JMW: Hello, this is Jean Marie Ward for ‘BuzzyMag.com.’ With me today is, Richard Lee Byers, the author of ‘This Sword For Hire,’ ‘The Vampire’s Apprentice,’ and many popular titles in the ‘Forgotten Realms,’ ‘Pathfinder,’ and ‘Iron Kingdoms’ universes. Welcome, Richard.
Richard Lee Byers: Thank you, good to be here.
JMW: You’re probably best known for your traditional fantasy titles, especially those set in the ‘Forgotten Realms.’ How hard was it to switch – forgive this pun – switch gears when you started writing in the steampunk world of the ‘Iron Kingdoms’?
Richard Lee Byers: Well, I don’t think it was too much of a shifting of gears, because I think the ‘Iron Kingdoms’ is basically a sword and sorcery universe also. It just has the kind of steampunk overlay of the gadgets and the mechanical man and all that kind of thing. I felt… And it’s socially it’s a little different. I mean, any time you enter a new shared world you have to learn the basics of it and get a feel for what kind of tone the readers enjoy and what kind of material they like. But I didn’t think it was too big a jump. It probably helps that a lot of my more popular forever ‘Forgotten Realms’ novels are about a mercenary company, and then when I came over to the ‘Iron Kingdoms’ I’m writing about another mercenary company.
JMW: Yeah, mercenary companies seem to be a theme. ‘The Black River Irregulars,’ the heroes of your ‘Iron Kingdoms’ books that we were just talking about. ‘Black Dogs’ and ‘Black Crowns’ aren’t exactly boy scouts, but they seem squeaky clean compared to some of the bad guys who populated your other fiction in the ‘Forgotten Realms’ novels and ‘The Vampire’s Apprentice.’ What draws you to dark characters?
Richard Lee Byers: Well, I think they’re very appealing in that they, kind of, let us get our dark impulses out vicariously. It can be fun to see fiendish characters do what they do and get away with it, at least in the short term. Then, of course, they usually get punished in the end, and that gratifies the other side of our natures, the side that wants to see virtue rewarded and evil punished and all that kind of stuff. And just as a practical matter, I think that a good adventure story normally needs a strong villain. You need a powerful force for the heroes to go up against or you have no suspense and no doubt about the outcome.
JMW: And what about the rewards of evil in the context of the fiction? Don’t the bad guys get the best clothes and the best lines?
Richard Lee Byers: Well, they often do, but they’re often like rich people, you know? I mean, it’s like in my Fae Trilogy, ‘The Haunted Lands’ that I did in the ‘Forgotten Realms.’ The evil guy is basically the emperor of this very wealthy kingdom, except he has to kind of share power, and he doesn’t like that, so that precipitates a civil war, and where he’s fighting his peers who are just about as bad as he is.
JMW: How has your background in psychology influenced your characterization and your belief in the possibility of personal redemption?
Richard Lee Byers: Probably less than you might think. I mean, I worked in… I got a degree in psychology, and then I worked in a emergency inpatient psychiatric facility for a number of years, and I think you do pick up some things about how people think, and certainly about how people who are having psychological problems think. But I think that for a fiction writer, a lot more comes from just kind of your sense of empathy and imagination, and your ability to, you know, put yourself in another person’s shoes and think how if you had this set of preconceptions or needs or whatever it might be, how might you behave in such a situation. And I don’t know that my background in psychology taught me that, per se. I think I might actually have gotten a lot more just from knowing the people I knew in real life, so to speak, and in various situations, and actually a lot of reading of good fiction where other writers did the thing I tried to do probably better than I tried to do it, but I’m sure I’ve learned something from them.
JMW: Maybe I put the cart before the horse there. Maybe it was the empathy that drew you to psychology.
Richard Lee Byers: I think it was partly that. It was also…I had the notion that I was gonna need a day job, if I became a writer because the writing profession is really hard to make it, and I really feel like I drew the wrong path. I really feel like it was bad advice today, and not because the writing profession isn’t really hard, but I wound up doing psychology for a number of years, and it was so draining that then when I went home at night I never wrote anything. I now think people are better to know it’s gonna be hard, but just attack it.
JMW: One character who doesn’t appear to need either saving or psychological help is Selden, the hero of ‘This Sword For Hire.’ What was the inspiration behind that character?
Richard Lee Byers: Well, I wanted to write some sword and sorcery, and I’m also kind of a big fan of hard-boiled private eye fiction. So the Selden stories basically combine the two. He’s sort of a troubleshooter in his fantasy milieu, which is this city where it has a bunch of nobles who feud and conspire against each other. And he’s called in solve situations where normally there’s a puzzle to be unraveled, and then at the end, he also has to chop something up with a sword.
JMW: Well, you yourself have a background in fencing, don’t you?
Richard Lee Byers: Yes, I’ve did it for a number of years. And I hate to put it in the past tense because I do wanna get back to it eventually. I haven’t been able to get to the salle to do it for a while. But yeah, I fenced all three weapons. I fenced foil mediocrely, épée maybe a little better than that, saber very badly, but I have fenced all three.
JMW: Oh, so you know what he’s supposed to do when he picks up his sword?
Richard Lee Byers: That’s true, and I’ve read a lot of stuff about the realities of medieval sword play, which of course is very, very different from modern sport fencing where we have these weapons that weigh much, much less than any weapon people actually used in combat, until right up to the end. I guess an épée’s blade is about what maybe a small sword weighed, but which was kind of the last sword before they stopped dueling. But the fact that they’re so light, you know, you can really whip ’em around and do all these fancy things that would get you killed if you were trying to do them with a heavier weapon. And also Aldo Nadi, who was a great 20th-century fencer, pointed out that because fencing is just a game, you can attempt all these very, flashy, risky maneuvers that…you know, the worst thing that happens is the other guy gets the point, whereas, you know, if you tried…in a duel, you’d be much more cautious because, you know, first mistake, the guys kills you.
JMW: Mm-hmm. And most of the swords had edges as well as points.
Richard Lee Byers: That’s true…
Richard Lee Byers: …as does Selden’s sword.
Richard Lee Byers: He fights with a broadsword in a place in time where the nobles, who walk around the city and get in duels and bar fights and stuff, are using lighter weapons more or less like rapiers, but he still has his broadsword because it’s what he used as a mercenary. So it’s the weapon he knows best, and he also can break these lighter swords and hack through armor and stuff and do things that they can’t readily do if the situation comes up.
JMW: And sometimes a well-balanced broadsword will be as useful or as agile, I think is the word I want, as an imbalanced rapier.
Richard Lee Byers: That’s true. He’s actually…I actually was thinking about having that little detail of his character. There was actually an English master of arms who’s one of the people whose memory has come down to us, who lived in an age when they were switching over to rapiers, and he was like a hold-out broadsword guy, so I kind of thought of him as I was writing Selden.
JMW: Oh, cool, cool. You’ve created characters like Selden from the scratch and written books about characters created by others. How do you get into the head of someone else’s character?
Richard Lee Byers: Well, it’s much, much easier for a character that you already enjoy, and I’ve been pretty fortunate. I think I very rarely if ever done a character, an actual character as opposed to a world. There’s kind of levels of shared world writing, right? You can do the world, but it’s all your own characters [inaudible 00:09:38]. Then there’s another level where it’s like “write about this character,” and the characters that I’ve done that are like that…I’ve done, I don’t know, Spider-Man, I’ve done the X-men, and I’ve done Elric, you know, they were all characters I liked. So it wasn’t really that hard. I already appreciated them and kind of felt like I knew what made them tick from reading all the good stories about them that have come before me. The only tricky thing about a character like that is that you can’t change him. You know, you can’t have Wolverine, you know, become a pacifist and swear that he will never pop his claws or cut anybody again and have him still be that way at the end of the story. You could do that, but you’d have to flip him back. So, assuming that you wanna do something with these characters other than pit them against a strictly external kind of threat, that you wanna have some level of emotional conflict, you gotta have an emotional arc that they can go through and that feels like it means something, but at the end of the story it hasn’t really changed them and they’re the same guy, so the next writer can pick them up.
JMW: What are you working on now?
Richard Lee Byers: Okay, I just signed to do a sword and sorcery novel which is also gonna be a historical fantasy novel for Cohesion Press. I just signed to do it, I guess I should probably write it someday. I’m doing a…I’ve been doing a bunch of work creating content for a big kind of space opera, science fiction board game that’s gonna come out from WizKids next year. It’s gonna come out from WizKids, but it’s actually…my friend’s the game design of Samurai Sheepdog are creating it, and they’ve licensed it through. So I created a bunch of story content for them which the game designers then take and convert into stuff that people can actually play through with the mechanics. It’s gonna be a really cool game, it’s called Beyond The Edge. And let me see, I’m gonna be doing in the very near future a bunch of fiction for Fancy Flight Games that’s set in their world, their cyberpunk game. Some of that will be published in the new source book for that world, and it’ll be kind of like, you know, adding color to it, you know, giving a sense of it to go with all the game mechanics and stuff. And then they also just hired me, or they’re also gonna have me do a novella which is set in that world. So that’s gonna be interesting for me because I’m normally a fantasy and horror, so science fiction is a fun change of pace.
JMW: Cool. Is there anything you’d like to add?
Richard Lee Byers: Read my stuff. You can find it all on Amazon. Anybody that’s interested in what I natter on about, my random thoughts or whatever, I’m on Facebook, I’m on Twitter. Anybody’s welcome to friend me, follow me, whatever and I hope they do.
JMW: Great. Well, thank you, Richard.
Richard Lee Byers: Well, you’re welcome. It was great here.
Jean Marie Ward writes fiction, nonfiction and everything in between, including art books, novels (2008 Indie Book double-finalist With Nine You Get Vanyr), and short stories such as WSFA Small Press Award finalist “Lord Bai’s Discovery” and “Personal Demons” in the award-winning anthology Hellebore and Rue. Her videos include author interviews and tutorials.
With me today is, Richard Lee Byers, the author of ‘This Sword For Hire,’ ‘The Vampire’s Apprentice,’ and many popular titles in the ‘Forgotten Realms,’ ‘Pathfinder,’ and ‘Iron Kingdoms’ universes. Welcome, Richard.