By Diane Awerbuck for The Sunday Times
Diane Awerbuck speaks to Hugh Howey about his grim vision of our underground future
Hugh Howey is an annoying man – a solid writer, a funny guy and a conscientious interviewee. I keep looking for chinks in the authorial armour, but he is self-deprecating, urbane – and a very successful tactician.
You will meet him through his hard-copy omnibus Wool – as in the stuff that gets pulled over your eyes. The book is a collection of five novellas. A proponent of self-publishing, Howey began making the stories available online in 2011 through Amazon’s Kindle system.
The series requires a demonically organised personality: “I wanted to continue the serialised release of the story by publishing the work in parts. This meant having the entire story mapped out ahead of time so I could foreshadow events in book two that would become relevant in book five. I also put a lot of pressure on myself to release the stories rapidly. I got very little sleep for a few months.”
To put it mildly, the entries grew in popularity. Howey eventually went the route that all self-publishers do if they can: he signed with a major bricks-and-mortar publisher. He retains the online publishing rights. It seems fitting, considering the subject matter of Wool – self-sufficiency and sidestepping the system.
Wool, dystopian and disturbing, is set in the 50 or so underground silos that are all that is left of the old world. In the 100 or so storeys, from “up top” to “down deep”, entire societies must live without recourse to the outside.
Most of the hard-copy omnibus deals with the travails of Jules, a broken-hearted, grease-streaked Rosie the Riveter, a believable (if over-achieving) protagonist who finds herself hoiked up from the bowels of the silo when she is unexpectedly made sheriff.
“Great science fiction has the ability to tell a story while also imparting a lesson or a glimpse into our collective soul,” Howey says, but his hand is light when it comes to theme. The themes of Wool are the themes of all writing: question authority; stick together; do the right thing. When I ask how deliberate that process is while he’s working, Howey says he “revels” in theme.
“My stories are soaked in them. I recently spoke to a group of college students and one of them asked if all the meaning their professors point out is really there, and I told them, ‘Yes.’ In my case, I purposefully layer metaphors throughout my works. Each story is really about something beneath the surface, some idea that I’m tackling in my own studies like free will or hope or immigration.” It’s what literature is for, beyond the idea of the pleasurable escape and immersion.
This is not to say that Howey pontificates. He prefers thorough, detailed descriptions of mechanical procedures coupled with that rare thing: the likeable female hero.
“My research was my former careers,” he says. “I worked as a computer technician out of high school and later became a yacht captain. Running a large motor yacht is similar in some ways to overseeing a silo. You are forced to be self-reliant at sea, which means sacrificing some systems in order to keep others running. You have to carry a lot of spares. You have to deal with your rubbish piling up. And you have to know a little about everything.”
He agrees that speculative fiction allows, more so than other genres, for the marriage of a decent plot with good writing. “The kind of science fiction I like to write is the kind that draws in new readers to the genre. I like to keep the worlds recognisable enough that readers don’t feel lost in them. And I try and build my worlds around grounded and believable characters, because they are always the true heart of a story.”
Yet Howey has no compunction in killing off his beloved protagonists. “I take pleasure in torturing readers,” he jokes in a Wired interview. “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.”
Howey is clearly a proponent of suffering. Good writing, like life, is discomfort “punctuated by moments of relief, of resolution, of happiness”. He goes on to bemoan the absence of real tension or fear in mainstream film and television. “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.”
What’s more important, I ask, a rollicking read or beautiful prose? It’s nice (nice!) to have both if you can get them, Howey says, but if he had to choose, he’d go for the rollicking read.
“I think those of us in the business of putting books together, or critiquing them, miss this distinction, which is why some people scratch their heads at the success of stories deemed to be poorly written. But readers have shown over and over again that they prefer a gripping story over lovely prose. I strive to provide both, but story is king.”
Howey himself reads all over the place, mostly non-fiction. “History, psychology, and philosophy – anything that delves into human nature. Steven Pinker, Judith Rich Harris, Daniel Dennet and Bill Bryson are some of my favourite authors. In the realm of fiction, I enjoy anything by Neal Stephenson and Neil Gaiman.”
The influence of the last two can be seen in almost any science fiction written in the last 15 years. Again, it’s that marriage of the original universe with the major emotional investment in character that impresses readers. And Wool does the same.
“Storytelling is one of our species’ most incredible gifts and deepest of urges,” Howey says. “If you pay attention, you’ll see we are telling each other stories all the time. We hardly stop. There has never been a better time to be a reader or a writer.”
He’s not kidding. Howey is so persuasive that readers complain that his books are too cheap. “Readers wanted to know where to donate a few extra dollars, so I had to add a button to my website. And now pirates use that button to send me money after stealing the books and reading them for free. That amazes me.”
His work somehow escapes the curse of achievement: Wool retains its plangency and passion throughout. “If this book was a song, what would it be?” I ask. He doesn’t even have to think. “A sad lament, a graveyard song. It would be “Down to the River to Pray” by Allison Kraus from Oh Brother Where Art Thou?”
Good Lord, show me the way.
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