Hugh Howey is an award-winning and best-selling author. His adventurous life and unbounded imagination have provided readers with copious amounts of original and consuming material. We recently had a conversation with the well-loved author.
IReaderReview: What are five questions that interviewers never ask, but you wish they would. What would your answers be?
Hugh Howey: A chance to interview myself! Should I lob up softballs or be masochistic and cruel? I think the latter!
1: What is your greatest writing-related fear?
I watched my grandfather, after whom I was named, suffer and succumb to Alzheimer’s. My greatest fear is losing not only myself, but the awareness that this loss is taking place.
2: What would be your greatest triumph as a writer?
Winning a Hugo Award. It’s given out by a combination of peers and fans, and when I dream of the impossible, this is what I dream of. And I’m embarrassed to admit it. Damn, this is the most difficult interview I’ve ever participated in. Do I have to go on?
Yes. Question 3: How are you dealing with expectations now that you have a solid readership?
Not very well, I don’t think. My response to the adulation WOOL has garnered has been to write a disgusting zombie novel that nobody in their right mind should enjoy. It’s almost like I got on this ride that I’ve always dreamed about, and now I’m hurtling myself through the door at top speed. With the release date just two weeks away, I’m bracing for impact.
4: Is Hugh Howey your real name? And why would anyone do that to their child?
Yes. And my middle name is Crocker. I try not to blame my parents, which means the therapy has been successful. My first and middle name came from my mother’s side. My last name, of course, came from my father. More thought could have gone into this on their first date. More thought should have gone into this.
Then again, I introduced myself to a lady once and she beamed and told me I should be a writer with a name like that. This was before WOOL took off, so she didn’t recognize it. I don’t think she believed me when I told her I was trying to do just that.
5: How hard is it to get up every single day and write?
It’s not hard, it’s nearly impossible. I’ve been doing it for over three years, and I often wonder what’s wrong with me that I can stomach such a grind. Granted, this is why someone of my limited skill set is able to make a living writing: most people with true talent have something better to do with their time.
IRR: You just finished writing I, Zombie, which will be released August 15. Can you share a bit about the story with us?
Hugh: It’s a gruesome story. Not for the faint of heart. In I, ZOMBIE, the main characters are the zombies. They retain all of their memories and feelings but have no control over their actions. And I’m not sure this is too much of a stretch, to be honest. Each chapter weaves in a thread of the human condition and reveals the reason I believe zombies have long been popular and will continue to enthrall us: we see ourselves in them. I’m recommending people to skip this book. It’s really bad.
IRR: How do you feel about the Wool series’ almost cult-like following?
Hugh: I love it! This is what you dream about as a writer. Complete strangers are discussing characters and plot points that used to exist solely within my skull. That just floors me. And the fans are so enthusiastic. Interacting with them on a daily basis keeps me pumped up and motivated.
IRR: With several novels, novellas, and short stories under your belt, you are the definition of a prolific author. What would you attribute to your consistent creativity?
Hugh: I’m very comfortable staring at a blank page. I think the most important part of the writing process is all that takes place when your fingers are perfectly still. I’ve spoken with struggling writers about what they are having troubles with, and the number one problem is the speed with which they give up writing and go distract themselves with something else. The key is to set aside hours that are for nothing but writing. And if you don’t get any writing done, that’s okay, but you’re not allowed to do anything else. If you stick to this every day of the week, even if it’s for only an hour at a time, you’ll write a novel or two a year, guaranteed.
IRR: Wool has flown up the charts and stayed there since fall of last year. How did you achieve such impressive success?
Hugh: I wish I knew! If I had that secret, every one of my books would be doing so well. Since WOOL was the one story I did nothing to promote, I have to give part of the credit to the setting and characters, both of which captivated me as much as they have the readers. It made the works easy to write and fun to go back to and revise over and over. The rest of the credit has to go to the fans who have been incredibly vocal and have worked tirelessly to infect others. WOOL took off due to word of mouth, and that’s what has been sustaining it ever since.
IRR: Please share your feelings regarding Wool being optioned for a film.
Hugh: I’m over the moon. You couldn’t ask for a better duo to snag your film rights than Steve Zaillian and Ridley Scott. They are both at the top of the heap. My other emotion is relief. The entire process was exhausting, as every day entailed hour-long conference calls with one studio or another and dozens of e-mails between interested parties, agents, and myself. I developed great bonds with several of these parties, which made the final decision incredibly stressful. When it was over, I was extremely happy with the deal, but sad for those whom I disappointed. I was also glad I could get back to concentrating on writing.
IRR: With Ridley Scott behind the wheel, do you feel that your novel is in safe hands in Hollywood?
Hugh: Allstate doesn’t have hands like this. And my take on Hollywood, as an author, is more upbeat than many might suspect. I spent a few years in a bookstore watching bad films sell as many books as good films. The important thing to remember is that the book doesn’t change. It’s still there. I’m just dying to see anything I made up realized on the silver screen. (I got a taste of this thrill recently with the book trailer from Random House UK).
IRR: Can you share any insight on when the film might be released?
Hugh: Never, for all I know. Thousands of books are optioned for every one that becomes a film. I think WOOL’s chances are better than that based on the interest level and the parties involved, but there’s no guarantee. Look at ENDER’S GAME, one of the bestselling works of all-time. It’s been optioned for twenty years and still no film. What I have heard is to be patient. Even if this was put together as fast as possible, it would be three years before it opened. We’d have to find some way of reminding everyone what this WOOL nonsense was all about, way back in 2012.
IRR: If you aren’t opposed to sharing, will you be receiving net points, gross points, or a lump sum?
Hugh: There’s a lump sum for the option and another lump sum if it goes into production. After that, it’s gross points. I think that’s vague enough to get away with, since I’m not listing numbers.
IRR: Will you be involved in the film-making process at all? If so, how?
Hugh: Minimally, I hope. There’s been talk of flying out and sitting down to discuss the vision of the film, but these are the best of the best we’re talking about. I’d be ecstatic if Steve wrote the screenplay without consulting me on anything and if Ridley shot it however he liked. This is their area of expertise. I’d probably muck it all up. (Okay, having said that, I do have two shots I’d love to see: In the beginning, I’d want the children playing and Holston climbing the steps, some tight shots on the wear visible on both man and metal, squeals of laughter, and then a bright ball bouncing down the steps, through the railing, and into the abyss. That’s one shot. The other would be this monstrous one-take, a camera pushing down fifty or more levels to catch up with Jahns’s and Marnes’s descent and picking up the various action and dialogue on all these floors as it zipped past. See? These guys would shoot me if I was allowed to meddle!)
IRR: What advice would you offer to other authors who get approached by film executives?
Hugh: Get an agent, one who has read and believes in your work. And have a good lawyer besides. You need an entire team around you, because the people working to get your rights will have a team of their own. That doesn’t mean it has to be adversarial, but you’ll want some support.
IRR: You are very interactive with your fans. What do you think is the best way to connect? Why?
Hugh: Facebook has become the best tool for keeping up with my fans. Twitter and my website supplement this effort, but there’s nothing like Facebook. Why? Because that’s where my fans are. That’s where everyone is. When I share something with 1,600 friends, quite a few of them share to their friends, and suddenly you get a sense of where the word “viral” came from. I’ve seen all this advice to work with dozens of facets of your platform, but if all the people you want to reach are hanging out in one room, you might want to barge in with a funny hat on and do a dance. Maybe not literally, though. That would be embarrassing.
IRR: With all the writing you’ve done, you’ve seen a fair amount of the industry. What has your publishing experience been like?
Hugh: A smorgasbord. In just over three years, I think I’ve sampled every publishing avenue other than the paid-for variety (some call these scams or vanity presses. I think that’s harsh). My first experience was with NorLightsPress, a small house built on a traditional model. I then went on to self-publishing, which I now believe is the best way for writers of all skill levels to begin their careers. Finally, I’ve been working with Random House in the UK on a major hardback release, so I’ve been able to see how that model operates. My agent and I also went on a tour of most of the major publishers in New York as they made pitches for the rights to WOOL. This provided a great view of their internal machinations and how the businesses are structured, how they approach a work, etc. Again, it’s only been a little over three years, but the variety and quality of experiences has been astounding. On top of that, I’ve spent 30 years voraciously consuming books and 5 years selling them. I now feel I know enough to say, with all confidence and sincerity, that I have no f*cking clue what’s going on around here. I just make it up as I go.
IRR: How do you feel about the publishing industry today and in the future?
Hugh: These are special times. Not since the printing press has writing and publishing been through such exciting turmoil. Readers and authors have it better today than quite possibly any time in human history. And I think it’s only going to get better. I believe publishers will soon be adding more authors to their stables with digital-only deals that consume less up-front costs while allowing winners to emerge according to the taste of readers. Those who thrive will get rushed into print. Publishing will be less of a gamble; there will be reduced waste, fewer returns, and a smarter allocation of resources. Also: all writers are going to feel the pressure to write more. Indies are forcing that issue (as well as prolific authors who began this trend much to the chagrin and against the best advice of their publishers. Look at the creation of J.D. Robb and the flak James Patterson takes, both incredibly hardworking and talented storytellers who had to fight for their right to produce more product!)
And this is a fact, not a prediction: The true winner in all of this will be the reader. I have no doubt. Greater variety, more ways to read, lower prices, instant delivery, interaction with and access to their favorite authors. Readers have much to rejoice.
IRR: Do you foresee a future in self-publishing?
Hugh: For myself? It’s the only future I foresee. If I gave my agent I, ZOMBIE to shop around, she could land me a deal. With WOOL as hot as it is right now and the demand from fans so great for this book, it would be an easy sell to some crazy house (probably the one that made an offer without reading it first).
However, doing this would mean readers had to wait a year before they got their hands on the book. It would mean over a year before I made a penny. With self-publishing, the book will be read and enjoyed in two weeks. I’ll get paid in another two months. That means I can keep writing for a living.
There are so many advantages to self-publishing right now over the traditional routes that I never gave even a sliver of a thought to shopping this around. There’s nothing to be gained. Which is a great indicator that change is afoot and that publishers will need to modify their contracts, their payment schedules, their royalty rates, and the licensing terms of their contracts. All of my translation deals overseas have a termination date in the contract. I get all the rights back after 5 or 7 years. This is the future for US publishing. It has to be.
IRR: Of all of your work, what are your five favorite pieces?
Hugh: WOOL 4 is my favorite. I love the incorporation of the lines from Romeo and Juliet. There are two or three layers of meaning draped over every single paragraph of that book. It’s an English teacher’s dream and an English student’s nightmare: Yes, Billy, the author meant to convey that through metaphor, I’m not making it up.
HALF WAY HOME. I took a lot of risks with this book. It was my first NaNoWriMo; I chose to write a gay protagonist without allowing the story to be about his sexuality and instead having it incidental to the main plot; and it was my first departure from a successful and well-received series, which taught me that I could branch out.
MOLLY FYDE AND THE PARSONA RESCUE. My first book. I’ll never forget opening that box and holding a proof copy of something I’d written. The plotting for this book still amazes me. It fits together like a watch while always zigging when you expect it to zag. And I love the characters. They are real to me at this point.
FIRST SHIFT: I took even more risks with this one than I did with HALF WAY HOME. The natural move would have been to give readers what they wanted, the next scene after WOOL 5. But I have this much larger vision of a story I want to tell, and FIRST SHIFT allowed me to launch that even though the success of WOOL had me under all kinds of pressure to just keep planting numbers after my books, WOOL 18, WOOL 19, etc.
THE PLAGIARIST: This little story is a quiet burn, but everyone who reads it seems to love it. I think it’s my most prescient of pieces. We will one day loot our digital creations for their art. It will happen in my lifetime. This story also taught me that short works can be the most powerful (and the most successful).
IRR: Thank you so much for your time.
Hugh: Thank you! It was my pleasure!