Saturday, October 20, 2012

INTERVIEW with Jeff Salyards

Jeff Salyards, an up-and-coming sword and sorcery fantasy author from the Chicagoland area, recently “sat down” to have an interview with us at the Nerds of a Feather home office. For those of you who are unfamiliar with his work, Salyards recently published his debut novel, Scourge of the Betrayer, with Night Shade Books. Scourge is the first book of the series Bloodsounder's Arc, and sets the stage for a riveting series that fans of dark, gritty fantasy (a la Joe Abercrombie and Scott Lynch, to name a few) will no doubt enjoy. Check out our review of Scourge here. Enjoy our interview with Jeff!

When did you first get into fantasy? And what book(s) introduced you to the genre?

I don’t remember ever NOT being into fantasy. I know that sounds trite, or maybe evasive, or tritely evasive. But I’ve loved the genre for so long—books, films, comics, D&D, etc.— it’s really difficult to pinpoint exactly what books drew me in.

My cousin Richard also shared an early love of all things fantasy. And I’ll always remember he had this huge box of Edgar Burroughs and Robert Howard paperbacks from a used book store, or garage sale, or maybe pilfered from the library. And we’d each pick one up and read all night long, well past the third or fourth time my uncle called lights out before just giving up because it least we were reading and not playing Atari or drums or making pipe bombs.

And my cousin and I would wake up groggy the next day, and immediately start chattering about the wild adventures Conan or Tarzan or John Carter of Mars got themselves into. So that is probably one of my early forays that really hooked me for good. Sure, there was The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings, and Narnia, and those might have even come earlier—but that shared reading with my cousin will always stand out.

What do you look for in a good fantasy novel?

I love character-driven fantasy. As much as I appreciate intricate plotting or cool magic systems, deep world building or some crazy linguist who invented a brand new language, what usually draws me into any book and keeps me there are fascinating characters who behave plausibly, have depth, and really feel real.

Stories depend on great characters and their tensions, desires, fears, dreams, ideologies, jealousies, lusts and the ways they bump into other characters with competing or alternate agendas. So for me, it has to start there. I’ve read some books that have breakneck plots that can be kind of thrilling, but if the characters are flat or rote, it just ends up being an airplane read, literary junk food. This holds true for all novels in my mind, but it’s just as important, if not more so, in fantasy.

Fantasy novels that have wonderful worlds, are really plotted nicely, and have what should be a pretty compelling storyline can still bomb for me if the characters are poorly drawn, predictable, or derivative. Of course, if all those characters do is sit around and talk, waiting for Frodo or Godot and aren’t involved in a good story, it won’t matter how well rendered they are. 

What inspired you to write Scourge of the Betrayer?

Grief. In the original version (that got revised significantly, so you don’t see as much evidence of it in the final manuscript that my agent and publisher picked up), Braylar narrated a back story that involved him and his sister as members of a tribe on the hinterlands on the Syldoon Empire. This story covered a stretch when Braylar was a boy, before being taken by the Syldoon, and he witnessed his father’s murder. This informed a good chunk of both the back story narrative as well as some of the present narrative (that ultimately made upScourge).

I’m not big on theme- or idea-driven books, as they often come across as lifeless of pedantic. And I didn’t want Braylar or any other character to wallow in it—this wasn’t going to be a meditation on the topic—but in fantasy, especially military or action-oriented, the losses sometimes don’t get explored as deeply as they should.

So, there were other things that inspired me that featured more prominently in the book as it evolved, but that initial impulse to write about a characters who have lost something or someone still bleeds over into the book, around the edges mostly, but still pretty visible.

But I’ve lost a fair number of people in my life, and watched others lose those dear to them as well, and so wanted to feature grief in a real and substantial way, to have characters wrestle with it.

I love Braylar's flail. What inspired you to have your protagonist wield a flail?

Once I decided there was going to be a cursed weapon in the book, I knew it had to be anything except a sword. Not that there’s anything wrong with swords, but they’ve pretty much been done to death. Throughout history and across cultures, for too many reasons to unravel, they’ve become iconic, taking on all kinds of cultural significance, given names, passed down over generations, housing relics in the pommel, all that good stuff. And that’s bled over into fantasy beyond counting. Shoot, even Luke and Thundarr have energy “swords.” They’re pretty ubiquitous.

So I wanted to pick a weapon that doesn’t get a lot of love. That cut swords immediately (pardon the pun), and axes and bows to a lesser degree. So I considered polearms, but I wanted a weapon Braylar could take anywhere, as he pretty much had to. (Cursed weapons really can be inconvenient like that). So it had to be a sidearm of some sort. Weapons like maces, clubs, warhammers, falchions (a sort of a sword/axe hybrid, so still out), flails, more exotic weapons that you often see in Asian or Asian-inspired milieus, and the like.

But flails jumped out right away, especially for Bloodsounder, for a couple of reasons. They are pretty vicious, and they are inherently difficult to use properly, even with a modest chain so the flail heads can’t smash your hands. I played with a replica some, to get used to the mechanics, and still almost killed myself, even going half speed. Given that Bloodsounder poses some serious challenges and dangers to Braylar, this seemed an appropriate choice for the weapon.

Also, it adds some extra nuance when planning out the fight choreography, as it obviously wouldn’t operate much like swords, axes, maces, etc.

Scourge featured wonderfully compelling character design. Each of your three main characters (Arki, Lloi, and Braylar), are all haunted in some way by their past. To what extent do you view haunted pasts as critical in character building?

I’m not sure haunted pasts are critical, but they can certainly give you a lot of material to work with for generating drama and conflict. I think it’s all in how it’s handled, really. A haunted past done well can add an element of mystery, as the reader puzzles out the hows and whys, or danger, if whatever damaged the character so deeply is still present.

But it can also lead to drawn-out flashbacks, one-note music, or angsty hand-wringing if done poorly, where the character is such a total product of whatever it is that’s doing the haunting, so consumed by it, that he or she becomes a dull, melodramatic, hot mess that never rises above that awful, tragic, or painful thing in the past and still felt so sharply in the present. I’m all for messy and painful backstory as it can give characters depth, heart, and motivation. And as I mentioned, I knew some of my characters were going to deal with grief, particularly Braylar, and that’s haunting 101. But it’s a tricky balance—coming up with the right haunting thing that doesn’t slip over into schlock or become overwrought.

So, having three characters with dicey pasts in Scourge was probably not a real smart idea, now that I think about it. It could have easily been overkill. But the fact that you found them compelling means I didn’t totally botch it. So that’s cool.

Thus far, magic and mysticism have taken back stage in your series. I assume magic will play a greater role in the upcoming sequel to Scourge. How do you approach magic in your world? Do you see it as a largely explainable phenomenon (like a technology or a system that has consistent rules), or is magic a largely unexplainable, mystic force?

The mystical elements will increasingly play a more important role as the series progresses, though compared to a log of high fantasy novels, Bloodsounder’s Arc will always be fairly low-magic. I really tried to create an almost historical-fiction feel to the story, where the grit, grime, humanity, and character relationships take center stage, and the magical things are extremely rare, and also dangerous, to the point that most people stay clear as much as possible, and most people who demonstrate any aptitude for harnessing anything mystical are persecuted or killed.

In the sequels, it will become obvious that there are systems in place for harnessing some of this magic—the Memoridons in particular, have some “infrastructure” for the memory magic that they control, able to utilize it for interrogation, intelligence gathering, even using it offensively and defensively. So in that sense, there are some defined approaches to engineering and controlling it. But the sequels will also demonstrate that the Memoridons, even with all their tradition and shared knowledge and precision, can’t fully account for what they’re working with, and are operating under some pretty dangerous illusions about just how far their knowledge goes.

One of the messages I took away from Scourge was that of the complexity of morality. Nobody you write about is innocent. And in some cases, moral decisions could even lead to disastrous results. This seems to be in line with the gritty turn in fantasy. I would love to hear your thoughts on the increasingly gritty, complex morality found in recent fantasy novels. 

I love characters that are complex, and that includes those who justify their questionable actions, who rationalize rotten behavior, who are sometimes rigid or selfish or mercenary, provided they’re interesting enough to keep my attention. Villains who are mustache twirling, cackling caricatures or simply exist as an over-the-top evil foil to the heroes are dull. And to me, so are heroes that are identifiable from page one as “good guys”, complete with magic circles protecting them.

In real life, even tyrants often have good reasons (in their minds, at least, and be careful how loudly you question otherwise) for what they do. And the most selfless teacher or nurse on the planet can still have deep issues, desperate anxieties, or wacky compulsions that seem to work at cross purposes against them. And characters in a book should be no different.

So, writers like George R.R. Martin, Joe Abercrombie, Scott Lynch, Mark Lawrence, Richard K. Morgan, K.J. Parker, Scott R.R. Bakker and others have really done a masterful job focusing on characters that challenge expectations, resist fitting into preconceived notions of “hero,” “villain,” or even “antihero”. Martin takes someone like Jaime Lannister—who does some pretty despicable things by almost any metric early on in the series—and then, if not redeems him, certainly humanizes him and intentionally complicates reader judgment.

Mark Lawrence’s series is driven by Jorg, a character who is as far from noble as they come (well, except in the literal sense), and does some pretty awful stuff as well. And yet, even if he alienates some folks, most readers and critics find him infinitely compelling.

If you come into these books looking for a traditional hero to latch onto, you might walk away frustrated. And while there’s always the danger of going nihilistic or having so many morally ambiguous characters that there isn’t much to distinguish them, I think a lot of recent fantasy authors are aiming to create characters that challenge expectations, and that exhibit a lot of the complex and sometimes really confusing or contradictory traits that flesh and blood folks do.

What are the biggest challenges you have found in completing your debut novel? And what have you taken away from working through it?

Besides finishing you mean? (Insert laugh track here). Really, finishing and then and only then—because I lack anything resembling foresight—realizing during the agent hunt that I was going to need to do some significant revision if I was serious about getting the thing published by going the traditional route.

Some debut authors can still snag agents and publishers with pretty long manuscripts, and maybe I could have if that had been the only reservation some agents had. But a fair number noted other reservations when they gave feedback.

Having spent so long on the book, my first and second impulses were to ignore them and press on. And who knows, maybe we’d still be having this interview about a published book. But I kind of doubt it. Deep down, I knew the feedback was pretty solid. I think writers can get into awful fixes when they try to please everyone, or even a large number of someones with varying opinions about the work. But if you hear a refrain in the criticism, it might do to pay heed and at least closely reevaluate to see if there’s something to it.

In this case, there were large chunks of the book that were far too cutesy in terms of format and style, with Arki recording the back story as Braylar narrated, only I was trying to mimic what it would be like for a scribe to scribble away during an interview like that. So I left all of Arki’s observations, asides, and questions off the page during those segments, so the reader only had Braylar’s responses to go on to puzzle out what the full conversation might have resembled. Which, while intriguing maybe, seemed to cause a lot of head scratching and frustration as folks wondered why I had these wacky po-mo exchanges in an otherwise fairly straightforward fantasy novel.

So, listening was the toughest part, and actually revising accordingly the second toughest. Both were awful.

Do you have any writing quirks or rituals?

With three kids under the age of six at home, I scrape together time to write whenever I can, so it isn’t consistent enough to really develop any serious rituals. The one thing that comes close is I often, but not always, listen to a movie soundtrack or instrumental music to get the blood pumping as I set down to write—usually something Conan the Barbarian, Flesh + Blood, The Thirteenth Warrior, Last of the Mohicans, The Last Temptation of Christ.

Oh, and I dress in the Donnie Darko bunny costume while writing. If you consider that “quirky.”

What advice do you have for aspiring young authors?

Do as I say, not as I do. Seriously, I am no role model. Which is bad, since I have kids. But on the writing front, I’d suggest writing every day, even if it’s crap or comes haltingly, or you feel like you’re just spinning your wheels and unlikely to create anything worthwhile. Maybe especially then. Because when you start justifying doing something other than writing, it becomes even easier to do it again. And again. And days, weeks, or lifetimes go by without accomplishing much. So write. If not daily, consistently.

Join a workshop or writer’s group of some kind. You can learn a lot about the craft, develop a good antennae for parsing out critique of your work and figuring out how to improve it, and hone your own skills at analyzing the nuts and bolts in someone else’s work, which can be really instructive in its own right, and teach you how to direct those skills at your writing if/when you no longer belong to a writer’s group.

Read. A lot. Stuff in your chosen genre, sure, but outside it as well. Really outside, if you have the time and inclination. While you don’t have to slavishly read every new book that comes out in your genre, it’s good to know not just the seminal works, but what’s shaking now. Who are the new writers who are pushing boundaries or trying different things (or who might have just published a book on the very same topic you were thinking about, that no-good rat bastard!)? And in other genres, there’s always an opportunity to learn some new tricks, to see how another writer deftly handles a problem that frequently riddles your own work, or who could put on a clinic about characterization, or authentic-sounding dialogue, or tight plotting, or cohesive argument, anything else at all. I’m frequently amazed and humbled and inspired when I read, and I think you can find that in any kind of writing—fiction of all stripes, ditto for non-fiction, plays, blogs, screenplays, articles/essays, whatever.

One final question: Vampires, Werewolves, Zombies, Aliens, or Robots?

Are we talking which I would like to read about? Write about? Have erotic relations with? Invite to a dinner party with Eleanor of Aquitane, Shakespeare, Ernest Hemingway, David Foster Wallace, Maya Angelou, and Kurt Cobain? So many fun directions I could go here!

All five of those get tons of love in movies, TV, and books. Like, gratuitous, serious PDA love that’s a little much, really. Not that there aren’t new ways to spin or present them, to arrive at an interesting twist or take, but people are so fascinated by these stories, they seem to come in waves, and result in a glut of all-too-similar treatments.

So maybe my dinner with famous historic figures and monsters and aliens isn’t the worst idea!

Thank you for the interview! We look forward to your next book!