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From Menzoberranzan to Icewind Dale: An Interview With R.A. Salvatore

With the release of his latest book, The Last Threshold just days away, we chatted with R.A. Salvatore about all the things his fans want to know. From the influence of The Godfather on his work, to keeping everything straight in The Forgotten Realms, to where Drizzt will go next, we’re talking everything Salvatore.

Tell us about The Last Threshold. What does it offer to readers, new and old?

In a way, The Last Threshold is the answer, at long last, to a question that has been building within Drizzt for many years, since his days with Innovindil roaming the lands outside of Mithral Hall. He has his answer, and we all learn what that answer, that choice, will cost him.

For readers new to the series…well, I try to write every book as a stand-alone adventure within the context of the larger journey of my characters, and this one is no different. I pick up new readers with each Drizzt book – the challenge is for me to make the characters intriguing enough, with enough references (without being overwhelming) so that these folks want to go back and see how things got to this point.

The Last Threshold references many characters and environments from Drizzt’s travels throughout his lifetime. How difficult is it to keep all of that straight, given the sheer number you’ve worked with throughout the years?

Praise the Lord and pass the Wiki, I guess. On my own, I could never keep it all straight – after 26 years and more than 30 novels and a dozen short stories, Drizzt’s story has become as convoluted and complex as my own life. I don’t remember everything I was doing in 1990 any more than I remember what Drizzt was up to. Thankfully, I have references, though, in the form of the books, the many Forgotten Realms Wiki pages, good people at Wizards of the Coast who try to keep it all straight, and scores of reference books on the Realms.

I have people coming up to me all the time and rambling on about something that happened in a book I haven’t looked at in 5 years. I nod and pretend I know what they’re talking about! And hope, as usually happens, that they will say something which triggers the memory and brings me back to Icewind Dale, or Calimport, or wherever and whenever.

The Last Threshold ends on a rather climactic note. Without giving too much away, where does Drizzt go from here?

The thing of it is, while events in the Forgotten Realms move forward in the official timeline and such, the fictional world has a wide-open history, and even Drizzt has stories untold. My next book, “The Companions,” is already done and while “The Last Threshold” ends in Dale Reckoning (the calendar of the Forgotten Realms) 1484, “The Companions” begins in 1463. In fact, “The Companions” was partially plotted alongside “The Last Threshold,” since I saw side-streets worth exploring in an overlapping time frame.

The Last Threshold is the fourth and final book in the Neverwinter Saga. Do you have any new projects in the works?
After “The Companions” begins The Sundering, I’ll be going forward with the characters who survive that book, the companions, in adventures that run me through familiar haunts in the new Forgotten Realms. I was surprised the other day, charging through the next book (the one for March, 2014), to find myself back in Menzoberranzan, buried deep within the webs of drow intrigue yet again.

It is amazing to me that these pieces keep falling together, like a vast puzzle that’s always been there, and has been revealed to me through the characters, bit by bit, for more than a quarter of a century.

When you plan a series of books, like the Neverwinter Saga, do you have a strong idea of where each book will go before you begin, or does the story develop on its own as you write each book?

Sometimes I think I do, and of course, my contract requires me to turn in an outline. But alas, then I start writing and the characters take over. They tell me where to go, and what’s really going on. I didn’t know how the Neverwinter Saga was actually going to end until I got very near to the end, and even then, I was surprised. I truly believe that I write books the way other people read books. I don’t know what’s going to happen next, usually, and I don’t want to know. That’s what makes it fun.

 You feature a lot of mythical creatures in your stories, such as elves, demons, etc. How much of your version of them is taken from folklore, and how much is your own interpretation?

Well, these books are written in a shared world, the Forgotten Realms, where many authors share the setting, and many game designers ply their trade. Like almost every modern fantasy setting, the Realms pulls from folklore, as Dungeons and Dragons surely pulled from the work of Tolkien and Jack Vance and so many others, and as Tolkien and Vance and others pulled from the earlier myths and legends that came before. We all stand on the shoulders of giants, I guess.  

That’s not to say I don’t get to add my own monsters or races or other goodies, but I do have to clear such additions with those poor, overworked souls whose job it is to keep everything in the Realms making sense!

In my non-Realm books (and I have many), in worlds of my own making, like DemonWars and Amalur, I almost always go to the source material of folklore. I have that old Time-Life collection, “The Enchanted World,” and use it often (we even got a set for 38 Studios and put it in the library at the office). One thing I like to do is look at the legends from the point of view of the peasant in the time of those tales trying to make sense of something which seems supernatural. Then I come up with something different, which would appear to the peasant in a way as to inspire that legend. It’s a lot of fun, honestly, and hey, that’s why I do what I do.

What kind of research do you do before you begin a new book?

It depends on the book. Is it in an established world, or something new? When I did DemonWars, I spent weeks with my nose in National Geographic, searching maps, then more weeks studying the reputed magical properties of various gemstones and minerals, as well as the actual applications for such items. From there, I studied the history of the Catholic Church (read Umberto Eco’s masterpiece, too), and used the logic of the church structure to make sense of the magic in my world.

I can’t begin to stress the importance of understanding history and sociology to someone writing fantasy novels. Twain said that history may not repeat itself, but it sure rhymes, and that is very true when brought to the level of culture and society as well. There are certain structures that repeat, over and over again, because of human failings as much as human strengths, I would argue, and knowing how and why these cultures worked is a great source of consistency when trying to create a society of, say, elves, in a fantasy world. One of the things that I absolutely loved about the wonderful HBO series, “Rome,” was that they didn’t try to stilt the language and/or dress in such a manner as to make the people there seem unrecognizable to people of today’s sensibilities. In a way, watching the characters of “Rome” run about made you feel as if you could be right there beside them. In this way, that series humanized the ancient Romans in a way that nothing I’d previously seen ever had.

Similarly, when I created Menzoberranzan, the city of dark elves, way back in the late 80’s, I used the old Gygax game modules and the entry on drow in the “Fiend Folio,” but really, there wasn’t much to go on regarding creating an actual working culture and society there.

So I turned to Mario Puzo and reread “The Godfather,” and the drow houses came to be. True story.

You have been writing fantasy novels for decades. Do you ever worry there will come a time when you simply run out of ideas?

No, because ideas don’t drive the novels, characters do. As long as I’ve got characters who interest me, I’m confident they’ll tell me tales worth relating. When I put a new character into a story, I typically have no idea of who he or she really is. The best example of this is Drizzt, who was supposed to be a sidekick in “The Crystal Shard.” Two pages in, I knew. He was talking to me, telling me about his past, and his hopes for the future.

Approaching writing this way, as a personal and spiritual journey where I am constantly amazed, thrilled and saddened by the friends I make, means that there always seems to be something new and exciting to explore, or someone new and excited to get to know.

What one person has inspired you the most, as a writer? In what way?

Tough question. The easy answer is Tolkien. I found his works in college and was reminded of how much I loved to read and write when I was a young kid – a joy that was stolen from me through school assignments.

But like I said, that’s the easy answer. The harder answer is more personal. I was always a bit of a loner; I’m the youngest of seven, with five older sisters, but none were very close to me in age, or interests when we were young. Also, I hated school, and never really felt like I fit in. Even in those years when I was “popular,” I had no idea that I was, but I definitely knew those years when I wasn’t popular! I just wanted to get along and go along and hated the games and the rules and the cliques and the often-nonsensical demands.

So where is this going? To my Dad. My Dad was one of those people, enormously smart and talented, who really just wanted to do his thing in peace. He was happy lying across his bed, listening to the Red Sox. He would do anything for anyone (part of the reason he never made money at his furniture store was because he kept giving the stuff away wholesale to people in the neighborhood),
but really didn’t want anything from anyone. He lived his life well, then retired, simply.

I can’t begin to tell you how much I loved him, and we were very close, but I knew from early on that I wanted one thing to be different for me: I wanted to make sure that in the end I wasn’t just a Social Security number, collecting a check and quietly fading away. It wasn’t about fame and fortune or anything like that – I’ve always known, and still know, that the only really important things are family and friends – but I wanted something that my kids could show to my grandkids and great-grandkids to let them know who I was and what I cared about, and what I thought was right and wrong.

I wrote my first book, “Echoes of the Fourth Magic,” way back in 1982. I didn’t write it to be published – I never thought that a possibility back then – but rather, to give my descendants a way to know me, maybe to grab a little tighter at immortality. I didn’t plan to become a writer, it just found me. And when I think about this amazing journey, I have to agree that it all came about because I wanted to be just like my Dad, in every way but one.

So yeah, in the end, so much of this is because of him, and for him. He was gone before I landed my first contract to be published, but I know he knows.

If you had to pick just one of your books to introduce newcomers to your writing, what would it be?

I’d say “Homeland,” the first book of Drizzt, from Drizzt’s point of view, at least. There were three books about him published before “Homeland,” but he’s literally born in this book, so it’s a good place to start. Besides, it’s all about dark elves in their homeland, and I always find that delicious.

 

The Last Threshold will be released in digital and print editions on March 5th, 2013.

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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