Interview with Fantasy Author Jeff Salyards

You may have seen Jeff Salyards’ books on the shelves of your local Barnes and Noble: Scourge of the Betrayer and Veil of the Deserters. Author Jon Sprunk (Shadow saga) claims that Jeff’s books “creates a vibrant tapestry of betrayal, intrigue, and brotherhood” with “magic [that] is refreshingly innovative.” Jeff himself will be the first one to tell you that he needs more readers (don’t believe me? Read below. Seriously, I’m not kidding) and I’ll be the first to advocate the same: an author as talented and promising as this one deserves a fan base to match. Yet, I am also confident that his fan base will continue to grow beyond its current numbers, because books of this quality can’t go ignored for so long. Still trying to decide if you should give these books a try? Or, are you an avid fan that’s been dying to understanding the author a bit more? Look no further than this interview, posted below, that offers a glimpse into the head of author Jeff Salyards, covering topics from his books, his process, his journey as a writer and his favorite type of cheese.

(Just kidding about the favorite type of cheese…though now, I am curious…)

First off, Jeff, I want to thank you for taking the time to speak with me and indulge my curiosity. As I am sure a lot of other readers were, I was captivated by the Bloodsounder’s Arc series immediately. At the risk of asking a cliché question, what influenced or inspired Arki’s story? Also, how would you describe your writing style and any major influences there?

Thanks for inviting me to field some questions. I’m always happy to talk about myself. Seriously, I’m Jeffcentric. It might be a problem.

As far as inspiration goes, I’ve always been fascinated by medieval history. I was reading Froissart’s Chronicles about this narrator running around with some armies during several decades of the Hundred Year’s War—it’s a wonderful window into the 14th century (even biased and using fuzzy math). But it got me thinking, why not have a chronicler accompanying a military company in a fantasy setting, only instead of him being a respected and accepted insider like Froissart, what if he was naïve, young, clumsy, and not a member of this caste at all, but a true outsider. And kind of a dork. Like, a big one.

And as far as my style goes, it’s character-driven at heart. A fiction writing professor I had once proposed that it could be useful to try to determine whether a piece of fiction was more character-driven, plot-driven, or idea-driven. Not to pigeonhole it, because obviously a lot of books (most?) are a hybrid or combo of the three, but just to try to take apart or reverse-engineer what made a particular story work, what drove and powered it at heart. While I care about plot and ideas and can get lost in the clouds thinking about both, characters are usually the engine for me—their dynamics, conflicts, sensibilities, fears, dreams, lies, misconceptions, and changes. Which probably explains why I loathe writing synopses—I like to make the rest up as I go. I’m pretty sure I make my agent break out in hives sometimes.

Without trying to give away any spoilers, in both Scourge of the Betrayer and Veil of the Deserters, I constantly found my allegiance shifting with each character. Do I trust Captain Killcoin or do I not? Is Mulldoos always going to put me on edge? How am I supposed to read Soffjian? Obviously, your characters are complex and blur the lines that would enable me to label them as entirely good or entirely bad. How do you go about creating such complex characters – and relationships between them – while making the characters feel so natural?

First, thanks. I appreciate that. I’m really glad you enjoyed the characters. I loved them, and will miss writing them. *Sniff*

While there is pure evil and selfless goodness in the world, most of us operate somewhere between those two poles, and sometimes swing wildly one way or the other depending on circumstance, context, desires, fear. People are weird and messy and confusing—sometimes a horrible bigot or sexist works tirelessly at the animal shelter. Sometimes the sweet old chess player in the park was a Nazi who did unspeakable things. Not everyone harbors horrible secrets or has an altruistic streak, but most of us are complicated.

And I think complex characters that exhibit multiple sides are the most interesting—even when they are frustrating and contradictory, so long as those different parts add up and feel organic, not just cobbled together to be wacky. And sometimes, as a writer, that means inhabiting a character you would never ever want to share a beer or cab ride with, but trying to empathize with them or their situation, and portray them as vividly as you can without condemning or ridiculing them. To figure out what makes them tick, and how they justify what they do, even if you find their thoughts or actions repellent or rotten.

So I try to include a range of characters and show their sensibilities and predilections colliding, to challenge your assumptions (and mine too) as you read them, to change things up not because the plot demands it, but because it seems like how that character would respond, regress, or grow given the storyline unfolding. Hopefully that results in complex characters who feel authentic.

You said missing writing about the characters…Does that mean Bloodsounder’s Arc—currently two books, with a third on its way—ends with three books? Any other writing projects or ideas floating around that readers can look forward to?

Three it is, and three it shall be. That’s it. The series is finis. Done. Over. Fade to black.

I’m working on as-yet untitled Book 1 of a brand new series. It is going to be radical departure from the world of Bloodsounder’s Arc: an urban fantasy/science fiction mashup (mishap?) set in the not-too-distant-future, told from four 3rd person POVs. But don’t worry, it will still be character-driven, with cool combat, and lots of funny and snarky dialogue. (Snarknado? Maybe that’s the new title. Seems catchy. . .)

Anyway, there will be nanotech, a phase sloth, shadow puppets gaining autonomy, a narcoleptic drone pilot who favors a 17th century carbine boarding axe he has modified to fire microbot horseflies, a sexy necromancer who might be selling snake oil, a Luddite conspiracy, and plenty of intrigue.

Hmmmm. That sounds like a dreampunk fever-dream you have when your temp hits 105 and you are sweating through the sheets and about to go to the hospital. But there you have it.

I’m really excited, actually, and about 20K words into it. It’s wacky and irreverent and a ton of fun so far. It is different from Bloodsounder’s Arc for sure, but I needed a change of pace, and this is absolutely it.

Dreampunk fever-dream? Count me in. But, let’s switch back to your already published series. Also, this is a personal indulgence question for me: one of my favorite aspects was the intricate pace within your books. I read at a fast pace because I couldn’t stop, yet the storyline itself didn’t always move as rapidly as I read. Oftentimes, chapters would be dedicated to describing the time the Syldoon spent on the road, both traveling and in camp. Some readers could have seen these scenes as needing “more action”—and I would have to disagree with them—yet I thought that attention to detail heightened the realistic aspects of your books and made me appreciate them even more.

So, finally, to the actual questions: do you agree with my reading that is enhances the reality of your story? If so, was that purposeful or did you have other purposes in mind when writing these scenes? Do you believe this story could be told — and still be as strong — without these scenes?

I wanted to create a fantasy setting that was grounded in realistic details that were a rough analogue to a medieval world. Obviously, you cherry pick some things and exclude others to accomplish that. Even historical fiction writers make choices about what details make sense to include to establish the setting sufficiently without overwhelming the poor reader—no one wants to read a dozen pages about churning butter. Well, maybe Herman Melville lovers out there. That guy wrote about whale blubber for like fifty pages in a row, and nobody said boo about it. But in general, that doesn’t fly for most audiences, and so I tried to integrate just enough realistic details to make the setting vivid, grounded, and genuine, but no so many to make eyes glaze over.

That’s part of the reason I went with Arki as the fish-out-of-water narrator, to show him struggling with a lot of stuff the Syldoon were inured to. Like saddle sores and long wagon rides. We take it for granted that we can fly across a continent in a few hours, or drive hundreds of miles in an afternoon. An army marches on its stomach, and logistics dictate losses and victories as much as heroism, tactics, or terrain. So, yeah, there is travel in the book, and the details that go with it, to try to get some verisimilitude.

Could I have written the story with less of those elements? Absolutely. And I totally get that it doesn’t work for everyone. But it felt like the right choice to create the milieu I wanted. Looking back, I see places where the pace could have been picked up, or I could have pruned some things. But I tried to use the downtime between battles or crazy things happening to showcase more of the characters, to indulge in some fun dialogue, to make setting up or breaking camp do double duty that also revealed something about the characters and their relationships.

Chains of the Heretic is slotted to be published February 2, 2016. From the first two books of the series, I have come to expect complex characters, even more intricate relationships, long journeys and a compelling plot that forces me to stay up until 3am to finish it and miss my class in the morning. Can readers expect the same out of Chains? What can readers look forward to (without giving away spoilers)?

When I dreamt this series up, I intended that the first book would be intimate in scope, and the aperture would widen over the next two: more characters, more action, more magic, more history and worldbuilding. So by the time I got to Chains, I pulled out all the stops. This isn’t too spoilery, but readers finally get to see behind the Godveil. It’s been a long time coming, so I wanted to make it worth the trip and not a closed-down Wally World. (Damn, I just dated myself).

I’d like to think I’m improving as a writer. That’s what I tell myself to avoid the flop sweats or paralyzing terror sitting in front of a blank screen. And I feel like Chains is the best of the three books. I’m my own worst critic most days, but I like how this one turned out. There is a LOT of action, some fun character moments, I think it’s pretty intense and
exciting, and hopefully has some cool surprises and twists. There might even be some pathos.

I told the story I wanted to, and wrapped things up the way I envisioned it. While I’ll always second guess some parts of anything I write, I’m happy with it overall, and hope readers will be too.

Betrayer was published in 2012 and Deserters in 2014. Despite it already being three years since your debut, I consider you still to have just survived the throngs that is trying to get represented and trying to get published in the first place. Can you describe what your journey was like, going from unpublished to having two (and soon to be three) books shelved in bookstores everywhere? Anything you would have done differently? Anything you would tell other aspiring writers that they must do, in order to be as successful as you are now?

Well, I should dispel any illusions about me being wildly successful. I need more readers. Like, a lot of them. All of them, in fact. Yes, I’m a greedy, greedy toad. I have three daughters. Forget college—do you know how many outfits, birthday parties, and after-school activities that is?!

Anyway, it wasn’t that long ago that I was unpublished, so I recall what it’s like to fervently pine for representation or a book deal. And really, now that I’m embarking on a new series here, I’m back in the land of limbo. I still have Mike Harriot representing me, which is awesome, but no publishing deal for this new series. I need to finish the book, and he needs to pitch it, and there are never any guarantees.

Publishing is screwy business, and like pretty much every everything, there is only so much you can actually control. So, my advice is an offshoot of that:

  • Read. A lot. In your genre, outside of it, non-fiction, cereal boxes, everything. It helps you develop your antennae as a writer, and might save you the embarrassment of pitching a book about a detective tracking down replicants and thinking it is original.
  • The one thing you have absolute control over is the quality of your work. Don’t write looking ahead or behind—focus on the manuscript in front of you, and make it the best damn book you can. Don’t worry about trends or the marketplace or platforms or representation or self- versus traditional-publishing models. Focus on the words on the page/screen and make them better. And do it some more. And again. Until they sing or scream or rage or whatever it is you consider the height of their expression. Just make them the best you can. Bust your ass writing and improve your craft.
  • Toughen your hide. When you invite someone to be a beta reader (or any other kind of reader, for that matter), don’t be a defensive or dismissive assclown. Hear whatever feedback you get. Weigh it, consider it fully and openly, even if it stings your pride. Sure, some of it might not help or even apply, some might even run counter to what you are trying to do. But be gracious, and don’t get all bristly or too precious with your work, or you’ll miss out on critique that might help you grow and develop as a writer.
  • After you’ve written and revised about 400 times, *then* turn your attention to the nuts and bolts of getting it out there for people to read it. Familiarize yourself with the industry and its infrastructure. Do your research to find the right agent or publisher, or do the legwork to prepare the most professional looking book you can if you intend to fly solo, including the cover design, proofreading, layout, etc. But always remember. . .
  • Hold onto your butt and hope like hell. Because no matter how exhaustively you work and prepare, finding an audience will still depend in part on things outside your control, like dumb luck and timing–catching a gatekeeper’s eye at the right time, or if you self-publish, offering readers something they didn’t even know they wanted yet. But even if you land a book deal or put your book out in the world on your own, you can’t control the reception your work will get, no matter how good it is or how well you or a publisher promote it. So try not to sweat the stuff beyond your reach.
  • Don’t take writerly advice as gospel from anyone, including this jackelope. There is no one-size-fits all—you’ll need to try different approaches and figure out what works best for you. But #2 above, self-evident or not, is the one immutable precept and law. Keep writing. That makes you a writer. Not talking about it, thinking about It, or reading about it. Only writing. So do that.

I understand that, aside from being a writer, you also have a full time job and a family, amongst other things. What is your writing process like? How do you find a balance between all of your commitments (even finding time to throw in an interview here and there)?

Wait, “amongst other things”? Do I have other commitments or obligations I’m not aware of?? *Looks around nervously*

My process is pretty simple: I try to write at night when the kids go down, or when I travel for the day job, or when my wife is generous enough to take the kids out for a while to give me space to do it. So, it’s kind of a crapshoot. Some days and weeks are better than others.

As far as balance goes. . . I constantly feel like I’m doing a bad job wearing one of my hats—being a distracted employee, a distant husband, a grumpy dad, a lousy hack writer. So I’m not really sure I’ve found a good balance yet. Yeah, I might be the last person to ask about that.

Now, to wrap it up, a question just for fun: personally, I wouldn’t mind seeing a cinematic adaptation of Arki’s story in the future. If you could personally pick your dream cast (assuming you could trust the industry to do your writing justice on screen), who would make the cut in bringing these characters to screen?

That *is* a fun question. Hmmm. Let’s see. . .

Arki: Skandar Keynes

Braylar: Daniel Day Lewis, twenty years ago. But today, Christian Bale

Soffjian: Jessica Chastain

Mulldoos: Rory McCann

Hewspear: Idris Ilba

Skeelana: Ayesha Dharker

Lloi: Michelle Rodriguez, if you roughed her up around the edges again.

Finally, Jeff, thank you so much for taking the time to indulge a fan and let me pick your brain a little bit. Your time is greatly appreciated, your writing even more so. 

Thanks again for inviting me to do it. It was a blast.

—-

To learn more about Jeff or his series, check out his bio here. To connect with Jeff, try going here. To purchase the first book of his series without leaving the comfort of your couch, adventure here. Jeff is represented by Michael Harriot at Folio Literary Management.

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About Nicole Evans

Nicole Evans is a writer of fantasy and science fiction. She is currently unpublished and is working fervently to get the “un” removed from that statement. She has five completed manuscripts: a trilogy about destined heroes that fail anyway, a science fiction standalone that pits the natural desire to love against the natural instinct to kill during the extinction of the human race and a new series about a writer who can't get published and gets the chance to live a life that all writers dream. She also has two scripts done. Currently, she is about to start writing the second of a nine book series while planning two more. (If you can tell, she really likes this whole writing thing.) Considering she has run out of space for putting rejections letters up on her wall, Nicole now uses her spare time doing the typical things that nerds do: blogging, dying repeatedly during video games (which she believes is retribution for the characters’ she’s killed), wishing she was the character she is currently reading about and trying to fight off the real world by living in her own head, with varying degrees of success. Nicole has a degree in Creative Writing and a minor in Film and Media Studies, and works part-time as a supervisor in a library at the University of Kansas. View all posts by Nicole Evans

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