Hugh Howey Interview: metaphors, truth and eating popcorn


BSFA – Wool has launched in print to a great reception – can you explain what it feels like to have your work do so well?

HH: It’s been nothing but exciting. I used to be a bookseller for years so I know how difficult it is, how slim the odds are and how freakishly lucky I am that it really makes me appreciative of it. But, it’s been such an unusual route. It’s not like I planned this or set out to achieve this so I’m kind of stumbling through it so a lot of times I feel like it isn’t even in my control. I’m like an amazed spectator.

For those who don’t know, can you tell us how it all came about?

HH: The series started out as a 50 page short story and it was something I’d had in mind for a longer novel but I was so caught up in my other writing that I eventually felt that I just had to get this idea I had for the Wool series down. I published it and basically forgot about it; I didn’t think anything would come of it and within several months it was outselling everything else I’d ever written. I started getting emails and reviews asking for more so I dropped everything else I was doing and started on part two. I wrote the rest of the series over this three month period of just living in this world and doing nothing else.

Can you explain a bit about the series and what the inspiration was behind it?

HH: It’s difficult to describe the story without spoiling it as every plot turn is a spoiler. The story is based on the idea that these people live underground and they don’t have any memory of anywhere else other than legends of people living above ground. The worst thing you can do in this society is express an interest in going outside. They have one view of the outside world which are these wall screens on the top level. In my mind it was like staring at twenty-four hour news and seeing how bad it is out there. So I asked what does it do to our perception of the world and who are the people who are brave enough to challenge that and go out there and see it for themselves. So the story of Wool is about the people who are brave enough to challenge the ideas of their dystopian world and the unfair hierarchy that has been placed upon everybody.

Did you have the whole series plotted out or did the success of the first e-book and the demand for more spur you on?

HH: The story I had in my head was written in that first part of Wool but as a much larger novel with Allison alive and involved. In order to write it as a short story I had to truncate it down and tell it in flash backs and it worked really well that way. It gave it a much tighter prose and allowed the reader to finish it and get to the end really quickly. Everything else after that I had to plot out. After the success of the first part I had to sit down and think ‘what is the rest of the story?’ and make it up from there. And, it was a challenge, as you know I didn’t have a lot of characters left alive.

You’re not afraid to kill off major characters either – was that done on purpose or part of the working out process that came with the demand for more?

HH:  It can be difficult for a writer to kill off characters but I’ve seen what happens as a reader when so many new players are introduced – you end up with a hundred characters and you can’t do any of them justice. The best way to keep a plot focused is to wrap up some story-lines as you introduce new ones. But, to be honest, it happened as an accident. After the first part was finished I wasn’t planning on writing anything else and with the second book I needed a transition to my main actor so I used another character to do that and then got her out of the way. The effect was to start the third book so the reader was sure that the main character was dying. It was really an opportunity to make the reader uncomfortable and it seems to work as I get a lot of hate-mail from people in the middle of book three and then they email an apology once they read book four. I take it as a huge compliment.

The idea of truth in the series seems to relate to certain aspects of modern society – ie. Wikileaks, the war on terror – were these ideas that fueled your work?

HH: Absolutely. While I was writing this the Arab Spring was in the news and Occupy Wall Street was going on, the economy was crumbling and then the Presidential election was starting. I follow all the current events as well as reading about philosophy and psychology so for me the question of the books was a kind of Hobbesian vesus Rousseau argument: whether or not we’re born noble savages to live free or whether we need a figure, a leviathan, to keep people in check. I don’t think there is a comfortable answer to that. People like to think that if everyone was free we’d treated each other fairly but the reality is you leave it open to a government with a Stalin or a Napoleon and something that is worse than what was there before. It’s not an easy thing to talk about because we like to think the revolutionaries are more benevolent than the people they deposed.

You seem to consider the gray area of truth and power in the books – that it can be both liberating and dangerous, that it can be mistaken for other things and perceived in many different ways – did you set out to write that..?

HH: Yes, deliberately. It is interesting that a lot of people find the weakest character in the book to be a person who doesn’t seem to have a position. But, in my mind there is a leviathan who maintains stability played out on one side and then there is the other main character who represents freedom for the sake of truth, to let everybody know what happens regardless of the outcome. This ‘weak’ character is the one caught in the middle who sees that you need rules and structure. But I wrote this guy as the unsympathetic character who is the most grounded in his position.

You use an interesting metaphor throughout, namely Wool – how did that come about?

HH: It started off as just the two meanings – having the wool pulled over your eyes and the steel wire-wool pads used in the first book – and when you get to the end you see the twist. When I got to the second book I saw a way to weave in more meanings.

How does it feel thinking about the Wool series being made into a film by Ridley Scott?

HH: 21st Century Fox have bought the rights and they recently had us out there and we met with some of the executives at the studios. We’ve got someone writing the screen play now and if that goes well we can start pitching it to get the green light. I love films so it’s crazy to think that my work could get made onto the big screen. I initially argued to be involved in the screenplay even though I didn’t have much of a desire to do that but really I wanted people who knew what they were doing in charge. To be honest, I just want to be able to sit back with a big tub of popcorn and watch the film.

After the success of your e-book – what are your ideas on this form of publishing?

HH: I think this could be the direction of things. Look at the amount of blogs that get made into blogs. With e-books it’s just another way of getting stories out there. I think it’d be helpful for people to re-frame the way they think of e-books as websites. A million websites go up a month – it is one of the greatest freedoms we have to put our voice out there. Most of them will never be seen by anybody but if you fill it with incredible content then word of mouth will see it becoming successful.



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