The OF Blog: July 2004

Friday, July 30, 2004

R.A. Salvatore Interview

Below is an interview with R. A. Salvatore, many thanks to him personally and on behalf of the wotmania community for taking the time to answer all these questions so thorougly. I thought about getting into a big introduction to this interview or having something important to say... But then I realized it's late at night, I'm tired, and I should just let the interview speak for itself... Enjoy, it's a great one!

Could you maybe tell us a little about yourself, like how you got into the writing business to begin with, what inspired you to write fantasy, and maybe what you're working on at the moment?

I’m a working-class kid from a blue-collar New England family. My Dad worked for the Post Office and ran a small furniture business on the side. I was the youngest of seven (with five older sisters!), and so, out of simple necessity, I learned early on that I had to work hard for anything I wanted. It was a good lesson.

When I was very young, kindergarten and even pre-k, I was an avid reader and writer. I have an amazing collection of Charles Shultz’s “Peanuts” books, circa 1960's. It’s funny, but the older I get, the more convinced I am that Shultz got so many things exactly right. I would stay home from school often (I had an agreement with my Mom that I could, as long as I got good grades), huddled in my room with these and other books. I wrote books, too, most featuring new adventures with Snoopy.

I loved the world of imagination. I loved to read and to write, but then something happened. As I made my way through school, I kept getting handed books to read that didn’t excite me and didn’t even remotely connect to the realities of my life. “Silas Marner” or “Ethan Fromme” might be great works (I wouldn’t know, as I cannot bring myself to even crack either open), but to a 9th-grader, reading them was nothing more than tiresome work.

It got so bad that by the time I was graduated, the only reading I did was in order to get the grade and the only writing I did was in order to get the grade. I can remember exactly two pieces I wrote in high school that involved any sort of effort: a description of a swamp and a short story which was loosely inspired by “The Day of the Triffids” movie. That short story would become my first manuscript six-to-seven years later.

I started college as a Math/Computer Science major during the infancy of the computer revolution. That first year, 1977, my sister handed me a copy of the white boxed set of the four Tolkien books, “The Hobbit” and “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy. I still remember the look on her face when I asked her what they were about - remember, this was 1977 and there was no “fantasy” genre. The bookstores had maybe three shelves in one bay for “science-fiction” and the fantasy books (meaning Tolkien and the first Terry Brooks’ novel, usually) took up about a fifth of one shelf, if that.

A couple of months later, in February, 1978, New England got clobbered by the worst blizzard in history. Roads simply disappeared. I woke up that morning, hoping we wouldn’t have school (the weatherman said we might get a little snow). I looked out my bedroom window, down to the driveway and my treasured ‘69 Cougar, and low and behold, all I saw was a black spot! I thought my car had been stolen! Of course, when I got downstairs, I realized that the small black spot was the top of the car’s roof.

So we had no school - for the rest of the week. Trapped inside, I pulled out the books my sister had given me, and “WHAM,” my life changed. All I could think while I was reading was “why didn’t someone give me this book to read in the 9th grade?” When I got back to school, I immediately changed my major to Communications/Media, specializing in technical writing/journalism. This meant I would still focus on the math courses that served as my comfort zone, but it allowed me to take all of my electives in the literature area. I suddenly found myself craving those old feelings I used to know in my room with Snoopy and Charlie Brown.

I thought I would set the world on fire when I got out of college. I had done quite well in a field that was growing. Unfortunately, we got hit with a recession in 1981. Rather than working as a tech writer for a computer company, I found myself right back at my job in the factory, the job that had, along with bouncing in local nightclubs, had financed my college career. For eight-to-ten hours a day, I would stand on a metal bench beside a big metal table, loading lumps of scrap plastic into a grinder. It was honest work, certainly, but it was mindless. I was dying. To make things worse, I had run out of fantasy books to read. There was at that time, no Internet at all where I might find suggestions for further reading.

To save myself, I dug out that old short story from high school and spent my days losing myself in my imagination. Physically, I was working through the motions of grinding plastic, but mentally, I was far, far away. I was turning that old story into a world of my own, and a fantasy novel of my own. I never intended to be a professional writer; as the story developed, the one thing I had in my hopes was that this would be something tangible to separate me from the nameless, numbered masses. I would have something my grandkids could hold up to their kids and say, “Want to know more about your great-grandfather?”

When I finished the book, some friends read it and told me I should send it out. I hired my sister to type it (when I was in high school, you were either on a college track or a business track - the college track ignored typing) and went to the library to learn about submitting books. I sent it to all the usual suspects and got all the usual, and often brutal, rejection letters.

I’ve always been a fighter. If you tell me I can’t, I’ll die trying to prove you wrong. So, while I gave up the notions of publishing at that time, I never stopped editing and refining that book. A few years later, in 1987, I thought I had it ready to go out again. By this time, I was trying to build a career in finance and was married with two young sons. Back to the library I went, to see the updated market information for publishing. One of the places I sent the book was TSR, who had done the Dragonlance novel line, among others. Fortune was with me; not only did I land the book on the lap of an editor who liked my writing, I happened to land it at a time when TSR was looking for someone to write the second Forgotten Realms’ novel. They rejected my book, as they had no room in the schedule for original works, but they offered me the chance to audition for the second novel. “The Crystal Shard” and my writing career were born.

It’s continued to grow and evolve, to places I never imagined. Right now I’m working on the forward for the first Everquest book, by Scott Ciencin, and, well, I’m working on an interview….this interview.

Do you find that the worlds that you write tend to "write themselves," or do you write more to a well-planned or highly structured story?

Definitely they write themselves. It’s an amazing experience. It’s like the characters have come alive and are sitting on my shoulder talking to me, telling me their tales. I do my homework – when I wrote DemonWars, I spent six months just building the world – and I outline every book, but when I get rolling, the story takes on a life of its own.

I wouldn’t have it any other way. Writing a book for me, I expect, is very similar to the experience of reading the book for my readers. I don’t often know exactly what’s coming next, and that makes it more fun. And you know, for me, this entire genre is all about that; it’s all about having fun and getting away from the mundane world for just a little while.

In "The Dark Elf Trilogy, Collector's Edition" you mention that Drizzt (who practically invented himself) underwent the transformation from sidekick to primary hero the moment you began to write him in. Did Wulfgar undergo a similar transformation? It seems that earlier in the Icewind Dale Trilogy that he shows more potential for intelligence than he actually ends up having in the later chapters and books.

I’m trying to make all the characters change and grow, or regress. I’m trying to make these “real” people, even if they happen to be dwarves or elves. People are not static; I’ve seen formerly liberal-minded people become rabid conservatives, for example. I’ve seen people find themselves in stressful situations and undergo huge changes in their outlook and mannerisms.

With Wulfgar, the problems began when his relationship within the group shifted. Here was a guy trying to see the world in a manner similar to Drizzt and Bruenor, his primary adult mentors. However, then he was confronted with a situation where his only examples were the long-standing values and mores of a barbarian people whose traditions were far more narrowly defined. This woman Wulfgar had fallen in love with would not be acceptable to the tribes of Icewind Dale.

Wulfgar closed up, and he paid for his mistake.

Then he went to the Abyss – and this is where I found a real disconnect to some of my fans. It was an amazing experience to read some of the fan letters coming in after “Spine of the World.” Here was a guy who was put in the clutches of a demon, who was tortured not just physically, but emotionally, for six years. Here was a guy whose entire version of reality was manipulated by illusions designed to foster and then destroy hope itself. I remember one letter asking why Wulfgar was acting like a jerk. After all, the letter argued, “he had all of his hit points back.”

I was never really sure whether Wulfgar had died in “The Legacy,” or whether he had just gone away to the Abyss and would return. I always leaned toward the “leave him dead” side of the argument, and it was nothing short of a war between me and TSR that brought me to the other side. I was leaving TSR after “Passage to Dawn.” My contract was up and I had no intention of re-signing after some particularly contentious moments regarding the number of books, the speed with which I would need to write them, and my creative control of the series. I was told, in no uncertain terms, that if I left, they’d find someone else to write Drizzt. Well, there was nothing I could do about that, but I was damned well certain that I wasn’t going to give another writer the hook of bringing back Wulfgar, which I knew TSR wanted. That would have guaranteed a New York Times Bestseller; I wasn’t going to hand that over.

So I brought him back, and was ambivalent about it, but not really too concerned. I was certain that “Passage to Dawn” would be the last Drizzt book of mine, after all.

Then, surprise, Wizards of the Coast bought out TSR and coaxed me back into the fold. So I found myself having to follow the course of Wulfgar’s emotional resurrection. I’ve come to appreciate him again by watching that journey; he’s come full circle and is stronger than ever.

I've read many accounts of authors totally avoiding discussion and speculation of their writing on the internet. What makes you different in deciding to surf websites that contain fans discussing your work?


Great question, but not really accurate. I can almost guarantee that there are many lurking authors; it’s like a car accident. You keep telling yourself not to look, because if 99 people say wonderful things and 1 person says something horrible, guess what you remember? Guess what goes to bed with you at night? I’ll tell you flat-out that I know many, many authors, and I don’t know a single “happy” author.

Also, there are authors and publicists using the Internet to manipulate opinion, both positively for a work and negatively against the competition. I don’t do this and can’t stomach it, honestly. I never have looked upon other authors as “competition.” Never once. Sure, I get jealous of J.K. Rowling! But I thank her from the bottom of my heart for teaching millions of kids that it’s okay to read escapist, fantasy fiction.

For me, exploring the new world of the Internet was a way to take ownership of it. Understanding the mentality of on-line communication was a way to get me out of a depression that was being fed by that car-wreck mentality. In 1999, right as “Vector Prime,” the controversial Chewbacca-killing Star Wars’ book, came out, I lost my brother, my best friend, to cancer. I used the Internet to get away from the pain of the real world, but in there, given the tumult around “Vector Prime,” I found little solace. There were days – many days – where I thought I’d never be able to write again. I didn’t understand the context of a message board, and so I let things get to me that really shouldn’t have bothered me in the least. When I finally took emotional ownership of all of that, I began to smile about my career again.

Also, I enjoy the interaction on the web. It’s as simple as that. Writing is an incredibly lonely job. When people used to tell me that they wanted to be a writer, I would say, “great!” Now I ask, “For God’s sake, why?”

Okay, I’m exaggerating, but the truth is that the Internet can be a powerful tool, both positive and negative, to a writer’s career. Not so much in sales; if sales were any indication, then all of the most attacked writers in the genre would not be the top-selling authors in the genre. Perception is important, however, since many editors frequent the sites, as well. I know of one book series that got cancelled in no small part because of misinformation that was spread about it before the books were even turned in to the editors.

But none of that really answers the question, so much as frames the issue. I didn’t and don’t go to Internet for any business purposes. The book sales for me by this point are way beyond any influence I might have, positively, or others might have, negatively. If I were a beginning author, either with a small press or with print on demand, I certainly would be aggressively frequenting sites. As it is, I don’t even like to talk about my books on the Internet, unless it’s in response to specific questions asked of me. The few Internet discussions I join as R.A. Salvatore (I fight on a political board under a screen name) are about the perceptions of the business.

I do that mostly because I believe that the fantasy business is in terrible trouble right now, for several reasons, not the least of which being the almost Democrat vs. Republican mentality of readers on the Internet. It’s not enough to trumpet someone you like; you have to destroy authors you don’t like, and even worse, you have to denigrate any readers who dare to post a positive remark about said authors as “fanboyz” or the like.

What brought me to Terry Brooks’ site was a request by a couple of regulars on my own site that I chime in on an essay written by China Mieville. I read it and found it somewhat offensive – though nothing terribly new. I’ve been in this business for seventeen years now, and for all that time, I’ve heard about new, maverick fantasy writers who will “save” the genre from the likes of “Tolkienesque” and irrelevant tripe. I find it funny that the same bashed authors back then continue to roll along merrily on their way, telling stories, selling books and answering bags of mail from satisfied readers.

So I put my .02 in, and made an offhand comment about the WotMania Quickpolls in the retort, which I wrote off the top of my head in about fifteen minutes. That comment led to some confusion, so I came over to clarify my position – and found myself in a flame war with one of your regulars. Pretty funny and ironic, actually, when I step back and think about it.

Here’s the thing, for me at least: this is a huge genre now. It wasn’t always so. Not so many years ago, it wasn’t so. There is a tremendous diversity in fantasy today. There are wonderful word-smiths, like Tad Williams and Connie Willis; there are authors espousing a definite political bent, even preaching their personal philosophies; there are amazing world-builders, like Robert Jordan, George Martin and Terry Brooks; there are action-adventure storytellers, yes, like me. I applaud that diversity of style; I’m thrilled by that. But fantasy has always been the ugly stepchild of science-fiction, which has always been the ugly stepchild of literature (with a big “L”. Since the day I started working in this field, I’ve heard this desperate call for fantasy to be recognized as serious literature. It’s fine that some writers want to do (or want to believe that they are doing) something monumental that will change the face of humanity. It’s a natural state for writers; if you don’t have an ego, you don’t belong in this business. I have a different take on fantasy and on what I do. Fantasy has always been entertainment for me, a way to get away from the mundane reality of the world around me. I’d rather be slaying dragons than writing out bills. Also, and this goes back to my personal story, I’ve always considered my work most important, if it’s important at all, for teenagers. My favorite letters are ones that begin “I never read a book until...” or “I couldn’t get my son/daughter to read until I gave him your book.” As someone who found the love of reading beaten out of me back in my own school years, that’s particularly satisfying.

As for the Harold Blooms of the world, or the Kirkus reviewers, bully for them. I really don’t give a care about what they think of my work, or what they think about anything else for that matter. I get the feeling that many people do not understand that books have evolved into a different place in the world today. I was just reading an article that said that something around 120,000 books were published last year. Long gone are the days when one or two writers serve as the “voice of their generation.”

I write my books for myself, for the fun of going on an adventure with the characters I’ve come to know as friends. I don’t publish my books for people who don’t like them; I publish my books for people who do like them.

You see, I don’t WRITE for a living. I PUBLISH for a living. Writing is my love, publishing my career. That is not even a subtle distinction, as anyone in the business knows well.

How different is it to write fantasy and science fiction?

Extremely different, I’d expect. I wouldn’t know, however, as I’ve never written science-fiction, other than the beginning of my first book. I don’t consider Star Wars to be science-fiction; I don’t believe that George Lucas thinks of it that way. I think of it as swashbuckling action-adventure, which is far more in line with fantasy. I’ll leave science fiction to the Greg Bear’s and Ben Bova’s of the world. They bring skill-sets that I simply do not, as this time, possess (like an understanding of post-1980 science, for one small thing!).

How involved in future Star Wars books do you intend to be?

No involvement at all. I’m not even working for DelRey anymore. After my experience with TSR and the surprising return to the Dark Elf books, I don’t rule anything out. I’m certainly still on great terms with the wonderful folks over at DelRey, and I loved working with Lucasfilm. But really, with Dark Elf’s growing success, with my DemonWars world rolling along, with my involvement as Executive Producer of the Everquest book line and my involvement with Atari in creating computer games, I don’t have much time.

What direction do you see the Star Wars universe going in now that EpisodeIII is almost here and the New Jedi Order series is finished?

I’ve heard from everyone around the project that the movies take a darker turn, and this seems obvious just from the known story progression. For the novels, I have no idea of their plans. If someone asked me, I’d suggest that they go back to the “classic” era. Luke, Leia, Han - these are the strengths of Star Wars. These are the characters I think most people are truly interested in adventuring beside.

What is your view on the sudden popularization of the heroic fantasy genre in movies and television? With franchises being snapped up can we believe in any chance of a Drizzt movie or series in the works?

Nothing at present, and of course, I have no control over that. WotC owns the rights, not I. I have a feeling, though, that the backlash is about to begin on fantasy. I fear that Peter Jackson’s work was the high water mark. How do you top that? If Jackson does “The Hobbit” (and I pray he does), it will be wonderful and hugely successful, but honestly, I think it’s going to be hard for anyone to approach the level of success of those movies. Harry Potter is a separate phenomenon all its own, and even that seems to be losing steam in the movies, at least anecdotally. To do a fantasy movie that has any chance of satisfying the Jackson-spoiled audience, a production company is going to have to spend lots of money. Lots of money. It won’t take more than one or two busts to bankrupt the notion of fantasy blockbusters. I think we’re seeing the same thing with the comic tie-ins. Spiderman sells, but do the others?

Even with that pessimistic view, I think it’s a short-term problem. I do expect that someday there will be a Drizzt movie or series. I hope so. This always goes in cycles, like a giant wave. At the moment, I think we’re on the back side of the crest. Very few writers in the genre are increasing their audience with successive books at this time, and very, very few are able to make a living unless they’re writing six or eight books a year.

I would like to know if you have anymore of the world of Corona in your mind than the small portion we see in the Demon War series' or is that the only part of the planet that you've thought to create?

It’s not that small! Corona is a living project. I expect to write more books set there; I doubt I’ll ever create a new fantasy world. Why would I have to, since I’ve put all that I wanted in a fantasy world right there. That was my plan all along. I wanted to write my “epic” series that defined the world, its magic system and social and political structures that could serve as a base for stories I wanted to tell in the future, and even for stories that other authors might write. Right now, Jim Lowder, a writer for whom I have tremendous respect, is working on a Corona novel, with his own characters and in a time of his choosing. He is bound only by the general systems and geography of the world. This is an experiment in a new way of franchising a world. I firmly believe that there is an audience of readers out there who don’t want to have authors re-create the wheel with each new series. Readers who like the idea of a common ground through which they can adventure. Yes, the dreaded “shared world.” Some readers want to see the single-author world-building, and for them, there’s no shortage of vibrant and detailed projects underway. Other readers might not want to be quite so invested in learning a new world, a new magic system, with each book.

How much would you agree or disagree with Scott Bakker's comments on epic fantasy, which we conveniently have quoted directly from our own interview with him here at Wotmania:

"Unfortunately, 'epic fantasy' has even less cache than 'SF' - I would guess it's presently somewhere between 'porn mag' and 'harlequin romance.' Perhaps this will change, and 'epic fantasy' will gain something of the camp cache presently being enjoyed by, for instance, 'space opera' - afterall, the rehabilitation of the marginal and devalued is a very postmodern thing to do. Either way, the thing, it seems to me, is to be wary of the implicit judgments in the terms we use. I find it amusing that the people most likely to complain that SF&F is a 'literary ghetto' are often those most likely to devalue other regions of the barrio, particularly when it's as commercially successful as Jordan's work. It's cool to be an iconoclast, I guess. It makes us feel oh-so individual, when in fact we're simply being aristocratic."

Let me repeat his last two lines: “It's cool to be an iconoclast, I guess. It makes us feel oh-so individual, when in fact we're simply being aristocratic."

Now that’s beautiful. I’ve never met Mr. Baker, nor have I read his work. After reading the entirety of that interview, I’ll have to find some time to remedy that.

I agree with him completely. Look, I’m a plain-speaking, blue collar New Englander, educated in public schools (both high school and college). I started going for my Masters Degree in Literature, and after about three classes, I left in disgust. Honestly, if one more author starts quoting Joseph Campbell to me, I’ll choke him! I cannot imagine preparing an outline with such “theories” in mind. It’s not the way I think and certainly not the way I work. Nor do I have any plans to examine writing in that manner. To me, it defeats the whole purpose of a work by taking all the fun out of it.

I remember sitting on a panel at a convention several years ago when all the other panelists were going in circles about theory, about Campbell, about deconstructionalism, about yada yada yada. My eyes were glazing over, as were the eyes of most of the three hundred people in attendance. Out of the blue, the moderator looks over at me and asks, “What do you think, Bob?”

They really didn’t want to know, believe me. So I just shrugged and said “I dunno. I just make stuff up and people like to read it.”

The bottom line is that people want different things from their reading experiences. Some people read the Drizzt books, for example, and enjoy them as a fun romp. Pure, fun pulp. Cool!

Other people read them and dismiss them as “popcorn.” Okay, that’s their entitled opinion. Still other people read them and write me letters about how these books had a profound impact on their lives. There was a great story many years ago about a book store robbery here in New England. True story. Someone broke in and stole most of the Dungeons and Dragons material, which was very popular among teenagers, of course. Among the items stolen was my “Homeland” novel. Well, a couple of days later, all the material was returned, with a note from the thief explaining that Drizzt had become his hero, and if Drizzt was his hero, then how could he be a thief?

Another time, I was in South Philly, signing books at a very cool store – I think it was a Media Play. There was this young black man, dressed in the floppy, crotch-at-your-knees style I’d expect of the inner city. As I was signing, I noticed that he kept moving back in the line. Every time more people came in, he’d usher them in front of him. With my typical small-town naivete, I began wondering (just a wee bit in the back of my mind) if maybe I was going to get robbed. Did this guy think the people were giving me money for the books. Man, I was such a parochial putz!

I finally get through the line, and the young man presents himself quite well. “Hi, I wanted to get to the end, because I wanted to talk to you for a bit. Is that okay?”

“That’s why I’m here,” I replied.

“A couple of years ago, I had never read a book,” he explained. “I figured if a book was any good, they’d have made it into a movie. I was playing D&D with some friends and the DM threw a copy of your book at me. He said I should read it because you wrote characters like the ones I played. I threw it back at him, but he insisted. So I took it home. I started reading that night. I didn’t stop until I had to leave for school the next morning. I never read a book like that before.”

I began to get that warm feeling I had known on that snowed-in day in February, 1978, huddled with Bilbo Baggins.

“I just wanted you to know that,” he said. “I’m starting college this year as a Literature Major at Temple University.”

So there you go. We fantasy writers are in the ghetto of literature? Okay, if you say so, but I’ll bet that many fantasy writers have very similar stories to tell. I’m not going to apologize for what I do, and the beauty of it all is that if what I do doesn’t fill the needs of some fantasy writers, there are now dozens and dozens of options each and every month. That’s the peculiar thing about being a writer; could you imagine going up to a home builder and criticizing him for not building the Taj Mahal? This “ghetto” isn’t a bad place to be.

Do you have any desire to do some kind of collaborative work with another author who also writes in the world of the Underdark, such as Elaine Cunningham?

No, I really don’t. The only author I’ve entertained the notion of collaborating with was Terry Brooks. We’ve tossed the idea around. At one point we were wondering what DelRey might do for the third Star Wars’ novelization; we wondered what it might be like to write it together. Really, though, writing is too personal an experience for me. I don’t think I could surrender the control enough to let someone else into that process.

What do you find is the ideal environment to write in? Outdoors? In a closet? In the rain? With green eggs and ham?

Wherever and whenever I can. Mostly I write on my laptop these days. The kids are off at school and my wife and I hang out during the day. I write a little, drink a little coffee (okay, a lot of coffee), write a little more. I’m in the process of remodeling my office, however. I’m trying to clean it up and make it a bit more inspiring. I’ve spent the last few months on vacation, recharging the creative batteries. I feel as if I’m in a new stage of my career now. I’m over that hump and I’m not going back to the other side. I’ve earned a bit of freedom, creatively and in the number of books I write. Now I’m trying hard to integrate my writing into a different phase of my life. The kids don’t need me anymore (except my daughter, who needs to raid my wallet at every turn). It’s a good place to be (my life, I mean, and not the wallet!).

What other authors do you read?

It’s funny, but I just don’t read much fiction anymore. I think being a writer has a way of destroying that pleasure; it’s my biggest regret about my chosen profession. I cannot read a book without acting like an editor, instead of just enjoying what this other creative person is offering to me. Right now, I’m reading a stack of political books. I see the upcoming election as the most important of my lifetime and I want to make the best choice possible. Just as importantly, when people talk about the election, I want to contribute an informed opinion to conversations that seem so incredibly misinformed these days. Remember, I went to school to study Communications/Media, which meant quite a bit of training in the field of journalism. What I see out there passing as “journalism” these days makes my stomach turn.

Drizzt and Elbyran turned out to be remarkably similar, aside from one being Drow and the other human, both being a Philosphical Ranger. What this intentional or did it write itself out that way?

I don’t think they’re that much alike below the surface. This is also a bit of a purposeful inside joke. People who have read the first trilogy of the seven-book DemonWar series will understand that Elbryan is, in a very definitive way, the anti-Drizzt. I knew what was going to happen in “The Demon Apostle,” the third book in the series, when I started writing the first one. Maybe, just maybe, just possibly, just a wee bit in the back of my mind, I had a subconscious desire to give some of the most vocal Drizzt fans what they seem to be crying out for (and be careful what you wish for!) on the massage boards.

Hey, if I can’t have a little fun with it, then what’s the point? I’m not going to change the real world – none of us writers really are, in fantasy or in any other genre. I’m just plodding along like any other guy, trying to make sense of life and death and trying to have a little fun.

R.A. Salvatore
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