they make the woman physically strong and capable and cool and smart and funny, and then, she’s sort of relegated—she’s Trinity from the Matrix. You’re still a sidekick, and you’re still the love interest, and if you get hurt, then the man gets to feel pain, and they don’t have any agency over their own story. They don’t have any control, They don’t get to be full characters in and of themselves.
They are more like, ironically, dolls. Like, she’s Black Widow! But she doesn’t have to do anything, right? She can just be cool and kick people?
We are to assume they are complete characters with agency in a world. That’s interesting, and that’s what makes them strong. It’s not the kicking that makes them strong, it’s being complex and interesting characters that have command over their own lives, and over the plot itself.
What do you think prompts you to write these female characters?
I don’t know. I’m just writing the characters I want to write? I don’t feel like … I mean listen. It’s not agenda driven that I think, I should write a female character because that either will sell me books, or it’s like we need to counterbalance it.
But like a simple level, we do see a lot of male characters, so just on a desire to do differently, and a desire to see something new, that, to me, is why I do it. At least partly.
When you’re writing in a different universe—as you’re doing in all of these, Hyperion and The Shield and Star Wars—the world is not yours. It’s someone else’s pre-existing world. How does that feel? How does that creative process work? How is it different?
It’s both stifling and liberating in equal measure. It’s liberating because I don’t own them—I know there is a net to catch me, I know that no one is going to let me take this too far in a weird direction. So it’s liberating in a sense that it is a comfortable thing to do.
It’s stifling because you can’t be like, well, now I’m going to kill him. I can’t, like, well now they blow up! Or something horrible happens! And you’re like, no no no wait, this is a very finely tuned universe and everything feeds into each other.
We had a lot of freedom with The Shield, just because we pretty much designed everything from the ground up in terms of that character. In fact our initial pitch was actually fairly conservative and then Alex the editor was like, no, no, you can go bigger and weirder. You’re not restrained by anything that has ever happened in this universe before.
And we said, okay! And so we did. It really became our own character without reservation, and he allowed a great deal of freedom in that regard … so that was nice.
So as I said, it’s both a prison—in a good way, I know what I was getting into I don’t say that bitterly, like ‘they won’t let me kill Han Solo!” I get it, that already happened. It just means you have more rules to deal with .
But at the same time, that can be a lot more fun. Because sometimes with your own work, having so much choice can be also deafening and upsetting—I can do anything I want, and I don’t know what to do.
The limits-that-force-the-creativity idea.
Yes. And the benefits of working with someone like Marvel, on Hyperion, and then also the story group with the Star Wars stuff, novel and comic book, is that these are not people who are corporate shills trying to hit a demo. They are fellow fans and geeks who love what they are doing. They are here because they care, not because they are trying to sell toys. So they get it, they want to geek out with you and it gives me a lot of freedom, as much as there are restrictions.
The Carnival in Hyperion is so stinking cool, and it’s very Stephen King-eque. Which you mentioned him in your speech earlier.
Yeah, I love Stephen King, absolutely.
Where does that sort of crazy off-the-wall weirdness come from? Because I think this is one of the things that makes comics so much fun is how they just embrace this absurdity.
The joke is, of course, that horror doesn’t sell, and yet almost all of my novels are horror novels. Aftermath really isn’t. But horror is an emotion. As a genre it has certain tropes, but I don’t worry about the tropes so much as I like horror as an emotion. Horror and terror are things that come in human experience of things, and I think it’s fun to deal with. So I read a lot of horror and I like a lot of that stuff,
So with Hyperion, you know, they approached me, and Katie, the editor, said, you can pitch for these comics, but I really only want you to pitch one. Pick one you want to pitch for. A few of them were high profile stuff, and then there was Hyperion. And Hyperion was something that hadn’t really been done, and it was kind of a risky, like we don’t know if anyone cares, we’re not sure if there is a market for Hyperion. We just know that he is in Squadrons Supreme and that’s doing well, and so we’d like to see what we can do here.
And I liked that because there was a lot of freedom in doing a character that maybe no one else knew what to do with, and the pitch wasn’t for a preexisting comic. It was all new, so I thought there was an advantage.
So I pitched them this weird horror version of Hyperion where he travels around. It’s like—imagine if Superman were traveling around the country in a truck, solving mysteries, like these weird horror mysteries. It doesn’t make any sense, but was a lot of fun to write. And they liked it, so here we are.
And you’ve used the truck driver thing before, too, in the Miriam Black series.
Yeah. Ironically I didn’t come up with that for Hyperion. That was something that was already in his path because of Squadrons Supreme.
It does allow people who would not usually meet each other to meet.
It does. And that was the thing. Because I’ve had lot of truck drivers in my family. My dad was a truck driver. My uncle drove a truck. My brother-in-law drives a truck. And it’s a huge part of American culture that often gets overlooked. Our entire world, our entire country, functions because of truck drivers, constantly driving goods and services back and forth to each other. It’s such an interesting lifestyle to me. These guys are a vital part of economic[s].
It’s a lot of fun to write about that sort of thing and find things that people don’t talk about.
For The Shield, in addition to working with an illustrator you also worked with another writer, Adam Christopher. How does that factor into this whole collaboration process in the whole development of the story?
Adam and I would collaborate in the beginning in term of deciding the whole scope of the story, and the general flow of each story.
Collaboration is tricky. You gotta find the right people to collaborate with. I have a collaborator on the film and TV side of things, Lance, we get along very well.
And Adam and I get along very well, and part of the reason is that we are very different people. If I were to work with another me, it would not work out. I would probably punch that person in the face, because I would irritate me very badly. But Adam and Lance are both really smart sharp guys who bring different things to the table that I wouldn’t think about, and I think I bring things to the table that they aren’t thinking about. They’re also an even enough temperament, they’re not evil maniacal narcissists, so we can have a conversation and we can compromise on stories.
With Adam, we each write opposing issues. We edit—everybody touches everything. But if I write an issue, then he’ll do the heavy edits on it, he writes an issue, then I’ll do the edits on it … And it still comes from documents that were decided by us in the beginning, so it follows a path that we have created together.
We’ve touched on this a little, but could you speak specifically to how you have updated the character of The Shield for the modern world, because this is a character that’s kind of like Captain America, but predates Captain America, which goes back quite a ways.
Well. There’s the gender flip. There’s the fact that her origin story goes back to teh Revolutionary War, as opposed to just World War II, which is a little overdone at this point. And then I like to present, you know, it’s like Hamilton, right?
But I think we gave it more of a Borne Identity edge than straight up punchy kicky stuff.
And why did you choose to do the gender swap? Was there anything in particular that made you think, it’s time for this character to be a girl?
That one was a little more agenda-driven. Just because there are not as many superheroines as superheroes. And we’re in a time now when women are soldiers. And there’s unsung heroes in every war, frankly, but even in the Revolutionary War of women who were fighting, women who were saboteurs, women who were spies, and there’s this massive erasure of that in history in general, so we felt that we could do a very small part there and reach out to that a little bit. That’s a good thing to do, that felt good.
Let’s talk Star Wars.
Let’s talk Star Wars!
How did you get involved in the Star Wars project?
I tweeted about it. Which is not normally how you get jobs.
Not in my experience.
No. Social media has lended itself to my career more often than I would have expected. On September 4th, I tweeted it out that I wanted to write Star Wars. And I had friends and followers who were connected to the Star Wars property—Jason Fry and Gary Whitta—who sort of moved that ball down the field for me without me even realizing it.
The next thing I know I had a meeting with Shelly, the editor of the line, and she read some of my books. Thankfully not Blackbirds, she read Under the Empyrian Sky. And next thing I knew I had the work.
And the book came out September 4th, one year to the day from when I tweeted it. Which is a weird bit of serendipity.
This is another one where you’re balancing your own creative vision with someone else’s world. And this one is a specifically precarious case, because the movie was about to come out, and they’re trying to gain momentum around that right when your story is releasing.
So how much creative freedom did you have to do this, versus how much were they shaping what you needed to do?
I had an alarming amount of creative freedom. For a few reasons, I think. Number one, because they are very good about listening to creators. I never feel that they’re particularly stifling, as far as story prep goes.
They also had a short time frame. They had a film coming out, and they wanted novels out before that. So there wasn’t a lot of time to be like “let’s take a couple months and develop the story.” It was like, “we need a pitch and we need it now.”
So that gave me an advantage to come in and pitch the type of book that I wanted to write. And thankfully it was a story that they liked, so it worked out.
Did you know things about the Star Wars movie before the rest of us?
Some. In part because … while they didn’t tell me what I could do, they did tell me things I couldn’t. So in knowing that, you can start to paint a picture. And then, as I was writing Aftermath, I learned more about The Force Awakens and things I could sort of feed in and tie into.
And then as I was leading up to write the second book, before the movie even came out, they dropped the novelization of it into my inbox, and I was like, I don’t want to read it, now I don’t want to know. So I only read half of it. And it was enough to give me a sense of the galaxy that we were building to.
And then you’ve got the second book in your Star Wars trilogy comes out next month.
That’s right. July 12.
Is there anything you can tell us about that book?
Well, it features the same characters as the first book. But it also lets me play in the playground now, and I get to have fun with Chewie and Leia as sort of primary characters in the book as well.
How did you first get into Star Wars?
I was a kid, and my sister took me on a date she was on. Her boyfriend had a little brother, and she had a little brother, and so they took us to see Empire Strikes Back at a drive-in theater.
I can’t promise they were watching the movie, but I was watching it. Not them. Thankfully, I was not watching them.
Probably better that way.
Probably better for my burgeoning young psyche at that point.
And obviously, I was hooked at that point.
Star Wars is such a huge, complex universe at this point, not just in how big it is, but in the volumes of content that have been created around it. How much have you engulfed yourself in that, and how much have you tried to apply it all or let it inspire you?
I read some of the stuff int eh beginning the Thrawn trilogy is great, and the Mike Stackpole books. Generally, I stop there because otherwise I’d spend my life just reading Star Wars books, because there’s so many of them. And I want to be a little more diverse with my reading habits than just reading Star Wars.
So I take those things as some loose inspiration. But I don’t read super deep into the expanding universe. What I read I liked but I just had other things to do. So I read a lot of other novels and all of those filter in, too. Mostly I take my inspiration from the films, obviously, the Clone Wars TV show, Rebels, even the prequels. That’s all stuff that filters into the making of the Aftermath novel.
Of all the different kinds of stuff that you have written, do you have any favorites? Comics, novels, screenplays?
The Miriam Black series is close to my heart. I’m really glad that there’s more books coming out. I didn’t want to be done with her. She’s definitely where my brain lies. So I’m excited to be getting back to writing her.
Favorite books at the moment? Favorite comics?
I’m kind of digging DC’s Rebirth. I’m enjoying that greatly. I am loving all the Marvel Star Wars stuff. The Poe Dameron comic is a blast. The Darth Vader comic is art.
I just read Paul Tremblay’s newest, Disappearance at Devil’s Rock. And I’m reading Kameron Hurley’s The Stars Are Legion, which is great. Also Mishell Baker’s Borderline, not at all what I expected, it’s so good. It’s like fae urban fantasy.
Any dream projects that you would love to do in the future?
No. I mean, I’ve hit my dream projects. I don’t know what happens now. I don’t know where I go.
A Miriam Black comic. I’d like to do a Miriam Black comic. That would be good.