Interview with R.A. Salvatore20 min read
R.A. Salvatore’s books have sold more than 10,000,000 copies. His first published novel, The Crystal Shard from TSR, was the first volume of the acclaimed Icewind Dale Trilogy. More importantly, this novel introduced Drizzt Do’Urden to the world, one of the most popular characters in all of fantasy literature.
His latest is Neverwinter: Neverwinter Saga, Book II. With the last of his trusted companions having fallen, Drizzt is alone—and free—for the first time in almost a hundred years. Guilt mingles with relief, leaving Drizzt uniquely vulnerable to the persuasions of his newest companion—Dahlia, a darkly alluring elf and the only other member of their party to survive the cataclysm at Mount Hotenow.
Beware of minor spoilers (nothing from the new book, though).
Stephanie Jacob conducted this interview via telephone in late September 2011.
Stephanie Jacob: So often in fiction, especially the genres of fantasy and science fiction, we see women portrayed as minor characters, serving no real purpose. In your work the women have great power. They are extremely dangerous and essential to the plot. Especially the female dark elves who are so brutal and at the top of the socio-political structure. What made you decide to go against the grain and create these wonderful female characters?
R.A. Salvatore: Well, thank you for saying that. I have often been accused of being an incredibly sexist because my female dark elves are so evil, but my male dark elves are just as evil. First of all I didn’t create the drow society. That goes to Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson and the early creators of Dungeons and Dragons, who decided it was a matriarchal society. But for me that’s great. I have five older sisters so I know about evil women. I’m kidding! I love them dearly. But I have five older sisters and an older brother so I grew up with strong role models.
My wife is a strong woman. She doesn’t need me for anything. My daughter is a strong woman. I wouldn’t have it any other way. My daughter played ice hockey with the boys. Go and play, you know.
When I started in fantasy back in 1988 when my first book came out, book signings were about ninety-five percent white teenage males. Now if you go to one of my book signings you will see it’s multicultural, multi-generational and there are as many women there as men and I love that.
I don’t take all the credit. I don’t even take a fraction of the credit for that. You had writers like C.J. Cherryh, Elaine Cunningham, and Margaret Weis. A lot of the best writers in the genre are women and they forced this genre to grow up. They forced us to get away from the damsel in distress, the chicks in chainmail model and start treating our female characters with as much respect, dignity and strength as the male characters. That’s a good thing… for everybody involved.
SJ: Yes, and your readership grows tremendously. As a woman I’m tired of the characters who can’t think for themselves, the “Please rescue me” types.
Salvatore: Well, you can’t believe early on some of the email I would get about Catti-Brie, because she was developing as her own powerful character. I would get email from young men saying she should give that bow to Drizzt. He’s way cooler than her; she should be pregnant in the kitchen. I literally got an email that said that.
Now I’ve got Dahlia in the new book.
SJ: She’s wonderful. I actually have a lot of questions about her.
Salvatore: From a physical level she doesn’t need anybody to do anything for her. She can take care of herself in a fight. She doesn’t need anyone to lean on. Love the character.
SJ: Earlier you mentioned different generations. I actually met with a friend of mine, Matt, to discuss your books. He’s nineteen years old, and a huge fan of all your work and it just really struck me that someone who wasn’t even born when you wrote the first book has grown up with your stories. It is a constant in the lives of a new generation and has fostered a love of reading. How does that feel to you personally to know you have had such an impact?
Salvatore: Blows my mind to think that most people that pick up The Crystal Shard to read it will be younger than the book. Blows my mind. But how cool is it to go to a book signing and see a grandfather, his son, and his granddaughter there and they are all reading your book. How cool is it to get a letter from a kid that says, “My dad gave me this book to read and now I have something to talk to him about.”
SJ: A teacher was the one who introduced my friend to the books in middle school and he has been reading them ever since and he is like a walking encyclopedia.
Salvatore: That scares me because if I make a mistake they let me know.
SJ: Do you have this little assistant locked up in a back room with books everywhere, the desk covered in piles of paper that you have to ask, “What happened in the first book?” How do you keep it straight?
Salvatore: (laughing) It used to be my sons, but now they have moved out and have their own jobs. It’s hard. I mean when I first did The Servant of the Shard, for the first time Artemis Entreri and Jarlaxle are front and center stage. Jarlaxle is a mean character in the book. In the previous books he had done a cameo. Now he was kind of a walking deus ex machina. No matter what dilemma they were in he had a Batman utility belt and he could pull out the magic items and fix it. That was his role. It was kind of a joke role. I had a lot of fun with him and then I was really excited to have him as a main character in a book and then I went, oh no, I have no idea what this guy has for equipment… what he’s lost, what he’s found, what he’s burned out with too many uses. What am I gonna do? So I went to a message board anonymously and I said, “Hey guys, let’s do a thread inventorying Jarlaxle’s items.” A couple of days later I went back and there was this ten page thread where people were talking about everything he had, what page and what book it was in and they launched into huge discussions about what he might be able to do. So I use my readers, I abuse them. I’m sorry.
It’s hard once you get twenty something books into a twenty-three year old series to remember everything.
Keep in mind I was twenty-eight years old when I started writing this series. I’m fifty-two now.
SJ: Your story is pretty amazing. Twenty some years later and you are so influential. Can you tell us how you got your start?
Salvatore: I had written a book back in 1983 called Echoes of the Fourth Magic. It had been out of print but was published again by a different publisher. I had written this book in the early 80’s. I was trying to get published around 1987 and one of the places I sent it was TSR. They were doing mostly the “Dragonlance” books at that time. But unbeknownst to me they were creating this new world, The Forgotten Realms. Because all of their authors in house were already doing “Dragonlance” books other than Doug Niles, they actually were looking for someone to write the second Forgotten Realms novel. They got my book and while they couldn’t publish that book because they only had room in their schedule for a Forgotten Realms book they asked me if I would audition, if I would want to write a story set in their world. I auditioned in the spring of 1987. I was signed up in July and I had to deliver the book by October 1st.
SJ: That’s a pressure filled situation.
Salvatore: Yeah. I had a three-year-old, a two-year-old, my wife was seven months pregnant and I was working a full time job an hour away from home. I said, “No problem.”
SJ: In the book Gauntalgrym we were talking about Dahlia who is my absolute favorite character. She is so layered and complex but what I really love is that she kicks all kinds of ass. Her weapon of choice, Kozah’s Needle, which can be broken down into so many configurations. Can you describe her fighting style and how she and Drizzt work in harmony when in battle?
Salvatore: Have you ever seen Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon? There is a great scene in there where the young girl and the old woman master are in a circular armory and they keep grabbing different weapons in their battle with each other. It’s an amazing battle scene. I don’t know where they found the choreographer for this but if we ever do a Drizzt movie I want him or her. It was incredible to watch these two go at it. Grabbing different weapons and using them differently and I thought, “Ok, do I want to have a sword?” I want to make her fighting style stand out as much as Drizzt’s does, as much as Entreri’s used too or a Bruenor or Pwent with his ridged armor and I said, “Suppose I give her something that she can fight like in that scene with multiple weapons at her disposal in that one weapon.” There used to be a weapon in the old Dungeons and Dragons. It was a staff that could take the form of several different weapons. So I was thinking of going that way and I never really liked that. It never really made sense to me, that your staff can become a battle ax. So I said suppose you could just break it into bow sticks or into a tri-staff or into nunchucks? Of course if you are talking about fluid, fast, violent movement that’s beautiful to watch, you watch somebody that has a pair of nunchucks in their hands and knows what they are doing and you just sit there and go, “Oh my God.” So I thought I could have fun with this. I have always loved the monk class. These are exotic monk like weapons so I just went for it.
SJ: It worked.
Salvatore: I think it worked. I love writing her fight scenes.
SJ: What was the genesis of Dahlia? Did you want to bring in a new female character? How does that work?
Salvatore: For me I have an idea. I start going and as I’m writing it develops. I don’t know who Artemis Entreri was when he showed up at the end of The Crystal Shard. I learned who he was as the characters found out who he was through the writing of Streams of Silver and The Halfling’s Gem. That’s how I do it.
SJ: It develops as you are writing.
Salvatore: Absolutely. But with Dahlia, one thing I knew early on was I didn’t want to surround Drizzt with the same type of people he had just lost. Because one of the things I’m really exploring in this new series is for all his life, for most of his life, in most of the books Drizzt was surrounded by friends of like moral value. Drizzt knew that Catti-Brie or Bruenor or Regis or Wulfgar would jump in front of him and take the arrow aimed for his heart. Just like he would do for them.
SJ: We’re not so sure about Dahlia though are we?
Salvatore: Exactly. So the question becomes, does he lift her up more toward his moral sphere or does she pull him more toward hers? So it’s really an exploration of those gray areas.
SJ: (Laughing) That was actually my next question
Salvatore: You look at the character of Dahlia and you look at how she came to be and what happened to her, she has a reason to be angry.
SJ: I was going to ask about Drizzt’s development over the last few books. Will we continue to see a darker side emerge? But I guess you don’t want to give anything away.
Salvatore: No, no. You can ask that question. I think that is an important question. Right or wrong, the perception started growing that Drizzt was all about angst. I never really saw that with him. People will read the Drizzt essays and they will read them as though Drizzt is preaching to them and that is the wrong way to read them. He’s not preaching to you. He is writing in his journal. When you are writing in your own journal and are being honest with yourself it may sound emo, okay. It’s not. It’s just being honest with yourself. But here is the thing for Drizzt, he realizes, if you go back to those older books when he was with the elves they were trying to teach him what it was to be an elf. When I ever sign The Lone Drow, many, many times, probably most of the time I will write what it is to be an elf in the book. Because the whole point of that book was this other elf instructing him that you have to live your life in shorter bursts, so when all your friends you have known of the shorter living races go away you just start over again. Drizzt is facing that. He’s facing starting over again and he feels awful that he doesn’t feel awful about all of that. So there are so many possibilities it’s like a blank canvas in front of him and he’s excited about that but at the same time he’s desperately lonely. He’s lost his love. He’s lost his best friend. So he might be a little too eager to fill that void with people he shouldn’t be filling it with.
It’s a fun journey. I get to ask myself all these questions about my own life when I’m writing these books.
SJ: It’s an exploration.
SJ: What kinds of challenges can we look forward to in the new release concerning Drizzt and Dahlia. Any new enemies?
Salvatore: These next two books are all about revenge. Gauntalgrym was about revenge, the new book is about revenge. There are a couple of new characters who come along and their place in the situation may not be evident right away as we go forward. But there’s a lot of anger in the book that can manifest itself in either constructive or destructive ways as we follow their path. Yeah, it’s a pretty hard hitting book in terms of this is how it’s gonna be. This is what we need to do and no, it’s not going to be pretty.
SJ: One of the things I really like about the books is that sometimes when you have a villain in a book you really could not care less one way or the other about them. They don’t grab you. With your books there is a physiological response. Your heart rate increases, your blood pressure elevates and you just love to hate these people. How do you create, (arghh), such despicable characters?
Salvatore: (Laughs) Well if you are going back to Dahlia. If you have any sympathy at all for Dahlia, who she is and why she is, how can you not hate Herzgo Alegni? Right? One thing I’ve tried to do from the very beginning is I have tried to pay as much attention to what is going on in the mind of the bad guys as in the good guys.
SJ: Exactly. So often there is just not enough character development to form a feeling one way or another. But with your villains we are totally invested as with the other characters.
Salvatore: I get as much mail about Artmeis Entreri as I do about any character in any of my books. Matter of fact, when I was writing Road of the Patriarch, I thought it was the appropriate swan song for Artemis Entreri. I thought he had found redemption in that book. Because at the end of the book they burn down the church, and we had that one priest that wasn’t quite as evil as the other ones. He tells the guy to go and rebuild your church, but if you rebuild it and do the same stuff again I’m going to burn it down and this time you’re going to be in it. Only Artemis Entreri can find redemption by threatening the life of a priest. That’s who he was and that moment for me was when Entreri stopped hating himself so much and started forgiving himself just a little bit. His next move was to get rid of Jarlaxle because he didn’t want that influence any more, didn’t need it. For me that was the perfect swan song for Artemis Entreri. Soon after the word got out that that was probably the end of Entreri, my email flooded with letters from people begging me to stay with him a little bit longer. They were relating these incredibly personal stories of their own childhood trauma. It was important for them to see not only the hope of some peace if not redemption. To actually see it, that really hit me pretty hard.
SJ: I have heard people say especially with Drizzt that they identify with him on a personal level, especially his desire to live his own life and not bow to familial expectations, his need to be his own person.
Salvatore: For so long our movies have shown us that the hero is the guy with the biggest gun but that never rang true to me. It’s the guy with the biggest heart and by that I mean he knows what’s right and what’s wrong and he does what’s right even when it hurts. I think especially from the perspective of the younger readers, remember when I started writing Drizzt, fantasy was a teenagers province. There weren’t a lot of thirty and forty year olds reading these books. There just wasn’t. Dungeons and Dragons was being played by college and high school kids… not exclusively but mostly. To me the idealism that there is a right way and a wrong way is something we hold onto very clearly through those years. So many people lose it as they get older, when it’s just easier to go along with the other thing, right? I refuse to let Drizzt go that way. It doesn’t mean he won’t be confused or that his anger will overcome him. He’s certainly fallible as a human being. I think that type of a hero, a hero that truly believes that his duty to the wider world matters, it’s important to leave the world a better place than what you found it. Not just by killing the bad guy but by your daily actions. There’s not a lot of that in pop culture any more. Let’s get on a TV show, get 15 minutes of fame and cash in attitude about the world and that’s not what it is about. I have never believed that’s what it’s about. I don’t think I’m alone, in fact I know I’m not alone and I can prove it by the people who read these books. They get it.
SJ: Now I get to ask the question I think you have been asked the most and I apologize in advance but it is about the battle scenes. Do you get asked that a lot?
Salvatore: I do. But this is the first time I have been in this tour, so cool.
SJ: You seem to have this innate ability to craft these intricate and believable battle scenes. Being a woman, I’m not a huge fan of these scenes in general, until I started reading your books. Now I am totally into them. So often the scenes are done in a way where the action quickly devolves into an indecipherable mess. We lose the characters in the mix and the author in turn loses our attention. But in your scenes the action always seems to serve a purpose, a delicate balance between action and forward momentum of the plot. How do you keep these intricate parts moving in concert with each other while maintaining the integrity of the story?
Salvatore: There are many things I do and I think I do them instinctively. One thing you notice if you read my battle scenes is the paragraphs get shorter, the sentences get shorter and the verb to be disappears completely. Because I want your blood pumping, I want you on the edge of your seat. I want you feeling the motion and the action of the scene.
SJ: Like you’re there.
Salvatore: Like you’re there, like you’re part of it, like you’re in that fight. I want readers sweating. Having said that, what I really do… I’ve played hockey all my life. I was a bouncer and a boxer in high school. I came to learn early on that the secret to being in a fight whether it’s with a sword or with your fist, is your balance. Balance is everything. The amount of weight you put behind a blow, the ability to quickly get out of the way is all dependent on balance. If you watch football and see the running backs ability to keep their balance even when they go down low and cut to the side. So when I do my battle scenes with that understanding of what a fight is both emotionally and physically, because I’ve been in that position. I watch them. Then I just tell you what I’m seeing.
SJ: So it’s really just a study of the art of movement.
Salvatore: If I say Drizzt batted the sword. He swung left, left then left again. It sounds like you’re just throwing words in but no. There’s an understanding of doing that the first time he hit the guy he moved him to this angle, the second time he moved the weapon out further this way he third time he did he set up the right handed counter that would finish it. I’m watching all of that in my head and I’m trying to put in just enough detail in that you have to watch it too or you’ll get lost.
SJ: So you don’t have a military background?
Salvatore: I’m from a military family but the extent of my military background is paintball, paintball and bouncing in night clubs. When I was working in the club most of the guys were from Fort Devens with airborne. So no, I was never in the military but I study, I pay attention, I watch the History Channel, I watch the battles. You don’t want to play me in a game of War and Peace or any of the old Avalon Hills strategy games because I’m really good at them.
SJ: Do you feel like your style of writing has changed over the years?
Salvatore: You know I go back and re-read passages from The Crystal Shard, or Homelands, and there are parts I think are more poetic and there are other parts I think are more mundane so I don’t really think it has. I think mechanically I’m a little better. That I understand the roles of the English language a little bit better and I also understand the way I want to say something better so I can do it faster. But the end product, I don’t think that Gauntalgrym is any different than The Crystal Shard in terms of the way I write. Maybe it’s a little smoother in places, but in terms of pacing I don’t ever want to lose that energy. The energy is what sustains the series.
SJ: Do you ever feel creatively blocked? Do you ever crash and feel like you need to recharge?
Salvatore: Oh sure, sure. It does with everybody. In the last few years I was doing the Highwayman series with Tor books and I was doing the Drizzt books that were going through a lot changes. I knew I was burning the candle at both ends. So for the last year I really slowed down a little bit. I’ve given myself a lot more time off to recharge. But, yeah it happens and then you have to sit down and you have to hit the keys and fight through it.
SJ: I’m sure you know as we discussed earlier, that your fans form attachments to your characters and feel a certain kinship with them. Do you form these same attachments? When you decide a character’s story has finally come to an end, is it difficult to kill them off?
Salvatore: Oh heck yeah. I learned that early on. I was writing The Halflings Gem, and there is a point in there where Catti-Brie falls. I thought she was dead. My wife was down stairs and I came walking downstairs and she stopped and looked at me and said, “What the heck is wrong with you? You’re white as a sheet.” I said, “I just killed Catti- Brie.” I couldn’t believe it. I was shocked. It’s really hard. Is it the story that is making you do that or is it the changes to the world around you? It’s really hard. I’m not going to kid ya.
SJ: I have heard other authors say they never really know what is going to happen it just evolves as they are writing.
Salvatore: I don’t know what is going to happen on the next page of a book I’m writing. I have a general outline, so I kind of know where the story should wind up. The particulars as I’m going, I don’t know.
Is Drizzt going to survive the next book I’m writing? I don’t know. Sure the Drizzt series will continue. Will he, I don’t know. Maybe Dahlia will do to him the same thing she has done to every other lover she has ever had.
SJ: I worry about that
Salvatore: You should. It could happen. I don’t know. If the story tells me to do it, I’ll do it. Of course if I do that with Drizzt there will be a lot of pushback from Hasbro (laughing), but they’re pretty good at letting me go where my nose takes me.
SJ: If you get to a point in your life and decide you just don’t want to do this anymore, would you consider letting your son take over?
Salvatore: He wouldn’t want it, neither one of them would. My daughter wouldn’t either. Geno is a narrative designer for 38 Studios and he’s written books and we’re working on this five issue comic series together for Drizzt that just started last month. But he has other things he wants to accomplish. I don’t think he would want to take it up. You’ll know when I’m gone if he wants to take it up. He, his brother or his sister would be my first choice obviously.
Someone asked me on Facebook a couple of weeks ago when the last Drzzt book would be finished. I was thinking about it and I said the day before I die. The reason I said that was what I came to realize a couple of years ago is this is my career, this is my job, this is what I do but it’s more than that this is who I am. My writing whether it’s Drizzt or DemonWars or Spearwielder’s Tales or Crimson Shadow or The Highwayman, my writing is my way of making sense of a world. Why are we here? What’s the whole point of all of this? That’s what my writing is and so I don’t think I could anymore stop writing than I could stop breathing. It is more than what I do, it’s who I am. Maybe I’ll take a few years off at some point. I don’t know. I can’t imagine going three weeks without writing something.
SJ: Are you scheduled for any upcoming conventions or book signings?
Salvatore: The book signings start next week. I’m going out to Los Angeles and I have a signing on the fourth (editor’s note: October 4th) at Emerald Knights comic store and at Meltdown Comics. The next day I will be at Redondo Beach for Mysterious Galaxy and on the sixth to San Diego to the other Mysterious Galaxy. I will be in Seattle at the University Bookstore on the seventh and Joint Base Lewis McChord, Fort Lewis in Tacoma on the seventh. The following week: DePaul University, Ohio State, Cincinnati, Lexington and New York for media day and Comic-Con. I’ve got two panels and a signing, one for 38 Studios and one for the new Dark Elf book.
Next year I will be at Dragon Con and Gen Con which I haven’t been to in a long time. I’m really looking forward to it. I’m staying busy. I’m not that old yet.
SJ: I’m really looking forward to the next book. Neverwinter will be released in October?
Salvatore: October 4th.
SJ: Thank you for the interview. I really appreciate it.
Salvatore: Thank you for the interest.