Nathan’s Spoiler-Free Interview with Benjamin Aeveryn
I had the pleasure of asking indie author Benjamin Aeveryn about his debut novel, Salt in the Wound, a post-apocalyptic fantasy perfect for fans of The Last of Us. This interview with Benjamin Aeveryn is spoiler-free, so feel free to give it a read if you want to know more about Ben and Salt in the Wound.
You can also see my review of Salt in the Wound here.
Before we discuss anything else, give our readers the brief elevator pitch for Salt in the Wound. What kinds of readers would be interested in your book?
Inspired by the worlds of The Last of Us, The Witcher, and The First Law, Salt in the Wound is an apocalyptic fantasy with folkloric monsters, magic whisky, and bloodshed over a fortune in salt.
That’s the snappy pitch I use for tweets and the like. There’s also sprinklings of Arthurian legend and a bit of a gaslamp fantasy feel to the parts of the story that take place in the capital. It’s a bit of a genre mash-up but should appeal to anyone who likes the sound of a convergence of grimdark fantasy and dystopian post-apocalyptic fiction.
What was your primary inspiration for writing Salt in the Wound? Was it the sheer amount of gray and rainy days that you get over in the UK?
Oh, for sure. I really love aspects of the environment made fantastical, and it’s something I include a lot in my writing. When I started planning Salt in the Wound, I knew I wanted a big environmental threat that could shape the cultures I was creating. Probably inspired by the ecological/environmental aspects of Dune, Stormlight, etc. I love how alien a world can feel, even ostensibly our real world, with one fantastical tweak to the environment. As you mentioned, living in England made rain the perfect choice.
One thing I really loved about your work is that you didn’t hold the reader’s hand with worldbuilding, but I also never felt lost or confused. How did you navigate the balance between info-dumping and also writing a seamless and engaging writing experience?
Honestly, this is something you have to kind of feel out and you’re never going to make everyone happy. I’m the kind of reader that has a low tolerance for exposition and hand holding, so I naturally lean away from those things in my writing. My preference is to leave implicit clues in the language. That way most of the answers folks might be looking for are there to find if they dig a little deeper in the text, but we don’t lose too much momentum getting into exposition.
I like to leave certain things with a degree of ambiguity, too. The rainwights for example—we do learn a bit more about them in book two, but I never want to explain them to the point where they lose their mystique. I wanted them to be a very real, grounded threat for the characters, while at the same time acting as a loose metaphor for the climate crisis. It would be easy to include a scene where Galahad unearths a book, say, that tells him the rainwights were created 300 years ago by a wizard trying to purify the rain with magic, but they lost control of the spell and accidentally created the rainwights (this isn’t canon, haha, just an example off the top of my head). The problem with something like that is it explains everything a little too neatly and makes the metaphorical aspects painfully explicit. You likely won’t ever find such broad strokes in my worldbuilding. I’d rather devote that extra page-space to examining my characters’ mental states. The trade-off is that occasionally some readers might feel a little confused, but I’d rather that than have them be bored.
You have described your book as being grimdark. What does that term mean to you and why do you consider Salt in the Wound to be grimdark?
I’m an active member on the Facebook group Grimdark Fiction Readers & Writers and the question “What is grimdark?” often comes up, but is never satisfactorily answered. It means different things to different people, but my personal understanding has always been that it applies to fantasy told from a perspective of—if not realism, per se—then authenticity. Rather than being simply bleak, I lean towards gritty fantasy with a spark of hope. My characters are the shade of morally grey where I believe they’re mostly good inside, but are victims of their own greed, impulsiveness, etc. I try to make them human.
In short, grimdark for me just means not holding back when necessary. I don’t set out to make things as grim as possible, but when violence, sex, drug use, foul language, etc. naturally appear in the text, I don’t censor them. I let them play out as authentically as I can.
Where did the financial and symbolic importance of salt in the novel come from? In other words, why salt as the main instigator for the conflict in the book?
This is one of those nerdy things that stuck in my mind for ages, haha. Salt is super important for the human body and so has this inherent value. It’s cheap in our society because it’s so easy to come by, but in a world where mining is largely impossible, it becomes scarce, and therefore valuable. In medieval times, for example, salt had a much higher value than it does today, and I wanted to push that to a hyperbolic extreme. There are many things that would be valuable in a world where much of the industry we enjoy today has been lost, but salt felt like the most interesting choice as it’s a universal human need.
There are a lot of references (both direct and implicit) to King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table in Salt in the Wound. When did you decide to include these references and what role did you see them playing in the story?
The Arthurian references came early on and are mostly there to bolster some of the themes, as well as giving Galahad a strong throughline from early childhood to adulthood. The Galahad of legend is, of course, the one who finds the Holy Grail (a role filled by Percival in earlier tellings), and I liked the idea of a young treasure hunter taking on that mantle as a kind of promise to himself that he would find something of equal value.
It also helps create this sense of a “second dark ages” preceding the events of the book. There’s this gap in history after the fall of the modern world. A lot of our modern books are made with a kind of paper that deteriorates easily (or are stored digitally), whereas older works published on parchment, or paper made from linen, cotton, etc. have little trouble lasting for centuries. It was interesting to me that the modern world could be decaying all around these characters, but they know so little about it, while at the same time having the legends of King Arthur perfectly preserved.
Salt in the Wound feels more “fantasy” than many other post-apocalyptic stories that have “supernatural” elements (like The Last of Us, The Walking Dead, etc.). How did you calibrate making this feel like a “realistic” (for lack of a better term) post-apocalyptic London while also bringing in those more fantastical elements?
A couple of things helped for this. Firstly, being set in Britain instantly removes all the pesky guns and gives me access to British dialects (and the old kingdoms of Britain) that naturally feel more at home in a classically fantasy setting. Then the rainwights are important too. Forcing people to live in these small sheltered settlements means no mines, no power stations. No gunpowder. I don’t think it’s mentioned in the book, but the oil lamps burning in New London are meant to be all biofuel, not fossil fuel. Sometimes the book feels unsettlingly anachronistic, but that’s deliberate. I enjoyed having our contemporary world—decayed and crumbling, juxtaposed against a new “medieval” period. It’s an inversion of our current world where medieval castles are the ones crumbling.
You have a free novella with your newsletter that is set in the same world as Salt in the Wound but that is set in (roughly) Victorian times. What is the relationship between this novella and Salt in the Wound? Which idea came first?
Salt in the Wound was actually written first, though Blackcap was released first. They take place around the same time in-universe, though Blackcap has a much more Victorian feel to it. My inspiration for this came partially from Joe Abercrombie’s Great Leveller trilogy where each book feels like it comes from a distinctly different time period even though they all take place roughly around the same time, just in different locations. In Salt in the Wound we spend most of our time in the medieval feeling rural communities, whereas Blackcap is almost entirely in the Victorian feeling capital. It’s more a difference of fashions and cultural customs than technology. This was also partly based on modern Britain, where London is very metropolitan and fashionable, but there are rural communities that feel like you’re stepping back 50, even 100 years. It’s a side of Britain not often shown in films/tv, but it’s there. The best way to describe the overall setting would probably be to say the technology and fashions are similar to 1800s Britain, but without access to electricity, oil, coal, and gunpowder. That’s a bit of a mouthful, so I call it “medieval-like” when I don’t have a high character count to get my point across, as that lets people know “this is a book with sword fighting and no electricity”.
What is the future for the Rainfallen series? How many books are you planning? Do you hope to write any other novellas set in different time periods or parts of this world?
There will be a trilogy of novels, I can say that for sure. I’m calling the trilogy Whisky & Vengeance. I have a few other plans but nothing 100% concrete. I’ve got a couple of Rainfallen novella ideas floating around and also potentially another full trilogy, set a couple of decades later. It all depends how things go over the next couple of years and whether I feel like there’s more story to tell.
On Twitter you have mentioned that you are autistic and also use he/they pronouns. Did these aspects of your identity impact your writing or the story you were telling? How so?
I think all aspects of my identity influence my storytelling in different ways. I try to avoid “self-insert” characters, but I definitely add a little of myself to every character. Fay probably has the most of me in her. She’s gender non-conforming and struggles with mental health in ways that are similar to struggles I’ve dealt with in the past. But personality wise we’re very different. It was interesting trying to explore these things that have affected me, or are a part of me, but look at them from a different angle.
What are you currently writing or working on?
Currently drafting the sequel to Salt in the Wound as well as in the early planning stages of another series I plan to start once this trilogy is finished. I won’t say too much on the next series just yet, but it looks like it’s going to have solarpunk elements…