Douglas Hulick Interview
“Oh hell yeah, there’s new talent in the game. Read this book. No really, read this book.”
That’s what best-selling author Brent Weeks said about Among Thieves, a novel being published in April of this year by début author Mr. Douglas Hulick. Of course, when an author of Brent Weeks quality says this you take notice. So, I did my research and found…nothing!
Immediately I set to work. I dropped Mr. Hulick an email and right away he got back to me accepting my request for an interview. Before we begin, let me tell you that this is a book to look forward to. We all know the fantasy genre is changing. No longer is fantasy about whiter than white characters, setting out with no hope, against an evil foe and somehow growing enough to overcome them. More and more we are meeting darker characters from darker worlds with darker stories to tell. Fantasy is getting cooler, it is getting grittier and it is generally pushing more boundaries. Douglas Hulick is one of the authors who will join the likes of Brent Weeks, Peter V. Brett and Scott Lynch at the forefront of this new section of the genre.
But where better to hear about this potential candidate for début than the man himself in his first ever interview!? Let’s begin!
Firstly Douglas, please let me extend a huge thank you for agreeing to do this interview. After reading such positive comments from Brent Weeks and seeing such awesome cover art, I really could not have waited until April! (Amazon has the release date as April 1st.)
It’s my pleasure.
Firstly, could you tell us a bit about yourself and what was it that led Douglas Hulick to selling his first novel for release in 2011.
I’ve known I wanted to be a writer since I was about 12-years-old. I discovered traditional fantasy fiction (in the form of the J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit) that year, and quickly expanded out into the wonderful likes of Robert E. Howard, L. Sprague de Camp, T. H. White, Katherine Kurtz and so on. I also discovered some bad writing around then, too, which left me feeling frustrated. I wanted to see some of the stories I’d read “done better,” and in the audacious way that only a 12-year-old can manage, I decided that I would be a writer and do a better job. The audacity faded (thankfully), but the desire to write stayed on. Ever since then, I’ve been writing in one form or another.
As for selling Among Thieves, it was in some ways a fairly typical process, and in other ways, not typical at all. The typical bit is that I started the book, worked at it as time allowed, got feedback, revised, polished until I literally couldn’t stand the sight of the manuscript any more, found an agent, who in turn found a publisher. Simple, right? Not so much.
First off, this book was begun over a decade ago. Now, while I’m not the fastest writer in the world, I’m also not that slow, either. Over the course of writing Among Thieves, I moved twice, had two children with my wife, proceeded to raise said children, took a several year hiatus from writing for various other reasons, and, of course, had plain old fallow periods where I didn’t write much at all.
What really helped me get serious was joining a writer’s group, the Wyrdsmiths, after we moved to Minnesota. Back then, everyone in the group was a wanna-be speculative fiction writer, and nearly every one of us wanted to turn pro some day. We pushed and supported and helped one another through the whole process, celebrating successes and sympathizing with setbacks. There’s been a few changes in membership over the years, and with one exception, all the current members are professionally published novelists (myself being the latest), and all have made professional sales.
Once Among Thieves was done, I set it aside for over a year because, like I said, I was sick of it by then. Eventually, though, my wife reminded me that if I wanted to sell it, I really ought to send it out. So I began polishing…and polishing…and polishing. Fortunately, I was able to get recommendations for a couple of agents through my colleagues in the Wyrdsmiths. The third one, Jack Byrne, asked for a partial, then a full, then called me when he was half-way through the manuscript to make sure I was still unsigned (this is the first non-typical part). I signed with Jack once he was done with the book. After another quick run through the polisher, Jack submitted it and sold it right off the bat to Anne Sowards at Roc/Penguin U.S.A. (this is the second non-typical part), and Penguin subsequently sold it to Julie Crisp at Tor/Macmillan in the U.K. and Australia, as well as Verlagsgruppe Random House/Heyne in Germany (this is the third non-typical part, as most debut novels don’t sell overseas right away). Each sale has been an unexpected and wonderful surprise.
With little information out so far we are desperate to hear some more regarding the upcoming novel. I know you are under strict instructions on what you can and cannot tell us. So, without giving too much away could you describe to us what we can expect from this first novel Among Thieves – A Tale Of The Kin.
I began with the basic goal of wanting to write a fun, fast-paced, page-turner of a fantasy novel. Something that would grab the reader and pull them into the story right off the bat. With that in mind, things start off fast (and bloody) and keep moving: action, sword fights, mystery, plot twists, bodies, sword fights, betrayal…I tried to throw it all in there.
I suppose you want more specifics, though, don’t you? Alright. The story takes place in Ildrecca, the capital city of a Byzantine-esque empire. Think Constantinople in the early Renaissance if it had never fallen to the Turks for an idea of the feel. Now add a bit of magic, and put most of the action in the back streets and alleys. The protagonists and villains are criminals, not street-thugs, but parts of larger criminal organizations. So now you have various competing mobs in something like Constantinople–although it isn’t, really–with magic and swords. And religion. And history. Oh, and the empire has an elite group of swordsmen who specialize in taking out criminal organizations–they’re in there, too.
As for Drothe, the main character, I don’t refer to him as a “hero” so much as a protagonist; that’s about as generous I can get. He’s very much a self-made criminal, having pulled himself up by his bootstraps to reach the precarious position he holds in the underworld. He’s not terribly popular, either, because his job involves informing on his fellow criminals to their over-boss–a kind of “Internal Affairs for the mob”, if you will. That not only makes him an outsider in polite society, it also makes him a persona non grata in certain criminal circles as well. And when things start to get ugly in those criminal circles? That’s where it gets interesting for Drothe…
Could you tell us a bit about how the idea for the story came about? Was it influenced in anyway by your education?
I don’t recall where the idea for Drothe and Degan and all the other characters came from any more, but I can tell you, precisely, where the initial idea-germ originated. It was when, as an undergraduate at the University of Illinois, I found a copy of Eric Partridge’s A Dictionary of the Underworld on the remainder books table at the student union bookstore. It’s basically a dictionary of thieves’ cant and practices, compiled from various times and places throughout history. I had no idea what exactly I was going to do with that book, but I knew I needed to have it. A lot of the basics of the criminal world and slang and attitudes in Among Thieves have their roots in that dictionary.
The other big influence has to be the various historical bits and pieces I’ve picked up over the years, both in and out of school. I have a Bachelor and Master of Arts in History, with a concentration in the early medieval period. I don’t have to tell you how history if full of these amazing little nuggets–about people, places, events, even blind coincidence–that can just make you sit up and say, “What? Really? No one would believe that if it were in a novel!” And yet, there it is. Those nuggets are the best part, and the best inspiration I can imagine. They just get my brain humming. I still read history for fun and inspiration.
Lastly, I credit my study of Western European Martial Arts (WMA) with helping me compose the combat sequences in the book. I’ve been fencing for almost two decades, and studying and teaching WMA, with a focus on early 17th century Italian rapier, for going on eight years. I love that stuff, and being able to write a book where sword work is part-and-parcel of the world? Gravy.
It seems in fantasy at the moment, the darker stories are really selling to publishers and being picked up by readers. How would you say your book is different to what is out there already?
That’s a hard question to answer. Every writer brings different things to the table. Even if you limit it to “dark” or gritty fantasy, each book or story is going to approach the genre in a different way–different focus, different style, different way of treating the various elements that most people think of when they talk about “dark.” It’s a whole-package approach, in my view, and one that’s hard to sum up without getting into a long, involved conversation.
What I can do is give you a few elements I think I handled well…things that I’m pleased about how they turned out.
Probably the first thing that comes to mind is the Thieves’ Cant the characters use in the book. It’s a kind of underworld professional jargon that, historically, functioned almost as another language at times. I didn’t go that far, but I did pull terms from pre-Elizabethan through to near-modern criminal canting usage. Some terms and definitions I kept the same, some I changed, and some I made up to fit the world.
Another thing is the fight scenes. Yeah, yeah, everyone does combat in these kinds of books–but let me tell you, writing combat is hard. It’s necessary, but it’s hard. And it’s also, in my opinion, one of the places where a writer can really be unique. Everyone does it differently. For me, I was lucky in that I could pull from actual experience when it comes to swordplay, which is (hopefully) going to give my combat sequences a bit of a different flair. This doesn’t mean my fight scenes are better or worse than anyone else’s–and there are a lot of authors out there writing great fight, don’t get me wrong–but I’m hoping the feel of combat in Among Thieves gives readers something they don’t encounter all the time.
And finally, I suppose I should mention the food. I’m told my books make people hungry. It’s not a key component or anything, but I don’t know how many other dark fantasies have gotten people to try and hunt down recipes for the food my characters eat. I didn’t plan it that way, but, hey, I like food, okay?
Could you tell us a bit about what Douglas Hulick has in-store for readers should your debut (as we are sure it will) sell successfully. Is this book part of a trilogy, could there be more, do you have any further novel ideas? What will your fans have to look forward to?
First, thanks for the vote of confidence.
The Tales of the Kin series, of which Among Thieves is the first book, was always designed to be open-ended. By that, I mean that it’s not set to finish in precisely three or four or whatever number of books; however, there *is* an over-arching plotline that I plan to complete, so in that sense, the series will have an conclusion. As to how many books that might stretch over, well, I can’t really say at this point. The first book isn’t even out yet, so I have no idea what readers will think of the characters and story, how well it will sell for the publishers, whether there will be demand beyond the three I am contracted for, and so on. I can name two more novel ideas in this world beyond the three I’m currently contracted for, and one of those sprang out of the second book I’m working on now. I tend to feed off myself that way, so who knows how far it could go?
As for other books, I have a more traditional urban fantasy (“traditional” in that it deals with fey, not vampires or werewolves or the like) that is 85% done. I started it while Among Thieves was alternately sitting and making the rounds, then had to put it aside once I signed the contract for the Tales of the Kin series. It’s a damn fun book with a great magic system and a wonderful cast of characters. I hope to get back to it at some point.
There are other ideas kicking around, of course, but given what I have on my plate at the moment, I’m not worrying about them just yet.
What are your expectations for this novel, how much pressure have you put on yourself?
For me, it’s about writing a book people will enjoy enough to tell their friends about, who will then hopefully read and enjoy it as well. I just want to write good, fun books. If I start thinking about sales and numbers and that kind of thing while I’m writing, I’ll drive myself nuts. Once the book is on the shelf, it’s out of my hands. It’s like kids: you raise and teach them as best you can, and then one day, they move out of the house. You still love them and want to see them do well, but you can’t live their lives for them, no matter how much you may want to. A novel is the same way: I can talk about it and do signings and interviews, my publisher can run ads and try to create buzz, but in the end, it’s up to the book I wrote to connect with the readers. There are so many things that determine whether a title flies or fails, I can’t afford to let myself obsess about that while I’m at the keyboard.
That said, I do put pressure on myself, but not because of what I think Among Thieves will or won’t do in the stores. I put pressure on myself because I want the next book to be better than the last book. And because I’m a perfectionist, I’ll rework a sentence or scene to death if I’m not careful. That last one alone almost kills me some days.
“Among Thieves is an unalloyed pleasure: a fast-moving, funny, twisting tale in an evocative setting with great characters. The kind of story that reminds you why you love to read. This book may just give you that feeling you had the first time you read Rothfuss or Abercrombie: Oh hell yeah, there’s new talent in the game. Read this book. No really, read this book.”
As we can see – Brent Weeks have given you some really positive testimonials and I am not the first blogger to name you as one of the most anticipated debut authors of 2011. With his current position as one of the biggest names in modern fantasy does this put any added pressure on you?
First off, let me just say that Brent Weeks has been incredibly generous when it’s come to my debut effort. Not only did he write that amazing blurb, he’s also gone out of his way to mention Among Thieves in several interviews, on blogs, and so forth. For him to put his name and reputation behind a new writer–a writer he’s never even met, I might add–like that? It’s above and beyond the call, and I can’t thank him enough.
As for added pressure, I suppose there is the pressure of expectations. (Look at who he compared me to, for Pete’s sake. That’s pressure!) But like I mentioned above, Among Thieves has already moved out of the house–I can’t do much more than watch and wait. Mr. Weeks’s high praise certainly adds to the pressure (and to the momentum, too, I happily admit), but ultimately, it’s going to be how the book is received that will determine just how much pressure (and what kind) come to bear. There’s the pressure of success and the pressure of not selling, and a lot of other stages in-between, and I can imagine each bring their own demons to the party. I’m just happy I’ll have the second novel turned before the first one hits the shelves, which means two of the three will be out of my hands when the shoes start to drop.
What have been the most surprising things you learnt when writing your book and meeting with publishers?
While writing the book? It had to be how convoluted I tend to make my plots. Going and back and revising the first draft was a nightmare. I often refer to it as “pulling out the machete,” there was so much cutting and refitting to make everything work. I also discovered that my protagonist, Drothe, likes to wander in his adventures, which means outlines quickly become theoretical. That continues to be a challenge.
As for publishing, I think it’s the sheer number of people who are involved in bringing a book to market that has struck me the most. And I don’t mean the people you automatically think of–the editor, the copyeditor, the artist who does the cover, and so on–but lots of other people. Publicists, typesetters, book designers, marketers, the person who does the cover layout, lawyers who draw up the contracts, the sub-rights people who try to sell your book in other markets…the list is daunting. And while I’ve only had the pleasure of interacting a small percentage of these people–on both sides of the Atlantic–just knowing the amount of effort these people put into turning my words into a book has been both amazing and humbling at the same time.
Now that you have sold this novel is writing something you are able/looking to do full time? How will this change your life?
Well, I realized I need to print up new business cards–does that count?
Seriously, I sold Among Thieves and it’s two sequels for a very standard first-time novelist’s advance. Translation: not enough to live on by most stretches of the imagination. The foreign sales will help a bit, but again, I’d hate to feed me, let alone a family of four, on that. So, money-wise, not a huge change other than being able to pay off a few bills a tad quicker.
Fortunately for me, I’ve been a stay-at-home dad for the past thirteen years, which means I have a wonderful wife who supports the family and gives me time to write. However, I am also going to continue being a stay-at-home dad for the foreseeable future, which means I’m lucky to get a fraction of each day to write, when not otherwise performing the other critical duties that go along with my job as “dad.” But now that I’m under contract, those pockets of time have to be dedicated to writing. Before, I might have knocked off for the day, or gone for a walk, or the like; now, though, I feel guilty if I don’t work on the next book. It’s a job–a career–but there’s no one keeping you honest day to day but yourself. That’s been the biggest change, I think.
Do you believe writing is a skill or a talent? Do you have any suggestions to want to be writers that will help them on their path to getting published?
I think writing can be both, but the skill part is more important. Talent is great, but you can be the most talented writer out there and if you never finish or improve/revise anything, it won’t get you published.
Writing is work, plain and simple, and you need to approach it that way. Write regularly, even when you don’t feel like it. Study your craft, both in how other writers write, and in what you do on the page. Always strive to better yourself. Develop a thick skin. Learn to take criticism; and more importantly, learn to see the flaws in your own work and do what’s necessary to correct them. Find people you trust and seek out their opinions on your work, but always do what you think is ultimately best for the story. And send it out. If it comes back, send it out again. Then write and revise something else and send it out, too. Learn the business side of things, too. And keep going. Writing’s hard: it isn’t for people who give up easily.
So, when you’re not writing or talking to bloggers (who send you far more than the agreed amount of questions!) what do you do in your personal life? What do you like to get up to?
Honestly, a lot of my time away from the keyboard is spent with my family. As I said, I’m the main care-giver, and that eats of up a lot of time. But I like to cook, which helps keep things interesting at dinner time. I also like to study and fight Renaissance rapier, but a tendon injury, not to mention a book deadline, have kept me away from that for the last half a year or so. I’ve promised myself that once I send the second book off to my editor, I’m going to either start learning medieval German long sword or get back into some form of Eastern Martial Arts (tendon permitting, of course). There’s talk of getting a dog as well, which I suppose will mean that we need to train one another, should that happen.
In regards to reading, what are your top five books of all time, what are you currently reading and what are you looking forward to?
Top five of all time? Ouch, that’s a tough one. Since I’m the one being interviewed, I’m going to break it out a bit and give you my top five SFF genre books, and then my top five non-genre. I’m also going to define “best” as “books I keep coming back to read, over and over.” That may not make them the most beautifully written or best plotted or critically acclaimed or best selling or what have you, but I figure if I’m willing to run with the same characters, in the same world, even when I know how it all turns out, that’s a pretty damn good book.
Top Five SFF Genre (not in any specific order):
The first Chronicles of Amber series, by Roger Zelazny (yes, it’s five books, but they’re short, and they all run together)
When Gravity Fails by George Alec Effinger
Any Neil Gaiman short story collection.
Bridge of Birds by Barry Hughart
Galveston by Sean Stewart
Top Five Non-SFF:
Anything by Arturo Perez-Reverte. Anything. At. All. (And I’m including a grocery list scribbled on a napkin, here.)
The Maltese Falcon (or any short fiction) by Dashiell Hammett
The Three Musketeers and The Four Musketeers by Alexandre Dumas
Anything by David Liss (see note on A. Perez-Reverte re. napkins, above)
The War of Art by Steven Pressfield (This is a must-read for artists of any stripe, and something I find myself re-reading every six months or so, just to give myself a kick in the pants.)
Mistborn by Brandon Sanderson
Pirates of the Levant by Arturo Perez-Reverte
Lots of stuff for my writer’s group.
I recently finished Swords from the Desert by Harold Lamb. This is a collection of short fiction edited by Howard Andrew Jones. Lamb was one of the original pulp adventure writers back in the 20s and beyond, and was one of Robert E. Howard’s influences. It’s straight adventure fare–not fantasy–but it’s great stuff. Mr. Jones is putting out a whole series of Lamb’s collected works under Bison Books, and I can’t wait to get my hands on more.
Looking forward to:
I’m really bad in that I tend not to pay much attention to what is coming out months down the line. I’m much more likely to wander the shelves at a local bookstore and see what grabs me. That said, I’m definitely looking forward to Patrick Rothfuss’s latest effort, as well as George R. R. Martin someday putting out his next item in the A Song of Ice and Fire sequence. I’m also wanting to grab Scott Lynch’s Republic of Thieves and Joe Abercrombie’s The Heroes when they come out. But beyond that? Whatever I stumble across. Oh, and more Harold Lamb, like I said.
Just finally, Douglas, our readers will no doubt be dying to find out more. Could you give us the release date and where we can find out more until then?
The release date for Among Thieves in the U.S. is April 5, 2011. I’m told that the release will be concurrent in the U.K. and Australia, but I don’t know if the date is set (Amazon U.K. says April 1st, but that’s what Amazon used to say in the U.S., too, so don’t hold me to anything).
My website it over at http://www.douglashulick.com/(with links to my Facebook page, as well as my Twitter feed).
I’m still getting the page up and running, and I promise, promise, promise there will be more content soon. I expect as we get closer to the release date, I’ll have excerpts and other tidbits up there as well.
I just want to say a huge thank you for your time with this interview. I can sincerely say it has been a long time since I was this excited about a novel, but with such a promising description from the publisher and testimonial from Brent Weeks, the 4 month wait is not going to be easy!!!
Thanks for asking me.
I really enjoyed the chance to stop by Fantasy-Faction like this – it’s been loads of fun.
Until then come chat about Among Thieves and Douglas Hulick in our forum.