The Big Idea: Chuck Wendig
Posted on April 26, 2012 Posted by John Scalzi 25 Comments
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.
Blackbirds: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s
Read an excerpt (scroll to the bottom). Visit the author’s blog. Follow him on Twitter.
The children’s book about ‘everybody dies’ is called _The Fall of Freddie the Leaf_. I can recommend it.
FREDDIE THE LEAF WAS PUSHED
Looking forward to starting it, Chuck. I picked up Confessions of a Freelance Penmonkey as well last night, and now I’m caught up enjoying the hell out of it.
I love the cover art!
I am terrified of death, but I will read this book for you, Chuck. Because you are rad. And if you give me insomnia, I will beat you to death with a large-print copy of Everybody Poops. SO THERE.
A story about a psychopomp! Cool.
Every book is about death in some way. And if it’s not, it should be. Only naive young adult writers in their immortality phase write books that are nothing about death. (Children, too, are fascinated with death, as they haven’t learned the trick of denial, yet.) This one sounds interesting.
@ Catherine Shaffer
There’s more than one way for an entity to die. One of the fun things about not always writing about finite humans is exploring them. Only change is eternal; embracing impermanence is liberating. Fates, I sound like a damn fortune cookie!
” … 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.”
That naturally triggered remembering a section from one (I forget which one) of Spider Robinson’s novels, whom I love for his insane plays on words. Imagine explaining to your insurance co. how your house and garage were destroyed by being hit by an icy b.m.
Hi Chuck. Glad to see you over here. Nice piece with new and interesting information about yourself and the book, which is really quite amazing considering what a shill you’ve been lately around the web. It’s strange reading your pieces though if their not structured in 25 bullet points.
Thanks everybody, for swinging by and reading.
And, uhh, th… thanks, Bryon. I guess.
In my experience, writing by young adults is the most about death. They love “rocks fall everybody dies” endings.
(And I hear people talk about this immortality phase, but I don’t think I ever went through it. I spent my entire youth convinced I was going to die soon for some bizarre reason or other. I think maybe it’s not so much the certainty of death that young people deny as the possibility that they will get old.)
Might I recommend a “children’s” book called All My Friends Are Dead by Avery Monsen and Jory John?
Another fantastic author published by Angry Robots. I’m not sure if the author finds the publisher, or the publisher finds the author, but whatever they are doing keep it up! Oh yeah, thanks Mr. Scalzi for a forum to get the word out.
Oh … wow … the creators of Old Man’s War and Double Dead IN ONE PLACE! Lovelovelove … sending you lots of carebear rainbows … (mwhahahaha) Fuzzy Nation and BlackBirds are treats to myself, TBR soon.
Ken Tanaka: http://everybodydiesbook.com/
My brother-in-law got it for my wife’s birthday; it’s for reelz
Picked this up for my Kindle last night, in part because of that beautiful cover. Can’t put it down and will now be a groggy mess today from staying up all night reading. I need to stop checking the Whatever Big Ideas until the weekend. Thanks for always giving me good suggestions.
This sounds good. Off to read the excerpt: if it also sounds good, off to Amazon. :)
On the subject of related books, may I recommend also “The Big Book of Death,” a collection of musings on Death in graphic-novel (okay, comic-book) form? It is just the sort of thing that people who like that sort of thing will like. (One story examines various conceptions of the afterlife with a cartoon narrator, who of course includes cartoon heaven. In a truly masterful line, she observes, “It’s kinda silly.”)
Also, for some reason, when I read the first bit of this entry, I thought the book was going to be along the lines of a truly bizarre movie called “The Asphyx.” (http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0069738/) Contrary to the impression you get when you look at the poster, the film is NOT about sacrificing others to spare yourself. Its “big idea,” which I thought quite novel although hideously executed, is that each of us has a personal Death waiting in the wings, and that if it can be prevented from grabbing us, we can’t die. Notable for including probably the most murderous mouse in film history.
PS Damn you now I have “Aviary” by Ego Likeness playing in my head and it won’t stop and if I have to SO DO YOU.
In come the blackbirds
In murders and in droves
To cover you in shadow
As they clean you to the bone.
I worried about death from about 6 years old onwards. (I have anxiety problems.) Mostly, I worried about other people dying. Then, when I was twenty one, my mother died. She was the person I’d always told myself I couldn’t do without.
Sometimes I’ve compared myself to Raistlin with his hourglass eyes (shut up). I still try not to think about it because I can’t afford the panic attacks. When my mother was sick I learned how useless they were.
I can’t decide if I want to read your book or not. But it sounds like something a more stable version of me would enjoy very much.
This is the first piece by Chuck I’ve read that doesn’t drop a well placed “fuck.” It’s disconcerting. :)
I love how you speak about being friends with your characters.
Everybody Dies: A Children’s Book for Grown Ups by Ken Tanaka
Based on this Big Idea piece, I went out and bought Blackbirds. I enjoyed it a lot. Looking forward to the sequel.
(mwhahahaha) Fuzzy Nation and BlackBirds are treats to myself, TBR soon.