In his Ash McKenna novels, writer Rob Hart told a series of mysteries. But in the following email interview about his corporate thriller The Warehouse (paperback, hardcover, Kindle), the only mystery is how long it will take for this work of fiction to become a reality.
Photo credit: Anna Ty Bergman
I always like to start with an overview of the plot. So, what is The Warehouse about?
The Warehouse is set in a world where one company, Cloud, has completely dominated the American retail economy, and has introduced a live-work model to the U.S. Essentially, you work for them, and live in their dormitory-style housing. The story follows three characters: Gibson Wells, the messianic CEO who has just gotten a cancer diagnosis; Paxton, a man whose business is destroyed by Cloud and is forced to get a job with them as a security guard; and Zinnia, a corporate spy who is hired to get a job at Cloud and suss out the secrets to the company’s green initiatives. Paxton falls for Zinnia, and Zinnia sees Paxton as a potential entry point into the depths of the facility…
Which is the long explanation. The short one, which my agent coined and I really love is: It’s about what happens when Big Brother meets Big Business.
It sounds like The Warehouse is a cyberpunk thriller. Is that how you see it?
I wouldn’t say cyberpunk. Cyberpunk makes me think of Neuromancer and Blade Runner. I wanted all the science in the book to feel very familiar. And I didn’t want to write a story about the freedom fighters trying to overthrow a corrupt regime, a la The Matrix. I wanted to write about the day-to-day workers caught up in that regime.
The genre question has always been interesting on this one, specifically because people keep asking me what it is, and I don’t know how to answer. In my head, this is kind of a crime novel. It’s got a corporate spy and a drug ring. But it’s also sort of speculative and sci-fi? Other people call it a thriller. So…I’ve just decided to leave it to the marketing people, and the readers. It can be whatever you want.
Well, I want it to be a bagel with cream cheese, but I haven’t eaten yet today. Anyway, where did you get the idea for The Warehouse and how did the story change, if at all, as you wrote it?
It all came from an article I read on the internet. It was about warehouse pickers, and how they were being driven into the ground: algorithms they couldn’t keep up with, not being allowed to take sick days. It just seemed like a terrible work environment, but also, something that was becoming increasingly commonplace.
It got me thinking about the way large corporations treat workers like a disposable product. That led me to chicken farm processing workers wearing diapers because they weren’t giving bathroom breaks. And the way the gig economy is stripping people of pensions and health insurance. And the demonization of unions. And the way corporations are getting massive tax breaks while their own employees go on public assistance…
Honestly, the hard part was getting all that into a workable story. I got the idea in 2012 and it took me about five years just to get to a place where I could write it. I think I started three or four times before I finally cracked it.
As you mentioned, the company at the center of The Warehouse is Cloud. In the process of writing this story, did you ever come up with some terrible policy or practice for Cloud, only to have your publisher’s lawyers tell you to change it because some real company does the terrible thing you came up with?
In short: no, nobody asked me to change anything because of potential legal issues.
Slightly longer answer, which is deeply funny to me: there are so many things I made up for this book that are now coming true. Cloud has live-work facilities, which are common in Asia, but the weekend we went on submission with this, there was a big story in the New York Times that Facebook was considering dormitory-style housing for employees. Cloud runs its own internal banking accounts for employees, and now Amazon are exploring hosting checking accounts. Google just got certified by the FAA for drone delivery. It was always my hope that a lot of the book would feel familiar to readers. I did a ton of research into current, real-world businesses, and tried to extrapolate where they might be headed. Somehow, I hit the mark in ways I didn’t imagine I would. Which is both really gratifying and deeply unsettling?
Now, The Warehouse is not your first novel. Are there any writers, or specific stories, that were a big influence on The Warehouse but not on anything else you’ve written?
My previous books were crime fiction, so for this, I was tapping more into the work of authors like Ray Bradbury and Margaret Atwood and George Orwell. Sci-fi, sure, but as I like to think of them: writers of books that try to warn us of something.
Fahrenheit 451 was probably my biggest influence. I don’t re-read a lot of books — I’ve got too many new ones to get to — but 451 I need to revisit once every few years.
What about non-literary influences; was The Warehouse influenced by any movies, TV shows, or video games?
The biggest one that comes to mind is the movie Snowpiercer. There’s something about that movie — and I don’t want to say what, or else I’ll spoil some stuff — that really spoke to me.
And, here’s a weird, deep cut: current construction trends. I feel this pretty hard living in New York City, where these big, beautiful buildings are being torn down, and in their place we’re getting these flat boxes where everything inside — from the paint jobs down to the fixtures — are made to look very fancy but are actually very cheap. Every time I walk into a new-construction building I feel like I’m walking into a Cloud facility.
Also: in my head the main entertainment facility in Cloud looks like the Oculus, the new transit center in New York City, which I believe also looks like a level of Halo.
While some speculative sci-fi novels are stand-alone stories, others are part of larger sagas. What is The Warehouse?
Stand-alone. In fact, I wrote it in such a way as to make it sequel-proof. I painted myself into a corner I wouldn’t know how to get out of.
Look, I wrote a series; five books [the Ash McKenna series]. It was a blast. I loved it. It’s also really hard: it’s hard to attract new readers, it’s hard to keep people interested over multiple installments. The first book is new and shiny and exciting, and by the time you get to the fifth, it feels like you’re inviting people to a Tupperware party. I’ve got so many ideas I want to explore, and none of them fit together in any kind of convenient way, so I’m happy to spend some time just exploring those. I might go back to series writing one day, but I’ve got to have a good idea for it — and I don’t. Not right now.
The Warehouse is being made into a movie directed by Ron Howard. I assume you’re not writing the script…
I am not, and I never wanted to. Here’s the thing: I’ve got a buddy who works in Hollywood, and he’s been my guardian angel on this. And one of the first things he told me was to not write the script. The story benefits from a fresh take — it’s hard to see past what needs to move or change or get cut or get added. Which will have to happen no matter what.
On top of that, I don’t know how to write a screenplay. I don’t know the language, and this is not the venue under which to learn. The folks at Imagine Entertainment have been incredibly supportive and excited through this process, and I am happy to leave them to it. We had some really nice offers for film and TV, and the reason I went with Ron Howard is, besides being a fan of his since I was a kid, the dude knows how to make movies.
Now, this won’t happen, but if Ron asks who he should cast as Paxton, Zinnia, and Gibson, who would you suggest and why them?
Fun fact: The folks at Imagine did ask me if I had anyone in mind! We had a fun conversation spitballing that.
Wow, I’m surprised.
The only character I have a clear vision for is Zinnia. But, I hope this isn’t lame: I’d rather not say. If the movie gets made, I don’t want to interfere with that process, or make it seem like I’m giving them notes. I especially don’t want someone to look up this interview somewhere down the line and, if someone else gets the role, asks me if I’m disappointed. I’m honestly interested to see how it plays out, if it does. Because at the end of the day, too, it’s an option. It might not get made. I’m just enjoying the ride while I’m on it.
Fair enough. Finally, if someone enjoys The Warehouse, what similar book of someone else’s would you suggest they read next?
I wouldn’t say it’s a “similar” book but it is by far the best book I’ve read this year: American Spy by Lauren Wilkinson. The writing is gorgeous, the plot is drum-tight, and it’s immensely poignant.
You know what? The Warehouse has a female spy in it too, so maybe it is similar. Either way, the book left me in tears and I think everyone should read it.