Monday, October 03, 2011

Interview: R.A. Salvatore

As one of the fantasy genre’s most successful authors, R.A. Salvatore enjoys an ever-expanding and tremendously loyal following. His books regularly appear on The New York Times best-seller lists and have sold more than 10,000,000 copies. Salvatore’s most recent original hardcover, The Two Swords, Book III of The Hunter’s Blade Trilogy (October 2004) debuted at # 1 on The Wall Street Journal best-seller list and at # 4 on The New York Times best-seller list. His books have been translated into numerous foreign languages including German, Italian, Finnish, Greek, Hungarian, Turkish, Croatian, Bulgarian, Yiddish, Spanish, Russian, Polish, Czech, and French.

His latest novel, Neverwinter, will be released on October 4, 2011.

For those unfamiliar with your recent books, what sets your Neverwinter Trilogy apart from the previous one, Transitions? Will they need to read Gauntlgrym to understand Neverwinter?

What sets it apart from the others? Nothing, I hope. You see, that’s not how I plan and write these tales; I’m not trying to “up” my previous work, or anything like that. What I’ve been doing for nearly a quarter-century now is walking the road of adventure along with Drizzt and his friends (and his enemies). Unlike many other authors in this genre, I use a different model for my series. Instead of piling one story on the next, building a gigantic web of dozens of intertwining storylines, I try to write each book as a snapshot along the road of adventure. The series is more akin in structure to Sherlock Holmes or James Bond than it is to Jordan’s “Wheel of Time.” Each book has a beginning, a middle and an end, and a new reader can pick up any of the books and jump right in. Hopefully a reader starting with a later book, like Neverwinter, will be intrigued enough to go back and read Homeland or The Crystal Shard to better understand the characters involved.

That said, there certainly are particular elements of this book, as with all of them, that intrigue me. In these recent events, these side-streets along Drizzt’s road, I have a new dynamic growing around the dark elf. For most of his adult life, he surrounded himself with friends of like character – companions who would sacrifice themselves for him, as he would for them. Now, not so much, so the tension created is both emotional and, potentially, physical.

Perhaps a testaments to the endurance of your fiction is how the story of Drizz't and his companions have gone through different editions of D&D.

a. From a creative standpoint, what are the challenges and rewards of writing in a shared world that undergoes these kind of changes?

b. At this point in time, why is the cosmology of D&D 4th Ed. the best atmosphere to write Drizzt's stories?

Through all of the changes, I’ve tried to keep two things in mind: the notion that these are novels, not game modules, and the feel, the taste, the smell, the look of the vision of the Forgotten Realms put forth by Ed Greenwood. It’s not always easy, and I don’t agree with all of the changes, and sometimes, honestly, I feel like people get lost in semantics and can’t see the larger picture. For example, when AD&D went from 1st to 2nd Edition, they made some “class” changes. I was writing Homeland at that time, which was a prequel story, set more than half a century before the Icewind Dale Trilogy.

I got a call from Jeff Grubb, the coordinator of the Realms at the time (a dear friend and a brilliant writer and designer). Jeff started off the conversation by asking me how I was going to kill Artemis Entreri. I was flabbergasted, as I had only begun to explore this character, and he was showing great promise as a mirror image of Drizzt. To my thinking, Entreri was becoming a staple in the stories of Drizzt. So why would I kill him?

“There are no assassins in 2nd Edition,” Jeff explained, referring to a change in the game rules to get rid of the controversial (because of role-playing implications, I expect – remember, this was in the 1980’s, when groups like “Mad About D&D” were claiming that playing D&D was akin to devil-worship and other such idiocy). Jeff went on to explain how they were eliminating the class in the world by having an evil god suck up all the souls of the assassins. They could kill Entreri like that, but they liked him, so they were going to let me determine the method and manner of his demise.

I reminded Jeff that I was working on a book set decades before Entreri was even born, so unless he wanted me to go and kill Entreri’s grandparents, there really wasn’t much I could do at that time.

He wouldn’t take the bait, and a 20-minute back and forth ensued where Jeff insisted Entreri had to go and I argued against it. It got pretty heated for a while there, when finally, in complete exasperation, I just yelled out, “I don’t understand why I have to kill Artemis Entreri!”

Jeff replied with equal stridency, “Because there are no assassins in 2nd Edition AD&D!”

“He’s not an assassin,” I said.


“He’s not an assassin. He’s a fighter-thief who takes money to kill people.”

Jeff paused and thought about it for a while, then happily replied, “Okay, we can do that.”

That’s how Drizzt has survived. I don’t sweat the details. I roll with the changes, approaching the novels as though they’re stories about real people acting within the framework, whatever it might be in any given era of D&D, available to them. The particulars of magic, infravision vs. lowlight vision, drow abilities, this god or that goddess – all of them, are just dressing, because at its core, The Legend of Drizzt is a continuing story about people, about the heart and soul, or lack thereof, of an assorted group of lovable or hate-able individuals. The spells might change, but the morals that guide character decisions do not.

You've written other characters in the Forgotten Realms setting, wrote a series with a different publisher, and collaborated with your son on three novels. How have these experiences shaped the way you currently write your books?

Oh, it’s more than that. I’ve written several series with several different publishers, and even done a couple of Star Wars’ novels, and a “Tarzan” novelization. From a strictly mechanical point of view, my style is very set now. If I know what I want to accomplish in a scene, it’s effortless to write it now (after more than 50 books).

But that’s the mundane answer. More importantly, something happened a couple of years ago which changed the way I think about what I do. I don’t remember exactly what the catalyst might have been – likely a fan letter relating a poignant story of how Drizzt had found someone in a dark place and helped him through it – but all of a sudden, I came to realize that what I was doing was much more than telling stories.

I’m a huge fan of the old “Cosmos” series by Carl Sagan. Sagan called “Cosmos” his spiritual journey. I always thought that was a quaint notion – I didn’t really get it.

A few years ago, Paul Goat Allen, a reviewer for Barnes and Noble, did a piece called “The Tao of Drizzt” and another one relating his spiritual journey with Drizzt. As I mentioned earlier, I get a lot of letters from people who have let the series into their lives; I always found this humbling and overwhelming, but I don’t think I ever took a step back and asked myself “why?”

A couple of years ago, I subconsciously did just that. Again, I don’t remember the particular catalyst, but I came to understand that my writing, particularly this series which has been beside me for nearly a quarter of a century, is really a way of sorting through my own spiritual journey. Through these adventures, I ask of myself the question of “why?” all the time. As Drizzt and his friend, and his enemies, as all those other characters in all those other novels, sort through their dilemmas, their moral quandaries, their fears and their hopes, there are times when I’m expressing my own beliefs, but more often than not, I’m sorting through my own issues as I type.

When I wrote the book Mortalis, the 4th book of the 7-book DemonWars series, for example, I was watching my best friend, my brother, wither away from pancreatic cancer. Mortalis is all about the grieving process; writing it was the catharsis I needed to get through that awful year. My writing is my catharsis, my spiritual journey, my way of making sense of…life. I write because writing is my way of looking into my own thoughts and heart and soul. Carl Sagan had his “Cosmos” and I’ve been lucky enough to find mine.

How has your writing process evolved over the years?

Once again, on the mundane, mechanical level, it’s changed quite a bit. I used to be much more structured in my schedule – I had to be, because I had young children. I’d get them off to school and get to work. I only had a few hours to get my word count. Now I’m an empty-nester, so my time is my own. I write when I feel the urge and look at my deadlines in terms of a weekly, or even monthly, word-count, instead of a daily job.

Other than that, though, I write now the same way I did when I first started. Even the revelation I explained in the previous question hasn’t changed that. I write by putting myself in the place of my characters, by acting as them to understand what they might do in that situation. It’s a one-man play with many characters, and that desire to delve into the psyche of even the minor players on that stage is the enjoyment of it all, and the method I use to search every perspective on an issue.

People often ask me about outlines – yes, I do them. I have to, by contract, and they really are a valuable guide in remembering where you are on a particular story. But I think of an outline like a telephone pole, a straight-line explanation of the beginning, the middle and the end. As I write the book, that pole become a tree, with all of these strange branches growing every which way. It occurs to me that I write a book the way other people read a book. I really don’t know what might happen on the next page, which drives me along just so I can find out what the resolution might be. That hasn’t changed, not one bit, and if it ever does, if writing these books becomes stenography or purposeful manipulation, I’ll just walk away.

Do you ever feel constrained writing about Drizzt? And what elements of the character appeal to you up to this day?

The short answer is no. If you’re asking about the constraints of a shared world here, dependent upon a game, again, I focus on the truisms that transcend the physical limitations. If you’re asking about the particular character – am I tied down to this one dark elf, love it or leave it – then the answer is absolutely not, because Drizzt walks his journey as I walk mine. I saw the world very differently when I started writing this series. I was 28 years old and thought I knew everything, and was sure that I’d live forever, and oh, wouldn’t the world be grand if everyone would just listen to me? Now, I’m 52, and know that I don’t know anything and God or the Flying Spaghetti Monster help us if I ever became King of the World.

My perspective has changed, and so has Drizzt’s. We recently put all of the Drizzt short stories together in a single anthology, and in that process, I was able to go back and annotate them, mostly to explain my frame of mind and what I was trying to do in that particular story. Have you ever sat on the couch with the old photo albums? It was the same experience; I was transported back to the time and place of the writing. These tales, this work, is my life’s album. I’m afraid to contemplate the profound darkness I’d find if I ever grew bored with it.

A lot of your novels are divided into three- or four-book series.

a. What are the advantages and challenges writing for this peculiar format?

b. How much do you treat each book as a stand-alone novel, and how much do you pace it or setup the larger story arc?

Well, mostly what you’re talking about is marketing, honestly. I rarely write my books as trilogies or quartets or anything like that (The Cleric Quintet being an exception). Publishers in this genre want trilogies – I blame Tolkien!

For the Drizzt books, TSR and then Wizards of the Coast use these divisions to help the bookstores stock the books and help the readers keep things straight, but from my perspective, I’m walking down the road with Drizzt, finding adventure and figuring out the meaning of life. I won’t say that the particular trilogies are meaningless to me, and I do try to frame a larger theme or storyline over the arc of each of the books within that trilogy. So if I had to quantify part B of your question, I’d say that it’s about 75% stand-alone, 25% part of a trilogy, and 100% melded within the grand story that is my journey with Drizzt.

As long as I keep my eye on the long-game, the little challenges like making titles and cutting up trilogies and quartets and quintets don’t even qualify as an inconvenience. I just worry about what goes between the words “Prelude” and “The End.” The rest is noise.

How has your relationship with fans changed over the years, especially with the popularity of the Internet, podcasts, etc.?

In the beginning of this career, I was determined to keep R.A. Salvatore and Bob Salvatore as two different people – my public face and my private face, so to speak. I still live in my hometown; the people here know me as Bobby – a teammate, a coach, a friend. I still get asked how much it costs me to publish a book, or, “Do you think you’ll ever try to get published beyond this region?” A close friend went with me to GenCon a few years ago and witnessed a two-hour signing line. It took me two weeks to slap the shocked expression off his face.

I often said back in the early days of my career that if I won the lottery, I’d write more but never publish. I’ve never been comfortable about that “fame” part of this career. Because of the accessibility of the internet, the intrusion on privacy, this connectedness (whether real or fake), that line has blurred and become all but inconsequential.

There are good parts to that and bad parts. It’s a wonderful thing that people can share their thoughts and tales with me via Facebook or e-mail. As they tell me how my stories have touched some piece of their lives, their stories, in turn, touch mine. I’ve met people battling cancer. I’ve become internet friends with so many soldiers and their families. I met a man whose son had special needs. He had read The Highwayman, whose hero was afflicted with severe physical challenges, and told me that he would read that book to his son, and that his son would walk someday. How can an exchange like that not enrich my life? How blessed am I that this man felt comfortable in relating such a story? When I wrote what I thought was the end of Artemis Entreri in Road of the Patriarch, so many people came forward with their personal stories and how those related to Entreri, and expressed their desire for me to follow him further along his road to redemption, or at least some sense of inner peace, that I knew I had to do it.

On the other hand, the sheer scale of the accessibility requires me to construct some boundaries or lose my mind! It’s not so wonderful that 5-10 people a week send me their manuscripts to read and critique (which I simply cannot do). Publishers frown on authors reading unpublished work, and how could I ever begin to read those (and why would I ever think myself qualified to do so?) and still have time for my own life and work? And of course, saying no can elicit some pretty strong negative reactions. I can’t imagine how truly famous people – athletes and actors – get through the day. I entered into one e-mail exchange with a woman who subsequently created this entire fantasy life as my soul-mate, and another with a guy whose every e-mail fluctuated erratically between a conversation on the truth of sword-fighting vs. the Hollywood style I employ and his explosive outrage at me over this or that perceived insult. It was, to say the least, quite bizarre.

So is the accessibility of social media a good thing or a bad thing? Well, it’s pretty much a mixed bag for me, as it is for everyone else, I’d expect. I continue to enjoy the hell out of meeting my readers - or just fellow fantasy enthusiasts and gamers, whether they read my books or not!

What other projects are you currently working on?

Other than my continuing Drizzt work, I’m betwixt and between. I’ve got a lot of irons hovering over the fire, but I’m biding my time before putting any in. Will I do another DemonWars series? Is there a movie on the horizon? My work with 38 Studios on the video games isn’t quite finished and shows some serious possibilities for some incredible projects, as well.

In short, I wake up every day wondering if it will be the day I get a call that rushes me off in a new and exciting direction. Right now I’m staying busy with the third book of the Neverwinter Trilogy – almost done! – and the 5-issue comic series of original Drizzt stories I’m writing with my son Geno. I’m biding my time, but I expect one or more major announcements within the near future.

What advice do you have for aspiring writers?

I always tell beginning writers the same thing: If you can quit, then quit. If you can’t quit, you’re a writer.

I’m not being facetious at all. It took me a long time to put a name to it, but I’ve always understood that writing is a personal, spiritual journey. It’s not about “getting published” and the supposed fame and fortune. It’s certainly not a short-cut career to a good living. The truth is, if you don’t need to write, the business part of this career will destroy you. And when I say “need” to write, I mean exactly that. A writer is someone who will not be happy unless he or she is writing. A writer has stories clawing at the inside of his or her skin, demanding to be told.

If you don’t feel that, if writing won’t be a spiritual journey for you, then, for the sake of your sanity, go do something else.

If you are a writer, then accept the responsibility. It’s your life and your work, so don’t spend your time with insecurity, poking around for affirmation from other people. Follow your heart and your voice to tell your stories. This journey is not paint by numbers.

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