I was turned on to the Wool series via some random friend-review on goodreads.com a while ago. Wool sat in my queue for a while until I read another random friend-review from somebody I respected far more than the first friend, and I thought that perhaps I should give it a go. I’d just finished reading Cuckoo’s Calling and The Ocean At the End of the Lane so I figured that I was due for something disappointing anyway. I was disappointed, in that I was not disappointed.
Hugh Howey is a self-publishing wunderkind and all-around helluva nice guy. The sheer audacity of self-publishing an e-book—and then having it explode in popularity based upon its own merit—has the rest of the publishing world a little upended. Howey’s business plan was both innovative and Dickensian at the same time. He put out the first chapter/section of his serial for free. So you download that first little nugget for 0 dollars and 0 cents, and in the grand meritocracy, you are instantly hooked and will purchase each additional chapter/section/book. Or, if you’ve read the first free chapter (like me) and you can’t stand the thought of purchasing chapters piecemeal, preferring to devour your dystopian literature whole, you can buy the entire compendium at once, aka: the Omnibus.
Howey’s not just an exciting storyteller, he’s also a marketing genius. He’s taking his fans personally. He’s attending meetups, answering questions, opening boxes of bitchin’ swag, and vlogging it out to his rabid peeps. His latest, greatest marketing idea comes in the form of a thumb drive containing the entire series, packaged to look like a radioactive credit card. Ruling. And also because he’s so nice, he decided to video chat with me all the way from Florida. I can’t remember the interview because my brain froze solid and I forgot my own name. Luckily I recorded it for my own humiliating posterity.
How do the fans and reader feedback play into your books as you’re writing?
All writers get feedback; hardly anyone writes without getting feedback. But the editors and agents are guessing about what they think readers will like, so when you get that feedback, it’s a theory. When you get your feedback from your readers, you’re going to the source. I liken it to playing live music: you get to hear the reaction of a crowd to a song. So you know, it’s really great.
You’ve been super supportive about people writing fan fiction. Do you wake up in the morning and wonder if you’ve broken publishing?
People have already done it! There are other authors out there who have supported fan fiction as well. I live in an era where self-publishing is just so easy; when people approach me about writing fan fiction, my thought is, “absolutely, write it.” I speak to a lot of university classrooms, middle- and high-school kids about how rewarding it can be to write something, be proud of it and make it available. And while you’re at it, self-publish it and charge 99 cents. I know some people think that 99 cents devalues literature, but I disagree. I think throwing a dollar into the case of somebody playing the guitar on the street—or looking at programmers for making Angry Birds or Fruit Ninja—just that dollar is a symbol saying, “I think this is worth something.”
You’re doing a lot of neat stuff with marketing, like putting your books on custom drives. Have you considered an interactive audio app like Zombies, Run?
I can already imagine it… it would somehow involve being on a Stairmaster. Level 32! I haven’t heard of that before, it would be interesting. I can’t even conceive of the ways that people can tell stories in the future.
Soo…Ridley Scott has optioned the rights to the Wool series; any details on the movie yet?
I know the direction they’re thinking of going with the plot, and they’ve written the screenplay. My attitude is that the film will never come out; I’m not going to believe it until somebody tears my ticket in half and I’ve got a mouth full of popcorn. It’s just so easy to get your hopes up—it’s much better to be surprised.
What other post-apocalyptic books do you like?
I really enjoyed The Passage [by Justin Cronin], The Road by Cormac McCarthy. I look at Wool more as dystopian, like Brave New World or 1984. It doesn’t really take place in a wasteland. There’s a wasteland, but people aren’t really scrounging for supplies or being hunted by irradiated monsters. It’s more like a story that’s satirizing society and class structure and oppressive government.
In your dystopian future, people live in Silos. Why do you think some silo communities fail and others do not?
I think in the long run they’d all fail, having an enclosed society like that—especially with an oppressive regime. I think that given enough time, no matter how well the society is, it’s made up of people who are fickle and difficult to manage, and we have destructive tendencies. Given enough time, I think all the silos would fail.
You once said that “you don’t need perfect prose, but you do need entertaining storytelling—basically ninjas plus sex and you can’t go wrong.” Do you still stand by this formula?
I haven’t written that story yet. It’s much easier to sell an exciting story than it is to sell a story about two people having a cup of coffee. But if you write that well, then you can sell the story. I guess when I look at stories like Twilight and Dan Brown’s books, people look down on those books, but I really celebrate those stories because they get a lot of people reading. And the reason is, there’s a story there that people want to be engaged with. We can pick apart someone’s prose, but it misses the point: books are primarily about storytelling, and less about displaying a mastery of the English language. We have a biological affinity for stories. It used to be an oral tradition, so the great bards of yore used to slip in some “ums” and “uhs” and “wait a seconds” when they were telling a story. I think we lose sight of what people want: engagement. If you can do both, then that’s brilliant.
I think the best writers come from being avid readers. When you’re laughing and crying while reading and wondering why that happened, why you love this character, or why were you not so interested in a character? Or when you can’t go to sleep at night without turning that last page or moving on to the next chapter, ask yourself how they ended the last chapter—what made it so interesting? These are much more difficult things to study, but they become intuitive the more you read and study.
Do you spend a lot of time thinking in that way and mapping everything out, or does it intuitively flow?
It’s something I spend time thinking about. I love to know the journey. Where my character begins and what state they’re in, conflicts they encounter, how that changes them; they need to have an emotional connection to the conflict. You have to daydream these things.
Go to www.hughhowey.com to learn more about how to get seriously addicted to books, and to be inspired to self-publish your own masterpiece.