Between the release of last month’s cyber-espionage thriller Zer0es and this month’s space opera Star Wars: Aftermath, author Chuck Wendig has been busy. And while Zer0es unravels the terrors of unchecked tech advances in our world and Aftermath explores a galaxy far, far away, both novels deliver adventures that will keep your turning the pages into the early hours of the morning.
We caught up with Wendig at the Decatur Book Festival last weekend to talk about his new books, the hacking subculture and continuing the Star Wars legacy.
Paste: What sparked your imagination to write Zer0es?
Chuck Wendig: The Internet is an awesome but also terrifying place. And it’s been great for me professionally to connect with fans and readers and other writers. That being said, I like to compare it to having a tunnel under your house to your neighbor’s house. If you like your neighbor, your kids play together, you go to picnics together, it’s all good. And your neighbor has tunnels leading from their house to their neighbors’ houses, which is fine, because you’re in a good neighborhood and everyone is happy there. But imagine that it keeps going from house to house, and given enough time and enough effort, anybody can get into your house.
We like to envision these connections as bridges, but frequently they’re also windows and doors. And we give a lot of information actively to the Internet, and we give even more passively, not realizing how much we give. Then you have the NSA with their bizarre surveillance programs that are often used to spy on ex-girlfriends instead of real terrorists. And you have hackers, and they show up in the news every week now. They can hack sniper rifles; they can cut the breaks on a Corvette; they can load a drone with hacking tools and land it on your roof and hack your network. It’s a fascinating time, and technology is outpacing us very quickly.
So I thought to compare those two things: the hacker subculture and the NSA surveillance culture. Then you dial that from nine to 11, and it gets pretty spooky.
Paste: So how long were you writing this novel?
Wendig: About a year—not the actual writing of it but the researching of it. I talked to my agent about it a couple years ago, but I finally started concentrating my research efforts and reading a lot of great books and talking to security consultants, people who do penetration tests on corporate systems. That amped me up to the actual writing of the book itself.
Paste: Do you have a favorite character or one that was the most fun to write?
Wendig: I do have a favorite, and it’s not the expected favorite. I really like Reagan Stolper; she’s so much fun to write. [Editor’s Note: Reagan is a sloppy, self-professed Internet troll.] She’s blissfully horrible, but in her own way there’s a tiny grain of ethics behind it, even if she won’t admit that. She has a purpose, even though it’s a sort of demented social engineering purpose. Characters like that are fun to write, because she’s just diving right into the madness.
Characters like Reagan represent a special opportunity to recognize empathy. I’m not sympathetic towards her; I don’t want to feel bad for her. But I do want to understand her and make sure that even she, as a sort of half-antagonist half-antihero protagonist, understands people and the readers understand her. Ideally, even in a twisted way, they’ll kind of like her by the end of it.
Paste: When you were researching for the novel, did you learn anything that surprised you?
Wendig: I knew this a little bit going in, but as technology has advanced and culture has advanced, we look at the hacker as an archetype. He’s sort of a shadowy loner in a hood. But hacking is such a wildly diverse subculture, and there’re so many little subcultures inside of it. Not only in the kinds of hacking they do, but also in why they do it. White hat, grey hat, black hat.
Paste: Have you changed the way you use the Internet since writing Zer0es?
Wendig: Not in terms of security stuff, because about a year or two ago I started getting brute force attacks on my website. Sometimes I speak about certain subjects which make certain groups upset, so sometimes it can result in attacks like that. So you protect your site. But part of it, too, is trying to be savvy with social media.
Paste: Diving into Star Wars now, you tweeted a year ago about wanting to write a Star Wars novel. Is that what got you the job for Star Wars: Aftermath?
Wendig: That really is what started the ball rolling. I tweeted, and then a number of people behind the scenes supported that idea. Jason Fry, another Star Wars novelist, did a blog post on why I should write Star Wars. Gary Whitta, who is one of the writers behind Rogue One, backed that play, too. Some editors at Del Rey got wind of it, and then I met [Del Rey Editor Shelly Shapiro] at New York Comic Con. Thankfully, she had read Under the Empyrean Sky and found that it was a Star Wars-y book, so that’s how I got the job.
Paste: Did you expect this to happen when you tweeted?
Wendig: I didn’t think anything would come of it. I didn’t have time to write this book! I had a pretty locked down schedule. I wasn’t expecting anything to happen, it’s just a really awesome time to be a Star Wars fan. We have the prequels, but then Star Wars went a little quiet—not in a scary way, but it hit a lull. But suddenly with the advent of Disney buying it and there being an Episode VII and these great comics books and toys, it’s an awesome time to be a fan. So I thought, if I’m going to write books, now is when I want to write them.
I didn’t know they were going to do that so quickly with such an important book, but they did, which is awesome.
Paste: How long did you have to actually write the book?
Wendig: I had several months, technically, but they bumped the release date up from November to September 4th. That’s one year from my tweet, which still blows my mind. So I had a surprisingly short time to write, but thankfully, that’s how I write. Between one and four months, I’ll write a book.
The great thing was that I’ve accumulated so much Star Wars. I’ve been brining in it for so many years that it was easy to wring it out and put it right on the page.
Paste: How much information do you know about Episode VII? I know Star Wars: Aftermath takes place immediately after Episode VI, so there’s still a big gap.
Wendig: I know a few things. It’s less that I know what’s going to happen in the new movie and more that I know the build up to it. I sort of know some of those 30 years between the movies.
Paste: Did you know you were signing on to write a trilogy?
Wendig: No, I knew there was the possibility for a trilogy, and we discussed the larger story. But I wasn’t hired for it until they saw what I was capable of doing. They seemed pretty happy with the result, and as such, I got two more books out of it.
Paste: What was your vision going into writing the book? How much did they give you and how much did you get to create yourself?
Wendig: They did not give me some big plot or outline. They basically gave me mandates of what I couldn’t do, things and characters I couldn’t deal with. It’s a giant organic story world growing up at the same time, and they have to work together and not be redundant. You don’t want to tell the same story twice. And there are certain things that are reserved for The Force Awakens. In terms of a transmedia narrative, that’s the bullet hole in the glass and everything else is the cracks out from the center. For me, it was, “Here’s what you can’t do. Now pitch us a story.” What I pitched is pretty much what is in the book.
Paste: Did you get to completely create the new planet Akiva in the book?
Wendig: Yes. We’re in a weird time where it’s a new canonical period for Star Wars, so I wanted to put my own footprint in that soil. It allowed me to own that space a little more and to create my own mythology around it and have it tie to the characters more explicitly.
Paste: Speaking of characters, do you have a favorite? Because we meet a lot of new faces in the book.
Wendig: Favorite to write is the battle droid, because he’s a murderous lunatic. We’ve seen this before in Star Wars, so it’s not a new thing. But I find him oddly sweet—he dances and sings. Norra in terms of the actual protagonist is something we haven’t seen before. She’s a mother and a strong older woman. In stories in general, you get these characters that don’t seem connected to anything, either because they’re orphaned or have no friends and no family. Very explicitly, one of the things I wanted to hit head on with this book is the awesome generational component of Star Wars. That component is a layer cake, because you look at it with the nitty-gritty of the characters—Anakin to Luke to whomever we get in the next film. You get the generational style of the films, and how they stack against each other. You get the generations of the fans. I’m dealing with that now. I was four years old when I saw The Empire Strikes Back, and now my son is four years old and he’s going to be able to see The Force Awakens. I wanted some of that in the book. I wanted to address the generational component of who are these people? Why do they join the Empire? Why do the join the Rebellion? How do they look at their own kids and their own parents, and how does that affect them in this world?
Paste: As a Star Wars fan, what are you most excited about for the new trilogy of films?
Wendig: There’s nothing I’m not excited about. I’m trying to very concretely resist the nostalgic urge to be fascinated and find out what the big three characters are doing. When Han Solo says, “Chewie, we’re home” [in the trailer], it’s like, “I don’t have tears on my face. I’m not crying, you’re crying.” At the same time, I’m excited for these new characters. I didn’t think I would be, but you see new trailers and you see this charcter Finn. You’re like, “Why is he in a storm trooper outfit.” Next thing you know, he’s got a lightsaber and you’re like, “What just happened?” I want to know! It’s all that, and BB-8.
BB-8, as seen in the trailer for The Force Awakens.