Jeff Salyards is a relatively new voice in speculative fiction. He’s made quite a splash with his first, and very successful, novel Scourge of the Betrayer. It says something about an author’s budding career when they went from a person no one has heard of before, to a common name in a matter of a few months. In fact, I find his success so exciting that I’m anxiously standing by watching where his promising career will lead him. He’s also a hell of a guy. This is proven by the fact that he let me bother him with one of my incredibly long interviews during an extremely busy part of the year and didn’t complain even once.
What a guy.
I hope you enjoy this interview as much as I did.
About the Author (in his words)
I grew up in a small town north of Chicago. While it wasn’t Mayberry, with all the doors unlocked and everyone offering each other slices of pie and quaint homilies, it was pretty quiet and sleepy, so I got started early imagining my way into all kinds of other worlds and universes that were loud, chaotic, and full of irrepressible characters and heaps of danger. Massive explosions. Tentacled aliens. Men with sharp swords and thousand-yard stares and secrets they would die to protect. Clearly, I was a full-bore dork.
Royal Crown bag full of multi-sided dice? Check. Blood-red hooded cloak? Check. Annual pilgrimages to Renaissance Faires? Check. Whacking other (curiously athletic and gifted) dorks with rattan swords in the SCA? Check. Yes, I earned my badges, thank you very much.
My whole life, I’ve been fascinated by the fantastic, and of course this extended to speculative fiction of all kinds. Countless prepubescent evenings found me reading a worn, dog-eared copy of Thuvia, Maid of Mars (it sounded so much dirtier than it was!) or The Frost Giant’s Daughter (high hopes for that one too!) well past lights-out, flashlight in hand, ignoring the repeated calls to turn in. That’s as quiet and harmless a rebellion as you can have, and my parents mostly sighed and left me to it.
So, no one has ever been surprised to hear that I was working on (or at least talking about working on) some sci-fi or fantasy story or other. But it took years of flirting with various projects, flitting from one to the next without the hint of complete commitment, before I finally mastered myself enough to finish a novel. And longer still before I finished another one that was worthy of being published.
But wonders never cease. And here we are.
My debut novel, Scourge of the Betrayer, is a hard-boiled fantasy to be published by Night Shade Books in May 2012. It’s the first installment in a series called Bloodsounder’s Arc. I’m so excited I’m beginning to annoy myself. I am represented by Michael Harriot at Folio Literary Management, and couldn’t be happier. His savvy, smart advice has been invaluable on this journey. I suspect he has a secret stash of 20-siders somewhere in his desk.
I live with my lovely wife, Kris, and three daughters in a suburb west of Chicago. I am indebted to Kris in countless ways for her steadfast encouragement, support, and thick skin in dealing with a prickly, moody writer. I don’t always like living with me, but she has a choice and stays anyway.
And before you are tempted to mention it, I am fully aware that siring three daughters is certainly karmic retribution, particularly when they all transform into teenagers. I cling to the hope of discovering at least one of them reading covertly in the middle of the night. That kind of transgression I can handle.
You can visit the author’s website, facebook and twitter for more information.
Jeff also participated in Special Needs in Strange Worlds with an amazing post called Broken, but Unbowed, which you can read here.
Onto the interview
I love how you describe yourself as a dork in your biography on your website. I can completely relate. While you list a few much loved books from your childhood, I’m wondering what others you remember that really got you started into fantasy and science fiction?
I remember being sick at home with a really nasty bug, and pretty much confined to shivering under a velour blanket for several days, and I devoured The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. I also took several trips to Narnia as well around that time. And while I loved those books, they were sort of quiet and whimsical, especially compared to the explosions and dark sorcery and bloodletting that John Carter and Conan had to deal with. But I’ve always been drawn to both kinds of fantasy and science fiction, then and now—some days, I want sprawling vistas, poignant poetry and meditation, the challenge of magnificent ideas, and other days, I want beheadings, betrayals, crushed bones, and broken hearts.
Being a father, and an avid reader yourself, are there any books that you love sharing with your kids?
Flowers in the Attic and Go the F**k to Sleep are favorites in the house. I kid. Sort of. I do wish they would go the eff to sleep.
Dr. Seuss is always a go to. Guess how Much I Love You and I Love You, Stinky Face! (Notice a trend, do you?). Any Maisy book. Any and all princess related-books. My Truck is Stuck. Purplicious and all spin-offs. The oldest is just starting to read, so things will really take off soon.
You say that no one was really surprised when you started writing a novel. How long ago did you start writing and how long did it take you to complete your first book (published or unpublished)?
Do you remember the Choose-Your-Own-Adventure books? Where the reader picks the narrative path, and either solves the mystery, finds the treasure, or gets eaten by Gronks depending on choices made? Well, my Master’s thesis was a novel: an irreverent, silly, much longer version of a Choose-Your-Own-Adventure book called Listen to the Zebras geared towards adults. Written in second person, where “You” were involved in baffling and zany intrigue with telepathic commandos, clones of yourself, a shadow puppeteer, and a really overbearing mother. I wrote it over the course of about two and a half years while finishing up my course work. It was a lot of fun. In a masochistic sort of way.
You are also a father with three daughters who I love hearing about on Facebook. As an author heavily invested and successful in a creative field, what are some of the ways you encourage creativity in your children?
The eldest wants to be a fashion designer, the middle girl will probably play rugby, and the jury’s still out on number three. It can be tricky finding an activity, creative or otherwise, that engages all of them, especially given how different their personalities are and the range in ages. Sometimes having fun can be a lot of work. But drawing, arts and crafts, make believe, word games, making up songs, Legos, Play-Doh, and lots and lots of reading are in the mix.
You say that you are indebted to your wife for being supportive while writing. In what ways has her support helped you continue with your books?
Well, the only time I get to really write is at night after the kids go down (and stay down!). So first and foremost, she’s great about encouraging me to use that time, provided we still make time to reconnect ourselves. So I’m lucky to be with someone that understands and appreciates that this is a dream come true for me, and pushes me to keep after it.
And she does a phenomenal job helping on the practical front (setting up readings, an Author page on FB, etc.) But more than that, I’d say the biggest show of support is simply putting up with a moody, self-absorbed (or at least character-absorbed) writer for a spouse. If I’m not writing, I’m often feeling guilty about not writing, or I’m reading reviews, or trying to promote the book and series, or trying to figure my way through the next scene, or fixing the one I just wrote that bombed, or. . . on and on. Lost in my own private universe. And while that can get lonely or reclusive for me, I know the reverse is true, too—it can be hard waiting on a writer to return to earth and be responsive. So I appreciate her willingness to wait me out, and to reel me back in when necessary.
When you aren’t writing or working, what could someone generally find you doing?
Sleeping. Sometimes crying. Because I wish I was sleeping. And even when I’m sleeping, I dream about sleeping.
Scourge of the Betrayer Questions
Scourge of the Betrayer is your first published novel. Were you prepared and expecting all the things you’d face on and after release day? What has releasing your first novel taught you about writing and criticism?
My agent and publisher were good about preparing me for what release day would bring (beautiful nymphs and dryads riding prancing unicorns, announcing my arrival with wine and song, and heralding the greatness that would surely follow!! Or not.). So I wasn’t completely clueless about how manic it would be. But it was a good manic, and exciting as all get out. So no complaints. I’m a dad—I’m used to crappy sleep and high anxiety anyway.
As far as what it taught me, I’m a scarred veteran of writing workshops, so I have thick skin and I’m pretty inured to the slings and arrows of having my stuff critiqued. And having it done by reviewers is pretty similar. Just on a more public stage. With a lot bigger audience. And it’s out there for posterity. Forever and ever. And ever.
In all seriousness, I do read my reviews, more than once, but I try not to get too distracted or depressed by the less then effusive ones, or too high on the glowing reviews. As you well know, reading is very subjective, and where one reviewer might love your book and call it a favorite of the year, others might roast over a very hot open flame. So you’re probably not as lousy as your worst review or as fantastic as your best.
One of the interesting parts of your book is that the main character virtually knows nearly nothing about the situation he’s in. It unfolds around him (and the reader) as the book progresses. Therefore, the reader doesn’t really know anything, either. We learn as we go. While I’m sure you had to plan events in advance, did you find it hard to stop yourself from giving too much away too soon? How did you pace yourself, and the understanding of events and situations so perfectly? You always seemed to drop just enough knowledge but never too much to spoil anything and I find that kind of restraint incredible.
Thanks for the compliment, but not everyone thought the pacing was as spot on as you did. Some critics thought I played it too close to the vest, or was chintzy in handing out info. Still, as you say, it was a very deliberate choice, for good or ill. Once I committed to the idea that Arki was going to be a generally clueless dork through much of the first book, I had to really monitor how and when he (and therefore the reader, since he was essentially the proxy) 0discovered what the Syldoon soldiers were really up to, and what the devil was bedeviling Captain Braylar Killcoin. (And without spoiling anything, I will only say that even some things he thinks he’s uncovered and pieced together prove to be different than expected in Book II.)
It was a balancing act. If I revealed too much too quickly, it would sort of defeat the purpose of having a naïve chronicler in the first place; but too little, too slow, and readers would grow frustrated (as a few no doubt did). So I always tried to ask myself when considering revealing something, was it a natural consequence, and did it make sense given the parameters I had in place.
That pretty much dictated when and how information was doled out. I tried to avoid massive info dumps, and to bring most of the stuff to light through conversation that felt natural and organic.
Your name is being compared to the likes of Joe Abercrombie. Does that comparison ever surprise you?
I’m thrilled to be mentioned in the same breath as Joe Abercrombie—one, because I enjoy his books and only think he’s getting better, and two, because he’s wildly popular. Who doesn’t want wildly popular to rub off on them? But I am surprised a little. While we both seem to have a pretty dark sense of humor, Bloodsounder’s Arc is told in first person, where all of Abercrombie’s books (at least so far) are third. And while both of us seem to gravitate to world’s that are fairly low-magic, I’d say the tone and feel of the series/books are pretty different as well.
Glen Cook has been bandied around as another comparison. And that makes a little more sense, at least superficially—the Black Company books feature a chronicler narrating the exploits of a military company. But even there, I think the differences outweigh the similarities: the narrators couldn’t be more different, the characters in the respective companies don’t overlap much, beyond being “grey”, and the magic-levels are pretty far apart.
Still, surprising or not, it’s fantastic to be compared to any big hitters in the field.
Scourge of the Betrayer is a rather graphic book in some parts. Was it hard for you to write such graphic scenes? Did you have to be in a certain mindset to do so, or do some research to make sure you portrayed battles/injuries/etc. correctly?
I’ve loved history for as long as I can remember, and I’ve always been drawn to medieval history in particular. One thing that always jumped out, though, is that even in periods where the writers of the age paid a lot of lip service to chivalric virtue, the battles were often brutal, gruesome affairs (especially if you didn’t happen to be well-off enough to get ransomed). Sure, the campaigns often consisted of long bouts of marching, camping, scouring the countryside, and waiting, only occasionally broken by skirmishes or the odd prolonged engagement, but the combat itself was ugly, brutish, and intense. And yes, while a lot of evidence indicates that armor worked pretty damn well, plenty of combatants in a pitched battle or siege weren’t armored head to toe. So the injuries that folks sustained were awful. (The Battles of Towton (http://www.economist.com/node/17722650) and Wisby (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Battle_of_Visby) are pretty revealing about the grisly ways people were offed in hand to hand combat.)
Now, Scourge might not be historical fiction, but I wanted it to have an almost historical-fiction feel at its base, so I tried to emulate the depiction of battles in books by Bernard Cornwell (he’s pretty much the gold standard, as far as I’m concerned). I didn’t want to revel in it, or glorify it, or include graphic scenes for any sensational reason, but to illustrate exactly what it took to take an armored man down, and that plans went to shit after the initial engagement, and dumb luck could play as decisive a role in the outcome as skill or tactics or planning.
I know not everyone likes battles in fantasy, but I figured if I was going to write about a military company, I needed to capture some of the grim reality they’d experience.
How long did it take you to write Scourge of the Betrayer from the birth of the idea to sending it off to the publisher?
Not forever and a day, but pretty much forever. I started writing Scourge about ten years before it was published. Now, if this sounds like a really long time, it’s because it was (which sounds worse—ten years or a decade? I go back and forth). But it wasn’t like I spent the entire time agonizing over every little word choice, because there were some pretty long stretches in there where I got completely distracted by other life happenings and allowed myself to drift away from it. Job, hunting, moving to England for a couple of years, travel, job hunting, drinking, reading, thinking about job hunting, playing tennis badly, doing laundry, recovering from drinking, you get the idea. I wasn’t what you (or anyone, except possibly a worse slacker living in his mom’s basement) would call focused or committed.
But then my girls were born in pretty quick succession, and with suddenly zilch in the free time department, that forced me to really reevaluate the whole writing endeavor and what it meant to me. It was time to fish or get off the pot. No, that’s not right. Shit or cut bait?
Anyway, it was go time.
I almost hate asking this question, but I am curious. Some writers create their worlds first, and then fill it with people and move onto cultures, plots, etc. Others create their people first, and then build a world around their characters. Which camp, if any, do you fit into? How much research and trial and error went into your world and character building? Did the effort ever surprise you? (Or are you one of the lucky ones where it all seems to come naturally to you?)
I started with the characters—a nerdy archivist recording the narration from a hardened military commander. Still, several of the other characters were there from the get go, too, and I fleshed out the Syldoon structure, the Memoridons, the God Veil, and all the other world building elements after that. Because I wanted to focus on the characters and their interactions, a lot of those elements are only hinted at or explored briefly in the first book, but never fear—they really come to the forefront in Book II. Or fear if you want. Who am I to dictate?
When can your numerous fans and avid readers be expecting the next book in this series?
I’m hoping to finish the rough draft of Book II (tentatively titled Veil of the Deserters) in the spring, and turn in a revised and polish manuscript in the summer, so it should be available by November or December 2013.
Are there any other projects you are working on at the same time?
Between the day job, the dad job, promoting the series, and working on Veil of the Deserters (or whatever the heck it ends up being called), there’s barely enough time to sleep, let alone work on another project. So, nope, nothing else in the fire right now.
I think that’s all I have for now. Thank you for taking the time to do this interview. Is there anything else you’d like to say before we close?
I’ve rambled enough. Anyone who made it this far is probably exhausted, rubbing their eyes, and cursing you for allowing this whole thing to happen. So I’ll just say thanks for inviting me to do the interview, Sarah. I appreciate it, and it’s been a blast.