Over the course of several decades, fantasy author R.A. Salvatore‘s action-packed novels have earned millions of fans. Whether he’s writing his own all-original fiction or another installment in the chronicles of the dark elf ranger Drizzt Do’urden, solid storytelling, big-hearted characters, and an epic sense of adventure makes the release of every new Salvatore book a reason to celebrate.
In the following interview, Salvatore looks back on the birth of his signature character Drizzt, the “obvious and oblivious” sexism of his early fiction, the prospect of a future in which his most popular character will probably outlive him, and his latest book: volume three of The Companions Codex: Vengeance of the Iron Dwarf:
In the evolving world of the Forgotten Realms setting, the Sundering has given way to months of cloud-cloaked darkness, and war rages under that oppressive sky. The orcs have broken a hard-fought treaty that’s held, however tentatively, for a hundred years, and the time to settle old scores has devolved into an all-out brawl for control of the ancient realms of the North.
Unbound Worlds: Bob, I want to thank you so much for agreeing to answer a few questions here. If you don’t mind, I’d like to start with a few about Drizzt. What’s it like to have birthed an iconic fantasy character? Not everyone is lucky enough to have an Elric of Melnibone or Conan the Barbarian to their credit. Certainly, with so many decades of adventures, Drizzt is easily such a character.
R.A. Salvatore: It’s surreal – it’s more like people are talking about someone else’s creation when I hear comments about Drizzt. Certainly he’s become very real to me over these 27 years, but to hear from the kids, the soldiers, the people battling cancer or whatever, the impact he’s had on their lives is staggering (and humbling).
UW: Can you tell me a little bit about how and when this character first came to mind? Did you know that he would be such a game-changer for you?
RAS: He came to mind on the phone with an editor who was late for a marketing meeting for The Crystal Shard. I had won the audition, but couldn’t use a character I thought they wanted me to use, so they needed a sidekick to Wulfgar. Poof, off the top of my head came the idea of a dark elf ranger. It was a very fortunate moment. I detail the whole exchange in the forward to the Dark Elf Trilogy, by the way. It’s pretty funny.
UW: Were there any ideas that you had for the character in the beginning that just didn’t work out over time? As you’ve grown to write about the character over the years, have you developed a more intuitive understanding of what he would or wouldn’t do that makes you revise story ideas to be more true to the character?
RAS: No, I don’t work like that for my characters. I get a baseline idea, a general feeling for them, and then I let them tell me and show me who they are as the story progresses. I know about as much about any of my characters when they are first introduced as the reader will know when she first encounters them. On the second part, yes, I get to know them – to the point where if they’re acting out of character, or saying something that doesn’t sound right, instead of changing the scene or dialogue, I try to figure out what’s bothering them. It makes the story more real to me, and it’s a lot more fun.
UW: I sometimes wonder if Drizzt has managed to help people learn anything constructive about the evils of racism and prejudice. What do you think?
RAS: I’ve received many letters from people on this issue over the decades. Many from people of color or other minorities, and they’ve always said the same thing: “Thank you.” So yes, I do think it’s been a positive force in the books. I hope so anyway, because prejudice of any kind, whether about race, religion, gender, sexual orientation, etc., strikes me as very stupid. And I say this as someone who was obviously and obliviously sexist in my early days of writing. I cringe when I realize that there wasn’t a named female hero in the first draft of The Crystal Shard. And that, in turn, was very reflective of the genre at that time, when most women had to be damsels in distress or chicks in chainmail. Thankfully, we’ve gotten better. I mean, watched the ROUS fight scene in The Princess Bride – if that movie was being filmed today, Buttercup would have beaten that rat silly with a club instead of (for the most part) standing scared and letting Wesley do all the work. We know better now. And I learned the hard way not to let up when playing female athletes in sports!
UW: Do you think Drizzt will outlive you? Can you see Drizzt books continuing even after you have lived a (hopefully very, very, long, very) happy and constructive life?
RAS: I try not to think about it. If so, I would hope my son Geno is writing the books, as he understands the point of them better than anyone (except maybe his siblings). I do think the ones I’ve written will be around for a while…but since I’m going cyborg anyway, so will I.
UW: Let’s talk about anti-heroes for a moment. Do you consider Drizzt one? Was he ever? I look back through literature and see characters like Melmoth the Wanderer, Doctor Faustus, Elric, even Tyler Durden, and I see these powerful – and powerfully charismatic – characters who battle with demons within and without. They don’t always do the conventionally “right” thing, but it’s like we envy them a little bit as much as we know we couldn’t follow them. Is the label “anti-hero” a matter of perspective, too? I mean, even Prometheus (and obviously Satan in Paradise Lost) are anti-heroes from a human perspective–not so much from that of the gods.
RAS: Absolutely not. Drizzt is a hero in the truest sense of the word, because he has the biggest heart, not the biggest sword. Jarlaxle would qualify, maybe Zak, and Entreri has moved that way, but no. Drizzt has never done an evil thing in his life because his intention is always generous and to do good.
And I find it very funny that such a statement would, on its surface, be a turn-off for some readers, but in truth, so many people, particularly people in a dark or lonely place, have latched onto this guy as someone they want as a friend. I know I would want him in my life in a real sense, too.
UW: You’re a sports fan. I have to admit that the combination of your Italian surname, love of baseball, and your profession as a creator of compelling fantasy reminds me a bit of another artist: Frank Frazetta. Do you like his work? Were you, like him, athletic as a kid? What pushed you in the direction of fantasy rather than athletics? Oh, and would you have enjoyed a Frazetta illustration of Drizzt?
RAS: Frazetta’s work is amazing – of course I would have loved to see what he could do with my characters! Same with Vallejo and the Brothers Hildebrandt. Of course, I got Elmore and Caldwell and Easley and Lockwood and Parkinson (once) and Ciruello and Walpole and and and…so I have nothing to complain about in that department! I was athletic, but I had serious knee problems, and honestly I was just too shy, to play organized sports very much. But I still play softball, I still weightlift. I love sports and know all about the big four, following them all the time. Heck, I just signed off a Patriots message board where we’re arguing Revis and McCourty! I fell in love with fantasy when I was trapped in my Mom’s house – Blizzard of ’78 – and so I read Tolkien, and those books reminded me of how much I loved to read and write when I was very little.
UW: The Companions Codex, like many of your projects, is a multi-volume story. The idea of planning a story that covers is told over several novels gives me hives. I can’t imagine how difficult that must be. Do you outline? Do you have any particular methods you use to tackle these kinds of stories?
RAS: That gives me hives, too, which is why I don’t do it. I just write the next book in this long and wonderful journey, and the publisher(s) carve the books up into marketable-sized pieces and give them a “series” name. I outline and start writing and throw the outline away. I often don’t know what’s on the next page, let alone what might be in the next book!
UW: Menzoberranzan is dangerously unstable in The Companion Codex. While the city of the Drow is never a perfect or peaceful land, there’s a lot going on behind the scenes that could shake it to the ground. How closely is Drizzt’s fate tied to that of his homeland? Could he ever really get away and be done with it?
RAS: He’s a lot more tied up in the troubles brewing there than he knows, that’s for sure. And no, not now – Lolth and Mielikki, competing goddesses, are taking Drizzt personally. So which one wins? Will either?
UW: Could you ever see the power structure collapsing enough to result in Menzoberranzan becoming a totally failed state?
RAS: Not really. It’s Our Thing (la Cosa Nostra). If it’s not taken down from the outside, it will limp along. Power hates a vacuum and there are too many very powerful drow to allow it to happen…and Lolth is always watching.
On the other hand, as a “state” it is already a failure.
UW: Fear of the dark is probably one of humanity’s most universal fears. The Darkening reminds me a little bit of how people have described a hypothetical nuclear winter. It sounds terrifying; like something out of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. Where did you get this idea?
RAS: The Darkening came from Wizards – specifically from Rich Baker (he’s such a great creative mind), I believe. I was very happy to play with it! Particularly so, I must add, with the ending of Vengeance. I was laughing my head off writing that scene.
UW: The companions were left in a bit of a bind at the end of the last novel. Do you ever hear from readers about cliffhangers? Do they like them? Have any of them tried to convince you to give them a few hints ahead of the next publication?
RAS: I hear from them all the time and love to tease them with half-truths and hints that really aren’t. I learned the value of the cliffhanger when, on a whim, I threw in some assassin named Artemis Entreri at the end of The Crystal Shard. I thought it might convince TSR to give me another contract. It did.
UW: Alright, well, let me try: Can you give us any hints about what to expect in Vengeance of the Iron Dwarf?
RAS: There are dwarves. They are angry. Things go boom.
UW: Oh! One more: Thibbledorf Pwent. How dare you, sir! Any chance he’ll walk among the living once more?
RAS: Maybe he still does…walking among the living, sucking their blood, stealing their babies… Never underestimate the Pwent!