Rob Hart On Optioning The Warehouse
Note: This interview originally appeared in the August 2019 edition of The Big Thrill, the official magazine of the International Thriller Writers.
Dystopian fiction often asks us to accept a dramatic turn of events that morphs our world into something barely recognizable: the apocalypse of The Hunger Games, for example, or the rise of Gilead in The Handmaid’s Tale. But the grim future imagined by Rob Hart in his dystopian corporate thriller The Warehouse isn’t just uncomfortably familiar—it seems downright inevitable.
Hart’s story centers on an Amazon-like corporation called Cloud that controls a massive chunk of the US economy. At an unspecified time in the near future, America is dotted with live-work facilities known as MotherClouds—fulfillment centers that double as self-contained cities, so that workers never have to leave the company campus. In spite of grueling schedules, backbreaking work, and a sky-high attrition rate, Cloud’s high-tech warehouse-cities are an attractive alternative to working pretty much anywhere else in a country whose middle class has been ravaged by climate change and wide-scale deregulation.
As sci-fi goes, it’s not much of a stretch. If you have an iPhone, there’s an excellent chance it was made in “iPhone City,” a live-work facility in Zhengzhou, China, that spans 2.2 miles and employs some 350,000 people at peak season (roughly the population of Honolulu). Foxconn, the Taiwanese manufacturer that runs the facility, receives massive cash payments from the Chinese government for meeting export goals, and surrounding villages must meet government-mandated quotas on the number of workers they provide to the facility. Foxconn, which has installed suicide netting around many of its buildings to prevent workers from jumping to their deaths, broke ground on a Wisconsin plant in 2018. President Trump, a key figure in brokering the deal, called the proposed facility “the Eighth Wonder of the World.”
“I think we’re pretty much there,” says Hart, on how close we are to the world of The Warehouse. “The live-work model in the book, that’s what Foxconn does in Asia, and Foxconn is now scouting locations in the US. Facebook is considering live-work facilities so that you never really have to leave the office. When I was writing it, whenever things started to get a little too fantastical, that was always my cue to scale things back. I’m not asking you to believe in how a laser gun works; I’m asking you to understand how a tracking watch works.”
Hart’s eerily familiar brand of sci-fi has struck a chord with publishers and producers alike. Days before it was set to go to auction, the buzzed-about manuscript was scooped up in a preempt by Crown; after a strong showing with foreign buyers at the London Book Fair, Ron Howard and Brian Grazer’s Imagine Entertainment buttoned up the film rights, with Howard interested in directing a possible big-screen adaptation.
The book was inspired by journalist Mac McClelland’s Mother Jones article “I Was a Warehouse Wage Slave,” which chronicled McClelland’s grueling experience as an order picker at a fulfillment center in an unnamed American city.
“I remember reading that article and thinking, ‘There is a book here,’” Hart says. “And I filed it away—whenever I get an idea, I open a Google doc, and that becomes the repository for links and stray thoughts. The Warehouse was one that I always kept going back to because I would see stuff on the news and I’d be like, ‘Oh, this could be cool for that.’ But all I had was this idea of a gigantic fulfillment center and this one company completely taking over the economy and using drones to deliver stuff, and that was pretty much it. It took years to finally get to a point where I found the voices and the characters.”
Those characters include Paxton, a former prison guard and would-be entrepreneur who accepts a job in Cloud security after the company’s ruthless tactics put his own small business out of operation. Paxton thinks he’s found a kindred soul in another new hire named Zinnia, but the young woman has a secret agenda: she’s a corporate spy who’s been hired to root out one of Cloud’s most valuable secrets. The story is told in alternating points of view, rotating between Paxton, Zinnia, and Gibson Wells, the charismatic billionaire who founded Cloud and is now dying of pancreatic cancer.
Hart, whose previous releases include the Ash McKenna mystery series from Polis Books, spent about six months writing The Warehouse once he had a workable outline on paper. At the time, Hart was unagented; his previous agent had left the business, leaving Hart temporarily unrepresented. Around that time he connected with agent Josh Getzler at HSG, who responded with enthusiasm when Hart pitched the concept and shared the pages he’d written so far. Getzler wanted to read the rest of the book as soon as possible.
“Having that artificial deadline of knowing he was waiting for it was enough to get me going,” Hart says. “I finished the book when I was in Singapore. My wife was getting a master’s degree and she was on a study abroad thing, and they had a really reasonable partner rate, where I could come out with her on the plane and go get myself in trouble while she was studying. And because I was spending so much time on planes and then by myself, I finished the last draft of the book. And I remember sitting in a café in the Chinatown section of Singapore and sending it to Josh and apologizing. I was like, ‘This is garbage. I think I’ve taken it as far as I can go, and I need someone now to read it and tell me how hopeless it is.’”
Getzler surprised Hart with an overwhelmingly positive response to the manuscript, and the two began making plans for submission. “As we were talking about it, he was so excited, so jazzed, and I was like, ‘Well, maybe we could take a little bit of a step up [from indie publishers],’” Hart says. But his small step turned into a huge leap—Getzler sent the manuscript to a number of editors on a Friday, and by the following Monday several major houses were expressing interest. Getzler scheduled an auction for the following week, but “then Crown just came in really, really hard,” Hart says. Editor Julian Pavia, whose books include The Martian and Ready Player One, called Hart to discuss his vision for the book. A half-hour after the call ended, Crown came through with a preempt offer.
The entire experience still feels surreal to Hart, who says he wouldn’t be surprised to learn that it’s all an elaborate prank. Not long after he signed the deal, he found himself in an enviable position: honing his manuscript under the guidance of one of publishing’s most respected editors.
“Julian is brilliant,” Hart says. “He has this incredible ability to needle down on the mechanics [of a manuscript]. The way someone explained it to me was that he takes a four-star book and makes it a five-star book. And he does something I really like: he doesn’t tell you what the solution is. He tells you what the problem is, and he sort of suggests what directions to look, and he gives you both the tools and the excitement to get to that solution. But he’s not holding your hand and doing the work for you—he’s making you excited to do the work. I’ve gotten edits in the past where you look at it and you’re like, ‘This person is just trying to rewrite me. They’re just trying to put their own stamp on my story,’ and that’s not a fun feeling. Whereas this was very much like, ‘This is your story, and it has to stay your story. But this needs to be fixed. Now how are you going to do it?’”
Hart must’ve figured it out. After generating considerable buzz at the London Book Fair, The Warehouse went on to strong sales in multiple foreign markets—a development that led directly to a film deal.
“Because the box office is becoming sort of a global thing, and because we had gotten so much attention in London and around the world, all of a sudden Hollywood got interested,” Hart remembers. “So we ended up with six or seven really generous film and TV offers. Some people had different takes on it—there was a TV network that wanted to do it as a movie and this and that. And then Ron Howard came in. This is a guy whose movies I’ve been watching since I was a kid, a guy who knows how to make good movies, and I was just really, really taken aback by that. They were really enthusiastic, they made a really hard push, and at the end of the day, as soon as I knew they were interested, that was the end of that. It was settled for me.”
There’s no guarantee the film will get made, of course, but there’s already been some forward motion. Hart drove up to LA to meet with reps from Imagine when he was in California for ComicCon last month. “They seemed super enthusiastic,” he says. “They threw out some ideas for changes to make it a little more cinematic, none of which was offensive to me. It was actually really nice—it was worth the seven hours I spent in the car that day to drive up and then back in time for my panel.”
If the project progresses, Hart says he’s happy to take a hands-off approach. “I don’t know how to write a screenplay,” he says, “and I know that a movie needs to be different than a book. So I’m not too precious about that, because the book will always exist.”
He’s also frank about some of the challenges the book’s adapters will face: large swathes of the book consist of blog posts, corporate videos, and employee training materials, and most of the action is confined to one facility. “I think that for a movie you kind of want to broaden the scope and show a little bit of the wider world,” Hart says. “But everyone I spoke to there seemed really smart, so I know they’ll figure it out.”
About International Thriller Writers: ITW represents professional thriller authors from around the world. One of the main purposes of the organization is to provide a way for successful, bestselling authors to help debut and midlist authors advance their careers. To that end, ITW has designed numerous, effective programs and events which promote debut and midlist writers and their work, sometimes in partnership with bestselling authors. In addition, ITW promotes literacy, gives money to worthy organizations, supports libraries, and advances the genre. Finally, it brings together almost a thousand writers, readers, publishers, editors and agents at its annual conference, ThrillerFest, as well as at CraftFest, a writing workshop program, and AgentFest, where aspiring authors can meet and pitch top literary agents. To learn more, visit thrillerwriters.org.