Interview with Hugh Howey

hugh_howeyWe recently had the opportunity of interviewing science fiction author Hugh Howey. Mr. Howey is the author of four young adult books part of his Molly Fyde Saga, five popular shorts featuring a futuristic dystopian silo in his WOOL series, two stand-alone novels as well as many other short stories.  Recently, Mr. Howey’sWOOL has garnered the attention of Hollywood TV producers.

The Molly Fyde Saga is a young adult series about a young woman embarking on her dream to gain some connection with her lost father.  Set in a futuristic world where space travel is the norm, alien races trade, and a war with one of ‘em complicates everything.  The main character, Molly Fyde, fights her way into the Naval Academy following in her father’s footsteps, but finds that the future has much more in store for her.

WOOL is an adult series about a strained community living in self-contained silos buried in the earth.  The world outside is dead and toxic. The story begins with a sheriff named Holston giving himself up for a “cleaning”.

Hello Hugh, thank you for sitting down with us and talking about Molly Fyde and your Wool short stories.

SFFWorld: I’d like to start with Molly Fyde and the Parsona Rescue.  I have to admit, I’m not a fan of young adult fiction, but you had me hooked with the fast-paced action.  Even when it seemed a little over the top, Molly’s story of just striving to maintain a link with her family pulled at my heart.  She’s such a spunky gal!  What (or who) inspired the character Molly Fyde?

Howey: Molly is an amalgamation of all the strong women in my life. My wife and my mother are huge influences; both have taught me that being a strong woman isn’t necessarily a matter of doing what the boys do, only better. There are unique strengths in both of them that I will never hope to possess, as much as they inspire me to work to improve in those areas. My wife is a psychologist and spent a dozen or so years between all her schooling, internship, post-doc, licensing, etc. Her resilience, drive, and compassion are all found in Molly. 

My mother raised three kids on her own while working three jobs. The successful and amazing life she’s lived has shown me that overcoming odds is not relegated to fiction; it happens. I’m humbled every time I think of the sacrifices she made for us.

Then there’s my sister Mollie, who has been more than a titular inspiration. I’ve watched her bounce back from one bad turn of events after another. Each time life gets her down, she somehow emerges as a stronger, wiser, and more content human being. This last is what I really don’t get. How she finds more confidence and grows as a person with each setback is startling to watch. My fictional Molly owes a lot to the incredible young woman I’ve watched her become.

SFFWorld: One of the other things I admired about Molly Fyde and the Parsona Rescue was your excellent world-building.  You had some awesome characters interacting in a complex galaxy where ships travel about with tricky hyperdrives, and not every corner of the star charts is safe.  Can you tell us a little bit about the universe Molly Fyde comes from?

Howey: I like to think it’s not so different from the universe I live in. I worked for eight years as a yacht captain. Some of that time was spent on my own small sailboat, which I lived on and used to tour the islands for a year. Later, I was paid to drive the rich and famous around in their multi-million dollar yachts. In these travels, I saw a diversity of cultures beyond compare. Each island of the Caribbean was like another planet. The people, the architecture, the food, the smells and sights, all were unique. You might be in a French island one day, a Dutch island the next, one with South American roots after that. As I piloted these boats with their massive dashboards of dials, knobs, and blinking indicators from one island to the next, it wasn’t difficult to go from that real job to the adventures Molly would embark on.

In one trip with my wife, for instance, we hiked inland through the Dominican Republic and swam beneath and dove off of waterfalls; a few days later we stopped the boat in the middle of the ocean, out of sight of land and in thousands of feet of water, and snorkeled with a pod of pilot whales. We explored  a dilapidated lighthouse, sat on a jetski in perfect darkness and gazed up at the Milky Way, and swam in underwater caves amid clouds of fish.

When you live in a world like this, the ones you make up seem almost derivative!  

SFFWorld: Molly Fyde has a great, sexy sidekick named Cole.  He provides the muscle behind some of he and Molly’s escapades, and is the undisputed love interest.  However, Molly also, literally, picks up a fair amount of diverse strays.  What was your intention in gathering this motley crew?

Howey: The Molly books are all about examining the human condition. I wanted a diverse crew, but not for the sake of what we’ve come to define as modern-day “diversity.” I want characters who see the worlds they visit in different ways. The beauty of fiction, in my opinion, is that it allows us to inhabit personalities unlike our own. We can feel what it would be like to be bullied without having to be bullied. That might influence us to be better people. We can experience racism, no matter what color we are; and this might alter how we look at those around us. Fiction, good fiction, can put us in the skin of another person and expand our worldview.

With a diverse cast of characters, we get more eyes to examine these worlds through. Edison has a peculiar way of seeing things, but so does someone with Aspergers syndrome. The key is to see these differences as unique gifts, not limitations. Each of Molly’s friends brings something wonderful and valuable to the team. 

Yes, even Walter.

SFFWorld: Hey, I like Walter.  I kept hoping he would give Cole some competition.  ;)

But that’s another thing I like about the book, you delved into some big picture ideas that leaves the reader thinking long after reading.  Since I’m not a fan of young adult fiction, I did squirm a little with some of their escapades and how easily they internalized the consequences.  Why did you choose to write this as a young adult novel and not for an adult audience?

Howey: That’s a good question. When I sat down to write the first Molly book, the plot I had in mind was so fanciful, I thought it would mostly appeal to younger readers. It wasn’t until I was through that I saw how gritty and realistic a lot of the scenes had become. When my editor at Norlights went through the book with me, she flat out told me that this was more than a YA book; she said it was good science fiction, period.

Because of that feedback, the series grew up quickly over the subsequent entries. Even the first book matured as we went through and made revisions. I like to think of it as a crossover book. Younger readers can enjoy the surface tension, the light and realistic romance, the characters. More mature readers tend to enjoy this as well, but also see the commentary on the human condition underlying each of the worlds they visit. My model for this was GULLIVER’S TRAVELS, and some reviewers have also pointed out the similarities to THE WIZARD OF OZ. I think all great storytelling should work on multiple levels. I hope that’s true of this series.

SFFWorld: As much as I like Molly Fyde’s story, I’d like to break away from it and grill you on WOOL.  First off, this is a great story.  It has made me a complete fan and excuse me if I drool too much.

The story of the silos remind me of The Road by Cormac McCarthy.  I know the two stories have nothing in common other than they are dystopian tales, but at its core, WOOL is about hope in the face of hopelessness, much like The Road.  At least, that’s what came across to me.  Could you tell us a little about your inspiration for this tale?

Howey: The problem with drooling, for an author, is that we can’t tell if you’re enthralled or bored catatonic. I’ll pretend it’s the former!

My inspiration for WOOL was simple: I wanted to explore the extreme dichotomy between optimism and pessimism. One of the most fascinating trends I see in the world today is a growing sense of doom even as living conditions improve. Steven Pinker gave a wonderful TED talk a few years ago about the measurable decline in violence and how that decline coincides with our supposing that violence is on the rise. What is it that makes me uncomfortable with thinking the world outside is better than I dread it to be? Why do most people assume otherwise? Would any of us bet our lives on this belief? Or is it something we pretend to think, even though we know better? In WOOL, people are faced with the real consequences of these decisions. 

The first WOOL story was also a chance to express my grief over the loss of a loved one. Maybe this was why I never promoted or talked about the story. It could also be the personal and intimate nature of its writing that makes it resonate so strongly with readers.

SFFWorld: Each of the characters in WOOL embody so much…humanity.  Their emotions hang on their every step, movement, and word. I found the prose in WOOL inspiring and moving.  Though I have many, my favorite line so far is from WOOL 3: Casting Off:

 

“He was an easy man to figure, one of those who had grown old everywhere but in his heart, that one organ he had never worn out because he’d never dared to use it.”


Broke my heart when I read that.  The language in WOOL seemed more sure of itself than in Molly Fyde, at least, the first book.  Is that a function of your writing maturing or were you trying to elicit a certain reader’s response with WOOL?  If so, what?

Howey: I certainly think my writing has matured. I love the Molly books, and I think the plotting in them is excellent, but with practice comes new skills. It also helped that I wrote WOOL without an audience in mind. I was writing for myself. It’s possible that WOOL is taking off because of this, because it’s unlike everything else out there.

Now, did I want the reader to feel anything in particular? Well, I don’t want to spoil the ending, but the readers who think there’s a happy or a sad ending are missing the point. There’s nothing but happy endings possible for Holston. The sad ending would be for him to stay in the silo and not know what happened to his wife, to doubt himself, to curse his cowardice. As soon as he makes the decision to leave (which is where the story opens, for those who haven’t read it yet), he is free.

SFFWorld: Yes, I realized that immediately when I read the first line.  Caught my breath on that one.  I’m sorry for your loss, it must have been hard felt.  But in that first line, you also give the reader reason to hope “…as only happy children do.”  Again that dichotomy between optimism and pessimism.

As the story progresses to WOOL 2 and 3, the story deepens and expands.  You flesh out your world with more characters to fall in love with, and a place that is both claustrophobic and curious.  Is this a reflection of all your time spent on a boat?

Howey: I never thought about that connection, but it’s possible. It could also be that I lived on a small boat (and now live in a small house) because of some deeper appeal that was there since birth. I built a lot of forts as a child. Most people I know did the same. Whether it was in the living room using blankets and furniture and sofa cushions — or outside with brambles, construction debris, and piles of rocks — I always wanted a self-contained nest to ball up in.

Maybe the universality of this pastime has something deeper to say about humanity than the mere entertainment of children. It could be a “cave mentality,” some primal urge to have a tight, safe place to hole up in. There’s also something appealing about self-sufficiency. My time spent cruising on my small sailboat gave me a unique appreciation for this. It was like camping, but always mobile. Every island I visited, I looked around and saw that all the things I owned in the universe were right there with me. Again, we can look to how wide the appeal for RVing and cruising are to glean some larger psychological force at play. These are grown-up kids with mobile forts; doesn’t that sound like an awesome way to spend your days?

One last thing about the silo: I think of this buried home as a tiny refuge amid a hostile and barren wasteland. Isn’t that what Earth is? There’s all that space out there, and any portion of it would kill us instantly. So what do we do with our time here? Do we spend it fighting one another, or celebrating the joy and majesty of it all? These are the questions that I think speculative fiction is uniquely able to raise and explore.

SFFWorld: Okay, since I haven’t quite finished with all of WOOL, I understand that the cleaners go out to clean with wool pads.  But other than that, wool doesn’t seem to play that big of a role in the story.  Am I missing something?

Howey: There are quite a few meanings behind the title of the series. There’s the old phrase “Pull the wool over my eyes,” which is the question raised by the wallscreens. What is really out there? Who is being deceived? Or are they? There’s also the allusion to sheep, those metaphorical blind followers who just do what they’re told, go where they’re told to go, never question. A third meaning has to do with humans being compared to sheep when we are taken advantage of or “fleeced.” All of these readings have contemporary parallels, and all are fully intended. Readers with the print editions might notice a hidden clue here and there among the page numbers.

The cover of the first WOOL is meant to highlight these multiple meanings. I’ve only pointed this out to a few people (I prefer to let readers discover these things on their own), but if you look at the center of the cover, the two ‘O’s look like eyes staring out at the beautiful world beyond. Is the wool pulled down over what we see? Or do we see through it? I really hope the answer to this question bounces back and forth for the reader as they progress through the story.

SFFWorld: WOOL has garnered a lot of attention lately.  Where do you see the series going?  Do you have plans to continue the series after the fifth installment?

Howey: I go back and forth on this. The pessimist in me assumes I’ll never sell another copy of the series. Some other part, maybe the part that reads the emails from fans and all the killer reviews, thinks the sky is the limit. I would love to see the silo on TV. I feel like the first season is practically written. Just cast the thing and shoot it.

And yeah, I have more plans for the series. There are dozens if not hundreds of potential silo stories to tell. I may take a huge risk with the next set of books; I’m still in the outlining stage and can’t yet tell if this is too far a swing in pace and style for readers. So far, I’ve been rewarded by telling an unconventional tale, so my gut tells me to continue writing what feels natural. Hopefully there will be something new for readers to dive into by March. That’s the plan, anyway.

SFFWorld: Is there anything else you’d like to tell your readers here at SFFWorld.com?

Howey: Just that I appreciate all the support. I guess it’s been three years or more that I’ve been prowling the forums and reading reviews on SFFWorld. I love the commingling of fans and writers — there’s so much I’ve learned from both groups.

SFFWorld:  It has been a pleasure talking with you, Hugh.  I look forward to reading more of your work.

Howey: Thanks so much for having me. It’s been a treat and an honor.

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