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Chatting With Salvatore: A Brutal Gamer Interview

R.A. Salvatore is a prolific author who has had his hands in many different types of media, from novels and comics to board games and video games. Join us as we chat with him about Drizzt Do’Urden and the Forgottten Realms, his awesome and at times creepy encounters with fans, his newest book Charon’s Claw, and what he has coming up next.

Charon’s Claw is part of Wizards of the Coast’s Rise of the Underdark storyline, right?
It’s part of that, and it’s also the third of four books in the Neverwinter series.

Tell us a bit about Rise of the Underdark and how Charon’s Claw fits in with that?
Well, the Rise of the Underdark obviously will be bringing back or introducing dangers from that entire sub-surface world from the Forgotten Realms, and in this book it gave me the chance to go back and start playing around with the Dark Elves again. Instead of just Drizzt and Jarlaxle  – my normal protagonists – I actually get to go back to the Dark Elf city a little bit, and kind of reintroduce one of the houses from that city and put them in the plot. So, the monsters from the Underdark play a major role in these books now.

So, being part of a massive storyline like that, encompassing books and board games, online games, etc. How do you handle that to ensure synergy across all the products? Do you have a lot of freedom with your individual storyline, or do you have to conform to a sort of master plan?
A little of both, but you have a lot of freedom. When you have a good editor, like I do up at Wizards of the Coast, the best part about this is I’ll be writing some things and the editor will say “We’ve got this going on over here, and that might pertain to what you’re doing, and you could have some fun with this,”  and so then I’ll go look at that and bring it in, if it works.

But generally speaking, they give me as much freedom as I need with my books. They don’t give me any problems with it, but I try to stay within the boundaries they’re setting up in the overall story. This whole thing about the Rise of the Underdark – it’s not like it’s one massive storyline. It’s just they’re focusing on reintroducing the bad guys from the Underdark through a bunch of different products, but it’s not like it’s going to be this massive, cohesive, everything ties right together. The whole thing will make sense because we’re all moving in the same direction, but are a lot of little stories to tell that don’t interact.

How hard is it to your stories moving in the right direction once the words start to flow?
Not hard, really, because I know the basic premise. I know who the dark elves are, and that’s what I’m dealing with. I’m the one that created that society in the Realms, and so for me it’s fairly easy, because I know where I have to go because I’ve been there so many times before.

Obviously, Wizards of the Coast is a big company, and it’s not just book publishing. What are the advantages and disadvantages of working with a company like Wizards of the Coast, rather than a conventional publisher?
The advantages come down to when shared world is working well. When the authors are all talking, and we’re all excited about what’s going on in the shared world, I get to stand on the shoulders of giants like Ed Greenwood. So, I’ll go right back to the beginning. The second book I wrote with them, I had the companions going with them from Icewind Dale to Mythral Hall. and  on the way in this journey, there was a nondescript little town called Longsaddle, and there was just a one paragraph description of this town on the box set that came out for the Forgotten Realms. But that inspired me.

So Longsaddle became this incredible side adventure in that book, and a ton of flavoring for that book – and for future books that I wrote – whereas if I hadn’t been part of a shared world, and I hadn’t that description of the town, I might not have been inspired to make it anything more than just this simple little visit to a nondescript town where nothing particularly interesting happened. So, when it’s working well, you’re drawing off the creativity of other people. The hard part, of course, is when they advance the world a hundred years, you have to go with them even if in your storyline you weren’t planning to do that. When they change the game and the magic system changes, you have to try to adapt within the new guidelines, even though it can run counter to what you’ve done before. So, the hard part is continuity, the hard part is keeping up with all the changes. The good part is being able to jump off the shoulders of other creative people.

Speaking of the Forgotten Realms series is a very long standing series of books as well, with so many different authors.  How difficult is to keep things accurate where you don’t have fans saying, “Oh, in this book over here, this happened, but in this book, you did this”?
It’s next to impossible, which is why I try to stay as far out of the way as I can with most of my books. I’ll go hide up in Icewind Dale, or under the ground in Menzoberranzan where there are very limited numbers of other people working in those areas. That’s one of the reasons why I’m glad we’re not sharing characters in the Forgotten Realms. When you’ve got that many hands working on something as big as the Forgotten Realms, it’s next to impossible not to have contradictions at times, no matter how hard you try.

We’re here to talk about Charon’s Claw. Without giving too much away, tell us a bit about it?
It’s the third book in the series; there’s one more to go, coming out next March. In the first book of the series, I had my heroes – Drizzt and Bruenor – through circumstance and coincidence find themselves in the midst of a region that had gone through something bad. Being the heroes they are, they wanted to try and fix it. That book was almost kind of an adventure by chance for them, where it just so happened that where Bruenor was searching for became the source of this major problem. After that, given all that happened in the first book, the second book became a revenge quest for one of Drizzt’s new companions, but also for Drizzt to pay back this person who had caused so much trouble. And it was the right thing to do. That book became a revenge quest, and through that book with the addition of a surprise for the dark elf and a new old friend/enemy, the road seems fairly straight that they’re not quite fixing the region. There’s one more thing they have to do, with a really bad guy who’s got really powerful allies – including the sword, Charon’s Claw. The people who read the first two books can see where it’s going, and they’re going to find some serious twists when they get there.

What about  newcomers? Is somebody able to pick up this book, as the third in the series and not be lost, or do they really need to go back and start from the beginning?
You don’t ever have to go back and start from the beginning with the dark elf books. I did that on purpose, from the very beginning twenty five years ago. The dark elf books are written more like James Bond or Sherlock Holmes novels, where I think you can pick up pretty much any one and read it and not get completely lost. Every story has a beginning, a middle, and an end. For this book, you’re probably better off going back at least to Gauntlgrym, the first book in the series and starting with that. You can pick this book up cold, however. There are new characters you’re going to meet, and the characters who are not new that you’re going to see for the first time if you haven’t read anythin in the series are fairly well-defined and explained. There motivations are made very clear. So I think you can pick this book up – I would suggest going back and reading Gauntlgrym and Neverwinter first.

Charon’s Claw is, as you mentioned, a Drizzt Do’Urden book. He is one of your most popular characters. How did his character come to be?
Off the top of my head. I had written it to TSR – it was TSR then, way before Wizards of the Coast. They liked it, but they couldn’t publish it. The editor called me up and said “We only have room in our schedule for Forgotten Realms novels. Do you think we can turn this book into a Forgotten Realms novel?” I said, “Well, what are the Forgotten Realms?” because they weren’t out yet. So the only people who knew about the Forgotten Realms were the people working for TSR. It turned out we couldn’t turn that book into the – it wouldn’t fit at all into the Realms. But they asked me to audition, and so they sent me the only printed thing they had on the Realms. That was a book called Darkwalker on Moonshae by Doug Niles, and I loved that book. So I read Darkwalker on Moonshae, but the Moonshae Isles are these tiny little islands and all the map showed was the Moonshae Isles. So I thought the Moonshae Isles were the Forgotten Realms.

Doug’s characters were so big in that setting that I knew I was going to need them at least to introduce the hero of my book. And so that’s what I did. I wrote the sample chapter and the synopsis of a book where I have one of Doug’s characters introduce the hero of my book, who was going to be Wulfgar. I sent it in and they were like, “I really like this story idea, but we don’t want you doing a sequel of Doug’s book and using Doug’s characters.” And I said, “Good. I don’t want to. But how am I going to do that? The Moonshae’s aren’t that big.” And they said, “Oh, we don’t want you on the Moonshae Isle.” So I looked at the map and I’m like “You want me in the water?” And they said “Oh, we didn’t send you the map of the Realms!” So they sent me the map of this vast world, the Forgotten Realms.

After about three or four weeks, we had settled on where I would set the book. And then one day I was at work – I was working as a financial analyst – and my editor called me up and said “We got a problem. I have to go into a marketing meeting to sell your book to our sales force. This is really important that we do this right.” I said, “Well, go do it!” and she said, “No, you don’t understand. You’ve got Doug’s character in this book, and you can’t use him.” I said, “I don’t want to use him.” She said,”I need a sidekick for Wulfgar.” So I told her I’d call her back in a week with a sidekick for Wulfgar, and she said, “You don’t understand. I’m going into a meeting and I need a sidekick for Wulfgar.” So I looked at the click – it was almost lunchtime – and I said, “Alright, I’ll work through lunch and I’ll come up with a sidekick for Wulfgar and call you back this afternoon.” She said, “You don’t understand. I’m late for a meeting where I have to sell your book, and I need a sidekick for Wulfgar.”

And in a moment of panic, off the top of my head, I said, “A dark elf.” Actually, I said a black elf – they were called black elves. There’s a long pause, and she says, “A drow?” and I said, “Yeah! A drow ranger. That’ll be cool. No one’s done that before.” Another long pause, and she says, “There’s probably a reason nobody’s done that, Bob.” And I said, “No. A drow ranger -that’ll work. This will be good. This will work.” She thought about it for a while, and she said, “Okay. Because it’s a sidekick character, I’ll let you get away with it. What’s his name?” And off the top of my head – and I don’t know how and I don’t know why and I don’t know where I ever got any of this – Drizzt Do’Urden of Daermon N’a’shezbaernon, the ninth house of Menzoberranzan. I had no idea what I was talking about. I didn’t know what a Menzoberranzan was, I didn’t know what this Daermon N’a’shezbaernon name meant. I didn’t know what Drizzt Do’Urden might be. But she let me get away with it – she had no choice. We had no time to argue. I started writing the book soon after, and when I was on page two when I had Drizzt running across the tundra when he gets ambushed by Yetis, I knew it was his book. It wasn’t Wulfgar’s. And he just took over from there. That was twenty five years ago.

With that first book, did you foresee him as becoming as popular and long running. or did you think he’d be a one-off?
Oh, God no! I just wanted…at that time I was convinced if I could just publish one book, I’d be happy. I could die happy. I had no idea I’d even get a second book, let alone a thirty-fifth, or whatever this is for Wizards of the Coast. Of course not. I knew I liked him. But I like a lot of things that other people don’t like, so I had no idea one way or the other what was going to happen with the character. It’s been an amazing journey, and it’s kind of found me more than I’ve found it, the whole way. So, no. Absolutely not. I thought I was going to be able to write a book and say, “Hey, look! I wrote a book and I got published.” And then build my career as a financial analyst at a high tech company.

After decades of books, games, comics, etc. featuring this character, do you ever get tired of writing about Drizzt?
No, and the reason I don’t is a couple a years ago I was putting together the collected stories of the legend of Drizzt. So it’s all the short stories I had written over the last couple of decades in the Forgotten Realms. When I was putting it together, I had to read each story over because I was annotating it. I was doing like a one page introduction to the story – what I was writing, what I was getting at. When I read those stories, it threw me write back into a time and place I had been emotionally and physically when I wrote that story. It was this wonderful trip down memory lane for me.

At that point I had an epiphany, and I realized that what I’m doing here with my writing – and I think most writers do this – is I’m really just having my own journey. I’m writing these books and creating these characters, and what I’m doing by doing that is asking myself all the questions about what this means. What’s the whole point of all of this, from a personal perspective. I go back to Carl Sagan – Carl Sagan did the Cosmos series for PBS, this brilliant scientific and sociological journey. Sagan called that his spiritual journey, and I feel the same way about my writing. All I’m doing with my writing is I’m using the characters of the books as vehicles for me to ask myself all the questions that matter in my life. So, when I get bored with that, I guess I’m bored with my own life.

Not only am I not bored with these characters, but I’m having more fun than ever because now I’ve also come to see them as kind of this lifeline to the late ‘80s when I used to sit down and – we still play Dungeons & Dragons, but not like we used to play back in the ’80s, before the internet, before cell phones, before text messages, before 500 channels on the tv. This brings me back, writing these books, and I think for many of my readers when they read the books, it brings us back to that time. It was a good time in my life, and a lot of other people’s lives. It’s got the nostalgia, wistfulness going on now as well as me accepting that this is my journey, and this is how I get through my journey. So, the answer is absolutely not. I’m having a blast.

Over the years, you’ve had your hand in a lot of different types of things – the books, the comics, board games, video games. Which has been your favorite medium to work with, and how have these experiences affected your writing?
I’m fairly new to the comics, with the actual writing. I was editing them when it was Devil’s Due, and now with IDW I’ve actually written a series with my son. I’m actually enjoying it quite a bit, but my favorite format remains the novels. I’m a novelist, that’s the format I’m most comfortable with. I get to say the things I want to say. I’ve never been very comfortable with short stories, although I’ve learned how to take more risks and have a little bit more fun in the short stories than I used to.

Novels remains my favorite, but doing the other ones – doing the short stories I think helps clarify my thinking of the point of the books more. Like I said when I was doing the annotation for those short stories, because they are such a condensed experience, where it takes me about a week to write one, that it’s so intense, you have no choice but to figure out “what’s the point of this story?” With a novel, you can meander a little bit and the novel will tell you the point of it as you go through. A short story you have to know upfront, so it kind of focuses your thinking a little bit more. But the novels remain my favorite.

What kinds of projects do you have planned next?
Well, I’ve got the book coming out on the 7th – August 7th is Charon’s Claw – and then in October, they’re putting together the three books I wrote with my son Geno, the Stone of Tymora series, into one book, so I’ll be back on the road for that a little bit, promoting that one. The next Dark Elf book is already written, it’ll be out next March. It’s called The Last Threshold, and I’m working on the Dark Elf book after that – when I say Dark Elf book, I mean Forgotten Realms book – which I can’t talk about at all. And also, we did the Neverwinter Tales comics with IDW,, and it’s very likely that Geno and I are going to doing a lot more comics with IDW because we had a lot of fun doing that, and IDW liked it. So they want us back, and we want to be back. So we’ll be doing more comics with them as well.

Other than the Realms right now, because fifth edition is coming – or D&D Next, as they call it – that will facilitate changes in the Forgotten Realms. This time, Wizards of the Coast is getting everybody involved on the ground floor, so it’s like this big, creative, cooperative endeavor. So right now, I’m burying myself in the Forgotten Realms for at least the next year, exclusively. After that, we’ll see. I mean, I’ve got my DemonWars books, I want to do more of those. You know, there’s other things I want to get my teeth into as we go along here. Right now, it’s all Forgotten Realms.

You’ve been writing for a long time, and you have some very loyal fans out there.  Do you have any interesting, creepy, or otherwise awesome fan encounters you’d like to share with us?
*Laughs* Mostly awesome! I don’t think creepy every comes into to it, honestly. But I did have a stalker once, that was pretty creepy. Also, I think after the Star Wars book came out, in which I served as a hitman on a favorite character, that got a little uncomfortable, with the death threats and such. But most of my interactions with the readers have been incredible. Best one, I think – every day I get a letter from someone who says that they found my books when they were in a dark place, and my books helped them get through it.

And that’s always awesome, but one day I was actually on the road for The Highway Man. The Highway Man is kind of an interesting hero because he’s got a very severe physical affliction. This gentleman came up to the table – I think I was in Colorado Springs – and he started talking about the book, and he was like a forty year old guy, big guy, and he started crying because he had a son who had an infirmity, who had been born with a very serious physical issue. And he told me he was going to read that book to his son and tell his son that there was nothing he couldn’t do. Now we’re both crying. It was like one of the highlights of my journey as a writer.

There have been a couple of other similar ones. There was a guy in Florida who got in a motorcycle accident, became a quadriplegic. I mean, an quadriplegic, not even a paraplegic, and he wrote me this wonderful letter telling me that he was  ready to tell his friend to please pull the plug because he couldn’t live like that. But he was reading my books, and if Drizzt can get through what he can get through, then he can get through this. Six months later I get a letter from him, with a picture of him on a bed with his pet parrot sitting on his chest, with a big smile on his face. And he’s writing for  magazine, professionally. That was heartwarming.

Those type of things? They humble you, they remind you that it’s not about royalty checks, and they make you think that maybe you’re doing a little bit of good in the world and you can’t ask for more than that.

Brutal Gamer is a gaming site first, so we have to ask: what are you playing?
Right now, I am trying to figure that out. My wife wants to go back to Warcraft. Playing Dungeons & Dragons – actually took the summer off, because softball is interfering. But we were playing first edition Dungeons & Dragons campaign. I’m DMing so we’re back to first edition, because I’m old. My wife wants to go back to Warcraft before the new expansion comes out. I’m a little hesitant, because I think I’ve played that one as far as I can go. But I don’t know – I’m going to give it a try for her. I had just finished Reckoning, the game from 38 Studios that came out, which I had a blast with. I’m really excited because last week, when my friends came over for a BBQ, someone mentioned to me that – we were talking about GoldenEye. Remember the old GoldenEye game, for the Nintendo 64? Apparently you can download that and play it on the Wii with Gamecube controllers, and so we’re actually going to start playing GoldenEye when I get back from my book tour. And I can’t wait, because I love that game. With the four way split screen? I love that game! So I’m very excited about that.

Is there anything else you’d like add – anything you want to say to the fans?
The adventure continues. Prepare to be shocked. Prepare to be surprised at every turn. These book are surprising me when I’m writing them, so I think you’re going to be surprised too.

About Amy

U.S. Senior Editor/Deputy EIC at BrutalGamer, mother of 5, gamer, reader, wife to @MacAnthony, and all-around bad-ass (no, not really)

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