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 Timesbestselling 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.
. . . .
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 theHarry 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.
. . . .
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.
. . . .
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.