Interview with Jeff Salyards, Author of the Bloodsounder’s Arc
So, I found out that talking to Jeff Salyards is as awesome and fun as reading his books. Seriously, I don’t recall the last time I cracked up this much while doing an interview! We’re honored to have him join us for a Q&A today, and hope that you’ll have a blast checking it out.
Jeff’s Bloodsounder’s Arc series began in 2012 with Scourge of the Betrayer, and its sequel Veil of the Deserters is available now! In case you missed it, here are the reviews for book one and book two. To learn more about this series, the author and his writing process, and why medieval flails are more than just damn cool, READ ON!
Mogsy: Hi and welcome to the BiblioSanctum, Jeff! Really excited to have you join us today, thank you for the interview.
Jeff Salyards: Thanks so much for inviting me!
M: To start off, how would you described The Bloodsounder’s Arc to the uninitiated who have not yet discovered the awesomeness of this series?
JS: Flattery will get you nowhere. OK, maybe everywhere. I’m glad you think it’s awesome. Bloodsounder’s Arc is the story of a young bookish scribe who accepts a commission to accompany a hardened group of foreign soldiers, thinking it will provide some adventure and a break from chronicling the dull exploits of middling merchants. Only he quickly discovers that he is in way over his head, as the company is involved in all kinds of political intrigue, and the captain of the company possesses a cursed flail that bombards him with the stolen memories of men he’s killed.
M: When were you bitten by the writing bug? Which authors or books have been your greatest influences?
JS: I’ve loved writing for as long as I can remember. That sounds like a canned answer that writers default to when they don’t have a grand epiphany about their fated purpose on this Earth, but it’s still true. I was always scribbling out stories, illustrating them, and imagining the next grand adventure.
As for influences, this question always throws me, as there have been countless books and authors that impacted me at various points in my life, so I inevitably end up selecting a few and feeling bad for the ones I neglected to mention. I could write a book about that topic. And no one would read it. Or at least finish it. “Seriously, page three hundred, and still talking about your damn influences?! You self-involved bastard. I hate you.”
But I’ll take a stab at it. Early on, I loved writers like Edgar Rice Burroughs, Robert Howard, Fritz Leiber, Tanith Lee, Ursula Le Guin, Roger Zelazny, Octavia Butler, Raymond Feist, Michael Moorcock. Later, I discovered Tad Williams, Joe Abercrombie, Janny Wurts, George R.R. Martin, KJ Parker, Richard Morgan. And there are plenty of authors in other genres I love: Cormac McCarthy, Bernard Cornwell, Tom Robbins, Don DeLillo. See, I could go on for days.
M: With most books, I usually have a clear favorite when it comes to characters. But with yours, it’s like, seriously, you’re going to make me choose just one? What’s your trick for bringing your characters to life and giving each and every one of them such unique and vivid personalities? Which character (or characters) was the most fun to write?
JS: I’ve always tried to take even minor characters and think of some ticks or traits that will distinguish them. Even if they are only in a few pages, might as well make them memorable or entertaining, right?
While sometimes you do this with physical descriptions or actions, I’ve found that dialogue is also a really great way to set one character off from another, make them pop. (Not revolutionary, I know.) When I took a playwriting course a lifetime ago, the instructor said one way to tell if you were doing it right was to cover or redact the character names and see if you could still quickly determine who was speaking. Whether elliptical or staccato, crude or erudite, garbled or precise, silly or weighty, prone to tangents and weird asides or straightforward and deliberate, the dialogue should be distinct. The trick of it is trying to define some qualities particular to each character, repeat them a few times to establish the baseline, and then riff on them enough so that it doesn’t get stale.
I’m really glad you felt that way about the characters, because that is something I worked really hard on.
As for the most fun to write, that depends on my mood, really. I love Braylar’s biting and sarcastic wit—he is at times slick and calculating, and other times, viciously pragmatic. Mulldoos is a hoot because he’s crude, rude, and predisposed to violence, which comes through in action and his obscene curses—he’s sort of like my id running loose in the world. Vendurro developed into one of my favorites in Veil. And of course, there’s our narrator. He is the trickiest in some ways, since everything funnels through him—I wanted him to grow the most throughout the series, but it’s always tough to make that feel natural and not too abrupt or author fiat—it had to be subtle shifts.
But really, having the characters collide, watching them interact, is the most fun for me.
M: I have to say, you played your cards pretty close to your chest in the first book Scourge of the Betrayer, with regards to the pace and amount of plot information you were willing to reveal about the story. Was that approach something you’d planned on doing from the start? How did you come to make that writing decision and did you have your reservations?
JS: Yeah, I know that strategy didn’t work for everyone in Book 1. Some readers got bored and ran off. Others got irritated and wrote nasty things in bathroom stalls about me. And if I have to be baldly honest (as opposed to just bald and possibly lying), I had some misgivings about how it worked out. The original version of the manuscript for Scourge was about 70,000 words longer, and had the present story you saw between the covers interspersed with Arki recording a lot of Braylar’s backstory. But between feedback I got from some agents about the pace and stuff I gleaned from books/sites/Magic Eight Balls, I got the feeling I needed to trim a lot of the book to make it fly.
So after much anguish, I ultimately lopped off the backstory. I don’t know if keeping that stuff in would have made a difference for readers who objected to being in the dark for so long (it sort of broke that up, so it was less obvious). Shoot, I don’t even know if I would have found an agent or gotten the thing published in that form. But it definitely made the read different. So I did have some reservations about cutting so much, because the story that remained was deliberately coy, as Arki had to earn his keep and the trust of the members of the company before he would be privy to a lot.
But some chunks of that backstory do appear in Veil, and will pop up in the rest of the series, and even appeared in Neverland’s Library as a standalone short story, so I feel like I managed to salvage a fair amount of it.
M: And now with Veil of the Deserters, it seems that all (well, at least most!) of the cards are on the table. How did it feel to write book two and to be finally able to let it all out and reveal what the story has been building towards all along?
JS: It felt really good to reveal a lot more this go around. Some readers didn’t mind the cards-to-chest thing in Scourge, but anytime someone did object to the story being revealed slowly in dribs and drabs, I really had to grit my teeth and stop myself from replying, “Don’t give up! Book 2 will knock all those doubts silly!” Because nobody likes Defensive Writer Guy/Gal. Seriously, like nobody. And I had made a choice to deliver the story in the first book that way, for good or ill, so there it was.
Veil is meatier in every respect—more pages, more storylines revealed, more backstory and character-driven moments, more worldbuilding with Syldoonian politics and Memoridon magic, more action. The key was having Arki prove himself enough to be granted access to more information, the inner sanctum (or at least not the outer one), and when he does in Veil, readers obviously get that access as well.
I’m really anxious to see how readers respond. I feel good about it. But I’m rarely a good judge of anything. The goal is to make each book better than the last, and I feel like I accomplished that. Now I just have to sit back and see if other folks tend to agree.
M: So, I have a thing for holy/magical weapons in fantasy. And in your books, Bloodsounder is actually the name of an unholy flail. I’ll understand if you’d need to give an unspoilery answer, but you wouldn’t believe how long this question has been eating away at me! Don’t think me weird but I’ve always wondered, why a flail? Was there a specific reason you chose that and not any other medieval weapon (or maybe just because they’re so damn cool?!)
JS: I knew early on Captain Killcoin was going to have a cursed weapon. And I thought long and hard about which kind to give him. I made charts and had pro and con columns for each choice, and really deliberated for an incredibly geeky amount of time. I wanted a weapon that was vicious looking, had some personality, and was absolutely NOT a sword, because everyone and their cousin has one of those in fantasy. I considered a lot of unusual weapons, and almost went with a Hussite flail, but nixed it because I ruled out polearms in general, as Braylar needed to be able to have this thing with him at all times and people tend to look at you funny when you march up to the bar with a falx on your shoulder. Plus the weapon needed to be somewhat concealable. So I limited my pick to unusual sidearms, and ultimately settled on one-handed flail. In part because it can be nearly as dangerous to the wielder as an opponent, and that perfectly matched the nature of the curse. And also because flails are damn cool. 🙂
M: Your work has been described as dark fantasy, sometimes military fantasy. Would you agree, and what do hope to bring to the genre?
JS: That’s probably as apt as anything. The books do involve soldiers, and there aren’t a lot of sun shower and rainbow farting unicorns, so it is kind of dark. I tried to lighten it a bit with humor, but of course most of the time the humor is black too, so, uh, yeah, it is a bit rough. I know “dark and gritty and grimdark” is all the rage these days, and kickstarts all kinds of heated arguments about whether recent fantasy offerings are too bleak, too violent, too nihilistic, etc. Some of that is specious and involves “we’ve lost the golden age” hand-wringing. Dark stories have been around forever—see Greek Tragedies, Grimm’s Fairy Tales, Shakespearean Revenge Tragedies, Buckaroo Bonzai. OK, not Buckaroo so much, but you know, this just isn’t the first time humans have written about morbid, difficult, gross, or terrifying topics.
But whether you think “grimdark” means good fiction, bankrupt fiction, or is just grimdork and a terrible label, I didn’t look around the fantasy landscape and decide to try to one-up anything else out there, or to be more grisly, gruesome, or horrible than any other books on the shelves. I just told the story I wanted, which at its heart is about Arki, a bookish, nerdy scribe who has to contend with the violence and rough sensibilities of the company he’s joined, wrestling with his own moral compass, and trying to do the right thing while chronicling some pretty brutal pragmatism.
Some fantasy is happy to gloss right over the violence and the consequence of that violence, and while I didn’t want to wallow in it, glamorize it, or throw more buckets of blood into the mix for kicks, I did want to portray what it’s like when people with sharp pointy things go stabby stabby with each other—medieval-level battles were awful affairs—and more importantly, not to skip away from the consequences when I was done. There is fear, guilt, grief, and aftershocks. Grief, in particular, ripples throughout the books.
M: I see from your author bio that your childhood was filled geeky pastimes, much like my own. Getting some time in to indulge in hobbies is probably tougher now with balancing work, writing and fatherhood, but what do you like to do for fun or to relax when you can?
JS: Yeah, with three kids under the age of 7 in the house, my past time is usually changing diapers and crying in my beer. I kid. Tough guys don’t cry. (OK, we do. A lot.) I’m glad summer’s here, as we’ll be taking the kids to festivals (balloon fest on the Fourth of July, excursions to the Ren Faire (see an early one here: http://jeffsalyards.com/2013/08/as-i-wonder-lonely-as-a-cloud/ ), and just getting out of the house to reduce their crazies. Occasionally, my wife and I arrange to have date night, which also reduces our crazies.
On rare occasions I get out with some college buddies or work friends and socialize. But since I am not the smartest knife in the drawer, this often results in cautionary tales: http://jeffsalyards.com/2014/04/terminus/.
I love to read, but don’t do it nearly as much of it as I used to. And I find myself getting sucked into more TV shows than I’d like (Game of Thrones, The Blacklist, Walking Dead, The Bridge, Orange is the New Black, etc.)
I have great intentions about exercising.
M: Okay, I know you probably can’t give too much away, but I’ll take whatever I can get! I’m already so excited about the next Bloodsounder’s Arc book. Is there anything you can reveal about it at this early point or what it might have in store for us?
JS: I’m not very good at keeping surprises, so this question is fraught with danger for me. I feel the need to clamp both hands over my mouth. However, without getting too spoilerish, I will say that Captain Killcoin and company *might* find out what is on the other side of the Godveil. Or not. Maybe they will all die trying. You know, being GRIMDARK and all.
M: Wrapping up then, other than the third book are there any other exciting projects you’re working on currently or in the near future that you’d like to share, either writing or non-writing related?
JS: I did a couple of short stories that appeared in anthologies in the last year or so, but not sure if I will take time out to do that again this year. I really want to try to make the gap between Books 2 and 3 reasonable, so I’m trying to prioritize. Which I am incredibly bad at. Ask anyone.
In the immediate future, I’ll be doing some podcasts, other interviews, some guest blog posts to help promote Veil. Then I’d like to take a nap. And back to cranking away on Book 3.
M: Once again I’d like to thank you for dropping by! And for writing such great books!
JS: Thanks so much for having me! I’m thrilled you enjoyed them.