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INTERVIEW | Douglas Hulick author of Among Thieves

Douglas Hulick is a new name in the world of Fantasy. Although he has been hacking away at his keyboard for a decade to bring Among Thieves to fruition and it is only the start to a series. Among Thieves is one of those books that literally blew me away with its complexity and nailed that X factor that makes it an unbelievably fun read in what is my favorite Fantasy debut of the year.

MH: Thanks for joining us. Can you tell us a little about yourself to get us going?

DH: Thanks for having me.

What to tell? I've wanted to be a writer since I was 12 years old. I read The Hobbit and said, "Yup, this is it: this is what I want to do." Of course, being 12, it was easy to say; it was much harder to do.

I've been fortunate in that I've either had, or sought out, jobs over the years that allowed me to write on the side. When you only have to be in class four hours a day in graduate school, or your shift doesn't start until 4:00 PM at the bar, or your wife is crazy enough to let you stay home with the kids so you can write during their naps, you're able to hold that dream in front of you a bit easier. That doesn't mean it gets easier to achieve, of course, but you have a harder time saying you don't have time, or what have you.

Now, ironically, it's a bit harder to find that time, but I don't have much of a choice: I'm a published author with books to write. But I'm also still a stay-at-home dad with two older kids who have very divergent schedules (one of whom is special needs, and so requires more direct supervision), a wife, and all the other things that come with middle-life. Plus, now that I'm on contract, I have an actual deadline for my books. Before, I could work on them as I pleased; but now? Let's just say I'm learning how to be a writer all over again, only in a different way. It's exciting, exhausting, and fascinating all at once.

MH: Certainly sounds like your plate is full.  Among Thieves is quite an intricate novel with all the twists, turns, and reveals. Did you ever find yourself lost in the plotting of it all?

DH: Oh, hell yes.

The novel was largely organic in its construction. It took me over ten years to write, with a couple of purposefully fallow years (we moved twice, had two sons, my wife started a new career, I switched jobs a few times--all of which can demand more immediate attention than a book), and I'm not about to pretend that I followed any kind of detailed outline during that entire time.

Mind you, I knew where the book was going in terms of the two main plot lines, but that didn't always help during the day-to-day, page-to-page writing. There were plenty of times where I knew what needed to happen, but wasn't sure how I was going to accomplish it. Other times, when I found myself just staring at the page, I found myself turning Raymond Chandler's old adage: "When in doubt, have a man come through a door with a gun in his hand" (or, in my case, a sword or a bit of dangerous magic). Likewise, since so many of the actions in the book are instigated by various characters, be they on or off screen, I had to not only know their motivations, but make sure those motivations fit with the person instigating them. It's easy to say, "There needs to be a plot twist/revelation/key development here," but it's another thing for that action to make logical and emotional sense for the person performing it. A character can't do something just because it makes sense for the story; it has to make sense for them, too. And characters don't always develop like you expect them to....

Where Among Thieves really came together was in the revisions. I was ruthless. Since this was my first novel, I had let myself throw everything I could think of into the first draft: characters, world-building, plot name it. It was very "kitchen sink" writing. Then I went back through and took a machete to the manuscript. I changed and cut and revised, throwing away some parts of the story, layering in others, and writing whole new swaths as necessary. I was very fortunate to have both a great group of first-readers -- my writer's group, the Wyrdsmiths -- and a keen-eyed stable of beta readers to go over everything, which helped the process an enormous amount.

Was I lost? More often than I can likely remember. But I just kept at it.

MH: During my reading of Among Thieves my head was left spinning a few times as my brain started connecting all the threads, but in the end I never felt lost because of the complexity. Nearly everything made perfect sense. Now characterization is another strong part. Was there ever a point where you tried to make Drothe a nicer guy or even more of a backstabber?

DH: It was an interesting challenge trying to balance Drothe. Here's a character who, the first time you meet him, is overseeing the torture and interrogation of a former business associate; and yet, as a writer, I need to make him sympathetic enough that the reader will want to follow him through an entire book. That's not exactly an easy sell, and I know there are some readers who said they had a hard time getting past the first couple of chapters and giving him a chance; a few never did. But I knew that was going to be the case going in. In a way, I suppose it was a challenge I set myself: how can I start out with a protagonist who is clearly not a nice person, and still get the reader to invest enough to go along for the ride?

The first person viewpoint was critical for that, I think. You get a window into not only what Drothe is doing, but why he's doing it--a view into the world he functions within and the expectations and mores that apply to the Kin. Being with him in his head, you learn more quickly and distinctly what the rules are and the reasons behind his actions. It doesn't excuse all of them, of course, but knowing why makes it easier for the reader, if not to forgive, then at least to understand and root for the character. (That isn't to say this couldn't be done in a third person POV, either; but first worked better for me.)

One paradigm I tried to riff off of was Raymond Chandler's view of what a detective hero should be. In his essay, "The Simple Art of Murder", Chandler says, among other things, "...down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid....a man of honor--by instinct, by inevitability, without thought of it, and certainly without saying it. He must be the best man in his world and a good enough man for any world." Now, Drothe clearly isn't untarnished, and his sense of honor could be arguable in another context; nor is he the best man in his world; and he certainly can be mean. He isn't a true hero in Chandler's vein; but he isn't meant to be, either. At best, he's an anti-hero, and as such, he should be flawed. And so he is. But among the Kin? Among the Kin, I'd argue Drothe is one of the least flawed: he is less tarnished, less afraid, less mean than most of those he rubs elbows with. Yes, he still stumbles and falls and errs, but by and large, it is for reasons that his fellow Kin might not spare a second though about. Is that good enough to make him an honorable hero in his dark corner of the world? That depends on how you see him and judge his actions; but I can tell you that as I was writing, I would often stop and ask myself how Drothe's actions and decisions compared to the actions of the rest of the Kin--if the path he took made him "better" than the next guy down the alley with a knife in his hand. That may not be the highest moral bar for a character to aspire to, but given the context of the story and the history of the character, it was the bar that fit.

I say all this because it helps explain why it wasn't a question of simply making Drothe nicer or nastier overall; it was a matter of comparing and judging him in relation to the criminals who inhabited the world around him. With that in mind, I think he was probably nicer than many of the characters he crossed paths with, but was also as nasty as he needed to be to be effective. The scale was just different.

MH: Darker characters or what is becoming known as gritty, grey, and ambiguous characters have been on the rise in Fantasy the last decade. When you were growing up what characters in Fantasy were you interested in? More of the reluctant yet born hero Aragon? Or someone who wants to do good, but isn't above doing a bit of evil to get their way?

DH: You know, I loved Aragon when he was Strider, but started to lose interest in him shortly after he revealed himself as the heir of Isildur and got less ranger-y. I think that says a lot right there, don't you?

When I was first getting into fantasy, I didn't much worry about the story arc of the hero: Chosen One, reluctant hero, blood-spattered barbarian, bumbling farm boy destined to win the crown & get the girl--I didn't care. I was just devouring it all as fast as I could. I ran through Tolkien and Brooks and White and whatever else I could get my hands on. It was all new to me, so I didn't much pay attention, other than I liked this stuff.

Looking back, though, I think there were a couple of series that changed things for me. One was the Robert E. Howard/L. Sprague de Camp "Conan" series. No elves, no orcs, and all the magic was dark and evil. That showed me a different side of fantasy; one where very few characters had noble aims, and where the final solution often came at the end of a broad sword. After that came Stephen R. Donaldson's original Thomas Covenant trilogy. Talk about a whiney, useless, morally deplorable bastard of a character! You were almost rooting for Lord Foul to kill him; but (and this is important), Donaldson redeemed the story so that I almost cheered at the end. That series gave my first real taste of an anti-hero, and while I'm not a fan of the series today, at the time it was a seminal work for my awareness of character. Lastly, I remember becoming heavily invested in Robert Lynn Asprin's shared world series, "Thieves' World." (Big surprise, right?) Not only were the stories fun, but because you had a large stable of writers (and characters), you got to see a wide swath of, if not the world, then at least the city. More than that, though, while a number of the POV characters were thieves, you also had magicians, mercenaries, artists--a whole range of people whose lives were effected by the actions of other characters. It wasn't just a group of heroes and helpers going on a quest or trying to fulfill a destiny; it was people. Things got messy, purposes got crossed, and people's lives got screwed up based on what happened in another story line.

After that, I found myself gravitating to the shadier side of fantasy. Oh, I still read "brighter" fare (for lack of a better term), but I knew that when I found David Eddings's Belgariad series too light for my tastes (despite innumerable recommendations from people I trusted), I'd turned a corner. Now, while I don't stick wholly to dark or gritty, I find I do tend to prefer my heroes a bit more conflicted and my worlds less full of happy magic than I once might have.

MH: I'm right there with you. The lighter stuff just doesn't stick in my mind as well or keep me as rapt as a book with characters teetering over the line between good, bad, and indifferent. Is there a particular favorite scene in Among Thieves that you love or that was a particular torture to write?

DH: You have to remember that I wrote Among Thieves over the course of a decade, sometimes taking as much as a year and a half off at one point when we had our second son. In some ways, I think one of the hardest things was to keep stepping away and coming back to work on it, over and over. It's a complicated (or at least convoluted) book, and I wrote it that way on purpose. I'd always had trouble plotting up to that point, and so I set myself the challenge of trying to come up with a book that would not only keep the reader on his toes, be keep me on mine as well.

What helped is that there is a rhythm to the book, in that there were two distinct storylines that eventually had to meld together in the end. That meant that even if I was pulling teeth trying to get one thing down, I knew that I could switch back over to the other plot in a chapter or two. That didn't mean the other plot would be any easier to write, of course, but it let me fool myself into thinking it might be.

As for a favorite passage I had while writing: that has to be where Lyria makes her first appearance, when she comes running out of the rain in the Barren to take on Drothe and Degan. The imagery in that scene just fell onto the page right when I wrote it. I got done with it and sat back and smiled, because I knew it worked--it, and she, felt right. A lot of things got tweaked or changed or adjusted in the various drafts of the book, but that passage was never touched. What's in the novel is what I typed the first time she appeared.

MH: As of right now Among Thieves is the first in a trilogy. Anything you can tell us about the second book? Such as a title or release date? Or any short stories in the works? It seems like the world of the Kin is rich enough for some shorts.

DH: The title for the second book is Sworn in Steel. We're looking at an April 2012 release date, but the book has been giving me a bit of trouble, and I'm running late. So, fingers crossed for the date, but no absolute promises at the time of this writing. Check back on my web site for updates.

Naturally, I don't want to give a lot away. I will say that part of the story deals with Drothe facing the consequences of his actions from the first book, on a couple of levels. He's in a different place, both personally and professionally, than he was in Among Thieves, which means he has to re-evaluate his place in the world, even as other people are busy trying to redefine it for him. He's not just a criminal working the street any more, and as much as he may not necessarily like that, he still needs to accept it. Change isn't easy, especially when there are knives and alleys and murderers involved; but it can be fun (well, at least for the reader, I hope).

I've never been a big short story writer. My entire omnibus of professionally published short stories consists of one short-short from something like 1991, and a couple of semi-pro RPG tie-in stories that were commissioned when I was still freelancing (briefly) in that industry.

I love short stories, but I think part of me is intimidated by them. When I read a really great short story, I'm all, "Wow, that's fantastic. How did they do that?" And I can break it down in terms of pacing and arc and character, I can see how it all comes together, but knowing and doing are two different things. My mind doesn't seem to work that way, or at least, not naturally. That doesn't mean I couldn't try to train myself to do that, of course. I don't think the short form is some sort of mystical land where you either know the secret password or you don't; but I also don't have the time (or the patience) at this point to try and fail enough times to turn out short fiction I'd be comfortable with in terms of quality. I'm a slow writer, and when you have novels contracted and waiting to be written, even a couple of weeks can make a difference. (I'm also a perfectionist in some ways, and especially in the case of short stories, I can see that getting in the way for me.)

All that said, there are other aspects of the world I would love to play with that might be better served in the shorter form. I'd love to look at Ildrecca through the eyes of the other side of the coin--say, with a Red Sash/Rag or someone associated with the empire in an official capacity. And there are wide swaths of the world that Drothe doesn't even talk about: Bronze Degan's homeland, which is a client-kingdom of the Empire itself, for example. So, yes, despite my protestations, there may be some short stories in me somewhere, but I have no idea if or when I might put them down on paper at this point.

MH: To go along with my other obsession what is your favorite type of hat?

DH: I prefer a snap-brim fedora with at least a two and a half inch finished/bound brim. I'm fairly flexible on the crown configuration, as long as the front is dimpled. Wool felt is fine, but fur felt is better. (And no, I didn't research this answer on the web: I'm just this picky about my lids.)

MH: I love a man who knows his hats.  I'm big on the fedora as well.  The trilby style though is a more recent favorite. What are two things most people don't know about you? Do you secretly hide away bottle caps or have a pet monkey?

DH: The monkey took off with the bottle caps years ago, so that's out. And you already covered the hat thing....

Thing 1: I'm a big fan of cooking shows, and do most of the cooking for our house. I've been known to yell at the TV during "Top Chef" (a competitive cooking show on Bravo) and "Ramsey's Kitchen Nightmares" (a wonderful expletive-laden show featuring Gordon Ramsey trying to save restaurateurs from themselves). I'm a glutton for BBQ, regional fare, and good seafood. I'm also a bit of a beer snob (but drink Miller, too, so there). My wife was diagnosed with Celiac disease a couple years ago, so I've been learning to bake and cook gluten-free as well since then.

Thing 2: I have a pair of parakeets that keep me company in my office. One, Hawkwood, is named after a 14th century English mercenary captain who made his fortune in Italy; the other is named after a minor literary figure you may or may not heard of, called "Sherlock." I forget the name of the author behind that character, though....

MH: If you're a beer snob than give something called Innis & Gunn a try. It is oak-aged which gives it a lot of unique flavors.

Thanks for all your time. Is there anything you'd like to add to close us out?

DH: Only that I've really enjoyed this interview, and that if people want to check in with me, the can go to my web site at I don't blog as much as I like, but you can find links there to my Twitter feed as well as my Facbook page, which I am better about keeping on top of.

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Jeremy Shane said...

Great interview.
I don't feel so overwhelmed now working on my book, it's been years in the making and other than doing photography on the side I stay home with two teen boys (one special needs as well) to work on the story. Nice to see that situation isn't a lose-lose for writing.

As for Among Thieves I can't say how much I loved that book, one of my favorites this year. I think I was one of the guys telling hatter to move it up on his too-read list. Definitely looking forward to the next.

Jeremy Shane said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
ediFanoB said...

Thanks a lot for a great interview.

The first thing I did after reading was to order SWORN IN STEEL in advance.

Still need to write my review of AMONG THIEVES which belongs to my list of favorite debuts in 2011.

Mad Hatter Review said...

Jeremy, You definitely pushed me towards it.

Douglas Hulick said...

The Trilby's nice, but the brim is a little to narrow for me. On a 6'7" frame, it just doesn't work (IMO, anyhow).

The Innis & Gunn looks interesting, but it seems to only be distributed on the East Coast at present. I used to brew, and did a couple beers with oak chips back in the day, so I have an idea of where they may be going with this. I'll keep an eye out--with luck, it'll make it my way (or I'll make it out toward it) some day.

Jeremy: Glad to help bolster your spirits, if even a bit. It's a long haul, but the trick is to keep at it. Not always easy as we both well know, but the great thing about a first novel is that there's no deadline. :)

Edi: Wait, you can pre-order SiS already? Ack! I better get back to work instead of hanging out here (and thanks for having enough faith to order #2).

Douglas Hulick said...
This comment has been removed by the author.