Thursday, March 17, 2011

An Interview with Douglas Hulick, Author of “Among Thieves”

Hulick-AmongThieves

There has been quite a bit of online buzz surrounding the imminent release of Among Thieves, the first in Douglas Hulick’s Tales of the Kin fantasy series. I first wrote a post that mentioned Among Thieves back in August last year, when very little information was available, but a tantalising recommendation from Brent Weeks (a favourite author of mine) was doing the rounds. Weeks described Among Thieves as “an unalloyed pleasure” and “The kind of story that reminds you why you love to read.” Ever since reading this, I’ve been keeping my eyes peeled for more information and, luckily, I was also able to get a copy of the book early. Equally good news, the book has lived up to my expectations.

Anyway, my thoughts on the book are for another post. Doug Hulick luckily had some spare time recently, and he was kind enough to answer the questions I sent him. So, without further ado, here are his thoughts on writing, novels, and why walking into the fantasy section of a bookstore is not unlike walking into a modern coffeeshop…

Could you tell us a little bit about what we can expect from Among Thieves, the world in which it is set, and also how you came up with the idea for the plot?

Hulick-AmongThievesIt’s awesome!

Oh, you want more than that? Okay...

Among Thieves was always meant, at its heart, to be a fun, fast-paced adventure novel. However, that doesn’t mean it’s straight-forward; the main character, Drothe, begins with a mystery on his hands, and it’s that that kicks off all the other events in the books. Since he’s a criminal, and its set in the underworld of a huge, sprawling city, there are of course betrayals, double-dealings, assassination attempts, sword fights in alleys, and all the other sorts of things you’d expect in a darker, grittier fantasy.

I have a background in medieval history, so that naturally influenced the world a lot. The city all this takes place in, Ildrecca, is the capital of a large, Byzantine-esque empire, chock-full of nobles, thieves, soldiers, foreigners, outcasts… you name it. Magic exists, but it isn’t common, and the more useful (or powerful) kinds are carefully controlled by the empire. Naturally, there’s an entire criminal culture and society existing just underneath the surface, and this is where much of the story centers.

As for the plot, well, it kind of… evolved. All I really had when I started was a voice and a couple characters, a concept of place I wanted it to be set, and a dictionary of thieves’ slang and cant I’d been lucky enough to find years before. I knew the kind of book I wanted it to be, and that I didn’t want the plot to be straight-forward. Then I started writing. Of course, looking back on it, I wish I’d done a bit more planning at the outset, but still, can’t complain, eh?

Where do you see your series going in the future?

The series was always meant to be fairly open-ended, in the sense that each book, while developing on the previous stories, can still (hopefully) be read on its own. However, there’s also an over-arching plot line – a Big Picture kind of story involving politics and power and history – that is being addressed little by little in each book as well. So, while each book in the series is its own thing in terms of the main plot, it is also meant to serve as a building block in the bigger story.

As for how many books it’ll be, well, let’s put it this way: I’m currently contracted for three books (one per year). If my publisher decides they don’t want any more books in the Tales of the Kin series after that, I kind of have to wrap it up by the end of book three, don’t I? But if they do want more, then I’d like to keep it going a bit longer. How’s that for vague?

Drothe is going to continue to be the pivotal character for the three contracted books. This is his story, and I think he should be the one to tell it. Plus, I just really enjoy writing him. That doesn’t mean I don’t have a couple of surprises up my sleeve, of course, but ultimately, he’s the man. However, the series is called the “Tales of the Kin”, which means I’m not entirely against the idea of playing with other characters and POVs at some point down the line, should the opportunity present.

What drew you to the fantasy genre, and who would you say is the biggest influence on your work?

Tolkein-TheHobbitI fell in love with fantasy early on. The Hobbit was the first real novel I chose to read on my own that wasn’t assigned or anything, and I started devouring fantasy and science fiction after that. I’ve always been more of a swords and castles kind of guy, though (hence the two degrees in medieval history), and I eventually found myself reading more fantasy than SF. And that’s where I’ve tended to stay.

The funny thing is that, in the last few years, I haven’t been reading that much fantasy at all. I don’t know why that is – it’s certainly not a conscious choice – and I didn’t realize it until I sat down the other week to fill out the nomination ballot for the 2010 Nebulas. I was sitting there, staring at the form, and thinking, “Hmm, what new fantasy or SF have I read recently?” And I came up blank. Well, I tend to be horrid about remembering book titles, so I hied myself off to the internet and did a search of SFF books published in 2010. And realized I’d read all of one. ONE! I’ve since decided that I need to get myself back in the pool, which is one of my goals for the coming year.

If I had to pick one SFF author as my biggest influence, it’d be Roger Zelazny. His range, beautiful prose, imagination, and sheer story-telling ability are just phenomenal. I can start to pull out other names after that – George Alec Effinger, Gene Wolfe, Robert E. Howard, Glen Cook, Steven Brust, Barry Hughart – but Zelazny’s easily at the top of the list by a long shot.

Outside the genre, I’d probably name Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett as two of my biggest stylistic influences when it comes to my preferred narrative style (close first person). There are other non-genre authors whom I greatly respect – David Liss and Arturo Perez-Reverte come immediately to mind – but I don’t so much pull from them as stand in awe, which is a different thing altogether.

Hulick-AmongThievesUSWhat’s your opinion of the genre as a whole today?

Which genre?

Okay, that sounds kind of flippant, but I think it’s a valid question. Years ago, there were arguably two sandboxes – fantasy and science fiction – and each had their own scattering of sub-genres: sword & sorcery, high fantasy, space opera, hard SF, and so on and so forth. The distinctions were pretty clear in most cases, at least in the sense that not as many books blurred the lines. At least, that’s how I remember it – other people may recall it differently, of course.

Now, it’s not just genres and sub-genres, but sub-sub-genres, mash-ups, and cross-overs. You have paranormal romance, zombie fiction, zombie romance (ew… sorry, but, ew), steampunk, dystopian steampunk, low fantasy, high fantasy, dark fantasy, alternate history, hard SF, speculative SF, the re-birth of space opera (It died? Does that mean that zombie-space-opera-romance-punk isn’t far off?), the rejuvenation of sword & sorcery, and so on. It’s like when you used to go buy a cup of coffee: your choice was basically black, with cream, with sugar, or both. That was it (unless you went ├╝ber-fancy and got an espresso). Let me ask you: have you walked into a coffee shop recently? That’s what it’s like in speculative fiction now.

Don’t get me wrong: that kind of selection is great. It hasn’t hurt the coffee shops, and it’s not going to hurt the field, either, I don’t think. But it also means that, aside from there being a whole lot more books to choose from, there are now also a whole lot of different types, as well as different genres or camps to be in. In some sense, that can make is harder to find a new book or author. If, for example, you like high fantasy, but want to dip your toe into steampunk, you’re going to find a wall of the stuff to choose from. That makes it a bit more daunting, not to mention risky. I’ve met people who’ve read one or two books in a sub-genre (or sub-sub-genre) they didn’t care for, and thus assumed the entire sub-genre wasn’t for them. That’s always a danger for any genre, of course, but when it used to be all clumped together on the shelf and not branded as Genre A, Genre B, Genre C, Genre C-1, and so on, then it was easier to accidentally slip from one style to another and not notice until after the fact. That’s a bit harder to do now.

I don’t know if that will effect people’s reading habits or not, but labeling is something we seem to like to do. Western culture is big on making boxes and then putting things into them. Whether it will mean people reading more things in fewer sub-sub genres, or more people reading across sub-genres, or people not breaking into or out of genres, I have no idea. It’ll be interesting to watch, though.

How do you enjoy being a writer? Do you have a specific working practice?

It’s hard. And it can be maddening some days. And there are times I think I’d rather be donating some part of my body or other to science (often my brain, since those are the days I feel like I’m not using it). But I wouldn’t give it up for the world – I love it that much.

My practice is somewhat seasonal in nature. And by that, I mean that it is mandated by the local school calendar. Nine-ish months of the year, my sons are in school on a regular basis. After everything is said and done, this gives me – on a good day – a three-to-four hour pocket of time to (maybe) write. Of course, that’s assuming no one is sick, the laundry isn’t threatening to take over the basement, there’s actually food in the house, and so on. As a result, some days I don’t get to write until the evening; but I make sure I write every day. If I don’t, it’s a conscious decision, and not something I just let happen. This is my job, after all, and I need to make sure it gets done.

Of course, it gets harder when summer rolls around and my boys are home for three months. Then it’s a matter of carving out what little bits of time I can here and there, be it mornings, nights, or whenever time permits. Since one of my sons has autism, it’s not as if I can just send him outside for a couple of hours on his own while I peck away at the keys; nor would that be fair to my other son either, for that matter. My wife, being the deranged saint that she is (she married me knowing I wanted to be a writer, after all), often wrangles the kids in the evening – summer and otherwise – which gives me at least an hour or two to stare at the screen and say, “Wait, what was I thinking when I wrote that?” And yet, books still get written. I’m absolutely astonished.

DougHulick

Mr Hulick plots Drothe’s Next Adventure

I’ve seen mention on your website that you’re a member of a writers’ group. How did this come about, and how does this work? (It’s something I’m hearing about from a number of authors, and thought it would be nice to learn a little more about how they work and support established and up-and-coming authors.)

How I found the Wyrdsmiths (my writer’s group) is an essay in and of itself. Let’s just say that, through a series of happy accidents, I stumbled across a group of speculative fiction writers who were (mostly) at the same point in their career as myself, and all (mostly) wanted to make a go of it in terms of becoming professional writers. I’ve been in the same group for something like 14 years or so now, and you couldn’t pay me to leave.

There’s a lot that goes into a successful writer’s group, and I can’t go into all of it here. There are a couple of main things I think are vital, though. First is, you have to write. I know this sounds basic, but there are a lot of groups that don’t have a regular hand-out or critique system. What we had early on (although we don’t need it any more) was a rule that said you MUST hand out at least four pages to be critiqued every other meeting, and then we staggered the due dates so that a couple people were always supposed to hand out every meeting. It may not seem like a big deal, but when your peers are expecting you to hand out, you want to have that material ready – it can get pretty embarrassing if you keep missing your deadline.

Next, you have to be able to get and give good critique. By that, I mean you don’t take anything said about your work personally, and don’t critique someone into the ground because they savaged your story last week. You have to be able to separate yourself from your work and know that the praise as well as the problems are about and for the story, not about you. This can be hard for some people, but it’s vital.

Third, try to find people who are shooting for the same thing. If you have three people hungry to get published and are there to work, two who mainly show up to socialize, and one person who is bound and determined to write a book on pet grooming when everyone else is working on fiction, you’re going to get friction. You should all agree on what you’re trying to get out of the group.

Lastly, have some rules in place, either formal or informal, for bringing people into and (possibly) removing them from the group. The first will happen eventually; the second you hope never happens; but either way, everyone needs to know how things work, at least ideally.

Now please understand that the above are my opinions, and by no means a list of hard and fast rules. There are as many kinds of writer’s groups as there are writers, and what works for some may be a complete disaster for others. I know successful groups that don’t have any kind of hand out schedule, for example, and that’s okay. The biggest thing is communication, both at the outset and as the group continues. Figure out what works, get rid of what doesn’t, and keep writing.

What projects do you have in the pipeline?

Right now, I’m contracted for two more books in the Tales of the Kin series, so that’s my main focus. Since I’m not sure at present where that will take me, I’m trying not to fall in love with too many book ideas all at once.

That being said, I have a stand-alone modern urban fantasy novel (no vampires or werewolves or the like – just human and fey) that’s about 85% of the way through its first draft. I set it aside when Among Thieves sold, and I haven’t had a chance to get back to it. It’s great fun, and I’d love to finish it up some day.

I also look at steampunk and think, “Hey, that could be fun.” But, being me, it would be a lower kind of steampunk: mechanics and criminals and prostitutes and the like for the main characters (and cane fighting – there’d have to be cane fighting!). I’m more of a low magic kind of fantasist, and I think I’d like to do a low gee-whiz kind of steampunker, where the inventions and high-end clockwork are Big Deal things the main characters don’t interact with as often. If every scientist has a pulse-modulated-electro-static-recoilless-peril gun (or whatever), where’s the fun? Give me a protagonist with a percussion cap pistol, some 19th century pugilism and a bit of savvy, and now you’re taking! Maybe some sort of Jules Verne-meets-Rudyard Kipling-meets-Indiana Jones kind of thing. Yes, that could definitely be fun.

Then there’s the alternate French Revolution-era fantasy story I started ages ago, which I recently re-discovered. Lots of potential there.

Really, there’s no shortage of ideas (I think any writer will agree with that). But my first love is medieval/renaissance-era fantasy, and I think that’s what I’ll always end up going back to in the end.

Who are you reading at the moment (fiction and/or non-fiction), and which books (and movies, TV, events, etc.) of 2011 are you most looking forward to?

Right now, I’m reading Pirates of Barbary: Corsairs, Conquest and Captivity in the Seventeenth Century Mediterranean by Adrian Tinniswood, which is a fascinating account of not only the history of Arabic piracy in the Mediterranean, but also a fun study in European-North African cross-cultural relations. For fiction, I just put Peter V. Brett’s The Painted Man on my Nook, and have been enjoying that. I have quite a few books on my “to read” shelf as well… probably too many to list here.

Tinniswood-Brett

As to what I’m looking forward to… well, I don’t tend to watch for books on the horizon all that often (I know that’s terrible, what with me being a writer). George R.R. Martin just announced the next book in his shelf-bending Song of Ice and Fire series is coming out, which I’ll pick up. Not sure when I’ll read it, though, as I have to go back through all the other books, first. I am looking forward to the debut of that same series on HBO, though. I’m also looking forward to the new seasons of Dr. Who and Burn Notice. But beyond that? Umm… I don’t know. I don’t keep my finger to the wind very much, I fear. Anyone have any suggestions?

What do you do when you’re not writing? What keeps you sane?

I’m a stay-at-home father for two school aged boys. When I’m not writing, I’m usually being Dad, which eats up most of the rest of my time. Which means, I suppose, that it’s the writing that keeps me sane – wow, that's kind of a scary realization, isn’t it?

I also practice historical Western Martial Arts, primarily Renaissance Italian rapier. That’s been on hiatus for about a year, but I’m hoping to get back out again this summer to swash my buckler, as it were.

Why are so many great fantasy authors from Minnesota and adjacent states? (Not to mention a couple of crime authors, too.)

It’s the snow and cold. Back before indoor heating, we spent all out time chopping wood for the fireplace; now, with luxuries like gas and electric heat, we don’t know what to do with ourselves, so we write.

MinneapolisSnow

Minneapolis. Snow. Why People Write Lots

More seriously, people tend to be very literate and writer-friendly around here. St. Paul and Minneapolis are consistently ranked as two of the most literate cities in the United States by people who rank those sorts of things. We even had a public works project a couple years ago where residents were asked to submit poetry, some of which was chosen to be cast into the sidewalks around St. Paul where sections of pavement needed to be redone (one of the members of my writer’s group, Eleanor Arnason, had some of her work selected for this, actually). Our streets are literally paved with poetry in some places! How can that not encourage people to try their hand at writing?

When I first moved hear, I kept running into people who were writers, along with whatever else they were doing. The waiter in the restaurant? SF writer. The woman at the check-out register? Writing an alternate history. The guy practicing with you in your martial arts class? Working on a fantasy short story. It was like being in Los Angeles, only instead of finding aspiring actors everywhere, I kept running into wannabe speculative fiction writers. I knew this was a town for me pretty quickly after that.

As for why it’s so speculative-fiction friendly? I honestly don’t know. Maybe it does have something to do with the long winters. When you have almost six months to sit and stare out at the cold and wait for spring, it gives you a lot of time to dream about other places you’d like to go. And, at least in my case, you can only dream up so many tropical islands before you get bored and start adding a sea monster or castles or the like, just to make things interesting. And it just goes from there.

Thanks very much for taking the time to answer these questions. Do you have any final comments or thoughts?

Yes: I apparently write rather long answers when being interviewed. Thanks for letting me rattle on.

Oh, and I suppose I should mention that Among Thieves will be out in the UK, US, and Australia on April 5th, 2011; and that people can find me at www.douglashulick.com. There, now my publicist won’t yell at me.

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