Jimi Hendrix guitar solos. Kerouac and Ginsberg. The canyons of the American Southwest. A degree in natural resources management. These and many other influences fed into Chris Howard’s first published book, Rootless (Scholastic Press), a YA novel set in a wasteland of a future America where vegetation and wildlife are long gone, devoured by voracious locusts.
Although Howard studied ecology at Colorado State University, he’s quick to point out that the ruined world of Rootless owes more to fantasy than scientific fact. “My background helped inform certain decisions I made in the book,” he says, “but it’s not a biology textbook.” The premise came to the author during a hike in Colorado, where he lives with his wife, Allison. “I was surrounded by these trees that had been wiped out by mountain pine beetles, which are destroying pine trees in our state,” says Howard, who began to picture a world in which plants and animals had been devastated on a much larger scale.
Something would have to survive—genetically modified corn, the primary source of food and fuel in the book—and Howard envisioned “a man building trees out of metal and scrap to remember the way the world used to be.” That image became the basis for the book’s 17-year-old hero, Banyan, a sculptor of metal trees who uncovers horrifying secrets about his world, including the possibility that trees may still exist somewhere. “By the end of the hike, I was running to get back to my car,” said Howard. “The characters and story were coming to life very quickly in my head.”
Visuals are important to Howard, and he also includes the spare prose of Cormac McCarthy and Sergio Leone’s spaghetti westerns in the “smorgasbord of inspirations” that helped shape the aesthetic of Rootless. It wasn’t the first book he wrote, but his unpublished first novel had caught the attention of an agent, Laura Rennert of the Andrea Brown Literary Agency, whom Howard had met at writing workshops in Denver and Big Sur, Calif., and then signed with in 2010. It was Rennert’s rejection of his first novel that gave him “the encouragement and confidence to tackle a new story.”
Howard’s future editor, Mallory Kass, was also at the Big Sur Writing Workshop, as faculty. Kass bought Rootless in mid-2011, and Howard has been gratified by the input he’s received from both agent and editor. “One of the greatest things Mallory said to me was that it’s her job to make sure readers got to experience my vision of the novel as clearly as possible. She was never trying to put ideas in my head or change the story,” he says.
Howard was born and raised in England, and books were always a big part of his life. His father, a retired English teacher, gave him an early education in Shakespeare, Donne, Eliot, and Dickens; in later years Howard turned to Tolkien, the beat writers, and graphic novels. “Some people think that a story, book, or film is escapism, but to me, these are our tools for living,” he says. “They give you the inspiration to do something a certain way, to go places, and to be a part of something.” Music is also important to Howard, and he even recorded music for the audiobook version of Rootless, a fusion of electronic music and acoustic guitar, meant to mirror “the battle between organic and industrial” in the book.
For eight years, Howard led outdoor adventure tours for teens, but he now writes full-time. He approached writing Rootless the same way he approached guiding teenagers through the wilderness. “People are different at different stages of life, but a lot of the core feelings, insecurities, hopes, and dreams you have, they are really the same all through your life. First and foremost, we’re people. That was my philosophy when I worked with teens, and it’s the same when I write.”
Howard has finished the sequel to Rootless and has started the third book in the planned trilogy. But he’s also taking time to enjoy seeing Rootless make its way out into the world and find readers. “When you’re writing, every word, every sentence is an opportunity. I’m treating everything I do interacting with readers the same way. Even if it’s just e-mailing someone back, it’s an opportunity to connect.”