A Stranger Year
One year ago today, I worked my last day at the bookstore. I can’t begin to describe the mix of terror and excitement I felt. This was only a week or two after the Wool Omnibus came out. I had yet to hit any bestseller lists; I hadn’t yet signed with an agent; there was no film deal, no foreign deals. Just a handful of 99 cent and $1.99 titles selling well enough to replace what I was making shelving books.
The demands on my time were starting to grow, which was why I put in my notice. I decided to give this career a shot. For the three years prior, I’d been writing and publishing at a furious pace but working a day job on the side to pay my meager bills. Working in a university bookstore meant interacting with a lot of authors; a good portion of the faculty wrote. We had a visiting writers program, and I worked most of those events. Everyone I knew who wrote had a day job. There just isn’t much hope of paying the bills by the pen alone.
Hence my trepidation. But I’d taken a lot of risks in my life, and I never regretted a one. All of my boating jobs and wild adventures took place because I dared to say “Yes.” I knew I could get another day job if it came to that. I still know this. I think most of my fear, to be honest, was that I would fail at being a writer. Failing in other areas of my life hasn’t been too painful, but those weren’t childhood dreams. Being a writer is something I’ve aspired to for a very long time. Sucking at it would crush a fanciful image I hold of myself. A person I dream I might become.
The very first thing I did as a full-time writer was speak at my childhood library. The timing was pure coincidence. I had agreed to speak at the annual meeting some months prior. A friend of my parents’ from my hometown bumped into me at the bookstore and asked what I was up to. I mentioned the writing, and she said it would be cool to have me return to the library I grew up in and bring everything full circle. She couldn’t have known that she was kicking off the start of a new circle as much as ending an old one. (Heh. Circles don’t end, do they?)
That was one year ago. I showed up at the library, and I’ll never forget helping them unstack chairs and arrange them in front of a podium. It felt natural to help. This was what I used to do at the bookstore: set up for an author to speak. One of the ladies arranging the chairs turns to another and says, “I don’t think we’ll need this many. I mean, who’s ever heard of this Hugh Howey?”
I was standing right beside her when she said this. She was practically look at me. “I’m Hugh Howey,” I said, almost apologetically. And what if she was right? What if no one showed up? It was true that hardly anyone had heard of me. It feels like that should still be the case.
I’m not used to the idea that strangers are reading my work. Maybe this makes more sense when you release books the traditional route. You have this years-long buildup of querying and submissions and finally a book deal. And then a year before the book comes out to get used to the idea of being an author. There’s a big splash in bookstores — your first release — and you expect strangers are reading your work. You hope for it!
The self-publishing route is a slow burn. My books have been out there for years, mostly read by friends and family. Sure, some people I hardly know have read my Molly Fyde series or picked up Wool, but I can always trace them through three Facebook links. They are friends of cousins of coworkers. The stranger bit has really snuck up on me. It still hasn’t sunk in, to be honest. So many of my readers now friend me on Facebook or email me that it still feels like people I know. I’m not famous, I swear. No part of me feels like I am or that I should be. Authors should remain invisible while their work (one hopes) gains some notoriety. Or maybe I’m just uncomfortable with the thought.
That’s why yesterday’s encounter serves as a bizarre and apropos bookend to this year of strangers. My wife works at the university here in town (it’s why we moved here in June. It puts us closer to her family, which has been great). Yesterday, she sat with a group of faculty in the cafeteria. At some point, she left to call me or to take my call. When she got back, one of the professors was agape.The story I’m about to relate is uncomfortable for me and probably uncomfortable for the faculty member (who reads this blog, I hear. But I don’t want to get ahead of myself). I paraphrase on the side of caution. That is: I have toned the excitement down.
My wife got back to the table, and this faculty member looks at her and asks, incredulously: “You aren’t married to Hugh Howey, are you?”
You can imagine how stunned and confused Amber must’ve been. “Yeah,” she said.
“The Hugh Howey?”
“My husband is a writer, yeah.”
While my wife had been outside on the phone, someone had mentioned that she was talking to me and what I did for a living. And then my name came up. One of the faculty members thought they were joking.
“Your husband is my favorite author,” she said to Amber. And for the next fifteen minutes, my wife heard a string of superlatives she wished she had recorded because she can’t remember half of it. The professor’s favorite book of mine is Half Way Home, but she loves Wool. She’s read everything except for I, Zombie, but she has a copy of that, anyway. Amber told her to email me or get in touch. The professor said “No way.” She said she follows my blog (*waves*) but never comments. Amber told her I was normal. Less than normal. Boring. The professor, meanwhile, went on and on.
Of course, I fell out while hearing the account. What are the chances? This person has no direct or even cousin-and-coworker indirect connection to me. We just moved here. My books aren’t yet in bookstores. I don’t feel like this stuff should be happening to me. Friends of mine shouldn’t see strangers on buses and subways holding paperback copies of Wool — and yet they have. Someone I know shouldn’t have a relative recommend my books to them without hearing it from them first — and yet they have. And for certain, a faculty member at my wife’s university shouldn’t list me as her favorite author — and yet she does.
I’ve had some strange years, but this has been a stranger one, for sure. A year that started with me as a stranger to a library worker. A year that ended with my wife hearing from a complete stranger how much she loves my work. And stranger and stranger things have peppered nearly every day in between.
The talk at the library went great a year ago. The lady who had never heard of me came up afterward beaming. She complimented my speech and asked if I would come back. And the people who stood in the back of the room the entire time I spoke — they didn’t seem to mind the lack of chairs.