Interview with Jeff Salyards
This week I’m interrogating five different authors. Today, no doubt already remembering important business elsewhere is Jeff Salyards, author of The Bloodsounder’s Arc. The final book in that trilogy, Chains of the Heretic, is out now.
Hi Jeff, thanks for joining me.
1. I always like to start with an easy question, and on this occasion I sought the input of our readers. It seems the question they most wanted to ask you is: Where do you live, and at what times of the day is your house usually left empty?
I’d tell you, but you would mostly find girls’ clothing and toys missing various pieces and parts, and your ankles would surely get bitten multiple times by a manic Jack Russell who takes defending home turf very seriously. There is very little there worth burgling.
Those incomplete toys are looking tempting, actually. I can match them up to the odd pieces and parts in my own son’s toy collection.
2. The Bloodsounder’s Arc is told from the perspective of Arki, a scribe in a role akin to that of an embedded journalist. Why did you choose him as your narrator, rather than, say, one of the battle-hardened warriors in the story?
I’m not totally into sub-genre taxonomy, but whether you tag Bloodsounder’s Arc as “grimdark” or “dark fantasy” or “fantasy where a lot of morally ambiguous characters scheme and kill each other in as many ingenious and devious ways as possible”, there tends to be a fair amount of violence and a high degree of badassery in those categories, and BA isn’t really an exception. But I wanted to pick a narrator who was a direct counterpoint to that—inexperienced, not comfortable with death/dying/bloodshed/intrigue, with sensibilities that didn’t jive with the military company/provocateurs he ends up riding with, and misgivings about his choices and the events that unfold.
The Syldoon are ruthless pragmatists, and while there is code, and loyalty to each Tower (i.e., faction), all bets are off when it comes to any other culture/region, and even to opposed Towers in the Empire. So there is no shortage or rough and tumble badasses in the books, but I felt it was important that not only was Arki not one, but that he found himself questioning everything he witnesses along the way (at least on the front end of the series). I wanted that tension and conflict, rather than just another battle-hardened warrior relaying what happened.
3. Chains of the Heretic is getting some cracking reviews. What would you say the secret is to finishing a series well? *takes notes*
Thanks. Though based on reviews of your stuff, I doubt you need much help from this quarter.
I’m not sure I know any secrets—I won’t be conducting any seminars any time soon, that’s for sure. But for me, a final volume is satisfying when it wraps up most of those dangling plot threads without it being too neat and tidy—there should be some mystery remaining, some doors left unchecked, some things unresolved, just not anything to do with the major plot points or character arcs.
Also (and again, this is just me talking, but you did ask me, so who else would it be?), but what I wanted most for the finale was Arki’s whole journey to be thrown in the spotlight. For most of the series, other more dynamic characters occupied center stage—even though Arki is the narrator, what he narrates often feels like everyone else’s story, as that was what he was sort of hired to do, among other things, and what he is good at by trade. But I wanted his story, his growth and development, to happen in plain sight, but like a magic trick, really subtly, so that you might not even have caught a lot of it even though it occurred right there in front of you.
I wanted the readers to get to the end and realize that in a lot of ways, it WAS his story, even if he didn’t go out of his way to record it that way.
Obviously, that isn’t general ending advice, except to say, I think the best character arcs are the ones that appear to occur naturally, rather than dictated by plot, and the last book is the place to give the conclusion to those arcs and stories some gravitas, or poignancy, or whatever the heck.
4. You mention in another interview that you like classical and medieval history, and that your Syldoon warriors are based on the Mamluks from Egypt. If you were going to use some other element of history as inspiration for your world-building, what would it be?
What a great question. That I do not have a remotely great answer to. My new series is set in the suburbs of Chicago 30-some years in the future. So hardly Mesopotamia or ancient Somalia or centered on the Norte Chico civilization.
I don’t think there is anything inherently *wrong* with something that is analogous or vaguely inspired by medieval Western Europe. Plenty of great fiction takes familiar settings and tropes and does something original or unexpected with them. That said, I like to see writers take risks and draw inspiration from less recognizable locales and eras. Daniel Abraham, for instance, in The Long Price Quartet, created a world that clearly was inspired by culture far more eastern than western, and was really engaging and interesting because of it. Kameron Hurley routinely crafts settings that are unusual and as evocative as they are provocative. Norman Mailer used Egypt in Ancient Evenings decades ago, and did a fabulous job with it. I could go on and on—there are plenty of writers who dare to be different, and I totally dig that.
So if I end up writing another fantasy series that synthesizes some element of history, I would probably go for one that pulls from something wacky or unusual too. Though I have no idea what, right now, as my bandwidth is occupied with my new series. I can barely walk and chew bubble gum. This is just asking too much.
Careful, people will start claiming that men can’t do two things at the same time.
5. I understand that your publisher, Night Shade Books, collapsed during the release of your series and had to be rescued by another publisher. A lesser man – and I’m thinking of myself when I say that – might have found the experience a little demoralising. How did you get through it, and what’s next for you now that the Bloodsounder’s Arc is finished?
It was demoralizing. Super-duper demoralizing (how is that for some nimble wordsmithing?). The publisher was in limbo, so the series and the rights to it were in a terrible vortex beyond my control for a fair number of months, and I had no idea if Veil of the Deserters was ever going to see the light of day. Which made writing it suddenly not seem like the best investment of time or energy. But I knew if I let it sit for too long, I would lose any momentum, so after taking a small hiatus to wallow in self-pity, eat gallons of ice cream, and drink heavily, I decided to just put blinders on, continue writing, and hope for the best.
Another publisher stepped in, poised to buy the rights to most of the Night Shade titles (all? it is too painful to go back and review emails) but a certain number of authors needed to agree to terms or the deal on the table was going to get swept right off. I don’t know how much you recall or even heard about that transition, but it was, shall we say, rocky. I cursed a lot at the time.
But at the end of the day, I wanted my series to continue, and after some of the terms were changed for the better after some public outcry, I was content to sign and move forward. And I’m glad I did, because it is possible there wouldn’t have been a book 2 or 3 otherwise. Who knows.
As for what’s next, I have half of a new book tentatively titled Grimoire Zero done, and pretty well revised, and I’m moving onto the second half now. It’s a wild departure from Bloodsounder’s Arc: four third-person POV characters, all very different from each other (and not at all like Arki); set in the nearish future with science fiction and (sub)urban fantasy elements fused together.
There is a mouthy shadowslinger who might or might not be sharing his flesh with his manifested Jungian Shadow, a single-mom nurse with a very costly (and badass!) healing ability, an aloof necromancer/charlatan who doesn’t take crap from anyone, and a very small narcoleptic drone pilot with a flintlock that fires microbots and very unusual companion. Secretive government agencies, super-powered terrorists, and tons and tons of snarky dialogue. And crap blowing up. Oh, and a phase sloth named Twitch. And crazy waffles. Like, the craziest.
Thanks for the interview!
To find out more, check out Jeff's website here.