When author Thomas Hewlett and I began working together, one of the first things he told me was that he took his first drink at age seventeen and promptly blacked out for thirteen years, coming out of a haze at rock bottom with the early idea for a novel—the one that would kick-start his career—scrawled across a mess of notes.
He had my attention. But it wasn’t the shock factor of that surprising opening that kept me, it was the next part: writing saved his life. Writing not only gave Thomas a career, it gave him an outlet into which to pour his struggles and triumphs, and a purpose in helping others who might be facing similar challenges he did. His personal journey is as remarkable as his Twelve Stakes series.
He and I sat down to talk about both.
On your site you state that you took your first drink when you were seventeen, blacked out and woke up thirteen years later, with little to show for your life besides a notebook full of unwritten books. Did those unwritten book help point you to your current path?
Looking back over that trail of unfinished books—and I use “books” loosely, because they’re mostly piles of disjointed paragraphs and hastily scrawled character sketches—I see an active imagination and a lot of scattered potential. But all that writing kept me anchored in the dream-reality that stories come from. It was a way to keep the fires of my creativity burning when the drink and the drugs threatened to snuff it out completely.
And oddly enough, those scribblings were leading me somewhere, though I didn’t know it at the time. The book ideas and the characters in search of stories got more fantastical the further I went, and it kept my mind limber. Those notebooks were laying the foundation for what came later. The vampires, the magic, the darkness. It’s all there in embryo form.
I’ve heard authors say that writing has saved their life. In your case, that seems to be quite literally true. Tell me a bit about that journey.
Not to sound mythic, but it was a journey to Hell and back. I started losing the plot of my life when getting drunk and high became more important than anything else. The jobs I worked got more menial, the apartments I lived in got smaller and shabbier, everything in my life got small and bleak. I kept scribbling ideas for stories here and there as a kind of lifeline (my wife read one my journals from that period and said, “Well at least your writing was improving…”). When I finally had a breakdown and ended up in the mental hospital on suicide watch, stories were the thing that I held on to. I watched and listened to every crazy person I saw in there. I went from the hospital to rehab and that’s where I started writing again. I learned in rehab that we’re all here to pursue a passion or a dream and nothing is stopping any of us from doing that except a decision. A decision to choose ourselves. I decided I was finally going to write a book, no matter what. It became a central part of my recovery, a reason to get clean and stay clean. Finishing a book became a reason to choose my life. Working on that first draft was a struggle but it helped me stay focused on getting better and getting my life together.
What was the genesis for your Twelve Stakes series?
When I was newly sober, I had dinner with a friend of mine one night, a writer named Khanh Ho. He and I were joking about different ways to write about my time in the nuthouse and were spitballing story ideas. Khanh kept suggesting wilder and wilder ideas, like heroin-addicted angels in rehab, and he finally said, “You should write about vampires in A.A.!” I immediately latched onto the idea, knowing instinctively there was a kickass story in there somewhere. Sure enough, when I started unpacking it, the story, the world, and all the characters spilled out almost fully written. The idea of monsters as addicts and blood as addictive as booze seemed perfectly made to tell a noir-style detective story, which is exactly what I was looking for.
Do you think writing was always in the cards for you?
I don’t like to romanticize writing but in this case I do think I couldn’t have been anything other than a writer. It’s what I love and it’s how I look at the world. I see stories and see characters everywhere I go. And the writer’s life has appealed to me since I was a kid. The freedom to let my imagination run wild really put a hook in me. It’s why I when I was young, I rewrote the endings of books I read when I didn’t like the final scene or how the characters ended up.
Some writers plot and outline their book, others jump in and see where their writing lead them. How would you describe your writing process?
I outline for practical purposes, because it makes the writing process faster and smoother. But I keep my outlines vague so I can leave room for surprises. The outline is a map to a place I’ve never been before. So if I make it too rigid, it cuts me off from discovering new plot points or character motivations along the way. And at some point, I have to be willing to let the outline go altogether. No outline survives contact with the story without changing. So I start with a basic thread of the storyline to get it shaped into a rough three-act structure and I give myself a page count to hit every day. After that, it’s just faith. I trust that if I show up and start writing every day, the characters will show up too and show me the way to the final scene.
How important is reading to you as a writer?
All the reading I did before I started writing was extremely important. It gave me a solid education in how stories work. How do you build tension and suspense? How do you show emotion and pain? What makes a reader keep turning pages, desperate to find out what happens next? Reading as much as possible is important because at some point, all of it sinks into your subconscious like groundwater and that’s where your personal stories spring from. I don’t have as much time to read for fun when I’m writing, so when I do I try to read non-fiction so I can absorb more data that might inspire and influence future stories.
Who are some of the writers you feel have most influenced you?
At the top of the list are the mystery and fantasy writers that have melded into my style. Writers like Raymond Chandler, Anne Rice, Michael Connelly, NK Jemisin, Richard Kadrey, Nalo Hopkinson, Charlie Huston have been my guides and inspiration…and are now my competition.
What would you like readers to take away from your writings?
Most of all I want them to strap in and enjoy the ride. I want them to get lost in the world of Twelve Stakes and get so close to the characters they shout and cry along with them. I want my readers to wonder what kind of monster they’d be in my world—are they Werewolves, Vamps, Fae or Witches? The same way people sort themselves into Hogwarts houses. (That’s right, I just compared my books to Harry Potter!) But most of all, I want my readers to see hope in all the darkness and be inspired to keep fighting, addicts or not.
Twelve Stakes is a book series, but are you also thinking beyond books as a way to express your work?
Yes, I’m going to take Twelve Stakes across a bunch of different platforms. Jack Strayhorn, my Vampire detective character, hints in book one about the 60 or so years he traveled around solving supernatural cases. I’m turning those into a series of graphic novels. I’m also adapting the main series story into a television pilot. Netflix and Amazon are doing some amazing storytelling right now, dark and sexy stuff. My Vamps and Weres will fit right in. On the far horizon is an immersive video game set in the world of Twelves Stakes, especially if virtual reality tech catches up to my imagination.
Having gone through the process a few times now, what advice would you give to writers who are just starting their journey?
The two things I would pass along are commitment and permission. You have to commit to sitting down every day and banging out pages, no matter. Don’t feel inspired? Don’t feel like writing? Too bad. Suck it up and get to work. But while you’re writing every day, give yourself permission to suck at it. Give yourself permission to write a shitty first draft, have days where you hate every sentence you put down, and want to throw the book out the window. Those feelings will pass—as long as you keep showing up every day to write.
Check out the Twelve Stakes series at twelvestakes.com, and pick up Book 1 at The Last Bookstore today. Book 3, “A Devil of Your Own,” comes out on August 1.