At Salt Lake ComicCon, I had the privilege of sitting down for a few minutes with R. A. Salvatore. This is an incredibly fun one. You might hear me laughing in the background. Enjoy!
Gama Ray Martinez: I am here with R. A. Salvatore, author of the Drizzt series among several other things. So you are pretty well known in the industry, but an you tell us something about yourself that our listeners may not know about?
R. A. Salvatore: Personally or professionally?
GM: Either one.
RA: Probably that I’m the biggest softy in the world. I’m loud. I’m Italian. I have a big voice, and I’m not a little guy but I’m probably the softest heart you’ll ever meet. I get a lot of grief from that from my friends, but it’s who I am.
GM: Well, that’s good to hear. As I understand, you used to work as a bouncer. Is that correct?
RA: That’s why people would never guess that about me. I was a pretty good bouncer too.
GM: So I imagine you saw quite a bit in that position. Has that made any impact on your writing?
RA: Yeah, in a lot of ways. First, it’s really about conflict. When you’re a bouncer, that’s your job. Your job isn’t to beat somebody up. It’s to talk them down. You get to learn a lot about people and a lot about anger and a lot about fighting, unfortunately. So yeah, that certainly had an impact on my writing.
GM: As I understand it, Echoes of the Fourth Age was your first manuscript but not the first book that came out.
RA: Yeah, Echoes of the Fourth Magic. I wrote that book in 1982, longhand in a spiral notebook by candlelight to the Fleetwood Mac Tusk album. I would get home from the clubs at one or two in the morning, sit down and write the book. Got a bunch of rejection letters. Edited for a few years. Was working at a full time job in finance, sent that book to TSR and that’s the book that got me the audition to do the second Forgotten Realms novel, The Crystal Shard. Echoes came out later, but the first book out was The Crystal Shard.
GM: You mentioned The Crystal Shard. The thing you’re most known for is the Drizzt books where you created Drizzt Do’Urden, one of the most iconic characters in the Forgotten Realms setting. Can you talk a little bit about how that came about?
RA: Completely by accident. Off the top of my head, they basically needed a sidekick character for the hero of my book. I talked them into doing a dark elf. I don’t know where it came from. I was under pressure. They needed an answer on a phone call right away, and they agreed, and came up and I told them his name was Drizzt Do’Urden. I started writing the book. On page two, he just took over the book. I just knew it about him. I never expected this to happen with him, but it’s been an amazing 28 year journey.
GM: When did you first realize that Drizzt had become such a phenomenon?
RA: I think, after I wrote The Halfling’s Gem which was the third book. It came out in February of 1990, TSR told me to tie everything up in the book. They told me to not leave any open ends because we were done with the characters. As that was going on, and the book came out, they were getting so many letters about this one character. Where did he come from? Tell us about this character. They came back to me and said “We want you to do a trilogy. We want you to quit your day job now and do a trilogy about the character. The readers want to know about him.” I think that’s when I began to realize, now the mail started coming to me as well, that this guy was touching people on a very profound level. Kids in high school that didn’t have friends were making friends with him. I was hearing from soldiers because this was right before the first Gulf War and a lot of guys were going overseas and they were going overseas with Drizzt in their pocket. It was an incredible thing. It caught me by surprise, but I love the guy, so I guess when I thought about it, it wasn’t that surprising to me that other people were enjoying him. That’s when it happened, when they came back and said “We want a trilogy and quit your job.”
GM: According to your website, your website still meets on Sundays. I have to ask, do you play in the Forgotten Realms setting?
RA: No. Sometimes we do. Usually in the Bloodstone Lands. We’re actually playing my DemonWars game now. We have played in the Realms. I’ve run games in the Bloodstone Lands a lot. I love the Bloodstone Lands, and we’ve been in Icewind Dale before. Right now, no. We’re playing in my world from DemonWars.
GM: Since you have played in the Realms, I just have to ask. Has one of your characters ever met Drizzt?
RA: Well, I’m usually DMing. One time, I had this group, and they were very over powered. They were mid-level and were really going great. They came to a barn and heard something up in the loft. They crept up and they saw a dark elf putting on his gear, so they set up this ambush for him. They kind of jumped up on the lodge and they were ready to get him, and he spun around, and he drew out two scimitars, and he had purple eyes. They said “Wait a minute.” My brother said, “Are you Drizzt Do’Urden?” The drow looked at them and said, “Yes. You know me?” And they said, “Yeah.” They put their weapons away, and the drow wiped them out, and the last one lay dying on the floor, as he walked by he said, “What the heck is a Drizzt Do’Urden”. So yeah, no, that’s about it. I did meet Drizzt in Baldur’s Gate and worked on Demon Stone so I’ve seen him on computer games.
GM: How much direction did you get from then TSR and now Wizards of the Coast when writing Drizzt? I’ve heard from others who write media tie-ins that they get basically a script so I’m curious because you actually created Drizzt, how much direction you actually get.
GM: That’s great.
RA: I wouldn’t take it. That’s the deal we made early on. Leave me alone, and I’ll write my books. That doesn’t mean they can’t ask me to participate in things like Rage of Demons. They’re doing this big meta story because there are so many video games and other things going on. No, they let me write my books. They’ll ask me. Like they called me up a few years ago and said, “Are you going to be anywhere near the Sword Coast?” I said “Yeah, I’m going to be in the crags in the next book.” They said, “Would you blow up Neverwinter for us?” That’s about it. There’s no scripts. I wouldn’t work like that. I’ve done that. I’ve done two novelizations. I did a Tarzan novelization, and I did Attack of the Clones. When I did New Jedi Order, I didn’t have a script, but I had to get from point A to point B somehow. I won’t work on scripts.
GM: You mentioned the Star Wars novels. I remember tearing up a little when Chewbacca died. From my understanding, you did get direction on that one. It wasn’t your choice to actually kill Chewbacca, but how much direction? Did they tell you “Kill Chewbacca?” Did they tell you “Kill Chewbacca by hitting him with a moon?” How did that happen?
RA: They told me what they wanted in the book in terms of the Yzong Vong and just kind of a sketchy outline. I developed it more. They wanted all the heroes from the movies and from the book series so I had this cast of about fifteen characters I had to use. They said they wanted a pyric victory where the heroes thought they had eliminated this threat, but it really just an advanced scout type of thing. That was about it. So I sent the outline in. I’d already signed the contract to do the book. I was on a phone call with LucasFilms and DelRey, and I think I was Lucy Wilson or Sue Ross Stoney, one of the heads at LucasArts licensing. I was on the phone with them. They said, “This is great. This outline is exactly what we want, but didn’t anyone tell you? You have to kill Chewbacca.” And I was like “Screw you. I’m not doing that.” I didn’t want to do it. I wanted to break the contract, but after talking to a lot of people like Mike Stackpole, for example, I was convinced they were doing it for the right reason, so I agreed to do it as long as they let me do it the way I wanted to do it. I won’t take credit for the decision. I won’t take the blame for the decision to kill Chewbacca, but I will take the blame or credit for how it was done because that was all me.
GM: I have this image in my head of Chewbacca sitting down, waving his fist at the moon as it’s coming to hit him.
RA: Yeah, I met Peter Mayhuw, and he didn’t like that image much. Naw, I’m only kidding. Peter and I are good friends now. I wanted that last great act of defiance. I don’t know if you remember that poster. It’s got this giant eagle coming down, and this little mouse gives him the finger. I wanted that scene with Chewie and the moon. I figured no eagle is going to take out a wookie. It’s got to be a moon.
GM: You also mentioned you did Attack of the Clones. That makes you one only six authors who wrote a Star Wars book that is presumably still canon.
RA: Yeah, how about that? When they first asked if they could put my name into George, on the list, I hesitated. I wasn’t going to do it because Vector Prime was pretty tough when it came out. It came out right when my brother died so I was going through all this thing, and now I’m getting death threats from Star Wars fans. It was pretty heavy. I kind of shied away, but then actually Terry Brooks convinced me to let them put my name on the list. George asked me to do it, and I did, and I’m thrilled that I did because I got to meet George, work with George Lucas. Wonderful guy. Brilliant guy. I’m really glad I did that. It was fun. I got to put a lot in the book that wasn’t in the movie. I was able to create and write the story of Shmi and what happened with Shmi before Anakin found her at the raider camp. It was a really rewarding experience. I had a lot of fun with it.
GM: You’ve also the story for video games. How does that differ from writing novel?
RA: There are more similarities than differences, but the difference is the most profound thing. When I’m writing a novel, I’m giving you a hero or heroes and villains, through which you can see the world. You’re living vicariously through Drizzt or Elbryan or Oliver or someone. You’re living vicariously through these characters, and you’re seeing the world through their eyes. You’re going on an adventure with them. In a video game, just like when you’re DMing a table top game, you have to always be aware of the fact that the most important person in the story is the character the player creates. I’m not writing a story for you. I’m giving you a setting in which you can write your own story as the player. You are the boss of the video game. You are the author of what your character does. You can never forget that as a writer. Your job is really to just make sure, whether it’s a questline or a zone that you’re writing for the game, that there’s a believability around it, that there’s a familiarity and a believability around it that allows the player to suspend disbelief enough to immerse himself or herself in the game and let his or her character write a wonderful story. I’m not writing that story for you as a designer. I just did the quest for the Neverwitner game. I did a bunch of quests for Neverwiter. You should be able to go in there and see some characters you’re going to know and have a lot of fun with it, but your character is still the hero. Your character is still the one who’s going to make or break it. Nobody is going to lead you by the nose. Nobody is going to save the day. No, you’re going to save the day. It has to be that way or video games fail.
GM: Thanks for that. My introduction to your work was actually The Demon Awakens, which the first in the DemonWars series. Could you talk a little bit about that series?
RA: I could talk all week about that series, even to the point of saying that I’m going back and doing more. DemonWars, I had broken up with TSR in a very nasty way back around 1994 and DelRey called and Owen Locke from DelRey said to me, I want you to come in here and write the best book you can write. Take as long as you need to write the best book you can write. I had had this story bubbling in my head for years because even the Crimson Shadow books I had written for Warner a couple of years before that, really was supposed to do DemonWars. I just didn’t have time to develop the world the way I wanted to, so I sat down and created the world of DemonWars. It was supposed to be a six book series. I had the gemstone magic. I had how they found the magic stones. How they prepared the magic stones to make sure the magic would last. The church that grew out of that, thinking it was a gift from God, the social structures of the world. I built everything. I started writing the books. It was supposed to be six books. It became seven books. From Demon Awakens trough Immortalus was the last book. I loved the world so much I went back a couple of years later, and I wrote The Highwayman, which is more of a Drizzt book. It’s a personal story. I wrote the four book, The Highwayman, of the Saga of the First King, so there are eleven DemonWar novels out there. A couple of years ago, I did a Kickstarter. One of my sons is a game designer for a major game company, and he’s really high level at it because he’s really good at it. The other one of my sons has written three books with me, the Stone of Tymora series, the Drizzt books, The Stone of Tymora series and a couple of graphic novels with me, so I gathered them up and we did a Kickstarter for a DemonWars role playing game, which was very successful. One of the reach goals was I would write a new novella for the world. We hit the goals so I wrote a novella called The Education of Brother Thadeus which I self-published. It was in the Kickstarter book, but I also self-published the ebook version, and I sold it to Audible and Wil Wheaton wrote it, which was awesome. When I wrote that novella, I fell back in love with the world, and I realized I have to go back and do more books, so right now, I’m working on the next DemonWars book, which will be standalone story. You don’t have to have read anything before. An introduction to the world, but if you read it, and you have read the other books, you may see some people you know from the main DemonWars series and you’ll see a lot of Easter eggs to remind you of how this is working, so I’m really excited to be back in the world. I mean DemonWars is my Shannara, my Middle Earth, my Westeros, my Forgotten Realms. It’s the world where I can blow up worlds without asking for permission and characters may die and they may die a lot, well not the same character dying a lot…well, maybe that too. It’s magic after all. People die all the time in DemonWars. It’s a much tougher world, if you will.
GM: Any idea when we can expect that?
RA: Probably 2017. I’ve got two dark elf Books in 2016. Maestro in the spring, and I don’t know the title yet, but in October will be the end of the Homecoming series. That’ll be the last year in a while at least that we’ll be doing two dark elf books a year, so there will probably be room in 2017 for it. I think early 2017 might happen.
GM: That sounds good. I believe you’ve answered all my questions so I just wanted to thank you again for taking the time to do this interview.
RA: My pleasure. Thanks for the interest. 28 years. Half my life, I’ve been doing this and it’s still surreal to me that people want to talk to me and stuff. It’s kind of weird.