This is part two of my interview with Hugh Howey. In the first interview we discuss his journey as a writer in general and the success of his Wool Series specifically. I have to confess I didn’t intend to write this section of my interview but after finishing the Wool Omnibus, which includes the first five books, I felt I couldn’t let him get away without a brief note of protest from one of his readers, and I also wanted to give him a chance to talk more specifically about the themes in his work. Be warned our interview is full of spoilers. If you haven’t read the series, you can find out more about it in my spoiler free book review.
Wecks: First of all, my body count in wool is at least three people that you kill off in first person! You aren’t supposed to kill off people from the first person POV. It just messes with my head as a reader! Then—after you have done this twice in a row—you go and start Part Three with our newly minted hero looking down at her pockets! I have to confess that at that point I skipped to the end of the book, because I wasn’t sure that I liked you as an author. All I did was make sure to find Juliette’s name in the epilogue and then I went back to reading. My question is do you take exquisite pleasure in torturing your readers or what? (OK so its not exactly a question, just something I had to get off my chest. You don’t have to answer if you don’t want to.)
Howey: Haha! Okay, I’m sorry. I shouldn’t take pleasure in your discomfort. But I suppose my involuntary chortle just answered the last bit of your question. Yes, I take pleasure in torturing readers. But I think they must find the experience rewarding as well. I suspect the engineers who design roller coasters have a similar relationship with their customers.
What was my thinking behind the POVs? Well, when I started Wool 2, I was faced with the challenge of following up an already immensely popular short story. What I wanted to create was an eventual hero that readers would love and fully expect to lose. I’ve grown a little weary over the years of watching movies and reading books where I know nothing bad will happen to our protagonist. There’s very little real tension anymore. I think we’ve all become a tad calloused or inoculated to real fear.
So I planned Wool 2 as a transition book. I wanted to do a few things with it: First, I wanted to use existing characters from the original book to give readers a smooth transition. There were only a few to choose from, of course. Secondly, I wanted to introduce readers to the star of the books, the silo itself. A trip down and back up served that purpose. Finally, I wanted this mysterious, hard to reach character in Jules, and I wanted to make her doom feel inevitable. Killing the protagonists in 1 and 2 and then starting the 3rd book with her seemingly imminent death felt like the right thing to do. It felt unique. For an author to invest so much in a character and then for the reader to know that she will die at the end of the book, it helped create something new in Wool that I believe people are really finding compelling.
Wecks: Wool seems to me to be a lot about human hope. Here you have people living in a tightly controlled environment, underground for hundreds of years, and yet they still can’t stay within their container can they? They still, look at the stars, dig deeper, love without sanction, and long to live outside. In fact, their whole society is created to stifle these impulses—to protect society from them in order to preserve order and avoid chaos. Why these themes? What makes them so interesting to you?
Howey: I think you nailed one of the major themes of the series. Human nature seems so innate and hardwired to me. It’s why we can read stories that are thousands of years old and be emotionally moved by them. The culture is long gone, millennia have passed, and yet we find the same passions and tragedies the author intended.
This impermanence of human nature coupled with all our attempts to control, stifle, and harness it is something I find fascinating. And it’s a story readers enjoy: the liberation of the human spirit against all odds and in spite of the forces that attempt to squash it. I can’t stumble upon Shawshank Redemption or Braveheart without feeling compelled to watch the rest of the film. I need to see the character through to the end. It’s such a universal struggle, and I hope to have added my own version to the rich history of this popular tale.
Wecks: You seem to pay attention to the idea that these hopes can create chaos as well as benefit. In the end you argue they are still worth following, but you don’t pretend they aren’t dangerous. After all, several silos have burned to the ground because of this “virus” of human hopes and dreams as Lukas calls it. What are the dangers you see in our hopes and dreams, in our drive to explore and expand?
Howey: It often seems to me, as sad and dystopic as this sounds, that the fulfillment of one dream means the suppression of some other. This isn’t always the case, but it can be. How can one man or woman explore their environment without trespassing? Conflict and disaster can come from the most benign of circumstances. I remember learning that most Native Americans were wiped out from disease, and it shook me to the core. It meant that we could have sailed over here offering nothing but garlands and well-wishes, and we still would have decimated hundreds of distinct cultures. It would have been impossible to set out of Europe, hoping for a better life, without destroying millions of others.
While this saddens me, I appreciate the philosophical underpinnings. And it creates shades of gray that give the characters of Wool depth and humanity. I think this is true of the characters on both sides of the main conflict.
Wecks: I love your characters! I love the difference in thinking and feel between IT, those who live near the surface, and then mechanical. I have said elsewhere on this blog, “A story is nothing more than characters responding to emotionally-heightened situations around them.” Do you agree? Why or why not?
Howey: I absolutely agree! I don’t think I could have phrased it better. The stories that I’ve enjoyed the most have often been the most uncomfortable. Like all that Edmund goes through in The Count of Monte Cristo, or pretty much any episode of The Office. That discomfort is punctuated by moments of relief, of resolution, of happiness.
Boring writing can often, it seems to me, be traced to a story being nothing more than a vehicle for the author’s wish-fulfillment. It’s like daydreaming on paper, with nothing but good things happening to the characters. Great writing should be the opposite, in my opinion. Bad things should happen to good people, and good things should happen to bad people. And somehow, at the end, there should be an honest and satisfying — but perhaps unexpected — resolution.
Wecks: How do you go about creating characters? Do you write out character studies? Do they come to you as you write? Do they pop out wholly formed as JK Rowling claims, Harry Potter did?
Howey: I didn’t realize Rowling said that, but I think her answer is closest to the truth for me. The characters I write tend to be some combination of other characters who have entertained me. Perhaps I’ll exaggerate one feature and ignore another, but they are still combinations of these traditional forms. They really do just wander into the page most times and start doing things completely unbidden.
Wecks: Tell us a little about your writing process. How did you go about creating Wool and its sequels?
Howey: I get up every morning and start writing while I eat a bowl of cereal. When I had a day job, I did this in order to get some words down before my brain got fried from work. Now it’s just a habit. I try not to get online or check my email until 10:00. I can usually have 2,000 or more words written by this time.
From 10:00 until lunch, I take care of business related stuff, respond to emails, check the regular forums and websites I visit, drive signed books to the post office, take the dog for a walk, and then come home and try to do some more writing or revising, work on cover art, things like that.
As for creating Wool, I wrote the rough draft of the first story in just a handful of sittings. I had the story in mind for quite a few years prior to writing it. The original goal was to make it a novel, but I had so much other writing in progress that I feared I’d never get around to it. So I turned it into a short story, leaving a lot of Allison’s investigations out, and published it on the Kindle store. It was pretty much just to excise the plot from my imagination.
The rest of the stories were written in response to reader reviews. The first Wool spread like a virus, and everyone seemed to want more of it. So I used NaNoWriMo (where writers challenge themselves to write 50,000 words in a single month) to put Wools 2 through 4 together. The response to these blew me away. Under intense pressure, I wrote Wool 5, which is the length of a short novel, in the month of January, and it’s been gaining momentum ever since.
Wecks: Anything spoiliery you want to tell us about what you are working on for the Wool series in the future? Or any other of your projects for that matter?
Howey: Well, the next three books are going to be a bit of a risk. I’m going to leave the cast we’ve come to know for a while and go back to the beginning and reveal how the world got into the mess it’s in. This trilogy is going to be named Legacy, Order, and Pact, after the three sets of books from the first series.
The ninth book will return to the silos we’re familiar with and detail the clash between that cast and this new one. What I hope will happen is that readers will find themselves choosing sides. Maybe even choosing poorly!
Wecks: Thanks again for taking the time to talk with me.
Howey: Thank you, Erik! And congratulations to you for getting your own work out there. Best of luck in all things, and I’ll see you around GeekDad!