THE WAREHOUSE: A Conversation with Rob Hart

Last week, ahead of the highly-anticipated launch of his next book, a brilliant standalone novel titled The Warehouse, I caught up with author Rob Hart—who was at his home in New York—via telephone, and we spoke for just over an hour. 

robhart-22r.jpgThe first thing that anyone who listens to Hart speak will notice is that aside from being a terrific writer, the guy has what can only be described as a voice that would be perfect for radio. No, seriously. I want his deep voice, which is booming but more Jason Momoa than James Earl Jones. Anyways, thanks to all the hype around his latest release—and rightfully so, as The Warehouse is a legit contender for best book of the year—Hart likely won’t have to carve out a career as a morning DJ anytime soon. 

To kick things off, I asked Hart what he did before he was a writer. “I left political reporting and got into politics,” he explained. “I got hired by a politician to work his counsel office and, he was running a campaign at that point, to help out with the campaign. It was through that, that I ended up sitting on the redistricting commission for New York City. So even though it sounds super cool to say that I was a commissioner for the city, it was more of an honorary, sort of like unpaid, helping-draw-district-lines type of thing.

“But they were all very intense, high-demand jobs, and I finally got to a point where I realized that if I wanted to be a writer, I couldn’t do those jobs and be a writer at the same time because I was always working. That’s when I moved over to books, and I took a job at the Mysterious Bookshop and started running their digital publishing company, MysteriousPress.com, and that sort of freed up the headspace to start writing.”

As for when the time came that he realized he did, indeed, want to become a writer, Hart told me it wasn’t until he was already a semester into university.

“You know, it probably wasn’t until college. I originally went to college as a graphic design major. I got there and, in my first semester, nearly failed out because it wasn’t for me. I always kind of enjoyed writing, but never took it that seriously because I always thought that my thing was art. When I realized art wasn’t my thing, I thought, let me give the writing thing a shot and I jumped into the journalist program.

“It turned out that I took to it really well, and it just clicked for me right away. Around that time, I had the idea that it might be cool to write novels. The genius that I am,” Hart deadpanned, “I figured that I would go into journalism because then I’ll actually make some money.” 

And so, after setting off to make some “real” money as a journalist, Hart eventually came around to the idea of penning his first book, and in the summer of 2015, New Yorked was published by Polis Books. On top of wracking up all kinds of accolades and positive reviews from readers and critics alike, Hart’s debut also turned out to be the first book in a series starring a private investigator of sorts named Ash McKenna. Hart would go on to publish four more Ash books over the next several years, totaling five books before bringing the series to a close with last year’s Potter’s Field

“Kind of,” was Hart’s answer when I asked him if he knew, way back then when he set out to write his first novel, that it would become a series. “I was sort of on the fence.”

“When I first conceived it, I envisioned it as a standalone. As I was thinking of books I wanted to follow it up with, they felt so similar, especially the voice and presentation, that I finally got to a place where I was like, why don’t I just make it a series? That way, instead of making it seem like I’m writing a knockoff of the first one, it’ll give it a sense that I planned it all beforehand.

“I was really happy doing the series. It was really fun and I learned a lot, and it was really cool to take a story over the course of five books and really baby it and develop it,” said Hart, reflecting back before pausing and letting out a laugh, “but I am never going to do that again.”

After voicing my surprise that he’d already decided to never do a series again, the author went on to explain that, “I loved the experience, but I’m really interested in just doing standalones for a while. I like the idea of creating a big, giant sandbox, and then just tearing it down and moving on to another one with each book.”

The Warehouse was a little harder,” started Hart when I asked him about the challenges of writing series books versus standalones, “because I was really building a world from the ground up.”

“Everything in the Ash books—the first one is set in New York because I love New York and I grew up here, the second one is set in Portland because that’s a fun town that I had a good time in, and so on. There was a level of familiarity with the Ash books because it was like the books were almost written by the time I got there because I was just sort of revisiting places I’ve been and enjoyed being.

“With the Warehouse, it was like I had to create this entire thing by scratch. I actually had to draw a map. Like, I had to actually rough out what this facility looks like because it wasn’t like when I set a book in New York, and I know which train I have to take to get to which neighborhood. There, it was like, are there trains? Are there neighborhoods? I don’t even know. It was a fun crash course in world-building, where all of a sudden, the responsibility is on me to get all of it together in a way that I can understand and can convey to the reader.”

Stepping back a bit, before diving further into The Warehouse, I asked Hart both about his writing process and that time he did a project with a little semi-well-known author by the name of James Patterson. 

“I can’t write without an outline,” Hart admitted. “I actually, as I get deeper into this, my outlines get longer and longer. I definitely deviate from it, because my outlines tend to be a little loose. I always know the ending and I always know the starting point and have a general idea of the major beats along the way. But sometimes stuff pops up that I just need to explore. There are things in The Warehouse that, you know, came in almost close to the final draft that wasn’t there initially.

“I like having the flexibility to veer off along the way, but it’s sort of like taking a road trip. I need to know where I’m starting and where I’m going to end. Maybe halfway to my destination I see a cool sign to an attraction and I’m like, whatever, I’ll go explore that for a while.

As for Patterson, the mega, world-famous author behind, well, half the books sitting on the just-released shelf of any bookstore or library was writing with Hart long before co-authoring a book with Bill Clinton. For those who aren’t aware of their project, it was actually a “Bookshot” (Patterson’s fancy word for “short story”) that Hart wrote a few years back, titled Scott Free

“That was kind of weird,” Hart told me with another laugh. Not in a funny I-don’t-want-to-talk-about-that-one kind of way, but rather in a genuine tone that seemed surprised even now that he actually did a project with Patterson. “That was a fun one.”

“I knew one of the editors at Hachette,” said Hart, explaining how he got the gig, “who heard about the program and asked if I was interested. This was right after my first book came out and was getting some nice buzz and good reviews. He asked me if I was interested and was like, well, if you want to throw your hat in the ring for this . . .  I was like yeah, of course, and then didn’t hear anything for a couple of months and figured well, I didn’t get it, so that’s that.

“Then I just got a phone call out of the blue and they were like, hey, let’s figure this out. So we talked about a couple of ideas, and I picked one that I really responded to and, you know, we spitballed back and forth on it. The fun part of the process is that Patterson is very hands-on with the edits and very hands-on in the storytelling guidance, but also there was a sense that it was my story. I wasn’t writing something that wasn’t true to me. It was really gratifying.”

The great thing about Hart is that I never got the sense that anything was off-limits during our talk. Intimidating deep voice aside, he’s a good dude who is a ton of fun to talk to. Before I realized it, the convo turned to some photos he had posted on Facebook several years ago, back when he was a bit heavier. Now, of course, recent photos show a solid-looking guy with tattoos, a mustache that both Tom Sellek and Sam Elliot would be proud of, slicked over hair, and a pair of clear-framed glasses. If you didn’t know he was an author, you might assume he’s a bartender or something, maybe even a former special-ops guy.

“Yeah, I’ve always gone to the gym on and off,” said Hart when I asked about his physical transformation—which even includes a gym selfie confirming his “Bro” status—”but there was a long stretch where I wasn’t in great shape. I had a bad back and other stuff. When my wife got pregnant, I was like, I have to get this together because I’m going to be a dad, I need to be able to protect and provide for my kid, and if I’m laid up because I threw my back out again, that isn’t ideal. So I started going to the gym regularly but knew I wouldn’t get to the next level unless I started pushing myself more, so I started fight training.

“I do a little bit of Krav Maga and Muay Thai, and I hooked up with a personal trainer. The two of them together was completely transformative. I haven’t felt a stitch of pain in years, and I’ve lost probably fifty of sixty pounds. I’m in the best shape I’ve been in since high school, and it feels pretty nice.”

“I’m a big fan of fight training. I love fighting, but I don’t like fighting. I never want to raise my fists outside of the gym,” Hart clarified, “but it’s a great workout and I enjoy the challenge.

While getting himself into fighting shape, Hart also grew as a writer, something he can see now upon looking back at his earlier work. 

“When I wrote New Yorked I was like, oh my gosh this is a work of literary genius, this is going to light the world on fire,” he said with a laugh. “Looking back on it now, I’m like, oh, it was an okay book. It was not my best work. I see now why it didn’t get a bigger, more mainstream deal, because it’s not a mainstream book. I actually try to maintain this belief that it needs to be my worst book, you know? I want to feel like I grew as a writer with each book, so I need to look back on New Yorked and say that is the least work I ever did on something . . . and The Warehouse definitely feels like the most work I’ve done on something. The one I’m working on after this feels like even more work, and it’s even more complicated. 

“So, you know, it’s important to take up that challenge of wanting to grow as a writer and working at it.”

Finally ready to jump into all things The Warehouse, I asked Hart how he came up with the idea. For anyone who hasn’t read anything about the book, it’s about a huge Amazon-like company who creates these facilities where people live and work, and the danger that presents to us as a society. Of course, it’s a thriller, so there’s a bit more to it than that. 

The Warehouse

“I had read an article in 2012, it was in Mother Jones published by a journalist named Mac McClelland, called “I Was A Warehouse Wage Slave”. It was about her getting a job in a big fulfillment center, and the terrible conditions, the shitty pay, and how it was not a fun thing to do. And yet, because of the way these things are set up, usually in economically depressed areas, there are people lined up around the block for these sort of, like, temporary meat grinder jobs.

“I remember reading that article and thinking, yeah, there’s a book here, and I filed it away. It was something I just kept on coming back to, and every time I saw something in the news that made me think about it, I create a Google Doc for every new project, so this was my Warehouse Googe document, and I would just dump links in there. I had like eighty pages of just links. So it became like a repository, and over the years I would just add stuff in there.

“As I was approaching the end of writing the Ash books, I was thinking that maybe this was the book I should write, and I got scared. I thought maybe I wasn’t smart enough, or maybe I wasn’t a good enough writer to pull it off. I actually started working on another book that turned into complete lunacy and wasn’t working, which is when I realized it might be time to write The Warehouse, because it’s the one that kept pulling me back and I knew if I didn’t write it, then someone else will.”

Indeed, The Warehouse is a book that was bound to be written by someone, given its timely, relevant plot that forces readers to look at mega-companies in a new light, and Hart proved to be the perfect author for the job. Hey, we all like free one-day Prime shipping, but maybe we don’t always think about what it takes to make that happen. 

“I think that, in large part, we’ve decided that our comfort is worth someone else’s discomfort,” says Hart, nailing the point I was trying to make. “You strike me as a smart dude,” he tells me, “you and I both know that our iPhones were constructed and built under conditions that would be inappropriate or outright illegal in the United States. But we buy them anyway because they’re cool, and we’ve decided, like, maybe that person who made it had a really shitty job, but the end result was that I got my phone.

“I hope that people read this book and start thinking a little bit more about how they engage with the economy, and the good news has been so far–I know you’re not supposed to read your Goodreads reviews, but I read my Goodreads reviews–and that’s what people are saying. Like, oh wow, this book made me think about how I consume goods. That’s awesome, that’s all I could have possibly hoped for.”

When I asked about a potential solution, Hart told me, “That’s the thing, I don’t know that there is. This system we’ve built, we’ve reached a place where there’s really no ethical consumption under capitalism. Because the company we’re patronizing, no matter what goods we’re buying, somewhere along the way someone got paid a terrible wage, or it was really bad for the environment in its production, there’s just so many problems that it’s like, well, what do you do? I guess you’d just have to go live on a farm and grow your own food and make your own clothes. That’s probably the only way to be completely ethical nowadays.”

Rob Hart might be changing the way his readers look at Amazon, but since writing The Warehouse, which sold for big money and was then optioned for film by Ron Howard, things have changed for the author himself. 

“Well, it’s been a complete transformation. I mean, my books are Polis, they treated me really well but it’s a small press and the advances aren’t quit-your-day-job money, whereas this made it so I could leave my day job and now focus on writing full-time. Which is incredible because just not having to commute saves me two and a half hours a day. That’s two and a half more hours a day that I can be productive. So, it’s been better for me as a writer, but it’s also been better for me as a father. Like right now, during the summer, my wife’s hours are really wonky. She ends up working a lot of extra hours because she works for the local power utility, and if she gets jammed up, it’s not a big deal because I’m at home and can do the pickup and drop-offs for our daughter.

“So there’s a level of convenience there that is just kind of incredible and I’m trying really hard not to take it for granted. I feel very lucky to be able to take our daughter to camp, then come back here and, you know, jam with you a little bit. The flexibility is nice.”

While Hart is enjoying some of that newfound flexibility, his characters are most definitely not. There’s Paxton, an ex-prison guard turned entrepreneur who saw his own business throttled by Cloud (Hart’s fictional Amazon-like retail conglomerate) and ends up working for them as a security guard. We also have Zinnia, a shipping employee who is actually a secret agent embedded into Cloud, and perhaps the book’s best character.

Both Paxton and Zinnia live at the same work/live property, one of many “MotherCloud facilities” the company uses to ensure its employees are always on the clock.

And then there’s Gibson Wells, the super-billionaire founder of Cloud, who is dying of cancer and reflecting back on the monopoly he’s built his company into. I asked Hart about the characters who drive his story, and he explained that he was looking to do something that could be told through multiple POVs.

“I knew after writing the Ash books and writing strictly from one viewpoint that for a book of this size to work, I had to open up viewpoints and have it from multiple perspectives,” Hart explained. “I knew pretty early on that I wanted to have two main characters, one who was a company man and one who sort of saw through the bullshit a little bit. The problem was, is that the two of them together wasn’t working. It felt like an element was missing.

“The solution came when I came up with Gibson, because the company is so big that it’s kind of like a character of its own, and I needed someone to represent that. When Gibson comes in and is sort of litigating his history and explaining why he did what he did, that’s when the narrative actually clicked for me. I don’t think the book ever would have worked otherwise. Having Paxton and Zinnia is one thing, but adding the dynamic of Gibson, was like, now I get it. Now I understand.”

While the evil, rich, out-of-touch-with-the-rest-of-the-world character certainly makes the story go, that doesn’t mean he was easy to write. In fact, Hart told me that, “To a degree, Gibson was the hardest character to write because I’m making the case for a lot of things I disagree with.

“He’s very much into capitalism and, because he’s worth three hundred million dollars, he thinks everything he’s ever done is okay. That is just not in my wheelhouse,” said Hart, before shifting to his other characters. “Paxton too was a challenge, because he’s that guy who can be a little naive and a he’s a bit of a dope. I was writing him, and not always the way that I wanted to.

“Zinnia was, by far, my favorite to write. She’s also the closest to my own voice because she’s a little bit punchier, a bit more assertive, and that’s my comfort zone.”

Without giving anything away, readers will soon see why Zinnia is the best character in The Warehouse, and knowing that she shares her creator’s voice is just a bonus. Still, it’s mind-boggling that some of the setup Hart employs here is actually true, and I asked him what might surprise his readers the most. Without hesitation, Hart pointed towards the real-life Mothercloud-like facilities that are popping up around the world. 

“Obviously, the live and work facilities are one. That’s something that is really popular in Asia, and there are those who want to bring that model over to the US with that idea that, you know, if you live at your job then you’re never not working.

“You know, there’s a lot of the sort of weird inside baseball stuff about the corporate surveillance state, where everyone knows what you’re doing. We think about that, but we don’t really think about it. I wear an Apple watch, and I’m sure that somewhere in Apple’s servers, there’s a  map that shows everywhere I’ve ever been while wearing it. That’s a terrifying thought, but it’s easy to sort of put that out of your head. My goal with the book was that whenever things get too extreme, I always wanted to ramp it back and make it as believable as possible. I want it to feel really familiar to people where, even if they don’t totally get the ramifications of wearing a tracking watch, they know what it’s like to wear one. Whereas if I put laser guns in the book, nobody knows how a laser gun works.

“But a tracking watch? Everyone knows how those work,” said Hart. 

As mentioned above, the book’s caught the eyes of more than just critics and readers. Hollywood director Ron HowardApollo 13 (1994), The Da Vinci Code (2006), Frost/Nixon (2008), etc.—snatched up the option rights for his production company, Imagine Entertainment, with the goal of turning The Warehouse into a feature film.

In, fact, the day the book came out, Howard tweeted “The Warehouse by Rob Hart is out today! A brilliantly imagined thriller about a near and possible future that Imagine Entertainment is excited to be developing for film. This is gonna be a good one. Check it out!”

“The book was optioned by Imagine Entertainment and Ron Howard, which is still kind of weird and surreal to say,” Hart told me. “Everything in Hollywood is a long process, but they seem super excited. I was in San Diego for Comic-Con a few weeks ago and I drove to LA to meet with some people there. They asked a lot of questions and stuff, and they seem to really be enthusiastic about it.”

As for how big of a role he might play in the film process, Hart wrapped up the interview by making it clear that he’s totally content being an author, and that he’s more than happy to let the film professionals do their job.

“I’m kind of sitting on the sidelines watching, to be honest. I don’t want to write the screenplay or get too involved. I want to let them do their jobs. I don’t make movies, I don’t know how to write a screenplay. That’s all in their wheelhouse, and that’s fine. I’m just happy to be here. I also know that, at the end of the day, it’s an option, which means there is no guarantee that it’s going to happen,” he says before pausing a beat and adding, “but still, it’s a really exciting thing to think about.”

Rob Hart’s The Warehouse is now available wherever books are sold. If you haven’t already picked this one up, trust me, don’t wait a second longer—get your copy today.

 

Praised as “One of the hardest working, most thoughtful, and fairest reviewers out there” by #1 New York Times bestselling author Lisa Scottoline, Ryan Steck has “quickly established himself as the authority on mysteries and thrillers” (Author A.J. Tata). Steck also works full-time as a freelance editor and pens a monthly thriller column for CrimeReads. For more information, be sure to follow him on Twitter and Facebook. He currently lives in Southwest Michigan with his wife and their six children.

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