Bestselling author Chuck Wendig is prolific not only in a variety of formats—from comics to film to novels—but also for a variety of age ranges and genres. His latest novel, a debut middle grade, titled Dust & Grim, follows Molly, a 13-year-old orphan, as she struggles with getting to know her older brother and finding a place to belong in the mortuary business—one focused on honoring the funeral traditions of non-human cultures—that is her mother’s legacy, now run by her brother and a partner, Vivian. Wendig spoke with PW about what it was like to write for a younger audience, as well as the challenges presented by the pandemic.
You’ve written a multitude of books in different age ranges, but this is your first middle grade. What made you decide to write for a younger audience?
I have a son, which is an impetus for a lot of people. As he was coming into this middle-grade age range, he would occasionally pick up some of my adult books. He picked up my first novel Blackbirds and he’s like, “Oh, this looks cool,” while looking at the cover. “When can I read this?” I’m like, “When you're about 37.” I thought I should write some things that are suitable to his age range. For the last couple of years, we’ve been reading a lot of middle grade novels, so I felt it was time to do that. I had a story to tell in that space. So hopefully he’s excited to read it—it’s the first time, I think, he’s seeing a book of mine before it comes out.
Has he read Dust & Grim yet?
No, he hasn’t. He’s waiting for the final copies because the editions I have don’t have all of the wonderful Jensine Eckwall art. So, he wants it when all the art is complete. I was like, “Fair enough. I totally support that.” The art improves the book a thousand-fold.
Given your experience writing for such a wide variety of age ranges, what was writing a middle grade like?
Not that different. It sounds strange, but I am always interested in, whether we’re talking genre to genre or format to format or age range to age range, that stories have common bones. Just like a human and a dolphin look very different on the outside, but if you actually examine their skeletons, there’s a lot of bones that are in common. The shape of the skeleton is different, but we all have this skeletal structure to us. For me, it’s tapping into that skeletal structure and then just making sure that it reads well for kids. I also don’t think that means talking down to them—it means a certain level of adjusting your language, but I think kids can grapple with all kinds of weighty, fun issues, just like adults can. With my son, not only do we read a lot of middle grade, but we watch a lot of cartoons, and kids’ cartoons these days are not afraid of grappling with some of the big, squirrely ideas. We’re watching Craig of the Creek and it’s dealing with growing up and imagination and how kids in social structures work. It’s pretty fascinating stuff. I just tap into all of that.
Did you have many challenges when working with that skeleton?
Length is the challenge. My last few books have been huge: Wanderers was I think 280,000 words, and you cannot write a 280,000-word middle grade. No one is going to buy that book. How do I keep this slim, to a 60,000-word book? Then when I turned it into a 60,000-word book, my editor [Deirdre Jones] actually wanted it to be a little longer.
Dust & Grim features protagonists who are mature for their age dealing with what we consider more adult situations like grief, emancipation, running a business. How did the characters develop, especially in those situations? Where did they come from?
They come from that idea of found family and grappling with who you are in this world. When I grew up, my friends and I had a fair amount of aspirations to certain things and to grow up a certain way. I thought it was interesting to make kids have to deal with that early, as opposed to having that vision of what you’re going to be in adulthood and then trying to get there now and be that person now. I remember being a kid and wanting to do art and write and being like, well, why isn’t the thing I’m doing right now as good as the stuff I’m reading and seeing? Of course, obviously because you don’t sit in front of a piano and just play a concerto, you have to actually learn how to do it. The kid brain is not always good at drawing that connection and building those bridges. I thought it was fun to throw kids into those situations. Plus, a lot of the middle grade story modes are about that bridge between childhood to adulthood and navigating it, walking across it, having one foot in both worlds, seeing who you were and what you will become.
Molly is written as an independent single-minded and imaginative young woman, while Dustin is much more grounded and mature. What were your inspirations for the two of them?
I really like the “order in chaos” dichotomy. When you get to write those two different types of characters, they play off each other really well. It just keeps it interesting and fun. When you do that, you create opportunities for yourself to be both funny and engaging in the interplay between people who don’t even know each other to start. Having that kind of back and forth between these characters who are learning to meet each other, to see how one sort of represents order and one represents chaos, then also how they switch places a little bit as the book goes on, is a fun thing to do. For me, writing characters is often about fun first. Are they fun to write and fun to read? That, I think, gets you a good half of the way there. [Dustin] is sort of that pastiche of a way-too-tucked-in character, but I didn’t want him to be cliched, so buttoned up, that he didn’t have things that were his own, like a colorful side to his personality. I wanted him to be that type of character who manages this monstrous mortuary, but at the same time, has bigger dreams. But how do you keep moving beyond the fence that you build for yourself at the beginning?
It was Dustin who brought up the idea of the mortuary being responsible for helping continue the cultures and traditions and rituals of death. Where did that come from?
It’s an act of world building to say “what is the purpose of this.” Death, bereavement and all the services that go around that, are usually given into the individual culture—the things we're going to say about that person, even down to the obituary, or how they want to be processed in life to death. I think, with monsters, it just kind of extrapolates that open in a really weird, fun way. And it gets to reflect that real-world side of grief and death and dying in a playful, interesting, exciting way.
Two of the book’s more prominent themes are the quest for found family and interactions with diverse populations and cultures. What do you hope your readers take away from this?
It sounds strange, but I try not to hope they take anything specific away from it. I don’t want to write a book that’s in any way preachy, or that is lesson- or lecture-driven. I really want them to have a book that gives them a fun adventure and a spooky good time. If that also translates to some other greater meaning, whether they see themselves in the characters or whether they find something to think about in how we talk about death and dying and what we think about when we think about quote unquote monsters or labeling something a monster, then that’s good by me. But I don’t ever want to tell them what they should get out of it. The storyteller’s job is to find that empathic bridge between both the writer and the characters and then, by proxy, the readers and the characters.
What is your writing routine like? And did the pandemic change it?
Yeah, the pandemic blew it out of the water. Once upon a time I was a butt-in-chair, 2,000 words a day guy. It wasn’'t even the pandemic that really changed it. It was my novel, Wanderers. I really didn’'t write that in the same way that I wrote every other book - —it was much more erratic. I would write every day, but what I would accomplish could be anywhere from 250 words to 3000 words a day;, it was just an up and down process. Dust & Grim was a little pokier and slower. It’'s not a dense, chewy book, but because it'’s only a 60-–70,000-word novel, I don'’t have to go on for pages about the Spanish flu or how viruses work. But the pandemic definitely, after that fact, changed how I write and it’'s been definitely way more erratic. The nice thing is, when I was working on Dust & Grim, I only edited it during the pandemic. The pandemic was very good for my editing brain, not as great for my writing brain. My writing brain has caught back up and is churning and burning again. But editing was a really useful task for me during a lockdown, in the squirrely nature of this time of history.
Dust & Grim by Chuck Wendig, illus. by Jensine Eckwall. Little, Brown, $16.99 Oct. 19 ISBN 978-0-316-70623-0