TQ: What would you say is your most interesting writing quirk?
Jeff: You mean besides the fact that I need to wear butt-less chaps and a Donald Duck mask every time I sit down to write? I kid, of course. No on has to wear anything like that—it’s clearly a choice.
In all seriousness, you hear about some writers who absolutely have to write everything longhand on certain color tablets with one particular kind of pencil that has to be a precise length, not too sharp, not too dull, nor too long or short, and they have to work between the hours of 10:15 a.m. and 1:15 p.m., with the temperature between 71 and 74 degrees, and their whole writing mojo goes out the window if they deviate from this script or pattern in the slightest, and you can’t help but think: try decaf, you neurotic crazy person. Or worse, the apocryphal stories of writers who need intense pressure or even physical danger to be able to produce, like a loaded gun on the desk next to them, silently pledging to blow their brains out if they can’t put 3,000 words to paper (I wonder if you wrote a suicide note that was 2,800 words—would you cut yourself some slack and round up and call it a day?).
Those are extreme, but a fair numbers of writers have elaborate rituals or need just the right accessories or atmosphere or whatever to make it all happen. Those make for great anecdotes, but I’ve largely been too inconsistent to develop anything like that. Having a day job and three small kids at home, I pretty much write whenever I can knock two minutes together to do so—at night when the house quiets down, on the train, in a notebook, on a laptop, on the roll of toilet paper. It’s a free-for-all.
I promise, though, if the books ever take off enough for me to write full time, I’ll be sure to come up with something wacky, funny, frightening or quirky to reveal next time you interview me.
TQ: Who are some of your favorite writers? Who do you feel has influenced your writing?
Jeff: There are so many writers I love that it’s difficult to even narrow the field down to a handful of favorites, because I always feel bad about the ones I exclude. I think Tom Robbins is a mad genius who makes me laugh milk out my nose (or whatever I happen to be drinking at the time.) Cormac McCarthy crafts haunting prose that somehow manages (sometimes on the same page) to be both extremely stripped down and yet resplendent with details (and forces frequent trips to the dictionary). Don DeLillo really strikes at the heart of both modern anxieties and nostalgia in a profound way.
In the science fiction and fantasy genres, I love Neal Stephenson, Richard K. Morgan, George R.R. Martin. And the list of wonderful debuts in the last several years is impressive and inspiring as well.
I could write about writers for days, so I’ll censor myself.
TQ: Are you a plotter or a pantser?
Jeff: Kind of a hybrid. My natural inclination is generally to make things up on the fly, to give the story room to grow or evolve in whatever organic direction it needs to. No one will ever accuse me of being organized. I often justified that methodology—just letting things flow, man—by claiming that it allowed things to develop naturally, gave rise to happy accidents and wonderful discoveries and all that good stuff. And yes, sometimes that was true. But I also got myself in a ton of trouble with that process (or lack of one), going off on wild tangents and unexpected subplots that, no matter how fun or inventive, did absolutely zero for advancing the story or contributing to the greater good of the work.
So, while I will never hold myself to some rigid, fully-fleshed out outline, I do try to map things out ahead of time. I still give myself license to drift away from it, or even scrap it altogether if absolutely necessary, but there’s something grounding me a little as I proceed. Usually. Unless I talk myself out of it. Like I am now.
TQ: What is the most challenging thing for you about writing?
Jeff: Finding the time and energy to do it. I’m an editor during the day at the American Bar Association, which can be mentally challenging and/or taxing (I mean, it’s not like there’s anybody dying on an operating table if I screw up, and I’m not breaking my back laying bricks, so “taxing” is of course relevant). When I’m off the clock there, it’s dad-time in the evening. There are some days (most, really) when that combination leaves me pretty well spent. So when the chaos ends and the kids are asleep, it can be a real struggle to motivate myself to sit down and get to writing. When I’d much sooner stare at the dog, or fall into a coma, or maybe read a few pages of something I didn’t write.
But a few years ago I decided that it was time to commit myself to this writing full-on and make some sacrifices (sleep being foremost), or just call it quits and give up the enterprise altogether. Challenging, yes, but worth it, too.
TQ: Describe Scourge of the Betrayer (Bloodsounder's Arc 1) in 140 characters or less.
Jeff: Scourge of the Betrayer is a hard-boiled, character-driven fantasy in the tradition of Glen Cook. It might cure cancer. Or cause it.
TQ: What inspired you to write Scourge of the Betrayer?
Jeff: I’ve loved fantasy for as long as I can remember—playing at it, reading it, writing it. I grew up wildly torn between wanting to be a brave, heroic, principled paladin or a fearsome, grizzly, barbarian (though with moderately good hygiene—I didn’t mind getting dirty, but staying dirty was no good). If I wasn’t tromping though the woods with my friends pretending to lay siege to an enchanted castle (it was actually a dilapidated tin shed that seemed deserted but must have been home to a group of reprobate teenagers, as it would randomly fill up with the debris of empty whiskey or beer bottles, some lighters, and curling copies of Playboy, which proved to be pretty exciting plunder to young impressionable boys), I was reading stories about Conan, Gawain, John Carter, Fafhrd, Elric, Pug, or that old curmudgeon’s curmudgeon, Gandalf. All that stuff has lit my imagination since forever.
So, it seemed pretty likely that I would write a fantasy novel at some point. When I was trying to figure out what, I had this idea bouncing around in the brain pan about a chronicler accompanying a military group on a covert operation (like a modern embedded journalist), only he wouldn’t have any clue what he was getting into. And wasn’t especially equipped to handle it.
And, while I certainly don’t want to overplay this, since it was just part of inception, not something I consciously thought much about after or tried to approximate, but I wanted a similar dynamic to the one Ishmael and Captain Ahab have—the chronicler, Arki, would be equally mystified and drawn to the strange captain of the military company, but forced to stay at arm’s length, at least until he’s able to parse out what the hell is happening.
TQ: What sort of research did you do for Scourge of the Betrayer?
Jeff: That’s not an easy question to answer, because in some ways, I’ve been researching for the book long before I ever knew I was writing it. While I grew up on stories of elves and pyrotechnic magic, wild flights of fancy and imagination, I prefer my fantasy grounded, underpinned by a sense of realism, or at least some analogues to historical reality. So, for the medieval-tech era that Scourge of the Betrayer is set in, that means being able to render things credibly. While you don’t have to know the exact process of how lye was extracted from ashes or what thread count a linen tunic had, if one of your main characters is a miller and several scenes take place in a watermill, you should be familiar enough with how that works to not embarrass yourself. The trappings of your world, how its economics works, what the everyday things your characters encounter look like, how they function. . . most discerning readers will catch on if you are just making crap up willy-nilly without having ever done a modicum of research to establish some solid reality.
I always loved history, but especially classical and medieval (and not just Western European, though that was where I found my initial interest). So it’s been a hobby to read up on as much of it as I could over the years—the construction methods of cathedrals and castles, how pitched battles and sieges actually played out, what logistics was really like for a pre-modern army on campaign, how the plague impacted society, how duels were codified and sanctioned by the state, the way mead was brewed, and on and on.
Not all of this found its way directly into the book, but it all informed my approach in some way, which is to figure out how things worked in a historical period, and then riff on that.
For Scourge of the Betrayer, the Syldoon soldiers at the heart of the book are loosely based on the Mamluk Sultanate in power in Egypt for a couple centuries. I read up on them exhaustively for an English Honors project in college that completely bottomed out, but I always held onto those notecards and notebooks, because I found the whole Mamluk system so intriguing. So, as I starting knocking ideas around about what my Syldoon would be like, I looked to the Mamluks (and the Ottomans, and the various Byzantine states over the centuries, etc.) So, the initial idea was drawn from a composite, and then I starting overlaying my imagination to differentiate it and give it my own spin.
TQ: Who was the easiest character to write and why? Hardest and why?
Jeff: The narrator, Arkamondos (or Arki, as he called, much to the relief of a number of readers) is a scribe, so right away, he and I would have something to talk about over beer. Although Arki would probably pick wine or cider, and I would make fun of him. But Arki was probably the easiest, because he knows so little about the adventure he’s getting involved in or the company he’s keeping, he essentially functions as the reader surrogate. So it was easy to consistently ask myself as I wrote, “What would the reader be curious about here? What would I/they ask about in Arki’s place to try to get a handle on how things were operating?”
But that also made him the hardest character in a way. While most fantasy readers love world building—they want to be transported somewhere new, to have it described in loving detail, to get a real sense of place and mood—I had to really check myself several times as I wrote. The way the novel is set up, Arki is chronicling his experiences, so recording primarily for himself and his patron. So whenever I was tempted to have him really describe every nuance of something he was witnessing (for the benefit of the reader holding the book), I constantly had to ask myself, what things would be familiar and ordinary (and therefore, not require 5 pages of exposition or running commentary), versus the things that would generate questions or noteworthy editorializing.
So, striking the balance was difficult at times.
TQ: Without giving anything away, what is/are your favorite scene(s) in Scourge of the Betrayer?
Jeff: There’s a scene that takes place after a battle in the grasslands about a third of the way into the book. Captain Braylar Killcoin has shown himself to be a consummate badass, adept at dispatching foes, cool under pressure. But in the quiet aftermath, he begins acting very strangely. Arki has already noted some peculiar behavior earlier, so he presses the captain to explain what’s happening.
Captain Killcoin rebuffs him at first, but later opts to reveal some of what he is undergoing. He possesses a flail that he claims grants him some advanced warning of impending violence or bloodshed, but at terrible cost—he is bombarded by the stolen memories of men he strikes down with the flail, and physically assailed. Braylar describes in detail some of the memories flooding into him while Arki listens, skeptical at first, but having already seen some very strange stuff, unable to dismiss the possibility that the captain might be telling the truth.
While the battle scenes are incredibly fun to write, because they’re fast-paced and I really like playing fight choreographer, this scene was quiet and intimate, and given that the book is character-driven at heart, the scene is very telling about two of the main characters and the dynamic between them.
TQ: What's next?
Jeff: This is the first book in the series, which will likely be 3-4 books. So I’ll be hanging out with this characters for the foreseeable future. Which suits me fine, because even when I don’t especially like them, I love writing about them.
TQ: Thank you for joining us at The Qwillery
Jeff: Thank you so much for having me!
About Scourge of the Betrayer
Scourge of the BetrayerBloodsounder's Arc 1
Night Shade Books, May 2012
Hardcover and eBook, 320 pages
A gritty new fantasy saga begins . . .
Many tales are told of the Syldoon Empire and its fearsome soldiers, who are known throughout the world for their treachery and atrocities. Some say that the Syldoon eat virgins and babies--or perhaps their own mothers. Arkamondos, a bookish young scribe, suspects that the Syldoon's dire reputation may have grown in the retelling, but he's about to find out for himself.
Hired to chronicle the exploits of a band of rugged Syldoon warriors, Arki finds himself both frightened and fascinated by the men's enigmatic leader, Captain Braylar Killcoin. A secretive, mercurial figure haunted by the memories of those he's killed with his deadly flail, Braylar has already disposed of at least one impertinent scribe . . . and Arki might be next.
Archiving the mundane doings of millers and merchants was tedious, but at least it was safe. As Arki heads off on a mysterious mission into parts unknown, in the company of the coarse, bloody-minded Syldoon, he is promised a chance to finally record an historic adventure well worth the telling, but first he must survive the experience!
A gripping military fantasy in the tradition of Glen Cook, Scourge of the Betrayer explores the brutal politics of Empire--and the searing impact of violence and dark magic on a man's soul.
Royal Crown bag full of multi-sided dice? Check. Blood-red hooded cloak? Check. Annual pilgrimages to Renaissance Faires? Check. Whacking other (curiously athletic and gifted) dorks with rattan swords in the SCA? Check. Yes, I earned my badges, thank you very much.
My whole life, I’ve been fascinated by the fantastic, and of course this extended to speculative fiction of all kinds. Countless prepubescent evenings found me reading a worn, dog-eared copy of Thuvia, Maid of Mars (it sounded so much dirtier than it was!) or The Frost Giant’s Daughter (high hopes for that one too!) well past lights-out, flashlight in hand, ignoring the repeated calls to turn in. That’s as quiet and harmless a rebellion as you can have, and my parents mostly sighed and left me to it.
So, no one has ever been surprised to hear that I was working on (or at least talking about working on) some sci-fi or fantasy story or other. But it took years of flirting with various projects, flitting from one to the next without the hint of complete commitment, before I finally mastered myself enough to finish a novel. And longer still before I finished another one that was worthy of being published.
But wonders never cease. And here we are.
My debut novel, Scourge of the Betrayer, is a hard-boiled fantasy to be published by Night Shade Books in May 2012. It’s the first installment in a series called Bloodsounder’s Arc. I’m so excited I’m beginning to annoy myself. I am represented by Michael Harriot at Folio Literary Management, and couldn’t be happier. His savvy, smart advice has been invaluable on this journey. I suspect he has a secret stash of 20-siders somewhere in his desk.
I live with my lovely wife, Kris, and three daughters in a suburb west of Chicago. I am indebted to Kris in countless ways for her steadfast encouragement, support, and thick skin in dealing with a prickly, moody writer. I don’t always like living with me, but she has a choice and stays anyway.
And before you are tempted to mention it, I am fully aware that siring three daughters is certainly karmic retribution, particularly when they all transform into teenagers. I cling to the hope of discovering at least one of them reading covertly in the middle of the night. That kind of transgression I can handle.