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INTERVIEW: R. A. Salvatore

R.A. Salvatore is best known as the creator of the dark elf Drizzt, one of the fantasy genre’s most beloved characters. With over 15 million books sold in the U.S. alone, more than four dozen books to his credit, 24 New York Times bestsellers and numerous game credits, Salvatore has become one of the most important figures in modern epic fantasy. His first published novel was The Crystal Shard in 1988. Since that time, Salvatore has published numerous novels, including the New York Times bestselling The Halfling’s Gem, Sojourn, and The Legacy. His latest novel, Neverwinter, continues Drizzt’s story. Salvatore’s website is rasalvatore.com.


John Ottinger: As you look over the past twenty odd years of writing Drizzt stories, how would you say Drizzt Do’Urden has changed? How much of that is a reflection of your own personal growth and changing ideas?

R. A. Salvatore: He’s gone through a myriad of…I guess the best word is perspectives. In the early days, after he figured out the truth of Menzoberranzan and simply couldn’t live with it, he was a bit reckless, with little to nothing to lose.

Through the middle books, surrounded by love and friendship, Drizzt became a more cautious warrior.

Now? Now, who knows? He’s vulnerable and full of contradictions. He’s angry, but he’s relieved, he’s alone but he’s free, he’s grieving but he’s intrigued. Most of all, he’s a blank slate once more, and into that void comes Dahlia, among others, who is not quite akin to the type of lover or friend Drizzt is used to having around.

The more complete answer (and to your second point) is, yes. I’ve come to see my writing – all of it – not as something I do, but as who I am. I use my work to ask myself all the big questions of life, and a character like Drizzt becomes a sounding board, a way to help me sort things out. So as I see the world, so too will my characters, either in agreement or in loud argument.

JO: Since you first began writing, the world of the Forgotten Realms has undergone significant changes. What have been some of your favorite Realms-shaking events?

R. A. Salvatore: Tough question. My favorite D&D Edition is 1st and I’m quite enamored of the original Forgotten Realms gray boxed set. Putting those two facts together likely makes me a pain in the butt to those designers shaking things up. I guess I’d have to go with how Ed Greenwood and Troy Denning handled the situation with King Azoun, but then again, whenever Ed is involved in the changes, I like them. It’s his world, after all.

In my own work, I love the fall of Luskan; it sets the region up for some great dungeoning potential, with ramifications far beyond the borders of the City of Sails. Flattening Neverwinter City in Gauntlgrym was quite a bit of fun.

On a larger scale, the rise of the Kingdom of Many-Arrows presents enormous possibilities to players and DM’s. Those gray areas make for enjoyable storytelling.

JO: In the Neverwinter Saga, you create a foil for Drizzt in the character of Dahlia, what led you to decide to match the noble hero with the pragmatic sorcereress? Why not just pair Drizzt with someone more companionable and compatible as with the Companions of the Hall?

R. A. Salvatore: I don’t know that I’d call her a foil. She seems quite the opposite at the moment. Nor would I describe her as pragmatic or as a sorceress. She’s more like an unstable, self-loathing, angry warrior with a chip on her shoulder the size of the Great Glacier. She is ruled by her past and constantly picking at that most painful scar. Perhaps on some level she can love Drizzt, but for the most part, he’s a way to get what she wants, as warped as that might be.

Again, the crux of your question is best answered in the last part. For most of his life, Drizzt has surrounded himself with people of similar moral character – friends who would take an arrow aimed for him as surely as he would save those at the cost of his own life. Now, with Dahlia, and with others who will appear on the scene, not so much.

The question, then, is whether Drizzt will lift them up to his moral level, or whether they will drag him down. We’ve all seen this in our own lives – a friend who falls in with the wrong crowd, a relative who has fallen in love with someone you know will bring them pain. I honestly don’t know the answers yet, which is what makes all of this so much fun for me.

JO: Is Barrabus the Gray the new Artemis Entreri?

R. A. Salvatore: You tell me. There’s nothing hidden about Barrabus; I’ve laid out who he is and what he’s all about pretty clearly in the last book, and throughout this one. Was Morik the Rogue the new Artemis Entreri in Spine of the World?

The best way to answer this is to assure you that the characters in my books don’t fill roles – Dahlia is not the new Catti-brie, by any means, whether or not she becomes Drizzt’s lover. Dahlia is Dahlia, Catti-brie is Catti-brie, Barrabus is…kind of gray.

JO: In Gauntlgrym, you had to say goodbye to some characters you had written about for a long time. Was it especially hard to let these characters go?

R. A. Salvatore: Absolutely. In both Gauntlgrym and the book before it, The Ghost King, the world of Drizzt Do’Urden changed dramatically. The characters aren’t just letters on a page to an author (if hes doing his job right, they’re not just letters on a page to the readers, either!). When I say goodbye to a character, it’s like losing a friend – in the case of the Drizzt books now, an old friend.

I follow the story. The story tells me what to do. When it hurts badly, I know I’m in a powerful place, for myself and for my readers, and so I try to do it the best way I can. If you read the forward to The Ghost King, understand that I meant every word. I would wake up every morning and go to YouTube and watch those three videos – Stevie Nicks singing “Rhiannon” in her White Wing Dove tour, Fleetwood Mac’s “Sisters of the Moon” from 1982, and Stevie Nicks again doing “Has Anyone Ever Written Anything For You?” Those songs put me in a time and place of great emotion. I vowed that I would never go back there, but I had to so that I could do justice to characters I’ve come to love as friends.

Yeah, it hurt like hell.

JO: The Neverwinter Saga has a significant number of characters, events, and perspectives. What writing method do you use to keep them all in order?

R. A. Salvatore: I don’t think there are that many side-plots and characters, certainly not as many as in my DemonWars Saga, for example. But still, organization is a primary trait for a novelist. You have to be able to compartmentalize, to keep in mind what you did on page 3 while you’re writing page 300. Writing a novel is as much of an organizational challenge as it is a literary one.

So I don’t keep detailed notes or anything like that while I’m rolling along. Even though I’m surprised by where the story takes me on almost every page, my books follow a logical course, each action building on the next. There are times I forget names, or specifics, and in those moments, the power of the computer comes into play. How many earrings did Dahlia have? Search function.

But that’s for the little facts and tidbits. For the larger story, keeping it straight is a matter of organization; it’s what writers do.

JO: What has been your favorite scene to write in the Neverwinter Saga so far?

R. A. Salvatore: If I describe it too deeply, I’m creating a huge spoiler, so I’ll just tickle the basics: a nightmare carrying two riders, leaping down from on high in pursuit, while a dark-elven archer looks on and lets fly with an arrow that sizzles like a lightning bolt.

The visual of that moment has been burned into my thoughts from the moment I wrote it, because it reveals so much about what has gone on, and hints at so much of what is yet to come.

Other than that one flash of imagery, there are some scenes early on in the book with a farmer woman that I find particularly important, and relevant, given the world in which we live.

JO: Do you have a favorite “fan moment” where an encounter with a fan left you feeling that you had done something great in creating Drizzt?

R. A. Salvatore: I do. Lots of them, but not always about Drizzt. I had a guy come up to me at a signing for The Highwayman. Now,, the Highwayman is an unusual hero because he has to deal with a terrible physical affliction, one he can sometimes briefly overcome through a combination of magic, sheer will and discipline, and difficult training.

This character touched that particular reader quite profoundly because of an issue with his son, one he was determined that his beloved son would overcome. I’ll leave it at that. Suffice it to say that over the years, I’ve heard from kids who had no friends, from people with cancer, from soldiers serving overseas, from people who found my books in other dark situation and used my work to help them through it – all of those humble me and remind me how privileged I am to be let into someone’s life, if only for a tiny bit.

Because of Drizzt, I got to meet an incredibly courageous and optimistic young man named Adam. Life had dealt this kid one blow after another, to which he would shrug and say that he’s going to get through it, like he always did before. No self-pity, no “why me?” Just a grit and killer smile that was as infectious as anything I’ve ever seen.

The world is full of heroes, full of courageous people going through their lives in the face of adversity and great challenge, and often with amazing resilience and even great humor. Because of my work, I’ve gotten to meet or correspond with so many of them. How lucky am I?

JO: What takeaways do you want readers to have when they close the pages of a Drizzt Do’Urden novel?

R. A. Salvatore: I want them to feel like they’re returning from a visit with old friends or family. That’s how I feel when I write the books. Going back to Drizzt, Bruenor and the gang was like going home for Thanksgiving, only without the family annoyances!

An editor once told me that she thought I was so successful because I had given readers a band of lovable characters with whom they’d like to adventure. Yeah, I get that, mostly because I’d love to be walking the road beside these folks.

So when someone closes a Drizzt book, I want them to be sad that the visit’s over, but content to know that Thanksgiving will come again next year.

JO: You have now written a video game and a comic book series as well as your successful novels. What are the challenges/rewards of writing in different formats, and do you have a favorite memory from working in these alternate mediums?

R. A. Salvatore: The biggest difference with a comic book is that I have to explain to the artist what I want to get out of the visuals – comics tell more with images than with words. It’s a bit of a challenge, sure, because when I’m writing a novel, I’m trying to give the readers just enough to fill in the blanks, to participate in the scene, while I have to complete the scene with a comic.

For video games, the biggest challenge is to not overstep my boundaries, much as when I’m DM’ing a D&D game. In my books, I invite you to live vicariously through my characters as they walk the road of adventure. In a video game, however, I always have to keep in mind that the most important character in the game is the one the player creates. My job is to give him or her a believable, consistent, beautiful, warm and dangerous world in which to immerse himself/herself.

I have a million great memories working with 38 Studios, and I’m making new ones all the time. The best moment was when I walked into Curt Schilling’s office, sat down by his desk and told him, “My work is done.”

I had just come from a content team meeting. Every week, we’d get all the designers together and they’d give me the Reader’s Digest version of what they were working on. For the first few months, from late 2006 into 2007, my most common response was to bring out the green binder, our world bible, and slap it on the table, reminding them of the parameters of our world, forcing them to tell me how their “cool” idea fit. We were in the process of buying into this IP we had creating, of truly embracing it, including the boundaries and the flavor of the place.

Well, this one morning, we went around the table and I didn’t need that green binder once. That’s when I knew that everyone was buying in. That’s when I realized that we were doing something very special.

JO: Neverwinter, book II of the Neverwinter Saga comes out in October. What other projects do you have in the works that you can tell us about?

R. A. Salvatore: I’m almost (about 80%) done with the next book in the series, whose title is still under advisement (which means I’m arguing with Wizards of the Coast over what we should call it). Other than that, I’ve got a lot of irons hovering over the fire, but I’m not putting any of them into the heat just yet. I want to stay agile, because there are a lot of things going on, none of which I can talk about, that I will most definitely want to be a part of should they come to fruition.

I’ll continue with the Drizzt books, of course. I’ll go back to DemonWars in the not-too-distant future. I love that place, and hey, it’s all mine to play with, or blow up, as I see fit. I’ll do more work with 38 Studios, of course. I’m just not sure of the next project right now.