by Hugh Howey
It was my second day on the job. My wife and I had recently moved to Virginia for her internship year, and I had mentioned to Saul, the man we bought our house from, that I was hoping to get out of boating and into something closer to home. I hated airports and flying and being away for weeks at a time. The money was great, sure, but other things felt more important. Saul said he owned a small roofing company and there was a big job coming up; he could always use a hand.
Now, I’m not overly fond of heights, but I do have a habit of living on less literal edges. Ever since I can remember, I’ve had this penchant for exploring my limits by pressing a little beyond them. In college, I once went a week without food and three days without sleep (not at the same time) just to see what each was like. I’ve driven coast to coast in thirty-six hours before and had two other stints behind the wheel of twenty-four hours each. Nothing David Blaine in intensity; I just got this kick out of punishing myself. The challenge I set for myself was to learn to be happy in any extreme. The hope was that this would build the mental muscles that allowed me to be happy in general.
It was my second day on this massive roof we were priming and painting, and Saul points to an addition that jutted away from the flat sections. It was a steep pitch, a forty-five degree angle. There was nothing below the lip, no gutter to grab onto, just a thirty foot plummet to the parking lot. Saul told me to take a bucket of primer and a brush and go paint this metal roof.
If you work for OSHA or are currently married to me, please turn away.
There were no ropes and no harnesses within fifteen miles of this job, of any job we were on. What we had were ladders with legs that overlapped the peak of the roof, and moving these required holding the bottom end and allowing the cantilevered weight to balance us as we scooted out into the void. Visualize it like this (unless you are married to me): letting go of the ladder would mean falling off one side of the roof while the ladder tumbled down the other side. The weight of a twenty foot length of aluminum was all that held me on that slippery tin. After I painted a patch, I would move the rig and paint some more.
I went from driving yachts all over the Caribbean to working on roofs, both jobs that lent plenty of time for introspection and daydreaming. Part of the time up on those roofs, I dreamt up worlds that would one day turn into books. I made up a young woman named Molly Fyde. I thought of the first Wool story. Other times, I pictured how mangled my body would be after various types of falls. I was prepping for I, Zombie. The rest of the time, I traveled back to the beaches I’d been on with my last career, the azure waters I’d seen, the miraculous sunrises, the $350 a day in captain’s pay, and wonder why I was so happy up there on that roof making a mere fraction of that.
What was supposed to be one job lending a hand ended up being two glorious years toiling on rooftops with Saul and David A., the partners and totality of Rockfish Roofing. The three of us had a great run together. I can’t recall a job that has made me happier or wrung more sweat out of me. Asphalt and slate roofs are murder in a Virginia summer. Hauling loads of shingles up towering ladders and nailing them down as they smeared and melted pushed me to my limit. But there was one thing I never experienced on any roof: a fear of falling.
This was a fear reserved for glory days. As a yacht captain, I lived in constant terror of not securing the next job, not getting another delivery, not knowing where my next check was coming from. There was also nowhere to go but down. Pulling into a crowded marina at the helm of a massive yacht is a powerful sensation. All eyes are on you. Expectations are great. All I could think of was making a fool of myself, of not being capable.
My wife and I spent two years in Virginia. I worked for Saul and David A. right up until we sold our house and moved to North Carolina, and parting with them was difficult all around. For my next career, I pulled wire for an audio/video company. And then I landed a job in a bookstore. With each change in occupation, I made less money than I had before. At the age of 25, I made more in a day than I made in a week at the age of 35. Also coinciding with each change in career, I got happier and happier. My houses became smaller. My stress lessened. I would come home perfectly content with what I’d done that day. Satisfied. Proud.
It’s only been six months since I quit my day job to concentrate on writing full-time. Once again, I’m earning well but without any promise of what I’ll earn tomorrow. I watch sales ranks bob up and down. I face the daunting task of getting up every morning and writing something that hundreds of thousands of people will not hate (much). The pressure to live up to past performance is palpable, and so there’s a lot in common with the last career I had here in Florida. But something fundamental has changed. Something is different than it was a decade ago when I drove yachts for a living and was petrified that I would stumble, fail, or fall.
My fear of heights has vanished.
It happened while working on those rooftops, and it had nothing to do with the OSHA violations or the threatening parking lots far below. Those rooftops were my fall. And I was as happy there as I’ve been anywhere. I was as happy to shelve books and chat up customers and faculty as I’ve been at any other point in my life.
The plummet is coming, no doubt. I remind everyone of that. I remind myself daily. And I do not dread it. There are people out there who truly know what it means to go without, who fast out of necessity, not curiosity. There are those who don’t get enough sleep because they can’t afford to rather than because they wonder what it might feel like. Roofing taught me this: My lows are soaring heights. When you see me in the window at McDonalds a few years from now because no one is buying my books, don’t feel pity. I’ll be right where I want to be: dancing at the fryers and making a fool of myself, cutting up over the intercom, and dreaming up new worlds to fashion and explore. In fact, I’ll probably be having too much fun to be aware of the next journey I’ve begun, some new climb up another soaring peak that would give me pause—if only I had sense enough to be scared of the fall.
After eight years working as a yacht captain, delivering boats from Chicago to Barbados and everywhere in between, Hugh Howey was finally lured away from the sea by the girl of his dreams. Sequestered in the mountains of North Carolina, he directed his energies into a childhood fantasy of writing novels. His first series,The Molly Fyde Saga, won endorsements and awards from bestselling authors and bloggers, but it was his publication of Wool that gave him the freedom to quit his day job and write full-time. Appearing on both the New York Times and USA Today bestseller lists, Wool has been optioned for film by Ridley Scott and picked up in over a dozen countries. Random House will be releasing the Hardback in the UK this January. Hugh now lives in Jupiter, Florida with his wife Amber and their dog Bella, close enough to the sea for him to hear it beckoning once again.