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[INTERVIEW] R. A. Salvatore on Drizzt, Artemis Entreri and Charon’s Claw

R. A. Salvatore is best known for his Forgotten Realms novels, in which he created the popular character Drizzt Do’Urden,his independent series The DemonWars Saga, and Vector Prime, the first novel in the Star Wars: The New Jedi Order series. He is also the story creator for the videogame Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning. He has sold more than 15 million copies of his books in the USA alone and twenty-two of his titles have been New York Times best-sellers. Find him online at rasalvatore.com.


John Ottinger III: You have worked in several mediums, including video games as well as novels and short stories. While the forms your narratives take may differ, you are generally applauded as an expert fantasist. So I expect you have come to some clear ideas about what makes for a great fantasy story. How would you describe such a work? What divides a good fantasy from a great one?

R. A. Salvatore: If you asked ten readers that question, you’d probably get ten different answers. I won’t presume to speak authoritatively on this, but I’ll tell you what I like to read (and write). Most of all, I care about the characters. To me a good story in any genre begins there. I want someone to call a friend, or someone to loathe as an enemy (and it gets really good when I start looking deeper at that enemy and begin to see that maybe he’s not that different from me, or maybe there’s redemption or at least understanding to be found).

When I care about a hero, his dangerous encounters put me on the edge of my seat. When I don’t particularly care for a hero, I root for the dragon, of course.

Fantasy is escapist fiction, so in addition to giving me great dangers to overcome, it has to give me a home worth defending. And then, with the heroes, friends worth fighting beside.

JTOIII: Whereas in most of your Drizzt novels, you surrounded him with characters of similar moral fiber, your new series, beginning with Gauntlegrym, literally forces Drizzt to depend on the assistance of enemies. Was this a pragmatic or a planned decision? Why?

RAS: It happened by accident, as with most of the events in my books, but once I saw that exact potential, I chased it down every side street I could find. You’ve hit the nail right on the head, and these developments force growth from Drizzt, either in reinforcing that which he knows to be true, or in seeing the world from a different, darker perspective. That’s been the main question, after all: will Drizzt bring Dahlia and the other new companions he’s found toward the light, will he try to mold them into the type of friends he knew for so long, or will they drag him down to their perspective, their (well-earned, admittedly) cynicism?

I’ve already written the book after Charon’s Claw, and I’m rolling along in the one after that, so I’m finally discovering the answer. I mean that honestly. I don’t pre-plan such developments, I follow their trail and the truth of the story is revealed to me as I go. Many times, I don’t know what will be on the next page of a novel, and I wouldn’t have it any other way. I think I write the way other people read, and that’s what makes it fun.

So now I understand the growth trajectory Drizzt will follow with these darker friends, but of course, I won’t tell you.

JTOIII: Drizzt, as the series has progressed, has become less the archetypal hero, and more conflicted not just about how he treats friends but also enemies. What led you to modify Drizzt’s character in this way?

RAS: I don’t think I have modified his character. He’s always been tolerant and always tried to see things from the perspective of a friend or an enemy. Now, though, with so much grief and loneliness hovering about him, he’s more vulnerable. No real person has so narrow a definition of mores that they couldn’t fall into the same patterns Drizzt has recently realized, particularly after such trauma.

I know a lot of readers have commented on the “changes” in Drizzt; I’m just not so sure they’re not mistaking the changes around Drizzt for those within. Now, there is a distinct possibility that Dahlia and the others will “win out” in the struggle I outlined in the previous question, and a pervading sense of cynicism can shake the roots of many people.

[SPOILER ALERT]

JTOIII: By now, most readers of the first two books in the Neverwinter series know that Artemis Entreri has returned. Why did you decide carry over the Entreri character into the post-Spellplague world instead of creating a new character? In other words, what does Entreri add to the Neverwinter trilogy that makes it essential to include him? How do you think the story would be different without Artemis?

RAS: To have Drizzt going through this darkening of his sensibilities would seem incomplete to me without Artemis Entreri. When I first introduced Entreri at the end of The Crystal Shard, he served as a hook so that I could land, hopefully, a sequel. As I wrote the next book, I came to understand that Entreri was who Drizzt might have become had he remained in Menzoberranzan. Entreri sees the surface world as wretched and evil as Drizzt viewed his homeland, except for Entreri, there was no escape. So he gave in to cynicism and hopelessness.

So I had to keep him around for this “transition.” To be honest, the other reason was because so many readers wanted to see more of him. I thought Entreri’s story fully told at the end of Road of the Patriarch, and said so in several interviews. Soon after, my e-mail began to fill up with letters from readers, some relating very personal stories of their own troubled early years, and all of them telling me that they had to see more of this guy, they had to watch him finally find peace, or finally just give up on that prospect. I think that this is the only time in my quarter-century as a working author where I’ve let the readers persuade me.

But they did, because Entreri touched a lot of people in ways I never imagined possible. They weren’t applauding his evil actions, certainly, but rather, were viewing his cynicism and cold-bloodedness as a dark place they had fought to avoid. Yes, those letters truly touched me.

And getting back to your question, without Artemis, this time in the life of Drizzt would not be complete.

[END SPOILER]

JTOIII: What part of writing do you find most difficult, if anything? And what do you do to move past it?

RAS: The hardest thing about being a writer is discipline. There are so many days when I just don’t feel like writing, but I know if I give in to that and take too much time away, getting back into a work is a difficult task. Sometimes it’s hard to shut out the real world and go away on these adventures.

Other than that, you won’t hear any complaints from me. I’m doing what I love, and I’ve come to recognize my writing as my own spiritual journey, as I, like everyone else, try to make sense of this life.

JTOIII: What scene in Charon’s Claw was your favorite to write?

RAS: Tough question. My first thought went to the edge of the primordial pit, but there was one other moment, the one which set up that scene much earlier in the book: the fight on the bridge in Neverwinter.

In that battle, I got to know several of the principles of the book much better, for good or ill, and it fully clarified my understanding of Entreri’s personal journey. That fight had it all – victory and failure, and became a poignant (and pointed) reminder to Drizzt of the tentative nature of his new arrangements.

JTOIII: What takeaways would you like readers of Charon’s Claw to have when they close the book?

RAS: Well, in every book at this point, I hope the story takes the readers to a good place back in time – for the older readers, maybe back to their D&D groups of the late 1980’s. I hope I get pulses pounding and surprise readers as often as possible, but in a way that makes sense.

For this book in particular, what I really want is for the readers to be left wondering where the story will go from here, not just in the practical matters of where the road of adventure might lead, but of how the surviving characters will grow together or apart. Are these folks destined to be heroic partners, or will they just kill each other and be done with it? More than many of my recent books, Charon’s Claw should raise more questions than it answers in this regard. If I’ve done that, I’m going to rock many readers to the core with The Last Threshold next March. That’s a promise.