Writing About My Father

The first thing I ever wrote that I was truly proud of was a letter to my father. I wrote it to him on Father’s Day. I can’t remember how old I was, maybe 17? It’s all so nebulous, that period of my life. What I remember is how moved I was writing my thanks to him and how he responded to that letter. He came to me, tears in his eyes, letter in his hand, and gave me a big hug and thanked me.

I remember him looking at me a little incredulously that day, like he couldn’t believe what I’d written. Not the content, which I think he already knew, but the way I expressed it. Hell, it surprised even me. He let my stepmom read the letter, and she came to me with tears in her eyes. I already knew that words were powerful conduits through which we can convey meaning and emotion — I just never knew I had that ability.

I give my mom most of the credit for my love of literature, but my dad was always encouraging me and appreciating my stories. I shared an account of a near-death experience on my sailboat with him, and he raved for weeks and months and years about how much he loved my telling of that adventure. He has encouraged me from the beginning. I look up to my father — have always thought of him as a real-life superhero — and so writing became a way to make him proud.

My dad was my best friend for most of my childhood. I knew this early on and celebrated it and bragged about it. How many other kids considered their father their best friend? I didn’t know many. But I would get up at the crack of dawn during the summer months to go farming with him. I would sit on his lap and steer his pickup truck. I would dip into his tobacco when he wasn’t looking. I would lean out the truck window and throw up soon after. I slept on the floor of the bathroom while he showered, back when I was five or six years old. I remember it like it was yesterday. He would hold his jeans by the waist, jump up in the air, and shove both feet through at the same time, all before he hit the ground. My dad could fly.

I fell in love with my wife Amber while talking about my dad. We were at dinner. Amber and I had just met that morning, had spent the day together out on a boat I was captaining at the time. The couple that owned the boat were sitting with us on the patio of this restaurant, and Amber was doing her psychologist trick of asking pointed questions and forcing us to answer them in turn. She asked who our hero was, and when it was my turn to respond, I started talking about my father. I got choked up. Amber reached under the table and squeezed my hand. She told me about her father. We fell in love.

It’s weird to be so close to my dad, to consider him my best friend even today, and realize that most of my books are about losing a father. My parents got divorced when I was eight or nine years old. My dad moved into a house down the street, and so began a life lived between two homes. A life of every-other-weekends. Often it was every weekend. We spent a lot of time together. It wasn’t like he was off on another planet, but you would never know that looking over my body of work.

The first book I ever wrote was about a girl named Molly who lost her dad. She spends four entire novels trying to find him, to be reunited with him. Juliette’s strained and distant relationship with her father is a central theme in Wool. The final scene of that book was written fairly early in the process — I think while writing part 2 of Wool. All of that plot and adventure culminates in what she decides to do on the final page. And then there’s Sand, where a father’s disappearance tears a family apart, where his absence looms larger than the night sky.

I don’t think any of this is an accident. I love my dad. I missed him. I think I spend a lot of time writing about how much I missed him. We didn’t have to be dysfunctional for that to motivate my art. We just were who we were.

One of my fondest childhood memories I have of my dad was during this freak snowstorm in Monroe, North Carolina. My dad knew people wouldn’t drive carefully enough with the roads covered in snow. So he threw a chain into the back of his pickup, grabbed two pairs of work gloves, bundled me up, and off we went, driving aimlessly around town. Sure enough, we came across cars in ditches, the owners stranded. This was before cell phones. Way before. Dad would pull up and tell these people that he’d have them out “in a jiffy.”

He’d let me out, and the two of us would spin the locks on the front tires to put the truck in four-wheel-drive. I was so proud that I knew how to do this. I was probably ten or twelve years old. I’d tug on those too-big gloves and wave him back as he put the truck in reverse and eased down into the ditch to line up with the front of the stricken car. He’d hand me the chain, and I’d dive down under the bumper, looking for something solid to wrap it around. I felt like a real man under there, with the grease and the mud, studying the hidden bits of machinery that make cars move. Dad would inch forward until the chain was tight; the truck would lurch and growl; but we always got the vehicles back on the road. My dad could do anything.

But it was what he did next that taught me my biggest lesson — it’s the thing that makes me strive to be like him every single day. The owners of these cars would fish a few bills out of their wallets, sometimes every bit of what they had in there, and try to pay my dad. And he always refused. Waved them off. Threw that chain back in the bed of the truck with a clack and rattle, knocked the snow off my jacket, told me to get back in and to mind the mud on my boots, and then we were off again, looking for someone else in trouble, not a care of our own between us.

I don’t thank my father enough for inspiring me to be a better person. I write about him in all of my books. Always missing. Always distant. But that wasn’t how he lived. He was always there and still is. I guess even with all that time together, it was never enough. And that’s what I write about.

34 responses to “Writing About My Father”

  1. Sniff.

    Beautifully expressed.

    Thank you for sharing so much of yourself, Hugh. In so many ways.

  2. A wonderful account, thank you.

    As a father to two girls, the younger being a senior in high school this year, I often reminisce about the concerts, the sporting events, and the little gifts and hugs they have given me over the years. I remember how my chest swelled with pride to bursting on seeing their accomplishments. And how my eyes teared up with joy at knowing these were my children.

    Though my family was together for my childhood, I didn’t have a good relationship with my dad. We were too much alike in the wrong ways I think and we butted heads often in my teen years. I lost him in an accident at home just after I graduated high school at seventeen. I wonder sometimes if time would have healed our relationship — if he felt about me the way I’ve felt about my daughters.

    Tell your kids you love them, and that you’re proud of them. Every day.

  3. Great account of your father. I like how the story of the chains in the snow made into the hurricane.

    Youve become an inspiration yourself. Keep writing. We want whatever’s next.


  4. I’m so glad that your dad cried that day after reading your letter, and you saw the impact that your words had on people.

  5. Hugh Howey, you made me cry.

    Not the tearing up, sniffing, thinking “OMG that’s beautiful” (although it is) kind of cry. But the “son-of-a-bitch I’m sitting here blatting” kind of cry.

    The fact that you can be so open, can express your feelings, love, and admiration so openly-THIS is what makes you able to create characters who readers fall in love with; and even love to hate. You are able to dream up great stories with your mind and your intellect shapes eloquent sentences that move people. But your heart is what allows you to connect. Thanks for that.

    I too adored my father and unfortunately he died way, way too young. Almost half a lifetime ago. It still feels like yesterday. I’m not sharing that for sympathy or anything; just to say thanks for making me think of my dad. I hope your family blesses you for many years to come.

  6. Hugh, this is very moving and wonderfully expressed. I was sitting in the cafe with tears in my eyes reading it. It struck me as a son, but also as a teacher. In China teachers become somewhat parental figures, even for university students, which gives a teacher a lot of power in a kid’s life. That’s why when I appreciate a student’s work, I always show it with my whole being to encourage them the way your father did.

    Also, this instantly inspired me to want to write about my own father, but there are so many complications to trying to get a bead on a man, as it should be. So, I quickly wrote this to express my complicated feelings, and hopefully this will be a jumping off point for a future piece about him. Thank you.

    by WuWei Wilson

    My father was a killer at one time in his life. He killed the grandfathers of people who I would later go on to love, to teach, to share my deepest feelings with. Somehow his path of pointing a gun, led to my path of pointing a word of friendship. But the blood on my father’s hands stained his whole life.

    My father was a lover. He had love in his heart and tried to share it as best he could with everyone he met. Especially those weaker and more vulnerable to life’s crushing thumb. He taught me to love and be open to the grandchildren of the the people he once killed.

    My father was fighter who thought most problems could be solved by force of muscle, voice or will. He would punish the bad in his eyes. He would use fist to fight his foe. Belt to punish his brood. He would see himself as righteous anger in the name of good.

    My father was a philosopher. He knew that he could not change others in any large way, and you could fight and argue but in the end you just needed to do right by them and by you. Be good, spread that good. See evil, but don’t let it make you evil. Acknowledge there is very little distinction between the two.

    Skin of stone. Heart of glass.

    Blood on face. Tears in eyes.

    A shout in mouth. A sigh in throat.

    Hands in fists. Arms giving hug.

    My father is still alive. He is still all these things in some small way, but now he is mostly just tired. Although I can still see the man there, the man that has been made by contradictions. The way life is made by dualities.

    A honest man will always be an insect. Wallowing in shit one moment, enjoying the view from the top of a flower the next. My father was, is, always will be an insect. As am I.

  7. Hugh, this piece in itself is inspiring. Your dad sounds like a great guy. Thanks for sharing a little bit of him with us.

  8. Very nice, Hugh, thanks for sharing this.
    Having met & chatted to you, albeit briefly, I can tell your father would be delighted at how his boy turned out, and how you are not only writing great books but in the vanguard of a publishing revolution. Sharing your publishing experiences will act act like snow-chains and will help draw-out writers who are being sucked in to the quicksand of the “traditional” ways.

  9. You made me cry. Lately, I feel like I don’t have the words I need. I feel like I should be saying all kinds of important things to my dad, but just thinking about it makes me cry. I try to show him, through my actions, how important he is to me, because my words are gone.

  10. Absolutely wonderful story and a beautiful tribute, not only your family and Amber, but to “love.”
    Continued success and good health to you in 2014, Hugh.
    Jerry :)

  11. I am a mom of two children, one of which is graduating high school in June. I have to say your story is inspirational in a way that you probably did not even consider. As a mom or dad there is also never enough time with our children either. I stayed at home mom when my children were little and I have always worked a job that enabled me to be home when they were home. There are days when it takes my breath away to look at a picture of them from when they were little because it seems like the picture was taken days ago instead of years. I have often wondered what it felt like to look at old pictures for parents who did not spend much time with their kids. I can’t decide if I think it would be easier or harder.

  12. Beautiful piece. Both my parents are gone and I have friends with parents still living who often don’t want to spend time with them. It hurts me to hear it. It brings all types of tears to my eyes — tears about missing my parents and the fun we had, tears for my friends who don’t realize that precious time is slipping away and you can’t get it back, tears for their parents who surely miss them.

  13. This touched my heart. I know your mom and dad. I used to hang out at your grandparents house, Hugh and Cutie’s, while I was in high school. I had a crush on your mom, but she was a few years older than me. I always thought Hamp was a lucky man. Later on, I even bought the land that I live on from him, on Wesley Chapel Road. You dad is a great guy! Just hate that he has moved from here. It is so refreshing to read what you have written here about him. So proud that you are doing great as writer. Keep it you. You make Union County proud!!!

  14. Thank you for going into the ditch for us, Hugh. Just… thank you.

  15. Beautiful. You made me cry-but in a good way. Thank you for sharing that with us, Hugh. Your love for your father does bleed through into your work, and it is a wonderful thing.

  16. This is wonderful. Thank you for sharing.

  17. Hugh, he is still that way 100%. You are both blessed.

  18. Thank you for this gem, Hugh. You’ve crafted a perfect synopsis of who you are and how you came to be, probably not your goal, but there it is :)

  19. Margaret Buckley Avatar

    That was very moving, Hugh. Like others, I cried when I read it.
    I wish I’d known my father the way you knew yours. My father died when I was 5, and at my age (67) I still miss him, even though I hardly knew him.

  20. Your father sounded like a great man. :D

  21. I remember getting out to turn those things on the front wheels just like that on my dad’s truck!! But never for the reason you describe. What incredible memories and what a truly good man. I suspect your apple didn’t fall far.

  22. ” I guess even with all that time together, it was never enough. ” that says it all about my dad. I am almost the age he was when he died. Fify-nine, way too young and so much has happened since then. Thanks for writing about your dad and reminding me how much I love mine

  23. My husband and I have know Hamp, Hugh’s father, for a life time as we have know and loved Hugh for his lifetime! We love both his parents, but this essay about Hamp and his wife Sherry are so accurate! Hugh is a blending of this loving parents, but these times and experience with Hamp are profound! We share many good memories and life stories with Hugh and Hamp. Both are amazing men who are the salt of the earth and are grounded in all the right values for living the good and honest life. We are so proud of you, Hugh! Walt and Cookie

  24. What a wonderful tribute to a wonderful man. Hamp is everything you described and truly a loyal friend and neighbor! We are blessed to have both your dad and step-mom and our lives. Thank you for sharing.

  25. You, my dear, are a mensch. I’m proud to know you.

  26. Absolutely beautiful, Hugh! Made me quite teary. Your dad sounds like a wonderful man! And I’m sure he’s very proud of you! :)

  27. Hey Hugh. Thanks for sharing. That touches my heart, both as a new father imagining how important I can be to my son and as someone who can relate. My dad was and still is very important to me. I grew up with my mom while he was in another state getting his medical residency finished, but when we moved back in with him, he was working like 80 hours a week. I cherished everything we could do together and enjoy together, from music to sports. He made up a cowboy character and told us bedtime stories about him. I’m sure that influenced my love of stories. I remember his excitement when I was old enough to read and get The Cather in the Rye, and how he took me to the bookstore to get it, telling me about how it was a banned book and me feeling a rush of discovery to have his permission and encouragement to read something that the system said was bad.

    They got divorced when I was twelve and it was really hard. I moved in with him and when he soon after lost his job, we had my teenage years to finally bond, working together at a pizza place and having more time to chat and hang out. His self-admitted failures frustrated and saddened me at the time, and pushed me to not make the same mistakes–for both of us. A big part of who I am is influenced by seeing those and trying to do better, even though I have all the tendencies that he had which overpowered his good intentions and caused problems. This journey of leap frogging our parents may be common, but it is still fascinating and emotional. We love them for their efforts and they love us for the same. We (hopefully) forgive them for where they messed up and see in them the same idiosyncricies which could lead to the same results for us if we’re not careful. Likewise, they see in us those traits and lovingly try and coach us to be better than they were.

    I’d comment about that and what you’ve written in Sand, but I don’t want to spoil anything. I told you how much I loved the sunrise scene. I love both parents in that book and the way the family unit is explored emotionally. Same as in the Silo Saga. I appreciate you sharing because of how much depth it adds to the reading experience, knowing you better as the storyteller.

    Have a beautiful day, Hugh. Thanks again for telling us your stories.

  28. Warms my heart to read about such a loving father and generous human being – enjoyed it!

  29. My grandfather was T.M. Howey. He was from mineral springs area. But left to work for the railroad. His home was in Richmond. Anyway, I think we could be related. My Mother was adopted but her real mother was a Sutton, also from that area of Union County.
    So I am curious if you are a cousin…

  30. […] Writing About My Father | Hugh Howey […]

  31. Very nice :-) Our life is in our books. There is always a predominant theme, irrespective of how we weave the plot. Thanks for sharing

  32. […] week, Hugh Howey wrote a blog piece about themes in his writing and it got me thinking about my own. I have enough of […]

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