Alvaro Zinos-Amaro: What’s your favorite ant or insect movie?
Chuck Wendig: Probably Heston’s The Naked Jungle.
A Z-A: By any chance have you watched Saul Bass’ movie Phase IV (1974)? Or read Barry Malzberg’s novelization?
CW: When I was first writing Invasive, I hadn’t seen it — had only heard about it, like an apocryphal tale. But then Paul Tremblay (author of the astonishing Head Full of Ghosts) said, you need to check this out. Only problem, it’s not easy to check out. I won’t say I watched it on YouTube *coughs into hand* but I am saying YouTube contains many delights. Never read the novelization, though.
A Z-A: Many science fiction writers, like Paul McAuley or Greg Bear or Ken Macleod, have written technothrillers or close approximations thereof. Have you read any such technothrillers written by writers primarily known for their non-technothriller work? What are your main thriller influences?
CW: I read a lot of Greg Bear as a kid. Recently, I can’t help but recommend the work of Peter Clines—The Fold is aces all the way down, scary, suspenseful, fun, taut as a choking rope. Obviously Crichton is an influence, but I also like the work of David Morrell.
A Z-A: How did your earlier thriller, Zer0es, come about?
CW: Hacker culture has been around since I was a kid, and in my teen years I ran a BBS (bulletin board system), which was, for those who don’t know, kind of a mini-internet before the internet. And on there I had friends who were hackers and phreakers and such, and the culture fascinated me. And it’s been increasingly more interesting—the hacker culture is often painted with simplistic colors when it comes to pop culture, it’s usually some surly outcast in a hoodie, which isn’t always inappropriate. But hacker culture is wildly diverse. Lots of people doing it for many different reasons, and the lines blur between good guys and bad guys. So, combine my desire to explore that with a kind of… horror writer’s eye toward artificial intelligence, and you have Zer0es.
A Z-A: Early on in Invasive we’re introduced to Hannah’s anxiety: “She grinds her sharp spike of paranoia down to a dull knob. She is always cautioning her parents not to give in to that anxiety. (Let’s be honest, the horse is miles out of the barn on that one.) That is a deep, slick-walled pit. Once you fall into it, it’s very hard to climb back out.” What’s your personal level of paranoia like these days?
CW: Pretty sure it’s time to build a bunker. Or a rocketship.
A Z-A: “She’s young, not even eight, and she’s out at the mailbox (before Mom chopped the mailbox down with an ax), and she pops the lid and reaches in—suddenly her hand tickles all over.” Like Hannah, I have a childhood memory of sticking my hand into a school sandpit one hot afternoon and getting stung by a bunch of ants. Do you have any similarly exciting early memories of ant or insect encounters?
CW: I loved ants as a kid, though no creepy experiences with them. One memory I do have, though, which informed the overall OMG I’M COVERED IN BUGS VIBE was there came a day in the summer when I was young (5-6 years old) and going to the circus that night with my same-age cousin, and we were running around my backyard, chasing each other or whatever. And in that yard was a trailer that had been converted into a house for renters or, later, for my grandmother. And we went to run behind that trailer, and my cousin suddenly veered away, yelling, reversing course. And I was dumb, I just kept running.
She had a very good reason to turn away, though—the air was filled with bumblebees. There was a nest, a hole in the ground, and I stepped right on it. Next thing I knew, I was running back through the yard, covered in them. They were under my shirt, down my pants, everywhere. Stinging me. That night, I had about two dozen stings, and was covered head to toe in calamine lotion. Didn’t get to go to the circus that night, though I recall going the next night. It was funny, after that I really wasn’t that afraid of bugs. I think sometimes exposure to scary stuff either gives you the fear in a big way, or it absolves you of it.
A Z-A: Since Invasive contains at least one X-Files reference (“Is that what she wants to be? Spooky Mulder?”), I have to ask, thoughts on the third-season episode “War of the Coprophages,” assuming you’ve seen it?
CW: The ants hidden in the margins of the print version of Invasive remind me very much of the cockroach that runs across the screen during that episode, which got me every damn time.
A Z-A: “That’s Kit Reed, leader on the Aedes aegypti mosquito project.” I’m guessing this is a reference to the writer Kit Reed–or a complete coincidence? If deliberate, do you have a favorite Kit Reed novel or story?
CW: You know, it wasn’t a reference, but I do love her short stories (never read her novels)—so maybe it bubbled up out of the subconscious, as things do.
A Z-A: There’s a lot of great description of places and local color in this novel, which lends verisimilitude to the action sequences. For example: “It doesn’t help that the trail has a handful of permanent—and illegal—residents. Trail weirdos and wanderers who hit the coast and aim to disappear. Hannah has encountered the same kinds of people at various points of the Appalachian Trail. Some of them are nice enough, castoffs from the world who have exiled themselves. Some of them are creepers, stalkers, maybe worse.” Have you hiked on either trail, or more generally visited some of the places described in Invasive?
CW: I have been to Kauai, sure. I’ve never walked the trail, though—I want to!
A Z-A: I thought the science in this novel was very well handled. You mention the book Journey to the Ants in the Acknowledgments. Any other recommended non-fiction titles that might be of interest to readers who enjoyed Invasive?
CW: Part of the science was thanks nicely to a visit at the Purdue University Bug Barn with Gwen Pearson. And if you like ants or insects, I cannot recommend enough the Twitter feed of Alex Wild (@myrmecos, I believe), who takes the most astonishing macro photos of insects. For books, though, I’d tell anyone to go read Parasite Rex by Carl Zimmer or Ed Yong’s I Contain Multitudes, both of which are not about insects, really, but about parasites and microbes, respectively. Both books are not only fascinating, but they’re engaging—a must for good, fun science non-fiction.
About the Author
Chuck Wendig is the New York Times bestselling author of the Miriam Black thrillers (which begin with Blackbirds) and numerous other works across books, comics, games, and more. A finalist for the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer and the cowriter of the Emmy-nominated digital narrative Collapsus, he is also known for his popular blog, terribleminds.com. He lives in Pennsylvania with his family. Find him on Twitter @ChuckWendig