Interview with Jeff Salyards
Every once in a while a debut author jumps out from behind a corner and surprises us. Really, really surprises us. Jeff Salyards is one such author, having completely blown us away with his Sword & Sorcery novel SCOURGE OF THE BETRAYER. The fact that this man can directly compete with the likes of Joe Abercrombie and Richard K. Morgan is just astounding. After writing the review of SCOURGE OF THE BETRAYER it hit me that there were a lot of things I forgot to mention about how awesome this book is. Luckily Mr. Salyards took the time and effort to answer some questions. If our review wasn’t enough to convince you to start throwing money, this interview certainly is.
As usual, our questions are in “bold”.
***The Interview with Jeff Salyards***
In one sentence describe Scourge of the Betrayer to a potential reader.
Scourge of the Betrayer is a hard-boiled, character-driven fantasy that involves shady and profane soldiers, intrigue, a nasty cursed weapon, and a clueless scribe trying to make sense of it all.
Scourge of the Betrayer is very narrow in scope but hints at large things to come in the Bloodsounder’s Arc. What brought you to choose this approach?
I knew from the beginning that I wanted the series, especially the first installment, to be more intimate than epic in scope, where the setting and larger world would get fleshed out gradually and the focus would be squarely on the characters. So I opted to go not only with first person narration, which lends itself to the intimate, but a narrator who had no idea what he was getting himself into (Arki, the scribe who accompanies the foreign military company without knowing their true mission). I wanted to highlight the stark contrast between the young and generally unworldly archivist and the rough and tumble group he’s signed up with, and for Arki to serve as a proxy for the reader in a sense as he struggles to find his footing.
Admittedly, this is a bit risky, for a number of reasons. Not all fantasy readers like first person, and this focus ensured that the plot points were largely hinted at for the first part of the book as Arki slowly puzzles things out for himself, and I knew some readers might get impatient with this strategy. But I gambled that the characters and their interactions would be compelling enough to keep readers engaged.
Given the structure and narrator, I also wanted to avoid those deadly-dull and stilted info dumps. You know, where the narrator spends five pages describing something he would be terribly familiar with only because the reader is totally unfamiliar. You have a bit more latitude with third person, but even there, plenty of fantasy novels bog down in exposition. Some writers pull this off with aplomb, so deftly you barely see it happen—wonderful history and detail delivered seamlessly. Other times, well, there’s a reason “dump” is part of the descriptor. . .
Don’t get me wrong, I loves me some deep world building. Big fan. Lush, varied, intricate, rich. Good stuff. But given that I was committed to this particular narrative/narrator, I knew I was going to have to really check myself. Arki does comment on the setting, and hopefully provides enough detail on a scene by scene level to ground the reader, to flesh things out and provide a sense of place and reality. But this was the last big risk, because it means the world building elements were going to come a bit slowly, and that some of them are only hinted at in the first book.
I know this approach could potentially alienate some readers, but I figured it was worth the risk. What’s the worst that could happen– the book tanks, the publisher drops the rest of the series, and my name is like gonorrhea and I never get published again?
Oh. Hmmm. Maybe I should have thought this through some more. . .
As an author what would you cite as your greatest influences?
I firmly believe that part of a writer’s job is to keep the antennae up at all times, to be receptive to good wordsmithing and storytelling elements wherever you find them. Fiction, memoirs (wait, that’s fiction again), plays, blogs, screenplays, poetry, cereal boxes (also fiction), car ads, whatever. In your genre, outside, and then way, way out there, you can learn lessons about building tension, or smart dialogue, or conveying something economically (or elaborately and with ornate detail, for that matter), or just discover a different creative approach to something, a method or tack you hadn’t considered before.
But even if I narrow the field to fiction writers, or go real crazy and try to limit it to fantasy writers who have impacted me, the list is still ridonkulously long. Roger Zelazny, Edgar Rice Burroughs, K.J. Bishop, George R.R. Martin, Robin Hobb, Richard K. Morgan, K.J. Parker, Joe Abercrombie, Tad Williams, Scott Lynch, Daniel Abraham and dozens more have all taught me something about the craft of writing.
Lloi the Grass Dog is a rare gem as far as female protagonists in Sword & Sorcery goes. What was your approach to writing her?
I’m glad you asked about her, because she’s one of my favorite characters. In your review, you mentioned that strong female characters that are complex can be hard to come by in fantasy. And that sucks (not your observation, but the fact that it tends to be true). So I really tried to come up with an interesting female that wasn’t a sex object, a victim, or a pissed off Amazonian.
Lloi has ridden a pretty rough road—ostracized from her family on account of some spoilerish skills I won’t go into here, one hand horribly mutilated (again for plot points I won’t spoil), sold off to a silk house (that there’s fancy talk for a whorehouse, son). Plus, factor in that she hails from a nomadic tribe and is a woman riding in an all-male military company, so she has dual-Othership going on, and she could legitimately have a lot to be ticked off, withdrawn, anxious, depressed, or hateful about. I didn’t make things easy on her at all.
Which is precisely why I went in another direction with how she responds. I wanted to show that she doesn’t succumb to all the awful crap thrown her way, and in fact manages to be almost Zen about the whole thing. She isn’t bitter or vengeful (which surprises Arki, when he learns about some of her past), though she has no problem standing up for herself. She’s as demure and delicate as boot leather, even going toe-to-toe with Mulldoos, who’s a pretty hardcore badass.
She’s unpolished, profane, and has no social grace, which is sort of disquieting to Arki, but given that she is also an outsider, they form an unlikely bond. And that was important —I wanted to give him someone to connect with that didn’t threaten, bully, or confuse him, as the Syldoon are wont to do.
She’s important for other plot-related reasons as well, especially to Captain Braylar Killcoin, but I really tried to develop a character that was intriguing and brought a lot of unexpected heart and grit to the table all on her own, not dependent directly on her relationships with the males in the story.
Captain Braylar Killcoin’s main weapon is a flail titled Bloodsounder. Firstly, thumbs up on weapon choice. Secondly why do you suppose flails and maces don’t get more love in fantasy novels? What are the merits of such weapons over the standard blade?
Well, first, I’d like to take a crack at explaining the choice. My dad was my only real hero growing up, but Indiana Jones was a close second. Smart, calculating, no qualms about fight dirty. But one reason for the draw was his signature weapon, the whip. Good for swinging over crevices, hanging from the undercarriage of German trucks, and oh, yeah, flaying some skin off someone. I just thought that was a great choice, not just on account of utility or cool factor, but simply because it was very unusual. It stood out.
Flash forward more years than I want to count, and when I was working up Braylar’s character, I knew he was going to possess a cursed weapon of some kind called Bloodsounder, and when I was considering what kind of weapon, Indiana Jones unexpectedly jumped to mind. Instantly, I knew Bloodsounder would end up being anything besides a sword, because that’s so ubiquitous or iconic as to be kind of a cliché (or at least a super uninspired choice). I needed something a little out of the box.
Swords get a lot of love across a lot of cultures for a lot of reasons: symbolic (the cruciform/cross dealio with religious significance to the Western European knight), status bling (Vikings, Lombards, Gauls, etc. had a history of naming weapons, but particularly swords, as they cost more to build and were passed down for generations), mystical (Excalibur, vorpal swords, Tyrfing, Durendal, Stormbringer, the Sword of Truth, shoot, one even showed up in Harry Potter for crying out loud!). They were also the first weapon that had no other purpose besides ending life—an axe could cut wood, a spear or bow could be used on hunt, a dagger to carve off a chunk of the thing that was hunted, etc. Swords are designed to look badass and to cut up the enemy. That’s it.
So I started thinking about and discarding other weapon choices: polearm like a halberd (cool, but difficult to conceal, and Braylar is a sneaky bastard); axe (second in popularity in most fantasy milieus, so not a real adventurous choice); bow (uh, Legolas, nuff said); crossbow (Bloodsounder really needed to be up close and personal anyway, so that eliminated blowguns, javelins, Lawn Darts, etc.); messers/falchions (still too swordy); etc.
I was getting frustrated, but then good old Indiana provided the second push. Not a whip, but something whip-like. My first thought was a Hussite flail, but passed over for the same polearm reason, but then I thought, what about the single-handed variety. . . Rare? Check. Can strike from some sneaky angles, especially against someone not used to facing one? Check. Deceptively fast and still packs a centrifugal force wallop? Check. Almost as dangerous to the user as the opponent? Double check! That was a perfect choice for a cursed weapon that exacts a serious toll on the user.
Choose one character from popular science fiction or fantasy that Braylar Killcoin would beat in one-on-one combat, and one character that would beat him.
I’ve seen this sort of thing play out several times on message boards and it’s tremendously entertaining (especially the inevitable arguments that erupt), but I never had to do it with my own character before. Captain Killcoin is a consummate badass, but not in the sense that he dispatches ten foes in a row each with a single well-placed blow. He gets injured in Scourge, and would have fared worse if he hadn’t been wearing armor. And I tried to establish in the book that armored combat sometimes ends with a body on the floor in short order, but it can also be a slug match, where endurance, experience, and the willingness to do whatever it takes to make it out alive often decide the contest. Skill, speed, and strength count for a lot, but so does savvy and grit and flat out meanness. And in this respect, Braylar is one of the best: smart, fast, trained, ruthless, and will kick dust in your face if things start to go south.
Fantasy is just brimming with awesome fighters. . . Fafhrd, Logan Ninefingers, Jaime Lannister (before getting chopped down to size), Druss, Conan, Sandor Clegane (or his big bad brother) and on and on. And then there are those with pronounced advantages (breeding, magic, hundreds or thousands of years to get dang good, etc.) that approach the superhuman: Skilgannon, Elric (provided he didn’t drop Stormbringer), Kelhus, Anomander, half the dudes in Malazan, really, etc.
It would be awesome to see a fight between Gregor Clegane and Braylar. Gregor isn’t necessarily the greatest swordsman, but he is monstrously huge and strong, absolutely remorseless, and a pretty terrifying force of nature (not quite on the same level as The Feared, but for a mortal, about as intimidating an opponent as they come). Braylar is smaller and weaker, but faster, more mobile, and calculating. The Red Viper’s undoing when he fought the Mountain was presuming the poison had done its business and prematurely thinking the fight was over. Thanks to Bloodsounder, Braylar knows when the fight is over. And while his weapon is cursed and exacts a brutal toll on its wielder, that’s after the battle, and without spoiling anything I’ll say that it does also occasionally provides a very brief advantage in combat. So Braylar might get knocked around suffer some serious wounds against Gregor, but thanks to his natural viciousness, speed, and weapon, he would dance out of reach long enough to whittle the monster down.
By the same token, if Braylar came up against someone with ridiculous prowess like Icarium or Kelhus, he might land a blow or two or draw the thing out with a bit of help from his fickle flail, but in the end he’d fare no better than Cnaiur—he’d get his ass kicked.
Say you are purchasing a recently released book for a dearly beloved friend and avid reader of SF and Fantasy. What would it be?
So many to pick from. . . Daniel Abraham’s The King’s Blood would be a fine choice, presuming my beloved friend has already read The Dragon’s Path, otherwise it would have to be a two-fer too). Richard K. Morgan’s Kovacs series might not qualify as “recent,” but those are some of my favorite science fiction books I’ve recently come across.
If I’m thinking debuts, stand-alones, or the start to a new series (and let’s be honest, with all the princess crap I have to buy for my three daughters, purchasing one book is easier to bear than two-plus, unless we’re talking a wedding gift for a bibliophile), Paul Tobin’s Prepare to Die! is tons of fun, and deeper than expected, given that it’s about superheroes and supervillains. The Killing Moon by N.J. Jemisin is getting crazy raves, but I haven’t picked that one up yet, so maybe I’d just get that for myself.
Wait, do-over! Would it be totally narcissistic and make me look like a self-promoting asshat to say Scourge of the Betrayer? You bet it would! SCOURGE OF THE FRICKIN’ BETRAYER!!
The world in which Scourge of the Betrayer is set is of the pseudo-Middle Ages European sort but there are some pretty distinct differences. Can readers expect more of this as the series continues?
Absolutely. As you noted in your recent review, I intentionally kept the mystical or magical elements on the periphery in the first book of the series. I wanted to really establish a fantasy world with as much realism as possible—nasty inns, barmaids who aren’t supermodels, watery ale, fights that turn on a dime and not always in the protagonists’ favor, unexpected deaths with no closure or pretty protracted deathbed speeches. Not necessarily ugly, brutish, and short, but not far off the mark either, and decidedly mundane on the surface. The intent was, when the characters (and therefore the readers) encounter the supernatural elements for the first time, they would definitely appear strange, dangerous, maybe even awe-inspiring. But not common, and hopefully they would “pop” more given that I was going for an almost historical fiction vibe in the rest of the book.
Now, I’m sort of stealing a page from Martin (it’s not like he couldn’t spare one, and I say that with fanboy love!), and those elements will slowly become more prominent and important as the series progresses. But I never want to lose that feeling of, “Holy crap—magic is rare! And kind of spooky!”
If Scourge of the Betrayer were an ice cream flavor what flavor would it be?
What can you tell us of the sequel to Scourge of the Betrayer?
Well, doubling back to your earlier question about scope, it will definitely expand in the sequel. The reader will get a lot more info about the Syldoon themselves, Bloodsounder, The Memoridons, the Deserter Gods, the Godveil, etc. Now, I’m not going to claim it does a complete 180, as the narrative is still filtered through Arki, but for those hoping to see some deeper world building, they should be pretty satisfied.
Also, as far as setting goes, the story won’t be as claustrophobic (that was intentional in Scourge, as I wanted the reader to feel aligned with Arki in some sense), as the characters move on to some different locales.
Also also, the pace picks up now that (some) of the Syldoon agenda is on the table, and Arki is (more) privy to what they are actually doing.
Say Scourge of the Betrayer gets picked up by a major film studio to be turned into a Hollywood blockbuster. What three songs would you insist be included on the movie soundtrack and why?
I always liked Michael Mann’s soundtrack choices—Last of the Mohicans, Heat, The Insider, you name it. He always seems to pick the right soundtrack to perfectly sync with the material, bolstering it without overpowering it. So if he signed on to direct the Hollywood Blockbuster, I would just get the hell out of the way and let the man work. But assuming it’s not him, and in this glorious fantasy I have creative input on the soundtrack, I would have enlisted Basil Poledouris to produce something special (seriously, Conan the Barbarian AND Flesh & Blood, are you freaking kidding me?!), but he’s no longer with us. Since this isn’t A Knight’s Tale , so no Queen, Beastie Boys, Lady Gaga, or any other modern music, I’d probably have to go with something instrumental, dark, and moody, so I’d probably just phone Jerry Goldsmith (The 13th Warrior) or Harry Gregson-Williams (The Kingdom of Heaven) to see what they had going on. Since we’re in fantasy land.
Any final words for potential readers?
Are you inviting me to shamelessly deliver a sales pitch like a snake oil salesman here? Prostituting myself just to get a few more sales? Because I can do that! Scourge of the Betrayer has really well-developed and nuanced characters, great (and super entertaining!) dialogue, and quite a bit of intrigue. If you’re looking for something dark and hard hitting, that has just enough funny gallows humor and sarcastic barbs to balance out the profanity, blood, and guts, this is it!
Also, if you pick up the book, I’ll be incredibly grateful. Not as in, I’ll come mow your lawn or do your taxes or anything (which is good, I suck at doing mine), but still, more thankful and appreciate than I can say.