Chuck Wendig and Sam Sykes are two fantasy authors who've been leaving their mark on the genre. We sat down with them at the Tucson Festival of Books recently, and they explained why they're drawn to taboo subjects.
Wendig is well-known for Blackbirds, the first of his three novels about Miriam Black, a woman who can see how someone will die when she touches them. He also saw success in the YA market with Under The Empyrean Sky, a novel about a society that oppresses the poor with corn. Sykes just finished his first fantasy trilogy, Aeon's Gate, which takes a more literal look at how an adventurer would behave and be treated by society. The two also have their own blogs (Wendig's and Sykes') which sport a mix of writing advice and general commentary. You can also follow Wendig and Sykes on Twitter. We were lucky enough to do a joint interview with both of them, and here's what they told us.
What are you guys writing right now? Sam, you have The City Stained Red coming out in August?
Sykes: Not August — sometime! We're hoping fall 2014. And that's book one of the trilogy called Bring Down Heaven. The second book is the Mortal Tally. I'm currently writing that and it's very hard.
And it still has characters from the first series?
Sykes: It's what I'm calling a Schrodinger's trilogy, in that it's a continuation but it's not a continuation. So if you read Bring Down Heaven you won't be lost for not having read Aeon's Gate. But the idea, hopefully, is that you'll read Bring Down Heaven and then want more and go back to read Aeon's Gate.
Wendig: Go backward. With time travel.
Sykes: Yeah. So consider the prequel trilogy one we have already written.
Chuck, you just had The Cormorant come out, right?
Wendig: I had The Cormorant come out — I have Blightborn coming out over the summer, which is part two of my Young Adult, sci-fi, corn-punk trilogy, the Heartland. And then I've got like four novels to write by the end of the year. Mookie Pearl [of Blue Blazes] number two, Heartland number three, Atlanta Burns [of Bait Dog] number two, and "secret book I cannot discuss."
Have you ever had that many books to write at once?
Wendig: This might be my most for one year. Actually they're all due by the end of summer.
So not even a year—more like half?
Wendig: Yeah, I'm in trouble. I need an intervention.
So usually people think of writing as a solitary career. Is it ok to be that writer off in the corner doing your own thing or is it important for writers to stick together and make friends like you two have done?
Wendig: I think it's very difficult to be the isolated writer. You could probably do it, but generally you're connected in some way to other writers, or a community, or an audience, editors—someone. You're connected to someone other than yourself.
Sykes: It kind of seems to me like that's two different questions there. Because on the one hand, I view being a writer as a communal thing.
Sykes: Like, I have tons of writer friends and I wouldn't trade them for anything—
Wendig: I would.
Sykes: Would you?
Sykes: For money? Yeah, for money I would. But it would have to be a lot.
Wendig: At least 100 bucks.
Sykes: At least — and maybe a taco. But I view the act of writing as very solitary. I've gotten tons of shit for saying I don't get NaNoWriMo — like I don't understand it. If it works for you then great — go nuts. But when I'm writing, I'm the guy off in the corner, in the dark, huddled over my computer.
Wendig: See that's where I actually started to get NaNoWriMo, when I had such an intense writing schedule where I was basically doing that so often.
Sykes: You were just freaking out a little?
Wendig: It wasn't even freaking out. I just got it. It was like, not only am I going to have to write 50,000 words in a month, almost every month I have existing, [but] also, it's just nice to talk to other writers about what they're doing. It gives you a little energy. It's still a solitary act — I don't have people with me in my room when I write.
Sykes: I've just never been a guy who talks about what I'm doing. I like talking about what I've done. But I made a deal with myself, and I think it's come to hinder me a little. Because you always meet these aspiring authors who really want to tell you about the book they're writing and have been writing for the past six years.
Wendig: Or that they're going to write. The game world equivalent is they want to tell you about their character. Same idea.
Sykes: Exactly. And, you know, I'm not really interested in your character.
But speaking in that same vein of aspiring writers, you guys do seem to find it important to help or offer advice to them when they come to events like this or visit your blogs. Why do you feel that need?
Wendig: Raging narcissism.
Sykes: I mean that's not inaccurate.
Wendig: No, it's not inaccurate for any writer. I mean I don't know. The modus operandi for me doing that was because I was talking to myself about myself — yelling at myself. Either talking to an 18 year old version of myself, or yelling at me yesterday, or yelling at me two weeks from now, and it was just stuff I was having problems with. So I worked it out on the blog and people just happen to tune in.
Sykes: Yeah, I think that's the only genuine way to offer advice. You can't really say, "Well you should do this." You can only say, "Well, I did this." And I find that's the only way I really benefit from another author's input. Because I don't want to do what they did exactly.
Wendig: No, but maybe it stirs something within you.
Sykes: Maybe Brandon Sanderson could, because he tends to be very forthright about his advice. And yeah, you like to help out, but it's such an individual driven business that there's only so much you can do. So helping out is difficult and you can really only tell readers what you've done. And I think blogs are the best way to do that — to sort of almost be shouting into a void and see who is listening.
Is it weird, then, being considered an authority by people on writing?
Wendig: I've done quite a few self-published writing books and then Writer's Digest published a book and actually had me write inside Writer's Digest — like one of their actual magazines — which at that point made me official and that told me everyone was screwed. If I was able to get into the pages of Writer's Digest it pretty much showed we're doomed. We're doomed.
Sykes: Yeah, it is weird, because I have no idea how to react to that. I don't know what I can give them. I can only write the best book I can and advise you to do the same.
Wendig: And there's days I'm writing and I'm like, "I shouldn't be telling anyone how to do this because this is bad."
Sykes: Someone actually asked me for my opinion of Brandon Sanderson's writing on Twitter, and I just gave it. And only after I gave it did I think, "That's weird. Why did you ask me?"
Wendig: Because you're an authority. You have a badge and shit.
Sykes: I should start saying that when people doubt me. Yeah, when I said I didn't get NaNoWriMo some people stepped up to defend it and I should have said "I'm the authority."
Wendig: Check the badge. And then you Taser them.
Sykes: You can't spell authority without author…
Wendig: That's true, that's in there.
What is the role of humor in your writing, and do you find it hard to genuinely be funny when you write?
Sykes: If you listen to any comedian, whenever you see their standup specials, you are not seeing the millions of other jokes they've tried that have fallen flat. It's trial and error. I do have a problem that I'm trying to correct where I tend to undercut myself with humor a lot. That has been my biggest problem with humor—where I'll have a nice dramatic scene and I'll crack a joke. But at the same time I think humor is a big strength as an author, because I've read so many books that are just completely joyless.
Wendig: Yeah — dry, dead.
Sykes: Like where everything is grim. And not even like "grimdark" books, but everything is so intense that we can't even joke around at all.
Wendig: (Mockingly) This is serious business!
Sykes: Yeah. And we're writing in a genre that I think is inherently kind of silly. I write about a giant half-naked dragon man.
Wendig: And I am a giant half-naked dragon man.
Sykes: So it's like, I can't let that go without comment.
Wendig: The thing is, humor does a great job at balancing things out. I write a lot of dark twisted stuff, and the humor serves a double function there. Number one, it actually undercuts it a little bit. But on the other hand, when you're laughing and something horrible happens, you can do some really cool stuff with that.
Sykes: It's amazingly important to give your audience room to breathe. A little humor will make the next dramatic blow hit like hell, and likewise the darker the story is, the next joke will really crack because you'll find they're desperate to laugh.
Wendig: They're hungry to laugh. It's an ugly laugh.
Well both of you handle taboo things like profanity in writing, so what do you think the role of that is since a lot of people are against it?
Wendig: I think fiction is itself a sort of profane, taboo thing. Fiction, by its very nature, is interrupting a straight line. If it's just a straight line, the status quo, then it's boring. So you've got to interrupt that and break that up. So profanity, taboo topics, controversial subjects—they all lend themselves to jagging that line a little bit and making things interesting.
Sykes: People are very peculiar about swearing. This is amazing because I will write the bloodiest fight scene I can think of, where a man will jam a sword into some monster's neck and then kick it down through its throat. And the monster will be screaming as he dies and bleeds out, and then some character will step up and say, "Well that was a fucking mess," and readers will go, "(gasp) What?!"
Wendig: And God forbid you actually have a little sex in a scene. They may melt down if you get a boob touch in there.
Sykes: Yeah! City Stained Red has two sex scenes and a lot of swearing in there, so I'll be really interested to see where that goes. But at the same time, that is a very small, small, vocal segment. I think it's like not having sex in a book or not acknowledging sexuality — some authors have done it, but it is weird. Now, I like romance in books. I like seeing characters develop, and if it comes to a point where two characters who have been through 500 pages together are not at least contemplating their relationship, that's very peculiar.
Wendig: Because real people do that.
With the popularity of events like Comic Con increasing, do you think it's better to have multi-media events or events where it's just about books, like this one?
Sykes: There's certainly room for both, and they should both exist. Purely writing stuff will always be there because while they might not be as big as the comic con crowd, they are intense. The fact is they're passionate and they should have an outlet for that passion. But, and this is something we've been talking about throughout the weekend, I think for a lot of us newer authors, our crowds are at comic cons. They're with the big consumers of multiple forms of media. And I love Comic Con for being able to move past that whole tribalism, because our readers are also video-gamers, comic readers, movie-goers, and we should encourage that by branching out into as many forms of media and just taking it all over. I think Comic Con needs to exist, but so do smaller, more focused things like this. If you can call this small.
Wendig: I think at things like the Tucson Festival of Books, I tend to sell myself, whatever that is. The Chuck Wendig experience: being better than sex — which I heard in a panel and was totally mystifying that she introduced me that way, that my writing was better than sex. But at events like comic con I tend to just sell my books.
Sykes: Really? I kind of have to sell myself.
Wendig: Well I think that's true, but my point is that fans want to read books too. Like here I'm not talking to people who are my readers, necessarily. And I don't know that I'm necessarily convincing them to be readers yet. I'm probably convincing them to check out my blog, and maybe from there we can move to books.
Sykes: Well, presumably, if you're at a panel at the Tucson Festival of Books you are a reader. Which has been totally gratifying that all the panels have been packed so far. Standing room only.
So, Chuck, is it hard for you to switch between your young adult gear and your adult gear when you write? And Sam, are you planning on writing an YA in the future?
Wendig: No, I find it pretty easy. Young adult is a surprisingly edgy, open — not even a genre — it's an age rating. I still remember what it was like to be a teenager, so it's surprisingly simple to get into that mode. And if I don't have a story to tell in that space I'm not going to tell it. But I did and found it gratifying and easy.
Sykes: And I'm actively working on a young adult story that I'm quite pleased with. Also I will agree — I was never really worried that content might be too edgy. We have the Hunger Games, which is about kids killing each other for the glory of a fascist government.
Wendig: And to go back [to the profanity], I had sex and violence in Under the Empyrean Sky, and of course the one thing I got criticized for is the sex. The sex is fairly minor, and to assume that teens are not having sex is perhaps absurd. I mean there's literally kids murdering people and it's, "eh, it's fine."
Sykes: I think that's where YA is really succeeding, in that it's actually acknowledging that kids curse, think about sex, have sex, and don't actually know what to do about it.
Wendig: And that they're occasionally dicks.
Sykes: And that they're occasionally dicks. They're frequently confused, and boring—well not boring. I think what's really liberating about YA is that everything is very emotionally charged. You have to hold yourself at some distance for an adult fiction, but everything YA is a crisis, because when you're a teenager you don't have small problems. The girl sitting next to you in science class that you kind of like is not just, "Oh, I kind of like her." It's like, "God, why doesn't she look at me?"
How did both of you get into novels?
Wendig: I wanted to write novels for most of my adult and perhaps non-adult life. I wrote five or six particularly bad ones. One I tried to get published and I actually had a little heat on it from agents. Thankfully it didn't work out because now I go back and read it thinking, "This is a piece of trash! Why would anyone want to publish this?" So I had this book Blackbirds over the course of four or five years. It was unfinished and unfocused. I often refer to it as an old person lost at the mall. So I cheated. There was a local screenwriting competition, and I said, "I'm gonna win this," because the guy who ran the mentorship—you won a mentorship with a screenwriter— and his specialty was adaptations. So I figured that would help me because I'd learn to adapt my own piece of shit work into something doable. And then I'll rewrite it as a novel.
The first thing he told me was you have to outline, and I was like, "No, no! I'm very precious. I have a muse and my muse doesn't outline, sir. I'm an artist. I don't know what you do in your Hollywood mansion, with all of your girls and your yachts." And he's like, "No, seriously, you're going to outline." He just kept railing on me until finally I spent two days in ascetic monkhood misery saying, "I won't do it!" And then I did and I had a book. It had an ending, and I wrote that as a screenplay and turned it into a novel. From there I developed a writing relationship with a friend of his and that's how we got to Sundance. Also Blackbirds ended up getting published, so it was sort of nice.
Sykes: That's a very roundabout way of going about it
Wendig: Yeah, that's the thing about writers—that every writer digs their own tunnel and detonates it behind them. They all find their own weird way behind them.
Sam, what about you?
Sykes: Novel writing is all I've ever been good at and it's all I'll ever be good at, so if doesn't work out I'm dead. I'm just dead. Every other job I've had I've been terrible at. I'm awful. But fortunately novel writing has worked out. And really, I sat down wanting to write a novel and I did. And yeah, it sucked. I think I submitted it and, fortunately I had someone close to me who knew everything about novels. And she read it and said, "It's not—uhhh. It's not."
Wendig: It's something! But it's not.
Sykes: I think that's the true test of a writer, because everyone will go, "What are you talking about? It's perfect the way it is." You don't want to look at something huge you've just done and have someone say, "Alright, now tear it down and start over." I think the writers that never get anywhere are the ones that continually get angry for not recognizing how genius this is. And the real writers will rage about it and cool down before saying, "Well how am I going to make this work." That's an attitude that helps you immensely: How do I make this work? So that's just the attitude I've taken and novels have kept getting better.