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Thomas Hewlett Uses His Own Struggles to Launch a Supernatural Mystery Series

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Photos Credit: Thomas Hewlett

Writer Thomas Hewlett is a native of Los Angeles. Growing up, he enjoyed reading a variety of books in the supernatural realm: science fiction, fantasy, and all things mythic or paranormal. It wasn’t until he was all grown up and recovering from drug and alcohol addiction that he found that he also loved writing. Before rehab, he wrote the occasional scribble while working odd jobs. In rehab, however, he was inspired to combine his own feelings of being lost with the lost souls of supernatural tales. He ended up writing his first novel, One Death at a Time while there. The book is a fast-paced page-turner, which he has rolled into the newly launched Twelve Stakes series about vampires in AA, outlaw biker werewolves, drug-dealing Fae, and magic-addicted witches that inhabit the world of his noir version of Los Angeles. Thomas tells JustLuxe about his inspirational story and his attraction to the dark side.

 When did you begin writing?

I started writing in high school, typical teenage stuff that was just awful. But I felt a spark when I wrote, I was drawn to it and I knew it was what I wanted to do for the rest of my life. It took another 20 years, a total breakdown, and stints in both psychiatric care and rehab before I finally committed 100% to writing. Now I can’t imagine doing anything else.

You’re very candid about your battles with addiction.  How do you feel your journey has influenced your writing?

 My journey through addiction and recovery is at the heart of my writing. When I was using, I felt like I was living in a different world from normal people. I always thought of myself as some kind of alien or monster. I didn’t live like other people. I preferred nighttime to daytime, didn’t like going out and seeing people and I kept everything secret, especially how I really felt. I thought I was fooling everyone into thinking I was fine and everything was okay. 

It all came crashing down five years ago when my wife and I were living in a downtown Los Angeles loft, which was basically her design office. I wasn't living the life I wanted to, I was stressed, and was carrying around a secret life by drowning everything in pills and booze. So I got really drunk, put an Exacto knife in my pocket and took the bus out to the beach. Luckily, instead of cutting my wrists I called the Suicide Hotline. They sent me to the psych ward and from there I ended up in rehab for thirty days.

When I was in rehab, I finally accepted that I was an addict. It was a relief actually. I‘d been self-medicating for so long trying to avoid feeling anything because feelings were overwhelming. I’m a pretty sensitive person, most addicts are. The problem is that my solution to dealing with that sensitivity was to cut off all feelings, period.  Writing is one of the ways I choose to deal with my feelings now.  It’s a way of opening up instead of shutting down. 

One of things I love about writing is that it’s a way of making contact with all that stuff inside and handling it safely. I can take all the things from my past—like the depression and the addiction and the rage and confusion—and throw them onto the page. The first character I wrote for my series, Vampire Detective Jack Strayhorn, is a jaded and angry guy who, despite all of these terrible experiences, is still full of hope. At the time that I was writing him, I could say all of these things through him that I had a hard time expressing. I was able to throw all my bottled up rage into him and have him deal with it. I was fresh out of treatment, I was very raw and immature emotionally and I let all that come out through writing him. It’s why I write about these characters who are half human, half monster. It’s how I felt when I started writing and how I sometimes still feel.

Your “Twelve Stakes” series is about “vampires in AA”, how did that idea come to you?

So I wrote entire blog post about this on my website Twelve Stakes. I have a friend named Khanh Ho who is a writer, professor, chef, world traveler, and all-around bon vivant. He has his own blog called Los Angeles Mystery and is a regular contributor to the Huffington Post. Khanh is a little…unconventional. This is the guy who came to visit me in the nuthouse with an In-N-Out double-double cheeseburger. Instead of being glum, he made a joke about my shoes not having any laces in them. (When you're in the psych ward, they take your shoelaces so you don’t try strangle yourself.) He’s that kind of guy and that kind of friend.

My wife and I were hanging out with Khanh not long after I left rehab and we started kicking around story ideas. I wanted to get serious about writing a book and we were talking about how to use my stay in the hospital and rehab as a basis. I like fantasy and supernatural, so Khanh started riffing on crazier and crazier ideas—angels in rehab, psychic heroin addicts, that kind of stuff. Finally he says “You should write about vampires in AA!,” and it just stuck.

Vampires, blood drinkers, real drinkers, alcoholics; it all started falling into place. I started thinking about AA as a cover story invented by vampires to help each other survive. Maybe the blood they drank was overpowering and made them lose control the way booze does to humans. I started looking for my characters after that. I already knew I wanted to write a private eye story and the main character immediately sprung out as a vampire and a detective. He’s in the secret program inside AA, he’s fighting this blood addiction and he’s doing what he’s always done: solve murders. I put him in Los Angeles, my hometown, and started thinking about all the other monsters hiding out in the city. Werewolves, Fae, witches. Who are they? How do they survive? All my experiences stared coming out in the story. Everything I’d seen and felt while going through the drugs, the addicts, and the meetings is all in there.

Tell me a bit about the series? 

The Twelve Stakes series is about four different supernatural characters and the journey they’re on to learn to use their powers, battle their inner demons and come together to fight this ancient evil that’s been unleashed on the world. We’ve got Jack Strayhorn, a 100-year-old Vampire who chases down killers as penance for the sins of his mortal life; Devin McKaye, a rogue Fae alchemist on the run from his rich and powerful drug-dealing clan; Talia Cienfuegos, a young witch forced to harness the magic within her that threatens her sanity; and finally Zero, a half-Vampire, half-Werewolf hybrid living wild on the streets of Los Angeles while he tracks down the mysterious origin of his own birth.

Twelve Stakes is a real Los Angeles story. Jack, Devin, Talia, and Zero are all addicts, and their addiction is tied to their powers. Twelve Stakes is all about how addiction can be a gift instead of curse, and how they find something valuable in all that pain. The whole saga spans thirteen books. Just like in the program, there are twelve steps and twelve novels. The final book is called, “The Thirteenth Step,” which is a finale to the series and also an inside reference for anyone who’s been in a Twelve Step program.

“One Death at a Time” is the first book in the series, is that your first novel?

Yes, "One Death at a Time" was the first novel I ever wrote.  Like a lot of first novels, it took a long time to write and came out bloated, directionless and superficial on the first draft. It took me about nine months of writing to find the story, and two more drafts to find my voice. My wife is my first reader and her only note on the first draft was, “Not there yet.” I found that writing the first book was a lesson in going deeper and getting beyond the surface of the story until I get to what I really want to show. Every book since then has gotten stronger because I’m starting closer and closer to that deep point of the story.

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How would you describe your writing?

 My writing is a mix of influences, sounds and voices. I grew up in a mixed-race family in a mixed-race city, and I’ve always had eclectic taste in music and books. I’ll go from listening Miles Davis to the Dead Kennedys or I’ll read a Raymond Chandler novel one week and Isaac Asimov the next. My writing is like that too. It’s a funky mix of mystery and hardboiled noir with modern fantasy and supernatural horror thrown in. That’s why I'm drawn to vampire detectives, drug-dealing faeries and cigar-chomping, motorcycle-riding werewolves.

My family heritage also has very close ties to a Los Angeles that's not well known. My mom’s family is Filipino and Puerto Rican and came here from New York. My dad’s family is a mix of Creole and Native American out of New Orleans and they came here during WWII. They worked and lived behind the scenes of L.A.’s industries. One of my great-grandfathers was a carpenter and built luxury yachts for Errol Flynn and other actors. My other grandfather worked in nightclubs and was the only guy the mobster Mickey Cohen trusted to make his martinis. This all has an influence on my writing and my love of hidden stories, secret histories and mashing-up genres and characters. I want to show my city the way I see it; I want to show the incredible variety of races and languages and histories.

Who do you see as your target audience?  

My readers are people who have the same love I do for genre mashups and gritty stories about ass-kicking supernatural characters. My readers don’t like sparkly vampires who never kill anyone or beautiful, delicate faerie princes who never have a single hair out of place. They want killers on the loose, they want magic that’s dark and deadly. They want vampires who have sex, get drunk, go wild and wake up the next night feeling like crap and having to deal with it. I write books for people who like their humans a little monstrous and their monsters a little human. 

Who are some writers who have influenced your work?  

I’ve read all of Richard Kadrey’s “Sandman Slim” stories and literally everything by Charlie Huston. In fact, when I met Huston through a friend of mine, he gave me a copy of one of his books in Korean with a note that said, “Since you’ve read everything by me, here’s something you can’t read.” I’ve also got Raymond Chandler, Jim Butcher, Anne Rice, and Charlaine Harris in my writing because I’ve been mainlining all their books for years as well. I also have to include Michael Connolly on this list. My vampires owe as much to Harry Bosch as they do to the vampire Lestat.

Where would you like to see your writing career go in the next few years?

Twelve Stakes is a thirteen book series, and finishing that is a priority. From there I have two more series planned with a similar blend of noir and fantasy. One of them takes place in an underground city and follows a rather reluctant private detective as he goes deeper into the Earth on a case. The other is a supernatural take on spy and espionage thrillers.

After that, I have a whole slate of graphic novels I’m developing. Some are stories from the Twelve Stakes universe; for example, my Vampire Detective Jack Strayhorn, hints in "One Death at a Time" that during the seventy years he was gone from Los Angeles he was traveling around solving supernatural crimes—hunting werewolves in Miami, finding lost witches in New Orleans, and things like that. I'm going to explore his old case files. The others cover everything from time travel to Sherlock Holmes to the afterlife, all told with a noir sensibility. I see the Twelve Stakes and all my other series expanding across different media and really giving readers more ways to lose themselves in the worlds I create.

Carly Zinderman

Carly Zinderman is a Senior Staff Writer for JustLuxe, based just outside of Los Angeles, CA. Since graduating from Occidental College with a degree in English and Comparative Literary Studies, she has written on a variety of topics for books, magazines and online publications, but loves fashion and style best. In her spare time, when she?s not writing, Carly enjoys watching old movies, reading an...(Read More)

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