So, You Wrote About A Pandemic (Book Club Answers For Wanderers)

It’s weird right now, having written a big-ass pandemic book during the time of a potential pandemic. Obviously, what we’re dealing with now doesn’t compare with the disease(s?) inside Wanderers, and thankfully so — but it is sometimes a wee bit spooky to see the comparisons, and —

Ah, now is when I tell you this post is about to get a bit spoilery? Because by its nature, it must.

So let’s just put some spoiler space in the form of a novel quote from the utterly bananapants book, Finnegan’s Wake, by James Joyce — after the Joyce passage, THERE BE SPOILERDRAGONS.

haunt of the hungred bordles, as it is told me. Shop Illicit,

flourishing like a lordmajor or a buaboabaybohm, litting flop

a deadlop (aloose!) to lee but lifting a bennbranch a yardalong

(Ivoeh!) the breezy side (for showm!), the height of Brew-

ster’s chimpney and as broad below as Phineas Barnum; humph-

ing his share of the showthers is senken on him he’s such a

grandfallar, with a pocked wife in pickle that’s a flyfire and three

lice nittle clinkers, two twilling bugs and one midgit pucelle.

And aither he cursed and recursed and was everseen doing what

your fourfootlers saw or he was never done seeing what you cool-

pigeons know, weep the clouds aboon for smiledown witnesses,

and that’ll do now about the fairyhees and the frailyshees.

Though Eset fibble it to the zephiroth and Artsa zoom it round

her heavens for ever. Creator he has created for his creatured

ones a creation. White monothoid? Red theatrocrat? And all the

pinkprophets cohalething? Very much so! But however ’twas

’tis sure for one thing, what sherif Toragh voucherfors and

Mapqiq makes put out, that the man, Humme the Cheapner,

Esc, overseen as we thought him, yet a worthy of the naym,

came at this timecoloured place where we live in our paroqial

fermament one tide on another, with a bumrush in a hull of a

wherry, the twin turbane dhow, The Bey for Dybbling, this

archipelago’s first visiting schooner, with a wicklowpattern

waxenwench at her prow for a figurehead, the deadsea dugong

updipdripping from his depths, and has been repreaching him-

self like a fishmummer these siktyten years ever since, his shebi

by his shide, adi and aid, growing hoarish under his turban and

changing cane sugar into sethulose starch (Tuttut’s cess to him!)

as also that, batin the bulkihood he bloats about when innebbi-

ated, our old offender was humile, commune and ensectuous

from his nature, which you may gauge after the bynames was

put under him, in lashons of languages, (honnein suit and

praisers be!) and, totalisating him, even hamissim of himashim

that he, sober serious, he is ee and no counter he who will be

ultimendly respunchable for the hubbub caused in Eden-

borough.

AH, good, there we go.

As I was saying, it’s a bit eerie some of the similarities. Black Swan event. AI prediction models. Election year with one candidate being a belligerent bigoted businessman. Rise of white supremacy. Incompetence and indolence from the top-down responses. Asymptomatic transmission of a cold-like sickness. Zoonotic jump from, theoretically, bats. Drones. And so on.

I was in many ways attempting to write about 2016, but ended up writing about 2020.

(I also didn’t expect people to still be reading it by this point, but it seems like more people are reading it now, not fewer. I do like to think the book lends hope and light to a dark situation, even if it’s not precisely a “happy” book. Plus, sometimes if you’re scared of sharks, you read about sharks.)

Regardless, I sometimes get questions about the book, and I’m not always able to answer them all — but I did get a small battery of questions from a friend for their book club, and further, I figured I could source a few more questions from social media.

So, I’mma answer some Qs with some As and we’ll see where we land.

Again, as above, WHO RULES SPOILERTOWN, MASTER WENDIG RULES SPOILERTOWN.

If you had to describe Black Swan as a character, how would you describe it?

Oooh. Oh. Hmm. That’s a curious question because ultimately, Black Swan is a character, and the description of it is… spread out all across the book, as prose ejecta. Is it ultimately good, or bad? I don’t know. Is it utilitarian? Almost surely. A bit narcissistic? In its way. I don’t even know if I can pin down its D&D alignment? Lawful evil? Chaotic good? True neutral? Hmm.

As a reader, I really enjoyed how the pacing of the novel was a reflection of what was happening in the novel itself – i.e. slow when the characters were feeling the slog of the long walk and fast when the action was quick and (perhaps) overwhelming to the characters. Was this an intentional crafting choice of yours as an author?

Yes, to some degree — I think action and event is married to prose in its shape and tenor. Not to say you can’t do interesting things by making, say, a thriller scene feel slow, or a slow scene feel tense, but those are tricks more than they are trade, maybe. If I’m to take people on a journey, then the goal is for the writing to match the shape and the speed of each step of that journey.

Part of this too is just rhythm — music is best when it isn’t just one thing over and over again. A meal is best when it’s not one food on our plate. Which calls to mind that study they did as to why we always have room for dessert — it’s sensory-specific satiety. We tire of the same thing again and again, but when you change it up, our brain craves it.

This is true, I think, in fiction as it is with music, or food, or anything.

We need that rhythm change — we need slow parts and fast parts, we need humor and horror, we need a lot of different flavors and feelings. And the bonus with going slow and taking your time in certain books is that you’re filling up the room with pure oxygen, and it’s that oxygen which neatly ignites and allows us to blow shit up. The creation of tension isn’t in the blowing-up-of-stuff, but rather, in the filling up of oxygen — or, more crassly, the tension isn’t lightning the match, but watching one person get splashed with gasoline as another with an unlit match stalks nearby. Further, the more we can give ourselves time to care about characters, the more we actually worry about them.

Storytellers are monsters.

How was the title chosen? Can you discuss its meanings for you as an author?

Its original title was “Exeunt,” which is a fancy Shakespearean word that means Exit, or Egress. An eschatalogical word — the eschaton of leaving this world.

It’s a cool title.

It’s also an awful title. Nobody could pronounce it. Nobody could spell it.

So, we ached over titles and this idea of those who wander are not lost became a thing — the Sleepwalker flock walkers have purpose. They’re not lost. Even as the rest of the country most certainly is.

How important was it for you as the author to make the Shana character a female character? What went into that decision?

I don’t know, exactly — she always was who she was. It felt right. But I was also conscious of making the rest of the cast more inclusive, as well — though I don’t think inclusion stops at white dude authors like me, and is best when it’s about way more than characters on a page (meaning, about people working across the industry, about broad author inclusion, about embracing all readers).

I think there’s still value in it because, hey, if this thing gets made into a movie, maybe you see that inclusion translate to actors and roles on screen, too.

How did you decide who would “make it” in the end (i.e. live)?

I decided early on that I wouldn’t decide this until the end. Usually with a book I know my ending pretty much down to the paragraph, though certainly I’m able to and willing to change that if I see a better “exit” off the highway, so to speak. But this one was way more intuitive. Whole book was like that. I outline nearly all my books but this one did not have so robust an outline. It was definitely more feeling my way through the darkness of a night-time forest.

As to how I ultimately decided that, I am honestly a coward, and more survived than I expected. But part of this too is that I think it’s interesting when characters live — not just in a shit, I chickened out way, but their continued existence is a complication, whereas their death is a solution. It’s a finality — a door closed. I like them left alive. It’s more interesting to watch them deal with the world and their choices instead of knocking them off the chess board. Because stories aren’t chess.

Would you be wiling to talk a bit about the intersection of art and politics from your point of view as an artist?

This is one of those big unruly questions that has no great answer. I think all stories and all art are political, not in that they must include modern politics as in conservative and liberal parties and votes and processes and such — but at the base level, the politics of people interacting with people, people interacting with systems that govern them, people dealing with the power they possess and the power that rules over them in a socio-political way. Once upon a time, some ding-dong on Twitter challenged me to explain, gotcha-style, how THE THREE LITTLE PIGS was a political story, because of course it could never be.

You can find that thread here.

But the tl;dr is, it’s hella political.

All things are. Even attempting to write something apolitical is itself political — you’re a fish swimming in water who doesn’t know what “water” is. Just because you’re ignorant of it doesn’t mean you’re not soaking in it, and further, choosing what “politics” to keep out means some politics are left in. You just don’t see it because it’s wallpaper to you — it’s your chosen decor, and so it doesn’t contrast with or disrupt your comfort levels.

So, do you have to be political? No. But you will be, anyway.

So you might as well think about it and be willful in your narrative choices.

As it stands, Wanderers is more explicitly political because it includes actual American politics, as it’s about America, and there’s an election. How the hell would I tell that story and not be staring down the double-barrel of American politics?

Who is your favorite character in the book and why?

HARDEST QUESTION EVER. Easy to say I don’t have one, but I do — it just changes from time to time. They’re all glorious disaster children. I can say with clarity though that Pete Corley was the most fun to write, because any time you have someone who is a force of chaos, you end up with interesting choices and with someone who jukes left whenever regular people would go right.

And now, let’s move on to some social media questions! (Some of these are paraphrased, but I’ve linked to the original tweet asking the Q.)

Sequel?

I’ve always maintained that if sales supported it and the story demanded it (meaning, I had a story in mind), I’d write a sequel. *furtive glances*

ok QUESTION ONE is HOW IS THIS BOOK SO DAMN GOOD AND ADDICTIVE, IS IT MADE OF COCAINE and question two: is cassie ok?!??

The book is in fact made of cocaine, and I hope Cassie is okay. Maybe we’ll find out some day.

How are you feeling about the whole “the book is prophetic” thing folks are talking about now that Covid19 exists? I know I’ve teased you at least once saying “What did you do!?!?” But are you ok with folks kidding around or are you like, “That’s the point! It’s inevitable!”?

I don’t mind the comment, I’m just glad people are reading the book. Like I said, I wasn’t trying to write a warning about 2020, I was trying to write about 2016, and also about… like, history. I mean, it’s a little eerie that some of this stuff has lined up how it has, but I also didn’t just pull this stuff out of the clouds. The trick, I guess, was in the arrangement.

When you were sketching out the book, did you have an inkling it was going to be an epic tome?

(No link, because sourced from FB.)

I had a pretty good idea it would be long, but I figured like, 150-175k, not 280,000 words. Oops? It just kept getting bigger and bigger and then I blew my first deadline and ahahaha oh shit. Thankfully, the publisher was cool with it. All of it. Wonderful publisher, amazing editor in Tricia (Narwani).

The book is the length that it needs to be. Stories are like that, sometimes. It’s not about filling space — but about growing to the size that accommodates the story.

Did you have any concern over backlash from offering a frank, brutal, and honest depiction of the NRA/Hard Right crowd?

I mean, I don’t really worry about that sort of thing — Aftermath taught me I was gonna catch shit for whatever I wrote anyway, just for the gall of including different types of people in the GFFA, and I figured if I was going to write about this kind of thing, you can’t avoid it. I grew up in a gun-totin’ family, my father was a gunsmith, and so I’m comfortable with guns — and the protagonists in the book are wont to use them when necessary, too. It’s the characters in the book (and the people in reality) who fetishize those firearms, who think their right to carry a military-grade rifle is more than the right of someone to not get shot by one, that you need to worry about.

How do you approach writing something that is reality-adjacent without it coming off as gimmicky? I’m thinking of the politics, specifically. Creel & Hunt could have come off as overly “hot take” but didn’t.

Not to endeavor to “both sides” this thing, but it’s always interesting to me when people come into the reviews of this book to claim, I dunno, I hate Republicans and love Democrats — I did endeavor to give some nuance and depth to that, and ensure that the Democratic president was not particularly effective in her leadership during this thing, and that politics as a whole was standing in the way of good science. And I also see reviews that say I’m demonizing Christians, even though two of the protagonists are Christian characters — one, admittedly, gets a bit suckered in by the Evangelical white supremacy going on, but that’s not an indictment against Christianity, just a particular brand of it. And that’s ultimately the thing — I suspect anybody who feels attacked by this book feels that way because they’ve recognized something of themselves in the antagonists. Which is to say, they’ve seen white supremacy, which is at the heart one of the big thematic enemies of the book.

That’s not really an answer to the question, I guess. Mostly for me it’s about letting characters be characters and not mouthpieces. Some people will still see them as mouthpieces, and I can’t help that, but I endeavored not to make it that way.

Did you do any research on the impenetrable skin? Once I saw flesh that needles can’t pierce, I figured it was supernatural. But then bullets worked, so now I’m wondering if that was realistic and I don’t know about it. I mean, we have needles that’ll go into rhinos, right…?

I mean, it’s not supernatural, but it is firmly in the realm of imaginative science-fiction — so, the answer is in the book (it’s the nanites, silly), but it’s definitely a more science-fictiony answer and less a science-y answer. It’s make-believe. But the key part of make-believe is… making you believe.

So hopefully I did that.

When dealing with real world things like pandemics, how hard do you try to stick to facts and when do you take creative license. As the narrative dictates? Was there a “this would be too cool, but I can’t make it work” thing that didn’t hit the page?

At the end of the day it’s all as the narrative dictates — the whole thing is creative license because if it weren’t, it’d be non-fiction. But there are ways to make it work, I think, to make it seem real, and part of that is a sort of connect the dots process that goes like this:

You have to tell three true things before you tell one false thing. And those things, the three truths and one lie, connect. If I’m going to make up this weird science behind this, I need real science to back it up, so I have to find facts that move in the direction of what I want, so when I take the leap to the lie (aka the fiction), it feels like a natural course. It feels like instead of just making up something out of nowhere, I’ve given you three stepping stones, and on the fourth stepping stone, I’ve simply chosen to direct you to a nearby lie instead of the next truth.

So, if something feels too out of line, too impossible to connect to the chain of true things, it becomes magic, and then it’s not really science-fiction anymore. But even with magic, in fantasy, you still have to draw that line to make everything feel organic and connected.

There’s some stuff with Father Matt and Ozark that was… hard to read. (trying to avoid spoilers. Are we still doing that?) Did you ever quibble whether to include those bits at all? What swayed you in the direction you ended up choosing?

That was a hard section to write and there was some question as to whether it should remain. At the end we decided it should remain for a handful of reasons. First, I wrote the assault from the victim’s POV, so I did my best to center it that way. Second, it wasn’t written to be lurid or sexy, as sometimes those scenes are. Third, I do feel like male sexual assault scenes are not common, and they’re often written in a way that feels like an attack against women, but assaults on men happen, too, and I felt like maybe there was some value in centering that fact. Fourth, you know, thematically and metaphorically there’s something to be said about what happens there, about how Matthew is used, about how his faith is used, about who Ozark is and what he represents and, ultimately, about the dynamics of power and the dangerous crossroads of white supremacy and vicious masculinity.

What was your research process like, and how long did It take?

A lot of it was a kind of rolling research — I was reading about this stuff already because I was fascinated in it. A lot of it was just reading books and asking questions, which is admittedly super-boring sounding, but BOOKS and QUESTIONS are kind of the best weapons in a writer’s arsenal. But I did take a road trip, too, to get a flavor for some of the places and routes they’d be traveling.

Keeping in mind Justin Cronin also had a bat related virus in his books, I have to ask, wtf is going on with bats?!

Bats are wonderful, necessary creatures that get a bad rap — technically, and again, spoilers here, but what’s in Wanderers is not actually a bat virus but actually something modeled off of white-nose syndrome, a fungus that affects and kills bats, but that also has cousins that kill snakes and frogs and such. You think we’re not ready for a virus? Hahaha, you better hope we don’t meet a fungus we can’t beat. Because we really don’t know how to beat them easily. Anyway. Bats are great, they’re not cauldrons of disease or anything, but our intersection with them (and their intersection with other animals that we eat) is the problem. Leave them alone and we should be good. Definitely don’t kill them. Let bats be bats.

How did you make your decisions about which societal institutions would break down first and which would keep going for a while? Like, at one point people can’t get ambulances but the late-night talk shows are still on the air. How did you plan that out?

It’s mostly like… creepy apocalyptic thinking. It’s extrapolating what’s already true. Healthcare is already hard to access; ambulances aren’t guaranteed, hospitals aren’t either, hell you might not even have a fire company nearby. But you’ll still see late-night TV. A not-small part of this country already experiences something semi-apocalyptic every day — a kind of poverty and illness that I don’t think we really have a grasp of, as yet. But life goes on just the same, and sometimes in weird, eerie-seeming disproportionate ways. We think the apocalypse ends everything all at once, but it really doesn’t, and won’t. It would more likely be slow and erratic and strange.

As hopefully we will not find out any time soon!

Be good. Stay safe. And wash your damn hands.

* * *

WANDERERS: A Novel, out now.

A decadent rock star. A deeply religious radio host. A disgraced scientist. And a teenage girl who may be the world’s last hope. An astonishing tapestry of humanity that Harlan Coben calls “a suspenseful, twisty, satisfying, surprising, thought-provoking epic.”

A sleepwalking phenomenon awakens terror and violence in America. The real danger may not be the epidemic, but the fear of it. With society collapsing—and an ultraviolent militia threatening to exterminate them—the fate of the sleepwalkers and the shepherds who guide them depends on unraveling the mystery behind the epidemic. The terrifying secret will either tear the nation apart—or bring the survivors together to remake a shattered world.

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