Interview with Jeff Salyards
Hi Jeff. Thanks for dropping by.
Thanks for having me.
As a debut writer, I’m sure many readers would like to know a little about yourself. Where’ve you been up to this point?
Wow—tough question right out of the gate. Maybe we could warm up with “what’s your favourite colour?” or “how long have you had no hair on your head?” No?
OK, let’s see. . . I grew up in the suburbs north of Chicago, and spent most of my life going to school and working in the same general vicinity. The one exception being, I lived in England for a couple of years right after my wife and I got married. Which was an incredible experience—we would have stayed longer, except our first daughter was born over there, and the grandparents would have disowned us if we hadn’t moved back.
I have three daughters now. They are absolutely lovely. And will probably be the death of me. I mean, seriously, there will be a couple of years when they’re all teenagers at once. Think about that. *Shivers uncontrollably*.
By day, I’m a book editor for the American Bar Association. Which means I look at words all day and then try to cobble together my own after the kids go down at night. And I’ll pre-empt the follow-up question: why, yes, you’re right, I do like to make things incredibly difficult on myself. Thanks for asking!
Oh, yeah, my hair started thinning in my early 20s so I decided to beat baldness to the punch and just shave my dome, and I’ve been doing it ever since.
Have you always enjoyed the Fantasy genre? When did you first start reading it? Favourites?
I’ve loved fantasy for as long as I can remember. While this is hardly an original answer, two of the first writers that drew me in were Tolkien and C.S. Lewis. Then I migrated over to Michael Moorcock, Robert E. Howard, Edgar Rice Burroughs, Fritz Leiber, Raymond Feist, Ursula K. Le Guin, Roger Zelazny, Glen Cook, and a host of others. All these folks helped light and sustain the fire for me as I grew up.
Some recent favourites include: George R.R. Martin, Patrick Rothfuss, Gene Wolfe, Joe Abercrombie, Richard K. Morgan, Scott Lynch, Robin Hobb, K.J. Parker, David Gemmell, Guy Gavriel Kay, Daniel Abraham. The list goes on for days, really. There are a lot of great writers in the field.
And hero writers? Who’s inspired you to write?
Every writer in the list above has inspired me. I often find myself having a binary reaction when reading anything well-written: an appreciation for the craftsmanship, nuance, cleverness, power, or humor of the piece, coupled with me turning to the little green-eyed gremlin on my shoulder and saying, “Why don’t you help me write like that, you useless little bastard? All day, all you do is simper and imp around and wink at me with your stupid green eyes. Thanks for nothing.”
In addition to the above, there are plenty of non-fantasy writers who really struck a chord or influenced me, too. Don DeLillo and Cormac McCarthy for two very different varieties of peerless prose. Tom Robbins for his wacky, irreverent, humor and unbridled imagination. Octavia Butler and Phillip K. Dick for their scintillating, electric ideas. David Foster Wallace for his brilliant combination of irony and earnest sympathy. Bernard Cornwell for visceral, kickass action sequences. Edward Albee for his unflinching exploration of dysfunction and human foibles. And I haven’t even touched the canonized classics. I could rattle off dozens and dozens of writers, past and present, who have inspired.
When did you make the jump from reader to writer? Or have you always wanted to write?
I’m recycling a bit from my website here, but when my fourth grade teacher asked the class what we wanted to be when we grew up, I wrote: stuntman, jewel thief, or writer. Even back then, the idea of creating something that readers could lose themselves in had tremendous appeal (almost as much as stealing the crown jewels). I’ve always enjoyed exploring other worlds, other sensibilities—for me, fiction is (or can be, anyway) the most transportive art form. You can completely inhabit another place, time, or character, and when it’s done well, it can be truly immersive.
A professor once told me (that a professor once told him, backwards to the beginning of time), that the purpose of fiction is to comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable. The escapist quality can be part of that comforting, I think, but great fiction can also challenge you, confront you with ideas or characters or forms that force you to re-examine, to question, to knock you out of your comfort zone and defamiliarize things. In short, disturb, whether in the hands of an old school master or a postmodern maestro.
I knew early on I wanted to affect people like that. Writing seemed a great vehicle for doing it. Especially if I could somehow drive it off a bridge at 85 miles an hour and onto a flaming barge on the river below.
Your first book, Scourge of the Betrayer, is due out soon (as we type.) I would say that it is dark heroic Fantasy, but what can you tell us about it?
It might fall under that tag/label, but then again, it might resist it, too. I suppose it depends how we’re using it—we’d have to unpack the term a bit more, maybe. In Scourge, there are no huge sweeping conflicts between good and evil. In fact, the scale of this first book in the series is pretty small and tight. I was shooting more for intimate and character-driven than epic and far-reaching. Which isn’t to say it’s Scourge and Prejudice—there’s plenty of bloodletting. It’s not all clever banter or meditative reflection.
So, the cast of characters is small, the story doesn’t traverse huge kingdoms/lands, and the world definitely has a hard-boiled feel to it. In some ways, the book shares more in common with film noir than a lot of traditional fantasy. The term “gritty” has lost a lot of the punch it might have had, simply due to oversaturation. Same dealio with “grey characters.” Some readers take that to mean that there is no good or evil in the fictional world focusing on grey characters, or that all the characters gravitate to the centre where there are no real delineations, just various subtle shades of self-serving, mercenary impulse.
There are plenty of “grey” characters in Scourge, but I’m using that in the sense that their motivations aren’t known or laid bare, and that even in those instances where they are, the characters often prove complicated or conflicted, full of contradictions and tension lines that cross each other.
What would you say you are trying to achieve with this book?
You mean, besides attract a huge, fiercely-loyal following of rabid fans who salivate for the next book and defend my honour on every message board out there? Nothing, not a thing.
Well, OK, I’m also trying to see how well an intimate, character-driven story that runs counter to certain reader expectations will actually do. I hope well. I hope really well (See paragraph above). But when the idea for the book first came to me, I knew it meant I was going to try to take certain tropes and, if not completely undermine or dismantle them, at least torque them in some unusual directions. That was a scary proposition, and nearly forced me to abandon the project. More than once.
What are you proudest of in this book?
I’m proud that I took some chances. As noted, I chose a narrative structure direction that could potentially be off-putting, and part of me was afraid that might not have been the wisest choice for a debut. But then I figured, what the hell, right? Sometimes you shoot yourself in the foot shooting the moon, but no matter how it plays out, I’m proud I stuck to my guns, and kept my narrative structure and direction.
There are a fair number of readers who have strong reactions to POV choice and don’t especially connect with or enjoy books told in first person, regardless of narrator or the quality of writing. This holds true in fantasy (and might actually hold more true, as the majority of books are third-person), So I knew I might alienate some readers by choosing Arki as the narrator. Of course, I wasn’t content with small risk—I complicated it further by constructing the tale so that Arki (and therefore the reader, since he functions in part as the proxy or reader surrogate) is an outsider to the major plot—he’s kept in the dark for long stretches as he struggles to puzzle things out, which has potential to frustrate some readers. I recognized this, but figured the rewards would be worth the risks.
Win, lose, or draw (though I’m really hoping for the win!), I feel good that I didn’t deviate from my idea.
How long did it take to write? Has it been worked on for a long time?
Well, compared to some 12th century cathedrals, not long at all. But compared to a lot of books, it was done at a, shall we say, leisurely pace. I worked on it on and off (with a serious amount of off in there) for nearly ten years. There are two primary reasons: first, I can be a horrible procrastinator; second. I, you know, did a lot of other stuff instead of writing steadily. In the whole nature/nurture debate, I’d like to be able to blame genetics for my failings, but given that my parents were both hard-working, I’m forced to conclude that society has failed me.
Now, someone at Night Shade Books is probably reading this and hitting the panic button right now—“Did anyone ever ask this joker how long he would need to write the rest of the books in the series?!” And to that, I say, “What is Latin for ‘Let the publisher beware’?”
You’ve written the book whilst having a family and holding down another job. Are you at the point where you’re considering giving up ‘the day job’ yet?
You mean instead of giving up the family? *grin*
I’m not quitting the day job just yet, not unless a massive movie deal got signed twelve minutes ago and my agent hasn’t broken the news yet. And even then I’d probably blow the money by buying a rundown movie theatre so I could see the adaptation of my book and invite 1,000 people to the screening, even though a studio would probably just buy the rights and shelve the project indefinitely anyway. So I’d be left with a bucket of popcorn and a shambling wreck of a building that had to be torn down.
While most authors dream of writing full time (I would say “all authors” except I’m sure there are some disturbed freaks out there who love their day jobs or really masochistically enjoy trying to carve time out of the day to write when you have 400 other pressing obligations), I know the vast majority just can’t swing it. That’s the reality.
But it would be fabulous to get there, though. A lot of it is out of my hands—the only two things I can control are my output and my attitude. I read that on a bumper sticker. But it’s no less true.
While balancing work, home life, and writing is a challenge (and more akin to the climbing a mountain challenge than remembering to get everything at the grocery store when you forgot your list challenge), ironically enough, it was having kids that really forced me to really reconsider my writing and how much it meant to me. Previously, I had a lot of free time, which, coupled with the fact that I’m exceptionally good at finding non-productive ways of using it, was a recipe for inconsistent output. I rarely built up or sustained momentum for very long, so there were plenty of fits and starts.
Once the kids were on the scene, it was time to put up or shut up. Cue the Rocky soundtrack.
What’s the best piece of advice you were given when starting to write?
Oh, there was tons of great advice. Try to write something every day, whether you feel like it or not. Don’t worry about making every line perfect in the first draft—fine tuning is for later drafts when you actually have material to work with. Don’t eat the gum on the underside of the desk—just because it’s free does NOT mean it’s good.
I was lucky enough to have some fantastic teachers and professors along the way, so I was on the receiving end of a lot of wonderful advice. Most of which I ignored. I’m stubborn and generally prefer to find my own way, so I wasted a lot of time not heeding those nuggets of wisdom. Especially about the gum. I mean, icky, right?
But one bit of advice that was handed out even before I could write my name, but still absolutely applies, because it applies to almost every walk of life or enterprise: don’t be a dick. Now, you can soften this by calling it the Golden Rule, or codify it by introducing other context that might make it stick more (“don’t be a dick. . . or you’ll burn in hell”). But no matter how you dress it up or down, it’s still solid advice.
Whether you’re dealing with booksellers, agents, editors, marketers, other writers, or readers, make an effort to be pleasant. Or at least be as un-unpleasant as possible. And if you need extra motivation, because maybe treating others the way you want to be treated isn’t enough: the publishing world seems big, but it’s less so every day with the blogs and interconnectivity out there. And most genre fans are part of a tight-knit, uber-active community. Act like an asshat or mistreat people, and it will get around fast, and while being a decent human being might not improve your sales, being a total asshat will probably hurt them.
You don’t have to be an extrovert or especially charming. Be who you are. Just be nice doing it.
Could Hemingway puke on the bartender and deck someone in a Cuban cantina and get away with it? Sure, he was flipping Hemingway, and there was no Internet.
Or alternatively, what’s the best piece of advice you should have been given before becoming a professional writer?
I was fortunate enough to be in David Foster Wallace’s class a couple of times, right around the period he was working on Infinite Jest. He didn’t like to talk about the business side of things much—he was actually really reticent when it came to any of his writing, not just what he was immersed in at the moment. But one thing he did share was that while there was value in writing fiction in a workshop, you produce because there is a blowtorch under your ass and a grade on the line. Once you sell a book, you will produce because there is a blowtorch under your ass and unforgiving deadlines. But writing that book in the middle, when you’re not beholden to a professor or a publisher, and it’s just you and the blank page every day, that’s when you need to figure out a way to motivate yourself.
He didn’t really elaborate, though. And since we were in the middle of a class and no one was desperate for motivation, no one pressed him to. But even if we had, he probably couldn’t have defined it for us, as that’s sort of a you-need-to-head-to-the-desert-and-figure-it-out-yourself kind of thing.
Still, it would have been nice if someone, anyone, could have (magically?) imparted some wisdom on how to force myself to stick to a self-imposed deadline or schedule. That, I could have used.
Oh, who am I kidding? Even if someone had shared that arcane secret, that’s just one more thing I probably would’ve ignored.
And where next? More in the same world, or somewhere completely different?
Well, Scourge of the Betrayer is the first book in a series called Bloodsounder’s Arc. I’m contracted for two more books in the series, and I’ll play it by ear to see if it needs to go any longer than that. Well, the readers (or dearth of them) could take that decision out of my hands.
Me: Here it is--I’m done with the manuscript for the second book! Go me!
Night Shade Books: Yeah, about that. . .
Me: (Suddenly nervous and sweaty). Yes?
NSB: Well, Scourge has sold well, even better than expected, but--
Me: (Unclenching ass cheeks) That’s great!
NSB: But there’s a bit of an issue. There’s been a 100% return rate.
Me: (Blinking several times, mouth opening and closing like a fish). That’s horrible! Is that even POSSIBLE? Has anyone’s book ever been returned like that?!
NSB: No. You’re a pioneer. Congratulations.
But presuming that nightmare doesn’t come to fruition, I’m definitely going to be playing around in the same sandbox for a while. Which is great, because I think the second book is going to be better than the first. It is my head, anyway, and I really want to avoid the sophomore slump. Too late for the freshman fifteen, though. I stress eat like a maniac.
Many thanks, Jeff. We wish you all the best with your novel.
Many thanks to you for inviting me!