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Interview with Author R. A. Salvatore

Posted on May 30, 2006 by Flames

How did you get started as an author?

I wrote a book. In the end, there’s only one way to be a writer, and that’s to write. I hear from people all the time who say, “I have a good idea for a story. Do you know where I can get someone to pay me to write it?”

The answer is no. If you want to write, sit down and write.

For me, I started writing out of frustration and boredom. I had fallen back in love with reading in college, mostly because of Tolkien’s work. So fantasy was my thing, at that time. I went out and read every fantasy book I could find – Brooks, Donaldson, Moorcock, McCaffery – and then I ran out. At the time, to my ultimate frustration, I was working at a purely mechanical job in a plastics’ factory. So, with nothing to read in the genre, I made my own. I’d go to work each day and physically do the job, but my mind was in another world.

Has your writing style changed since then?

Oh, of course, and it still is continually changing. Think about the Annie Hall shark analogy. If I wasn’t learning and trying new things, it’d be over. Writing is communication; grammar is a set of tools, not rules. You manipulate those tools to say what you want, then sit back and see if it worked. Fine tune it here, throw out some things over there….

For example, for years I, and anyone else working in a shared world, game world, hear the criticism of “dungeon crawl.” Like most clichés, that one has any real meaning, and is often just a lazy way to insult. Well, I wanted to see what a “dungeon crawl” really might be, so I wrote one: Promise of the Witch King. It was an experiment, a little teasing of the tried and true adventure line. A funny thing happened: I had a blast, and so did most of the readers, if feedback is to be believed. Will I do it again? Probably not, but I’ll certainly take some of the lessons from that book, particularly regarding pacing, and incorporate them into future works.

What challenges are there when writing in the Forgotten Realms setting?

Obviously continuity with other authors/game designers/products is a huge challenge. I’ve been writing these books for almost 20 years now, and the game which serves as the “rules” background for the world has gone through several huge makeovers. I started with 1st edition, and now we’ve gone through 2nd, 3rd and 3.5. Spells have change, monsters have changed, and most challenging for me (and it’s probably my fault – no wait, it’s Drizzt’s fault – yeah, let’s blame him!), the dark elves have changed. With infravision no longer part of the rules, do I have to go back and rewrite Homeland?

It’s a continual balancing act for all of us, particularly those of us who have been around for so long and who do not work at WotC. I don’t know the changes coming along from week to week, and usually I hear about rules violations in my books after the books are off to press.

And of course, I’m dealing with many new readers, who have no concept of 1st edition. They’ll read The Crystal Shard and write me heartfelt letters about how Wulfgar and Drizzt couldn’t possibly beat a white dragon, because the dragon is Challenge Rating 25 and they’re only level so-and-so. I feel for their confusion, but am I supposed to copy and paste the 1st edition Monster Manual’s description of the beast? So it is indeed a challenge to remain consistent with what I’ve done and with where the world is now.

But hey, that’s the fun of it, too. This isn’t my playground (I still think of it as Ed Greenwood’s), and I’m just thrilled to be able to participate. It can get frustrating, particularly when some other material, of which I had no knowledge, contradicts what’s in my work, but my editor explained it best. He considers each author’s work to be like a campaign the author is playing in the Forgotten Realms.

The upside of it all, of course, is that I get to play off the ideas of people like Ed, and Gary Gygax and all the rest. I get to stand on the shoulders of giants. I didn’t create the dark elves, obviously, and while I did create their great city of Menzoberranzan, and the culture therein, much of that played off the wonderful old modules that followed the giant series.

When I wrote Streams of Silver, I had my companions traveling through a little place called Longsaddle. There wasn’t much about it in the sourcebook, but there was one comment that gave me an idea. So I fleshed it out and called Ed Greenwood, and he and I laughed and laughed as I read to him my interpretation of the outrageous Harpell family. Great fun.

The challenges are usually greatly overwhelmed by the pleasure of the creative environment.

As Drizzt and his companions have grown in power and skill how do you keep the challenges they face fresh and interesting?

Well, they have grown as a team, no doubt. It’s undeniable that a group going through such trials and surviving will become more proficient in their teamwork. But I don’t look at the books that way, and honestly, being tied to a gaming environment (not just D&D, but MMORGs and single-player computer games, as well) makes things a bit more difficult.

Here’s the thing: if, in any of the aforementioned games, your low-level character sticks a high-level guy in the back with a dagger, he’ll turn around and rip you apart. In the real world, if you walk up behind someone and thrust a dagger between his shoulder-blades, well, he’s going down hard. There are no “levels” and hit points don’t count for much.

So one thing I’ve tried to avoid like the plague for Drizzt and the gang is the “next book, bigger monster” syndrome. The last Drizzt series was mostly about orcs, including one rather unusual orc king. During the large-scale battles, many dwarves were cut down, and the orcs pushed them from their entrenchment. In the personal battles, I tried to keep Drizzt – who was in his finest fighting form – running as much as fighting. He attacked the orcs in surprise, furious assaults, and his only chance was to keep ahead of their organized defenses.

It does become a dilemma, though. If I have the friends kill a dragon, I’ll get the “oh sure” letters, but if I have them routed by orcs, I’ll get the “Orcs? You’re kidding! They got beat by orcs!” letters. Ah well.

How did the War of Spider Queen series come about?

The idea was the brainchild of Phil Athans, my editor. Honestly, it took them a long time to talk me into signing along on it. In the end, the idea that I could help some other writers get some much-needed exposure is what won out, and so I agreed. At that point, I flew out for a meeting in Seattle, where a group of us – Phil, myself, Rich Baker, Thomas Reid, Richard Lee Byers and others – created the general story arc for the series. After that, my role became that of content editor, mostly making sure that the parts which took place in Menzoberranzan kept the place where I wanted it for future works.

Are there areas (or characters) of the Realms that you hope to explore in the future?

At this point, not really. I’m in the Bloodstone Lands with Entreri and Jarlaxle – that’s a place I’ve wanted to explore for a long time now. I’d like to go back to Menzoberranzan in the future, but for a book that would take place long before the birth of Drizzt, when Zaknafein and Jarlaxle were friends. And of course, I’ve always got Icewind Dale. Sometimes it’s good to go home.

Are you currently playing the Forgotten Realms RPG (or any other RPGs)?

Actually, I’m taking a break from gaming at the moment. We’ll be back to D&D soon enough, though I don’t know if we’ll be in the Realms or not. That’s up to the DM, and fortunately, that’s not me right now.

There are a few computer games set in the Realms, of course, but I’ve been through those. Heck, I wrote one (Forgotten Realms: Demon Stone).

Do you feel the fantasy genre has changed since you first wrote The Crystal Shard?

Oh of course it has, and dramatically and in many different ways, both good and bad. First of all, when I started writing, the women in the books were either chicks in chainmail or damsels in distress, for the most part. Of course, at that time the audience was almost exclusively male. That too, thankfully, has changed!

I do believe that the fantasy genre took itself less seriously back in the 80’s and early 90’s. Don’t get me wrong, there were very serious writers like Donaldson and Moorcock strutting their skills back then. But I think that the audience was more interested in escapism and adventure. Now, if I hear one more author proclaiming his work to be “grittier” or “darker,” I think I’ll punch him. Hard.

I also believe –and this might be mostly because of the internet – that the audience has segmented much more. It’s not enough to like so-and-so, you have to hate (and actively campaign against) another so-and-so. There’s a cynicism that comes with maturity, I guess.

I’m seeing it with computer games, as well. MMORGs are now quickly dominated by “guilds” who treat the games like a competitive sport, not only to be the first to kill this monster or that, but to farm out and dominate the economy. To each his own.

For me, fantasy was, is, and always shall be, first and foremost, an escape, a way to forget CNN or an argument with a friend or a bad day. I read fantasy to go away on an adventure with characters I’d like to know. I read fantasy because in there, I can believe that I exist in a world where I really can make a difference.

The most positive change in today’s fantasy genre has to be the growth of shelf space, and thus, of different types of writing. There are many varied voices in the genre now, as opposed to twenty-five years ago, when you could read the entire fantasy section of a bookstore in a couple of weeks. There’s room now for the world-building epics of Jordan and Martin, the philosophical renderings of Terry Goodkind, the adventure and storytelling of Terry Brooks, Weis and Hickman and David Eddings, the strange journeys of China Mieville, the truly gritty exposition of Matthew Woodring Stover and the beautiful word-smithing of Connie Willis and Tad Williams. So many wonderful voices – too many to name here!

There are opportunities for new voices now as never before, and not just with formally published novels. We’ve got many internet fan fiction sites, great storytelling in games, and even amazing exchanges in message boards.

So has it changed? Tremendously.

What I find refreshing at the moment is watching the rise of fantasy in Eastern Europe. They seem to be where we were 15-20 years ago, where they’re all just laughing and having a rollicking good time. It’s fun to be a part of that.

What has been your most challenging novel so far? Why?

Homeland was intense, and it’s still my favorite Drizzt book. Putting all the pieces of that strange place together and making them work had me pulling out my hair for months. Another tough FR book was Spine of the World, and I knew when I wrote it that half of my readers were going to hate it. I did it anyway, because I felt it was needed for the story.

Both of my Star Wars books were tough. With the first one, aside from the major plot point I had to put in (one that sent death threats and colorful invectives fluttering my way), I was entering a galaxy far, far away that was beyond anything I had anticipated. With the movie novelization….well, it was a movie novelization and those always make a creative guy cringe.

For all of that, however, the toughest book I ever wrote remains Mortalis, the fourth book in the seven book DemonWars Saga that defines the world I call my own. Mortalis wasn’t even in the original 6-book, two-trilogy concept for the work, but when I started writing the first book of the second trilogy; I realize that I needed a bridge. None of that back story is what made it tough, however. Mortalis exhausted me because I wrote it during the time my best friend, my brother Gary, was dying of cancer. All of my hopes and all of my fears just spilled out on the page. It was cathartic, but it was draining. Completely draining. I still haven’t been able to go back and read the book. I almost did a couple of years ago, but then my friend, the guy who painted the cover for me (mostly as a favor – he was working with game companies and had no desire to go back and do covers for novels) passed away. My wife had bought me that cover years before for my birthday. I have it hanging in my library. Every time I look at it, I think of Gary and of Keith Parkinson.

What can you tell us about the creative process you go through while working on a new project?

It differs from project to project. With books in a long-running series, I have to sit back and try to figure out why I’m writing the next one. Where will the characters go and what will they learn? If it’s a new series, I want to know what will make it different from what I’ve done before.

Sometimes I just want to mess with the formula. For example, when I wrote “Promise of the Witch King,” I wanted to experiment with a true dungeon crawl. That was the whole point of the book (well, that and setting up the characters for their swan song). I wanted to create a singular adventure, a classic sword and sorcery romp. I figured that I could pull this off with Entreri and Jarlaxle.

Honestly, I had a blast writing it, and the response has been very positive. I don’t know that I’ll do it that way again – too many books to write, too little time – but hey, I had to give it a go, just once.

Normally the process, after I’ve identified the point, is to create a general outline. I think of it as a telephone pole. Then, as I write the book, this pole grows branches and leaves in all of these strange and unexpected directions. Maybe it will grow straight and I’ll end up where I anticipated, and maybe not, and that’s okay, because in the end I just follow the story wherever it leads. Seriously, I do. That’s the fun for me. People ask me where Drizzt will be in five years….how would I know? Most of the time, I don’t even know what’s coming in the next chapter!

How long does a creative project of yours take to complete?

It very much depends on the project. For the series books, between four and seven months. I’m committed to a “Drizzt” book a year – I think that’s the right pacing for my audience.

When I go outside of that series, it usually takes longer. My DemonWars’ novels were twice the word count of the Drizzt books. They involved many, many more characters, created from scratch (as opposed to these characters I’ve known and loved for nearly 20 years), and through that seven-book series, I had to define an entire world, its magic, geography, races, gods, political and social structures. I spent several months just jotting down notes before I ever started writing those and each of the books took more like eight months to construct.

What can you tell us about Dragons: Worlds Afire?

Only that it’s got four novellas, including my own. For my work, I did a Forgotten Realms’ story that takes place in the setting, the Bloodstone Lands, where my last novel and my next one are set, but long before Artemis Entreri and Jarlaxle show up on the scene. The story is completely independent, with a beginning, middle and end, but those who have read Promise of the Witch King will know where the events within the story will lead.

The other thing about the Dragons book….the artwork is spectacular.

What’s next for you?

I’m finishing up the tales of Artemis Entreri and Jarlaxle this October, with the release of Road of the Patriarch (together with Servant of the Shard and Promise of the Witch King, this book completes the “Sellswords Trilogy”).

Also this fall, my old Crimson Shadow Trilogy will be put together in a single-volume omnibus edition from Warner Books.

Also this fall, Dabel Brothers will adapt my DemonWars book, The Highwayman into comic book and then graphic novel format. I can’t wait to see what they do with it. After the success (continuing) of the Legend of Drizzt comics by Devil’s Due, I’ve decided to get much of my work into this exciting format. I can’t believe what these writers and artists can accomplish in so few pages. Devil’s Due did an amazing job with Homeland and Exile; I can’t wait to see Sojourn!

I’ve just started writing the book for October, 2007. It’s back to Drizzt and the gang, picking up the story after The Two Swords. There’s a lot of story left to tell there. I get into trouble sometimes because Wizards of the Coast want to package all of the books trilogies or quartets or quintets or whatever, but for the Drizzt books, I don’t think of them that way. I’m just following these guys along this wonderful, winding road. There are storylines that begin and end in a single book, or go through two or three or fifteen – I just don’t know and I don’t want to know.

That’s what makes the road so much fun.

For more information on R. A. Salvatore’s Forgotten Realms, Demon Wars and other projects visit RASalvatore.com!

Other Forgotten Realms related interviews on Flames Rising include James Lowder and Paul S. Kemp.

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