Tuesday, July 28, 2015

GUEST POST: "7 More Questions For: Author Hugh Howey"

WARNING: This post is a little more adult than most of the content of this blog. As 80% of my readership is composed of adult writers and publishing professionals, this warning only applies to the younger readers who find their way here. If you're mature enough to want to read this post, you're probably fine, but check with your parent or guardian first so they don't get ticked off at me:)

Today’s post is very special, Esteemed Reader, and it’s one of my most favorite posts in the history of the blog. If you’re not familiar with Hugh Howey’s work, what have you been doing with your time!?! Clearly not reading this blog as I never shut up about the guy:)  

If you really don't know anything about him, you should maybe start with Hugh Howey's original 7 Question Interview. Then maybe check out my review of Molly Fyde and the Parsona Rescue.You should definitely read Wool as it's a modern classic, although I think I like its sequel Shift even better and I, Zombie is my favorite of his books so far (naturally). Although, truth be told, I think I like his nonfiction writing at least as much as, possibly more than his fiction.

I made gratuitous references to Wool in All Right Now: A Short Zombie Story and in the acknowledgements of that book I wrote, "It was Hugh Howey's example of indie authorship that showed so many authors what was possible and I can think of no one who gives back to the indie world more. Heroes are hard to come by, but Hugh Howey is one."

I've never actually met Hugh in person, but he's had a far more significant impact on my life than many of the writers I have. It's dangerous to make heroes of humans as all of us have feet of clay and I'm aware he's just some dude in Florida who wrote some books, but that's what I like about him. This isn't blind admiration, which I'm a little old for, or even hero worship.

When I ran into the seemingly insurmountable obstacle of racist publishers rejecting my book and I felt like quitting writing altogether, Hugh's blog filled with revolutionary publishing advice (at least, for me at the time) was there. Here was a writer taking on the traditional publishing machine and winning. It's not just that Hugh says smart things on a regular basis, it's that he DOES smart things and leads by example. 

I don't want to be Hugh Howey (I get seasick in an hour, so living on a boat would not suit me) or even to be exactly like him. For better or worse, I'm me, Esteemed Reader, and you're you and Hugh's Hugh, so that's who's who:) But I learned early in life that one of the easiest ways to compensate for not being especially brilliant is to watch brilliant people, try and figure out what they're doing and why, then use that to improve what I'm doing. Why else do you think I've been collecting all these writer interviews over the years?

Fortunately for me, Hugh is currently publishing his Wayfinding series, which is literally his advice on how to live a better life. I've been hooked since the first volume and can't recommend these books strongly enough. Today is Middle Grade Ninja history as Hugh is about to become the first  author I've ever asked an additional 7 questions, and it all came about because I was pestering him to please, please publish more Wayfinding with a quickness.

I left organized religion behind more than a decade ago, yet each Wayfinding installment feels like a Bible study devotional--but with like facts and science and common sense and you're allowed to disagree:) I can read them with my coffee and spend my morning pondering some weighty issues in ways I haven't seen them presented elsewhere and I don't have to take any of it on faith because Hugh isn't using information I can't easily verify (such as divine inspiration). It should be noted that Wayfinding is far more respectful toward religion and individual beliefs than I'm being--it's a bad habit of mine.

The topics of each volume vary and though it's clear to me an argument is being built, I'm not sure exactly where Hugh's going and I'd be happy if this series were to continue on for years. I've read my share of self-help books and as a rule, I don't care for the genre. Wayfinding is different because Hugh states emphatically throughout that he might be wrong, so you know I and other Wayfinders aren't going to end up in a compound somewhere:) He's just giving his opinion on better living and even when I disagree with him, I feel my own outlook is enhanced by having at least considered his point of view. At a buck apiece, or free for Kindle Unlimited users, you owe it to yourself to try this series out. 

Because I somehow routinely get really lucky when it comes to talking with famous writers online and because Hugh is so very gracious with his time, I was able to ask him some questions about writing and Wayfinding. Not only did he carve out time for me in less than 24 hours from my asking, he gave some of the most honest, genuine answers to questions I'm not entirely sure I had any business asking, but I did and it's my privilege to share the results with you now.

Enough preamble. Let's do this thing! 

And now Hugh Howey becomes the first author ever to face 7 More Questions:

Question Seven:You’re breathing rarified air in that your writing is widely praised and you appear to have achieved enough financial success that you don’t have to write anything more unless you choose to. You could sail away forever  now (please don’t), and Wool (if not your entire cannon) will still be considered to be on a level with Ender’s Game, Battlefield Earth, and other Sci-Fi classics, and will probably continue to generate substantial royalties forever. By many writers’ definition, “the dream” appears to have come true for you. Does it feel as good as you thought it would back when you started your first manuscript? What’s been the most surprising thing about your success? What’s been the most challenging thing?

It’s funny that you mention my not needing to write unless I choose to, because that’s been my stance from the day I started writing. For twenty years, I chose to write first chapters and then quit. About six years ago, I finally chose to finish a novel. Writing has been a choice ever since. I imagine I’ll keep writing until I physically can’t. It brings me so much joy, now that I know how to complete what I start.

My view of dreams and happiness is that both are realized through striving, not through having or achieving. You get used to your condition, within reason. Having a lot of money was never a goal of mine; I’ve lived simply throughout my success. Living on a sailboat means a lifestyle of frugality and going without many comforts. For me, the secret to staving off funks and depressions is to remain in a state of mild struggle. You need to have something to push against.

When I worked for billionaires in the yachting industry, I saw in some of them that life had stepped out of the way. There was no more resistance. Nothing to exercise the will. And so they slipped into an emotional coma of sorts, a silent flailing for something to do in order to have meaning in their lives. I worked for one guy who had more money than God, and he spent his days sitting at his kitchen counter, clicking through the internet. We all like to think, “I wouldn’t get like that,” but all the people who get like that said the same thing. We should be careful what we dream about, in my opinion. I took time to really appreciate and enjoy the years I spent roofing, and the years I spent pulling wire through home construction sites, and whatever I was doing while alive and sucking in a full breath.

Question Six: Despite your success, you continue to run an amazing blog where you share advice for writers, you co-run authorearnings.com where you provide much needed market data for authors, and now you’re publishing the Wayfinding series with advice for readers to improve their lives. There’s no way you’re doing all this and not ticking off some “publishing professionals” and encountering online haters.  Assuming your appetite for money and fame have been satisfied, what motivates you to stay so busy when you can clearly afford a PS4 and a really big TV and save yourself the aggravation? Do you worry that you put yourself or your books at risk by being so outspoken about the publishing industry?

Sure, I’ve thought about the consequences of voicing my opinions. But to me, the private consequences of staying mum are far greater. I’m no expert on the things I blog about, but I have some experience in the industry from a lot of different angles (bookseller, reviewer, reader, writer, publisher, Big 5 author, small press author), and I think the more voices we have in the mix the better. Probably why I’m such a huge advocate for self-publishing. I also feel like my success requires passing something along. Others helped me out. I wouldn’t be where I am today without the advice of people like Joe Konrath, Kristine Rusch, Dean Wesley Smith, and so many more. Maybe I’m wrong in my opinions; if so, I hope people will point out where and how I’m wrong, so we can all learn.

Question Five: In Wayfinding, you discuss the infamous experiment in which rats were given levers that flooded their brains with dopamine and chose to press them repeatedly for pleasure, while ignoring food, drink, sleep, sex, children, and all else. You draw the metaphorical parallel that most of us have levers we press for immediate pleasure at the expense of our long-term well being. You give as examples your own previous addictions to cigarettes, porn, social media, and videogames. As a fellow recovered smoker, I’ve learned I can’t have even one cigarette without wanting the entire pack, but I can play an hour of a videogame after my work is done and then put it down. Do you find you have success enjoying your vices in moderation, or do you have to completely abstain? How do you know which type of vice is which? Do you find vices you’ve kicked being replaced with other vices, and if so, how do you deal with that? What’s been the hardest addiction cycle you’ve broken?

The toughest addiction cycle has been cigarettes, for sure. The only other drug I’ve ever tried is pot, which I’ve smoked twice. I’ve been drunk twice. The last time was back in high school. I’m a control freak, which is why I can’t stand feeling like those rats, pressing their levers for an easy rush. And maybe this is what I replace my vices with: The vice of too much control, or too much self-experimentation.

On my 23rd birthday, I went out with a girl on a first date, and we ended up back at the marina where I was living on a sailboat at the time. We had sex in the marina pool, and I asked myself what in the world I was doing. I went to a college with far more women than men, and so much of my time was spent hitting on or being hit on. Probably a normal amount, honestly, but to me it felt like my time was being misspent. Time that should've been spent reading and studying was being spent flirting. So I stopped having sex for three years. That was difficult. I dated some really nice people during this time, and they didn’t think I was for real, and they broke up with me over this decision, which I totally understood. What I was doing was strange. I think you can try to conquer vices in unhealthy ways. Moderation is key.

In fact, I think if you want to know what someone’s secret sin is, listen to what they rail about. Freud obviously had something for his mother. People (even Freud, who should’ve known better) make the mistake of thinking their secret is the same secret everyone else is keeping. But all our secrets are different. The pastor who rails against homosexuality is found with a man in a motel room. The politician who makes prostitution his number one priority is using taxpayer dollars to buy sex. Over and over we see that whatever someone is really wary about in others is something they are wrestling with themselves.

When I realized this years back, I realized that I’m no different. I’ve railed against extremism my entire life. For a while there, I was one of those angry atheists who made fun of religion. Or I would be extreme in my political views. The entire time, I went off on extremism. When I had this revelation about how we externalize our inner demons, I realized that I’m an extremist. Which is why I come down hard on those with the same issue.

This really softened my attitude toward things. I realized that I’m a lot like the very people I was acting out against. They were wrestling with the same things as me. I tried to see how many issues I could approach softly and see if my mind was capable of being changed. It was. It just took awareness of what was happening and a desire to not fall into traps like this. Part of being a control freak was to learn that it’s okay to feel deeply. It’s okay to open up to people. We don’t have to be perfect, and we don’t have to make the world agree with us.

As for determining which vice to embrace and which vice to abstain from, I search for regrets. Writing is a vice, but I never regret writing. Or reading. Or spending time with family. I was one of those obnoxious dog owners who would do anything for his pup. I never regretted that vice. I think it’s pretty simple to tell which ones are good for us and which ones aren’t. How do we feel in the hours after we’ve entertained those vices? Do we feel good about what we did? Do we wish we hadn’t? That’s the easy part. Changing our behaviors is hard. That’s what Wayfinding is all about.

Question Four: You’ve stated in Wayfinding that the sad truth is “the meaning of life is to survive, reproduce, and see that our offspring survive.” I’d say that’s pretty much air-tight:)  But supposing you, Hugh Howey, had the power to decide what the meaning  of life SHOULD be, what would you decree?

That certainly seems to be the biological meaning of life, where “life” refers to all of mother nature. As for the meaning of our individual, human lives, I think this is something we should arrive at through discourse and deep thought. I wish it was the sort of thing people enjoyed talking about at length. I geek out over questions of morality and ethics. We should have talking heads on TV debating Objective Moral Truth and questions of code of conduct. That would be awesome.

What would my meaning of life be? 42, obviously.

Okay, if I had to lock one meaning down, it would be to leave the world the best person you were capable of being, while spreading as much joy and illumination as possible, so that the pocket of air you passed through, and the land around you, and the people you touch, are all the better for you having existed. That would be my meaning of life.

Question Three: You’ve written, “the greater our cognitive dissonance, the more creative our rationalizations.” Presumably, no one is better at concocting rationalizations than a truly creative person. What’s been your most difficult self-induced rationalization to dispel?

This is without a doubt the most difficult question anyone has ever asked me in an interview. And it’s not even close. The answer to this question will be something I chase for the rest of my life. Because I rationalize so much. I do it all the time. I think we all do.

Probably the most difficult rationalizations that I’ve dispelled were my various excuses to continue smoking a pack a day when I knew it was going to kill me. I’d make up all kinds of creative stories to get my fix. It’s been over ten years now without a puff, and at least nine years without a single craving, but I’m still scared as hell of that feeling, where you’re like a zombie, watching yourself do something horrible, and making up excuses to keep doing it.

Question Two: You’ve said you’re nervous about publishing the Wayfinding books, as you probably should be.  In the Food and Fitness section, for example, you recommend embracing “being a little hungry” as this is a natural state for the human species that is not living in the same world for which our bodies have evolved. I thought this was a smart claim as it made sense to me, but it also terrified me for you at the reactions you’ve opened yourself up to. What is your biggest fear in publishing these books? What is it about these books that makes them worth overcoming that fear and opening yourself up to potential judgment and criticism?

My biggest fear is that I’m completely wrong in my advice and that I’ll do more harm than good. I don’t think this is the case, or else I wouldn’t be publishing the works. These techniques have helped me, and they’ve helped others that I’ve shared them with. I’ve told two people, only after they approached me and asked about my fitness, how I approach eating and exercise, and both of those people transformed their bodies and their health using these simple concepts. So I’m torn between sharing something I think is useful and the criticism that I’m no expert, so I should just shut the hell up.

What helped me publish these works is realizing that none of us are experts and all of us have something useful to share. As for the judgment and criticism, I get enough of both not to notice any more, and I get so much more love and kindness not to fret over the people with anger in their hearts. It’s true that our natural state is to allow a word of negativity wipe out a thousand words of positivity, but we don’t have to stay in our natural state. We can practice believing words of kindness more, learning how to accept praise with humility and openness, and how to see those with negativity with more pity and love than with fear and hate. It’s not easy, believe me. But practice helps. It is possible.

Question One: If someone were only ever going to read one of your books (which would be a mistake, but let’s suppose they’re moving to another planet after one last  read and they can’t take any books with them), which one book would you want them to read and why?

Right now, I’m going to say the BEACON 23 series. I don’t know if every reader will see what I’m trying to do with the work, as I’m not good at telling when I’m being heavy-handed vs. too subtle, but I really want to explore some serious universal truths in this series, and so far the writing process has been impactful for me. But maybe I’m always partial to the work I’m hip-deep into. Another candidate for this question would be I, ZOMBIE, which might be my best work to date. I purposefully made that book difficult to read, I think to hide all the autobiographical truths that are hidden in there that I wasn’t comfortable sharing.


  1. Even if this was the only thing I ever read by or about Hugh Howey, it would be easy to see why you verge on hero worship. Wonderful, insightful interview. Thanks for sharing <3

  2. What a wonderful interview! THIS really struck a chord with me: "My view of dreams and happiness is that both are realized through striving, not through having or achieving." I completely agree~ there are few things in the world more satisfying than setting a goal and then going after it with all you've got. Thanks, gentlemen.


Thanks for stopping by, Esteemed Reader! And thanks for taking the time to comment. You are awesome.