“The Greater the Risk, the Greater the Reward”: An Interview with R.A. Salvatore

ra042213For the past 25 years, millions of fantasy fans worldwide have followed R.A. Salvatore—and his signature character, the introspective dark elf Drizzt Do’Urden—through countless adventures and existential and spiritual awakenings in the sprawling realm of Abeir-Toril. This saga—two dozen novels long and counting—is easily one of the very best adventure fantasy sagas on the shelves, and arguably one of the best adventure fantasy sagas ever written.

And to think it all started back in 1988 with the publication of an unassuming little paperback entitled The Crystal Shard. I was managing bookstores at the time and I remember that while it and its two sequels (Streams of Silver and The Halfling’s Gem) sold relatively well, the trilogy wasn’t perceived as anything particularly groundbreaking.

But that soon changed. In short order, Salvatore’s saga featuring Drizzt and his Companions of the Hall gained a huge readership of dedicated fans (myself included) who couldn’t wait to find out more about the philosophizing warrior drow and his epic journey of self-discovery.

I remember lots of milestones when it comes to this series, like the release of The Legacy back in 1992 that officially made Drizzt a fantasy icon. It was the first hardcover release from TSR and sold phenomenally well (although I hated the original cover art). Another significant highlight for me came in 2004, when Wizards of the Coast reissued all of the novels chronologically in lovingly produced hardcover editions (called The Legend of Drizzt) featuring spectacular cover art by Todd Lockwood.

But the biggest—and most audacious—milestone is yet to come: on August 6th this summer, when The Companions is released, Salvatore is going to do something jaw dropping, and most definitely groundbreaking.

With The Companions, the first installment in a six-book saga called The Sundering, Salvatore is going to simultaneously continue the lengthy Drizzt storyline while also beginning a new story arc featuring some, ahem, old friends who stood by Drizzt’s side centuries earlier.

I’ve read The Companions and to call the idea for this series “audacious” is a vast understatement. I’m not going to go into details because I don’t want to ruin it for anyone but I’ll say this: it’s a highly risky and almost certainly divisive move. Salvatore is essentially putting the legacy of his Drizzt saga on the line here—readers will either be blown away by the ballsy storyline or they’ll feel that the reintroduction of beloved characters, some of who have been dead for centuries, is verging on sacrilege.

But here’s the thing: The Companions is the best novel Salvatore has ever written. It’s insanely courageous, powerfully profound, masterfully constructed, and easily Salvatore’s most ambitious work to date.

I caught up with the man behind Drizzt Do’Urden and we talked about the inspiration behind his new Sundering saga and the future of his iconic hero.

Bob, I think this is the fourth time I’ve interviewed you over the last decade or so. I think I know you pretty well, but I have to admit reading The Companions threw me for a loop. I kept on thinking to myself, “I can’t believe he did that!”

A line from The Companions is fitting here: “The greater the risk, the greater the reward.” It’s a brilliant idea, I admit, but you had to know you were taking a huge risk writing this. Was there a sense of underlying terror, or doubt, writing this novel?

From a commercial sense, of course there was quite a bit of consternation and, yeah, terror. It’s very easy to just let the Drizzt journey roll along, even if insubstantially. Little adventures, nothing really changing. There’s a constant push for that, both internally and externally, since it works. So yeah, I knew the risk, and honestly, I thought this would be something I did only at the end of my time writing Drizzt.

But understand that all of that worry was based on the commercial aspects of it, period, and frankly, I’m way past caring about that. I’m writing my story as I see fit. And I’m writing it, most of all, for me. Creatively, emotionally, personally, this was the way to go, and I never had a doubt about it. A couple of times since The Last Threshold came out (The Companions was already written), I’ve heard myself telling an interviewer or a reader that “I’m at peace.” It’s true. I get it now with this series, and with my writing as a whole. This is my spiritual journey through life, my way of making sense of the world. I don’t need permission from anyone or accolades from anyone; it is completely internal.

From that perspective, there was no risk or terror.

You mentioned The Last Threshold. That was also a courageous novel for you to write on many levels, particularly the ending. When you consider The Last Threshold and The Companions together, you’ve written some incredibly challenging stuff. Your Drizzt novels have always been philosophical but these last two novels are absolutely profound. We’re talking about life-changing speculation and revelation here. They are replete with lines like “There is no greater shackle than self-deception” and “It is not the world that has changed, merely my understanding of it.”

There is no way that you could’ve written these two novels without going through some kind of powerfully life-changing experience…

It goes back to my first answer. I have moved deeper within myself, seek approval only there, and recognize the personal importance of what I’m doing here. Maybe it’s because I’m in my mid-fifties now and understand that the clock is ticking. Remember that Drizzt essay where he says that he’s free because he knows that he’s going to die? Maybe I’ve finally grown up enough to pass that point where what Drizzt told me those years ago is truly the way I live my life. It’s very freeing, I tell you!

Let me add, the response to The Last Threshold is exactly what I anticipated, and dreaded on many levels. I knew this book was going to hurt people. It had to. Even with the people (kindly) writing to thank me for so many years of the Drizzt saga, I can feel the pain in their words. It’s not a pleasure to me to sting people like this; authors manipulate emotions by definition, but sometimes there’s little joy in that. This was one of those times. I just hope that these folks will bear with me for a few months, until The Companions comes out and offers them something a little bit more about this particular twist of the Drizzt Saga.

My favorite line from The Companions is: “Richness, in the final measure, is not weighed in gold coins, but in the number of people you have touched, the tears of those who will mourn your passing, and the fond remembrances of those who continue to celebrate your life.”

That is just so beautiful and so profound. Have you ever considered compiling a book full of Drizzt’s thoughts? Like The Tao of Drizzt? I’d buy that in a heartbeat!

That comes from watching the wake and funeral when my brother passed away. Gary was my older brother, and we once worked together at a company called GenRad, where he was much higher up the ladder than I. A couple of years after I was published and had quit my day job, I returned with Gary to visit the office. Out in the parking lot, a mutual friend came up and teased Gary, saying, “How does it feel to know that your little brother is so much more successful than you?”

Those words stuck with me, profoundly, because I knew they were crap. Truly. Gary touched anyone and everyone who ever met him. He had a charisma you can’t teach, and a level of human empathy that drew everyone to him. He was a coach, a friend, an adviser to so many people. When he died, I saw more grown men breaking down and crying than I ever thought possible. GenRad shut their field service office down, with the blessing of their customers, so that they could all come to his funeral. The lines were down the street—all those people Gary had deeply touched. If I am half as successful as Gary, I will have lived a good life.

There actually was an old compilation of the Drizzt essays, many years ago. I think it was in the original Menzoberranzan boxed set. At one point, I asked Wizards of the Coast to let me do an audio book of just the Drizzt essays, but they refused.

Tell me a little bit about this Sundering saga. From my understanding, six different authors will write the installments.

Think of it like World War II in the Realms. The Sundering is a grand event, spanning the world, and bringing chaos and war to every corner of the Realms. Six of us are telling stories set in that time to help clarify it for the readers. We’re not telling one story, and not sharing characters. Maybe I’m writing a story about the Battle of Britain, where Ed Greenwood is doing the North Africa campaign, Erin Evans is detailing the Holocaust, and so on.

There are some points where some of these books might intersect and even build upon one another, but otherwise, taken together will simply give an account of the great changes in the Realms.

Over the last 25 years, you’ve written 35 novels in these Forgotten Realms… so many unforgettable characters and places and adventures. How long do you see yourself exploring this realm with your characters?

Until I can’t. I always said that I’d write these books until they weren’t fun anymore, or until people weren’t interested, and none of that has happened yet. I’ve come close a couple of times, I admit. People have taken the characters, particularly Drizzt, so close to their hearts that I sometimes feel like I’m getting boxed in by the expectations of my readers, and that’s no place any writer wants to be. It’s hard to read someone’s review of, say, The Last Threshold by saying that I “spit in the face of the readers” or something like that; it feels like there’s such a lack of trust sometimes…

Well, then I get past it, and remind myself that they’re mad at me because they care, and that I knew they would be mad at me, and if they weren’t mad at me, then what’s the point, anyway?

So (to quote a certain rogue drow) is my story fully told? I think not.

Thanks for the time, Bob. I can’t wait until The Companions hits the shelves this summer—the reader reactions to this book are going to be highly entertaining to say the least! Congratulations once again on an amazing novel.

Thanks, Paul, and always a pleasure. I said around the release of The Last Threshold that I was going to go and hide out on an island for a couple of months. I probably should have taken my own advice!

For The Companions, I’m not going anywhere. I feel like this book is the payoff for a quarter-century journey, and I can tell you, I have never been more satisfied with anything I have ever written. Like I said, I am at peace.

So maybe this is my Aegis-fang (but unlike Bruenor, I’m already back to the forge!).

  • http://www.facebook.com/john.rintamaki.1 John Rintamaki

    To Mr. Salvatore, I have read and own every Drizzt Book, and read some until they fell apart and I had to get new copies. I started your series with the original trilogy, in original print, used from a rummage sale at 13 years old. I paid 15 cents a book. Ever since I caught up, I’ve read every drizzt book within 48 hours of release, often taking vacation days for releases. I’m glad to see that you have allowed and pushed Drizzt to keep evolving as a character, regardless of peoples expectations. No one always grows to meet the expectations of those around them. Keep growing, and keep writing the story YOU want to share, because I’ll keep eagerly anticipating the next step.

  • http://www.facebook.com/matthew.cave.98 Matthew Cave

    I am seriously in turmoil over this books ending, for different levels of thinking. I trust, however, that you will form with this a continuation that RAS fans alike have never seen! I can’t wait for The Companions.

  • Sean O’Leary

    I have just finished The Last Threshold and I for one very much enjoyed it. I feel this was one of your best Drizzt novels and I am excited to read the next book The Companions.

  • Brad Budde

    I have read every novel you have churned out there. While Drizzt is certainly my favorite, the Demonwars Saga was fantastic, and I have read those several times as well. I was crushed by the ending of The Last Threshold, because of intense fondness for Drizzt. If anything, it hasd left me wanting more, which I think proves that you have done an exceptional job yet again. I eagerly anticipate the release of The Companions, and will dive into it with the same fervor that I give to all of your work. Thanks for being a superstar at your craft sir.