Interview with Brian Naslund (BLOOD OF AN EXILE)
Brian Naslund was born and raised in Baltimore, Maryland, where he never quite learned to love crab cakes. When he’s not writing, he’s usually griping about video games on Twitter, hiking with his dog, Lola, or whitewater kayaking in the mountains. The last activity makes his mother very nervous.
Blood of an Exile is his debut novel, and the first in The Dragons of Terra series.
Hi Brian, thank you for giving me the opportunity to have a chat with you!
Thanks for having me, I’m excited to be here.
Firstly congratulations on your debut release! How does it feel to have Blood of an Exile out there in bookstores across the world?
It’s a bit surreal. On the U.S. release date, I headed over to my local bookstore to see it “out in the wild.” It’s a bit of an uncanny valley moment to see your own book on the shelf with your name scrawled across it. It feels amazing but also quite odd.
But, emotional weirdness aside, publishing a book is a childhood dream come true, which feels incredible. My second childhood dream of owning a jet-pack is still forthcoming.
Haha! You’ll get there one day, I’m sure!
So, could you tell us a bit about your novel? What can readers expect?
Readers can expect a fast-paced story with loads of dragons, nature, sword fights, funny campfire banter, and some touching/heartbreaking moments as well.
To get a bit more specific, the story follows the dragonslayer Silas Bershad, aka the Flawless Bershad (a very ironic nickname, as he has a strong penchant for booze, mayhem, and catastrophic injuries).
In my world, dragonslayers have notoriously short careers. Most don’t last a week. But the Flawless Bershad has survived for fourteen years and killed dozens of dragons, which has turned him into a bit of a living legend. As the story gets going, Bershad is given a chance at redemption from the king who exiled him. All he needs to do is cross the sea, traverse a mountainous wilderness, rescue a princess, and kill an emperor.
Along the way, he’ll make friends, meet old enemies, and the reader will learn more about the secret that’s kept him alive for all these years. (It’s more than luck.)
Who were your favourite characters to write and why? My personal favourites were Bershad and Felgor, the banter between those two was brilliant!
I like your style. I would say that Bershad felt the most natural to write—once I had his sarcastic, grumpy disposition in my head, I loved writing his scenes. But, Felgor was probably the most fun.
I think this was because Felgor’s different from the other characters in an important way. Everyone else in the story has at least some kind of direction, agenda, or—for lack a better description—something that confines their behavior. That could be honor, duty, love, guilt, vision, or run-of-the-mill sadism. But they all have a guiding force.
Felgor, on the other hand, is a complete wild card. He’s a thief who got pulled out of a dungeon to help Bershad and crew with a specific task, but he’s mostly out to cause mischief. And characters who just want to stir shit up are extremely fun to write.
And they’re so much fun to read about too!
So, I’m very interested in world building, as I’m sure a lot of other readers are, and I love how dark and brutal you made the world of Terra. Could you explain a bit about your world building process please? What sparked your imagination?
I started Blood of an Exile with a tiny kernel of a story: A hungover guy has to go slay a dragon that day.
As I was writing that initial scene, I wanted to make it as realistic as possible (just, you know, with a dragon in it). That perspective kept me focused on the gritty details of my action sequences, but it also got me thinking about the role dragons would play in the world, if they were real. This is what really sparked the idea for the larger world.
I wasn’t super interested in mythical dragons who guard treasure and speak in riddles. I wanted them to be these massive and dangerous animals. Apex predators. That would mean they’d have a critical role in the ecosystems in which they live. And, keeping with the realism, most megafauna have been historically over-hunted by humans. So, I started exploring the implications of removing apex predators from environments, which is quite damaging.
Indeed, the environmental issues you raised in Blood of an Exile was a theme I found so fascinating.
There’s this interesting documentary about the wolves in Yellowstone—and how their removal caused a cascade of problems (unhealthy rivers, trees, and overpopulation of certain animals). I thought that was interesting, but the cool thing about fantasy is that you can make up whatever you want. So instead of eroded rivers and overcrowded elk, I envisioned this dragon-less landscape where a bunch of monkeys have gone cannibalistic and insane because their natural predator is gone, and now that’s “monkey territory” and humans can’t go there anymore.
So, in summary, I suppose my world building strategy is one part dirty, intimate details full of sweat and sore feet, and two parts conjured dragon facts I based off real biology, but twisted around to entertain my slightly disturbed imagination.
Which authors would you say have influenced you most? Are there any authors you would love to collaborate with?
As an early reader, Bernard Cornwell was a huge influence. I loved his Warlord Chronicles trilogy, and think those books instilled in me the notion you can take mythical characters (Arthur, Merlin, Lancelot) but ground them in reality.
George R. R. Martin was definitely my gateway drug into “modern” fantasy, and I would say that Joe Abercrombie and Scott Lynch influenced me the most as a writer. I love Abercrombie’s action sequences and dialogue, and Lynch’s vibrant worlds and cities.
I can definitely see a Joe Abercrombie and Scott Lynch vibe in your writing, with your own fresh voice too, which is great.
As for authors I’d love to collaborate with, that’s tricky because I’m so new to the scene and there are so many amazing authors I’d be honored to work with (and by honored, I mean fan-boying so hard I might have a seizure.)
But, I think it could be quite fun to collaborate with a hard sci-fi author, and work on some kind of fantasy-science hybrid story. As I alluded to in my world-building spiel, I’m attracted to stories that are 90% based in reality, but take a big long walk into the old imagination for that last 10% to come up with something crazy and cool.
Collaborating with someone who understands physics more than me (in the sense that they understand it at all) could definitely lead to some deranged and entertaining ideas.
What piece of advice have you found the most useful (or even least useful) during the writing process?
I’m going to cheat and mention two. In terms of getting a novel done, I benefited a huge amount from writing every day, and always writing at the same time and place (for me, that was my morning bus commute for several years). Carving out a consistent part of your life that is “for writing” and guarding it like a grumpy dragon was crucial, and I was very terse and rude to fellow bus drivers who asked what I was writing (sorry!).
In terms of writing a good story: question all the decisions you made in the first draft, no matter how much rewriting you’re going to create for yourself. Nothing is immutable. Always challenge yourself to think of a better idea, even if it’s a scene you like.
Oddly enough, I believe I picked up that advice from a YouTube video about why the early seasons of the Simpsons were so good. Apparently, the writers would typically run through 20+ drafts of each joke they wrote, which is why the final product was so layered.
I don’t have a writers room, but I do have a large capacity for self-doubt and an amazing editor, which works pretty well.
If your book was to be adapted to television or film who would you cast for the main characters? Personally I’d cast Tom Hardy for Bershad, but let’s face it, I’d cast Tom Hardy in everything if I could!
You beat me to the Tom Hardy punch! I think he would make a killer Bershad, too. If you take his shaggy, pre-Warboy trim in Mad Max: Fury Road—dreadlocks and all—then add some face tattoos, you’ve pretty much got Bershad. Agreed!
For Felgor, I think Danny Pudi would be perfect. He’s got the mischievous grin and humor down pat, but he also has the acting range to dip into loyalty and tenderness, which Felgor definitely needs.
I’ve always pictured Ashlyn as Rosemarie Dewitt because of her perfect squint/stare expression while she’s figuring things out.
I think Michael Hogan could do a great Rowan.
All great choices, Brian!
What are some of your favourite movies or TV series? (Please say Stranger Things!)
Stranger Things for sure! I think that Season 1 is some of the tightest plotting, characterization, and general writing that I’ve ever seen. I re-watch it for inspiration an embarrassing amount.
I love HBO’s The Wire. I was born and raised in Baltimore, so it automatically has a soft spot in my heart, but it’s also some of the best writing you can find anywhere. Period. Full stop. I actually think that all five seasons are a good model for an epic fantasy series: ensemble cast but everyone has a complete narrative arc, and each season tackles a distinctly different issue, while staying true to the big underlying themes of dysfunction amidst big systems/groups of people. Incredible.
To stay on the HBO train a moment longer, like most of the world, I watched Game of Thrones with great passion. I will sidestep my thoughts on the final few seasons and instead say that Season 1 was a masterpiece, as was the Arya/Hound storyline in Season 4. I think that the Hound’s fight with Brienne at the end of that season is the best fight in fantasy, and one place where the show improved on the books. (Find and fight me on Twitter (@BrianNasl) if you disagree. I have many thoughts on this.)
For movies, I’m a big Michael Mann fan, with my favourites being Collateral (for the Cruise/Foxx chemistry) and Heat (for the action sequences and the diner scene).
I am also very impressed with Taylor Sheridan’s stuff. Sicario is my favorite movie that he’s written, but Hell or High Water is a very close second. Chris Pine and Ben Foster killed it in their roles as brothers.
Ooh Hell or High Water was an amazing movie, 100% agree the brothers were so good!
I think it’s safe to say for those who have read your book that we all loved the dragons, and appreciated that you included an appendix on the various species. Was it difficult to come up with the specifications and characteristics of each species?
This is a funny story. When my agent first agreed to represent my book, one of the things that she suggested was that I write an appendix for all the dragons I mentioned throughout the story. I think she meant for me to take a day or two to list them and jot down short notes.
Cut to like three weeks later, and all I’ve done is nerd out on my dragon appendix. I became an amateur (and pretty bad) bird watcher for inspiration with names and behavior. (For example, a Yellow-Throated Warbler became a Needle-Throated Verdun). I also performed stupid amounts of internet research to determine heart weights, and would mark the dragon lengths in strides with tape in the bus station, then proceed to ask strangers if they thought that was big enough to be a really scary dragon (Red Skull). I’m surprised nobody called security on me.
So, to answer your question, it wasn’t hard necessarily…but that’s because I took it wayyyyyy too far and spent huge amounts of time on it. I love animals in general and have a low-key addiction to reading animal facts on Wikipedia, so this felt like making up my own Wikipedia pages and I couldn’t get enough.
It really reflects in your book how much you enjoyed researching.
And what are some of your other favourite fantastical creatures/monsters?
Dragons are definitely my number one. Behind them, the kraken is probably my second favorite from “classical” lore. Something about a massive creature lurking in the deep is decidedly cool.
I’m also a huge Final Fantasy fan, and love all the creatures in those games. Cactuars, Moogles, and the Minotaur brothers from FF8 being my favourites.
What can readers expect to see in your sequel? (Come on spill some secrets, we won’t tell anyone!)
I must tread very carefully to avoid spoilers! I will say this, the final chapter of Blood of an Exile introduces a completely new element to the world of Terra, and a big part of the sequel is exploring the implications of that element. Anyone who finishes the book will know what I’m talking about!
On a more general note, the sequel digs deeper into a lot of characters as they explore the world and themselves. We’ll see more of the Dainwood, Balaria, and Papyria. There is also no shortage of people wandering through dangerous wildernesses, bullshitting by campfires, and getting attacked from the shadows by unfriendly actors.
And lastly, just to get to know you a bit better, I must ask a very important question… what’s your favourite type of chocolate?
A very important question indeed. For many years, I was a dark chocolate loyalist. I have what can generously be described as a barbaric palate (black coffee, hoppy/bitter beer that tastes like a kick in the face) and my chocolate preference falls right in line.
But, about a year ago on a whim I grabbed a hazelnut/caramel/sea salt situation, and became fully addicted. Sometimes I still dabble in my bitter chocolate past, but sweet caramel is my jam these days.
Can’t go wrong with caramel!
Thank you again Brian for taking the time to do this interview! I for one can’t wait to read more of your books.
Blood of an Exile is out now!