Interview: RA Salvatore

Fantasy author The creator of Drizzt Do'Urden has been heavily involved in the upcoming Rage of Demons storyline. Dragon+ spoke to him about his past, present and future...

When we speak to R.A. Salvatore he’s sitting in Castle Greyhawk, which is the name of a meeting room at Wizards of the Coast, rather than an actual castle. His journey to this fictional structure has, perhaps fittingly for a quest to a castle, been long, first getting involved with D&D thanks to a speculative book written in the early ’80s. Having sent it to a number of publishers, he carried on honing and rewriting his words, despite the standard rejection notices. Looking at the writer’s market to see which publishers were accepting manuscripts, he singled out TSR.

“Their book program was really ramping up because of Dragonlance, which was very, very hot in the late ’80s. So I sent my book in and they called me back and said, ‘We really like this but we don’t have any room in our schedule for independent novels, could you possibly set this in the Forgotten Realms?’ So I asked, what’s the Forgotten Realms? It wasn’t out yet. They only had one book printed and that was Doug Niles’ Darkwalker on Moonshae.

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“However, I couldn’t set that book in the realms. It wouldn’t have made any sense, because it started in our world and went to a future world and the Forgotten Realms isn’t connected to our world like that. So they said, ‘We really like your writing, would you like to audition? We need an author to do the second book.’ So I did an outline and a sample chapter and won the second book, which was The Crystal Shard. I remember I got the call on July 11th in 1987 saying, ‘Congratulations, you’re going to be an author.’ That was really cool. Of course, the bad news was they needed the book October 1st, so it was a crazy couple of months.”

That must have been a great call to get, despite the burden of work…

At the time I was working a full-time job an hour from home, so I was gone ten-and-a-half hours a day. I had a three-year-old, a two-year-old and my wife was seven months pregnant. I had to get a new apartment, because the one we had was suddenly too small and a new car because you can’t put three car seats in the back of a Mustang GT. So I said, ‘No problem!’ and wrote the book. When you want something badly enough and the opportunity presents itself, you’ll find a way.

You came to fantasy through Tolkien. Were you drawn to that or was it recommended to you?

My sister gave me a copy of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings for Christmas in 1977. I was a freshman at college and a couple of months later New England got buried by a blizzard, so I was trapped at my mother’s house for a week. School was cancelled, college was cancelled, but I wasn’t trapped at the house. I went away to Middle-earth. An amazing thing happened: I remember reading the wonderful introduction to that, which was done by Peter S. Beagle, and I started to remember all the reasons why I used to read so much when I was a kid and I had lost that through school. Then I read The Hobbit and from word one it got me and my mind went away on this adventure – I was in Middle-earth. And it was an amazing experience. I went back to school and changed my major from math/computer science to communications media, because all of my electives then became literature courses. I was reading everything I could get my hands on – Chaucer, Shakespeare, anything. Of all the courses I was taking, Joyce was my favourite.

But I never gave up on fantasy because Tolkien had done that to me, he’d brought me back. So I read everything out there and there really wasn’t that much at that time; the Shannara books by Terry Brooks, and the Stephen Donaldson Lord Foul’s Bane books, and Michael Moorcock. But I ran out of books to read and so I wrote my own. And that’s how I got into the business.

Is it true you previously worked as a bouncer?

I paid my way through college as a bouncer. It was funny because I was at San Diego Comic-Con a few years ago and David Gemmell was there and I love his books, and I’d never met him before. So we got to talking about our histories and we had done all of the same jobs: he was a mailman, I was a mailman; he was a bouncer, I was a bouncer, at the same times in our lives. He was a few years older than me but it was very strange watching the progression.

Do you still call upon that experience to write your fight scenes?

Yes, but it’s not so much the fights I was in as a bouncer, it’s just the way I approach my life. I love watching sports and the way the human body moves. To me, it’s poetry. It’s all about balance. I grew up watching the Ali/Frazier fights and I was a big hockey fan and played hockey, as well as being a bouncer and a boxer in high school. But just watching athletes and how they perform and the things they can do with their bodies has always fascinated me and when I’m doing a fight scene I always come back to that, to the balance. Where’s his feet? That’s all that matters. If his feet are in the right place, he’s OK. If they’re not, he’s in trouble.

What’s your writing process like?

It’s changed a lot over the years. At first I was writing while I was at work and if I had ten minutes I would jot down some notes for a paragraph and come home and form the paragraph. When the kids were little and I was now a fulltime writer I would write with my two-year-old daughter on my lap. It then became very routine because the kids were going to school. I would get up in the morning and get the kids off to school and I knew I had X number of hours before the first one came home.

Now that the kids are grown and out of the house it’s gone back to being more freeform. I’ll have the laptop with me and I’ll be watching a baseball game and I’ll write when the other team is batting. Or I’ll be watching a TV show and I hate commercials so as soon as they come on I write. Or I’ll go up in my office and put music on and just go away for two hours. Or I’m on a plane and I put my headphones on and try and forget I’m on this little flying thing 30,000 feet off the ground and I go away to the world and write.

At this point in time I don’t have a lot of structure to it anymore, although the way I compose a book is still the same. But the way I go about finding the time to compose the book is very loose now.

You created the character Drizzt Do’Urden. Did you have an inkling of how popular he would be with readers? Or was that a really nice surprise?

A little bit of both. This was back in ’87 when they wanted a sample chapter and I had actually used a character from Doug Niles’ book which was the only printed material they had on the Realms, Darkwalker on Moonshae. Doug’s character introduced the hero of my book, Wulfgar, and then that character was going to go off-screen because I didn’t want to use other people’s characters. Of course, they said, ‘We don’t want you on the Moonshae Isles.’ I was like, ‘Do you want me in the water?’ Because the book only had the isles. They said ‘No, no, no’ and they sent me the maps of the Realms and I realized we’re thousands of miles away from there.

I then got this phone call at work and it was Mary Kirchoff – she was the editor who pulled me out of the slush pile – saying I needed a sidekick for Wulfgar because you can’t use Daryth. And I said, ‘I didn’t want to use Daryth, I never did. I’ll come up with something and I’ll call you next week.’ She says, ‘No I need it now.’ I was at work and it was almost lunchtime so I thought I wouldn’t take lunch, I’d come up with a character and I’d call her right after. She says, ‘You don’t understand, I’m late for a meeting with the sales force and I need to sell them on your book. I need a sidekick for Wulfgar.’ And off the top of my head I said a Dark Elf. I don’t know how or why because it’s nobody I’ve played in a game and I don’t know where it came from.

There’s a long pause and she says, ‘Like a drow?’ and I say, ‘Yeah, like a drow. A drow ranger – that’ll be cool, nobody’s done that before.’ She’s like, ‘There’s probably a reason nobody’s done that…’ and I’m trying to convince her this will be cool. It just happened. She said, ‘Ok, he’s a sidekick and I’m late for a meeting and I’ll let you get away with it. Well, what’s his name?’ And I said, ‘Drizzt Do’Urden of D’aermon N’a’chezbaernon, the Ninth House of Menzoberranzan.’ She said, ‘What?’ and I said, ‘I have no idea.’ And I didn’t! She said, ‘Can you spell it?’ and I said ‘No.’ So it just happened and I didn’t think anything of it, it’s a sidekick character. Then I started writing the book and on page two I knew it was his book, I knew it wasn’t Wulfgar’s. And that was quite an experience, it really took my breath away when I realised just how much this character had begun to resonate with me.

And then I remember when I was writing the third book, The Halfling’s Gem, and they told me to tie everything up because people were sick of these characters. Then they got overwhelmed with fan mail, because people wanted to know where the Dark Elf came from. So they told me to tie it up in 1989 and here we are in 2015 writing books. It completely caught me by surprise and how much I cared about the character caught me by surprise as well.

And Drizzt now features when the Forgotten Realms appears in other formats…

I remember I was playing Baldur’s Gate and I saw Drizzt and I was as surprised as anyone. So of course, I tried to kill him and take his stuff and he wiped out my party. But I’ve been working with some of the licensees to do certain things.

Tell me about your new novel, Archmage?

It’s going to kick off the big Rage of Demons storyline and it’s basically when the archmage Gromph Baenre reaches a little too deep and does something really bad. There’s a whole lot of side stories going on – I’ve got the Dwarves trying to retake Gauntlgrym from House Xorlarrin of the drow – but at the top level it is really, ‘What’s this button do?’ And he shouldn’t have pushed the button, but he did.

This leads in as the first book of the Homecoming trilogy; the second book I’m working on right now and that’ll be out sometime in spring 2016. But really this whole trilogy is about Drizzt coming to terms with the second life of his companions and what that means. He’s been doing everything he’s needed to do, but is now taking a step back from that life and asking himself, ‘What do I want to do? What life do I want to have with Catti-brie this time around?’ So there’s a lot of introspection going on, there’s a lot of joy and it’s surrounded by other chaos. It’s challenging and it’s a lot of fun, but that’s usually when I know I’m doing good work.

Is there any aspect of the Realms that you’ve wanted to write about but haven’t covered yet?

Plenty. There are still so many aspects of the Realms that I would like to explore. I wanted to write a trilogy of books set back in Myth Drannor. I wrote a short story, and then that never happened. Cadderly was actually going to use his magic to commune with the cat and serve as the voice of the cat, as Guenhwyvar told Drizzt her earliest recollections when she was created by the dark elf Triel Baenre back in Myth Drannor. Because I really love Myth Drannor – it’s pure Realms and pure fantasy.

I also really wanted to do a lot more with the Bloodstone lands and I’ve been there a few times. I actually wrote the source book for the Bloodstone lands for D&D second edition. I love that area. It was one of the places I wanted to set The Crystal Shard because the glacier is actually in the Bloodstone Lands. But that didn’t happen. So I’ve been able to go there a few times but I’ve never been able to explore it in the way that I’ve wanted to.

Archmage, Homecoming, Book I by R.A. Salvatore is released on September 1st, 2015.