The Anonymous Bestseller
Hugh Howey might be a bestselling author, but you wouldn’t know it by looking at him. And that’s how he likes it.
Every year, almost like clockwork, there’s a new one — a breakout author who appears as if from nowhere, their book suddenly scaling the charts, on everybody’s lips. Ask friends what they’re reading, and you start getting the same answers.Twilight. The Hunger Games. Fifty Shades of Grey.
Ask your friends again, and these days the answer might be Wool. Shift. Dust.
Hugh Howey hails from a small town in Florida. He’s married, and has a dog. He wears Crocs and T-shirts. He lives in a smaller-than-you-might-expect house. He’s gregarious and enthusiastic when he meets you, and seems less inclined to talk about himself than about you: Where are you from? What are you up to? You might never get around to asking what Hugh does for a living, and that’s okay with him. While he’s worked a dozen or more odd jobs throughout the years, these days Hugh Howey is a New York Times bestselling author.
He’s one of the more visible personalities among the wave of self-published success stories that have emerged in recent years. Wool, his breakout series, has been snapped up by hundreds of thousands of readers and its film rights have been optioned by none other than Ridley Scott and Steve Zaillian. Howey made news in 2012 when he signed a groundbreaking publishing deal with Simon & Schuster — clinging to his digital publishing rights while selling only print publication rights — and he remains one of only a handful of authors who have done so.
Howey recently published Dust, the novel that brings the Silo Saga to a close. The book sold some fifty thousand copies during the first week of its release — still a remarkable feat for a self-published book.
In the wake of that event, Howey and I sat down to chat about topics from the often-paralyzing fear that authors face to the charming story of how he met his wife, and gave her some homework.
Gurley: I want to start at the beginning. What made you want to be a writer?
Howey: I was that kid who always had a book in his hands. My nieces are like this. They are always reading. I think this sub-species of human is more prevalent today than in my time, what with the success of the Harry Potters and Twilights.
When I was a kid, it was mostly those of us who didn’t fit in, those of us only comfortable in make-believe places.
Books were a big part of your life, then.
I used to walk down sidewalks a few paces behind my family while reading. I’d literally bump into trash cans and lampposts. On the rare occasions that I went out with friends to bars in college, I brought a book along and sat in the corner to get through another few chapters. The back pocket of my blue jeans were stretched out in the shape of a mass market paperback. How can you be into a hobby like this without dreaming of making it to the big leagues? It would be like shooting hoops for hours a day in the driveway without longing for a starting position in the NBA.
How old were you when you realized that you wanted to be more than a reader — that you wanted to tell stories yourself?
Twelve or thirteen — whenever it was that my dad brought home our first computer. The only thing it was good for was crunching numbers (slowly) and typing out words (even more slowly, but that was my fault). I had just finished Ender’s Game and The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, and I wanted to create worlds like these. I wrote the first four chapters in a book that ripped off Douglas Adams’s style, and that was the first of many books that I would begin and subsequently abandon.
You started writing young. Do you remember the first story you ever wrote?
Unfortunately, yes. It involved a man falling through a hole in his yard to discover that the planet Earth was one massive spaceship. He formed a friendship with his robotic bedpan, which was better than him at chess.
His robotic bedpan?
The story began making less sense the deeper I went. I still have the printout of this masterpiece. It resists my efforts to destroy it.
I would read a story about a robotic bedpan.
Are you offering to beta-read the novel I started at age twelve? Because I’ll totally take you up on that.
So science fiction has always been an interest of yours. What drew you to it, to writing it?
Changing the subject. Smart. What drew me to science fiction is its potential for satire. There’s no better genre for examining the human condition. Literary fiction and historical fiction can’t hold a candle to science fiction. You’re able to exaggerate some feature or flaw in humanity or society and see what this says about our current way of life. The gold standard of the genre is Gulliver’s Travels. I also admire Brave New World for all the clever and dismal subtext packed in to so few pages.
It can’t help but hold a mirror up to the real world, in a way.
Exactly. The other cool thing about science fiction—and this is something I learned as I moved from reading fantasy novels to reading science fiction novels—is that you have the ability to make up worlds that might become true. They won’t, of course. But fantasy novels are about a history that never happened. Science fiction is about a future that is at least, however slimly, possible. And if that doesn’t get your forward-looking juices flowing, I don’t know what will.
You’ve mentioned an interest in writing in new genres, though. Do you know where you’re going next?
I have a romance novel that has a slight dystopian flair to it. And I have a horror novel planned that’s also based on the wallscreen technology.
The wallscreen featured in the Silo series?
Yeah. The original plan for Wool was for it to be the fourth novella in a larger piece. Each novella featured the wallscreens, and each was a slightly different genre. This horror novel was to be one of those four stories.
The story I’ve had in me for the longest is a coming-of-age novel about a girl whose father is a psychologist.
Some writers worry that genre-hopping will dilute their brand, or alienate parts of their audience.
I’ve heard that said, but I don’t think it gives enough credit to the reader. Myself, I’ve never enjoyed reading just one genre or reading the same story over and over. The best thing about becoming a writer is that I’ve been able to create the stories that I wish were out there as a reader.
You’ve broken out in a big way in the last two years.
You know what’s weird? I still have to be reminded of this. I feel like no one has ever heard of me, because most people haven’t. So few people read compared to other pastimes. And most of those who do only read the top fifty or one hundred best-known authors out there. I feel completely obscure, which is how I prefer it. That’s why it freaks me out when someone recognizes my name, or I meet a stranger who has read my work.
Let’s talk about that preference for obscurity. You wrote a guest piece recently for Indie Reader (“The Best Days of My Life”) that’s a surprising confession. I suspect most readers (and other writers) would expect that you’re living the dream right about now.
That’s why I wrote the piece. I knew at the time, both while working as a roofer and while working in a bookstore, that life didn’t get any better than this. That’s not to say that my life isn’t great right now, but I think the people out there who are aspiring for a dream and aren’t enjoying or fully appreciating the process and the journey, might regret not taking it all in later. And they might be disappointed if they finally reach that dream and expect it to be wholly fulfilling.
That’s a sentiment not often heard these days.
I bet if you asked LeBron James what the best days of his life were, he might say winning a state championship in high school. The same probably goes for NFL pros who look back on their college days and recall playing for the joy of it, remembering the camaraderie. I loved working on rooftops with my friends. I loved working in a bookstore. Getting up every morning and writing in my pajamas is the culmination of a lifelong dream, but I enjoyed the hell out of the life that led me here.
You’re very grounded about your success. Do you ever take it for granted?
I expect all of this to end tomorrow. I have for the past two years. I think this is partly from low self-esteem and partly as a defense mechanism. Whatever the reason, it helps me appreciate each moment as if it’ll be the last. It keeps me from expecting anything more than I’ve already earned, and it has me fully prepared to go back to shelving books in a moment’s notice.
That doesn’t seem terribly likely, though.
Maybe not, but it was the mindset I needed before I quit my day job and really made a go of this. I needed to remind myself that I could get another job at any time and be just as happy as I was before. It’s all about realistic expectations, even as you’re working to fulfill a dream. After completing my first novel, I told my mom that I would be thrilled to sell 5,000 copies in my lifetime. That was me dreaming big. I know there aren’t a lot of readers out there, and even fewer who will take a chance on an unknown author, so I set lofty goals. My mom laughed at me just this week while recalling that conversation, but I still think I was right to dream only this big. Even if part of me longed to get a call from Oprah.
Oprah may not have called yet, but you long ago surpassed five thousand sales. In the Indie Reader piece, you wrote: “…it appears that I’ve sold a million books in the past two years.”
Yeah, I just confirmed this last night. The Silo Saga has sold over a million copies here in the US alone. So total worldwide book sales are probably closer to one and a half million. It boggles the mind.
There have been some big, big moments along the way. I’d like to peel back a layer or two and talk about what each one meant to you. Let’s start before the big successes — what was it like to work in a bookstore, surrounded by books, writing your own on lunch breaks?
It was grueling. I was living in the mountains of North Carolina at the time, and in the winter that meant getting up in the freezing cold, driving on icy roads before the salt trucks and ice scrapers had made their rounds, trudging through snow into the 24-hour library on campus, stamping the slush out of my boots, and sitting and writing every morning before the bookstore opened.
In the spring, it meant spending my lunch hour, every day without fail, up in the windowless conference room with the doors shut and the lights out, pounding away at my keyboard. Everyone else was out on the lawn, basking in the sun, laying out in the grass, enjoying the scent of flowers blooming. They would come poke their heads in the door and tell me how great it was outside. My boss, after we both got back from lunch, would tell me about the walk he went on, or how he laid out with a nice meal and a newspaper and got some sun.
That’s just cruel.
It was just normal small talk, but yeah, the effect was cruel. Writing every day like this for a week would have required a force of will. Doing it for three years required being a little crazy, I think. You really have to love your stories and believe that what you are creating is worth what you’re giving up. And I always felt that. Even when coworkers gave me grief for spending all my time in the library or that dark conference room. Especially then.
It must have been vindicating when publishers began sniffing around. Tell me about the first time a publisher came calling. What was that like?
The very first time was back with my first novel.
That was Molly Fyde and the Parsona Rescue, right?
Yeah, that was the first novel that I actually finished. A few friends convinced me to try to get it published. I spent a few weeks querying the work when an editor—Nadene Carter at Norlights Press — saw me tweeting in the voice of one of my characters. She followed the link to a blog where I was writing about my made-up universe, then asked for sample pages. I was over the moon.
What did she see in your writing then?
Oh, I’m a little embarrassed to say. Nadene is a huge fan of sci-fi. She asked for more pages, said she needed to see where the story went, that readers were going to “gobble this up.” She kept comparing the work to Ursula K. LeGuin’s material. It was mind-blowing. I really had a great time working with Nadene. When I finished Wool 2, I dedicated the work to her.
When Wool found success, publishers came calling in greater numbers.
Well, Kristin (Nelson, of Nelson Literary Agency) sent the work out to editors along with some sales data. The first offers that came back were a blend of amusing and depressing. The money was great, but I was already making quite a bit.
What was the depressing part?
It was the ideas they had. They wanted to take the book off the market and repackage it for a “real” release.” Major publishers wanted to change the name of a book that already had a hundred thousand fans.
Did they make any suggestions for a new title?
If they did, I’ve blocked it out. The gist was that Wool was a dumb title for a science fiction novel. I suppose the idea was that books should blend in and be invisible, not stand out and sell like gangbusters.
If it ain’t broke, as they say…
That was our attitude. What was really revealing was how unsurprised Kristin was. She’s been a top agent in this industry for a long time, so she’s seen this sort of thing before. I think she took it in stride because of the interest we were getting overseas and in Hollywood.
The two of you stuck it out, though. I recall you writing about your whirlwind tour, meeting publisher after publisher. What was it like to sit down with each publishing house to hear their offers?
It was a mix of excitement and disappointment. There’s a misconception out there that I negotiated my way into this landmark deal, but that wasn’t the case at all. I told publishers what I was looking for, which was to sell them the print rights and let me keep the digital, and I was told, flat-out, that this would never happen. So there wasn’t any negotiating these points. It was just a matter of sitting across the table from these publishing teams as they promised me the moon and offered what they thought was a massive advance.
It just seemed that way.
At one meeting, I opened my laptop and pulled up my sales figures to show them that they were offering me what I make in a month. I don’t think they understood what self-publishing pays.
You said it was both exciting and disappointing — how was it exciting?
The exciting part was getting to tour these publishing houses. As a lifelong reader and a bookseller, I would have paid money to do this. I flew to New York, was given a badge, was scanned through the formidable steel gates and glass partitions that keep the riff raff out of HarperCollins, Random House, Penguin, and Simon & Schuster. And then I got to walk down halls lined with books, posters of books, glass displays of books, piles of manuscripts, and fancy meeting rooms full of editors and publicists and marketing experts. It was an absolute blast. Right up until the meetings commenced.
It seems that lately, traditional publishing is becoming less of a realistic goal for indie authors. But many authors are still ecstatic at the idea of seeing their book made into a movie. What was it like when you learned that Ridley Scott and Steve Zaillian were optioning the rights to Wool?
I couldn’t believe it. I was in my backyard, on my crappy old flip cellphone, pacing in circles while conferencing in with my agents. It was a very hectic time in my life. I had just quit my day job; the book sales were going up and up; and I was having a conversation with a different producer every day. It was Universal Studios and a gentleman whose films I loved almost as much as Ridley’s, and a handful of TV stations, and more every day telling my agent that they needed more time, that one more person higher up the chain needed to finish reading but that an offer was heading my way, and please don’t make a decision just yet.
I didn’t realize there was interest from television networks, too. Someone must have seen the potential for one hell of a gritty drama in your books.
Oh, yeah. We were thinking Battlestar Galactica meets Lost. A lot of fans were weighing in for a TV deal, but the right offer never materialized in time.
It’s hard to complain, though. Ridley Scott — how do you pass that up?
My thoughts exactly. The Ridley deal was on the table, and they didn’t want to get into a bidding war. And frankly, neither did I. When I heard Steve Zaillian was sending the book on to Ridley, I wanted to end up with this duo. I kept dreaming that they’d come back with an offer. When they did, I reckoned my life had peaked right then and that it would never get better than that.
I think my favorite of Zaillian’s films is probably A Civil Action, which is just underrated as hell. What about you — what are your favorite films by Ridley Scott and Zaillian?
My favorite Zaillian script is Searching for Bobby Fischer. As a chess fanatic and former tournament player, that film satisfied on a number of levels. For Scott, I have to go with Alien. We just don’t see movies like this anymore. A slow build-up, really getting to know characters, a gritty and realistic environment, the patience to create suspense. If anyone could recreate Wool on film, it would be Ridley.
Alien was a pivotal film for me. But I want to stop for a second — you played tournament chess? I’m beginning to wonder what things you haven’t done.
Heh. Yeah. What about that time I put on a dance belt (you know, the “bulge”) and performed ballet in The Nutcracker in the Jackie Gleason Theater in Miami. Scratch that off the old bucket list.
There’s a lot of fan speculation about the perfect cast for a Wool movie.
Evangeline Lilly would be awesome as Jules. I saw someone mention this on her official Facebook page, and she said she would check it out. We need to start a campaign.
What about Holston, the first protagonist your readers meet?
For Holston, I have an idea on how I would cast and market this film. I would get Bradley Cooper to play Holston, and I would market the film as if he’s the star throughout. I would never show Juliette. Instead, I would show Allison, who is played by Jennifer Aniston or someone huge like that. And then —
I should warn our readers that you’re about to spoil a pretty big early plot point from Wool.
— when Holston dies ten minutes into the film, the audience would be as stunned as readers were.
These days, that’s a bold, bold move. Killing your star.
This is the only way to recreate the book, in my opinion. Which is why it’s a good thing I’m not involved in the production. If Hollywood does their usual, they’ll show you the entire film in the previews, and there won’t be any reason to go to the damn film.
So you aren’t involved in the production of the film. Do you prefer to leave the adaptation in the filmmakers’ hands?
Absolutely. I wrote the book. They can’t go and change the book, so they can do whatever they want with the adaptation. I’d only get in the way, stall the process, or muck it up.
At the very least, I hope you get to visit the set.
Oh, it’s in the contract.
Okay, back to our examination of big moments in your writing career. Publishing has changed an awful lot in the last decade. It used to be the case that an author received their first copy in the mail, and held the actual book in their hands — that was a gratifying moment. But these days it’s a little different, especially for independent authors. What was it like to click the ‘publish’ button on your first book?
I don’t remember the event that well, to be honest. When I started out, e-books were an afterthought. I considered myself a physical book publisher, so the big event was when the proof copy came in the mail.
So not that different from the old way, after all.
I guess not. From the very first book, I made a habit of filming the unboxing, even doing it live. Some friends came over when my first proof arrived, and we uncorked a bottle of wine and passed the book around and marveled that I’d written the whole damn thing. I didn’t know at the time if I would ever complete another novel, so I treated this as a life goal that I’d finally accomplished. I saw it as the end of a long journey, not the start of one.
Has the feeling changed at all? What’s it like to click that ‘publish’ button now?
These days, I cover my eyes with one hand and press the “publish” button while feeling like I might throw up. Knowing that so many people are going to read what I write is crippling in many ways. I avoid the thought while writing—it’s the only way I can stay true to the plot and the characters—but there’s no avoiding the thought as I sit on the eve of publication. And it’s terrifying. I’m a complete wimp about it all.
Well, that brings us to another topic I wanted to talk about, something many writers have in common: fear. Sometimes it’s about expectations, sometimes it’s about confidence, but very often, authors are terrified to sit down and write. What scares you?
All of that scares me, but there’s one fear that outweighs the rest, and that’s that I won’t be able to do it again. Ever.
That you won’t be able to write another one?
Exactly. Each book feels like a mystery, like a small bit of magic. How in the hell did I just make all that up? No way will I ever be able to do that again. So when I sit down to a blank page and have to create a world and fill it full of people, I am terrified that I’ve exhausted my store of this magic.
The only fear that comes close to this is the fear I feel when publishing a highly anticipated piece. I just know it’s going to upset most readers. That’s a yucky feeling.
Let’s talk about that in the context of Wool, and then Dust. I’m guessing that writing Wool was a very low-key experience — at least the first short story.
Low key in terms of expectations. It was a very emotional piece to write. I’d recently lost my dog, and so I was tapping into a dark muse I’d never tapped into before.
But that changed very quickly. Wool really took off.
When did you know that something big was happening? That the tide had turned?
There were several Oh, shit stages for me. These were followed by What the fuck is happening here? events. And finally, the This is all a big joke, right? moments.
What was the first?
In October of 2011, I sold 1,000 copies of Wool in a single month. That was an event that caught my attention. By January, I had four of the top five books in a couple categories on Amazon. Literary agents were calling and emailing me. Hollywood producers were getting in touch and offering to fly to Boone, North Carolina to meet with me.
There was the morning I went out to the driveway, grabbed the Sunday New York Times, and saw my name on the bestseller list.
For some authors, that’s the grand achievement right there.
It’s the ultimate dream, I think. It’s what every author plasters on the cover of every book they’ll ever write afterward.
I asked Michael Chabon once what it felt like to win the Pulitzer. He said he was in Times Square shortly afterward, and watched the news ticker crawl around a building: Pulitzer Prize-winning author Eudora Welty dies at 92. Some labels follow you forever. But your journey hasn’t stopped with the Times list.
There were other oh, shit moments, yeah. There was that first royalty check that was bigger than what I’d ever made in a year doing anything else. There was the day my sister and I danced in Times Square to celebrate my two hundredth review on Amazon. In each of these moments, I thought the peak had arrived. I’ve said that to my wife at least a hundred times — “This is it, the apex of my writing career, so I’m going to enjoy it while I can.”
You’ve been wrong so far.
One day, I’ll be right.
So Wool becomes a surprise hit, it’s discovered and embraced by readers around the world… and then you’ve got to sit down and write Shift, then Dust. The weight of reader expectation must have been significant. Did you feel them?
I did, and I rejected those expectations. While Wool was taking off and hitting the NYT list, and my agent was passing along six-figure offers, I made a conscious decision to write the anti-sequel.
I wanted to leave Wool alone on an island. I had just released five works, back to back, and I was worried about reader weariness setting in. I didn’t want to have this string of cliffhangers exhausting all of us, which is what would’ve happened if I’d continued right where Wool left off.
So you changed the game.
When I thought up the sequel, the title of Shift came to mind as both a shift in perspective, a shift in time, a shift in place, a shift in tone, all of that. It was important to me to preserve the integrity of the first book and to raise the stakes and create a challenge for myself. I know there are readers who don’t like Shift because Juliette isn’t featured, but I’ve heard from countless readers who think Shift is even better than Wool, and those were the kinds of people I was writing for. People who don’t mind a diversion, especially if it respects the original.
It was during this time that I wrote I, ZOMBIE as well, which was my attempt to commit career suicide.
You’ve said this several times, no doubt, but I recall your visit to Portland, Oregon. You stood in a room full of excited readers, and someone asked about I, Zombie. You emphatically pleaded with readers not to buy it.
And I mean that. I published that book for myself and for the handful of people who were interested. My way of combating rising expectations has been to go off in a completely different direction and see who dares follow along with me. The results, thus far, have been surprising.
Many of your readers were ravenously awaiting Dust, the conclusion of the Silo Saga. You never expected Wool to become a sprawling series — what was it like to bring it to an end?
It was extremely satisfying. I liked where Wool left off. There was a sense of hope at the end of a long and grueling struggle. With Shift and Dust, I had to ratchet the costs up even higher, and then somehow bring it all to another satisfying final curtain.
There are those expectations again. Do you feel as if you made it all work?
As I went through my revisions on Dust and read what I’d come up with, I really felt like I’d done it. It has been immensely rewarding to see how many readers agree with me. It would’ve been really easy to fuck this up.
I want to talk about your readers. They’re remarkably different from fans of other writers. They’re passionately devoted to you, and seem to like your books, too. That’s a powerful distinction here — they’ve developed a relationship with you, not simply with your stories.
I’ve thought about this a lot, and I think it’s a direct result of self-publishing.
I’ve noticed that most self-published authors have a similar relationship with their readers. I remember being in Berlin, sitting at dinner with my German publisher. My editor there asked me a question about my fan base and the way I interact with my readers. It was the first time that I realized this relationship with my readers was unusual, and I had an epiphany at that dinner table: Most authors get paid by their publishers, and so that’s who they feel beholden to. That’s where the manuscript goes, and that’s from whence the paycheck comes. Sure, they appreciate their readers; I don’t know any author who wouldn’t. But there’s a barrier erected between author and reader, however subconscious.
The indie author has a greater connection with their reader because—
Because I can press a button and watch my sales in real time. I don’t have to wait six months for a royalty report. I don’t have to call my publisher and ask how my book is selling (and stress that I’m bugging them too often about this). A reader buys my work, I click refresh, and there’s the sale.
And most importantly, there’s a person on the other end of that sales figure. They’re more than just a number.
Precisely. This person is rewarding my hard work and allowing me to pay my bills while doing what I love. How do you not feel completely and ecstatically indebted to that person? How do you not want to know who it is, how they found your work, what they think of it, what else they read, what they do for a living, how old they are, how many kids they have, and so on?
Indie authors like to talk about their readers almost as much as about their work. That’s a really warm shift to see happening.
Yeah, it’s not just me. I started doing meet-ups two years ago, when very few people had read Wool, and I loved the opportunity to meet these strangers in person, these people who had changed my life. And what I see now is other writers like Jasinda Wilder, Tina Folsom, Liliana Hart, and CJ Lyons doing the same thing. It’s a natural response, I think. You are appealing directly to readers for your sales and your livelihood, and so you feel connected to them as a result.
Didn’t you travel across the country recently just to surprise some readers who threw their own release party for Dust?
Well, I took an offer to come to San Francisco for an event because I knew it would give me the chance. One of my most avid and awesome readers lives on the west coast and came to my book tour signing in Berkeley. We’ve become friends online, like I have with a ton of readers, and I knew she was putting on this release party for Dust. So I reached out to another reader who was going to be at the party, and we conspired to put this surprise together.
The best part (only because I didn’t get arrested) was when I realized what I looked like while hiding from them outside the restaurant. I was waiting for this group of women to show up, all in their silo coveralls, and so I had on a pair of blue coveralls as well. And I had a camera. And I was hiding behind trees and trash cans in the middle of a park full of parents with their children. I probably had another five minutes out there before someone called the cops.
Bestselling author Hugh Howey was arrested today…
Oh, yeah. Cut to my neighbors saying they knew something was wrong. They hardly ever see me leaving my house, but they catch glimpses of me in the back yard, walking around in my pajamas, mumbling to myself. I tell the cops that I’m just “plotting.” Which gets the FBI involved.
Tell me about your favorite time interacting with a reader.
I was at the Tampa Comic Con a few weeks ago, and I had the chance to meet so many readers who all seemed thrilled that I was there. I have crazy cool experiences everywhere I go.
Some must stand out.
There was this one time that the mother of a big fan reached out and asked for some way to surprise her son on his birthday. Tyler was turning eighteen, was an Eagle Scout, a huge fan, and she wanted to get something signed for him. It was obviously a difficult email to write, as she seemed to feel guilty for asking and kept telling me what an outstanding kid he was.
She included her address in case I was able to send a signed book or picture, and I noticed that she was only three hours from where I was at the time. I was up in North Carolina for a family reunion, spending time with my father, who was also an Eagle Scout. I emailed the mother back and told her I was about three hours away, and would she want to meet halfway and surprise her son?
I bet that sort of thing doesn’t happen that often.
For her or me?
For readers in general, I think.
I’ve done it half a dozen times or so. But maybe it doesn’t happen much, because she seemed blown away by the idea. I asked my dad if he wanted to come along, so we could spend the three hours on the road, round-trip, with each other. He was thrilled. Everyone was thrilled.
I texted back and forth with Tyler’s mom as we converged on a shopping mall bookstore. He found the copies of Wool that I hid on the shelf, and I stepped around to surprise him.
That would have been enough to make his day.
He seems pretty nonplussed in the video. So then we had lunch together (both of his parents and his sister were there), and hung out for a couple hours. My father had gone through his Scout box and found some patches he thought Tyler would enjoy. One was for a pretty major jamboree my dad went to, and I teared up to watch my dad present these from one Eagle Scout to another.
That’s a nice memory you and your father gave him.
It was a really special day. I think what readers don’t appreciate is that I get more out of these encounters than they do. This one was extra special because I was back in my home state with my dad.
You’ve been very engaged with readers on social media as well. I think my favorite of these, though, has to be your recent Dust book-signing party on Google Hangouts.
The one with my mom? That was the most exhausting bit of fun I’ve had in a long time. It was lucky for me (and unlucky for her) that I was staying with her as Dust wrapped up. Rather than wait two weeks to get home and ship out signed copies, I had books shipped up to her house, and the two of us packed up close to a thousand books over the course of a week.
Your parents seem very much a part of your writing success.
They are. My mom has been such a huge part of my writing process, from teaching me to read as a child, working three jobs to support and raise us, making sure that we always had books, no matter what else we could or couldn’t afford, doing crosswords with me as an adult, and then reading my manuscripts and offering suggestions and making edits. The night we spent signing and packing up books was the ultimate reward for all those years of turning me into a lover of language and helping me put out the best works possible. She hung out for hours in the post office with me that week. My mom is the best ever.
There seem to be several important women in your life.
Yeah, not to sell my dad short, who is one of my best friends in the universe, but I have some incredible women in my life. My wife is my best friend. We’d rather hang out together than with anyone else. Amber has a fierce intellect; she reads a ton; she has a great heart and is very close with her family, all things that I admire.
You’ve demonstrated a gift for writing strong female protagonists. Any connection there?
I used to say that I wrote strong characters in my stories based on my mother, my sister, and Amber, but I think the truth might be more nuanced than that. I think I admire these people because of a value system that I was brought up in, and so the same people I seek out and look up to are similar to the protagonists I write.
It would be a shame to overlook your dog, Bella. She was recently on the front page of your local newspaper with you,wasn’t she?
Yeah, crazy little Bella. We rescued her a couple months after losing our previous dog, Jolie. I was a mess after Jolie died. A blubbering, staggering, heart-broken sack of flesh. Amber and I went to kennels and sat with puppies; we stopped strangers on the street to pet their dogs and were left crying in their wake; Amber went through rescue websites online, but I wasn’t ready.
And then she showed me a picture of Bella, who was six weeks old at the time, and I said I would go look at the pup. Which was all it took. Three years later, and she’s sitting here grunting at me to go for a walk. She has me completely trained. We spoil her to death. But I know now that she’s the one who rescued us, not the other way around.
I want to talk a bit more about your readers. Who is the biggest fan you’ve met?
I have at least four who would kill me if I answered this incorrectly.
Alright, let’s flip it — who turns you into a quivering fanboy?
There are a few people that I would probably be nervous to hang out with. One is Steven Pinker, whom I greatly admire. Another is Natalie Portman. I think I would be a puddle of goo in her presence.
What would you say if I told you Natalie Portman had read Wool?
I would succumb to the Kubler-Ross stages of grief.
I’d assume you were lying to me.
I’d get pissed at you for getting my hopes up.
What’s the third step — bargaining? And then depression.
I’d think of what amount I’d pay or what limb I’d give up to make this true. Then I’d realize that she has read it but that no one has told me this because she very publicly denounced the work as garbage unfit for human consumption.
Finally, I would accept that Natalie Portman is so far out of my league that these fantasies of mine just need to stop.
If we can’t talk about your biggest fan, let’s talk instead about your favorite letter from a reader.
That one’s easy. I’ve had a ton of great fan mail, but it was a very early piece that I’ll never forget. It was a letter from someone who had just read Half Way Home.
How early are we talking about here?
This was well before Wool took off. This reader wrote me to let me know what this book meant to her. She explained what it was like being gay in high school, how difficult it was coming out to friends and family, and how alone she felt for so long. She praised Half Way Home for having a gay protagonist where his sexuality isn’t the center of the plot or what defines him, and she said she never thought she’d see a story like this. Where it wasn’t gay fiction, but fiction that just happened to have a main character who’s gay.
That sounds — I can only imagine how good that must have felt to hear. How did you respond?
I bawled. I let Amber read it, and she bawled as well. I had come up with the idea for that book while the two of us were hiking in the woods with our dog, and I told Amber that the main character should be gay because 5%-8% of all main characters should be gay. Just by chance alone. We talked about everything that this reader was now picking up on and appreciating, and it made me feel like I had this connection with a stranger, this insanely powerful connection on an intellectual and emotional level. At the time, I’d sold maybe two thousand books. I had a small readership. I would’ve been content to have just that one reader.
But you have thousands of readers. And not just in America — you’ve seen some terrific success overseas. Have you had an opportunity to visit and meet readers in other countries?
I have, and I’m about to do some more of this. This year, I’ve been to the UK, Ireland, Germany, Australia, and New Zealand. In the next few months, I’m going to Germany, Italy, Spain, France, Finland, Turkey, and Amsterdam. Next year, I’m heading to Thailand and back to New Zealand.
That’s a lifetime of travel for some people.
This has been completely unexpected, this overseas readership. It’s so cool to travel to the other side of the planet and see my book in bookstores and meet fans who are reading my words in either a second language or in translation. I’ve had a blast with these travels.
We’ve talked a bit about how far you go out of your way for readers. What if you learned you had a fan in the jungles of South America, or icelocked in Antarctica?
I’d be shocked. And then I’d see if there was some way to arrange a meeting.
Let’s talk about writing for a living. This is a dream that perhaps all authors have, and very few achieve. You’re now in a position to make a comfortable living from your writing — but in the Indie Reader story, you talk about your favorite job. It isn’t writing, but roofing.
I have a difficult time saying no to any adventure. That has led to me moving a lot and taking on a lot of different professions. This isn’t because I’m brave or anything. On the contrary, it’s a reaction to the fear I feel all the time that I won’t live my life to its fullest.
That’s a fear I suspect many people can relate to, but aren’t always able to take action on.
I remember being nineteen years old, sitting at lunch with a white shirt and tie on with some coworkers. I was a computer repair tech, right out of a two-year college, and my life flashed before my eyes. I was going to work on computers for forty years, retire, and sit on a porch with a stack of books and a lap full of regrets.
Saying no has become anathema to you.
Whenever something comes up that feels uncomfortable, like driving cross-country to help a friend move, or jumping on a boat bound for Hong Kong, I get angry at myself for chickening out. So angry, that I force myself to say yes. And I just go and do like there’s no tomorrow. That has led to me living in a lot of places and working a lot of jobs, which turns out to be the best writing training you can ask for.
Some authors report feeling like undercover agents at their day jobs, like they have a killer secret nobody knows about. What was it like for you, working in the real world and writing novels in your spare time?
There was some of that. It’s crazy to write books and have no one know you’re doing it. I remember finishing a book one day and allowing myself to drive through a fast food joint as a reward, and feeling this compulsion to tell the cashier that I’d just written a novel. I didn’t, of course, but I remember feeling it.
Right. Who do you tell? Who could relate?
There’s this immense sense of accomplishment when you write a novel, but you don’t really get to wear it like a badge. It isn’t a public achievement, not when you have a tiny readership. I have friends who run marathons and compete in bike races, and they are always training and working up to these events, and everyone knows these accomplishments are looming and what the results are, so this life-defining hobby is something they’re able to wear on their sleeves. For writers, it’s intensely private and personal. It’s really crazy how much time and effort goes into something that has little chance of winning a large audience. But maybe that’s where the romanticism of writing comes from.
If it all ended tomorrow, would you have any regrets?
I would regret nothing. But that was true years ago, before I’d written my first novel. I’m thrilled with the life I’ve lived. I’ve had great friends, a tight bond with my family, I’ve seen so much of the world, and have accomplished more than I thought I ever would. I could die happy right now.
There’s nothing left on your bucket list?
The only thing left undone, which I’ve wanted to do for nearly twenty years, is sail clear around the world in one monster trip. If I live long enough, I’ll do this. But it won’t define me.
You’d happily go back to roofing.
In a heartbeat. Two weeks ago, a guy came by who was doing some work on my house. We’re having a front porch added, and he was going to cover the work with a tarp because of some rain heading our way. It was already windy, and the tarp wasn’t going to be fun to wrestle with, so I jumped up and spent an hour or so on the roof helping him tuck it under the shingles and nail it down. He looked at me like I was crazy for jumping up there, but I was happy as hell to do it.
Because you say yes.
You know, it’s not all that different from the last time I took a job as a roofer. I had just spent a decade working as a yacht captain. I was driving twenty-million-dollar yachts around the Caribbean, spending New Years on Paradise Island in the Bahamas, getting marooned on the tiny island of Providencia, hanging out in Cuba, living in Manhattan, cruising through the Great Lakes, all while earning up to $400 a day. I gave that up and spent two years working on roofs for $100 a day, because it meant I got to be home with my wife and dog every night. And I was happier than I’d ever been.
It isn’t about the stardom.
This is something I know about myself and feel very comfortable with; it isn’t a fear or an empty promise. Money and fame have never motivated me.
I don’t think I’ve ever seen photos of Hugh Howey in a tux, or traipsing around Vegas with an entourage.
There’s a picture of me in a suit jacket with Neil deGrasse Tyson. Does that count?
But you do seem to live a modest life. You and Amber share a small house. You hang out in T-shirts and Crocs.
We did move into a larger home once my book sales took off. We had a 750 square foot house in North Carolina. When we moved to Florida a little over a year ago, I bought a 900 square foot house. I like to think we’re living large.
Nine hundred square feet isn’t a lot of room to move around. Do you write at home?
I do. After living on boats for years, including five years on a twenty-seven-foot sailboat, any more space than this is confusing to me. Working for a home audio company, I saw houses where it takes a dozen steps to cross from the bedroom door to the bed. I have no idea what you do with all that volume of room. Personally, I have found that the fewer things I own, the happier I am. I know that’s not for everyone, but a small house just feels right to me. I don’t take up a lot of space when I write.
Amber seems incredibly proud of you. How did you two meet?
We resisted meeting each other for a few months, actually. I was working for a couple, captaining their seventy-four-foot yacht, and they kept telling me about Amber and telling Amber about me, but neither of us wanted to be in a relationship. These owners resolved the issue by inviting Amber to spend a day on the boat, and I’m paid to do whatever they want with the yacht, so the four of us spent a day together. We met; Amber told me she was studying to be a psychologist; I asked her if she was more into Skinner or Freud; she said Freud; and I decided to love her anyway.
So it was love at first sight?
It really was. Well, the falling-in-love part came later that night. We were at dinner together, which I’d resisted going to, and Amber started asking us all these personal questions. She’d throw out some bomb, like, “Who is important in your life?” then point at the three of us and say, “You, and then you, and then you.” And we’d take turns answering her questions. At some point, I was talking about my dad, and Amber reached under the table and grabbed my hand. She’s very close with her father as well. And that was the beginning of the end for us.
Did she know about your writing ambitions then?
She must have. We had only been dating for a week or so, and it was clear from that first night that she was intensely curious about who others are, as people. And I didn’t want to play a lot of games and pretend to be someone and erect walls and then reveal myself later down the road, which was how I often looked at the dating process. So there was this night on the phone when Amber was asking me about myself and my past, and I asked her to drive over to the boat to find out. When she got there, I handed her my writing, everything I’d written up to that point in my life, which included stories and poetry and letters to friends and family, and basically said, “Here. This is me. Take it home with you. Love it or leave it.”
Ha. Yeah. I think she was probably expecting something more romantic. She should’ve gotten the hint earlier, I suppose. Ten years later, I started handing her manuscripts and asking her to judge them. She should’ve gotten out while she still had a chance.
Do you think she knew that you’d find this kind of success?
She knew that I would work hard to be the best at whatever it was I was doing. When she met me, I was twenty-five and a yacht captain. I was near the top of my profession. After that, I felt like every change in my life could have been a disappointment for her. I went from being a yacht captain to a roofer. I went from being a roofer to pulling wire for a home theater company. I went from there to working thirty hours a week at a bookstore for ten bucks an hour. What I love about Amber is that only one thing mattered to her in each of these transitions was that I was happy. That’s all she cared about. We didn’t have much, but we weren’t in debt. We filled our hours with experiences and adventures. I think she reckoned we were already winning at life.
I’ve noticed that you’ve not only put readers first, but you’ve gone out of your way to support other independent artists and authors. Is there anybody you’re excited to see break out in a big way?
I have a friend who writes under the name Annie Bellet, and I think she’ll win Hugos and Nebulas in due time. I fear she won’t remember me when she blows up, but she did me a huge favor by convincing me to get into audiobooks, and she’s been someone I’ve admired in her contributions on a couple of forums. Annie is wicked smart and should probably be running a major publishing house.
The kind of success you’ve found is what many indie authors strive for — but even you’ve acknowledged that you’re a bit of an outlier. Do you see that changing? Are there more Hugh Howeys on the horizon, or is your story an anomaly?
There will be a steady stream of authors finding this level of success. Sadly, it seems as if the market will support no more than a few at a time. This has always been true of traditional publishing, and it’s the same with indie writers. As a bookseller, I watched the conveyor belt of publishing success stories transition from one writer or book to another. This will pass along to someone else, and I’ll be thrilled to see that transition happen.
Of course, the vast majority of authors will sell fewer books. This has always been true as well. There are those who decry self-publishing as a false promise, but they seem to ignore that the vast majority of those who submit manuscripts to the traditional machine never sell a single copy.
The real problem is that not enough people (in my opinion) are reading. How can we increase this pool? E-readers and indie authors are doing their part by releasing a wider variety of material at lower prices and at shorter length. I get emails all the time from people who say that my work has got them reading again or for the first time. When I hear that, I think of the other writers who will benefit. We’re all in this together. And I think, as you ask about the changing times, that the world is going to become more and more a friendly place for writers.
Along the way, you’ve become a voice — a north star, even — for many of your fellow independent authors. Was this intentional, or did you find that it came hand-in-hand with Wool’s breakout?
I don’t like to think of myself as the voice for anyone other than myself, much less the voice of a movement. I get uncomfortable when people refer to me as a poster boy. The way I look at it, I’m just damn fortunate to have been writing when I was writing. Ten years ago, and I would have queried until my soul snapped. Ten years from now, and I wouldn’t be able to compete with the massive talents that will pursue writing by going straight to self-publishing. I just happened to be here at the right time. People are paying attention to the changes in publishing, so I’m fielding a ton of questions about my journey and my choices.
The two roles that I do take seriously are these: I’ve always promoted both reading and writing, and so that hasn’t changed. I guess more people are listening, now. The other thing that I try to do, since people seem interested in the choices I’ve made, is to be as open and transparent as possible. Because I saw a lot of bad advice out there as I started my journey, and I was lucky to have escaped the pull of that bad advice. I do feel beholden to aspiring writers to speak my mind and share my anecdotal experiences. And then I urge them to go poll twenty other people before making up their mind.
How do you think traditional publishing sees you? Do they embrace authors like you, or are you a harbinger of a painful market shift?
I think we’re both. Even those who see us as potential for their own bottom lines have to feel some tension with the change we represent. And then there are those who no doubt resent us and wish to have nothing to do with us. I’m extremely cognizant of the fact that many in the traditional houses don’t like what I have to say. I’m sure many more think I’m full of shit or that my opinion doesn’t matter. Most have probably never heard of me.
What about traditionally-published authors themselves? Is there a Sharks-and-Jets relationship here, or are we beginning to hear the warm tones of “Kumbaya”?
I know there are traditionally published authors — and those who aspire to be traditionally published — who hate my guts. I’ve encountered quite a few of them online.
What’s their argument?
To them, we are cutting corners by self-publishing. We are lowering the price and esteem of literature. And I empathize with their frustrations; they went through a much more rigorous process to get where they are, and now they see people suffering less and making more money. I would hate me too. And so I can’t feel anything but sympathy for these authors and booksellers and publishers who are affected by this shift. I certainly can’t hate them back.
Some readers may have already discovered them, but you’ve written a number of books other than Wool. Do you have a favorite?
The Plagiarist and I, Zombie might be my two favorite works.
Which of your books is the most personal to you?
The Walk Up Nameless Ridge is extremely personal, but I, Zombie is my most autobiographical.
And that’s not because you’re secretly munching brains in your backyard shed.You’ve talked about Zombie as a way to process some powerful emotions that you’ve been holding onto.
Yeah, it was my first attempt to write about 9/11. It was also my way of exploring my lack of belief in free will. I think the choices I make and the way I live my life is a result of my fear that we’re all like zombies, shuffling through the world, going in circles, slowly rotting away, unable to control our appetites. You know, uplifting stuff.
I think that’s what I like best about Zombie, and something that’s different from any zombie fiction I’ve read — the idea that the zombies are painfully aware of what is happening to them, and are powerless to stop it.
It changes the way you look at zombies, doesn’t it? To me, it makes every zombie story and film more horrifying. And it expands the comparisons between us and then.
I haven’t heard you talk about Nameless Ridge, though. What makes this short story so personal?
I wrote a comment on an Amazon review once that explained what the story means to me. It’s about tackling a goal at the expense of others. It’s about valuing fame over private accomplishments. The protagonist of this short story is not the point-of-view character, which is entirely the point. The protagonist is a character who barely appears in the story at all, and I think she’s the best character I’ve ever written.
What makes her your best character to-date?
My favorite character trope is the Reluctant Warrior. This character doesn’t even want to be in my story, that’s how unassuming she is. I love that.
We’re coming up on November, known worldwide as National Novel-Writing Month (NaNoWriMo). You’ve participated in the past, haven’t you?
A lot of my books were written during NaNoWriMo. Wool 2, Wool 3, Wool 4, Half Way Home, The Hurricane, and Third Shift were all written during the last four NaNoWriMos. This year will be difficult for me, as I’ll be in Europe for the entire month of November. I’m not sure I’ll be able to pull off my 1,667 words per day while I’m on book tour.
In an Examiner interview, you recently mentioned that you might spend NaNoWriMo writing your memoirs. Is your life story ready to be told?
The interesting bits of my life are probably behind me. My yachting days were full of excitement and drama. My publishing adventures have run their course. If I circumnavigate the globe, I’ll write about that as I do it, so those will be more travelogue. So yeah, I could write my life story right now. Not sure that it’ll be all that interesting to many people. I don’t have the sort of addictions and tortured childhoods that make for gripping memoir.
I’m having a hard time imagining that there aren’t more adventures on the horizon. You’re a young guy. What is Act 2 going to be like for you?
Continued domestication for another five years or so, which means enjoying this perfect little house that we’re piecing together in Florida, and then a move back onto a boat and five or six years spent sailing around the world. I don’t have anything planned after that. I wouldn’t mind coming back and having a small farm in Virginia with lots of dogs. We’ll see.
I notice you didn’t mention anything about writing more books. Do you think you’ll ever retire from writing to focus on other things? Have you conquered this dream?
Nope. I’ll keep writing, because I love it. But I might publish under a different name. I dreamed of this even before JK Rowling’s recent adventures. I love the idea of writing anonymously. Hey, maybe I’ll write under the name James Patterson and blend right in.