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The next Hunger Games? Dystopian-fiction fan Emily Ding reviews Hugh Howey’s Wool and chats with the Florida-based author about his journey from self-publishing sensation to Big-Six author, and how it feels to have his book optioned for Hollywood, possibly to be directed by three-time Oscar-nominated Ridley Scott of Gladiator fame.
What happens when the world as we know it turns hostile and annihilates any form of life? Fly to space, or go underground. But since other planets aren’t quite ready for human habitation yet, there’s only one option.
In Hugh Howey’s post-apocalyptic Earth, humans live in a “silo” that extends about 150 storeys beneath the ground to seal themselves off from the toxic air outside that eats away at human flesh. This scenario doesn’t sound quite so unlikely when you cast your mind back to the nuclear threat of the Cold War that escalated between the Americans and the Soviets in the sixties. In similar circumstances, it’s entirely plausible that we would build a subterranean refuge in which to live out our days until the world above ground becomes right again, when we could return to rebuild a new civilisation. Although in the end 21.12.2012 came and went without much fanfare, in the build-up to the supposed Apocalypse, some rich people were reportedly buying up USD$2-million luxury apartments to be built into the shaft of an abandoned missile silo underneath the Kansas prairie – an actual relic of the Cold War, with nine-feet-thick concrete walls purportedly engineered to withstand an atomic bomb blast.
Howey takes this glimmering reality further in Wool with meticulous attention to detail. Like the Kansas silo, Howey’s silo also has its own life-support systems: hydroponics farms, water treatment facility tanks, oil wells, power generators. Unlike the Kansas silo, the one of Howey’s imagination is pretty primitive: it doesn’t come with its own pool, movie theatre or library; and in place of an elevator is a metal spiral staircase, with which it takes about two hours to descend twenty floors – at least, for the elderly mayor Jahns and her deputy sheriff Marnes; the porters who deliver goods and messages daily up and down the silo do it faster. In fact, Howey’s silo seems unlikely to be able to sustain itself for much longer. We get the idea that it wasn’t built for its current purpose nor to last forever, and these humans have lived in it for a long time – certainly long enough for them to wonder about their “Creator” and question how they had come into their current existence while the glass and steel skeletons of buildings, abandoned from a different time, crumble against the “stately rolling crests” of “lifeless” hills in full view from the top floor of the silo. All they know is that a “great uprising” had wiped out the silo’s history.
Before Howey became a full-time writer he was a yacht captain, sailing all over the American East coast and the Caribbean. His inspiration for Wool, he said, had come from seeing the difference between 24-hour news and the world he’d seen on his travels: “They were nothing alike. One was all the bad news, the other was quite a nice place. And so I imagined a society that only knew of the world from looking at a single screen. Like Plato’s cave analogy. But the shadows on the cave wall are all sinister.”
As this picture (right) of the proposed Kansas missile silo shows, a circular structure is particularly useful with which to project a panoramic view of any illusion you’d like. Though life in Howey’s silo is pretty basic for most of its inhabitants, IT personnel – less than 24 of them and mostly men – possess sufficient technological capabilities to build a full-wall screen display that wraps around the perimeter of the silo’s top floor, offering its citizens, via cameras above-ground, a view of the world outside: as a hint to the possibility of a different future, but also as a deterrent.
Because in Howey’s subterranean world, the expressed wish to go “outside” is a death wish. Those who commit this and other crimes are mandatorily let out into the upper world to “clean” in a protective suit engineered by IT with the best of their technology to give those condemned to the outside a moment of reprieve before the deadly wind dissolves them into dust. To “clean” is to use a wool scrubber to remove the grime from the camera lenses above ground to bring the world outside into clearer view once again. This view is nothing like the colourful children’s books (the only ones to survive the uprising) the silo’s inhabitants remember; there is no blue sky nor green grass, just a broad, dull palette of brown and grey littered with the “sleeping boulders” of dead bodies. Unfathomably, even faced with this evidence, every single person who has ever been sent outside has always done the cleaning even when, in their bitterness, they had vowed they wouldn’t. This is the mystery: why do they always clean?
Still, while each act of cleaning is a sacrifice, it is also a renewal of hope. Usually, after each clean, a new jubilance and vitality permeates the silo – there wouldn’t be another too soon – but also, people dare to want: couples can hope at a chance of winning the lottery to procreate (via the removal of an contraceptive implant): one down, room for another. More importantly, there would be another chance to test IT’s protective suit, to see if it lasts longer this time against the lethal elements outside. It is the silo citizens’ unspoken wish that one day, the suit would be advanced enough to enable them to venture above ground without dropping like flies. Despite the bleakness of the landscape, “it looked like a scene one could stroll out into, like a gaping and inviting hole”.
In this way then, IT wields considerable power, though on the face on it Mayor Jahns, flanked by her sheriffs Holston and Marnes, reigns supreme over the silo. Mechanical personnel, too, possess the know-how to change the balance of power within the silo as they are well versed in its technical and practical workings (they also control the energy that sustains IT’s operations), but they don’t always realise this because they are kept in the dark within the deepest reaches of the silo, tasked with keeping the great machines running in good order so life in the silo doesn’t break down. Wool, like most dystopian fiction, makes many parallels to our present society, and it is easy to read into the social, political and economical stratification evident by virtue of the silo’s architecture. Also, for every person who yearns to break his confines and explore unchartered horizons, there will always be another who refuses to wander too far from where he lives – both are equally base human instincts.
In Wool, we read the separate but interlinked stories of three main characters — Holston, the sheriff; Jahns, the mayor; and Juliette, a tough-as-nails young woman from Mechanical, who eventually takes over as the protagonist for most of the book. As with most dystopian fiction, the characters don’t know at first that they are living in a dystopia (though we do) – and Howey is really good at dishing the clues out bit by bit, so you are compelled to keep going for answers to the larger puzzle. Still, by the end of the book you’ll have more questions than answers, and some seemingly vital characters feel like they have been barely pencilled in. Having spoken to Howey, however, readers can rest assured that we’ll find all the answers in the upcoming books. Shift, the prequel, will tell us how the silo came to be; and Dust, the last book in the trilogy which Howey is working on right now, will, he says, include “answers to every question you can think of. You’ll see what becomes of the world.”
Part of how Howey successfully keeps us hanging on a drip of information is that he writes Wool in instalments, but this serial way of writing, much like that of writing a TV series, is also what is responsible for its limitations. Howey first self-published Wool as a short story in mid-2011 about Holston and his struggle with life in the silo after his wife Alison – in a fit of sudden clarity or insanity, he didn’t know – chose to go outside, and his own part in having to condemn her to that while carrying out his duty. When Holston’s story became popular with fans, who expressed their desire to read more about this world, Howey decided to write more chapters. Writing serially has its benefits but also some serious challenges – one of which is being able to conceive of the series tightly as a whole, so that all the plot lines hang together coherently as a master piece of work. Wool stumbles slightly in this aspect; the continuity between the instalments isn’t always maintained. Still, this is easily overlooked.
Wool is an addictive, engaging read, and has been much vaunted to be the next Hunger Games (though Wool wouldn’t be marketed as Young Adult) or the next Fifty Shades (except Howey actually writes well). Howey had made his own name and was commercially successful even before his book deals with Big-Six publishers, purportedly raking in a six-figure income a month running a one-man show – being his own publicist, engaging heavily with his fans. So far, rights to Wool has been sold to more than twenty countries, and film rights have been sold to 20th Century Fox with three-time Oscar-nominated Ridley Scott (Black Hawk Down, Gladiator) slated to direct it and Steve Zaillian (who won the Oscar for Schindler’s List) to write the script, so it’s fair to say that Wool is set to become a global phenomenon. Read it before everyone else does.
MEET HUGH HOWEY: This Sunday, 3 March, in London at the Old Crown Public House, 33 New Oxford St, from 4:30-8:00 p.m. More details here.
Wool is available from Random House in the UK and Simon and Schuster in the US.
The next self-published omnibus in the trilogy, Shift (the prequel to Wool), is now available on Amazon, and will be available in the UK from Random House come April. Howey is currently working on the last book in the trilogy, Dust, which UK readers can expect from Random House in October.
You can find out more about Hugh Howey at www.hughhowey.com.
More Questions for Hugh Howey (**contains spoilers)
Did you know from the start what was going to happen at the end of the trilogy?
I didn’t have the plot until I saw the reaction to [the original short story], which was when I sat down and outlined the rest of it.
I knew what would happen at the end of Dust [the final book in the trilogy], which is what I’m working on right now. I did the same thing with my Molly Fyde series. I thought about the last scene of the fourth book while I was writing the first one. That doesn’t mean I don’t allow the story to surprise me along the way, but I have to know where a story is heading. Otherwise, I worry it will meander or that I’ll lose interest.
It was still released serially. I published as I wrote. But I didn’t have the ability to go back and change earlier works while working on later ones. It posed some challenges. I really had to know how the pieces fit together.
Do you worry that by the end of the trilogy you’d want to go back and change something?
If I worried about that too much, I wouldn’t get any writing done. Even when working on a single novel, there’s the fear that you’re making the wrong decision somewhere. You have to trust your gut and press forward.
Serial fiction is enjoying some popularity nowadays. What does it let you do that writing a novel doesn’t?
I think it fits the modern readers’ lifestyle. Not everyone has time to devote to a novel. They can read an instalment in bits and pieces. For those who want it all at once, they can wait and get a compilation for less money. TV has changed the way we view stories. Some people wait for the entire season before they watch the first episode. Books can be read either way. Kinda like how Dickens used to release his works.
Also, readers don’t have to wait a year or longer between instalments. They can stay engaged. But you have to do it correctly. These can’t be mere chapters doled out. They each have to be satisfying on their own. And they have to work seamlessly as a whole. It’s a tricky balance.
Right, and as a writer, does writing serially give you more immediate gratification? That you can know early on whether readers like it, and that encourages you to keep writing?
It does. But there’s also the pressure to keep up a release schedule. One of the benefits is getting feedback from readers as you write. It almost becomes collaborative. You can gauge reactions to certain characters and plot points, which takes the joy of having early draft readers to the next level. And it really gets readers invested in the success of a story. The buzz develops while it’s being released, so there are fans in place before the finished work is bound together.
A lot of these discoveries were happy accidents. I had no idea how any of this would work. I was just enjoying writing something that people were reading. The pros and cons didn’t occur to me until after.
Do you have a specific example in Wool that you’d changed or added because of a suggestion from a reader?
The reaction to the death of main characters showed me how powerful that could be. We are so used to major characters surviving anything. So I continued a trend just long enough for people to assume that I’d kill anyone they loved. And once that pattern was established, I changed tack again. By gauging expectations and reactions, I was able to make sure I wasn’t being predictable. That was a huge asset and a lot of devious fun. :) I believe some readers have cursed me. And I’m okay with that.
So, one thing that struck me about reading Wool was that as readers, we need to have a certain suspension of knowledge, because we know something the characters don’t. For example, you mention the “silo” and “pixels” early on, and I remember I wondered if they were supposed to mean what I know it to mean, or if it was a subverted version of what I knew it to be. How does this work?
One of the things I love about speculative fiction is that they can read like a mystery novel or a suspense thriller. Information is doled out a little bit at a time, like clues. The reader is on a journey of discovery. I think it’s why people find themselves up late at night with this story, unable to put it down. They want to read one more chapter to see what they might uncover next. It really puts them there with the protagonist, who is also trying to figure out what’s going on. They are in it together. John Grisham does this very well, as does Dan Brown. It’s something I pay close attention to as a reader and something I try to emulate.
Speaking of clues being excruciatingly doled out, will we read more about Juliette’s lover George and her relationship with her father in the upcoming books?
Yes. I’m actually saving the George story for a short piece that I’ll release on its own. It brings back Holston, and we get to watch him work that case, meet Jules, and the two interact together. I’ve already started it and have really enjoyed seeing these characters alongside one another. Marnes as well. I might make it free on my website, but also have it available elsewhere.
The relationship with her father will be touched on as well. I was just writing a scene with him in it recently.
Even knowing that going outside is a death wish, many of the silo’s citizens still want to go there. How do you reconcile the fear of a place with, at the same time, the desire to go there?
I think the urge to explore and escape can be strong enough to overcome every other fear. People make irrational choices all the time. They set off in ships with no idea of what’s beyond the horizon. And people elect to end their own lives in sad abundance.
My wife and I plan on sailing around the world one day. The desire to explore and tour is stronger than our wish to be perfectly safe.
Something I found interesting about Jules is that from the outset she seems like an unlikely heroine. She rarely ventures up the silo and is happy to stay where she is.
Two things, I guess: I love the “reluctant warrior” character trope. The person who doesn’t want to fight but is pressed into action. Those are my favourite heroes. I don’t enjoy the people raring for a fight.
Also, I worked as a roofer after working as a yacht captain. I moved from a world of luxury to one of arduous toil. I went from making USD$350 a day to making less than a third of that. And I was happier for it. I loved how I felt at the end of the day. It felt more purposeful, putting a roof over a family’s head than it felt to drive a billionaire around in their boat. I know that might sound weird, but it gave me an appreciation for blue-collar work, that it is more important in many ways to other forms of labour.
What is it about Juliette, do you think, that means she succeeds where others do not? And why was Marnes so keen on appointing her the sheriff?
Marnes and Holston worked with Jules in the down deep, which put her on his radar. It was also a political choice. A woman and someone from a different part of the silo.
Why she succeeds has to do with the knowledge she possesses with the help of her friends. Nobody had ever had these advantages. And her mechanical aptitude always helped her. She’s just a sound thinker, brave without being careless, compassionate and resourceful.
But she isn’t without her flaws. She has a difficult time forgiving her father. She has a tendency to run from some of her problems. And she can be single-minded when she’s tackling a project.
Now that you know what you know about self-publishing and Big-Six publishers, do you think you’ll continue with the former?
Yes. I’ll continue self-publishing, because I don’t want to delay the availability of my work. But if a publisher comes along afterward and wants to discuss taking these stories and pushing them to a wider audience, I’ll always entertain those discussions.
I read that on your home turf, Simon and Schuster has print rights to your book but not ebook rights. Would you say this an unconventional arrangement within publishing and was it hard to negotiate for this?
We didn’t really negotiate for it. We told publishers early on that this is what we would need to sign a deal. We were told it would never happen. What it required was the strength to walk away from very large sums of money before someone finally put the deal together. We turned down two seven-figure deals before S&S finally came up with this. They deserve all the credit in the world for being flexible and innovative.
I believe this was the first such deal from a big-six publisher. There has been at least one other since. And Bella Andre, a romance writer, got a similar deal from Harlequin a few weeks prior.
Your book has been described as “high-concept”. Do you think there are particular kinds of self-published books that succeed better than others?
I think the chances of a book becoming successful are pretty slim no matter how they are published. I worked as a bookseller for years, and it seemed as though only a few works were being discussed at any one time. Which means a lot of luck and good timing is involved. But any story can break out if it strikes a nerve with readers.
In self-publishing, it seems the genre works do the best. Romance, erotica, science fiction, fantasy. I don’t know if this is because the readers of genre have more insatiable appetites, publishers aren’t adequately meeting the demands, or what. I suspect it’s simply an imbalance of supply and demand. And self-published authors are eager to meet that demand.
Publishing houses are largely run by English majors. When I took creative writing classes in college, I was told not to write genre fiction. Everything was to be literary. I think this is a sad state of affairs. Writing is about storytelling more than it is about perfectly flowing prose. Think back to Homer and the oral tradition. Readers want excitement. I think we would be well served to have more English professors embracing genre fiction and more publishers giving it its due.
In the bookstore I worked in, we pushed all the genre out of sight and presented shoppers with the stories that fewer people seemed interested in. I always puzzled over that. The Hunger Games is science fiction. Harry Potter is fantasy. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is mystery/thriller. Fifty Shades of Grey is erotica. This is what people want to read. And we keep insisting that they love whatever is winning the literary awards. We put taste above sales, and I think that does our readers a disservice.
Do you think that is beginning to change though, with these big successes that you mentioned?
Yes. I do. Publishers are beginning to look at what is selling well that they aren’t profiting from, and I credit them with being so willing to adapt. But I don’t think English professors will ever change much. I hope I’m wrong.
Is there definitely going to be a film adaptation of Wool by Ridley Scott?
Nothing in Hollywood is definite, but I just spent a week in L.A. meeting with the production teams and the executives at Fox, and everyone is very excited about the possiblity of getting this on the big screen. I don’t know what the chances are right now, but I’d guess somewhere around 50/50, which is leagues better than I would have guessed a month ago.
So if you could choose, who would be your Jules, Lukas and Solo?
To be honest, I would prefer unknown actors. I like for a character to be himself, not someone famous. But that’s unlikely. Maybe Charlize Theron for Jules and Robin Williams for Solo. I don’t have a good Lukas in mind.
Fun question, since you’re now an author of the same publisher who published Ray Bradbury: If you were to find yourself in a Fahrenheit 451 world, which book would you save and why?
Shakespeare’s complete works. I think it’s the single most important volume of fiction ever set down.