Scourge of the Betrayer is one of the best new fantasies I’ve read in the past two years. It takes a different approach to fantasy warfare, more in line with embedded journalists of the Iraq War than out-and-out mayhem and bloodshed. That’s not to say the story is action-less, for there is some pretty good combat, too. Nevertheless, I decided to get in touch with Jeff, to see if he could answer a few questions.
As a debut novelist, I thought I’d start off this interview with something easy: Who is Jeff Salyards?
Oh, yeah, piece of cake that one. Thanks. I should go all deep and angsty and existential on you, but instead, I’ll stick with this: Jeff Salyards is a writer who for a long time didn’t always write, certainly not steadily or with any output that would be confused with anything prodigious or prolific, and instead filled his hours with drinking games, video games (wait, two is how a pattern starts, right?), and various other fun-but-generally-non-productive pursuits, but has now committed himself to writing full bore, no-holds-barred, all-in, and various other applicable clichés. He is also married and has three children who are wonderful, healthy, lovely, and sometimes make him a little bit crazy. In addition, while not likely to win the MacArthur Grant, a Nobel Prize, or any other hardware he could hoist high and prompt him to bellow, “I am a geeeeeeeniouuuuus!”, he has on occasion been accused of being clever or witty, though perhaps not now.
Your debut novel, Scourge of the Betrayer is out now through Night Shade Books. How would you introduce the novel and the Bloodsounder’s Arc series as a whole to a new reader?
Scourge of the Betrayer is a hard-boiled fantasy about a young and painfully naïve archivist who agrees to chronicle the exploits of a foreign military company, despite having no idea what he is getting into, and once learning, little chance of escaping. Hilarity ensues. Or bloodletting. Or something like that.
Scourge… is intimate rather than epic in scope, and definitely character-driven. While there is a plot, and plenty of machinations, the reader discovers these at the same pace as Arki (naïve chronicler/narrator), which is to say piecemeal as he puzzles things out, so the characters really are center stage for this book. For those who want something on a grander scale or a super-fast clip, I will say this: the scope of the story will definitely expand as the series progresses, and while it won’t be a breakneck thriller, things set in motion in Scourge… begin to move much, much faster. With a higher body count. And more biting rejoinders and sarcasm. Not always in that order.
Where did the inspiration for the story come from? And where do you draw your inspiration from in general?
Is “soap operas” a bad answer here? It is, isn’t it? Dang.
Seriously, in general there are a ton of writers in the fantasy and science fiction field who inspire me all the time, some seasoned pros, and some exciting newcomers: George R.R. Martin, Joe Abercrombie, Richard K. Morgan, Daniel Abraham, Tanith Lee, Ursula K. LeGuin, Glen Cook, Terry Pratchett, Scott Lynch, Paolo Bacigalupi, Stina Leicht, K.J. Parker, Neal Stephenson, David Gemmell, Rachel Aaron… Shoot, I could rattle these off all day, and still do a disservice to all the great writers I excluded, the list is just that long.
And that isn’t even touching the other genres out there (I’ve listed a few of my faves in other interviews, so I won’t rehash them here). And I don’t get to read nearly as much as I’d like, so I’m sure I’m not even aware of some other phenoms out there.
But specifically, the inspiration for Scourge of the Betrayer was really two-pronged: I wanted to write about a chronicler whose perspective and sensitivity would be a stark, constant contrast to the military company he agrees to accompany; I wanted to finally use the boxes of research I compiled for a college project that tanked that focused on the Mamluk Sultanate in Egypt. My soldiers ended up being very different on several key fronts, but when I was first exploring all my options for what that soldier class would be like, the Mamluk stuff that had been collecting dust in the back of my skull practically begged to finally see the light of day in some capacity.
How were you introduced to genre fiction?
I’ve loved genre fiction for ages. I can’t pinpoint the exact introduction — The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, maybe (although tons of children’s stories obviously incorporate the fantastic elements or draw on the same motifs you find in adult speculative fiction).
But some of my fondest grade school memories involved staying the night at my uncle’s during summer vacation, sharing a room with my cousin that was absolutely sweltering (my uncle, one of the kindest souls on the planet, was notorious for only turning on the AC if child services was likely to get called in), with my cousin and I sweating profusely as we read about Tarzan, John Carter, or Conan, usually long into the night with flashlights, stopping periodically to share a few favorite scenes, if we could be heard over the five fans in the room.
How do you enjoy being a writer and working within the publishing industry? Do you have any specific working, writing, researching practices?
I’m still green, but I love being a published writer. So far, so good. It’s a learning curve, to be certain, trying to figure out how to balance writing, promoting efforts, and the rest of the life happenings.
Before being published, I was writing in a vacuum (OK, maybe a few other beta readers were in the vacuum, too), cranking stuff out for myself primarily, at my own pace, without any pressure to speak of. Which isn’t always a good thing, at least for me. When I was in college, I was the crown prince of procrastination, partly because I was a lazy slackass, and partly because I actually seemed to function better under pressure. (Of course, plenty of writers will tell you that the pressure-thing is a fallacy lazy slackasses rely on, distracting themselves from the fact that they would much sooner do just about anything besides buckle down and do some real work, even if that means watching endless reruns of Saved By the Bell. Not that I did that. Or have any idea what that show is even about. I digress.)
But left to my own devices, writing for myself with no grades on the line, I’ve had spurts where I produced pages like a man possessed, and others where you would have thought my computer was electrocuting me, I stayed so far away. But now that the first book in the series is done, I actually have a real bona fide deadline for turning in the manuscript for Book Two. Some amazing writers might be able to get away with long lapses between books, but I’m fairly certain I’m not one of them, so I’ll need to hit that target date or beat it to try to keep any momentum going (and avoid irking the publisher).
And, while the hard deadline is a wee bit terrifying on one level, especially since I have that inconvenient day job I have to maintain and kids to raise and what not, on another level, it should help keep me motivated and on task.
When did you realize you wanted to be an author, and what was your first foray into writing? Do you still look back on it fondly?
I started writing fantasy stories from a very early age – as early as I can remember, really. And I was always drawn to telling longer stories. In fifth grade, I came up with a 100-page story that involved a large, blue, talking, bear-dog like creature with a unicorn horn, a turtlish guy who had a shell that functioned as a hovercraft, only he rode inside it rather than sticking his legs/head out, and he could get out of the shell and wander around (I remember drawing the interior – it had mossy cushions, and was pretty swanky since some of the shell was translucent and let in light like stained glass), and a robotic mouse that hiccupped a lot.
In eighth grade, I wrote a 200-pager that definitely had a Blade Runner vibe to it, though I didn’t have the gravitas to truly pull off the atmosphere (or the requisite skill – I wasn’t a prodigy – but I gave it a pretty good effort).
So, I do look back on those forays fondly, and wish I had held on to some of those stories (my mom was a nomad when I was growing up, so we moved an awful lot, and things tended to get lost). But it’s probably good I didn’t, because reading them now would likely destroy that fuzzy nostalgic fondness thing I have going on right now.
What’s your opinion of the genre today, and where do you see your work fitting into it?
I think it’s a very exciting time. There are so many talented writers, it’s incredibly inspiring. Not to sound like a homer, because I know other publishers like Pyr and Angry Robot are also putting out some really innovative fiction, but I’m really glad to be associated with Night Shade Books and their New Voices program, as they are clearly committed to not only discovering and showcasing new talent, but writers who are willing to challenge tropes or blaze some new trails. Of course there’s Paolo Bacigalupi, who had tremendous success and critical acclaim and gave Night Shade some clout and credibility when it came to identifying and pushing debut/new writers, but in the last couple of years they’ve launched the likes of Brad Beaulieu, Rob Zeigler, Mazarkis Williams, Courtney Shaffer, Laird Barron, Kameron Hurley, and a number of others.
As far as where I fit in, I’m not trying to be disingenuous or coy when I say, I really don’t know. That’s sort of for the readers to determine. Hopefully enough of them dig what I put out, and think my name belongs in that list.
Of course, the landscape is shifting, with the closing of Borders, the rise of eBooks, the accessibility of self-publishing, Amazon’s push to broaden its empire, and probably four other factors that I’m not privy to, since I’m not as plugged into developments as I should be. Things are definitely changing. But writers will always write, no matter what the landscape, technology, or delivery looks like, so the future is uncertain but exciting.
What projects are you working on, and what do you have currently in the pipeline?
Bloodsounder’s Arc will be at least three books, possibly four, so my pipeline is plenty full for the foreseeable future. Beyond this series, I’m not sure. I like the Joe Abercrombie model – stand-alone novels set in the same world, related but independent of each other – but then again, I might get tired of this universe (or readers might), so I’m open to just about anything after Bloodsounder’s Arc is done. We’ll see how things play out.
What are you reading at the moment (fiction and/or non-fiction)?
I recently finished The Cold Commands by Richard K. Morgan. I’ve been a fan of his since the first page of Altered Carbon, so I was really interested to see where he took things in a fantasy milieu. The first book in the series, The Steel Remains, wasn’t quite as well-received as his science fiction, but I enjoyed it, and thought The Cold Commands was even better. The second book feels more confident and poised, less like he was out to prove something and more just focused on storytelling. The Kovacs books are a tough act to follow, but I think if readers come into this series and judge it on its own merits, they’ll discover he doesn’t have any real issues stepping into another genre.
I agree – Morgan’s sci-fi is incredible, and I think his shift to fantasy just confused people who had loved his SF stuff so much. Personally, I’ve really liked everything of his I’ve read. Anyway, let us continue…
What’s something readers might be surprised to learn about you?
That I had an invisible dog when I was six that got lost in a snowstorm, and when I went out to find it (not as easy as it sounds), I was crossing a stream, slipped and fell on a stick that was frozen sticking straight up through the ice and went straight through my cheek. It left a nice scar that looks like a wishbone. Lucky, right?
What are you most looking forward to in 2012?
Besides proving the Mayans wrong? Hmmm… Seeing the Cubs win the World Series? Oh, wait, that would surely be the final sign that the end was nigh. Good thing there’s no chance of that happening. Suck it, Mayans.
I look forward to getting a lot of work done on the as-yet-unnamed-but-sure-to-have-a-killer-title sequel to Scourge. Getting the middle girl out of pull-ups completely. Sleeping more (actually, that’s more of a pipe-dream than anything I truly expect to happen, but hey, a man’s got to have dreams, right?).
Scourge of the Betrayer is out now!