Richard Lee Byers is back! Okay, he never left. He’s been publishing up a storm with Ed Greenwood’s The Forgotten Realms series, along with the Black Dogs series with Privateer Press. But today, he’s back with his third ROTHCO PRESS release. THIS SWORD FOR HIRE. We caught up with him the far off lands of Florida…
Classic first interview questions: what is the first book you read that made you think, “I have got to write something like this someday!”
The Master Mind of Mars by Edgar Rice Burroughs, I found it on a bookshelf in my grandparents’ house when I was quite young. I’m still writing stories full of swordplay, monsters, and exotic locales, so clearly, the story made a lasting impression.
Tell me about your new ROTHCO PRESS book: THIS SWORD FOR HIRE.
This Sword for Hire collects all the sword-and-sorcery tales I’ve written to date about my character Selden. He’s a former mercenary and a master swordsman who settles down in Balathex, a city like the Verona of Romeo and Juliet with magic and supernatural creatures thrown into the mix, to be a fencing teacher and ends up working as a troubleshooter for the city’s noble families on the side. Usually something both mysterious and dangerous is going on, and it takes a combination of sleuthing acumen and combat prowess to set it right.
Where did you get the idea about Selden?
I was invited to contribute a story to a fantasy anthology and had to come up with some sort of plot and a protagonist to inhabit it. Because I like both mystery and heroic fantasy, I worked up a premise that combined the two, and because I like private eye stories of writers like Raymond Chandler, I decided my hero/first-person narrator would be a bit like Philip Marlowe. The fencing master part got in there because I like fencing and because I didn’t want the anachronism of my guy hanging out a shingle as an actual fulltime PI.
What do you like the most about writing fantasy and creating a new universe?
I like all the color and exotica and the sense that any wild and crazy thing can happen (as long as you don’t break your own rules and contradict yourself.) Fantasy and science fiction fans sometimes talk about the “sense of wonder,” and that’s what I’m trying to stir as a writer and hoping to feel as a reader.
What’s the main challenge you found in separating your characters from others before them?
It’s very difficult indeed to create a character radically different from any who came before, and most writers don’t most of the time. You can make yourself crazy and come up with ludicrous results trying. I think it’s often a better approach to decide what characters will work well in a particular story, then try to portray them with a certain amount of depth and trust that your own unique voice and perspective will make them seem like unique individuals.
On the other hand, sometimes it does work to ask yourself what kind of protagonist most of the other writers in your genre are working with and how you might change that up in an interesting way.
Eventually, I think, you develop a sort of internal alarm that tells you when characters have too little to distinguish them from their predecessors. It occurs to you that, really, this is just Spider-Man’s origin retold, or this guy is just Sam Gamgee without the hairy feet. And then you know you have more work to do.
How does Selden’s universe differ from what you’ve written about in Forgotten Realms?
The Forgotten Realms is a huge fantasy world created by Ed Greenwood and developed by him and many others in hundreds of stories, sourcebooks, and what have you comprising millions of words and written over decades, As a result, the Realms are incredibly detailed and can provide a setting for globetrotting epic trilogies and the like, although those aren’t what Ed actually had in mind when he was starting out.
Honestly, Selden’s world is considerably less developed. I know Balathex, Selden’s city, and the countryside around it in some detail, have some general notions about the continent beyond, and that’s pretty much it. I make up new stuff as I need it.
Selden’s world doesn’t need to be as fully developed because I’m telling the sort of short stories I am, tales like the episodes of a TV show (one where you don’t have to watch every episode or watch in order, not the novel-for-television serial type.) If I ever do decide to star Selden in a Games of Thrones-style extravaganza, I’ll have to do all that development work, but for now, I’m happy having his adventures be more like a sword-and-sorcery version of a CSI or NCIS.
Once you create a character and a universe, does it take on a life on its own?
Yes, in the sense that your imagination keeps playing with whatever you created, often on an unconscious level, and you sometimes feel an itch to return to that character and/or world and bang out a new story.
What do you like the most about Selden?
He’s a blend of pragmatism and principle in the classic PI mode. He’s not on a crusade to change the world. As a mercenary, he saw too many crusades fail in one way or another and is now just trying to live his life. But he’s got ethics, compassion, and courage, and he’ll risk his life if a situation warrants it.
Tell us about your love of fencing. How did that inspire your character?
No doubt my enthusiasm for fencing originally came from my fondness for Burroughs’s Mars novels, sword-and-sorcery fiction, and swashbuckling historical adventure books and movies like The Three Musketeers and The Mark of Zorro. When I tried the sport myself, many years ago, I discovered that it truly is a whole lot of fun, and I learned things I could incorporate into the combat scenes of my own fantasy fiction. Or even the non-combat scenes. Sorcery and such aside, Selden is very much in the mold of the proprietor of a real-world European fencing academy back in the days when dueling was in vogue.
What are you currently working on and what can fans expect in the future?
I’m currently under contract to do three fantasy novels for Privateer Press. The first, Black Dogs, is already out. The second, Black Crowns, comes out in September. The third (untitled as yet, but the smart money is on Black [Something]) will be along eventually.
A bunch of short stories have sold and will be appear in various anthologies in due course.
Beyond that…well, frustratingly, some deals aren’t finalized yet, and I’m not sure how much I should say about other certain projects, bound by Non-Disclosure Agreements as I am. I should probably just tell you there are more books to come as well as other some other cool stuff and leave it at that.
If given the power to greenlight a summer blockbuster, what unrepresented or “unknown” (to the mainstream, at least) science fiction or fantasy book or series would you love to see on the big screen?
I’m a lifelong Roger Zelazny fan and would love to see his novel Lord of Light or his Amber series done properly.
Are there any new books or authors in science fiction or fantasy (or both!) have you excited? What are you reading right now?
I’m not sure if these guys really still count as new horror authors or are simply fairly new to me, but I’ve become a big fan of John Langan and Paul Tremblay. I’m currently reading Full Wolf Moon, the new Jeremy Logan novel by Lincoln Child.