Hugh Howey, author of the award winning Molly Fyde Saga, The New York Times and USA Today bestselling Wool, and his most recent release I, Zombie, took some time out of his schedule to answer a few questions about his writing process and his forthcoming novel Dust, which will see bookshelves and Kindle screens on August 17th, 2013.
Bryan Way: At what moment did you realize that writing was no longer just an aspiration or a hobby?
Hugh Howey: It was January of 2012. Wool had been out for six months, and I’d released the next three short entries in the series. I’d sold 20,000 or so titles in a short period of time; agents were calling and asking to represent me; TV producers were making offers on the rights; and I was making in a day what I made in a week at my day job. That’s when I realized — even if this was a blip that went away as quickly as it came — that I needed to quit my job and really throw myself into a writing career to see if I could make it work.
BW: How do you deal with writer’s block?
HH: I start by doubting its existence. I believe there are times when one doesn’t feel like writing or one is unhappy with the quality of what they’re writing, but one can always write. The key is to learn how to write when you least feel like it. If you can master this, you’ll have great output. And the revision process will make that output worth reading.
BW: When you develop your characters, do you have them nailed down before you start writing, or do you discover who they are through writing? Do you make extensive backgrounds on them? Is anyone in particular inspired by someone you know?
HH: Characters often appear wholecloth with all their baggage and histories in tow. It’s like watching a stranger emerge from a crowd and then start babbling about their hopes, dreams, and disappointments. I think if you’ve absorbed enough fiction in your life, and have spent enough time observing those around you, you’ll find that you have a mob of characters like these stored up in your brain, ready to take the stage at an eyeblink.
HH: I put myself in their heads. I want to smell the world around them. Touch it and taste it. It’s so easy to rely on the visual, that I make an effort to push this sense to the very bottom. I really like writing in third person limited, and being in your character’s head helps make this feel even more immediate. The goal is to write third person in a way that a reader might be fooled, months later, into thinking they were reading a book written in first person.
BW: Quite a lot of writing is planning, and almost all of it just writing, but have you had any particular ‘eureka’ moments where a problem seemingly solved itself or a fully formed idea just popped in your head?
HH: This happens all the time, especially when I’m in the beginning stages of dreaming up a novel. In Wool, the title came to me in a eureka moment. I realized that readers would vacillate between believing what was on the wallscreen and what the character hoped was out there, and I saw a way of giving them a hint that they might not catch until it was too late.
BW: A lot of futuristic sci-fi seems to be carried by the weight of a certain social, political, or scientific philosophy; for example, War of the Worlds is, among other things, a fierce and entertaining defense of evolution and natural selection. Does any of your work carry such commentary or touch on similar thematic issues you’d care to highlight?
HH: Every single one of my works is a metaphor for something important to me. I have a hard time writing if there’s no goal or point behind the work. I often have the message in mind before I have the plot.
BW: When you started writing Wool, what was the idea that got you going?
HH: It all started with the wallscreen, this single view out on a dismal world. I had just given up a career as a boat captain, which took me to dozens of countries like Cuba, Columbia, and Nicaragua. Marooned on dry land, I noticed that the 24-hour news channels paint a much different and depressing portrait of the world than the one I had seen with my own eyes. I wondered what this did to us, our sense of hope, our ambition to explore, when all we relate is the worst of human events. And so I dreamed up a society that lived a cloistered existence with only that one view out and a system of punishing those who spew hope.
BW: In previous interviews you’ve discussed how your curiosity about the ‘apocalypse’ of post-apocalyptic fiction led to the conception of Shift. Are there any unanswered questions in some of your favorite sci-fi or dystopian books or movies that ended up inspiring you directly?
HH: Almost all of my questions from other post apocalyptic books are unanswered. It isn’t normal to spell out how the world was ruined. We are just given a desolate landscape, because that provides easy tension for our plots and characters, and nobody looks back. But really, the how and even the why of the wasteland are fascinating. It wouldn’t be easy to end most life on Earth. The impactor that wiped out the dinosaurs contained hundreds of times as much energy as all the nuclear arsenals of the world combined. And life shifted course and carried on. So I challenged myself with a realistic end to humanity, how it happened, who was involved, and told the story that I feel is missing from the genre.
BW: I’ve read that you’re thinking of delving into the the realm of zombie fiction next. Can you tell me a bit about your conception of the world of the undead?
HH: I’ve already written a zombie novel entitled I, Zombie. It’s a bit different in that it is told from the perspective of the zombies. They retain all of their memories and emotions, but they find themselves unable to stop what they’re doing. So they watch themselves eat friends and family. They shuffle in circles. They are slaves to addictions much like the ones that haunted them when they were living. The book is about my lack of belief in free will. And thankfully, it came out long before the release of a film that had similar themes and ideas. If I’d seen the movie first, I wouldn’t thrown my hands up and been unable to write the book!
BW: Your next book, Dust, will be published on August 17th. I’m curious to know if you have considered writing any more Zombie fiction?
HH: I have. There are a number of events in I, Zombie that I wrote with the idea of telling the other side of the story. It may be awhile before I get back around to this, but it’s something I really want to explore.
BW: It It’s hard for a lot of people to say where they first got hooked on mystery, drama or reality tv, but zombie fiction appears to be a unique sort of genre. What got you started on the undead?
HH: I didn’t get into zombies until I started reading The Walking Dead comics by Robert Kirkman. I’d seen a few films and grew up watching Michael Jackson and his Thriller routine, but I wasn’t a geek for the genre. Kirkman changed that. And when I heard from readers who wanted to see what my addition to the canon would be like, I started playing around with chapters here and there.
BW: I noticed on your Amazon book description, you mention that I, Zombie is “Not Fit For Human Consumption,” would you mind elaborating on that?
HH: I’ll tell you what doesn’t disturb me, and that’s the ambulatory rate of the undead. Fast or slow, I love them both. Mix it up. You can’t go wrong.
What bugs me about the genre, if anything, is the feeble attempts to explain the outbreak. Give me some avian form of rabies. Give me a new recreational drug gone awry. Give me an alien virus unleashed on the human race to dwindle our numbers. But don’t give me nothing. Don’t call it ‘rage’ or something easy or silly. I want to know what happened! (Are you listening, Kirkman?)
BW: Without being specific, does anything about zombie fiction tend to bother you?
HH: I think it can be gratuitous. A lot of it feels like it’s been done before. The interesting parts of most zombie stories for me are the ways the survivors interact, not the buffet of creative kills. When zombie fiction becomes a festival of baseball bat brain bashing, my own noggin turns to goo.
BW: Thanks so much for giving us the opportunity to speak to you!
HH: My pleasure. Thanks for having me!
If you have any further questions for Hugh Howey, please leave them below!