Breaking Out: An Interview with Hugh Howey

SARAH DUNN
Last updated 08:57 26/04/2013

Hugh Howey is an American author currently touring Australia and New Zealand to promote his dystopic science fiction novel, Wool. Having previously worked as a computer technician and yacht captain, Hugh began his writing career by self-publishing stories online while working in a bookstore.

Since e-book sales of Wool took off on Amazon and other platforms, Hugh has enjoyed phenomenal worldwide success. The book has been hailed as the next literary craze, and even described as "science fiction's answer to Fifty Shades of Grey." Hugh recently sold the film rights to 20th Century Fox.

You've had a pretty exciting life. Do you think that's necessary for a writer?
I think you need to do something, even if that means you have a career as a lawyer so that you can write court dramas.

Like John Grisham.
Exactly. Or volunteer in your spare time in some way, or go on travels before Uni. I think you can really only write about the things that you know, so the wider variety [of things], the better the writing.

Were there any parts of Wool that were specifically based on things you've lived through?
Yes. There's some of my life in everything. Certainly my boating days made it into Wool, just the idea of living in a stratified culture like that. Really, the yachts that I've worked on were very much like the silos in that there were different levels for different classes, and the further down you went the more likely you were to find myself.
The crew quarters and engine room and the bilges were all down below, and the observation decks and the places where the owner and his or her guests hung out were higher up. The ocean was just about as desolate as a wasteland, you could only survive in this very small, glass world that you fit on.

I had never thought about it like that. Would you say there is a political message in Wool?
Yes, but I'm not sure if it takes as hard of a line as most people [think]. There are two competing philosophies in Wool: one is that people have to live under an iron thumb in order to survive, and the other one is that everyone should live completely freely and happily and everything will sort itself out. They've both been tried multiple times in human history and I think neither one really works.
I think there's something in between those two philosophies that is necessary, and it's up to us to figure it out. As a race, we're still trying to figure it out.

Is that a hint towards reconciliation with the conservative side of the silo in future books?
Yes. I think even at the end of Wool there is that sort of reconciliation. Lucas is the model character, he's torn between these two worlds. He works for IT but he's in love with Juliet, so he has Bernard and Juliet on either side of him.
In the novel, he finds himself in a position of authority and he cautions not being so free with knowledge but also not being so cruel.

So he's a moderating influence on Juliet.
Yes, I think so. Or she might be a moderating influence on him. Without her, maybe he would be 100 per cent IT, I don't know.

I noticed in Wool that you've avoided that traditional science fiction preoccupation with technology.
Yes. I think we can bother ourselves too much with how things work. My favourite stories are really more based on people. If I'm reading a regular fiction novel, I don't have to know how a cellphone works to know that someone calls someone else and they have a conversation.

When I was reading Wool, it made me think of other recent "soft sci-fi" successes like the Hunger Games. Do you see this as a popular genre that's still emerging?
I think so. One of the reasons that genre is doing well is that we're becoming so much more inundated with technology and so much more comfortable with it. We live with technology now.
Two things have happened in the last decade: I think people have opened up to the idea of the world devolving politically, if we're not careful; and I think we've also opened ourselves to the idea of unbelievably rapid progress with technology.
Just living with cellphones and laptops and the internet has really made a mockery of the things we used to think would happen in science fiction. We've gone beyond that now in a lot of ways. I think both of those factors have made us more comfortable with these stories.

You interact with your fans quite directly on the internet. Tell me about that.
Yes, I make myself available. It never occurred to me not to. I started so small and so gradually that I just kept expanding my availability to my very small readership at the beginning, and the tools are there to stay available even as my reach expands.

I hear you've allowed readers to participate in the Wool universe by creating their own fan fiction. Do you read them?
I have read some. I don't have time to read all of them because I like to keep up with my own reading but some people have sent me short synopses of their own fan fiction and it's gripped me enough to try the first page, and that gripped me enough to keep reading to the end.

Do you have any limits on that? Are you ok with them using your characters?
Sure, yeah. They can do whatever they want. I don't want to restrict that at all.

How does that feel?
To me, it's completely flattering. I can't believe people want to explore this world with their own writing. I'm such a huge fan of fan fiction, to me it's a great way for readers to become writers. It's like putting the training wheels on for writing.

You might be the wrong person to ask about this right now, but with the publishing industry as tight as it is, is putting work out there worth the effort for aspiring writers?
I think it's never been more worth the effort. There's a better market for writing out there now than there ever has been. It seems ironic that we're actually becoming a more literary-minded society than has ever existed before, and a lot of our reading and writing is actually taking place on blogs, forums, Facebook and Twitter but we are more literary than mankind has ever been in human history.
That's the findings of studies out of Stanford [University], major sociological studies are bearing this out. There are more ways for writers to be discovered than ever before. You have to write to access the reader. If you've ever dreamed of writing, I think now's the time to do it.

- Nelson

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