Jeff Salyards: Finding Magic & Living Fantasy

Photo: Jeff Salyards

Dark epic fantasy author and fellow geek Jeff Salyards was kind enough to share this post with me when I asked him what it was like taking his little girls to a Renaissance Faire (and, of course, a bit about his writing life). Jeff is the author of the Bloodsounder’s Arc series from Night Shade Books, including Scourge of the Betrayer, Veil of the Deserters, and next year’s Chains of the Heretic. Welcome Jeff!


In the last year I’ve done several guest blog posts about violence and grief, lots of interviews fielding questions about grimness and depravity and pain. About as uplifting as blunt trauma or seasonal affect disorder. I realize I have no one to blame for this but myself–Scourge of the Betrayer is hardly sun showers and rainbows. But today, I’m going to cover some different territory. Something more whimsical and pure, something alluring and childlike, ground that is, dare I say, a wee bit enchanted.

We’ve been taking the kids to the Bristol Renaissance Faire for a few years now. They are six, four, and two, so the perfect ages to appreciate the troubadours, pirates, knights, jugglers, acrobats, gypsies, sirens, lords and ladies, and the odd vampire, zombie, Shrek, and of course the wildly misunderstood patrons who finally have an opportunity to let their bizarre banners blaze in the sun.

Having spent most of my formative years tromping through the woods in silly costumes pretending to be a hero or a goblin (or sometimes a goblin hero), playing D&D, reading far too much science fiction and fantasy for my own good, and generally imagining myself into so many other worlds and realms I routinely fell up stairs or walked into walls or had to have the question repeated two or three times, I am all too familiar with geeky and nerdy impulses and behavior. And a place like the Ren Faire is a perfect venue for likeminded people who dig that sort of thing to congregate for a lovely (or sweltering, or storming–it is the Midwest, after all) summer day. While all the folks who work and perform at Bristol are done to the nines as expected, gaudy and wonderful in velvets and wools, brocades and beadwork, scarves and corsets and leather, plenty of patrons show up in marvelous, elaborate, and in some cases ridonkulous costumes as well. (I’ve already had to have the chainmail bikini conversation with my daughters). The place does attract a unique crowd.

But there are countless Fairgoers who might never have rolled a twenty-sider in their lives, who haven’t dressed up as someone else since Halloween as a grade-schooler, but still flock there to hoist giant turkey legs and take in all the sights and sounds. They could have gone to Gurnee Mills just down the road, or Great America a little further, or a billion places in Chicago or Milwaukee–but they choose to spend the day watching mud men and listening to drum circles, oohing at stilt walkers and cheering on belly dancers and singers. Regardless of who they are or where they come from, whether they LARP or play CRPGS or have no idea what those acronyms mean and couldn’t care less, everyone who walks through the front gate of the Faire comes for the unusual, some as a break from their every day lives, some as a continuation of it. But they come for the wonder and laughter and the opportunity to hear pipers and watch glassblowers and see some falconry and live some fantasy.

Nothing captures this so well as my first time taking my two-year old daughter there (then an only child). She was wide-eyed and mystified as she looked around, amazed by the sensory overload of the place. Ribbons and tassels and sashes and eye patches, big snorting stallions and tight-fitting corsets, woad face paint and thigh high leather boots, puppets and big beards, limericks and madrigal chorus, whips cracking and the crash of lance on shield, charred meat and the wafting smells of sweat and dung and spilled beer heavy in the air. She did a hundred things for the first time that day–rode a pony, picked up a violin, had her face painted.

But the most remarkable thing, the thing I will always remember for the rest of my days, was watching her walk through “The Enchanted Forest.” It’s an area set aside for wonderful actors who are primarily dressed up as fairies–water, woodland, air, fire, spider, etc.–to play with and entertain kids. Their costumes are crazy-involved and still elemental and simple, with perfectly applied makeup and body paint, leaves and twigs and bells and baubles and all kinds of artistic, gorgeous flourishes. They are fantastic in every sense of the world.

And the shtick they all stick to is they interact with the kids who visit the area, but not with words. The fairies smile and pull faces, trade pine cones for grass clippings, pat heads, and beckon, but they don’t speak to the children, even when spoken to.

I was worried Gabrielle might be a little freaked out, and we’d have to usher her away to another pony ride or something, but she loved it. Which was great. But it ended up being so much more than that. While other kids, most of them older, came for a bit and then moved on, Gabi was totally absorbed, hunkered down next to the fairies, watching every gesture and expression, as locked in as I’d ever seen her with anything. This went way beyond focused. She seemingly understood the rules of engagement immediately and honored them completely, too–this girl, who loved words and couldn’t wait to learn and try out a new one, suddenly sat in total silence and rapture with the fairies the entire time they were together.

Photo: Jeff Salyards

I stood to the side and watched as she gravitated to one fairy in particular. The fairy handed Gabi a small stone; Gabi turned it over in her hand, held it up to the sun to inspect it, and then handed the fairy a torn leaf or piece of string. The fairy traced the edge of her finger across Gabi’s cheek; Gabi reached up, and gently traced a finger across the fairy’s leafy wing. This went on for ages. They shared smiles and secret little exchanges. And I was nearly as mesmerized watching her as she was interacting with this strange new creature.

And then, sometimes a little slow on the uptake and still new to the whole parenting thing, it hit me. Gabrielle didn’t see a gifted actress in front of her, or make up or props, or any artifice at all. This girl, this creature, WAS a fairy to Gabrielle, just as if she’d stepped out of a storybook. She was a special being from a special place, and somehow Gabi intuited that the spell would last only as long as she maintained the silence. And watching them interact like that was almost like seeing a portal open myself. It really was magical and beautiful, and I realized that this moment would never come again, not exactly like this.

There were other things we wanted to see and do, but my wife and I didn’t want to be the ones to break the spell. We let Gabi stay in the glade as long as she wanted. Which was a very long time. Like, nearly forever. But it was fantastic, every minute of it. Some parents of older kids who weren’t nearly as enchanted noticed Gabi and the fairy and commented on it. One dad said, “Been coming here a long time with the family. Never seen anything like that. That’s something real special, right there.”

He wasn’t wrong.

When Gabi finally had her fill, stood up, and walked over to us, finally remembering that she had parents and a life outside the Enchanted Forest, my wife asked her if she had a good time. Gabi nodded, still seemingly under the spell.

I asked her what she was doing with the fairies.

Gabi looked over at the fairy and then replied, “We were talking things.”

And it gave me goosebumps. And I don’t get those. Don’t even like them. But there was something about the whole thing that was so sublime and surreal, so wonderful, I’m sure I’m failing to do it justice. But it was awesome.

Photo: Jeff Salyards

Now, what does this have to do with fiction, especially sword and sorcery/heroic fantasy? Well, maybe nothing, maybe everything. OK, most likely several notches closer to nothing. But hear me out.

It goes without saying, really, but fantasy is fueled by imagination, whether white-hot or fey and frosty. I mean, sure, all fiction is, and some would argue all non-fiction, too. But fantasy, regardless of the subgenre, requires a more potent injection of the wild, the bizarre, the horrific, the wondrous. The fantastic. Or else it would be crime drama or a cozy mystery or some other thing (see, I told you it was self-evident).

Even in fantasy that frequently gets categorized as dark and gritty, or low-magic, full of grime and shady characters, dark dealings and double-crosses, betrayal and revenge, filled with misogyny and hate crimes and torture and every other awful thing we see in our own real world, at the end of the day it has fantastic elements, at least on the edges, or infused in there somewhere. It’s fantasy, after all. See obvious point above.

And that day at the Faire, seeing my daughter tap into that creative place, so effortlessly, so fully, it amazed me, and made me a little jealous, really. Sometimes, all the gears get gunked up with other stuff (bills or flooded basements, characters that won’t cooperate or narratives that are all knotted up, or a thousand other things that seem to conspire to constipate the imagination, to poison the well). Some days, writing a fantasy story feels like the least natural thing in the world.

But it’s still in there, that same fascination, that same ability to explore, and willingness to allow transportation to another realm to happen. Sure, it might come easier to a little person who hasn’t overcomplicated things, or subjugated them, or become burdened by responsibilities and problems and information. Suspending disbelief is simple at that age, because believing is first and second nature, and the wee ones haven’t mastered cynicism.

But even to us old(er) folks, sometimes stymied and saddened, it’s never lost entirely. Buried, sure, maybe even broken a little. But it can be fixed, found, rekindled. It’s what draws droves to the Ren Faire every weekend in the summer, or makes millions buy Martin or Hobb or Abercrombie or Le Guin. The desire to discover the fantastic, in any one of its myriad guises.

Every writer has a different process, but for me, waiting for the muse, for inspiration to swoop in, for a spontaneous (or even summoned) lighting strike to kick things off, is a doomed proposition. Basically setting myself up for failure or a total lack of production. This last year, working on Veil of the Deserters, no longer in a vacuum or writing solely for myself, I’ve had to write whether I felt like it or not. When the writing is halting or painful, and I’m paralyzed by fear or anxiety, and the heavy uncertainty of it all, and I’m tempted to run off and do a thousand other less masochistic things, I just have to give myself permission to suck and keep on keeping on so I can at least get something on the page to work with.

It’s no great epiphany or guiding star or chakra-resetting mindbend or anything. But it does help (me anyway). I have no hair to pull out, but when I’m struggling with my fiction so much I want to punch a wall, either unable to find inspiration or completely dissatisfied with what I’m creating, and especially if I feel like I don’t have it in me to find my way, I try to remember that summer afternoon at the Faire. And how cool it was to witness unfettered imagination at play. Watching my daughter play with a real live fairy.

And then I smile. And unclench. And take a few deep breaths. And maybe drink another beer. And try again. Try harder. Write through the lapse or lull, just write, knowing that sooner or later, the bullshit will fade and the writer’s block will crumble and it will all work out, so long as I keep punching those keys. I know the wellspring is down there–I just have to keep digging.

I’ve seen firsthand the power of the imagination. And it is greater than any distraction or issue or setback or panic. You might have to encourage it more as an adult, fight harder to make it happen, look harder to rediscover it, dig deeper, but the imagination that allows you to believe in magic and the fantastic is still there.

And it trumps everything.

jeff-salyards-headshot-colo1Jeff Salyards grew up in a small town north of Chicago. While it wasn’t Mayberry, it was quiet and sleepy, so he got started early imagining his way into other worlds that were loud, chaotic, and full of irrepressible characters. While he ultimately moved away, he never lost his fascination for the fantastic. Though his tastes have grown a bit darker and more mature over the years.

Jeff lives near Chicago with his wife and three daughters. By day, he is a book editor for the American Bar Association; by night, he will continue to crank out novels as long as there are readers willing to read them.

Melanie R. Meadors is the author of fantasy and science fiction stories where heroes don’t always carry swords and knights in shining armor often lose to nerds who study their weaknesses. She’s been known to befriend wandering garden gnomes, do battle with metal-eating squirrels, and has been called a superhero on more than one occasion. Her work has been published in Circle Magazine, The Wheel, and Prick of the Spindle, and she was a finalist in the 2014 Jim Baen Memorial Science Fiction Contest. Melanie is also a freelance author publicist and publicity/marketing coordinator for both Ragnarok Publications and Mechanical Muse. She blogs regularly for GeekMom and The Once and Future Podcast. Her short story “A Whole-Hearted Halfling” is in the anthology Champions of Aetaltis, available April 12, 2016.