Last week, I had the immense pleasure and honor to interview one of fantasy literature’s most prolific figures. RA Salvatore — famous for the Drizzt series — is running from coast to coast for the next few weeks to promote his newest book Neverwinter, the second title in the similarly titled trilogy. Before his tour, Salvatore graciously took an hour out of his busy schedule to talk with me about his new book, his past books, and his process as an author.
I think what impressed me most about Salvatore is his ability to break down his process casually. There is no pretension or fame recognition in his voice when he explains that his chief characters, namely Drizzt and Wulfgar, are his friends. And just like anyone who is invested in their companions’ lives, Salvatore writes these characters as though he’s been friends with them for decades and decades, like old college buddies that catch up on a daily basis over gchat. The man is sincere and honest about his characters and process; never once did I feel he was answering a question just to pander to fans. It really was an engaging hour that was over before I knew it.
Bob: First off, thank you Mr. Salvatore, for taking the time to speak with me today. Congratulations on such an enthralling character and over 20 years of continued success. I’m a huge fan of your work and have long been entranced with the Drizzt series. Your new book Neverwinter is slated for a global release on October 4; how long have you been working on this particular project?
RA: I finished the book around January or February of this year; normally, it takes me about six months to do a book. I’m about 80% done with the next book, which I want to call “The Walk of Barabas.” Neverwinter was an agreed-upon title for the second one, as it was a tie-in with the video game. I’ve always liked the name “Neverwinter”…and I liked the name Gauntlgrym with the first one.
B: The book Neverwinter is the second part of a trilogy of books. How did you feel about the reception of Gauntlgrym? How has it been nurturing a character’s evolution for over 20 years?
RA: The book before that– The Ghost King – I knew there was going to be some upset people. The Ghost King was a bigger punch in the gut, and it scares me how positive the feedback was. This is because people take stronger proprietary interests toward characters, like in Star Wars. I have to ask myself: do they still care or are they just going along with me? Drizzt is going into the next phase with the fans, and sometimes he throws curveballs at me. If it occurs to me if he seems to be doing anything out of character, it’s a hint to me that something else is going on. I want to ask him “What’s bugging you?” Maybe there’s something unresolved that I’m missing. If things seem amiss to him, it’s an indication that something is missing. As I read my own stories from the past, I recall emotionally where I was when I wrote it. The process of writing Drizzt has been an epiphany, a personal journey; this is my way of asking myself all the questions of life and searching for answers.
B: Some say that in Gauntlgrym, they enjoyed Drizzt because they felt he was becoming more “Drow”; how would you respond to this? For such a beloved character like Drizzt, how do you evolve him and his sensibilities over 20 books and two decades of adventures? Conversely, for newer characters – such as Dahlia – what steps do you take in their creation?
RA: People have a fascination with the dark side. One thing I’ve tried to do with the character (and this came about in The Crystal Shard when he was rescued by Bruenor) is to show that so many times we define the hero with the biggest sword/gun, but a hero is the guy with the biggest heart. This has been easy for Drizzt because he’s surrounded himself with similar characters. Now, he’s finding himself surrounded by people who take a different view in the world; maybe he’s being pulled a little into these grey areas. We’ve all experienced this in our lives; if you have friends who are hanging out with the wrong crowd, or a child dating someong that you’re not sure about, you can’t help but wonder, “will that person gravitate toward your family member’s values or will they take your family member to their values?” Does Drizzt help Dahlia find her better spirits or does she bring him to a darker place? There is a notion that we’re getting back to The Crystal Shard; we’re getting back to a character who didn’t care, but his friends around him do. He’s afraid and becomes very cautions, going from recklessness to caution. And now all of a sudden the canvas is clean; at the very least, that reckless side will take hold and the question is with someone like Dahlia who is so attractive to him, is she going to pull him into places he wouldn’t go?
With the ensemble of characters over the years, my old editor said that I’m giving readers adventure groups to play with. When I’m at a book signing and some high school kid says, “I don’t have any friends so thank you for these books.”…you don’t have any idea what that does to me; it hits me in the gut. To me, that’s the highest compliment.
Maybe I’m creating friends for myself when I’m writing.
I was given Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit as a Christmas present in 1977. I was a math major and not much of a reader because high school beat the love of reading right out of me. My sister gave me those books. Two months later we had the Blizzard of ’78 in Massachusetts; you could not get out and I was trapped. I went away to Middle Earth with a hobbit named Bilbo. I remembered the joy of reading for pleasure and changed my major, so all my electives could be literature classes.
B: We here at Pixelated Geek love your work, and several of our staff members – including myself – are reading through the Drizzt series furiously. On a personal level, what has been the most difficult choice you’ve had to make for a character in the series?
RA: The most difficult book I wrote was Mortalis (Demon Wars) because I wrote it when my brother was dying from cancer; that book is about a plague and hard choices. But, for a character, Wulfgar leaving the group was very hard. That has to rank up there. Furthermore, deciding whether or not Wulfgar was going to be gone for good was also challenging. Did he die or was he taken prisoner when the cavern collapsed? That was a difficult choice for me and for years I didn’t know the answer to it. Things other than the books determined that for me. Right before Passage of the Dawn I had a falling out with TSR over creative differences but I owed them one more book. I knew that anything I left hanging would be exploited by an editor. I knew that if I didn’t bring Wulfgar back, he wouldn’t be back later. I left them all purposefully in the state that I found them because I wasn’t going to leave any open ends for another writer. I want to write what’s in my heart and not let external factors influence me.
B: For our readers and subscribers, I was wondering if you’d take us through a brief summary of your writing process.
RA: It has changed a lot. I’m a lot less structured now because I’m an empty-nester. I’ll spend between one and two hours hitting the keys and doing the writing. The book does not leave me those other twenty-two hours, though, as much as I try sometimes. Sometimes I will lock myself in my office, play some instrumental music like George Winston, and really spend a couple hours trying to get through a plot twist. Every week I’ll have a day like that where I’m locked away. Sometimes I’ll be on the couch with my laptop nearby and picking and poking at the keys. It’s hard to define my process now: it used to be I had to do x-number of words. Now I stop and smell the roses a little bit. Because it’s much less formal now, I don’t worry about it as much. *laughs* There were times when I’d be at my kid’s hockey game, typing on a laptop in between periods.
Basically, I’m writing a book the way other people read a book. I don’t know what’s going to happen on the next page. Somebody on Facebook asked me, “When will the last Drizzt book be finished?” If I have it my way, the last book will be finished the day before I die. I don’t have anything specifically planned; there’s no meta-story in my head. I’m walking down the road of adventure with them.
B: Many of our readers are huge MMORPG fans and are excited about the forthcoming “Project Copernicus.” I was wondering if you could take a moment and talk about your work as an author for interactive entertainment. What do you do differently in terms of story creation for something like a first-person adventure game or a massive role-playing game?
RA: This is so all the designers could be painting on the same canvas; the deeper the threads the more sense it made. The deeper those histories the greater the consistency and it worked for Amalur. Everybody bought in. One of the things I kept making clear – like when you’re DMing – when I’m writing a book I’m giving you a group of characters that you can go down the road in their heads; you’re vicariously living through their minds. The most important character is yours in a game. The worst thing you can do as a DM is grabbing them by the noses and dragging them through. IN a video game, the philosophy I went in with was we’re going to create a world that makes sense and it’s beautiful and logical; if it makes logical sense it will be easier for the player to become immersed in the world. If they care about the world, when we put pressure on the world from the outside, they will react more strongly against those threats and they will care. Collectively as a server, you are writing your own story in this world.
B: Thank you for your time today, Mr. Salvatore. Before we go, any advice for budding fantasy writers?
RA: My advice is: if you can quit, quit. Writing is a curse. If you have to write and you have stories, you’ll never be happy unless you’re writing. If you don’t have that desire to tell those stories, the love of the craft, the need to do that and you try to be a writer (for business reasons that are totally bogus), the business side will destroy you because it’s ugly. It’s a thousand people vying for one spot. It’s self-publishing and trying to get more than 20 people to read your book. The writing has to sustain you. Listen to everything outloud that you’ve written, you’ll understand the pace of your writing a lot better. You can’t be lazy and hear the words. And find your own voice. Everything is your choice. Being a writer means making choices.
Neverwinter is out in hardcover now, and you can purchase it on any number of sites, including Amazon and Barnes & Noble Online. A twenty-minute Q&A with RA Salvatore entitled “Reckoning” will be out in February. Stay tuned!