Hugh Howey is a self-described “bum,” who for the past twenty years has bounced from job to job—computer repair, roofing, yacht captain, bookstore clerk. In his spare time he wrote science fiction, and after growing impatient with the long waits and uncertain rewards of traditional publishing, he began self-publishing his work on Amazon.com. Just a few years later, his post-apocalyptic novel Wool, typed out in a storage room during his lunch breaks at the bookstore, was earning him over $100,000 a month on Amazon, had secured him a six-figure book deal from Simon & Schuster, and had been optioned for film by Ridley Scott, director of Blade Runner and Alien.
This interview first appeared on Wired.com’s The Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy podcast, which is hosted by John Joseph Adams and David Barr Kirtley. Visit geeksguideshow.com to listen to the entire interview and the rest of the show, in which the hosts discuss various geeky topics.
You started self-publishing these ebooks on Amazon.com just a few years ago; could you tell us, at that point, how long had you been writing for, and had you ever tried working with a traditional publisher?
I started writing in 2009, and I had just started sending out my very first manuscript to friends and family, and my idea was to polish it up and maybe serialize it on a blog or something, just give it away, and I had enough people tell me I should explore publishing this because they liked it better than stuff they were reading out of the bookstore. So I kind of got peer-pressured into going that route and ended up with a small press and everything went well, but I guess what I saw was, the way that they were publishing it, all these tools were available to me, so I thought, “I can do this.” So when the contract came in for the second book, I decided to self-publish instead, and I’ve been doing that ever since.
And what made you ultimately decide that self-publishing was right for you? Did you know other people who were doing it or?
No, I didn’t, and I had no aspirations of making it as a full-time writer, to be honest. Self-publishing, for me, was a way of getting published and the other way took years of querying, trying to land an agent, trying to get a publishing contract, a year from the publishing contract to actual publication, so it was never about making money or trying to get into bookstores; for me, it was all about writing stories and trying to distribute them. The self-publishing tools, like print-on-demand and epublishing, just made it possible to give myself a wide reach with zero up-front cost and no time wasted.
I heard you say that before Wool came out, you had sort of laid out on an Internet message board what your plan was for what you hoped would happen with it.
Well, it wasn’t so much what I thought would happen with me. I geek out over publishing in general; I was working in a bookstore, and I just love watching the changes in that industry, and what I was postulating was that, in the future, people wouldn’t worry about getting agents, or querying, or writing pitches, or proposals, or things like that, they would simply go directly to the reader and establish a relationship there, and once their demand hit a certain level, agents and publishers would come to them. It was something I thought would happen to other people. It’s bizarre that, within a few months of posting that, it started happening to me. But at the time I was laughed out of the forums, they said I was crazy, the agents didn’t have time to browse bestseller lists, but some of the agents who piped in are now doing exactly that, so change has happened so fast that what seemed ridiculous within a year has now become standard.
What sort of websites were those that you were hanging out on and posting messages on?
I will say one of the better places I found on the Internet for aspiring writers now—and I think traditionally published authors can learn a lot by hanging out there—is the Writers’ Cafe on Kindle Boards, and that’s where Amanda Hocking used to hang out there, David Dalglish, some of the pioneers of self-publishing. They share what works and what doesn’t, what they’re writing, what promotions work, how to price their work, all the questions you could come up with, it’s all in these forums, it’s really impressive.
Okay, let’s talk about Wool. Could you just walk us through how you came up with that idea and how it developed into the omnibus?
I had the idea for a longer novel, but I was writing several novels a year, and I didn’t have time to get to this one story, and it was really consuming me, so I decided to write it as a shorter piece, and it ended up being about twelve and a half thousand words. The idea was a world where people live underground in this silo, and their only view of the outside world is this single screen. The idea came to me from moving from a career as a yacht captain, and traveling widely and seeing the world and living in it, to being domesticated by my lovely wife, living in one place and relying on TV, the Internet, and newspapers to know what the world was like, and it was terrifying to see how different the picture was painted because of the filters. The only thing that really makes it to the news is bad news typically, and so I came up with the idea of this world where the only thing you know about the outside world is this screen that filters that view, and what do you trust, what does it do to the people living inside the Silo? Do they become terrified to explore, what does it do to their sense of hope? That, to me, is the character in the story more than the Silo in that first short story, that wallscreen. And then from there, the demand for more caused me to serialize and write the rest of the series, which is what’s been combined into a single novel now.
How did the demand actually first start to come about? Did people just email you directly, or did they post messages in reviews on Amazon, and that’s where you determined that, “Oh!, people really love this, and I need to write more of it?”
That’s exactly it, they did both of those. I was getting emails from all over the world. The reviews were very personal; from the very beginning, people would write a review as if they were writing it directly to me. You know, they would say, “Great book, where’s the rest of it, and if you’re reading this, please keep writing more.” And so I would even comment on the review and say, “All right, I’m working on it,” and then I basically dropped what I was writing, my next novel, and went back to this world and wrote another short piece, and I figured they enjoyed it the first time, something you could finish in an hour, and I published the second story and started on the third, and wrapped it up in these five entries, and together they formed like a five hundred and fifty page novel. But yeah, it was real fun getting the feedback during that process.
So is it fair to say that you started the first one just intending that to be a standalone, and then parts two, three, four, and five, you sort of plotted out the whole thing, and then wrote them, or did you kind of come up with the ideas one at a time?
I wrote the first one as a standalone, and there was going to be no more—anyone who has read the work can kind of see how that was the case—but starting with the second one, I plotted out what now is even the works I’m working on now; I had to come up with the backstory and the eventual fate of these characters. I’ve got it plotted out to the end of Dust, which is the end of the saga, and then I’ll move onto something else.
Currently there’s the Wool omnibus, and then what else comes after that?
Okay, so in the end, it will be three collected novels: the first is Wool, which is the omnibus edition of Wool, and then the second is Shift, and the third is Dust, and so, like, Random House in the UK is publishing this as a trilogy, and they already contracted that and got the artwork and the pre-order pages, and Shift will be out next month, or in April, and Dust will be out by the end of the year.
Actually, speaking of artwork I saw you got this amazing fan artwork for Wool.
Jasper Schreurs did that. He lives in the Netherlands, and he is a master Dutch-trained artist, and he, like, designed the currency for Fiji, of all things, and does ad campaigns for Fortune 500 companies. And he sent me two pieces, just out of nowhere, that piece and the cover for the first Molly Fyde story. And I’ve now commissioned him to do more cover art. I’m redoing the Molly Fyde books with his cover art on them. Guy’s amazing.
All right, let’s talk about the setting of the Silo. Could you just talk about what sort of research you did, or did you consult with anyone in coming up with the mechanics of that place?
No, I thought I was making this all up. What’s interesting is I’ve seen people who are converting old Atlas missile silos into—I mean, they look exactly like the way I envision it and describe the Silo: the micro-living quarters and mechanical spaces on the bottom, and hydroponic gardens. So it’s, I guess, an idea that’s been independently converged on by several people, but in my story the Silo’s much deeper. It’s one hundred and forty-four levels, and it’s very delineated by class and by professions: at the bottom, you have the mechanics, and in the middle, you kind of have the middle class, the merchants and the farmers; up top you have more of the white collar jobs and the administrative personnel. Like most good dystopia, there’s a lot of satire and commentary on the human condition there.
One of the technical details that really struck me was that when people are sent out from the Silo, the chamber fills with argon gas, and I was just wondering, how did you come up with that detail? I thought that was really cool.
It was the idea of having a pressurized compartment so that the outside air was kept outside, and I thought that a noble gas or something that wouldn’t—something that was readily available but wasn’t a reactant, would be intelligent. Had I known when I wrote that, that like a half a million people would read it, I probably would have done more research, but a lot of it’s just common sense, I guess. There’s probably physicists reading some of this and cringing, a certain subset will take umbrage with some things that are not commonly understood, like someone wires a pump up underwater, which I’ve done before, it’s completely possible, so . . .
While I was reading this, I was thinking to myself that this is a guy who knows a lot about mechanical things and a lot about computers. Could you just talk about what sort of personal experiences you drew on to create the Silo?
I’ve been a bum. It really helps to have, like, twenty professions behind you, I believe, to be a writer. My first career out of high school was as a computer repair technician, and it was in the mid-nineties when people were just getting online, and AOL discs were everywhere, and Windows 95 was coming out, and from there, my next big career was as a yacht captain, and you become a jack-of-all-trades when you operate big boats. I mean, these were hundred-foot-plus motor yachts with several decks and levels and smaller boats inside of them and pumps and engine rooms, and you have to be an electrician and a mechanic and a carpenter and know how to lay out fiberglass and do all kinds of things. Growing up on a farm, my dad was a small grain farmer, and we were always fixing things there. I just think all those experiences helped.
And so you had grain silos in the backyard, right?
We grew up with these big grain silos we used to climb around inside and on top of. I don’t know if having those there influenced me or not, but they’re definitely part of my childhood.
Were there any books in particular that were an influence on Wool?
I don’t know about books that influenced Wool. I think someone pointed out to me some of the similarities are, like, really glaring in hindsight, but at the time I wasn’t thinking about them, but when I was in talks with one TV production company, they were like, “Are you a fan of the Fallout games?” and I thought, “Oh, god, yeah . . . I’m surprised I didn’t call it the Vault instead of the Silo.” But I played the original two Fallout games when I was young, and I didn’t get into the first person shooter variety that have come out more recently, but I guess that was really popular when the Wool books started getting popular. So a lot of people saw that as an influence. I would say, book-wise, 1984, Brave New World, Fahrenheit 451, those sorts of stories influenced me in seeing science fiction as a form of satire.
Did you ever read a book called This Time of Darkness by H.M. Hoover, by any chance?
I have not.
Okay, that was the one that it reminded me the most of. It’s about these people, and they’re in kind of like a multilevel structure, and they believe that the whole world outside is completely irradiated or something, and they don’t even know that they’re underground, and it turns out at the end that they’re underground and for the people on the surface everything’s fine, and they don’t even know that these people were living underground.
That’s great. You know, what’s amazing is how rare an original idea is. I’ve got several other stories, and some of the harshest reviews are people accusing me of ripping off stuff that I’ve never read or seen or heard of. I think non-writers don’t understand how the idea is the easiest part of writing. Everyone has ideas. The hard part is sitting down and spending the hour after hour, day after day, to turn it into a book. I actually don’t like reading in the genres that I write in, because if I encounter anything that’s similar to something that I’m working on then I can no longer work on it; I have to do something different.
I was actually going to bring up the Fallout series, because I also saw that parallel as well. To me, it was interesting because I thought it felt fresh even though it was a familiar idea, and I think that’s the trick that you’re saying non-writers don’t understand—making that thing feel fresh even when it’s something that we’ve seen before.
Yeah, people living underground. I mean, 12 Monkeys—that has a very similar kind of setting: people underground, the world’s gone to hell. That is such a common theme. I saw someone else compared it to City of Ember. I haven’t even seen this movie, and I’ve got someone all over my case for ripping off something I’ve never seen before. People living underground is such an old concept, I just think if anyone thinks that’s what the story’s about, people living underground, then I did a horrible job telling the story because that’s the most boring and easy part of this story. That’s why I support fan fiction; I think people writing stories in my world—my world’s the easy part. I mean you can write a story in the world we live in, or you know, the time of Alexander the Great; that doesn’t give you a story, it just gives you a setting.
Let’s talk about the fan fiction. Am I understanding it right, that you’re actually encouraging people to write and sell fan fiction that they write set in your world?
Yeah, is that a bad idea?
All the older writers we talk to seem to think that you’re in danger of somehow losing your rights to the story if you do that, but I don’t know.
If I lose my rights to the story, that means we can all write in that world, right? I mean, I can’t imagine what bad could come of this. I plan on writing three novels in this world, and then that’s it, I’m going to move on to other stuff, and I encourage anyone [to write in it]. I think it’s just unbelievable flattery that anyone would want to write in a world that you made up, and I think creative endeavors, if they can be supported by paying customers, that’s just absolutely brilliant. I just got an email from someone today who wrote poetry inspired by Wool, and enough people bought his ninety-nine cent book of poems to fill up his car with gas this week and what that meant to him, and it brings tears to my eyes to think that there’s another artist out there who’s earning something by bringing other people happiness. That’s just incredible.
I want that to be the case—I really would like to encourage more fan fiction for everything—but older fantasy and science fiction writers always cite this one case. I don’t know the details, but somehow Marion Zimmer Bradley had encouraged fan writers, and then one of them had showed the book to her; then, when she wrote a book that was kind of similar to one of these fan things, the fan sued her for stealing her idea, and it was a whole big mess. It’s like stuff like that.
There’s so many good things you can do, and letting the chance of a bad thing happening to you stop you from doing good things is just not how I want to act. I think living in fear . . . it’s kind of what Wool is about, it’s about whether or not you should live like that or live completely naïve, the way I live. I would rather be naïve and get burned than live with the idea that we have to have a Leviathan locking everything down.
Okay, so when did you first get the hint that Wool was going to turn into this big phenomenon, and what are just some of the big milestones that stick out in your mind?
God, I feel like I’m still not processing that this is becoming—I mean, I still feel like, in a lot of ways, it’s still an unknown thing, it’s still underground, and that it’s going to stay that way. I’m having a really difficult time coming to grips with how many people have seen or heard of this or read it. Some of the big milestones to me were when agents started getting in touch just over about a year ago and when publishers started making offers, and seeing my name in Publishers Weekly or a story on me in Entertainment Weekly, and then the Ridley Scott deal was a big milestone, just hearing that he was interested, and then signing a deal with him and Steve Zaillian. And the Random House and UK publishing deal, and seeing the book in bookstores in London, and then the Simon & Schuster release here in the US, so, I don’t know, we’re up to like twenty-six foreign countries have picked this up, and the fact that someone like John Joseph Adams is interested in anything I’ve written for one of his anthologies, I geek out over all of this stuff. Seems like every week there’s some kind of weird milestone.
Speaking of the Ridley Scott movie deal: Do you know how likely it is that they’re actually going to make a movie? I know a lot of things get optioned, and it’s great, but then nothing ever happens. Have you had anything back to how likely it is that this is actually going to happen?
I went into this telling everyone, “Look, there’s never going to be a movie, they just option the book, and that’s what happens to books,” and then they never—look at what happened to Ender’s Game. It’s one of my favorite books of all time, and it spent decades in development hell, and it’s just now [finally] coming out. For so long I’d been telling everyone there’s no chance, but the producers and the executives at Fox are leading me to believe otherwise. So I would say right now the chances are about fifty-fifty, which is huge, I think, for film. It’s about as good as the odds ever get.
So, looking back, what are some of the advantages and disadvantages of starting out as a self-published author, do you think?
Advantages: God, this podcast’s probably not long enough [to list them all], but the biggest advantage is the patience. When you hit release, your book does not have to do well the first week like it does with a traditional book, where you’ve got a limited window, it’s only on the shelf for a few months, and you’re not going to see sales ten years from now, you really have to blow it out early on. With self-publishing, it could be ten years before your books take off, so you don’t have to be impatient with the book doing well, and you also can spend more time writing. I think there’s this misconception that self-published authors have to do all this extra work. I’ve never been busier than when I started signing traditional contracts, and publishers have all these media demands, and I’m flying around and signing contracts and talking to agents and doing book tours. When you self-publish, you don’t spend time querying and doing all those other things, you get the book as perfect as you can, make it available, and you work on the next thing. Another advantage: You don’t have any non-compete clause. You can publish in whatever genres you want, as often as you want, at whatever length you want. You make a lot more money—the royalty difference is huge—and there are tens of thousands of writers out there paying a bill or making a full living off their writing, and I would say that number used to be in the hundreds of people living off their fiction alone, so the number of writers who are earning is just blowing up.
So the disadvantage? I don’t know if I can think of any. I mean, you’re not going to get your book in bookstores, but very few authors are making a living from selling books in bookstores anyway. Most of them are spine out and only there for a short period of time. So, I don’t know that that’s a huge thing you’re giving up.
When you say that there are tens of thousands of independent authors making a living, where is that figure coming from? Do you know that from Amazon or where is that reported?
I know that from Amazon. I’m trying to get them to release the numbers, but I spent time with the people at Amazon who go over these things, you know. I’ve had dinner with the heads of KDP [Kindle Direct Publishing] and CreateSpace, and I think I’ve met most of the management there except for Jeff Bezos, so this is the thing that I’m trying to get them to really highlight, because they love highlighting, and I think they do a good job of this: They highlight the outliers like myself, and how many of their bestsellers of 2012 were self-published, which I think was like a quarter of them. But to me the story, what I think is more fascinating, is how many people are making two hundred dollars a month self-publishing, and when I pose that question, I can get some vague numbers from them. They know the actual numbers, they’re just trying to figure out how to reveal that story best.
How do you think readers actually find self-published authors? Do you have any ideas how people actually found Wool, and how it got to the public consciousness like it did? Obviously, once you get some success, word-of-mouth can sort of spread, but it always kind of puzzled me how, in the sea of everything that’s available on Amazon, how you even find something like that.
One of the ways is all indie authors become indie readers, and you interact with each other, and you say, “Hey, check out my work,” and when you find something great, you end up telling all your friends about it, and they trust you because you’re a writer. So a lot of it is discovered there, and I meet more and more readers now—I interact with thousands of readers on my Facebook page—who say they only read indie authors now because of the price of entry and the joy of discovery. It’s like listening to indie rock bands. For people who don’t read that way, they can’t conceive that there are people who read like that. It’s like the people who only listen to Top 40 music can’t conceive of someone going into a record store, back when they had them, and grabbing a CD off the shelf that they’ve never heard of just because the name of the band and the names of the songs, and some jacket copy and some art, like, who in the world would ever buy an album like that? But I used to buy albums like that, and I used to love when I actually found a good one, and I would tell all my friends, like about Blind Melon, this crazy band that I discovered on my own and saw them when there were ten people in the audience, and when they blow up, it’s like, that’s such a great feeling, and there are, I don’t know, hundreds of thousands of readers out there that were just downloading free books, ninety-nine cent books, reading a few pages at a time. If they don’t like it, they read the next one, they’re not out that much money. When they find a great one, they read it all the way through, and they tell ten other people about it, and that’s how this is happening. Wool took off by word-of-mouth alone, there was no marketing or promotion behind it at all until it was selling a thousand copies a month.
Can you say who are some of the other indie authors that have blown up or that you think will blow up soon?
It’s hard to predict who will blow up soon. The ones who have blown up, a lot of them are romance and the new young adult authors like Colleen Hoover and Bella Andre. Matthew Mather is a guy who I think deserves to be read. David Adams is another guy that I really like. I think Annie Bellet is going to win a Hugo and a Nebula at some point in her career. I’ve promoted a lot of people on my website. When I discover a great piece of indie work, and some of the fan fiction writers who are now working on other stuff, like W.J. Davies who wrote The Runner—a piece of Wool fan fiction—he’s working on this novel, and I can tell you from reading his fan fiction, I’m preordering his novel; the guy can write. So, yeah, I find a lot of this stuff, these things, from hanging out in writing forums, and from having people send me sample chapters, and if they can capture me in the first sentence or two, then I’ll read the rest of what they send me, and then I’ll want to read more.
After all your indie success, you eventually did get an agent and started signing book deals with traditional publishers. Why did you finally decide to make that transition?
Initially we weren’t going to sign any deals here in the US. I was never going to give away my digital rights because that’s really where the money is, and as soon as publishers get a hold of ebook rights, one of the first things they do is they jack up ebook prices to protect the print rights, and I always thought that was unfair to readers to do that and bad for the product as well. So we started signing foreign contracts, and then that’s why the Random House UK deal was really exciting because that was the first foreign deal that was going to be in my language. I get to be part of the editorial process, so it was like having a real publisher, but I wasn’t competing with myself because that wasn’t a big market for me. The reason I signed with Simon & Schuster is they finally came to me with a print-only deal that we heard would be an impossibility, but then within eight months of turning down other offers, they finally came to us with what was a pretty ground-breaking deal. So I still consider myself a self-published author, but someone’s just printing the physical copy of what I’ve already done in ebook form. And all my other books that I’ve released since then, I’ve gone straight to self-publishing. No part of me wants to query or wait for a publisher to do anything. I’m just going straight to the reader, and if a publisher wants to do something with that work afterward, I’ll listen to what they have to say, but I don’t want the validation of going with a traditional publisher. To me, my position is stronger being an indie author than it would be to think of myself as a traditionally published author.
Okay, so you and John actually met at WorldCon in Chicago last year. Could you just talk a bit about how you guys ran into each other and what sorts of things you talked about?
Yeah, John got in touch before WorldCon, I believe, and we talked about me writing something for Lightspeed, or for one of his anthologies, and I told him what a huge fan of Wastelands I was. We geeked out over . . . well, I guess we had a little mutual admiration society forming there, and so we definitely said we’ve got to meet up while we’re both at WorldCon. And while we’re there, we decide to go to lunch; John and his wife and I went to this great little sandwich place, and we spent a couple of hours in person talking and getting to know one another—talking about science fiction and what we’re reading and all this other stuff. And it wasn’t until we walked all the way back to the hotel, and [our conversation went something like this]:
“So you’re on the west coast now; where else have you lived?”
“Oh, that’s crazy, that’s where I live right now. Where did you grow up?”
“No way! That’s where my wife grew up. What school did you go to?”
“I’m pretty sure that’s where she went, what year?”
“Class of ’94.”
“My wife’s Amber Lyda.”
And I’m like, “Holy crap, I totally remember her!” I knew exactly who you were talking about, and given that I hadn’t kept in touch with my high school classmates, it wasn’t likely that I would have actually have known who you were talking about. But, yeah, it was funny because Amber and I had a bunch of our classes together from seventh through tenth grade or something. (Then I actually dropped out of high school so I didn’t actually graduate there, but in grades seven through ten we were in a lot of classes together.)
Yeah, I dropped out of college, and meanwhile Amber went on and got a doctorate so, shows the kind of people she hangs out with, I guess.
Before we met up for lunch, we actually had a panel the day before, but we didn’t really get to talk before or after the panel, we just talked to each other and to the audience on the panel. But the panel was on the difference between dystopian and post-apocalyptic fiction, and actually it was really exciting that that room was totally full—it was jam-packed with people, and a lot of young people too, so that was really encouraging.
I had several people, later, tell me that that was their favorite panel of the whole WorldCon, and there were people sitting in the aisle, and standing at the back and crowding around the door, it was very exciting.
You just got back from a big book tour. Do you have any funny stories from that trip?
Yeah, gosh, too many funny stories! Boy, it was amazing, it started off in Austin at South by Southwest, and I got to spend some time with Ernie Cline there, the author of Ready Player One, who drives a DeLorean, which is as cool as that sounds. I actually got to ride in Ernie Cline’s DeLorean, and go to lunch with him, and then the next night we went out to a movie, and we kept thinking it was going to go further, but we never reached first base together. But I’ll never forget the two nights we had. [laughter]
Also, in Austin, I was there when the Wall Street Journal article came out about me, it was the entire front page and the whole second page inside the Friday arts section. I happened to have one in my hand when I was waiting in line for lunch, and I saw David Carr of the New York Times standing there, and it’s occurred to me that David hasn’t, well, not just David, but really no one has written on what we talked about earlier: the fact that self-publishing is becoming a way for authors to make a living writing—not just for outliers like myself, but for the midlist self-published authors. So I went up to David Carr and said, “Hey, I’m a huge fan of your work,” I mean, I don’t know if I mentioned this to him, but I get home delivery of the New York Times, I read it every day, and I love it, and I told him “I’m a huge fan of your work. I really think you guys should be covering this,” and I handed him a copy of his competition, and he’s probably a pretty flat-demeanored guy anyway, but it didn’t make him . . . he wasn’t thrilled to be handed a copy of the Wall Street Journal, but yeah, he was busy talking to other people and didn’t, I don’t think he ended up reading the article. But I thought that was funny to see two of my heroes and then realize later that I probably, I don’t know, it’s probably not the smart thing to do to go hand him a copy of the Wall Street Journal.
Speaking of Ernest Cline’s DeLorean, we’ve seen it described as a Back-to-the-Future-modded DeLorean. Did you notice any Back to the Future modifications on it?
Oh yeah, he had a flux capacitor and had a hoverboard and a little Lexan stand so that it looked like it was hovering when you put it on the ground. It also had some Ghostbusters stuff; the trunk was full of ghost traps and ecto-beams. And he had a red light across the grill like KITT from Knight Rider. So, yeah, it was really cool. He’s the real deal. He is the guy from Ready Player One.
Any progress on convincing him to drop Patrick Rothfuss as his best friend and declare you his best friend instead?
No, there’s no chance in hell. Patrick Rothfuss is just so much cooler than I am. Oh, another cool thing that happened at WorldCon: I go to my reading, which is in this small room, and the room was packed, and I thought, “No one’s heard of me, why is this room full?” Well, Patrick Rothfuss was speaking in that room afterward, but it was too small for him. The people who put on WorldCon must not have known who he was. They didn’t know that this guy is, you know, the next George R.R. Martin, the next Tolkien, so they didn’t prepare adequately. And they had him talking after me in this tiny room, so all these people came an hour early to get seats, and they were going to, you know, suffer through my reading. So when he showed up—by then the hallway was packed, and we had to leave to go to another room—he led us like a piper leading rats, and we all followed dutifully and crammed into this room that’s four times as big but we still couldn’t get everyone in. And boy, he was the most engaging, charismatic speaker I’ve ever seen. So I think Ernie has done very well to land Patrick Rothfuss as his best friend. I’m happy being, like, his third or fourth best friend, if I can even claim that.
So, what did you read at WorldCon?
I read The Walk Up Nameless Ridge, which is, I think, only available as a Kindle Single. I wrote it in a day and I think it’s one of my stronger pieces. I submitted it to that program just to see if they’d reject it. This is the first thing that I really ever submitted to anyone to see if it would win inclusion in something like that. The advantage [to publishing with Kindle Singles] was it’s a double royalty rate for a ninety-nine cent work, and I thought, “I’ve got nothing to lose.” I think it’s one of my better pieces.
So you have an original apocalyptic story called “Deep Blood Kettle” in the April issue of Lightspeed. You want to just briefly tell our listeners about that one?
That’s another one that came to me, and a lot of it is similar to The Walk Up Nameless Ridge. I got up to write something else that day, and ended up writing what was initially called “The Cliff.” This was back in November or December, and the fiscal cliff was the big thing in the news, so I wrote a piece that features humanity in this quandary: They can choose one of two things, and they need to choose in order to save themselves; it’s the tension of whether or not they’ll make the right choice [that drives the story]. I drew on growing up as the son of a farmer; that’s the main character in the story. I thought it was really cool of [John] to express interest in it. Otherwise, I would have just put it up on my website or something and called it “The Cliff.” But I think it works better as something that isn’t grounded in that one instant of current events. I think it speaks to a broader truth and I like the title better now. But the best part of that was working with someone of your stature as an editor. Making it a better work was a lot of fun.
All right, cool. So why don’t you tell us, besides Wool, what other works do you have that people should go check out?
I have a young adult science fiction saga, the Molly Fyde series, that I think is not too shabby. Halfway Home is a very popular work [of mine], and that one’s being shopped around for a possible film deal now.
What’s the premise of that one?
Halfway Home is like Lord of the Flies meets Alien. It’s a colony ship where the people are sent as embryos, and they’re grown in vats, but in this one case, something goes wrong, and most of the colonists die in this huge fire, and the rest escape and they’re only half-formed, so they’re fifteen years old instead of thirty and they only have half their training, so chaos ensues, and they have a hard time getting along and figuring out how to survive on this alien world. My best fan mail comes from people who’ve read that work and appreciate the fact that I just made the character gay without the story being about being gay. Also, my only hate mail really comes from people who think it’s not fair of me not to warn them going in that the character’s going to be gay, which I think is so sad that that’s something someone would want to be warned away from. [I do warn everyone away from] I, Zombie because it’s a very bleak and disgusting story, but it might be my most autobiographical, and the one that’s the dearest to me, but it’s not for everybody.
What’s it about?
It’s a zombie story told from the perspective of the zombies, and in this telling of it, they retain all of their memories, they know exactly what they’re doing, they have their personality intact, but they can’t stop themselves from being zombies, so they’re watching themselves eat strangers, family, friends, and there’s nothing they can do. They’re in a locked-in state. I think to me it’s a more interesting zombie because there’s all these parallels, each chapter tells the story of a character who has a trait that’s very human, like a drug addiction, or repeated abuse to certain family members, and there’s things that you watch yourself do, you wish you could stop, but you can’t, but you do it over and over again, and there are parallels drawn between what they’re doing as zombies and what they remember doing as humans, and so it can be a very dispiriting book to read. I’ll warn them like on the product page that this is not a zombie book, this is something different, because if you get this thinking it’s going to be people running around with shotguns blowing the heads off of zombies and how cool that is, it’s not that kind of book; the horror of it is something deeper and more sinister. There are scenes in there that I won’t describe on the podcast, but when I just did this book tour, I had people come up to me and go okay, so this scene with the mom and her daughter in the tree and then they’ll just stand back from me and shake their heads and put their hands up and their eyes will get wide, and that’s like all they have to say and we just know the scene they’re talking about and there’s just a handful of those that have had an impact on people.
So you’re just going to leave it to people’s imaginations that, you know, there’s a mom and a daughter in a tree, and you just have to imagine what might happen?
So again that’s not the worst scene in the book, I mean, there’s other stuff, I don’t even want to allude to what goes on.
Well, maybe you should consider reading those scenes live at events and see if you can get people to pass out like Chuck Palahniuk does.
I did! No, that’s how this whole book came about. All I had was chapters, and I thought, “I’m never publishing this.” And I went to a live reading in Charleston, and someone convinced me to read. They’d seen one of these chapters on my website, and they said, “Read I, Zombie,” so I read these three or four chapters, and the video went up on YouTube, and I just got a flood of people saying, “You need to finish this, you need to publish it.” And, yeah, but while I was reading it, someone was sitting there eating chicken wings, and I was like, “I don’t know how you can do that.” There’s actually a chapter about someone eating chicken wings, someone trying to become a vegetarian in college and what that was like, now they’re a zombie eating people, so I’m reading that, and someone’s just sitting there just licking their fingers, and digging into a basket of wings.
Is there anything that you’re working on now, anything coming up in the future that people should keep an eye out for?
Ah, yeah, I mean, I’m just going to keep writing, doing my thing. I keep promising to write a romance novel and that’ll happen here soon. Yeah, I’m just enjoying the process of putting out stories and having people besides my mom read them. It’s pretty cool.
Spread the word!