Monday, September 24, 2012

Interview: Hugh Howey

I am finding that my favorite part of blogging is interviews. I like to know about the people who create the stories that occupy so much of my head space. Thus far I have found the authors I have corresponded with to be intelligent, articulate, engaging, and generally the kind of people that I would gladly share a drink or two with while discussing any and every thing that came to mind. It took a little bit of nerve to get started asking for interviews, but almost every author I've asked has been gracious with their time and generally very encouraging to work with. Hugh Howey is no exception.

I asked Hugh if he would be interested in doing an interview just a few days ago, and got an almost immediate affirmative. I spent a few hours doing research and sent the questions out fairly late in the evening. I expected it to take at least a week for him to get back to me with his responses. He's a busy guy after all and it would give me time to promote the interview a bit. I was shocked to wake up the next day to find his answers waiting in my inbox. And let me tell you, he didn't phone it in at all. His generosity and willingness to interact with fans is likely a large portion of his success, and I am no longer at all surprised that my review of Wool is still the most viewed post in the blog's history. I hope you enjoy your time getting to know Hugh as much as I did.

52 Reviews: First of all, I'd like to thank you for taking the time to do this interview. I have to admit, before I stumbled upon Wool via recommendation of Amazon, I'd never heard of your work but was amazed by the high-quality of your writing, especially in comparison to the few self-published titles that I'd purchased previously. Do you think that there is a larger need to write well in order to succeed in comparison to those writers who follow the more traditional route of agents and publishing houses?

Hugh Howey: We live in the most literate age in the history of mankind. I know that seems hard to believe, but several studies have borne this out, including one from Stanford that set out to prove the opposite. But what researchers are finding is that we are reading and writing at an unprecedented clip. What we’re reading, of course, is changing. Now it’s Facebook posts, Tweets, text messages, blogs, and websites. We read all day long. And because we’re being so prolific, my advice to everyone is to learn to do it well. If we’re doing it more than anyone ever has before, let’s try and be good at it.

Authors bear a heavier burden in that they are expected to write perfectly. This requires a team. Almost no one can write a book by their lonesome. I recommend a lot of eyeballs before you publish. Get as much feedback as you can from as many people as possible. Trade manuscripts with other writers. Beg for beta readers. Do favors for family members. And when you think the book is ready, assume it isn’t and go over it two more times.

52 Reviews: Moving on to Wool. When it comes to genre-fiction, I tend to avoid science fiction, especially “hard sci-fi” largely due to an absolute disinterest in the particulars of how and why things work. With that said, I loved that Wool was so character driven and that the science-fiction elements seemed far less important to the story than the inner-workings of the characters and the gradual revealing of information. Was this a conscious decision to pare down the trappings of genre and tell a story that could connect to readers beyond those typically found within it?

Hugh Howey: Absolutely. Very few people care about how the gizmos work. Literary fiction is full of technology, but its operation goes unexplored. Which is the right way to go about things. We don’t say: “Susan pulled out her interpersonal wireless communication device and pressed the shatterproof screen. Haptic feedback pulsed through her fingertips as she dialed the man’s number. A signal leapt from the machine’s tiny and invisible internal antenna and raced at the speed of light to the nearest communications tower. From there, the signal zoomed heavenward toward blinking satellites…”

I imagine there are some people who would enjoy this style, but not me. I want to get to the part where Susan tells the stranger that she’s pregnant, and it’s his child. Science fiction is an excellent outlet for exploring the human condition by altering our environment, by stressing certain facets of our nature and exaggerating them for effect. I enjoy creating worlds, but only to give my characters room to roam.

52 Reviews: Speaking of character driven story telling, I like to ask every author I interview whether or not they find their characters taking over the story and moving it in unexpected directions. Did any of the characters in Wool take on a life of their own, or were you in complete control of the story's direction at all times?

Hugh Howey: I always feel a mixture of both. I lay out the path the characters will take, but the things they say and do along that path are completely up to them. It just happens. They chatter and make decisions that I don’t see coming.

In Wool, the biggest surprise was Lukas. He wasn’t even supposed to be there at first! As I went through the first draft of the third part of Wool, I realized something was missing, something I would need for the next two books. It’s like he was screaming at me for inclusion.

52 Reviews: One of my favorite things about Wool is that, unlike most science-fiction tales, your characters cannot rely on cutting edge technology or even in most cases weapons that are common in this day and age. They face the harrowing circumstances of their dystopian existence with nothing more than the strength of their character. Given that lack of 'flashy' weapons and technological marvels, how did you go about infusing a sense of wonder in a genre that so often hangs its proverbial hat on the things we build far more than the things that build us?

Hugh Howey: Oh, I think this is the Robinson Crusoe and Swiss Family Robinson allure. Part of the magic of post apocalyptic fiction is the characters patching things together, making do, playing MacGyver. There’s this whole steampunk mythology being formed right now, and I think it’s motivated by our love of craft -- of one-offs and home-built machinery -- and also by our wariness of all the new and shiny gadgets we’re forming a symbiotic relationship with.

The sense of wonder in Wool comes from the dire setting, the claustrophobia of living underground, all the secrets, intrigues, and lies. Around every corner, there’s a new discovery. And as we build toward the third and final act of the series, we’ll learn that there’s plenty of “hard” science fiction at the core of the story, but I believe it’s better told if we don’t bog ourselves down with it but rather peel the layers back like an onion.

52 Reviews: What made you choose to publish Wool as a serial? Was this simply a matter of a tale growing in the telling, or was the full plot something you had worked out in your head prior to starting Sheriff Holston's walk to the holding cell?

Hugh Howey: I wrote the first book as a standalone. It wasn’t until the reviews began pouring in, asking for more, that I outlined the rest of the story. I kept the entries short at first because that’s what seemed to work for the first book. I later combined them into the Omnibus to save readers time and money. It was a very organic process. There was no master plan behind any of it.

52 Reviews: The second chapter of Wool was my favorite, largely due to the subtle love story between Mayor Jahns and Deputy Marnes. I once read that all good fiction needs to engage all aspects of the human experience and love is certainly a large part of that. Sadly, many genre authors seem to have trouble writing romance authentically. What methods have you discovered for adding believability to these very important sequences?

Hugh Howey: I’m glad you enjoyed the second entry so much. It’s one of my favorites as well. I think the genre readers find this one to be the slowest. Non-genre readers are really pulled in by the story. Part of the secret is that I don’t read in the genres that I write in. I mostly read non-fiction, histories, biographies, science, and psychology. When I do read fiction, it’s usually literary fiction. I’m interested in writing about people, so that’s what I study.

My ideas on romance are informed by my life experiences. I’ve been a sap for most of my life. I filled notebooks full of poetry when I was younger and cried a lot. Later, I had a lot of fiery romances, broke some hearts, had mine shattered over and over. More recently, I’ve enjoyed ten years of domestic bliss with my wife. Each of these phases taught me something about the power of emotions and relationships. I believe these feelings are universal, and so I write about them assuming my readers will have some response.
52 Reviews: Dystopian settings are all the rage lately, but I found Wool infinitely more satisfying than many other recent entries into the genre. Were there classic dystopian novels that influenced your writing?

Hugh Howey: I haven’t read a lot of dystopian novels, to be honest. I think Brave New World and 1984 influenced the way I discuss class struggles and crowd control. I’ve had many readers point out the similarity of setting to the Fallout videogames, though this connection was a complete surprise to me when I first heard about it. When I’m writing, I don’t think about what I’ve seen and done that might be influencing the genesis of a story. I just dive into a world and describe what’s going on from the character’s perspective.

52 Reviews: During my research, I discovered that you have more stories coming out in the Wool setting. Could you tell us a little about the future of Jules, and Lukas and the rest of the people living in the Silo?

Hugh Howey: We won’t get to the characters from the Omnibus until the third act. If you take the Wool stories as a single book, it’s the first in a trilogy. The second act is a series of prequels that tell how the world got this way. The first part of this prequel is already out. It’s called First Shift, and in many ways I think it’s an even more riveting story than Wool. After two more “Shift” books, we’ll bring all the characters together for the finale: The Silo Wars.

52 Reviews: Recently, I read an article you did about the importance of story telling in creating popular fiction in which you said “Plot is king and prose is pawn.” I loved the article and certainly recommend it to any aspiring writer, but could you talk a little more about this topic as it relates to your own writing specifically?

Hugh Howey: I think as authors that we put too much stress on writing and not enough on storytelling. A great story can suffer poor writing while the most perfect prose does nothing if it isn’t telling us something interesting. So I advise aspiring authors to spend more time dreaming up incredible plots and less time stressing about grammar. Grammar is what you clean up in the process I described up above, the reason you get extra eyeballs on a story to point out awkward phrases and mistakes.

There have been some amazing success stories coming from strange places lately. Twilight fan fiction has dominated the bestseller lists. A series of posts on Reddit about how a modern military platoon would fare against a Roman legion (I think it was) got picked up by a Hollywood studio. Readers, publishers, and filmmakers are desperate for great stories. There are far fewer of those out there than we realize. What’s rare to find these days are people with great story ideas who also have the time and inclination to commit them to paper. And so, if you do have that energy to write to completion, I urge you to dream up a thousand stories and pick the very best. Don’t just write because you’re able to. Write because you have some plot that compels you to write.

52 Reviews: Take a moment to play P.T. Barnum and pitch some of your other work that readers may not have heard about. Which of your other projects is your favorite and why?

Hugh Howey: I have two other short stories that I really enjoyed writing, both of which cost a mere dollar. One is called The Plagiarist. It’s about a guy whose side job entails entering virtual worlds to steal the artwork its digital denizens create. They don’t know they’re not real. Things go sideways when he falls in love with a girl in this world. He has a physical relationship with this digital person while back in the real world he has an online relationship with a woman he’s never met in person.

The other short is a new Kindle Single called The Walk up Nameless Ridge. It’s a mountaineering expedition up the tallest peak of an alien world. For me, it was a chance to explore the fear that comes from success, the danger of losing sight of who we are as we struggle to achieve great things. It’s one of my most powerful stories, I believe. One that benefits from multiple readings.

52 Reviews: While talking about your experiences as a self-publishing phenomenon could easily make up an entire interview by themselves, could you sum up your thoughts on what it takes to be successful in the virtual slush pile of self-published authors? In your opinion, what does it take to duplicate even a small measure of your astounding success?

Hugh Howey: I don’t have a magic recipe for what’s happened with me as it’s not something I can even reproduce with all of my works. There’s a lot of luck involved, and I have no problem admitting that. But there are three things I can glean from what’s happened that I think played a part in my success.

First, write a lot. I had eight or nine books available before one took off. Included in this advice is the need to write a wide variety of stories across several genres. You don’t know what you’ll do best or what readers will want the most. Don’t assume that by writing the same story over and over you’ll eventually have a different level of success. Write long and short works. Write lyrical and action-packed works. Write whatever sustains your interest.

Secondly, give your works away. We are competing with all kinds of “free” entertainment. People can surf Facebook all day, laughing and crying at the variety of posts and comments. They can watch TV. They can listen to free music on Pandora. TV and internet aren’t quite “free,” but since practically everyone owns them, their content might as well be. That means we need to compete by offering fascinating stories at a similar price. Post short stories on a website and link to them. Price your works as low as you can until you develop a readership.

Finally, Write because you love it, because you’re passionate about it, not because you want fame and fortune. If you view it as a hobby rather than as a potential escape from a dreary job, you can’t lose. Most everyone has a hobby. Very few of these hobbies produce something you can make available to the entire world, forever. That’s what writing does. You set something down, and you can offer it to the entire world, and it will never go away. The best part is that it’s completely free, this hobby. It’s not like woodworking or fishing or knitting where there’s a ton of upfront costs. But it is like these hobbies in that the hours you pour in need to be hours you enjoy. The sweater you just knit will never be worth enough to pay back the cost of materials and the hours of work. That fish you caught cost you $200 in fuel for your boat. Writing is the same way. You might put a thousand hours into a novel that ten people read and enjoy. If you’re like me, those ten happy readers are payment enough. If you’re not like me, you may be sorely disappointed.

52 Reviews: And lastly, just because the fan-boy in me has to ask. Since Wool has been option for the big screen, who would your dream casting choices be?

Hugh Howey: I lean two different ways with this. There’s my dream cast of known names, like Natalie Portman as Jules, Michael Sera as Lukas, Robin Williams as Walker, and Sam Elliot as Marnes. But I’d honestly rather seen complete unknowns cast into these roles. I find it distracting when super famous people are playing complete strangers. And it would fit in with the entire indie spirit of the process to give someone else a shot to make it big, to maybe get as damn lucky as I have.


  1. Very good interview, both questions and responses. I'm afraid I'd be a bad interviewer, but you seem to have it down. Well-done. I don't get a chance to read much these days, but I'd like to check this guy's work out.

    1. Thanks Robert. I really enjoy interviews, probably a bit more than the actual reviews. It's nice to see a writer who's skills I've always admired thinks I've got a knack for it.

      Wool would definitely be worth your time. It's written much more like literary fiction than sci-fi and I feel fairly confident that it would definitely by right up your alley. The first of the serials is free on Amazon.

  2. Matt, great interview with a great author. I'm glad you enjoy the interview process. Hugh Howey's personal story, and the story of Wool as well, are an inspiration to those of us writing indie fiction in relative obscurity. Nice job bringing out the details with good questions!

    1. Robin, Thanks for reading and taking the time to comment. Hugh is a class act and all around nice guy it seems. I have another interview coming soon. This go round I'll be interviewing Campbell Award nominee, Stina Leicht. Good stuff, I promise.

      Keep the faith, and remember if the story is great then great things will happen.