Author Hugh Howey on Turning His Self-Published Hit WOOL Into a Graphic Novel
By Dan Casey on June 4, 2014
When author Hugh Howey decided to self-publish his postapocalyptic thriller Wool on Amazon as a serial novel in 2011, he could never have imagined what would happen next. Not only did it become one of the highest rated books on Amazon that year, racking up 5,260 reviews, earning over a million dollars in royaltie, but it started attracting offers from publishers hungry for the next Hunger Games. Rather than give in to seven-figure offers from vulturous publishers, he took a stand and kept the e-book rights for himself before finally reaching a six-figure, print-only deal with Simon & Schuster.
For the uninitiated, Wool takes place in a bleak, apocalyptic landscape where the several thousand remaining humans live in a massive, 144-story underground silo. Images of the ruinous, fractured landscape are constantly projected on to a screen in the silo to remind people of what they’ve lost and the safety they have. Lawbreakers are sent outside to clean the sensors that transmit the images before they choke to death on the toxic air. Basically, it’s a terrible time to be alive, but makes for a terribly enjoyable read.
With a film version of the book in development at 20th Century Fox and a growing readership, what’s Howey’s next step? Turning Wool into a six-issue graphic novel, of course! With comics veterans Jimmy Palmiotti, Justin Gray, and Jimmy Broxton, at the helm, the first issue is out today from Jet City Comics and Cryptozoic Entertainment. Curious as to how Howey went from hobbyist to Hollywood, I caught up with the writer over e-mail to take you inside Wool, the publishing process, and its brand spankin’ new comic book version.
Nerdist: What was it like seeing Wool go from underground hit to mainstream success?
Hugh Howey: I keep saying the same word over and over to my wife: Surreal. That’s how every step along the way has felt. From that first e-mail from a fan, to that first glowing review in a major publication, to discussing the film rights with Hollywood producers, to seeing my name on the New York Times bestseller list, none of this has made any sense to me. I was a bookseller who wrote in his spare time. All of this really goes to show the power that readers have today. If they get turned on to something, watch out.
N: How did the graphic novel adaptation come about?
HH: The genesis of the graphic novel is pretty crazy, actually. I don’t know that the story has been related anywhere before. A huge fan of the novel got in touch to ask if I had a comic adaptation in the works. I said that I didn’t, and that I was far too busy to take anything like that on at the moment or even to shop the rights around. This reader, Frank, said he knew someone who used to work for one of the major comic book companies and now worked at a board game company. Would I mind if he took the project to them? I said go for it.
Next thing I know, I’m on the phone with John Nee of Cryptozoic. He’s excited about adapting Wool into a graphic novel. Would I be interested? I said I would. I then reached out to some people I know in publishing to feel out the viability of the project. One of the people I got in touch with was a comic book fan at Amazon whom I’d met at a conference. He said that Amazon was going to enter into the comic book business soon and that they’d love to have a crack at Wool. Could they buy the rights and produce the work?
The end result was that the team at Cryptozoic produced the adaptation under the new Jet City imprint. Because of the wonderful industry ties, we basically had our pick of talent to work with. Jimmy Palmiotti and Justin Gray were tapped to adapt, and the inimitable Jimmy Broxton agreed to do the art. We are thrilled with how it all came together.
N: For those who haven’t read the source material, what do they need to know going into the graphic novel? Do you recommend reading the book ahead of time?
HH: I think the comics work for both hardcore fans and people new to the source material. For the fans, here is a chance to see this world outside of our own imaginations. For those new to the work, there should be a slight sense of not understanding what’s going on and then the pieces falling together. That’s what readers enjoyed about the novels. I think you can pick up the comic or the book first and still enjoy both.
N: As you mentioned, Jimmy Palmiotti and Justin Gray are a formidable writing duo. How closely did you work with them on turning Wool into a graphic novel? Likewise, how involved were you in crafting the visual aesthetic with artist Jimmy Broxton?
HH: I was more involved with the writing than I thought I would. Jimmy and Justin were amazing to work with. There weren’t any dueling egos or any of the nightmares you hear about when a group of creatives get together. They brought a vision to the story that I wouldn’t have achieved on my own, and I was able to add suggestions for how to structure the six issues so that each story ended on a satisfactory cliffhanger, similar to the serial release of the novel. I enjoyed the process enough to get me interested in future collaborations in this medium. It wasn’t until my college years when I moved onto a sailboat that I got rid of my six long boxes full of comics, so this was a return to my childhood.
With Brox, the collaboration was a bit different. He drew stuff and I shit my pants. That was how we worked together. Everything he did blew me away.
N: You have had a fair amount of success in digital publishing between the publication of Wool and now with its graphic novel adaptation. What is a piece of advice you would offer to prospective self-publishers? Maybe something you know now that you wish you had known starting out?
HH: I wish I had known five years ago that the stigma of self-publishing was about to experience a massive decline. These days, you can brag about being an indie author. It’s more often a choice rather than a last-ditch effort. I chose to self-publish my second novel, after working with a traditional press with my first book. But I had no confidence in this decision. I second-guessed myself for years. There weren’t any examples for me to point to or precedents for me to follow. That would come in the ensuing years as I saw what Amanda Hocking, JA Konrath, and Barry Eisler were able to do. So the piece of advice I would offer to prospective self-publishers today is to be proud of the art you create; make it shine; and don’t let anyone tell you what your limits are. Only you can discover your ceiling. How hard you work and how long you stick with your craft will determine more than any doubter or naysayer.
N: Now, more than ever, it seems like we’re culturally obsessed with the notion of apocalypse and humanity’s efforts to survive in a hostile environment. Why do you think we’re so addicted to the end of the world?
HH: I have my own theory on this. The fact that I haven’t seen this elsewhere probably means it’s a bunch of bunk, but it’s something I’ve thought long and hard on. It comes from the observation that developed countries have higher rates of depression than undeveloped countries. The more we have, the more dissatisfied we seem to become. But I think the root of this is the feeling of reliance and the loss of self-actualization. The more we depend on the machinery of civilization, the more our survival is taken out of our own hands and placed in a whirring of cogs that none of us fully understand. We are now at the mercy of a contraption that is as unknowable as God’s mind. That feeling of powerlessness is terrifying. One sheared bolt, and it feels as if it could all crumble away.
What we are seeing, then, is a sort of co-dependence. We need the machine, and the machine needs us. If you look at co-dependent relationships, there is a lot of fear and paranoia over losing the thing to which we are attached. Homeowners who feel that their house and their belongings are what sustain them have daymares of returning home to find their house has burned to the foundation. Co-dependent couples imagine their spouse cheating on them and skulk around in morose paranoia. My wife and I are attached to our dog in a way that causes us to imagine all the worst things that could happen to her. This was Buddha’s observation as he noticed the lament of those too deeply attached to material things: They couldn’t be happy for fear of losing what they owned.
The more dependent we are on technology and modernity, the more we obsess over the hell of losing it all. That’s one part of it. The other part is that some deeper part of ourselves that desires nothing more than to be in control of our fates actually fantasizes about the great collapse. We like to think we would survive. And the joy in conquering daily struggles — this return to our roots — might explain the varying rates of depression across variously developed countries.
N: Well said. As more and more people start writing post-apocalyptica, how do you make your work stand out in an increasingly glutted genre?
HH: I’m not so sure that genres get as glutted as we think they do. Fans of any genre often fly through the available material and are screaming for more. People read much faster than we can write. As for standing out, I think it begins with the first sentence. You can’t hold back or save your material. Knock them flat on the first page and don’t let up. Also, don’t read too much in the genre you want to write in. Seeing what else is out there can inhibit your creativity. You’re likely to see that someone else had an idea first, and that will prevent you from giving that idea your own twist. I can’t tell you how many times people have pointed out similarities between my works and some other work I’ve never heard of. Had I read that other book first or seen that movie, I wouldn’t have been free to write what I wanted. The story you tell is your own. Celebrate that and explore it to its fullest.
N: Last, but not least, what comics are you reading and enjoying now?
HH: Saga and East of West are my favorite two ongoing comics right now. I almost wish I hadn’t discovered these until they were concluded. The wait is so painful.
Fortunately, you won’t have to wait for Wool #1, which is available now on Amazon. You can also read the first book of Wool for free on Amazon for additional context.
What do you think? Are you excited to see Wool go graphic? Let us know in the comments below.