After a varied career as a computer repairman and yacht captain, Hugh Howey turned his hand to writing. He’d self-published several novels and stories when the sci-fi dystopia WOOL, originally just a novella, found sudden runaway success in 2011. Howey found himself writing sequel after sequel to keep up with reader demand — the latest volume, Dust, was released in August.
Over email, Howey describes WOOL as “like the TV show Lost, except with an ending that makes sense. In the world of WOOL, the planet has grown uninhabitable and the remnants of mankind live in an underground silo,” he writes. “When the sheriff of this silo leaves in search of his wife, a mechanic from the lowest levels takes his place. And she begins to uncover the mystery of why they’re there and what’s really outside.”
The silos are horrific, but they’re also masterpieces of design; built to last, completely self-contained, for centuries. We find out in the second volume that they were designed by a congressman with a background in architecture — do you also have that kind of experience?
Not formally, but I wish I’d been an architect. I taught myself AutoCAD when I was younger and used to build structures out of foam board like I was a real architect. It goes all the way back to grade school when I used to buy pads of graph paper and draw out intricate house plans. I’ve always wanted to build things, but I mostly just break them and tear them apart. Writing gives me the opportunity to really create. I get to make entire worlds.
I guess the second half of that question is, how did you approach the world-building? What do silo residents do and have that we don’t? Or vice versa? And why?
I really wanted the silo to represent our planet. We live on a giant ball of rock and water, and it’s so big that it feels like the resources are limitless, but they aren’t. We transmute raw materials into waste, and that will have to end at some point. We also do a terrible job of getting along with our neighbors, even though we’re all in this together. So the silo is a microcosm of our world. The story is about real people and real problems. I think that’s why it resonates with readers the way it does.
I really like Juliette, one of the main characters, because she’s heroic but believably flawed — hotheaded, hyper-focused — in a way you don’t often see with female characters.
I have three women in my life who are all amazingly accomplished and incredibly driven. That drive is the secret to all that they’ve managed to do with their lives; it is also the source of their few failings. I think I share a lot in common with my mother, my sister and my wife. I look up to each of them and try to be like them, and I also see in each of us the ability to charge right past our destinations. Juliette is like this. We admire her, but we wish she knew when to ease up, when to soften her touch, when to let down her guard.
When I create characters, I don’t like to allow their genders to define them. One of the problems I see with a lot of strong female characters in fiction is that their strength seems to lie in displaying a masculine toughness. There is so much more than flexing a muscle or knowing how to kick someone’s butt. A greater strength, I think, lies in not wanting to fight at all but to find some other method of resolution.
Dystopias often say quite a bit about the society in which they were originally written. Is that the case with WOOL?
I hope so. I certainly tried to inject some of our times and culture into the work. In a lot of ways, the things I write about are timeless. But then we’ve had the NSA issue crop up, which makes WOOL appear prescient to some degree. I think we have a conundrum right now in that the standard of living has gone up for most people, but the gap between those standards has widened.
If the poor and the middle class (what’s left of the latter) have it better than the poor and the middle class of a hundred years ago, that feels like progress. But if the difference between the top and the bottom has grown apart, that creates resentment. It all depends on who you compare yourself to, what you are thankful for, and how much disparity you can stomach. At the time I was writing WOOL, Occupy Wall Street was going on and the Arab Spring was in full effect. People had had enough. WOOL was written in the shadow of that.