One day, an unwelcome and unsavory character started stalking Chuck Wendig. Well, maybe not so much stalking him as Wendig suddenly becoming aware that the dude was there, has always been there, and wasn’t going away. Who was this disturbing entity that Wendig became obsessed with? And how does said entity figure into Blackbirds, Wendig’s new novel? Here’s how.
Don’t get excited. You are, too.
We’re all dying. Perhaps not presently. It’s likely that we have not yet met the thing that will take us down. But something, someday, is going to drop-kick us into our graves. It’s part of the common experience. Everybody poops. Everybody dies. (Though I haven’t seen that children’s book yet.)
This did not occur me as a young man because young people are a little bit stupid.
At that age you’re gilded with the fool’s gold of immortality. We drive fast, eat shitty food, smoke, drink, take drugs, pretend we can do parkour, shack up with dubious sexual partners, fight hungry pandas bare-handed. Okay, maybe we don’t do all those things, but we take risks. We play fast and loose with reality. We see an infinite journey with an always-escaping horizon.
We’re little kids jumping off the roof with a blanket-cape on our back. Thinking we can fly.
We can’t fly. The ground hurts.
I was in my late 20s when the ground zoomed up to meet me and knock the breath out of my chest. People around me started dying. People I loved. One grandmother succumbed to mesothelioma (AKA “Hey, sorry, an infinitesimal speck of asbestos lodged in your lung-meat and gave you cancer”). Another fell to a series of strokes, each worse than the one before it. A beloved aunt died; doctors diagnosed her with muscular problems and didn’t see the cancer until she was too far gone, until the cancer was up in her brain. Another aunt died as they cut away parts of her bowel. A few folks from high school and college passed away—car crashes or too-early heart attacks or breast cancer.
Then my father died. Prostate cancer ran through his body way roaches overtake an empty house. You saw one tumor, that meant there were dozens more hiding in dark spaces.
Like it or not, events like these make us selfish. The people who die? Hell, they’re gone. My Dad’s up in his happy hunting ground somewhere tracking ghost-elk. I’m left down here.
And what I was left with upon his passing was the duh-how-did-you-not-realize-this revelation that I and everyone around me was one day going to suck the pipe, take the big ol’ dirt-nap, and die. Some sooner than others. Eventually the calliope music was going to stop and the carousel would stop spinning and we’d all slump forward on our lacquered horsies and—well, game over, man. Game over.
I became obsessed with death. I never realized I was a control freak but, oops, I was. And death was outside my control. I read books, religious and scientific, on the subject. (May I recommend Death: The Trip of a Lifetime, by Greg Palmer? Or Spook and Stiff by Mary Roach?) I became overly focused on my own death, the hydra of hypochondria rising in the back of my mind. Maybe I had cancer. Maybe my heart had a tiny little hole in it and one day it would collapse like a ruptured soufflé. Flesh-eating virus? Bird-flu? Sumatran rat-monkey bite? (I recalled then as a child perusing a Reader’s Digest medical guide that offered a series of flow-charts to help you follow the trail of symptoms to a rough diagnosis. It always went like this: “Toe Pain? Joint discomfort? Headache? YOUR HEART WILL EXPLODE IN MOMENTS GO MAKE PEACE WITH YOUR GOD.”)
Maybe it wouldn’t be disease. Maybe a van would hit me crossing the street, tearing me in half like a wandering whitetail. Or I’d be flying in a plane that dropped out of the sky like a shotgunned goose—or I’d be below the plane as a chunk of frozen fecal matter fell from the underside, a sky-born dingleberry that would crush me underneath.
Death was everywhere I looked. The Grim Reaper dancing his unstoppable jig.
And from that, the protagonist of Blackbirds—Miriam Black—was born.
I wrote a hasty, I dunno what you’d call it, vignette maybe. It was called “Poor Miriam,” and it talked about how much it sucked to be Miriam Black, a young woman who could upon touching you see exactly how and when you were going to die. It was her burden, and what made it all the heavier was the fact she seemed unable to do anything about it. Attempts to undo the coming deaths would only help them to occur. She was my Cassandra. Death was everywhere she looked as it was where I looked.
We became close psychic friends, Miriam and I. Different people. Similar problem.
From there, over the course of a couple years, I wrote (and re-wrote, and re-wrote) her tale, and it mirrored my own struggle with death. Miriam could see death but had little control over it, and every death she saw mirrored the deaths I felt could happen to me or folks I knew. Her tale evolved to be one where fate and free will squared off in the Thunderdome that was the written page.
Blackbirds is the story of her deciding on which side she truly belongs, whether she accepts the inevitable or fights the impossible.
Through the story, Miriam gains control over herself, if not her world.
And through Miriam, I gained a little control back, too.
Over myself, if not my world.