An Interview With R.A. Salvatore
One of the great things I get to do with this blog is to engage many of the great authors who have inspired me and captured my imagination. I recently concluded an interview with another of my favorite authors, Mr. R.A. Salvatore. I was originally introduced to his works, as many of us were, when I read The Crystal Shard, the first book of the Icewind Dale Trilogy. Just last year, I was in Maryland and he was having a book signing at the John Hopkin's University Barnes & Noble in Baltimore. I had to go, so I beat the incoming snowstorm and made it in time to listen to him talk about his works, one of my favorite characters, Drizzt Do'urden, and his upcoming novel at that time, The Last Threshold. See, here is the picture.
T.D. Wilson: I'm just glad you made it to the next stop after the snow storm the next day. So let's get on with the questions. What was your path to becoming an author? Was writing always a goal when you were younger?
R.A. Salvatore: I took a roudabout route, to be sure. When I was very young, I wanted to be a writer (and an astronaut and an archeologist), but by the time I got through high school, I wasn't much of a reader or a writer. School beat the joy of it out of me. I started college as a math major. Then I read Tolkien and the joy returned. I read every fantasy book I could get my hands on - there weren't that many in 1978-1981 - and when I ran out, I simply wrote my own (Echoes of the Fourth Magic).
People around me liked it, so I sent it out, got nothing, and kept working on it. In 1987, i was pleased with where the book was at, so I sent it around again, including to TSR. TSR couldn't publish it, but liked what I had done, so they asked me to audition for the second book in a new world they were creating: The Forgotten Realms.
Writing sort of found me, as it turns out.
T.D. Wilson: For some of my readers who don’t know how Drizzt Do’urden came to be, can you explain how you came up with the character when you started the Icewind Dale books?
R.A. Salvatore: Ah, the most asked question of all...I just did a big post on this on my Facebook Page, and actually pulled it from the Forward of The Dark Elf Trilogy omnibus...here goes:
Here's a bit of an FAQ for you...people ask me all the time where Drizzt came from. Was he a character in a D&D campaign I played? Is he someone I know?
Well, the answer is surprising, and, I think, kind of funny. I look back on it now and wonder how it ever got to this point, why my car has DRKELF for a license plate (and why people keep asking me, "Who's Dr. Kelf?"
Here it is, from the forward (written in 1998, I believe, just before The Silent Blade came out) of the Dark Elf Trilogy, for your reading pleasure:
They wanted Drizzt.
The folks at TSR wanted Drizzt, the readers of the Icewind Dale Trilogy wanted Drizzt, and well, let’s be honest about it, I wanted him, too. I wanted to find out where he came from and why he acted in such a manner, half-crazy, mostly lighthearted, but with a very definite dark side to him, during the three Icewind Dale stories. I know that sounds strange; we’re talking about a fictional character here, and one that I created, so wouldn’t his background be of minimal importance, perhaps even completely irrelevant, malleable to whatever I desired?
In a word, no. That’s the thing about fictional characters, they have a way of becoming real. And not just real to the people reading about them, but surprisingly multi-dimensional to the author, as well. I come to love, or hate, admire or despise, the characters I create in my books, and for that to happen, each of them must act consistently within the framework of his or her experiential background — whether that background appears in the books or not.
So when my editors at TSR called me, a short time before the publication of The Halfling’s Gem, the third and final book in the Icewind Dale Trilogy, in late 1989 or early 1990, and proposed to me that I do another trilogy, this one detailing the background of Drizzt Do’Urden, I was hardly surprised. The books had been quite successful, and I knew from the many letters I received and from the many people with whom I spoke at booksignings, that Drizzt had, for some reason, stood above the other characters. I averaged about ten letters from readers a week at that time, and at least eight of those ten readers would remark that Drizzt was his/her favorite, and would ask, repeatedly, how he got to where he was, and to who he was. TSR, of course, had been hearing the same remarks.
So they asked for a prequel trilogy, and because I have three kids to support, and because I was planning on quitting my day job that same year (which I did, in June of 1990), and most of all because I, too, truly wanted to unravel the mystery behind this character, I gladly agreed.
I knew where Drizzt was conceived of course — that happened in my office (at my day job). And I knew when he came into being — that would be in July of 1987, right after my proposal to do The Crystal Shard was accepted and right before I actually started writing the book. Truly it is one of the strangest episodes of my writing career. At the time I began writing the asked-for proposal, you see, the Forgotten Realms was nothing more than a prototype and a single novel, the excellent Darkwalker on Moonshae by Doug Niles. When TSR asked me to write a Realms’ book, they sent me all that they had, which amounted to....Darkwalker on Moonshae. Thus, I came to believe that the Moonshae Isles were the Forgotten Realms. Well, the Moonshaes aren’t that large a place, and any epic-type story taking place in that region at that time would have to at least mention the story and characters of Doug’s fine book. Thrilled at a chance to be working with Doug Niles, but definitely not wanting to steal his characters, I came up with a compromise that would involve using Daryth from Doug’s book to introduce the hero of my book, Wulfgar, son of Beornegar, of the barbarian tribes.
When I later discovered the actual size and scope of the Realms, and was told that TSR did not want to share characters (as they did with Dragonlance), I was truly relieved, and that was the end of it — for a time.
Because then the proposal got accepted, and in that phone call, when Mary Kirchoff told me I’d be writing the second Forgotten Realms’ novel, she reminded me that, now that we had set the book thousands of miles from Doug’s stomping ground, I needed a new sidekick for Wulfgar. I assured her that I’d get right on it and come up with something the following week.
“No, Bob,” she responded, words I seem to hear too often from editors. “You don’t understand. I’m going into a meeting right now to sell this proposal. I need a sidekick.”
“Now?” I, in my never-before-in-the-world-of-publishing naivete (stupidity) responded.
“Right now,” she answered rather smugly.
And then it happened. I don’t know how, I don’t know why. I merely said. “A drow.”
There came a pause, followed by, in a slightly hesitant tone, “A dark elf?”
“Yeah,” I said, growing more confident as the character began to take more definite shape in my mind. “A drow ranger.”
The pause was longer this time, then, in barely a whisper, the tremors of having to go and tell this one to the mucky-mucks evident in her tone, “What’s his name?”
“Drizzt Do’Urden, of D’aermon N’achezbaernon, Ninth House of Menzoberranzan.”
“Can you spell that?”
“Not a chance.”
“A drow ranger?”
“Drizzit?” she asked.
“Drizzt,” I corrected (for the first of 7.3 million times).
“Okay,” the beleaguered editor agreed, probably thinking she would just change my mind later on.
But she didn’t of course, and in truth, and this is a testament to Mark Kirchoff, she let the creative person she hired do the creative thing and waited to see the result before taking out the hatchet (which never came out).
Thus Drizzt was born. Did I ever run him in a game? Nope. Is there anyone I based him on? Nope. He just happened, unexpectedly and with very little forethought. He was only supposed to be a sidekick character, after all, a curiosity piece with a slightly different twist. You know, like Robin to Batman, or Kato to the Green Hornet.
Of course it didn’t work out that way. The first chapter I wrote of The Crystal Shard had Drizzt running across the tundra and getting ambushed by a yeti. By page three, I knew.
Drizzt was the star of it all.
T.D. Wilson: That was awesome. I remember you telling it at the book signing and everyone enjoyed it. So, how much free reign did TSR, now Wizards of the Coast, give you for setting up Drizzt’s home, Menzoberranzan, in The Forgotten Realms world?
R.A. Salvatore: When i sat down to write Homeland, I looked around and realized that there really wasn't much source material to base the culture on. I had the old modules (Vault of the Drow, Queen of the Demonweb Pits, etc.) and a single-page entry in the Fiend Folio, but that was about it. So I called TSR and asked if they had anything else. They didn't, and told me I had carte blanche to set up the drow culture in the Forgotten Realms.
So (not kidding), I dragged out my copy of Mario Puzo's The Godfather, pulled from Gary Gygax's old work, and went to it.
T.D. Wilson: I loved the characters you created to face off against Drizzt. Do you have a favorite antagonist for Drizzt and why?
R.A. Salvatore: Artemis Entreri, of course. Here's the thing, Entreri started as a mechanical killing machine, devoid of emotion and bent on being perfection of martial skill. He was an instrument, nothing more. To Drizzt, he became the fear of what he, Drizzt, might have become had he stayed in Menzoberranzan.
Conversely, to Entreri, finding a passionate fighter who was at least his equal, made his life a lie. Drizzt didn't need to wall off his heart to be amazing with the sword, so what was the point of Entreri's great sacrifice?
T.D. Wilson: I agree, I think that Entreri was my favorite as well, but I also like Jarlaxle. Let's go to the next question. I know that the Sundering was a big transition for Forgotten Realms. How much of a change was it to transition to the new Sundering setting and its effects on your characters?
R.A. Salvatore: Not so much, since Wizards let us authors in on the ground floor of the FR storyline for the changes. 4th Edition rattled me, but from the day we were told our marching orders for 4th, I began plotting the inevitable shift that would come with 5th. In other words, I was more than ready for this!
T.D. Wilson: Moving to a different topic, what are your thoughts on Disney’s plans to change or eliminate the Star Wars Expanded Universe? As one of the authors who has written one of the core novels, do you plan to do anything else for the Star Wars storyline?
R.A. Salvatore: I have no plans to return to Star Wars, and haven't been asked to do so. If they asked, I'd listen, sure. As to their direction - it's solely up to them and I have no problem whichever way they choose to take it. Just make it fun for me!
T.D. Wilson: What projects are you working on now? There always seems to be something going on like your work with your Demonwars world and more Drizzt novels.
R.A. Salvatore: It's been a very busy winter in the Salvatore household. On the Drizzt front, I've just finished up the rewrite of Rise of the King, this summer's sequel to Night of the Hunter (I just returned form the warehouse, where I signed stacks of that one for the March 11 release). I've just started the next in line, which is planned for a March, 2015 release.
My sons and I are tying together the last pieces for DemonWars: Reformation, the pen&paper, tabletop roleplaying game we launched through a successful kickstarter. I wrote a 30,000 word novella, The Education of Brother Thaddius, for that one. I'm working on a couple of other projects, but I'm not at liberty to discuss those right now.
T.D. Wilson: Finally, I know you’re a softball player. I’ve played for years. Does your team consist of other writers and do you play in any competitive or charity tournaments?
R.A. Salvatore: It's a family team, including my two sons, four nephews, my niece's husband and his twin brother, and a few close friends. we play in a very competitive league.
T.D. Wilson: Well, that's all we have time for today. Mr. Salvatore, I want to thank you again for agreeing to this interview. Your work has been an inspiration and immerses us into a fantastic world where we can walk side by side with you characters. Who wouldn't want to follow a Drow Ranger and big black mystical panther across the countryside? I know I would.
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.
Salvatore's first published novel, The Crystal Shard from TSR in 1988, became the first volume of the acclaimed Icewind Dale Trilogy and introduced an enormously popular character, the dark elf Drizzt Do'Urden. Since that time, Salvatore has published numerous novels for each of his signature multi-volume series including The Dark Elf Trilogy, Paths of Darkness, The Hunter's Blades Trilogy, and The Cleric Quintet.
His love affair with fantasy, and with literature in general, began during his sophomore year of college when he was given a copy of J.R.R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings as a Christmas gift. He promptly changed his major from computer science to journalism. He received a Bachelor of Science Degree in Communications from Fitchburg State College in 1981, then returned for the degree he always cherished, the Bachelor of Arts in English. He began writing seriously in 1982, penning the manuscript that would become Echoes of the Fourth Magic. Salvatore held many jobs during those first years as a writer, finally settling in (much to our delight) to write full time in 1990.
The R.A. Salvatore Collection has been established at his alma mater, Fitchburg State College in Fitchburg, Massachusetts, containing the writer's letters, manuscripts, and other professional papers. He is in good company, as The Salvatore Collection is situated alongside The Robert Cormier Library, which celebrates the writing career of the co-alum and esteemed author of young adult books.
Salvatore is an active member of his community and is on the board of trustees at the local library in Leominster, Massachusetts. He has participated in several American Library Association regional conferences, giving talks on themes including "Adventure fantasy" and "Why young adults read fantasy." Salvatore himself enjoys a broad range of literary writers including James Joyce, Mark Twain, Geoffrey Chaucer, Shakespeare, Dante, and Sartre. He counts among his favorite genre literary influences Ian Fleming, Arthur Conan Doyle, Fritz Leiber, and of course, J.R.R. Tolkien.
Born in 1959, Salvatore is a native of Massachusetts and resides there with his wife Diane, and their three children, Bryan, Geno, and Caitlin. The family pets include three Japanese Chins, Oliver, Artemis and Ivan, and four cats including Guenhwyvar.
When he isn't writing, Salvatore chases after his three Japanese Chins, takes long walks, hits the gym, and coaches/plays on a fun-league softball team that includes most of his family. His gaming group still meets on Sundays to play.