Welcome everybody to my second ever author interview here at Battle Hymns. This time around, I'm very pleased to have Jeff Salyards on board to answer some questions. If you haven't yet had a chance to read his debut novel, Scourge of the Betrayer, you are forgiven, since it's only been out since early May, but I strongly urge you get out there and read it.
Not only was Jeff kind enough to take the time out of his busy schedule to answer questions, but he answered them with aplomb. Say one thing about Jeff Salyards, say that he's thorough. SO thorough in fact that his fantastic answers need to be doled out in parts. So I give you PART ONE of the Battle Hymns/Jeff Salyards interview:
Battle Hymns: Can you tell us a little about yourself?
Jeff Salyards: I grew up in Fox Lake, a small town north of Chicago that still boasts that Al Capone used to resort there during the summers, most notably at the Mineola Hotel. My dad was a newspaper photographer and got the chance to tour the upper floors of the hotel before they closed them to the public, and he claimed to have spotted some bullet holes in the walls and weathered blood stains on the floors. But that’s hearsay, he was prone to storytelling, and none of these details are directly about me anyway. Maybe I’m deflecting. Or stalling. I’ve been known to do both. (See, there’s something about myself.)
I’m married with three kids, all girls, which I’m sure if karmic payback of some sort. By day, I’m an editor for the American Bar Association; by night, I’m a
masked vengeful vigilante called Strikethrough writer. On a good
BH: For folks who haven’t had the chance to read it yet, can you tell us about Scourge of the Betrayer?
JS: Scourge is a hard-boiled, character-driven fantasy novel. There are no dark lords, grand prophecies, or wondrous artifacts; there are some brutal battles and scraps, lots of biting rejoinders and sarcastic jabs, a nasty cursed weapon, and some profane (but still oddly endearing) characters.
BH: What did you learn as a writer from writing Scourge of the Betrayer?
JS: Not to quit. There were a few times, both in writing the book and then in soliciting agents, that I almost gave up on the project. And that’s the tricky thing about writing—no matter how much support or encouragement you get, at the end of the day it’s a solitary effort, and you have to be your own sustainable energy source. I almost lost the motivation to continue on this one, but luckily I’m a stubborn son of a bitch (actually, that’s figurative—my mother was a wonderful lady, devout and zealous), so I pressed on. And I’m obviously glad I did. Otherwise, instead of doing this interview right now, I’d probably be sitting in a dark room muttering to myself and eating Nutter Butters.
BH: What challenges did you face, if any, in writing Scourge of the Betrayer?
JS: My own tendency to procrastinate, for one. Seriously, I’m far too good at rationalizing and justifying for my own good. Second, carving out time when I was motivated. With three little cherubs/demons at home, it’s always a challenge to find the opportunity and energy to write, especially for any long, uninterrupted stretches. Given that I haven’t utterly reformed or sold the kids on Craigslist, I will still face these challenges as I crank out the rest of the books in the series.
BH: Who is the biggest influence on your work?
JS: Judging by the early reviews, you’d think the answer would have to be some combination of Glen Cook, Joe Abercrombie, and possibly Michael Moorcock. Which, while I’m delighted to be mentioned in the same breath as any of those writers, is a little funny to me. I read the first few Black Company books back in high school (which is longer ago than I care to think about). Ditto for Moorcock. And I didn’t even start reading any Abercrombie until I was nearly done with the manuscript.
It’s really difficult for me to pinpoint “biggest” influence, as there have been so many writers who have inspired and shaped me at different stages along the way. On the fantasy and science fiction side, Richard K. Morgan, Raymond Feist, Urusla K. Le Guin, Tad Williams, Edgar Rice Burroughs, Neal Stephenson, K.J. Parker, William Gibson, Octavia Butler. In other genres, Don DeLillo, Cormac McCarthy, Tom Robbins, Bernard Cornwell, Lee Child, David Foster Wallace. Playwrights like Edward Albee and Tom Stoppard, movie directors like Quentin Tarantino and Sam Peckinpah, TV directors like David Milch, and. . .
OK, epic fail on this question—I haven’t even winnowed the influence list down to a handful. Sorry.
BH: What inspired you to become a writer?
JS: My brother and sister were much older than me and moved out when I was three or four, so in a lot of ways I grew up like an only child. So I figured out how to entertain myself pretty early on. And as far back as I can remember, reading was one of these diversions. I could fall into a book and disappear down the rabbit hole after Alice for hours. I loved how books could transport you, allow you access to places you’d never seen or maybe even imagined, entry into lives and experiences that could be so distant from your own (or comforting in their closeness and relevance). My mom loved reading, writing, theatre, painting, pottery, you name it, so she certainly encouraged me down that track.
So, from an early age, I decided that I wanted to write stories that provided someone else the same kind of journey into an imaginary place.
JS: Well, there’s the day job, and the night job
doling out cold justice
to criminal masterminds writing, so
I’m guessing you’re asking about the latter. There are a lot of great
parts—finally seeing my book in print on a shelf at Barnes & Noble, a
lifelong dream come true. I kept expecting Ashton Kutcher to jump out of an
aisle with a camera and mock me for falling for the joke. Hearing from readers
(and I mean strangers here, not the biased friends and family) who loved the
characters, dialogue, or the book as a whole is incredibly rewarding. But those
are post-writing greats. The best part of the writing process itself is when,
after countless revisions, second-guessing, revisiting earlier drafts to see if
maybe I had it right then and drifted away from where I really wanted to be,
grudgingly admitting that those first drafts sucked, revising some more, and finally
at long last hitting the sweet spot. Producing something on the page that actually
resembles the kickass idea I originally had in my head that prompted me to give
it a go in the first place.
The worst part? The frustration when I begin to wonder if I’ll ever hit that sweet spot again.
BH: For you as a writer and/or reader, what qualities make for a good read?
JS: It’s said by those who like to say things and hear themselves say it, that most books generally fall into one of three camps: primarily idea-driven (e.g., Atlas Shrugged, 1984), plot-driven (a lot of thrillers/mysteries), or character-driven (e.g., A Prayer for Owen Meany).
Obviously, this is an artificial or academic classification, as most books are hybrids, or have elements of all three categories pretty well balanced. But it can be useful at least as a launch pad for discussing literature. While I like books that do all of these things well and are too slippery to pin down, if I had to pick between a primarily idea-, character-, or plot-driven book, I’d pick up the character-centered one first.
Idea-driven books can be stimulating or mesmerizing, but they can also get stuck in the clouds or come across as pedantic or proselytizing, and if the characters aren’t interesting, my attention wanes. Plot-driven books can be taut or even thrilling, but again, pretty flat and more of a summer read if the characters aren’t fleshed out. A character-driven book might be slow or meandering, but if the characters are well-drawn, nuanced, and feel real, I’m willing to forgive a lot. Fascinating or repulsive (sometimes both), slick or broken, intellectual or brutes, full of hubris or painfully shy, just give me some good characters to latch onto.
Even if the pace, plot points, and structure are all handled masterfully, the ideas or world building rich, the prose wonderful, if I don’t give a damn about the characters involved, I’ll walk away admiring the craftsmanship but pretty dissatisfied on the whole.
BH: What is a day in the life of Jeff Salyards like?
JS: I’ll start at midnight—while most folks without young kids are sleeping soundly, dreaming of exotic vacations, winning the lottery, or threesomes, I’m usually waking up at least once or twice before six to change a diaper, console a kid who just had a nightmare, or because I got kicked in the face by the middle girl who sneaks into our bed a lot but seems physically incapable of sleeping parallel (I think it’s a disorder). So, I rarely get up feeling refreshed. I usually hear the alarm and wake up cursing, though I have to be careful because if Little Miss Perpendicular is right there, she’ll parrot it right back.
I don’t say this to elicit sympathy. I didn’t contract kids, or inherit them, or take them in as strays in a moment of weakness—obviously, big choices were made, and it’s great being a dad. Just giving you the lay of the land here.
So, after a ridiculous sitcom-esque morning (albeit with more mumbled profanity) of trying to get three kids and two adults dressed, fed, reasonably clean, and out the door before noon, it’s a train ride to downtown Chicago for me.
Then a day at work herding cats with my editor hat on. . . following up on authors to check on status of their manuscripts, get contracts signed, answer project queries. Meetings/calls with various book boards to help them develop their publishing portfolios. Budgeting for the next fiscal year. Internal meetings with other staff to brainstorm about better methods of herding cats.
After a train back home, it’s time to put the dad/hubby hat back on (it’s reversible) for a couple of hours.
Then, assuming I’m not in slackass mode and can muster the energy/will, it’s time to get some book work done. Writing the novel, or as is recently the case, promoting it and neurotically tracking its progress, and finally falling into bed. Praying to the fickle gods of slumber that they will grant me one night of solid sleep, knowing that it’s far more likely they will cackle at my desperate plea and smite me. That’s how they roll.
Stay tuned for PART 2 coming at you later this week!