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    Posted: Mar-10-2015 at 9:29am
An Interview with R.A. Salvatore
by Dan Blackston

In the course of my varied and unpredictable career as a SF reviewer and editor, I've had the opportunity to interview a number of SF "luminaries." From amazing writers such as E.E. Knight and Darrell Schweitzer to influential editors Ellen Datlow and John O' Neill, I've consistently found interviews to be a fun and fascinating way to explore SF topics and shed light on the thought-process of some of the more integral figures in the field.

If you are interested in finding out what it takes to become a best-selling, award-winning fantasy author with over 40 published titles, pending movie-deals, legions of fans all around the world, and a classy and professional demeanor to boot, I can think of no better way to gain useful insight than to peruse the conversation I recently conducted with R.A. Salvatore below.

As one of the fantasy genre's most successful authors, R.A. Salvatore enjoys an ever-expanding and tremendously loyal following. His books regularly appear on The New York Times best-seller lists and have sold more than 10,000,000 copies. Salvatore's most recent original hardcover, The Two Swords, Book III of The Hunter's Blade Trilogy (October 2004) debuted at # 1 on The Wall Street Journal best-seller list and at # 4 on The New York Times best-seller list. His books have been translated into numerous foreign languages including German, Italian, Finnish, Greek, Hungarian, Turkish, Croatian, Bulgarian, Yiddish, Spanish, Russian, Polish, Czech, and French.More info, as well as chapters of R.A. Salvatore's novels can be found at www.RASalvatore.com

When one takes a look at your list of published novels, it seems more like browsing through a bookstore than single author's bibliography. Do you feel you possess any special talents or attributes that enhance your prolificity? Any secrets for staying productive you'd care to share?

 There are a few reasons why I think this question is somewhat misleading - well, maybe not misleading, but reflective of a general misunderstanding of what I, and other genre writers, do. First of all, yes, I've written more than forty novels, but half of those are adventure stories about the same group of characters. That's very different than reinventing the wheel each time through, with a whole new cast and new purpose for the story.

 My good friend Terry Brooks once wrote of me that I was a "workmanlike" writer. I take that as a very great compliment, and it shows that Terry "gets" me. I'm a blue-collar kid with a blue-collar background. I value my job not just for the art, but as my work. The fantasy genre, in particular, I believe, has a cyclical, often temporary, hold on its fan base. People find fantasy at different times in their lives. Some will stay forever and ever, but others will move on to other things in a few years. A writer who isn't on the shelves regularly will have a very hard time in building and maintaining an audience in this genre.

Honestly, I look at it more as if I'm writing a television series. People want to know what's going to happen next, and it's my job, and my pleasure, to tell them.

I've personally met a lot of younger readers who are tremendously excited about your fiction. How important do you think it is for genre writers to attract younger readers to their work? Are there ways in which you think the genre could attract even more new readers?

 I read a review where Harold Bloom was beating the tar out of J.K. Rowling. As much as I remain in awe of Mr. Bloom, I think he simply doesn't get it where Harry Potter is concerned. J.K. Rowling isn't Cormac McCarthy or Jonathan Franzen, and as far as her readers are concerned (for the most part), thank God! That's not her purpose.

To better answer this question, I have to tell you my own story. When I was very young - Kindergarten to second grade - I read all the time. Novels and comic books. I have a collection of first edition "Peanuts" books by Charles Shultz (and the older I get, the more I realize that Sparky Schultz was right about so much in life). I had a deal with my Mom, where she'd let me bag school on occasion as long as I continued getting straight A's. Well, something happened to me in the ensuing years; I believe that school beat the reading out of me. They kept giving me books - Silas Marner or Ethan Fromme, for example - that were wholly uninteresting and irrelevant to me. You might argue that those are great books, but as an eighth-grader, I certainly would never agree with you.  It got so bad that by the time I was graduated from high school, the only reading I did was what was required, and the only writing I did was what was needed for a grade. I started college as a Math/Computer Science major. Then, in my freshman year, my sister gave me a copy of Tolkien's foursome. It was the paperback set slip-cased in the white box that was so popular in the 70's. That was Christmas, 1977. Two months later, New England got buried in the great "Blizzard of '78." For an entire week, we couldn't get out of the house. There was no school because there were no roads. It was that bad.

But instead of being bored in a small bedroom in my parents' house, I went away to Middle-Earth with a Hobbit named Bilbo Baggins. The whole time I was reading that book, I kept thinking,"Why didn't someone give me this to read in Jr. High, instead of Silas Marner?  Tolkien reminded me of some dear elements I had lost: the joy of reading; the pleasure of the imagination; the love of adventure. It all came back to me.

So to answer your question more directly, to me it is vital that my books appeal to teenagers, and also that their parents can trust me not to cross certain lines. I don't think every genre author has to do this - one of the good things about the popularity of fantasy is that it allows wider boundaries for speculative fiction authors to explore. But for me?  Well, I'd rather get a letter from a kid that begins, "I never read a book before…." Or from a parent saying, "I couldn't get my son (or daughter) to read until I handed him one of your books." Those are the letters that excite me, that make me believe that maybe I'm doing a little bit of good in the world.

Could fantasy attract more young readers? As long as we remember the hope and the joy of imagination and the magic of our genre, we'll be okay.

 Your first novel, The Crystal Shard, was published by TSR books. Are you, have you been, an active RPG-er? If so, do you still game?

Sure. I started playing D&D in 1980. It was a great creative outlet for me and I was thrilled when trying to sell my first novel to learn that TSR was advancing its publishing wing. I still play, both D&D (though that's really just a pizza night for the guys these days) and some of the on-line fantasy games. These video games are the future of fantasy, for good or for ill. It's funny, but I was just watching a show the other day where they had a psychologist proclaiming the dangers of video game addiction. It got me to thinking: why is it okay for a kid to be hooked on basketball or golf, or even reading, but somehow a kid who shares his hobby of gaming with friends on-line is "addicted"? I found it rather amusing.

You've sold over 10,000,000 books. Do you ever have a hard time believing the magnitude of your success? Has the impact of success been a positive influence on your creativity?

 It's just a number - is that what they're saying now? - and no, it never really registers. I don't really keep track of the bestseller lists or awards or any of that.  It's not "real" to me. I'm just having a lot of fun, and I am blessed to have a way of telling a story that many people enjoy. I can't explain it. It's almost as if I'm reporting on someone else when we get into these things. When I see a book of mine in Japanese, or German, when I get a letter from a reader in Bulgaria telling me I won their "fantasy author of the year award," when I get e-mails from people telling me that my books have helped them through a very serious and dark time in their lives, it's unreal to me; it's as if they're talking about someone else.  

As for the second part, quite the opposite, I think. I'll admit it: I nearly quit writing a few years ago. I had lost my dearest friend in the world, my brother Gary, to cancer after a brutal 19-month battle. Within weeks of that, my Star Wars' novel, Vector Prime, came out.  Well, in that book, I was tasked with killing a beloved character.  Even though my Drizzt books had been big sellers before this time, suddenly I had the spotlight on me like never before. Looking back on it now, I realize that I should have sought help - seriously. I would seek out message boards or reviews, purposely gravitating to the messages that savaged me and my work. It was almost as if the pain of criticism was somehow covering the pain of loss that I could not, or would not, face. It was a very strange time, and it got so bad that I could hardly open the computer and type.

Thankfully I'm past that now, and enjoying life and my work again. I simply refuse to play to expectations. I do what I do and I won't apologize for it. It's that simple.  I don't write the books for people who don't like my work; I write them for people that do. The success has given me some power to determine what I write and when I write, so in that sense, perhaps it has helped. Other than that, I don't care. I'll just keep on telling stories as long as I'm having fun telling them, and I'll keep publishing those stories as long as people want to read them. And if the success ever fades, I'll keep writing anyway, and with no regrets. I know how fortunate I've been, and I won't take it for granted.

When did you first know that becoming a professional genre writer was going to be your path in life? Did anyone play key role in helping you get established?

I don't think I ever realized it until long after it had happened. I wrote my first book simply to escape a mindless job. I had to do something to work my mind and my imagination. I had run out of fantasy books to read, so I wrote my own. Afterwards, I thought that if I could just get one book published, I'd be happy. Then I did, in 1988, and my editor, Mary Kirchoff, told me from the beginning (regarding genre fiction), "Don't quit your day job."

But TSR wanted another book, and the sequel to The Crystal Shard performed even better than the first. "Don't quit your day job!" Mary reiterated as she asked me to write a third novel. Well, when that novel came out, it hit the New York Times' list and TSR wanted to sign me to do, not one more, but an entire second trilogy. Only then did Mary tell me that maybe it was time for me to think about quitting my day job. That job, by the way, was working as a financial specialist for a high-tech company. Go figure.

As to the second question: Thank you, Mary!

Are genre novels losing their audience to video games and big-budget movies? Or are these new media bringing more potential readers to the genre?

I hope it's the latter, but I fear it might be the former. Video games have become their own medium in a way few could have anticipated ten years ago. The power of the computer is transforming communication. Of that, there is no doubt. And of course, these games are consuming free time in great gulps.

I did an interview with the BBC a number of years ago, before the Peter Jackson movies, and the host asked me and Tom DeHaven, another US writer, why Tolkien wasn't all that popular with the kids over there. Tom explained, quite insightfully, that Tolkien wrote to a different audience, a pre-television audience. I grew up with television. My sensibilities, the way I absorb information, was in no small part tied into that 25-inch tube that filled the back wall of our living room. I remember when I turned in the first draft of my first novel, The Crystal Shard. What I had done in that book, purely on instinct, was break up scenes, particularly battle scenes, with multiple point of view shifts. My editor called me on it and told me that you couldn't do that. Our conversation went something like this:

"Why not?" I asked.
"It will confuse the readers."
"Were you confused?"
"Well, no."
"Then we're okay."
"But I'm a professional editor…"
"And my readers grew up with television, and television is nothing but point of view shifts."

I mean, think about it - close-up on Ross, close-up on Rachel, close-up on Joey. My "television" sensibilities worked with an audience that had been reared with television.  Following that logic, the authors who will step in after me and Terry Brooks and Robert Jordan and all the rest will be ones who grew up with computer games, whose sensibilities will translate well to these reared-on-video-game readers.  

 Do you see and/or enjoy the latest wave of genre based films? How did you like the LoTR movies?

 I was very pleased to see a Hollywood director treating a fantasy novel with such respect.  I knew after about five minutes of that movie, just by the lighting Jackson used in portraying the Shire, that it was going to be a wonderful experience. I was not disappointed. Not in the least. Kudos to everyone involved in that mammoth project. My biggest fear, though, is that the bar has been set so high, the wave will break quickly. To compete with these newest films means that studios are going to have to spend hundreds of millions on production and I'm not certain that the audience will hold to the necessary levels.

Hopefully, breakthroughs in computer graphics will bring the cost to manageable levels.

All of that said, the most important thing that Peter Jackson did was to treat these outrageous characters, like Gollum and even the hobbits, with respect and tenderness.  The audience cared about them, and that is a huge breakthrough in fantasy movies.

What are you working on now? What's forthcoming for your fans?

I've got Promise of the Witch King coming out in October.  I'm taking a a short break from Drizzt and the gang to focus on the bad guys, Entreri and Jarlaxle.  Right now, I'm writing the sequel, Road of the Patriarch (tentative title, I'm sure), which is scheduled for release in October 2006.  This is the first book of my new, five-book deal with Wizards of the Coast, so I'll be back in the Forgotten Realms through 2010 at least.

I've seen an upsurge in interest in my DemonWars world and novels lately, and my wife wants more of those.  So I expect I'll be visiting the world of Corona sometime in the near future.  

Also, Devil's Due is doing a graphic novel adaptation of my Dark Elf books, starting with Homeland.  They're doing a fabulous job so far.  I'm about to sign a deal to do my DemonWars' novel, The Highwayman in graphic novel format, as well.

Are any of your series or novels slated for film production? Would you like to see films based on your work?

 I keep hearing about near misses, but so far I've got nothing in the works for films.  I do believe there will be a Drizzt movie. After eighteen years and going strong, the weight of the series alone demands it. I can't even tell you how many e-mails I've received from people asking about this, and even offers from people wanting to write the script. I would like to see it happen, yes, even though I'm a little scared of what might happen to my beloved characters.  

What have you been reading lately?

 A lot less than I'd like to be. One of the problems with being a writer is that I read everything the way an editor might. Instead of just sitting back and enjoying what another author is giving to me, I'm constantly thinking of how I would have done it. It takes a lot of the fun out of it, I'll tell you. I was one of the editors on the War of the Spider Queen series, and am still working in that capacity for the Everquest book line, so that's been filling my fantasy needs for the last few years. I also went on a binge of political books, and books on the Middle-East. I think every American owes it to himself to be informed these days.

Other than that, I break out my Dubliners every so often and get humbled.

What goals have you set for yourself that are yet to be achieved?

I haven't lived to be a hundred yet, but I'm sure it will take me many years to accomplish that one. And I will, unless I die.

Other than that, I have few complaints (and no one listens anyway). At this point in time, in my mid-forties, my goal is to simply make my writing a slave of my leisure, and not the other way around. Fewer deadlines will mean more writing, if that makes sense.  

And I've still got my eye on a little surf shop in Maui.    

copyright © 2005,  Dan Blackston

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