As part of Inked in Gray’s interviews with featured authors, I had the privilege of speaking with Ulff Lehmann. Ulff is the author of the grimdark fantasy series Light in the Dark, as well as the winner of Inked in Gray’s Anthology contest. His novels have been touted by Reedsy as one of 25+ Grimdark Books to Tide You Over Until “Winds of Winter.”
I had the opportunity to interview Ulff about his first book, Shattered Dreams, writing advice, and what inspires the philosophy behind his stories. Shattered Dreams is the first in the pentalogy (a five book series), Shattered Dreams, is an entertaining, dark fantasy novel that rivals Game of Thrones in its intensity. As a note, this interview does contain SPOILERS from Shattered Dreams.
Ulff, thanks so much for taking the time to speak with me. I want to get right into it and ask what your thoughts are on the 25+ Grimdark article you were featured in. Was that something you were expecting?
Actually, I didn’t even know what Reedsy was until that article. It was definitely a surprise because I didn’t know how many people had read the book. It feels good, but on the other hand, I’m not doing this to be recognized. I’m doing this to stay sane. I just want to write, basically, and if people like it, so much the better.
Can you tell us a little about the Light in the Dark Series?
To be honest, there will be some heartbreak […] in the end. I mean, there’s already some in the beginning, but it’s not going to be easy. When I first set out as an indie or self-published author, I had a trilogy in mind: Shattered Dreams, Shattered Hopes, Shattered Bonds. And Shattered Hopes turned into this three-hundred-thousand-word [book]. When I signed up with Crossroads, the publisher said, “Dude you can’t do this. This is too big.” And I’m like, “Okay, good, let’s split it in two.” And so, I ended up with five books instead of three, and the progression is a little different now because books two and three used to be book two only. I tried to emulate The Dark Knight in terms of tension, just ramping it up, pushing and pushing and pushing, and never solving it until the last second or so. Due to having split the book now into Shattered Hopes and Shattered Fears, it’s a little different. There is a cut at the end of book two, like, “Bam!” and then it continues. Right [into] book three. No room for you to breathe.
Wow – that sounds like a lot of narrative. I bet there were many things in the book series that you had to cut down.
It’s hinted at in the novels, but it’s not — I have a short story in the anthology Blackest Spells, which is the counterpart to Blackest Knights, edited by Charles Phipps. It’s basically one of the unwritten chapters, something that has happened in Drangar’s past. It’s a brilliant story, and shows the teenage Drangar being at his most inexperienced. It’s actually a very, very intimate and lovely tale on the one hand, with my trademark brutality splashed in between.
So definitely not a light and fluffy story?
No, not really. I put a lot of myself into stories. As I said, I write what I want to read, and I like reading fluffy every once in a while, but I prefer something that actually makes you think.
What was your favorite character to write in Shattered Dreams?
Wow. Okay, Drangar, for obvious reasons, because he’s been with me the longest. I mean, he’s pretty much my alter ego in many regards. Him and Bright-Eyes. I love Bright-Eyes. [He] was so much fun because in this entire gloomy, shitty world, there’s this dude who’s like, “I don’t give a sh*t if it’s gloomy!”
Yes, I did enjoy him. He was one of my favorite characters.
Yeah. Everybody was upset at me for killing him. How many times did I hear, “I had tears in my eyes”? And I’m like, “Yeah, so did I.”
But that’s life: sometimes the brightest things are just extinguished.
Yeah, but there will be a reckoning […] of sorts. That’s all I’m going to say. In book five, there will be one upbeat, one really big upbeat.
I’ll have to take your word for it. And that does seem to play into one of the themes in Shattered Dreams. And in reading some of the reviews, there were other people like, “This is, you know, a book surely about redemption.” A lot of different theories going around as to what the main theme is. What I kind of got out of it was that it was about accepting the world around you, accepting who you are: the good, the bad, and the ugly. And your place in all of it. So, settle it for me. Is there a central theme that you were going for, or were you going for multiple themes?
Wow. That’s actually a very good question because, truth be told, I never — okay, when I wrote my first Drangar story. It morphed, it transformed into something over the past whatever, twenty-odd years, twenty-five years, I don’t know. Due to my own depression, my struggle with mental illness and all that, and me coming to terms with who I am, I projected a lot into Drangar. So, in a way, it’s as you said, coming to terms with who you are. The good, the bad, and the ugly, and so on and so forth. It was an influence, but I didn’t set out and say, “Okay, I want to write about redemption. I want to write about personal acceptance.” In the end, I just wanted to write the best story that I could, with all the themes that matter to me. Not, “Okay, I’m going to pick and choose the themes.” I wanted to shove everything in there.
And you did that very well, I think. Especially, it was in the first few pages, for me really set the stage as to who he was and what kind of story we were getting into. And, whether intentionally or not, it laid out all the themes that that character and that world were going to go through. Does your writing now come easier, now that you’ve gotten a few novels under your belt? Or do you find yourself sometimes in the same spot you were when you were writing your first book?
I’m in a different spot, now. The first first book, the original tale — it wasn’t even called Shattered Dreams back then — I wrote in ’98, ’99-ish, around that time, and that story was sh*t. The good elements that still remained are the nightmare sequences. I took the nightmare sequences almost word-for-word out of the original story. And parts of the market scene with the two boys running around, Pudgy and Ean. And Bright-Eyes, Bright-Eyes was also [in the original story].
In terms of, “Does it come easier?” I wrote the first novel in three months during therapy. I was in behavioral therapy for seven years or so, and when my therapist finally got through to me, in the end, to realize, “Yeah, I’m a writer. I need to write.” So, then I set myself a schedule on how and where and when, and I basically wrote six days a week, two hours — at least — a day. And that lasted for the entire first book, for the first draft of the first book.
Then I took a break, reworked it. Book two took a little longer because it’s twice as long, or it was twice as long. Then I hit a speed bump with book now-four because stupid-ass me, I said my elves are like the Romans. Little did you know. So, when it came to introducing my elven legions and everything, I needed to do a bit more research than, “Oh, yeah, they have centurions.” So, that was the problem with the entire affair of book four and five, which is still being resolved now.
That’s a pretty epic rabbit hole.
I understand people like George R.R. Martin much better. There’s so much shit in the air by that time. He has hundreds of characters he needs to take care of, and from the craft point of view, I understand why it takes so long, because you write something, you’re in the zone. You write, and write, and then you’re done with the chapter. Three chapters further in, you go like, “Okay, now I need to look up what this and that guy did before,” because all of a sudden it doesn’t fit anymore, because you fly by the seat of your pants most of this time, and all of a sudden you need to coordinate this sh*t.
Everything has to make sense.
Exactly. I needed to get the narrative straight for one person, then the narrative straight for another — which was even set further back into time — and then the actual continuation of where book three ends. And then I do a cross-cut all of that, and then all of a sudden I realized, “F*ck. I need to introduce another character somewhere along the line in the back of the book.” But if I do that too early, I would ruin the tension, so I needed to figure that sh*t out. I have that down now, to a certain degree, but it also requires me to move other chapters away from where they initially were because this way, I can ramp up the tension even more. And that is sh*t — I understand Martin, why it takes so long.
So, when you’re writing, especially when you were starting out, everybody is very quick to give you writer’s advice. And there’s a ton of that online, and much of it is confusing and contradictory. What was one piece of contradictory advice that was actually valuable to you.
The advice that I thought was bullsh*t, which actually turned out almost the best advice I ever got, was, “Don’t read what you write.”
I still read what I wrote until I didn’t anymore, and, truth be told, in the past ten years, I’ve read very little fantasy other than maybe George R.R. Martin. But, other than that, I’ve read historical fiction, horror, romance, war. Everything but fantasy, and that’s one of the best [pieces of advice] I can give to anyone because, when you read what you write, you tend to get influenced by what you read. So, if you write fantasy, reading fantasy should be the farthest from your mind because then you emulate Tolkien, Salvatore, or whoever the f*ck you’re reading at the time. So, the best way to avoid that is, don’t read it.
And the other thing—don’t listen to what other people say. Well, listen, but don’t listen to the sycophantic a**holes who love it all because, in the end, you write for yourself. You don’t write for your sister, your brother, your mother. You don’t write for any of the other people. You write for yourself, first and foremost. Everything else is bullshit, so you need to be happy with what you’re writing. And the problem there is, when you’re young, you like everything: “Ooh, it’s Star Wars! I love Star Wars!” No matter if it’s shit, it’s Star Wars. Or Dragonlance, or I don’t know what else. Or Warhammer 40K: “I love Warhammer 40K, so everything with Warhammer 40K is brilliant.” No, it isn’t.
And that comes after years and years of reading, that you understand what’s good and what’s not, so to speak — for yourself, not for everyone else, but for yourself. That was a tough road to go because I knew what I didn’t want. That was fairly easy. I didn’t know what I wanted, though. Then along comes Game of Thrones. I was halfway through, and I had ordered the next two or three books already. I was like, “Okay, this is how I want to write.” But that’s my goal. It doesn’t have to be everyone else’s goal. It’s just, for me, the preferable way to write because the third-person limited point of view works brilliant for me.
And [another piece of advice is] just read. Everybody needs to. If you want to write, read. There can’t be any better advice. Just read.
Alright, last question. So, nothing in the world is one-sided. It’s not black and white. It’s not even multi-sided. It’s got so many sides that it doesn’t really have a side. The whole Inked in Gray mission is really just about showing you those other sides — to make you think, just like in Shattered Dreams, “The law is the law. That’s just it. You don’t fuck with it.” You know, that’s not exactly light and fluffy. So, what was a time when you had kind of that same realization, that the world isn’t exactly what it seems?
I know, hard question.
No, it’s a good question. Okay, one of the key moments for me, and I only realized that years and years later, was when I was fourteen my family and I — my sisters, my parents, and I — we went to Tunisia. And in the swimming pool there, I got an ear infection from the water in the swimming pool. I was in like hellish, abysmal pain. I mean, seriously, I could barely walk, so much pain was in my ear. So, we went to a hospital, and that was back in the 1980s, and Tunisia at that time was still pretty much — well, you had the first-world hotels, and then a couple blocks next to that, you had squalor, almost. So, we went to this hospital, and because my parents had, of course, credit cards, et cetera, I was let past a mother with her injured daughter and several other people who had been there for hours. I was in pain, I didn’t realize it. Years later I realized that this is wrong. This is so f*cking wrong. Just because we had money, they let us go first, even though those people were there first. What the f*ck is wrong with this world.
Yeah, and it kind of makes you question everything that goes on around you?
Yup. And that is one of the most important lessons in my entire life. That’s why I say the law is for everyone. You don’t f*ck with the law; the law fucks with you. And the rules need to be in place, and they need to be in place for everyone: no exception, no special status, no nothing. That’s it.
I don’t think I would’ve realized that, either, until you think back when obviously you’re not in pain, and just kind of say, “Hey, that’s what happened, and, man, that’s f*cked up.”
Yup. and just because we had dollars or dinar or whatever, that didn’t give the hospital the right, or us the right, to demand extra service or special service, special treatment. What the f*ck? Seriously. And that’s exactly what happens all over the world now: people with money get special treatment.
So, I developed Thyrn. Because for me, philosophically speaking — and I think I’ve put a lot of my philosophy into Thyrn in that regard — he says, “Yeah, well, humans are stupid. They don’t learn. You need to beat those lessons into them because they don’t get them at first. They don’t even get them — after two generations, they forget.”
And we get to see a glimpse of Thyrn and his morally gray justice in the upcoming Inked in Gray Anthology, The First Stain.
Ulff was also recently featured in Pestilence and Plague: An Anthology of Stories about the Virus. For updates on Ulff’s current novel progress — as well as live discussions — I highly recommend checking out his FaceBook group. But seriously, if you like grimdark fantasy, pick up a copy of Shattered Dreams (Light in the Dark Book 1) here. You won’t regret it.