By the time Hugh Howey's novel Wool hit bookstores last week with a Simon & Schuster label, the self-published version for Kindle had already topped the sci-fi charts on Amazon.com. Howey is a veritable folk hero for authors doing things their own way, and when he finally decided to enter the traditional publishing world, the industry lay down at his feet.
Howey's earliest brush with the book business came in the late '90s. On the rebound from a young divorce in North Carolina, he docked his 27-foot sailboat in Charleston, enrolled in the physics program at the College of Charleston, and took a job selling books at the new Barnes & Noble on Rivers Avenue. In those days, living on the boat, he says much of his paycheck went straight back to the store. "I thought of myself as a reader, and I loved the discount," he says.
In his freshman year at the college, Howey took an entry-level English course from Prof. Dennis Goldsberry, the man who would eventually make an English major out of him. "He was this cantankerous guy who just terrified all of us," Howey says. "He told us on the first day that in order to get an A on any paper, it had to be something that made him set the paper down and go to his window and stare outside and cry." Howey never earned his degree — he set sail for the Bahamas in 1998 and found work as a yacht captain — but he says he did earn a few A's, and he took every one of Goldsberry's classes that he could.
Perhaps from his English-major days, Howey brings to his novel both a keen awareness of science fiction tropes and a flair for the high-minded and literary. Wool begins, like so many sci-fi classics, with a lot of unanswered questions. What we know is that the Earth's surface has been rendered uninhabitable, and humans are living in a silo with only a worn spiral staircase connecting the numerous floors. Somehow or another, parts of the silo's history have been scrubbed from memories and hard drives.
We are introduced to Holston, the silo sheriff, who is driven by a singular motive: He wants to be sent out on the surface, a death sentence normally reserved for dissenters. Through a series of flashbacks, we learn that Holston's wife, Allison, got herself sent outside three years prior, shortly after she discovered that an infamous "uprising" from the recent past was not the first of its kind. "I'm piecing together a series of old reports," Allison says in one of the flashbacks. "If true, they mean something like our old uprising used to take place regularly. Like once every generation or so."
As in 1984, Fahrenheit 451, and The Hunger Games before it, Wool explores the physical and spiritual poverty of a totalitarian society in the near future. "These themes come and go," Howey says. "They've been around for a long time, but maybe in the '90s, when the economy was doing great, people weren't thinking about them. Maybe each generation has to wrestle with these issues anew."
Those issues, Howey says, are as old as 17th- and 18th-century philosophers Thomas Hobbes and Jean-Jacques Rousseau: Is man a brutish beast in need of a crushing leviathan of government to keep him in check? Or is man a noble savage, corrupted by civilization but at his best when freedom reigns? The obvious analogies in Wool are the silo for Hobbes and the surface for Rousseau. "There has to be some balance between the two," Howey says, "and I think in this age of extremism, people are picking up [Wool] and realizing that there's this middle ground and this delicate balance that we're hoping to achieve."
It's weighty material for a blockbuster novel, but Howey pulls it off with grace, weaving a tight story that feels more like a page-turner than a philosophical treatise. And the proof is in the sales. According to a recent feature in the Wall Street Journal, four major U.S. publishing houses tried to snatch up Wool, but Howey turned them all down — until Simon & Schuster offered a mid-six-figure deal and let him keep the digital publication rights. It was an unprecedented arrangement in the Kindle era, possible only because Howey had leverage: He was making $120,000 a month on his own, and he had just sold the movie option to Blade Runner director Ridley Scott.
March 12, the day Simon & Schuster's edition of Wool hit shelves, was just another milestone for Howey. "It's not like this is what I've worked toward in order to feel like I'm a successful author," he says. "The most exciting thing for me was to break down some barriers in industry practices."