Chuck Wendig’s “Wanderers” explores those who wander and those who protect them

Adrian Liang on August 05, 2019

It’s clear that Chuck Wendig is fascinated by how everyday, normal people react to deeply abnormal situations.

His excellent Miriam Black books center on how a young woman who can foresee death deals with this uncontrollable power. His three Star Wars: Aftermath books, set after Return of the Jedi, put ordinary people in extraordinary—and extraordinarily important—situations. And I could go on.

Wendig opens his newest novel, Wanderers, with a young teen found sleepwalking along the side of a Pennsylvania road. She can’t be woken, but neither does she need to eat or sleep.

Adrian Liang, Amazon Book Review: How do you describe Wanderers to someone say who says, "Hey, what have you written lately?"

Chuck Wendig: It depends on how much time you have. It’s either “The Stand meets Station Eleven,” if you’re really fast, or “If Stephen King and Michael Crichton had a book baby.” But I describe it as a journey of sleepwalkers—a plague of sleepwalkers. A girl wakes up one day. She began sleepwalking to an unknown destination, and every mile or two another sleepwalker joins her. We don’t know where they’re going and we don’t know why they’re walking and we don’t know what their destination is or if they’re good or they are bad…only that they’re going to disrupt the country significantly.

There is a lot of disruption. If one of the sleepwalkers get stopped, they explode. People start being very afraid that their loved ones are going to turn into sleepwalkers. And then there are other people who take this fear and try to turn it into their own power gain. Why take it from being a story about the sleepwalkers and their shepherds and turn it into a story about the country and power plays as a whole?

Actually, when I initially conceived of this book four years ago, I just had this idea of the sleepwalkers and I really didn’t have a story or characters to go with it. But in the last couple years, we’ve seen some tumult in the country, and so it felt like an interesting opportunity to have the flock [of sleepwalkers] serve as a bit of a mirror not just to that but to the country in the book as well. The mystery and the question of the unknown drives people either to great feats of villainy or heroism or, sometimes, both. There’s a lot of gray area with these characters. [We also] watch how people react to a thing in this very social media-driven age. How does social media both reflect the flock and the shepherds [the people who walk with and care for the sleepwalkers]? And how does it exacerbate the narrative around them? The shepherds are the ones we walk with, but they’re the ones who get to witness everything that’s going on around them in the country, in the rising conflict and the escalation of political extremism and vitriol.

The shepherds with the flock are the only ones who really can see what’s going on with the sleepwalkers. Everyone else in the country is being told a different, filtered story. You have a number of different point-of-view characters, including a teenaged shepherd, a former CDC investigator, and an aging rock star. Was there somebody whom you enjoyed writing the most?

It’s hard not to say the aging rock star, Pete Corley. Anytime you get a character who operates in a selfish, chaotic way, even if they’re not a bad person necessarily… Those characters, the ones who don’t know what they’re going to do themselves, are the most fun to write because they can surprise you the writer and then then the audience. They change the narrative around them instead of it changing them.

One of my favorite characters was former CDC investigator Benji. You wrote on your blog that he was one of the harder characters to write.

Yeah, he was tricky. We didn’t have him right in the first draft. He was mostly a kind of a noble scientist who is trying to figure all of this out, and he was a man of science and faith. As I say sometimes, with books big or small all it takes is for you to take a three-degree misstep in the beginning and your straight line becomes a 45-degree angle off a cliff. That was what it was with him. Giving him a disgraced [background], where he had made these decisions that he felt were right for the CDC, though they were both illegal and unscientific, left him with a much more fascinating journey in the book. What was he willing to do now to make things right for the people around him and to regain the faith of the CDC?

There are so many interesting details about the CDC. Did you know many of these details before you started writing, or did you have to research it?

I knew a little bit of it—like I knew about the existence of the EIS [Epidemic Intelligence Service]. As I was writing Wanderers, I discovered one of my favorite writers, Maryn McKenna, wrote a book about the EIS, [Beating Back the Devil]. I became one of those crosses to bear because on the one hand you’re reading all these great scientific works and trying to incorporate all these fascinating details, but you inevitably have to get stuff wrong on purpose, willfully make things fit a narrative, not just reality.

You wrote on your blog—I’m going to quote you—“I think this is my best work and it was done by doing almost everything differently.” How do you normally write, and how was Wanderers different?

ChuckWendig_PhotobyEdwinTse.jpgNormally I outline every book. With this one it wasn’t an outline so much as a series of chapters with some kind of bridging synopsis material. I write every day. [With Wanderers] I still wrote every day but sometimes it was a thousand words. Sometimes it was three or four thousand words. I was bumping up on my deadline, and I was a hundred eighty thousand words into it, and I couldn’t even see an ending. So I contacted my editor, and [she said], “Let’s just write the book that you need to write and take as much time as you need to write”—which is an unusual thing to hear. I think the book that came from it was much better, much more improved. I just sort of followed it by rhythm and feeling more than anything else.

Is that something you would recommend?

I don’t recommend any thing to people. I recommend you have to try everything. And when your process isn’t working, you’ve got to change the process. Every book, I find, does demand I do something a little bit different—even if this one was a lot different.

Author photo by Edwin Tse.

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