What was the root for The Blue Blazes? What prompted it?
Stories always have a strange route to them, and the original route to this was being a very young child and doing stupid young children things. They tell you, ‘Don’t look at the sun’ and of course the first thing you do is look at the sun because you’re stupid at that age. I would sometimes press my thumbs against my closed eyes, and if you do that, it’s like fireworks behind the eyes, pretty in a stupid way, and probably doing irreparable harm to my eyes, it’s like LSD for an eight year old, but it’s cool.
One time I did it, and I (presumably) hallucinated a lion – a resplendent, reclining lion in the middle of our lawn – which was clearly not there. There was obviously no lion on our lawn, but I had imagined this, or hallucinated it there. I thought there was sometimes interesting there, this sort of They Live vibe where you can tear the scales off your eyes with a certain feeling. I wanted to evoke that very visceral visual thing with the blue blazes, this sense of the blue fire spreading across your vision.
That was a long time coming: I didn’t actually think up a story to go with that, I just had that little tiny idea. Then there came the opportunity to do an anthology called The New Hero, in which the goal was to write iconic heroes where the heroes themselves don’t change, but they change the world. A Superman, or James Bond – that kind of figure who’s iconic, like a rock in the stream: the rock doesn’t change, the stream always changes. So I came up with this idea of Mookie Pearl, the guy who’s my hero, or the anti-hero – my heroes are always on the dark edge of things – who’s between the physical, criminal underworld and the monstrous mythical imaginary – so to speak – underworld. I wrote a story about him, and it’s the story about the first time Nora screws him over: she plays on all of his emotions and pretends like she’s this damsel in distress but really she’s the villain of the piece.
That’s where it came from, and I thought I should write a novel for this. Sure enough, Angry Robot agreed.
It’s the first of how many?
We don’t really know yet. I have another two-book deal with them; one of them is a guaranteed Mookie Pearl book, the other is floating, so right now my goal is to have it be three books. Definitely one more on the way, tentatively called ‘The Bloody Bride’.
The Blue Blazes is different in style to the Miriam Black books or the Atlanta Burns stories: was this a conscious choice, or was it just the right way for that story?
It’s a little of both. It feels right, so I go with it. Occasionally it’s conscious. With Blackbirds and Mockingbird, I tried to write in a sharper, more modern noir; a sharper, punchier sense. Shorter paragraphs; a lot of dialogue. Not a lot of world-building; not a lot of exposition. Very in the moment stuff.
Blue Blazes still has that noir crime-y sensibilities, but I wanted it to be a little thicker, a little lusher. I feel like the world-building needs to be stronger, you need to be dragged into it a little more. I didn’t want it to be quite as short sharp a shock. Sometimes in fantasy, and even that older style noir, you get a little more detail and a little more poetry out of the language.
Something like Atlanta Burns, I try to write in a plainer spoken way. Atlanta Burns is, at least in her own mind, a simpler character; I don’t mean simple as in stupid – she’s very direct. I wanted that plain sense that she would have as a character to carry through a little bit in the actual prose as well.
In the Miriam book, the point of view of the objective narration still feels like it’s Miriam…
That’s the goal. I write in close third – technically it’s still a narrator’s voice, mine in this case, but I want it to feel as if the character’s bleeding into it.
It never feels like an omnipotent narrator…
Right – I’m elbowing the omnipotence, but I’m never quite there.
Which noir writers have you read and admired for their narrative tricks or feel?
Believe it or not, I never wanted to particularly emulate any older noir. Chandler, although I love, I never wanted to particularly emulate. I like more modern noir, such as you might see with Winter’s Bone or Joe Lansdale, or an L.A. noir such as Christa Faust, or an urban fantasy you might see with someone like a friend of mine, Steven Blackmoore’s book Dead Things. I don’t consciously try to ape any of that, but I read more modern stuff.
You’ve got Under the Empyrean Sky and the Atlanta Burns stories aimed at the Young Adult (YA) market, and then your material for Angry Robot and Abaddon which is aimed at a more ‘adult’ audience. Apart from use of ‘profanity’, what do you not allow yourself to do in a YA book? Are there conscious limits?
There are conscious limits: the language I cut back, the sex is cut back – although, believe it or not, my YA books may have more sex than my non-YA. It’s not hardcore, not extreme.
There’s violence in both, but in my other books, it’s frankly quite gory: the Miriam Black books and The Blue Blazes have some pretty significant bits of gore in them. Not to say there’s not in the YA books; there’s a scene in Under the Empyrean Sky that I won’t spoil here which is quite clear what happens, but it still squirms me out. The final scene of The Cormorant, the third Miriam Black book, is possibly one of the most screwed-up scenes I’ve ever written.
I mostly just tone that stuff back, but I don’t do it completely; it’s still in there but maybe not as bold-faced as it might have been otherwise.
So could you envisage The Blue Blazes as a YA book?
Yes, I would just do a book from Nora’s perspective, and I did think, once upon a time, about making it her story entirely and turning it into a YA book, but I felt that Mookie was just too precious for me not to use him.
I like Mookie: what I do with a lot of my characters is I think of it like a stunt pilot, doing one of those great dives towards the ground. You think they’re going to crash but they pull out at the last moment – that’s the likeability factor of the characters. I want you to not be sure of them, but when they pull out of that dive, you’re hooked. I think that’s when you like the character – in fact, it’s not just “like”, you’re invested in them and you can get behind them being a damaged hero, or an anti-hero, however you want to think of them.
That’s my goal, because however great it is to make people think things and have ideas from the books, which is a goal certainly, I covet writers who can make you feel things. Whatever you may feel about the George R.R. Martin “Red Wedding” scene, which just aired on TV and been in the books since the early 2000s, and whatever you may say about him as a writer, he can certainly make you feel something – a very intense feeling. To have that ability, first and foremost to make you feel something, is great. It’s diseased and sick too: I want you to feel hatred and love in equal measure and I want to scare you. It’s a really weird emotional psychological rollercoaster that you put people on.
Do you write the whole story through then go back and revise?
I do. I know some authors write in pieces, and various blocks, and I’m totally on board with that, but I can’t do it. I write fast and in order.
There are advantages to that: I keep everything in my head. If I started at the end then went back to the beginning I might lose a thread. I like to keep things moving and that sense of momentum, so I have a sense of the pacing for me personally and what it’s going to look like on the page.
So when you are working on a story, do you know where it’s going to be at the end?
I generally do. It’s like going on a road trip: it’s very hard for me to go on a trip without at least some sense of where I want to end up. I’m not always right but I have an idea.
Absolutely. The end of Mockingbird, the entire end sequence when she goes to deal with [spoilers], I had rough beats – x happens, y happens – but the way she did it all was totally outside of my outline. It’s more fun that way; when it happens like that, it feels more organic. I like the outline to keep me on track, but I don’t like to be stuck on a track. If I see a cool turning off, I want to be able to take that turn off.
Miriam and Mookie are both very damaged characters, and we don’t necessarily know where that comes from; do you know before you start their full back stories?
I generally do have a pretty good sense of it, Miriam in particular, because Miriam is a young character, so her damage is fairly present, so too is it with Atlanta Burns. Their damage is still fresh, so I’m aware of it and where it comes from. With Miriam it gets pretty well teased out by the second book exactly part of why she’s so damaged.
Mookie’s an older guy: he’s fifty years old and he’s got a lot more time to have built up all those scars that are on his body, and on his precious little heart! I still have a good idea: there’s plenty of things to talk about, things with his father and his grandfather, and the work he had to do, and so forth.
Is there as much world-building involved for the Miriam stories for you as there is for The Blue Blazes?
No, no. I did virtually no world-building with Miriam either in my head or on the page. For all intents and purposes, her world is our world, and what happened to her is an event in her life, and it led to x y z, these powers.
Mookie is part of a rather richly, densely layer cake world where there’s so much going on. There’s Hell beneath our feet and a criminal underworld above it; this monster, that monster; demon families and roller derby girl gangs and crime families. It’s so much of a richer tapestry, and the history of what’s going on there, that the world-building took conscious effort on my part to sit down before I wrote it to work out ‘here’s x y z’. I didn’t go so crazy that I wrote a 400 page story bible and I had to be married to it, but I still had to really churn through a lot of that to make it make sense.
Would you be happy for others to write within that world?
It depends. From a fan fiction perspective that would be awesome – I would love to read fan fiction. I’m not sure I would want licensed fiction based on it. That said, I would adore to see a game come out of it, particularly a pen and paper role playing game where people could embrace this role themselves, or something that was more video game based. That would be cool. That would be phenomenal.
I started off in the role playing pen and paper industry so that’s theoretically a door that could be opened. The videogame stuff, I have some lead into that world but that’s still a pretty hard world to crack, so I’m not sure. If anybody wants to make it, they should call…
I wrote a novel when I was in college – in retrospect it probably wasn’t that good. It was a love triangle college romance novel, which was meant to be very acerbic and funny. It was called Bozo’s Guide to Love in the New Order. That had to come out of me.
Then I wrote a story where the plot beats ended up sort of duplicated by Kevin Smith’s Dogma: there was a girl having a tryst with the devil, ends up impregnated with the devil’s baby, gets protected – and here’s where the plotlines really cross – by an alcoholic Metatron, the angel. Who the hell comes up with that shared idea of having this one specific angel being a liquor hound?! That had to come out of me: it was a mess stylistically and were great fun to write.
Those were technically after my first published story, but they were the first important things that had to happen.
What about when you were a kid? Were you always writing stories?
Writing and drawing stories: I wanted to be a cartoonist for quite a long time. I saw the Aliens films when I was very young – I don’t know how, maybe it was because you could go to the video store and pick out videos and no one stopped you and I would walk home with Aliens under my arm. I watched that, and did this comic book which pitted Pac-Man from the video game against a Xenomorph from Aliens. I don’t know why those things belong together, but Pac-Man won! Pac-Man almost looks like an Alien when he opens his mouth. I even remember drawing the little Pac-Man with a mini Pac-Man mouth coming out. It totally worked for me.
I’ve delivered The Cormorant – I’ve written three novels so far this year, which proves I should maybe go to a meeting or something. God bless my wife: she takes care of all sorts of toddler duties while I’m actually writing this stuff. I’ll have to start charting and planning the third Heartland novel; I’ll have edits on the second and then start plotting and scheming the third. The revised Bait Dog is coming out from Skyscape, and then they’ll release the sequel, tentatively titled Frack You.
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