Shaunís QuadrantDecember 2005
Shaun Farrell Interviews R. A. Salvatore
This month I am delighted to present an interview with legendary fantasy author R. A. Salvatore. R. A. Salvatoreís first book, The Crystal Shard, was published in 1988. Since then he has written over forty books, including numerous New York Times bestsellers, and sold over 10,000,000 copies. His newest novel, Promise of the Witch King, hit shelves this October. Please visit his website (http://www.rasalvatore.com).
Shaun Farrell: Letís start off by talking about your new book, Promise of the Witch King, which was published in October, and tells a story involving Entreri and Jarlaxle, two characters from your Forgotten Realms novels. Now, they may be villains, but they are dynamic characters much loved by your fans. How do you see these characters: villains or heroes?
R. A. Salvatore: Well, they havenít done a lot of heroic things, but they have done some. And when I look at the term villain, you have to keep it in context. Zaknafein, Drizztís father in Menzoberranzan, took great pleasure in killing Drow Matrons. Now, that would be an evil act. But if you put it in context of the society he was in, then how bad was he really? So that analogy, I think, holds to Jarlaxle very well. Beyond that, Entreri, given his background, which Iím going more into in the next book, sees his world in the same manner. Parts of the black and white work in fantasy with monsters, but with protagonists there always have to be those shades of grey. So, do I see Entreri as a hero? No. Do I see him as having the potential to do heroic things? Absolutely.
SF: Those shades of grey make them characters that fans latch onto. Especially when in a lot of fantasy books, there arenít shades of grey. Everything is black and white.
RAS: I donít think thatís true in a lot of fantasy books. I think sometimes itís more subtle, but most of the fantasy books Iíve read Ė I donít know, maybe Iíve just read good ones! Ė but I find shades of grey in a lot of the characters. Not with the monsters. The monsters are often times supposed to be embodiments of evil. But with the characters, there are often those shades of grey, I hope. Otherwise, itís not real.
SF: Well, what can you tell us about where the relationship between Entreri and Jarlaxle is going?
RAS: Well I can tell you that the reason Iím having so much fun with it, is that Iím 70% done with the next book, which will be the last one for awhile, and I still donít know whether they will hug each other or kill each other. Thatís whatís always so much fun for me. When people are reading Promise of the Witch King, theyíll probably come to believe that Entreri is being manipulated by Jarlaxle. I guess the big question is, does Entreri know it? If the answer to that is yes, then why does he let it happen? If you get through those two questions, the next will be: What is he going to do when heís done playing this game? Iím not sure yet. A big part of the book was the speech Jarlaxle gave Entreri where he basically explains to Entreri that he was his muse. I think that caught Entreri off guard.
SF: Is this one of those books where the characters are really telling you what the story is versus you plotting it out and really knowing from one point to the next whatís happening?
RAS: Well, I have news for you: thatís been all of my books. Thatís the way I write. The characters tell me their story and I just go with it. I have the character in my mind. The trick is to keep him internally consistent. If Iíve managed that, then following the character along on the adventure is easy.
SF: Not a big outline guy, huh?
RAS: I do an outline because the contract calls for an outline and it gives me an idea of where I want to be at any given time in the book regarding the overall story. But, not a big outline in terms of the actual events that will precipitate whatever changes I see coming in the characters, no. I outline more along of the line of: Section three, how is Entreri going to deal with Jarlaxle? Those are the questions I ask more than the actual events that come up around it. The events are the dressing. A lot of my books are character driven more than they are plot driven. Those are the types of books I like to read. Those are the types of books I prefer to write.
SF: Those are the types of books that seem to stand the test of time.
RAS: I donít know. You could be right. If I can remember the main characters and get a smile on my face, then I remember the book. I suppose thereís some truth in that. Itís just instinctive with me. Itís nothing purposefully set up one way or the other. Itís just the way I tell a story.
SF: How emotionally invested do you become in these characters you write about?
RAS: Hugely. I remember when I was writing Halflingís Gem I thought I had killed Captie-brie. I had to stop writing. I walked downstairs; my face was white as a sheet. My wife and a friend looked at me and said, ďWhatís the matter with you?Ē I said, ďI just killed Cattie-Brie.Ē It hurt like heck. I am hugely invested in them as friends. I sound like a lunatic here, but I suppose I am! They become very real on the level of a character youíve been playing on a computer game for five years, for example, and has become your alter-ego in that game and you become very enamored with that character. Itís hard to walk away from that. Or a character you play in Dungeons and Dragons for years and years. It would hurt if that character got killed. Itís the same thing when Iím writing the books. These are characters Iíve created. Iíve invested an enormous amount of myself in them. Yeah, I know theyíre not real, but on a different level, in the imagination, they are real.
SF: They are also real in the sense that any character you create has come from you, so there is some part of you in that character.
RAS: Thatís scary when youíre talking about people like Entreri, but I have to agree with that!
SF: You recently signed a contract to write five more Forgotten Realms books. How long do you think youíll continue to write Forgotten Realms novels?
RAS: As long as people want to keep reading them, Iíll keep writing them. I havenít put a time limit on it. Iím not tired of writing the characters in any way, shape, or form. I still have fun playing in that world. Itís a fortunate coincidence (laughter) to me that I have a way of telling a story that people want to read, and they pay me to do it. I get to make a living doing something I love. I donít take that for granted at all. And itís not like Iím trapped in the Forgotten Realms. I could write any book I want and get it published at this point. Which is more than a lot of very talented unpublished writers can say. And there are an awful lot of very talented unpublished writers. So, Forgotten Realms for me is almost like home base. These guys Iíve created are like family, and even when Iím doing other things, once a year I go back and visit my family. I have no intention of stopping.
SF: So itís still just as exciting as ever. Thatís cool.
RAS: It really is, but on a different level. You know, when I first started it was like, ďOh, my God! I canít believe this is happening.Ē And now itís become old hat. I mean, Iíll get a phone call, ďHey, you just hit the New York Times.Ē Ok. A lot of that kind of surrounding exciting is gone. But, I still get letters from kids who say, ďI didnít read a book until I read one of yours.Ē And that excitement has not dimmed. When I was on this last book tour, I went to a school in Lexington, Kentucky, and I spoke to a bunch of kids who were incredibly excited about the books and were reading them in class and having a wonderful time with them. And Iíve received a bunch of feedback from some of the teachers in the school saying how these books are turning kids on to reading, and they feel like itís making such a positive shift in the atmosphere of the school for some of these kids. So, that never grows old for me. For me, thatís heartwarming. It makes it all worth while.
And as far as the actual writing goes Ė no, Iím a writer. Itís what I do. Iíll be writing until I die, Iím sure. People always ask me, ďI want to be a writer. What advice do you have?Ē My advice is always the same: if you can quit, quit. Because if you can quit, then youíre not a writer. If you canít quit, then youíre a writer. I canít quit.
SF: Forgotten Realms is certainly a very large series containing many volumes. What do you do to try to help introduce new readers who might be picking up that book as their first one?
RAS: I try to write books on different levels. At the very basic level of a book my primary goal is for someone to pick up the book and have an entertaining adventure with some characters they can care about. I think you can pick up any one of my Forgotten Realms novels, 23 of them now, and read it without having read any of the ones preceding it or any of the ones succeeding it. I think Iíve been doing that from the very beginning. If you look at a model for what Iím doing it would be more along the lines of Fritz Leiber and the Fafhrd Mouser books, or James Bond, or Sherlock Holmes, or something like that. Some of the other models we see in the fantasy genre Ė like what Robert Jordanís doing and George Martinís doing and Terry Goodkindís doing Ė you couldnít pick up the eleventh book of the Wheel of Time and read it. You really have to build to that point. Thatís not true for the Drizzt novels, or any of my Forgotten Realms novels. No matter which one you pick up, hopefully youíre going to go on an adventure with some characters you find likeable and enjoy it. I picked up a whole bunch of readers with A Thousand Orcs, and a whole bunch more with The Lone Drow, and a whole bunch more with The Two Swords.
When you write fantasy, with every book that comes out you know youíve lost readers. Many times youíve lost readers because they left the military, or theyíve gone away to college and they donít have time to read, or theyíre out of college and theyíre getting married. You lose readers. Thatís just the way it is. With every book youíre hoping to pick up readers, and Iím not going to rehash the entire Drizzit story at the beginning of every book. It would take a book to do that. You can pick up Promise of the Witch King and not know who Entreri and Jarlaxle are, and hopefully by the end of the book youíll have a better idea of who they are, and hopefully youíll really want to find out where they came from
SF: You mentioned earlier that you just finished a book tour. How are people responding to Promise of the Witch King?
RAS: I havenít heard much negative at all, but I wouldnít on a book tour. Thatís not where you hear it. Even more than that, Iíve noticed on my message boards and some other places that some of the responses have been better than I expected, quite honestly. I tried something a little different with this book. I made a very small scale of events around two characters. I put them in a very tight place and kept the pressure on them from all sides rather than this huge, interweaving political drama going on all around them. I did that on purpose. I wanted to see if I could do it in the Realms, and Iím not planning on doing it very often. But every now and then itís fun to be able to do. I like that contained adventure feel of it. But I wasnít sure how it would play out. I wasnít sure if people would just see that and miss the other things that were going on that would develop the characters and give hints as to where theyíre going to be in the next book. So far I havenít had that problem at all. A majority of the feedback has been very positive. But thatís what you expect because you donít write your books for the people who donít read your books, you write them for the people who do!
It still has all the classic fantasy elements anyway. Itís high adventure, incredibly fast paced, and itís got two characters that have been playing off each other for several years now. Iím very comfortable writing with Entreri and Jarlaxle and those two getting on each otherís nerves.
SF: Do you enjoy being on the road?
RAS: Yes and no. In the age of the internet, a lot of the feedback an author can get is devastating. Thatís the nature of the beast. Authors are much more remote from publishing houses than they used to be. You donít have the support structure in place for an author that you used to have with a publisher. Editors are much busier today. Travel budgets are cut way down. You donít see your editors. Youíre a very isolated person when youíre an author. You are sitting at home with your family around you. Now thatís fine as long as you keep perspective on things and keep Bob Salvatore and R. A. Salvatore as two separate people. But when you enter the realm of R. A. Salvatore you have to be doing so with some feeling of whatís going on out there, and you canít get that other than the very stilted way of through the internet. So getting out in front of readers, going to bookstores and meeting the people who read your books, is a critical ingredient in the emotional health of any author.
SF: You need that interaction.
RAS: You need that interaction, you need that feedback, you need to put faces to the letters. And thatís what going out on the road does. From that perspective, I have to get our there every year, and Iím glad that I get the opportunity to get out there every year. On the other hand, flying everyday kills me. Iíve been home for more than a week and I am still exhausted. You have to do it, and you donít just have to do it because the publishers tell you. As an author, you need to meet the people who are reading your books.
SF: Bob, letís talk the fantasy genre as a whole for a minute. What do you say to critics who dismiss the value of fantasy?
RAS: The same thing I would say to critics who dismiss anything out of hand. If thatís the way you feel, great for you. This has been going on since before I came into the fantasy genre in 1988, and it hasnít really changed all that much. Thereís this huge fight going on about fantasy has to be literature with a big ďL.Ē You know, itís entertainment with a big ďE,Ē and if thatís all you think it is, thereís nothing wrong with that. Thereís nothing wrong with simple escapism. It can be valuable just for that. Now, I happen to think that people can get more out of it then that. Giving someone something they like is the first ingredient in the participation of that reader to go deeper and ask deeper and more meaningful questions about their own life. And you can draw many metaphors and analogies in a fantasy world that are relevant to a soldier sitting in Baghdad, or a teenager who feels like an outcast in high school.
I guess the bigger question is what do I think of critics? Not much. What do you think of critics?
SF: (Laughter) Well, itís always easier to criticize than it is to create.
RAS: Ask yourself whatís the purpose of it all? Iíve written forty something novels. Iíve sold more than 10,000,000 books. Iíve received, literally, hundreds and hundreds of letters and emails from people who have said that they never read a book until they picked up one of mine, or parents who said, ďI couldnít get my son or my daughter to read until I gave them one of your books.Ē Iíve gotten emails from people who have been in serious car accidents and were now facing physical disabilities that they thought would overwhelm them, but because they read my books and saw my heroes, they now feel like they could overcome it. And then Iíve gotten follow up letters from them six months later when theyíre in an entirely better place. Iíve met people who have told me heartwarming stories about how they were in a bad place in their life, and they met Drizzt, and he helped them get through it. Now, Iím sure many authors, most authors, I would hope, get this kind of feedback once in awhile. But my point is, if you think Iím going to apologize for what Iím doing, youíre out of your mind.
SF: Thatís really whatís itís all about, to. Thatís what you were talking about going on book tour for, is that incredible connection with your audience.
RAS: Thatís it exactly. Everybodyís here for a short amount of time. To my way of thinking, if you leave it a little better than you found it, youíve been a good person.
SF: When I heard you speak at Mysterious Galaxy bookstore in San Diego, you talked about how difficult it is for young writers to get their work out there. Could you share what you said then with our readers?
RAS: Oh, yeah, absolutely. The publishing industry is continuing to use a model that was based on the old style of publishing where you had to publish a couple hundred thousand books to get the price per unit down to make a profit. And even though all of that is changed, for the model that is being used, the author is still making a pittance. A publisher can publish one book and sell 100,000 copies and make a certain profit. They publish ten books and sell 10,000 each and make a very similar profit. Or they can publish 100 books, and sell 1,000 each. But for the writer, youíre being paid per unit. If you sell 1,000 books, youíre not going to eat. So, because the formula hasnít changed to reflect the changes in publishing, itís very difficult for people to make a living in this business.
SF: So writers end up stretching themselves too thin because theyíre trying to put a book out every three months.
RAS: Absolutely. It becomes a matter of how do you pay your health insurance and feed your family. From a practical point, very few people writing books are going to make a living at it. Also, you have to understand that because everybody has a word processor now with spell check and grammar check, everybody thinks they can write a book. So the sheer weight of manuscripts rolling into the publishers is overwhelming. Itís a very difficult business to break into, and an awful lot of very talented people are not going to get published.
SF: Can you give us names of writers who you think deserve more attention than theyíve been getting?
RAS: Thatís a hard question because you would like to hope that the business part of it, as far as attention, would self-correction, but there are a few authors that Iím surprised arenít doing bigger numbers than theyíre doing. Greg Keyes would be one of them. David Gemmell in the U.S. Heís doing very well in England. In the U.S. his numbers really havenít been what I think they should be.
SF: It seems that many of the fantasy books being published are installments in a series or part of a trilogy. Do you think this trend helps or hinders new writers?
RAS: Uh, a little bit of both. I think if you have an interest in Buffy the Vampire Slayer, or one of the other licenses that are putting out quite a few books, itís probably an easier road than trying to break out with your own intellectual property. Iím not going to knock shared world fiction, because thatís where I got my start. I donít think thereís anything wrong with it. I hope anyone who gets an opportunity like that will put as much effort into writing that type of a book as they would into writing a book of their own making. On the other hand, thereís only so much room out there. The licensed books really do fill the shelves. Itís harder for a new voice to be heard. The editors are busy with licensing. Youíve got an editor that has twenty license books to put out. Heís going to have less time to read original work. Like everything else going on in publishing today, itís a mixed blessing.
SF: I heard you say in past interviews that school beat the love of reading out of you.
SF: Are you concerned with our education system and how it effects the likelihood of children falling in love with reading and therefore becoming adults who love reading?
RAS: Iím concerned that there are a lot of conflicting pressures put on kids these days that take up a lot of their time. And in that type of environment itís very hard for an English teacher to invoke a love of reading, to get that kid to understand the value of spending hours and hours with a book when that kid has so many ways to spend his or her hours.
SF: Thereís a lot of competition.
RAS: Iím a true believer that if you give someone a book they want to read, they will teach themselves to read. Harry Potter has done more to promote reading than the entirety of English education classes in the high schools across the country. On the flip side of that, forcing kids to read books that are irrelevant to them, as I was forced to read, turns you off to reading in a way thatís hard to ever overcome.
SF: You serve on the board of your library. Ray Bradbury is always encouraging people to get into the library. Do you think the library is an endangered species? And, if so, what can we do to save it?
RAS: Well, libraries are actually going through this right now. In their meetings they talk about their changing role in the community. So libraries now also serve as places where people can loan videos, for example. They have Y-FI in them and computers that can be used. You look at circulation. You look at what people are actually doing when they come to the library. I was stunned when I joined the board to learn how many people show up at that library everyday. Weíre not a large town, but we get a thousand people through the door everyday. A lot of that is to use the internet, and thatís going to happen even more. Weíre building a new library thatís going to have Y-FI through it, so people will be coming in with their laptops. So, the traditional library as the storage house for books has certainly changed. That will be one function, and itís up to the libraries to alter their mission accordingly. They are, though.
SF: Are you saying weíll see Starbucks in the library soon?
RAS: I hope so. Donít you?
SF: I think it would be great.
RAS: Wouldnít it be great if the library became the free internet cafť for people? I donít have a problem with that.
SF: While theyíre there, maybe theyíll look at some books.
RAS: Yeah. One of the things our library is doing in the new library weíre building is putting in a 140 seat auditorium. The hope is that weíll be able to do book tours. Weíll be able to go to the town and say, ďHey, weíve got an author coming to town. Weíve got a reading at the library. Come on out!Ē
SF: Youíve made your mark writing fantasy, but is there any other genre you want to tackle?
RAS: Sure. There are other things I want to do. When I do them my name wonít be attached to the book. No one will know itís me. Thereís one book in particular Iíve been wanting to write for a number of years. I knowing Iím being cryptic.
SF: (Laughter) I was trying to decide if I should ask for more details.
RAS: Well you can ask . . . Of course there are things I want to do. Iím a writer. I want to put all my thoughts down, not just the ones that pertain to the fantasy genre. Now some of the things I want to say I can say in fantasy books, and other things I really canít. Or they would be better served in another genre, and when I feel that way Iíll write it. But when I write it I wouldnít have my name on it because having my name on it would bring expectations, good and bad, that would hurt an honest reading of the book. If I wrote a book about something in contemporary America, for example, the people who read my books for a Drizzit sword fighting scene would be upset that I donít have sword fights in it. On the flip side, the people who dismiss my books as fantasy flop, or whatever, would never read the book expecting anything weighty, and if you read a book with a sneer, youíre never going to get anything out of the book. So there is no way that I or any other author who is known as a genre author could do something outside of that category and get an honest read of it.
SF: I want to ask you about your brother. Iíve heard you speak candidly about your brotherís death and how it impacted your view of the world. When I was earning my B.A. in Literature, we studied different writers who were catapulted in their writing because of personal tragedy. John Keats and Fyodor Dostoevsky I remember most strongly. How has your loss impacted the way you see the world, and therefore the way you write?
RAS: It has been for me a continual reminder of carpe diem. It has been a continual reminder to me that in the end we are all going to the same place. On the one hand, you have to be careful when you have a loss like that that it doesnít put you in the state of mind favoring nihilism, right? ďWhatís the point? Weíre all going to die.Ē On the other hand, you also have to keep in mind whatís really important in your own life, in your own small sphere. When my brother passed away, a thousand people showed up to see him off, if you will. Youíve never seen so many adult men crying in your whole life. And that reminds me what the real meaning of the word success is, right there. The things that are really important in life. So that experience, for me, has become first and foremost a grounding of who I am, of what itís all worth, of the difference between R. A. Salvatore and Bob Salvatore. They really are two different people, to some extent.
SF: Yeah, it provides a great deal of perspective.
RAS: Absolutely. Itís hard to even begin to explain to people who havenít gone through it, the eye opening experience of losing a contemporary you love, as opposed to your parents Ė who many people will lose. I lost my father twenty years ago, and it hurt like heck, but it was expected and it didnít make me face my own mortality. I lost my brother, it wasnít expected. He was only a few years older than I am. In fact, he was the same age I am now when he died. It makes you think about an awful lot of things.
SF: Bob, what writers influence you the most?
RAS: Well, I would say Tolkien, because heís the one who got me back into reading. When I read The Hobbit my freshman year of college, and I kept saying, why didnít somebody give me this book when I was in the eighth grade? So, certainly, I have to tip my hat to J. R. R. Tolkien for reminding me why I read fantasy, and for reminding me first and foremost what I hope readers get from reading my fantasy books. I would say Fitz Leiber and his Fafhrd and Gray Mouser books. It made a big impact on me in the concept of the hero and the camaraderie factor. Terry Brooks has had a big influence on me in terms of his ability to build a world and to keep hope in his books. Thatís a very special aspect of fantasy literature as far as Iím concerned Ė this belief that you can make the world better, that the hero really does matter. I think Terry does that brilliantly. Other than that I would have to go back to James Joyce, whoís been a big impact on my life. His short stories, not his novels. God, not his novels! But, whenever I get cocky as a writer I read the last four pages of The Dead out loud, and I am humbled. I think that is the greatest piece of writing in the English language.
SF: If you could collaborate with anyone on a novel, who would it be?
RAS: Living or dead? (Laughter)
SF: Your choice. Well, letís do living first.
RAS: Terry Brooks.
SF: How about dead?
RAS: Probably Joyce. Iíd just let him write it and take credit.
SF: What are you reading right now?
RAS: Right now Iíve got a book by a guy I consider probably one of the greatest living novelists: E. L. Doctorow. But I havenít started it yet. Thatís on my next to read list because right now Iíve got a couple of books to read for my job as editor of the Everquest book line. So, as soon as Iím done with the work books, Iím going to read Doctorow.
SF: Finally, one last question for you. You live in Massachusetts. Last year the Red Sox and the Patriots won the championships. It didnít work out for the Sox this year. Whatís your prediction on the Patriots?
RAS: They win the division, they make the playoffs, they win one game, and then theyíre out.
SF: They loose to the Colts?
RAS: I donít know if anyone can beat the Colts, but I donít think the Patriots are designed very well to do that this year. But, you know what, I said that last year, and they not only beat them, they pounded them. If I had to look at it objectively, there are a couple of teams out there this year that I really donít want to play: San Diego, Denver, Indianapolis. They all look pretty strong to me, but itís still early. There are still six games to go. So, who knows?
SF: Bob, thank you for your time.
RAS: My pleasure.
Copyright © 2005 by Shaun Farrell. All Rights Reserved.