R. A. Salvatore on His First Gen Con, Staying Inspired, and What He’s Playing During Social Distancing
It must be said that these are strange times, dark times, and one thing we can all use right now is our sense of imagination. Luckily, we have access to an expert in imagining alternative worlds.
We reached out to our 2020 Author Guest of Honor, legendary fantasy author R. A. Salvatore, to ask him how he works, where he finds inspiration, and of course, what games he’s playing.
Thirty years ago, R. A. Salvatore created the character Drizzt Do’Urden, the dark elf who has withstood the test of time to stand today as an icon in the fantasy genre. With his work in the Forgotten Realms, the Crimson Shadow, the DemonWars Saga, and other series, Salvatore has sold more than 30 million books worldwide and has appeared on the New York Times bestseller list more than two dozen times. He considers writing to be his personal journey, but still, he’s quite pleased that so many are walking the road beside him!
R. A. lives in Massachusetts with his wife, Diane, and their two dogs, Dexter and Pikel. His newest book, Relentless, is the epic conclusion to the Generations trilogy featuring Drizzt Do’Urden. It comes out July 28 and is available for pre-order now. Find him online at RASalvaStore.com.
What was the first book you read that made you want to write?
The Hobbit, and just as much as that, the wonderful Peter S. Beagle introduction to that 70s Ballantine set of Tolkien’s work. When I was a kid, I read anything and everything. Loved hanging out with Charlie Brown and the Peanuts gang! School beat the love of reading and writing out of me, so much that I started college undeclared, but with the intent of going math/computer science.
My sister Susan gave me those four Ballantine books for Christmas, 1977. A blizzard in February of 78 locked me in my Mom’s house, so I said “what the hell?” and opened The Hobbit.
And I remembered.
What’s the first step in starting a new book? Do you know the ending before you start?
I think I do, but often discover through the organic process of writing that I really didn’t know where the craziness would take me. I’m a pantser, not a plotter (if I got those concepts correctly). Outlines are like telephone poles that grow into trees with wide-spreading branches. I love going out to the end of those branches.
What do you do to stay inspired? Do you tend to read other fantasy and sci-fi authors, or do you get more inspiration from other sources?
A little of both, but most of my reading these days is outside the genre. History books, historical novels, stories behind the scenes of current events — things like that. What I’ve learned most over the years is that fantasy writing has to rhyme with the real world. You’re already asking the readers to suspend disbelief on so many things (dragons and magic and such), that giving them grounding in the familiarity of culture, making languages that are based on real-world languages, economics that make logical sense, and all the rest, are critical.
I may be writing about elves and xoconai, but to the reader, they have to be human at heart.
Do you find that certain elements of fantasy and sci-fi can feel more true-to-life than realist fiction (or non-fiction)?
See above my answer to the last question. If I were writing about, say, World War I, I would study the world, understand the technology of the time (military and otherwise), read the letters of soldiers, newspaper headlines, etc.
In the end, though, my hero would be fictional, even if I stole a real-world person, and my accounts of the battles would be recreations based on imagination bordered by facts. Same thing with fantasy. You know the parameters of the world, of magic, of the various cultures, and you imagine.
I read in an interview that you started writing your first book by candlelight while listening to Fleetwood Mac’s Tusk, which sounds like an incredible vibe. Do you often listen to music while you work? What’s your favorite record lately?
Always. I’ve gone away from Fleetwood Mac and others while I write, and instead use them before I start to get my mood where it needs to be. When I had to write sad events like The Ghost King, I would pull up videos of a few songs that put me right back in the darkest days of my life. I hated it, but I knew I had to do it.
Fortunately, the books have been a bit… cheerier, of late. For the last few years, I play Jon Serrie’s And the Stars Go With You, and George Winston’s December, both beautiful instrumentals.
What do you remember about the first time you attended Gen Con?
I remember being terrified (it was also the first time I ever got on an airplane, at the tender age of 30). It was a very different convention way back then, and a very different world. I had no idea of what to expect.
My most distinct memory is that my editor, Mary Kirchoff, plopped me in a chair behind two other authors who were signing and whispered in my ear, “Watch them, Bob. This is how you treat readers, because it’s genuine.”
So I watched. Funny thing: I had read one of their books right after getting my first horrible rejection letter years earlier, and remembered hating the book! I watched them intently anyway, and mostly watched the readers, some coming up in character costume from the books, some talking about how this character or that had changed their lives, some crying, some laughing, all loving the experience.
I learned three things that day that have stuck:
First, writing can truly have a powerful effect on people. Touching readers is an amazing thing to witness. So powerful!
Second, the reader brings as much to the experience of a book as the writer. Listening to those readers, I went back and re-read that book, and a whole bunch more after them, and fell in love with the stories and the characters, and realized how much my foul mood after that rejection letter had colored my vision when I had first dived in. Which also, by the way, tells you how much of a crapshoot submitting a manuscript can be… hope the editor is having a good day when they read it!
Third, Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman are two of the most wonderful people I’ve ever met and I love them like family to this day.
You have an impressive rate of literary output — do you have time for gaming? What have you played recently?
Of course! My group gathers every Sunday night. We’re playing D&D 5E now, after several years of DemonWars: Reformation, an RPG I wrote with my sons and kickstarted a few years ago.
I had stayed away from computer games for years after the agonizing fall of 38 Studios, then went back to an old favorite, Everquest on Project 1999 (after I heard that Daybreak Studios said it was okay with them, as I didn’t want to pirate), and have been immersed in WoW Classic since it opened.
Right now, I’m spending my Coronavirus Isolation catching the last Winter Squid in the Bay of Storms before they disappear with the spring equinox. Those little suckers will get me some purple gear, they will!
[Editorial Note: While the below question could have been phrased much more efficiently, I’m leaving it as is because the hypothetical situation described now matches my current mental state with eerie accuracy.]
A desert island seems too banal — if you were trapped alone on an ancient, spectral galleon enchanted by a vengeful sorcerer with power beyond reckoning to sail between worlds on an endless voyage through the mists of time and space, not knowing if you would make it back alive, uncertain what changes you would undergo if you did, but absolutely certain you were about to have a great deal of free time — in that situation, what three books would you pick to have with you?
The Hobbit (and The Lord of the Rings, if I can count them as one!) because I can read that story over and over again. It puts me in a very good emotional place and reminds me of the power of imagination. I cannot overstate how much my sister’s Christmas gift in 1977 changed my life.
James Joyce’s Dubliners anthology would be next, mostly because I consider “The Dead” to be the most perfect piece of writing in the English language. It reads like a song of the human condition to me, and I can’t get through it without escaping my physical body into a place of philosophical freedom. I’d read it aloud, because hearing the rhythm of Joyce’s prose is like staring up at the night sky to me.
I won’t cheat and say “the complete works of…” here, and instead fall back on Jacob Bronowski’s The Ascent of Man. When I was guiding the young and inexperienced narrative team at 38 Studios, I told them to watch the miniseries of The Ascent of Man because Bronowski traces the history of humanity from invention to invention instead of from war to war. That might not sound like much, but it is, and it puts our evolution as a species in an entirely different, more complete, and more hopeful light. It’s truly brilliant (like Carl Sagan’s COSMOS, which would be my fourth choice here), holds up amazingly well these four decades later, and creates a feeling of connectedness with all that came before and all that will ever be.
I guess if I was sitting alone with a good chance that I’d never see another person ever again, that connectedness would bring comfort.