A conversation with Hugh Howey

Another entry today in my now-and-again author conversation series. With the Sand omnibus on the very near horizon, I thought it might be a good time to chat with Hugh Howey about the series, its covers, and a bit more. I’ve had the good fortune of working with Hugh on a number of his books now (including several projects that I’m dying to share, but can’t until Hugh announces them), but Sand is something really unique.

The complete Sand series

The complete Sand series

Welcome, Hugh! Why don’t we start with Sand itself — what is this new series of yours?

Sand is the anti-Wool. It's not related to my other bestselling series in any way, except that I see this as an exploration of the opposite side of dystopia. Where Wool is about totalitarian regimes, Sand is about lawlessness. It is Rousseau to Wool's Hobbes.

The story takes place on a future Earth where weather patterns are vastly different. It helps to think of north as south and south as north. Persistent winds have buried an old world under hundreds of meters of sand, and the people who live in this world have to dive down beneath the sand to scavenge for the things they need to survive. The novel focuses on four siblings who lost their father to No Man's Land. It's a story of a family coming together as a world falls apart.

What inspired the story?

My daily routine starts with me out at the end of my driveway, in my underwear, with a nasal strip across my nose and my hair sticking every direction, waving to my neighbors as they zip by in their cars and I stoop to collect the New York Times. I read the paper over a bowl of cereal. I've done this every morning for years. Most of my stories are inspired from current events, and with Sand I wanted to write about the neglected corners of the world. The Syrias and the Somalias.

With Wool, I was writing about the North Koreas and the Cubas, the parts of the world that are in need but are hidden behind a closed and iron fist. With Sand, I'm writing about parts of the world that are neglected because of our unwillingness or inability to open our fists and lend a hand. We have grown exhausted, I think, from our failures elsewhere across the globe. But that's no reason to stop trying, or to try and do better next time.

You’ve mentioned that the book made you bawl during the editing process. Is that the holy grail? Writing something that evokes a powerful response even in yourself?

The holy grail is to have some reader connect with you over a story, to get what you were writing about. I've already heard from a reader who finished Sand and wrote me to discuss all the meanings they picked up in the story, and they nailed every bit of it. That's the holy grail. What happened during editing was allergies. Yeah. 

Ben Adams' illustrations will appear in Sand's omnibus edition.

Ben Adams' illustrations will appear in Sand's omnibus edition.

I have those, too, every time I watch the end of Field of Dreams. One way that Wool and Sand are similar is how quickly you wrote and published them, piece by piece. What is it about serialized publishing that appeals to you?

It drives me. Knowing that readers are hanging, that they are waiting for the next part, that gets me out of bed early and keeps me up late at night. It motivates me. I become manic, and that's when my brain really starts firing and making connections. It's when I'm thinking about the story even when I'm not writing. And the plot makes perfect sense; I can see every single cog and catchment whirring and clicking together, how they all interoperate.

I don't think I could write a decent novel at 100 words a day over a period of five or ten years. Others can. That works for them. I think we have to realize that everyone has their own routine, that there's no right or wrong, and to just celebrate that we're all writing. 

Do you think readers are as enthusiastic about the serial format?

Some of them love it. Some don't. I try to warn people and tell them to hold off for the collected work if that's their preference. But I think for those who come along for the ride, they are given a heightened experience. The down time between works is where the processing takes place. That's where the story breathes. Take Shift, for example. That was three different novels, and the people who read them individually received a much fuller experience. 

Let’s talk about the covers. What’s the most important thing to keep in mind when selecting a cover for a serialized story?

It has to have a strong theme all the way through, so that they are immediately recognized as belonging together. My original Wool covers did not do this at all. They relied on the unusual title to hold them together. With Sand, the theme is obvious and beautiful. I love these covers. 

Each of the installments expands that theme, too.

Each cover has an artifact on it, something that would've been raised from the old world and puzzled over. The banality of the items to us is juxtaposed with how alien these things would seem to another. High heels for walking on sand? A telephone? A jet ski? I can't look at the cover of book five without laughing. Or the cover of book three without feeling sad.

The Sand chapters showcase artifacts from the world gone by.

The Sand chapters showcase artifacts from the world gone by.

In a way, these artifacts highlight the alien nature of our own existences. What seems normal is really surreal. We live a crazy life in crazy times, and this is always true. Science fiction highlights this. It allows us to change the world and see how characters remain the same. When all variables are tweaked, what doesn't move is human nature. That's the constant. That's what I aim to discover and describe.

The Sand omnibus steps away from the artifacts to show the wider world of Hugh's story.

The Sand omnibus steps away from the artifacts to show the wider world of Hugh's story.

The cover design for the omnibus is quite a bit different from the serial installments. What exactly does an omnibus cover need to do differently? Where does it fit?

It needs to provide scope and scale. The cover of the omnibus pulls the camera back to capture the full story, and for Sand it shows the world from a high dune. We're no longer inspecting a single relic brought up from beneath the dunes. Now we see all of the thousand dunes. We see not the oddity of life but the hopelessness of it. 

Recently you described the omnibus edition of Sand as the most beautiful book you've ever put together. What makes it so?

It's a handful of things. I've put a lot of effort into every detail of this print edition. There are hidden meanings everywhere. Then there's the fabulous cover, which you had something to do with. [Guilty as charged. – Jg] I think it's the prettiest book jacket I've ever seen. I wouldn't be surprised to see some of the foreign publishers making bids on this to use the cover art or be inspired by it.

I couldn't help but notice that you've got some equally interesting plans for the interior of the book.

The Ben Adams prints. Ben is a mega-talented artist who did a series of limited edition Wool prints. Ben sketched a few pieces as he was reading Sand, and I asked him if I could commission artwork for the omnibus. He agreed. So each of the five parts of the book leads off with a bit of original art inspired by that section. It's gorgeous. I generated the final PDF a few minutes ago, and I've never been this excited to receive a proof copy in my life. This even surpasses the anticipation I had for my first novel. I doubt I'll ever create something this beautiful ever again, partly because of the brilliant collaboration.

It seems common for serialized stories to be released as ebooks, with the omnibus published in paperback and other formats as well. But you’ve published print editions of each installment.

I want physical editions of all my works. I love holding them. And enough readers enjoy collecting them and reading them in paperback form. The beauty of print on demand and CreateSpace is that it costs nothing. I can set these up for free. Even if I didn't sell a single copy, it would be worth it for me to get my proof copies. 

I love proof copies. Each time you receive a box of them in the mail, you record an ‘unboxing’ video to share with your readers. I’ve got two words: garden shears?

Ha! This got started out in San Francisco. I was staying at a friend's house and I asked for a knife so I could open a box. My friend Jason hands me a massive chef's knife. I used it to open this box of USB thumb drives, and people on YouTube were horrified, thinking I'm going to sever an artery. Their reaction made me take it a step further with the next unboxing. Now it's become an inside joke. It needs to stop, though. Someone is going to get hurt, and I'm going to feel awful. 

Your readers are even getting in on it — Michaela Majce used a hand saw to open an Amazon box.

I saw an author the other day use a jigsaw to open her box of books. It was terrifying! 

Lets talk about the cover-making process. What is it that defines a great author-designer partnership?

The author needs to let go and the cover designer needs to dive in. Authors might think they know what they want out of a cover, but it's usually not the right thing. Authors are horrible at summarizing their own works. They are too close to it. It takes someone else to see the themes and spot the heart of a work. I'm working on an anthology right now, and I'm co-editing it with John Joseph Adams, who is a genius editor. In nearly every piece, he will highlight a phrase and say, "Alternate title?" Every time, it's a better title. He did this with my work, "Deep Blood Kettle". He can see straight to the heart of a story. A great cover designer can do the same thing. Authors typically can't (and they're even worse at admitting it). 

What’s the one thing that authors should look for when they’re considering a cover designer?

It's all about the typography. Sure, we want pretty art, but the wrong font will scream amateur and unfinished. This is something you do better than practically anyone else out there. The titles are legible both in print and as online icons. The author's name stands out without dominating. It's a tricky balance.  

Peace in Amber is Hugh Howey's first foray into Kindle Worlds.

Peace in Amber is Hugh Howey's first foray into Kindle Worlds.

How do you distinguish a good cover designer from a competent one? 

I think it's like hearing if a voice is on key or off key. You just know. One glance, and you can tell if it's a book you'd want to pick up and hold in your hand. 

What’s on your horizon this year? What can readers look forward to?

This year is going to be nuts. Sand is launching right now. My Kurt Vonnegut fan fiction is launching. The Wool graphic novel starts coming out in a couple months. I've got trips to Taiwan, London, France, Germany, Canada, and so many other places coming up. I'm working on a children's book. There are a few anthologies in the pipeline. It's just insane. I'm living and breathing all of this and having a blast. I can't believe this is my life. 

It must seem surreal, then, that you’re also getting some attention for your recent blog posts about the state of the industry, and how to improve it.

It is strange. I've been posting my musings about the industry for years. When I worked in a bookstore, I tried to envision ways to improve the trade. So nothing about that has changed; what's changed is that people listen to what I have to say. And that's scary.

Scary how?

Because I don't feel any wiser. If anything, with all that's going on in the publishing world right now, I just feel more and more confused. I think we all should. Our sense of wonder is derived from our confusion. 

Thanks to Hugh for dropping by to talk about Sand. You can follow Hugh's industry musings on his blog, or connect with him on Facebook and Twitter.