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Interview: R. A. Salvatore

R.A. Salvatore is the author of dozens of fantasy novels, most of them connected to the Dungeons & Dragons role-playing game. He created perhaps the most popular character in the history of Dungeons & Dragons, a dark elf named Drizzt Do’Urden. Salvatore’s novel Homeland describes Drizzt growing up as the only child with a conscience in an underground city where society is based on selfishness and cruelty. His most recent novel featuring Drizzt, which is out now, is called Neverwinter.

This interview first appeared on The Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy podcast, which currently airs on Wired.com and is hosted by John Joseph Adams and David Barr Kirtley. Visit geeksguideshow.com to listen to the entire interview and the rest of the show, in which the hosts discuss various geeky topics.

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Can you tell us about the big snowstorm that turned you into a writer?

When I was very young—I’m talking kindergarten, first grade—I used to read everything I could get my hands on, and I would write all the time. I had this wonderful collection of first-edition Peanuts books—Charles Schulz’s Peanuts characters. I loved Snoopy. I used to write Snoopy books. Then something very strange happened. As I went through school, school beat the love of reading and writing right out of me. It got so bad that by the time I graduated high school, the only reading and writing I was doing was what I needed to do to get the grades, and I actually started college as a math/computer science major.

And then my freshman year—so, 1977—for Christmas my sister gave me a [book]. I was looking for money; I was nineteen years old, I had a car that broke down every day, I just wanted some cash, but she gave me some books, in this little white slipcase, and I was pretty upset about it. I’m like, “What am I going to do with books?” And I just threw them aside. Two months later—I remember it was a Monday night, so February of ‘78, I went to bed, and we were supposed to get a little bit of snow, so like anybody in school at any grade level I was hoping school would get cancelled so I could have a day off. And I woke up the next morning and I looked down—I had this beautiful Mediterranean Blue 1969 Mercury Cougar with a black vinyl roof—and I looked down at where my car was parked, and my car was gone, and I freaked out, I thought my car was stolen. I went running downstairs screaming, “Somebody stole my car!” And then I realized that black spot I had seen wasn’t the driveway—it was the roof of the car. We had the great Blizzard of ‘78. We didn’t have school that day. We didn’t have school that week. We didn’t have roads that week. You could not legally leave your house. If you went out of your house on a snow mobile, you would be arrested. They wanted nobody out, because they couldn’t open the roads.

So here I was, nineteen years old, and I’m trapped in my mother’s house. Oh joy. But I wasn’t trapped. I found those books my sister had given me, The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, and I went to this place called Middle Earth with this hobbit called Bilbo Baggins, and it was amazing! And I remembered, I remembered what it felt like to love reading. And I remembered what it used to be like when I’d be huddled under the blankets with my Peanuts books back in the second grade, or whatever. And I kept thinking while I was reading that book: Why didn’t someone give me this book to read when I was in junior high school, instead of reading Silas Marner or Ethan Frome or Moby Dick. Oh god, you know? Those books had no relevance to me. Why didn’t somebody give me this book? And it changed my life. I went back to school, I changed my major to Communications, because all of my electives became literature courses. And within a year I was reading Shakespeare, and reading Chaucer and laughing at all the right places, and appreciating James Joyce. I was ready for that type of literature then. I wasn’t in the eighth or the ninth grade. So I fell in love with fantasy. And it really changed my life. And when I ran out of fantasy books a few years later, I wrote my own.

Could you tell us about that book, and how you ended up submitting it to TSR, and what happened?

I wrote the book between the fall of ‘82 and the spring of ‘83. I was working in a plastics factory, and my job, all day long, was standing on this little metal bench next to this big metal table, loading lumps of scrap plastic into a grinder. That was my job, really cerebral. Every twenty minutes you had to remember to change the barrel or you’d get flakes of plastic all over the floor. And I was dying. I was doing that, and I was working as a bouncer at night, and my girlfriend at the time, she knew I loved fantasy, she knew I was out of books to read and was threatening to write one. My girlfriend—now my wife of many years—said to me, “Why don’t you just write that book?” So I went to work each day, and I’d be working there, I would drift off into to this world I was creating in my head, and I would be thinking about what I wanted to write . . . and I then usually got flakes of plastic all over the floor because I’d forget to change the barrel. Then I’d go to work at night in the nightclubs. I’d come home at either one or two in the morning, and you’re too jacked up after working as a bouncer for a bunch of hours to go right to sleep so I’d light some candles, I’d put on Fleetwood Mac’s Tusk album, take out a spiral notebook—remember this was 1982, we didn’t have computers, and I couldn’t type anyway—and I’d just write. And I wrote a book called Echoes of the Fourth Magic. And after I got it done I didn’t intend to publish it or anything. I just wanted to have something to hand to my kids someday, if I had kids, or maybe my grandkids, and let them know, this is your grandfather. I didn’t want to just be another number who worked all his life and then just quietly faded away and died, you know? I wanted something to leave behind.

But I showed the book to a few friends, and they were really loving it, and they said, “You should get this published.” So I hired my sister to type it—because again, I couldn’t type. They didn’t teach that when I was in high school, unless you were going into the business field, like going to be a secretary or something. They didn’t teach you how to type because there were no personal computers. It was a different world. So I hired my sister to type it. I sent it out, and I got a bunch of really horrible rejection letters. I remember one said, “Dear Leonard.” But anyway, when people tell me no, I’m the kind of person who will die proving you wrong. I don’t like to be told no. I don’t like to be told I can’t do something. So I stayed with it. I started a new career, I was working in finance. I got married, the kids came along, but I kept writing, I kept at it. And in 1987 I had the book to the point where I thought it was publishable, I thought it was ready to go. So I went back to the library, and got out the Writer’s Market, and looked at all the different houses that were publishing fantasy. One of them was TSR. They were doing the Dragonlance novels at the time, the very successful Dragonlance novels. So I sent the book out to all these different houses, went to work, and went on my merry way. A couple of months later—that was in January of ‘87—a couple of months later I came home from work, and my wife said, “You got a phone call today from an editor at TSR.” And, you know, after the rejection letters, I’m like, “I got a phone call? An editor actually called?” And she said, “Yeah.” And so I thought about it for a minute, and I said, “Did he ask for Leonard?” And she said, “No, no, no. Her name is Mary Kirchoff, and she called from TSR. Call her back.” And that’s what led me in. Now Mary had read Echoes of the Fourth Magic. She couldn’t publish it, because they only had room for this new world they were creating, The Forgotten Realms, and Echoes would not adapt to that, but asked me to audition for the second Forgotten Realms novel, and I did, and that was The Crystal Shard.

So when you started writing the books about Drizzt, how much of the background about dark elf society already existed, and how much did you have to invent yourself?

I finished the Icewind Dale Trilogy, and we were going to go on to something completely different, but by that point TSR was getting tons of fan mail saying they wanted more about where this guy came from. So I got the call from Mary, and she said, “You know, instead of going off in a different direction, how about you do a prequel trilogy telling us where Drizzt came from?” So I went to work on coming up with the ideas for Homeland—for the Dark Elf Trilogy—and I had the old modules that followed the Giants series—Descent to the Depths of the Earth, Vault of the Drow, and Queen of the Demon Web Pits. And there were some references to drow in there, the snake-headed whips were in there, the matriarchal society was in there, but it really didn’t define them. It was just enough information for you to run a dungeon and torture your players with dark elves. And then I also had the Fiend Folio, which had a one-page entry on how to play drow—which had just come out the year before, I think.

And so I called back, and I said, “Okay, I’ve got these modules, I’ve got the Fiend Folio, that’s all the information I’ve got on drow. What else you got?” And they said, “Nothing.” I said, “What do you mean ‘nothing’?” They said, “That’s it.” I said, “Well, what do you want me to do?” They said, “You’ve got carte blanche. We want you to create the drow society in the Forgotten Realms, in this place you named Menzoberranzan, that you have no idea what it is.” And I said, “Okay, that’s cool, I guess.” And so I went away, and I’m trying to figure out how to come up with a society that could work, because societies have to work, there has to be a logical consistency to them that makes sense, so you can’t just have this group of like—you know, these wild and crazy dark elves who are murdering each other willy-nilly. That wouldn’t be a society, that would be a mass grave with one drow standing. So I had to come up with a society that would work. I went to the library, and I pulled out one of my favorite books of all time, Mario Puzo’s The Godfather, and that’s where I came up with the super-structure, if you will, of Menzoberranzan, from the Five Families of New York.

One aspect of the dark elf society that I’ve always thought was really cool is when the Houses go to war against each other, they’ll be charged with a crime unless they can totally wipe out the House that they’re attacking. How did you come up with that idea?

Well, I kind of took The Godfather and put it in extreme mode, you know? They relish power, they crave power—the only reason for the dark elves to have a system of justice to exact punishment, since they’re all a bunch of murderers and thieves anyway, is if someone else can bring a complaint against them. Their entire justice system is a mockery. If it’s not based on the priestesses and what Lolth says, then it goes, unless someone is wronged and can prove it. So, if you kill all the rest of them, nobody can bring the complaint. If nobody can bring the complaint, it never happened. Just made sense to me.

A lot of people read books like Homeland when they were in middle school, and it’s easy to see a lot of parallels between middle school and Menzoberranzan, just in terms of being this entire culture based on cruelty. Is that something you were thinking of when you were writing the book, and is that something that kids have mentioned to you?

Oh, I get so many letters, and I meet so many kids—or, now, adults—who would tell me that they had no friends when they were in junior high or high school, and these books became their friends, and that’s why they could empathize so much with Drizzt, because he’s the classic outcast hero. And yeah, I think, looking back on it, it wasn’t a conscious thing, but—you know, when I was in junior high school, I had been one of the better athletes. When we had our neighborhood football games, I was always the quarterback, I was always the pitcher when we played baseball. But I didn’t grow. Everybody else did. And so by the time I got to ninth grade, I was like the smallest kid in my class, and I had this strange hereditary knee issue where something grew too fast in my knee and was causing incredible pain, so I was pretty much crippled. I was walking around with a cane half the time. And I was the smallest kid in the class. And I was brutalized. It was like so many kids go through, you know? I was the outcast. I had no confidence. Even though I was one of the better students—I mean, I was always one of the top students in my class, but that didn’t buy you any friends in school in 1970s America. Probably still doesn’t.

And the thing I had always fallen back on was my ability to play sports, and I couldn’t even do that anymore, and all these other kids were growing up and going through puberty, and here I was, like a little kid with a high voice, four-foot-eleven—or four-foot-nine, actually—and, you know, like a hundred and thirty pounds in the ninth grade, and I was brutalized quite a bit. Junior high ended in ninth grade, and high school started in the tenth grade, but because we were so crowded in my town, tenth grade was an afternoon session, so the only class up there would be the tenth grade class when I went to school the following year, and I remember over the summer I was terrified that I was going back to that, I was going to have to put up with it, and there weren’t going to be seniors around to protect me or anything. But over that summer I grew about eight inches and put on about forty-five pounds, started weight-lifting, started boxing, and stopped taking crap from anybody. I think that’s one of the reasons I became a bouncer, because most of the people you wind up having trouble with when you’re a bouncer are bullies, and I love nothing more than paying back bullies, if you know what I mean.

So, yeah, I mean, I’ve been there. I’ve been there, and I’ve felt it. And I’m always the person who roots for the underdog. I don’t understand cruelty. I don’t like it at all. I remember the only fight I got in at college, outside of work, I was leaving a basketball game once, and there was this cat on the sidewalk crying, and there were a bunch of guys just kicking it around. And I slid my car up next to them, threw open the door, and threw the cat in the car. And the guys started giving me some grief, and I jumped out of the car, and there were like ten of them, and I just looked at the biggest kid standing there, and I just busted his face wide open. And it was like, “Come on, there’s nine of you left, who’s first?” I was so enraged that any person could do that to a defenseless little animal, I didn’t care that I was about to die. But that’s who I am. And so when I hear that from kids—or from adults now who got through it—it just warms me. I don’t get how we allow that kind of insanity in middle school—particularly middle school, I think. I don’t get how we allow that kind of brutality. It’s ridiculous. So yeah, I guess it’s in there. You’re bringing a lot out of me. You’re bringing back bad memories, dude. Knock it off, change the subject. [Laughs]

In your volume of collected stories that came out last year, in your introduction to your story “Dark Mirror,” you talk a bit about racism in fantasy. What do you think about the way Dungeons & Dragons handles race, even just in terms of the “good” light-skinned elves versus the “evil” dark-skinned ones?

Well, I think one of the reasons why [drow elves] used to be called “black elves,” and then they stopped calling them black elves was because, you know, it hit kind of close to home in terms of racism that we see. And, you know, I’ve always noticed this paradox. I wrote “Dark Mirror” because I was confused about the paradox where—you know, racism is bad, we know that inherently. I mean, enlightened people could care less where someone’s born, the color of his or her skin, or anything like that, and yet in fantasy that’s embraced. Now, they’re different species, it’s not like orcs are just some other brand of human, right? So you can get away with that, but that’s always been the paradox that I’ve had to deal with right from the beginning of writing a dark elf who’s not a bad guy, right? And hinting that there might be other dark elves who aren’t bad guys, right? I mean, that gets difficult. And so I wrote that story to try to sort that out, and you notice at the end of the story that Drizzt is very confused? Yeah, that was me. I was still very confused about it because in fantasy, you embody evil in a race, and then you disembody it with your sword, and that’s also what mankind has done through the centuries, right? By dehumanizing the enemy so you don’t feel bad about killing them. But that’s just blatantly immoral when you get right down to it, and yet I love fantasy. So that’s the paradox I had to deal with.

When I’m writing my books, I’m not trying to give people the answers, I’m trying to get them to ask the questions. And judging from the response I’ve gotten to Drizzt in particular regarding racism, I think a lot of people are asking themselves good questions . . . and coming up with good answers.

So why don’t you tell us a little bit about the new book, Neverwinter.

Well, what’s basically happened is the Forgotten Realms has advanced a hundred years, and so being a Forgotten Realms writer, it was incumbent upon me to advance with it. And in doing so, a lot of the people around Drizzt weren’t going to make the journey with him over a hundred years, for one reason or another. And for most of his adult life—most of his life I’ve been writing about him, other than the book Homeland, where he came from—he’s been surrounded by friends of similar moral character, who would take an arrow for him just like he’d take an arrow for them. And now I’ve wiped the slate clean. I’ve left him in a very vulnerable place. He’s a bit confused, he’s disappointed, he’s just angry at the world for the unfairness of it all—that just when he thought he was finding peace, it all got upended. And so he’s very vulnerable, and now he meets up with a couple of folks—one in particular in Gauntlgrym who he finds attractive, intriguing, mysterious. And she’s a dirt bag. And we’ve all seen this with friends, either with friends who’ve fallen in with the wrong crowd in high school, or loved ones who fall in love with someone and you know this person’s really bad for them. And the question becomes, is Drizzt now—as he’s surrounded himself now with people whose moral compass points in a slightly different direction—are they going to drag him down into the gutter, or is he going to lift them up to his level? And I don’t know the answer to that.

You’ve also been working with 38 Studios. Could you tell us about that?

So five years ago I’m sitting at home and the phone rings, and I pick it up and the guy says, “Hey, can I talk to Bob Salvatore?” I said, “Speaking.” And he goes, “Ah man, I can’t believe I’m talking to you, you’re my favorite author, this is Curt Schilling.” I’m a Red Sox fan, and this is “Bloody Sock Guy” calling me? So I didn’t believe him, and I swore at him and thought it was a prank, but then it really was him, and we spent about twenty minutes saying, “I can’t believe I’m talking to you.” And Curt told me he was getting ready to retire, and didn’t want to go sell used cars or insurance, and he wanted to do what he loved, and that was video games, so he’s starting a video game company, and he wanted me to come in and create the world of Amalur. Well, he didn’t call it that. He wanted me to create the world for his MMO video game, his World of Warcraft/Everquest-type game that he wanted to build.

And so I joined up with 38 Studios, at the very beginning. We found the place to put the offices, we started stealing really talented people from all the video game companies around the world, and we started building this MMO, and I created this world of Amalur, with the help of my old gaming group, and my wife and a friend of hers, we all got together and they were doing research for me as I built this ten-thousand-year skeletal history for this world. And I wanted to do really deep threads because I knew that all these artists and designers were going to be painting on this canvas we were creating. And the deeper the history, the more consistent and logical the history, the easier it was going to be for them to come in and do something that would stay consistent, so that the player could be immersed in the world. This was going on for a couple of years, and we ended up buying this company called Big Huge Games from Baltimore, this studio that was developing an RPG engine. And so we said, “Hey, you know, this world, this IP, will lend itself to our RPG.” And so we put our intellectual property, our IP, on their engine that they were building, and they came up with a game called Reckoning. And Reckoning comes out February of next year, and it’s a single-player role-playing game for the Xbox, the PS3, and the PC. It’s got killer combat. You’ll be on the edge of your seat during combat, which is something you haven’t seen in an RPG before. It’s got a great story. It’s an open-world RPG. The lead designer was Ken Rolston, the guy who did Morrowind and Oblivion. The art was directed by Todd McFarlane, the other guy that came in with me to join Curt in the studio. Just an amazing team. And I haven’t been able to talk about it for five years, because we went dark. We want the games to speak for themselves, so I can’t really say much, and I can’t wait until after this game comes out, because then I can blab all about it. I just think it’s going to raise the bar on the RPG genre in computer gaming.

And finally, are there any other new or upcoming projects you’d like to talk about?

The only other thing I’m working on—I’m almost done the Drizzt book for next year. I know what I want to title it, but I can’t say it because I’m sure that Wizards of the Coast will overrule me. So I’m almost done with that book, and I’m also working on the end of a five-book comic series for IDW, which is New Adventures of Drizzt, which I’m writing with my son Geno. So that’s been pretty cool. Geno and I did a trilogy together as well, a couple of years ago, for the Forgotten Realms—three Drizzt books called The Stone of Tymora. And now we got back together again and did a five-book comic series. So I’ve been keeping busy.

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The Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy

The Geek's Guide to the Galaxy

The Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy is a science fiction/fantasy talk show podcast. It is produced by John Joseph Adams and hosted by: David Barr Kirtley, who is the author of thirty short stories, which have appeared in magazines such as Realms of Fantasy, Weird Tales, and Lightspeed, in books such as Armored, The Living Dead, Other Worlds Than These, and Fantasy: The Best of the Year, and on podcasts such as Escape Pod and Pseudopod. He lives in New York.