By Jack Rico
Chuck Wendig’s new thriller Zer0es follows five hackers forced to work for the United States government. Working from a complex known as “the Lodge” the hackers soon uncover a large conspiracy, forcing them to try and take down the U.S. government from the inside. The novel had been called a “high-octane blend of nervy characters, dark humor and bristling dialogue… smart, timely, electrifying.”
Wendig is also the author of the new Star Wars novel Aftermath, which gave readers their first canonical look at the galaxy immediately following Return of the Jedi. Written in Wendig’s crackling present-tense prose, the story follows a group of lost souls fighting against the remnants of the Empire on the remote planet of Akiva. But to say Aftermath was controversial would be an understatement. The novel eschewed the central trio of Han, Luke, and Leia in favor of a diverse cast of characters, including an openly gay former Imperial. It was also the first novel that effectively swept away the long-running Expanded Universe, which began with Timothy Zahn’s Heir to the Empire, in order to bridge the gap between the original trilogy and J.J. Abrams’ The Force Awakens. These lead to a quixotic campaign by a vocal minority intent on sabotaging the book by giving it one star reviews on Amazon, either demanding the return of the Expanded Universe or decrying the inclusion of homosexual characters.
As someone you grew up reading the Star Wars Expanded Universe novels I can honestly say that Aftermath is by far one of the best Star Wars novels I have ever read. Unlike Star Wars novels of the past, Aftermath shows us a plausible outcome of the destruction of the Second Death Star. The story was thrilling and gritty, presenting us with a galaxy still divided. The characters were flawed, three-dimensional, and beautifully real. By shifting away from the central trio, Wendig shows readers the full impact of the Skywalker family. So while Luke never appears, his shadow looms large.Plus, Wendig made a Prequel-era Battle Droid terrifying, and that takes some serious skill.
Mr. Wendig took some time out of his busy writing schedule to talk about Zer0es, Star Wars: Aftermath and his writing process. He also gave us some insight as to what we can expect next in the Aftermath Trilogy.
Adam: I’d like to start off by talking about how you got your start as an author and how you moved from role-playing guidebooks to one of the most talked about Star Wars novels ever?
Chuck Wendig (CW): The answer is sadly pretty boring: I worked my ass off in various directions hoping something would pan out. We can’t manufacture our own luck, but we can influence it—gentle nudges and elbows here and there.
Adam: You write almost exclusively in the present tense. Is that a style you instinctually gravitated towards or was it something you discovered over the years?
CW: I came to it when I started with screenwriting – I knew some novels already worked wonders with the present tense and I always found it strikingly urgent.
Adam: From Blackbirds to Atlanta Burns your novels tend to feature prominent strong female and openly gay characters. How do you approach these characters so that they feel authentic and not like caricatures?
CW: The goal is always to treat them like real people instead of a pre-programmed set of tropes. Lean away from stereotypes, but lean into the challenges that makes us human—and the challenges that face women, or people of color, or members of the LGBT community. Above all else, give them agency: let them be the masters of their fate and give them the reins of the story.
Adam: Your cyber-thriller Zer0es came out in August, can you talk how the novel first germinated in your mind and what research you did before putting pen to paper?
CW: I grew up and ran a BBS (bulletin board system; aka a personal version of the Internet before the Internet was the Internet), and kind of gravitated in and around hacker culture. It’s always fascinated me – and with the recent shifts in surveillance culture (precipitated in part by the existence of the Internet), I thought the intersection of those two things could be pretty fantastic.
Adam: Zer0es is first and foremost a thriller, but there are some notable moral and philosophical underpinnings. What do you hope to leave your readers thinking once they finish the book?
CW: If I can get them to double-down a little on their Internet security and privacy, I consider that a win!
Adam: How long does it typically take you to write a novel start to finish?
CW: Writing a novel takes me between 30-90 days. That doesn’t figure in the research time up front of the subsequent drafts at the other end.
Adam: You’ve had a large number of stories published over the years, but is there one that you’re incredibly proud of that didn’t get as much attention?
CW: I wrote a little short story (“Big Man”) in an anthology called DANGEROUS GAMES and it was about games and masculinity and driving really fast and I’m pretty sure like, nobody ever read it. But I was really proud of it.
Adam: Do you have a different approach to writing YA novels versus “adult” novels?
CW: Not much of one. The protagonist will be younger, and some of the issues will be more teen-centric. And I might simplify the writing a hair—but I don’t aim for overly hefty prose in the first place.
Adam: Star Wars: Aftermath is the first canon novel set after Return of the Jedi. It received quite a bit of criticism from some fans upset at the presence of an openly gay protagonist. With the science fiction fandom now larger and more diverse than ever, why do you think there is a backlash against stories that reflect modern society?
CW: It’s hard to say. I think there’s a whole lotta stuff going on there in those reviews. Some of it is from people who just didn’t like the book. Some of them don’t understand third-person present tense. Some of them are upset because some portion of what they considered “canon” is now no longer canon. And then you have the folks who are upset because the book reportedly has a “liberal agenda,” an agenda apparently made manifest and evidenced through the inclusion of people who are not straight white males.
Some of this is about what I call “weaponized nostalgia”—a sense of how THINGS WERE ALWAYS BETTER BEFORE, and often it’s a misguided, even incorrect assessment of the past, but history is weird and it’s easy to revise our nostalgia to only include the things with which we find comfort.
Some of it is, ideally, an extinction-level burst of people who hold toxic social views about their fellow human beings, and who inevitably cross over into one of the biggest fandoms in pop culture and are angry about it.
Adam: What can you tell us about Star Wars: Aftermath – Life Debt and Empire’s End?
CW: I can tell you basically nothing! Life Debt relates to one of the interludes found in Aftermath (cough cough the Han and Chewie interlude), and both books will indeed continue to feature the (mis)adventures of the Aftermath cast (Norra, Temmin, Sinjir, Jas, Mister Bones).
Adam: Outside of Star Wars, what’s the next original novel you have planned?
CW: Up next is the second Atlanta Burns book, called The Hunt. And then my next sci-fi thriller, which takes place in the same narrative universe as Zer0es, is Myrmidon—and all I can say about that is “genetically-modified killer ants.” Bwa ha ha ha.
You can follow Chuck Wendig on Twitter @ChuckWendig or visit his website http://www.terribleminds.com/ And be sure to send him a #jedifistbump while you’re at it!