Books The Written

Interview: A Guided Tour of Rob Hart’s Dystopian Thriller, “The Warehouse”

What’s more terrifying than zombies, vampires and dragons? A company like Amazon usurping democracy and running warehouses the size of cities with a private police force. Most horrific of all is that we may opt into such a dystopian future for the sake of convenience. This is the premise for the 2019 dystopian thriller, The Warehouse. Rob Hart’s tour de force novel combines a thought-provoking premise with impeccable storytelling. Set in a future so close you can almost hear its drone swarms coming, the book explores what life could look like if trend lines on the erosion of worker rights and the environment continue unabated. 

Hart weaves a propulsive narrative with speculative reportage using all his tricks of the trade. As an author of over a half-dozen novels and an experienced journalist, he knows more than a few. Hart kindly shared these insights in his refreshingly frank manner, and walked through how he crafted such an engrossing dystopian tale. 

Inside The Warehouse

Hart’s books prior to The Warehouse consist of the Ash Mckenna series, the short story collection Take-Out, and Scott-Free, co-authored with James Patterson. He enjoyed writing the McKenna mystery thriller series, but after five installments, he was ready to spread his wings. “I love that idea of exploring social issues through a utopia/dystopia setting,” Hart said. “I was looking for a bigger sandbox to play in.”  

Hart knows exactly when he first had the idea for The Warehouse. A self-described news junkie, he was reading a 2012 article in Mother Jones titled “I Was a Warehouse Wage Slave.” It followed a somewhat undercover journalist applying to be and then working as a picker at a warehouse for an online retailer. As Hart read about the danger, stress, and dehumanization endured by such workers, he got angry. He also got inspired. “I thought there’s a book here,” Hart said. “I remember feeling that very viscerally.”

When Hart comes up with an idea that, as he says, “has legs,” he creates a Google Doc. It becomes a repository for links, stray thoughts, and anything he deems useful for the story. He first created the file for The Warehouse in 2012. Every time he read something even remotely related, it got dropped into the file. Eventually, there were 80 pages of links. Hart periodically reviewed these while turning the idea over in his head, but self-doubt held him back. He wanted to write his own Fahrenheit 451 — something high-concept, yet accessible to a general audience. A nagging voice worried about whether he was smart and skilled enough to pull it off. Then, in 2014, he read about the tragic death of Maria Fernandes, who worked part-time at three Dunkin’ Donuts locations. She asphyxiated in her car while sleeping between shifts. “Maria’s story put a human face on the whole thing, because that was such an unbelievable tragedy,” recalled Hart, whose ire at the injustice helped prod him to quit stalling. “Then, it was off to the races.” 

The process of discovering characters

When Hart began writing the book, there were two POV characters: Paxton and Zinnia. When the book opens, both are applicants for employment at Cloud, an online retailer utterly dominating the US economy in this not-too-distant future. Its employees live in massive corporate facilities where the company provides everything, for a price. Paxton is a former prison guard who ran a company Cloud put out of business. Zinnia’s background is more mysterious. She is tough, resourceful, and has little patience for social niceties. Hart explained the characters were born at the same time and serve as counterpoints. Their differing perspectives provide humor and interesting juxtapositions, and let Hart slip in breadcrumbs that lead readers toward the end.

Though his core characters were set, Hart still felt something was missing when he was first writing the novel. Cloud was such a big part of the story that it was practically a character. Someone needed to speak for the company. Hart decided to include Cloud’s founder, Gibson Wells, as the third POV character. While Paxton and Zinnia directly narrate their sections, we hear from Wells in epistolary form. “Until then, Paxton and Zinnia were just there and everything sucked,” Hart explained. “There was nothing really driving the plot forward. It was really Gibson that unlocked the narrative for me.”

Hart modeled Gibson’s megalomaniacal charm on a real-life billionaire. No, not Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos — it was the founder of Walmart, Sam Walton. When Hart read Walton’s autobiography, the billionaire’s hypocrisy was striking. Walton spoke of employees as “family,” but also went to insane lengths to avoid paying them the federal minimum wage, and he fought against employee efforts to unionize. Like Walton, Gibson built Cloud from the ground up by ruthlessly exploiting his workforce. However, Gibson isn’t completely devoid of redeeming qualities. “He’s a villain who doesn’t know he’s a villain,” Hart said. “It’s really the nuance and the gray areas that resonate with people.”

A dystopian view of a not-so-distant future

George R.R. Martin said there are two types of writers: architects and gardeners. Hart — who describes himself as a “ridiculous outliner” — is definitely the former. He lays out everything, even going so far as to design maps. Hart’s outlines are never set in stone, and he reworks them throughout the process. They help ensure consistency and that no one narrator gets too much time. With three POV characters, Hart found it easy to keep things moving like a thriller. “At the end of the day, it’s a giant rant about how capitalism sucks,” Hart said. “That’s not an interesting read, but once you put it in the language of a thriller and build it around that story, then it becomes a little bit more interesting.”

In a book filled with mysteries and twists, perhaps the most surprising thing is how much of it is true. Having a corporation own and operate a city may sound far-fetched, but there are real-life examples, like Facebook’s Willow Village in Menlo Park, California. The mixed-used development will include 1,500 residential units, a grocery store, pharmacy, parks, and even transportation, all of it owned by Facebook. In China, there are places like Foxconn’s “iPhone City,” a sprawling factory complex where more than a quarter million people work. They live in hastily constructed skyscrapers packed in tiny dorms. The facility made international news in 2010 when it installed nets to prevent workers from committing suicide. The drone delivery fleet Cloud uses isn’t far off, either — the FAA granted Amazon permission to test delivery drones in June. The list goes on.

Like the great dystopian novels of Huxley, Orwell, Bradbury, and Le Guin, The Warehouse provides a stark warning about the dangers of creeping totalitarianism. Instead of the threat coming from Big Brother, it comes from the insidious convenience of big business. Hart takes this powerful idea and marries it to solid story fundamentals, creating something both timely and timeless. The story feels ripped from the headlines not because Hart chases news cycles, but because he is addressing some of our era’s most serious and intractable problems. 

“The mass shooting thing is a great example. This is an issue that we’ve been saying is a problem for years and years. Every time it happens, everyone says we need to do something and then no one does anything,” Hart said. “I would hope that in 10 years the book is extremely dated and it’s very much a snapshot of this time that we live in, because I hope things are better by then.”