Poker Skills Help Debut Author Scrutinize Relationships In 'The Adults'

Download Audio
"The Adults," by Caroline Hulse. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)
"The Adults," by Caroline Hulse. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)

A post-divorce vacation with your ex and both of your new partners — what could go wrong?

That's the premise of debut author Caroline Hulse's new novel "The Adults," which is part whodunit, part Noel Coward bedroom comedy and part drama, set over the holidays at a bizarrely idyllic British resort. Hulse (@caroline__hulse), who's also a professional poker player, uses her observation skills to create characters who react as poker players do under extreme pressure.

"If you spend a lot of time playing poker or sitting around the table with people," Hulse tells Here & Now's Robin Young, "you just spend a lot of time observing people in competitive environments where they are feeling quite emotional and not necessarily at their best because it's not just money, it's ego. It's a lot of things can be bound up in that poker game.

"It's also a feeling like other people might be taking advantage of you, which often doesn't bring the best out of people," she adds. "So I think poker has definitely been a really big influence on my writing, even though I don't actually write about poker.

Interview Highlights

On the idea of putting old and new couples together in the book

"I read something about it a long time ago — which was one of the things that inspired the book — of a couple of doing it, and I just thought, I was really impressed. But I just thought, 'There's a real opportunity there for things to go wrong.' And as someone who writes books, conflict really helps books drive them forward, I think as page-turners, so it just stuck with me as an idea because I don't think I'm grown up enough to do that."

"There's lots of times in poker where you know what the sensible thing is to do, but you don't actually want to do it. And I think there's lots of situations like that in life as well."

Caroline Hulse

On human behavior during a poker game that informed her characters

"I think internal conflict is a big one. So I think there's lots of times in poker where you know what the sensible thing is to do, but you don't actually want to do it. And I think there's lots of situations like that in life as well. But you know, in poker often you know the right thing is to fold that hand, but you've got too much money invested, or you really really need that money, or you really want to beat that person. So you end up making suboptimal decisions, and I think that's a really key part of the game. And I think in the book, there's a few examples — I don't want to do too many spoilers — but where people make bad decisions purely because they want things to be a certain way."

On the meaning behind the poker phrase "on tilt" 

"There are obviously optimal, rational decisions to make in poker, but where you go on tilt, that's a phrase that poker players use for if someone's making decisions based on emotions. So that could be that you've had several bad beats in a row where you were meant to win a hand, but something really freaky happened. So you know, someone hit their 1 percent card to beat you, and then you could end up playing a little bit scared, or you can play different kinds of tilt. So the one that I have to watch is gender tilt ... because I'm female, and most of the people I play with are men, and sometimes I have to make sure that I don't think I'm being bullied because of my gender because you can make really bad decisions on that basis."

On starting the book at the end of the story 

"I think I wanted it to be an exploration of how you got somewhere, so I wanted people to notice this was a disastrous holiday, and then to backtrack, well how are these reasonable people? And I still do think highly of these people that ended up in this situation. So I was really keen that there was something at the start so that you knew it was going to go horribly wrong, even though probably you got that inkling before it started."

On the child and imaginary rabbit character in the book

"The child feels quite a few negative emotions, and she seems to develop this rabbit to manage those emotions through or maybe to say the things that the child doesn't want to say out loud. So what you end up with is this quiet, passive-aggressive rabbit who says what he does and doesn't want to do in quite strong terms, and that actually causes quite a lot of problems for the human characters. It was a risk putting that rabbit in the book — an imaginary character in a, you know, it's an adult book. Everyone seems to really like the rabbit, and I have to say it was my favorite bit to write. It's quite satisfying writing a very passive aggressive character that can do exactly what they want, whenever they want with no implications."

On what the book says about the possibility for friendship after a relationship ends 

"I think there are a lot of blended families increasingly out there and people trying to find a way of making things work for them. And just because a relationship ends, you know if you've got a child together, you are together for life in some ways. So I think it is very admirable and very mature of people to find a way of trying to make this work for them. I think because of the complex opportunities and because I'm a sneaky author who is just trying to find interesting scenarios, you know, I used that as an opportunity for conflict, but that isn't necessarily the case. I don't know anyone who does it. It could be that it works very well for some people, and I read an article about people who found it very helpful."

On how people's different perspectives are similar to a poker game

"I think you can talk to several people about the same hand of poker, and they'll tell you what was going on, and they'll tell you a slightly different version of the story, and I think that's life. And I think we've all got our own versions of the stories, and I think depending on how well they stack up next to each other, that can make things easier or it can make things hard."

Karyn Miller-Medzon produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Samantha Raphelson adapted it for the web. 

Book Excerpt: 'The Adults'

by Caroline Hulse

Matt had known about the trip for months before he dropped it into conversation.

Matt didn’t deliberately keep things from Alex; he just dealt with complicated thoughts like he dealt with his post.

When letters landed in the hallway, Matt stepped over them or, when they could no longer be ignored, crammed them into any nook he could find. Next to the cooker, on the bookshelf; the letters went anywhere that was easy-reach and tucked away and— most important—had no established retrieval system.

Hence, Matt absolved himself from any sense of urgency and, if the sender tried to contact him again, Matt seemed (and, Alex came to realize, actually was) genuinely surprised the issue hadn’t just gone away.

Within weeks of Matt moving in, Alex had piles of envelopes in places in her house where there had never been piles before.

After the first few times she spent pulling envelopes out of what had once been—unappreciated at the time—empty nooks, Alex gathered the letters all together one afternoon. She laid them out in a Hansel-and-Gretel trail from the front door to the kitchen table.

Matt came to find her in the bedroom, cradling the letters in his arms. “All this post is mine, Al? Really?”

“I thought I’d put the letters in one place. Make it easy for you.”

Matt shrugged, the letters lifting with him. “I don’t get the point of post. Who do they expect to read post nowadays?”

Weeks later, the nooks had filled up again.

The night Matt told her about the trip, Alex had made a pie— everything from scratch. Except the pastry: Alex wasn’t made of time. At the age of thirty-seven, she still felt like whenever she cooked an actual meal, it was a notable event: that she deserved some kind of award for not just pouring milk onto cereal.

Alex was washing up after tea when Matt came to find her. He loitered in the doorway, like it had occurred to him to come downstairs on a whim and he hadn’t yet decided whether he was staying.

“So. You know what I said about Claire’s idea for Christmas?” Alex glanced round. “No.”

He widened his eyes. “I definitely haven’t mentioned it?” “You definitely haven’t.”

Matt blew his dark fringe out of his eyes, as he did twenty times each day. His hairline was impressively youthful for thirty-eight and Alex suspected he might have cultivated the habit to accentuate it. He might have, he might not. Alex meant to ask someone who’d known him longer. Not that it mattered—but Alex was a scientist. Once she’d developed a hypothesis, she wanted to test it. Alex liked her facts clean, boxed.

“God, I’m useless, Al.”

Alex peered at the glass in her hand, checking for soapsuds so she didn’t have to reply.

Matt stayed in the doorway behind her, but reached out to stroke her arm. “I suppose I didn’t know how to bring it up. I thought you might get mad.”

Noting the seamless change of approach from “I thought I’d mentioned it” to “I didn’t know how to bring it up,” Alex unpeeled her washing-up gloves and flopped them over the drainer. She turned to face Matt. “Am I about to get mad?”

Matt gestured for her to step toward him. He put his arms around her waist. “Understandably mad, of course.” He kissed her forehead. “Completely justifiably mad. Not crazy psycho mad.”

This did not bode well. “Go on.”

“So you know I haven’t spent Christmas with Scarlett since Claire and I split up.”

Alex nodded. “Have we got Scarlett this year? I’d like that.”

“No, it’s . . . Claire wants us to go on a weekend away together.” Alex took a beat to process this. “Us?”

“Us. All of us. You and me. Her and Patrick. With Scarlett as the guest of honor.”

Alex stared at Matt. She gestured toward the kitchen table. This was not the kind of conversation Alex wanted to be having with someone who was standing in a doorway. She didn’t want to be having this conversation at all, but if she was going to have to do so, it would be with someone who was actually in the same room as her.

“At the Happy Forest holiday park in North Yorkshire.” Matt leaned on the back of a chair, palms down, like he was too excited to sit. “They pull out all the stops at Christmas, festive magic everywhere. Light-up reindeers and fake snow. Santa’s elves wander round the forest singing carols.”

Alex glanced at the wine rack but made herself look away. She refused to get annoyed. Annoyance led to irrationality, and irrationality was a personal—and professional—failure.

She lowered herself into a kitchen chair; it creaked. “This Christmas? You mean one month’s time Christmas?”

Matt sank into the chair next to Alex. He leaned forward and picked up one of her spotty-socked feet and placed it on his knee. “We’ve talked about it before, haven’t we?” He stroked her foot. “How magical it would be for Scarlett to spend Christmas with both me and Claire.”

“But we didn’t discuss it in that way. Not like we were really going to do it.”

© 2018 Caroline Hulse, Excerpt courtesy Random House.

This segment aired on December 20, 2018.


Headshot of Robin Young

Robin Young Co-Host, Here & Now
Robin Young brings more than 25 years of broadcast experience to her role as host of Here & Now.



More from Here & Now

Listen Live