The Warehouse: How Big Business meets Big Brother in this dystopian thriller
One of this summer’s buzziest thrillers was The Warehouse, a dystopian novel which imagines a huge tech company called Cloud that is eating up the American economy, and digs into the lives of the lowly workers it’s exploiting. Before being published in August, Ron Howard acquired film rights to the book with plans to direct, and once it hit shelves, raves came across the globe, from the UK’s Guardian to stateside publications like The Associated Press.
The novel is set in the confines of a corporate panopticon and depicts what happens when Big Brother meets Big Business — and who will pay the ultimate price. (A fun tidbit: The book’s editor is Julian Pavia, best known for editing Ready Player One‘s Ernie Cline and The Martian‘s Andy Weir.) With the book now comfortably out in the world and reaching readers, EW caught up with author Rob Hart (The Ash McKenna crime series) to learn more about his influences, inspirations, and more.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: There’s a lot of buzz on your book so far. What’s the feeling there?
ROB HART: If someone were to tell me that this is all an elaborate practical joke, I would be really, really upset, but I would not be surprised.
I saw what you tweeted after the Ron Howard news was announced. You have a really personal relationship to his work, right? What was that moment like?
I was sitting at the dinner table and I’d just gotten home from work. My agent emails me and he’s asking me some really vague questions about film and TV. I guess he was trying to feel out my opinions before he dropped the hammer. Finally, I was like, “Maybe it would be a better TV show, but this isn’t my job, I really don’t know.” Then he was like, “What if it was a movie directed by Ron Howard?” I’m like,” Well, the conversation is pretty much over.” I have been such a huge fan of his since I was a kid. I went on a school trip and we were on one of those buses that had a VCR and some TVs. I brought along my copy of Apollo 13 and, in the confusion of leaving, left it on the bus — and was apparently bereft. Apollo 13 and Backdraft were two of my favorite movies when I was a kid. Ron Howard was one of the first directors that I could cite by name. All of these years later, for him to be interested in a book that I wrote is completely surreal and incredible.
Talk about the idea behind this book.
I could really trace it back to this one article. It came out in 2012, it was about warehouse fulfillment workers and the way they were being driven into the ground. They were getting dinged for taking sick days, or these algorithms. You literally and physically you couldn’t keep up; how demanding and tiring and exhausting the job was. I remember thinking, “There’s a book here,” and filed it away. Over time, I dumped new information into one file-folder and tried to keep this mother document of everything. I tried to write the book three or four times and I could never crack it. I probably had five or six versions on my computer of false starts, where I’d get 10,000 words in and be like, “No, this doesn’t work.”
One day it kind of hit me. I spent a lot of time researching large corporations and how they treated their workers and trying to be cognizant of what was going on in the news cycle and union-labor disputes. The first few years was really laying down that base of knowledge that was necessary to write it, but when I tried to figure out who the characters were and I could key into their stories, that’s what broke it for me.
How did that process work for you: Going from the very timely aspect of it to finding characters and a narrative?
Part of it was just getting to that personal feeling of anger and frustration. I’ve certainly worked jobs before where I was deeply unhappy, but tried to convince myself, “Oh, this is OK, at least I have a job. Even though I’m working insane hours and I’m not seeing my wife, at least I’m getting a paycheck.” I think that speaks to a broader sense of the way we’ve been gaslighted into accepting the way the American economy works. People really will say that. You could have a terrible job, and people will be like, “Well, at least you have one.” Maybe that’s not the answer. Maybe the answer is: “Why should we take terrible jobs and accept it? Maybe we should be demanding better jobs and more pay and more sick time and all these things that are slowly being stripped away from us.” Bridging that gap really came down to finding the entryway of my own anger and experience.
Did you look to any other authors, particularly?
The biggest influence for me was Ray Bradbury. Farenheit 451 was the first book I ever read that was really like, “Oh my God, I didn’t know books could do this.” I don’t reread a lot because I always have a stack of things to get to, but I will reread that book every two or three years. I feel like I need to recharge the batteries a little bit. And the other one that really sticks out to me is Margaret Atwood, The Handmaid’s Tale. I really love authors who take this problem — something they see, be it a current problem or something on the horizon — and try to build a narrative around it to help us understand it, and to show it to us in a new light.
Given that this is going to be hitting the screen, were there any cinematic influences?
The biggest one was Snowpiercer, which came out a couple of years ago. I thought it was so weird and so cool. There are just a lot of things about that movie that really resonated with me in terms of the world-building and the class structure. As I was watching that, I was like, “I can see this book a little bit more now.”
You have this Big Brother meets Big Business narrative running through here. What’s the power of fiction, as you see it, to speak to this theme?
What I think it comes down to is this: I did a metric ton of research on this book, and I could sit here all day and tell you stories about every single worker abuse that I uncovered, and you might be angry and you might be upset. But at the end of the day, it’s all just data. And data does not sit with you the way a story does — because a story is about emotion. It’s about fear and anxiety and anger, but also things like love and hope and joy. It’s getting to that personal association, that feeling of empathy, that I think can be really significant and really resonate with readers. It’s really easy to look at an example of someone else’s hard life and say, “Oh, that sucks.” But I’ve never worked in a chicken factory, so I don’t know what that feels like. So if you can build a story around a common feeling — “I know what it feels like to be in a job where I’m expected to work extra hours that I’m not going to be paid for” — that can make a real difference. Stories are pathways to empathy.
You’ve worked in politics as a reporter and a communications director. How did that experience inform your work as a novelist?
It keyed me into a lot of things. I’ve always been interested in details, and when you’re working as a journalist and you’re working in politics, your whole life is those details. It certainly helped me from a research perspective. I knew that if I had a question, I could probably figure out how to get the answer. But it also helped introduce me to some of the wonkier aspects, behind the scenes, of how a union works and how businesses cut deals with governments. There’s a lot of stuff I couldn’t get into the book but still helped inform it.
Is there something, given your actual experiences in these realms, that you often see not done correctly, that you were eager to get right here?
Three-quarters of the way through the book, we find the little pack of freedom fighters. A lot of these stories are about those freedom fighters — in a lot of other places, the entire book would have been about them. I was slightly less interested in their perspective and slightly more interested in the perspective of the blue-collar common person working in this facility. Not the chosen one. Not the orator who’s going to get a crowd worked up. The person who’s going to be like, “I’m just a cog in the machine.” How do you bring that person to a point of making the difficult or impactful choice?