Fantasy writer R.A. Salvatore has sold 17 million copies of books. He’s written some 50 novels, 24 of which have been New York Times bestsellers.
But the journey from nobody to fantasy fame wasn’t easy.
“Anyone out there who wants to be a writer should clearly recognize that this is a brutal business,” Salvatore told me on the occasion of this week’s release of Charon’s Claw, the third book in Salvatore’s Neverwinter Saga. He said publishing is a biz “where even incredibly talented people sometimes never make a living.”
R.A. Salvatore is best known for creating his iconic character Drizzt Do’Urden, a “dark elf” rebel who refuses to participate in the atrocities his people commit. For that act, Drizzt became an outcast. And riding on Drizzt’s coattails, Salvatore eventually made a name for himself in the world of fantasy fiction. Yet for a guy who has carved out some measure of fame and fortune, he has chosen to stay put in the humble town he grew up in: Leominster, Massachusetts (a small city about an hour west of Boston).
I had a chance to ask “Robert Anthony” (whose friends call “Bob”) some questions. This summer also happens to be the 25th anniversary of the year he began to write his first published novel, The Crystal Shard (released in 1988), so the timing seemed auspicious.
Now, I had wanted to ask about the aftermath of Curt Schilling’s failed game company, 38 Studios, which produced Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning, the company’s one and only release, before imploding. Salvatore had been hired by Schilling to dream up the game’s elaborate backstory, and the entire history of the world of Amalur (the setting for Reckoning, as well as an MMO called Copernicus that was never released). Salvatore was also owed a serious chunk of change by 38 Studios. Understandably, Salvatore declined comment, I would guess for legal reasons. Oh, well.
Instead, we talked about Drizzt’s character, about keeping the series fresh, and if there might be a movie in Drizzt’s future. I also asked for him to give any advice for any of you out there — geek kids and adults — dreaming of making a go of it as a writer. I have met Bob before and can attest he’s a stand-up guy. Kind, articulate, opinionated, and happy to speak his mind. Here’s what he had to say.
GeekDad: Acccording to the press notes, “The third book in the Neverwinter Saga, Charon’s Claw, follows Drizzt Do’Urden as he draws his swords once more to aid his friends. In this final book in the saga, Drizzt assists the beautiful elf Dahlia as she enacts revenge and helps an old foe break the bonds that have held him hostage for more than a hundred years.” Tell us more about Charon’s Claw. What trouble does Drizzt Do’Urden get himself into this time?
R.A. Salvatore: The stage for this book was pretty clearly set at the end of the second book, Neverwinter. That book was a revenge adventure, and this one ups that ante. Now the new companions have a bigger foe to face, and one with very powerful allies, including a sentient sword that will play devious games with a couple of our “heroes” (and that might include with Drizzt himself).
GeekDad: So you are up to exactly how many books now, with Charon’s Claw — 50 or more than 50?
Salvatore: Tough question. Off the top of my head, I count 53. Keep in mind, though, that many are in the same series — more than 30 in the Forgotten Realms, another 11 in DemonWars — so it’s not like I have to recreate the wheel with each book. I think of the Forgotten Realms books as if I’m writing the next television season more than the next novel, at this point.
GeekDad: Do you lose count?
Salvatore: Of course — in fact, I just did. I don’t know how many bestsellers I’ve got, or half the awards I’ve won, and I don’t really care. I’m just having fun, doing something I love and getting paid for it. How cool is that?
GeekDad: Drizzt is your best-known character, known for being a rebel, one who has forsaken the evil ways of his people. How do you approach each new Drizzt adventure and decide what the next episode will be in his adventures?
Salvatore: I’m following him down this winding and dangerous road and we’re both looking to see what’s around the next corner. You have to understand that while I pre-plot the meta story of a given book, I often have no idea of what will happen on the next page, let alone the next chapter. That’s what makes it fun for me; I write the books the same way many people read them. Mostly for the big story planning, I focus on what’s going on in the main character’s head and heart, and seek out a vehicle, a conflict, that can push them through the mental or moral dilemma.
GeekDad: Do you find him doing things that are un-Drizzt like? How much do you want his character to change and grow?
Salvatore: “Un-Drizzt-like?” No. Whenever any of my characters begin acting “out of character,” instead of questioning it or erasing it, I look deeper to try to figure out why they’re doing that. What’s the motivation or the pain that’s behind this apparent change of heart?
You have to understand that I use these characters as sounding boards so I can ask myself the pressing questions in my own head and heart. Writing is a journey for me where I try to make sense of it all. When it’s not making sense in the books or with a character, I’m not looking carefully enough.
GeekDad: And for you, as a writer, how do you keep it all fresh — as a writer, as someone who keeps spinning tales?
Salvatore: See the previous answer. This isn’t a job for me; it’s my own journey through life. When I get bored with it, I’ve got bigger problems than writing books!
GeekDad: Does the writing of a series like this ever seem a slog?
Salvatore: There are parts in every book, series or not, that seem a slog. Usually around the middle of a book, when I’m doing all the detail work that will make the resolution more satisfying, I will glance down at the page and wonder why anyone would ever want to read it. Writers always have confidence issues — it comes with the territory. We never know where we fit in, or what the actual value of our work might be.
So we hit lulls, or slogs. Throw in the idea that many creative people are somewhat manic-depressive and it can get pretty dark at times.
GeekDad: You’ve got Drizzt comics books, board games, and novels. Thoughts on the possibility of a Drizzt movie or videogame? Any rumors or details that can you divulge?
Salvatore: I’d love to see a movie, with the obvious caveat that it has to be done right. Hasbro owns the Forgotten Realms, not I, so any movie or videogame has to come from them. I expect I’d be in the loop and quite involved, and there has been talk and interest — for well over a decade now. Thus far, it’s just that: talk.
GeekDad: Many of our readers are writers or are parents to kids who want to be writers, especially of works of geek fiction genres. Can you offer any advice that perhaps was helpful to you early on your career, or that you’ve learned since your beginner days?
Salvatore: When I got my first rejection letter, way back in 1983, out of frustration and desperation, I called a hometown hero, Robert Cormier. Bob (we later became great friends) kept me on the phone for a long time, helping me keep my focus and keep things in perspective. He gave me some great advice about the writing itself, which I’ve never forgotten: Characters are more important than plot.
On a more practical level, anyone out there who wants to be a writer should clearly recognize that this is a brutal business, where even incredibly talented people sometimes never make a living. If you want to chase such a dream, please have a Plan B in place. You can write and take literature and creative writing courses while getting an engineering degree, or a teaching degree, or even after law or medical school. Pursue your dreams, you bet, but do so responsibly, for your own sake.
GeekDad: Anything else you’d like to add?
Salvatore: July of this year marked the 25th anniversary of when I started writing The Crystal Shard and also the birth of Drizzt. What a wonderful journey it’s been, and hopefully, with many more adventures to come.
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To support the book’s release, Salvatore is hitting the road in the coming weeks to meet fans and sign copies of his books. He’ll be at GenCon (signings at the Wizards of thee Coast booth will be Thursday 4 p.m. to 5 p.m., and Friday 11 a.m. to 12 p.m.), DragonCon and various bookstores and other venues. A full list of stops can be found here. For more information about R.A. Salvatore, please visit www.rasalvatore.com or find him on Facebook.