The second novel in the Neverwinter Saga, Neverwinter, comes out next week. We asked author R.A. Salvatore about the changes he’s made to his iconic dark elf, Drizzt Do’Urden, how the Forgotten Realms have changed, and what it takes to write a vivid battle scene.
R.A. Salvatore started writing for TSR in the late 1980s, creating the now legendary character Drizzt, a drow who rejects the malicious nature of his race to live on the surface as a hero with a clear sense of morality. Since then, he’s sold millions of books and written two dozen novels chronicling the adventures of Drizzt and his loyal companions.
Note that this interview contains some spoilers for the first novel in the Neverwinter Saga, Gauntlgrym.
Robot Viking: Drizzt Do’Urden is a character who’s been around for 20 years, and he’s been a fan favorite. It seems like in the Neverwinter Saga you’ve begun the process of deconstructing him to some extent, stripping away some of the familiar elements. How difficult is it to take something that’s been a long-term success and make some of those fundamental changes?
R.A. Salvatore: It’s not really that difficult, it’s actually what keeps it interesting for me. For most of the series, for most of the last 23 years, Drizzt has been surrounded by people of similar moral character. He would take an arrow for them, and was very confident that they would take an arrow for him. All of a sudden that slate’s been kind of wiped clean, and here he is with nothing to lose, feeling a little reckless, a lot angry, and in a way free, because he has nothing to lose. He has no one to love. And into his life comes these new characters, one in particular who will intrigue him, excite him. So the question becomes for me as the writer, is he going to pull them up or are they going to drag him down. I don’t know that answer and that’s what makes it fun.
RV: Your novels have always been fairly dark and gritty, but the new series seems particularly grim and apocalyptic. Is that just part of life in the Forgotten Realms, or is that an aspect of cleaning the slate and giving the characters some room to grow?
RAS: It’s really the Realms, now. They’ve moved the time forward 100 years, and a lot of bad things have happened on a global scale. So the Realms…my biggest takeaway from the changes in the Realms has been the sense of danger and darkness that’s come to the world. I’m working in their sandbox. Having said that, it does present an incredible opportunity to go in different directions.
RV: The story of the creation of Drizzt is pretty well known, the famous phone call where you invented him off the top of your head [for TSR editor Mary Kirchoff, who was on her way to a marketing meeting for the book and needed a secondary character]. I’m interested in the newer character Dahlia and her origin — she’s really vivid, she has a distinctive weapon and the earrings [she wears a diamond earrings for each of her lovers – ones she’s killed go on her left ear, ones she hasn’t yet, on the right]. Where did some of those character details come from and how was she created?
RAS: Well, a funny thing that happens when I’m writing characters is that I have a general idea of who it is. I kind of get a visual flash of the character, and from there the character tells me their story as they go along. With Dahlia, I knew I wanted someone who was very unlike the type of people that Drizzt used to be around, like Catti-Brie for example. And I wanted someone that, from the beginning, there would be no doubt that she’s capable and had kind of a wild side to her. I thought also that would be the type of thing that Drizzt would be attracted to at this point in his life. Her backstory just kind of came to me as I first began writing about her. I thought, “You know, that backstory is very cool,” and so I found a way to get it into the last book, Gauntlgrym.
The other things grew up from that as I was writing about her. One of the things with Dahlia is the way she deals with her [emotional] scar: she wants to take lovers who will kill her. That’s her goal, to find someone to kill her – she won’t let them kill her, but they have to prove that they can kill her. A weird psychological game she’s got going on. That’s where the earrings came from.
As far as her fighting style goes, one of the things I knew from the beginning is, she was going be this young, reckless, really scarred character. Because you would think if she was an elf that was 300 years old, she would have gotten over, or gotten past the scars. So I wanted her to be young, with everything still fresh in her mind and that anger still burning, and the idea that someone like that could be a formidable opponent for someone like Drizzt. It’s a little harder to swallow, you know? She wouldn’t have near his experience. So that’s where her fighting style came from. Because it’s so exotic and different from anything he has seen, or many other people have seen, that makes her even more formidable in battle. She presents challenges in a fight that most people haven’t dealt with before, even experienced fighters haven’t dealt with before.
If you remember Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, that scene with the young woman and the older master in the circular armory, grabbing different weapons and having this amazing battle. That’s one of the best fights scenes I’ve ever seen, that was kind of the inspiration for Kozah’s Needle, the staff she carries. It can become a staff, a walking stick, a couple of bo sticks, a tri-staff or a pair of nunchuks. The versatility of that allows me to give her a lot of different looks when the battles start.
RV: Drizzt has always been a fairly straightforward traditional hero. With Dahlia introducing more moral complexity to Drizzt’s life, do you see him as becoming something of an antihero now, in the literary sense?
RAS: I don’t know if you’d go that far, but certainly the world has changed around him. I have some scenes in the new book where Drizzt is confronted with things that moral certitude doesn’t really cover. Kind of a Les Miserables story, right? If you’re starving, does that give you a right to steal? That kind of moral dilemma. In an evil world, you know, what’s a person to do to survive? So the world has changed around him, and Dahlia certainly will give him a different perspective than he’s used to seeing from his companions as well. Certainly there are things he’ll wind up doing with her or around her that he probably wouldn’t have done before. But antihero’s kind of a strong word. For Drizzt to be an antihero would be a betrayal of Drizzt. I don’t know if I’d go that far.
RV: If we go back to the writing the Dark Elf trilogy, you’re writing the first Drizzt novels, as you’re writing were you thinking, “I’ll be writing about this guy in 20 years”? Did you like him as much as everybody else eventually did?
RAS: I loved him. You talk about that story when he was created: he was a sidekick character for Wulfgar. But when I started writing The Crystal Shard, on about page two I knew it was his book. So he grabbed me from the very beginning, and he never let go. I had no idea I’d be writing about him 23 years later, I mean, I was 28 years old when I started writing Drizzt and I’m 52 now, so no way I thought he’d be with me for this many years. No way I thought I’d be writing for this many years. It’s been an amazing journey.
RV: You mentioned the fight scenes using exotic weapons, and you’re particularly known for the really detailed fight scenes in your novels. Do you have a background or training in martial arts that underpins those scenes?
RAS: I had a boxing club when I was in high school, some friends and I, and I was a bouncer for many years, worked with special forces guys, and I did a little training in martial arts, but not much. My knee wouldn’t handle it, I have a very bad leg now. And I signed my kids up for some fencing lessons. While they were out on the mat beating the tar out of each other, I was interviewing the instructor week after week after week. So I do have a lot of training , I’ve been an athlete, played all the different sports — if you play hockey, you know how to fight, it’s just the way it is. I draw on my experience, my understanding of it. I’m also a big sports fan, I watch them , I pay attention, I’m a player and an observer of that type of thing. So I do have a deep well to draw on for that. Mostly I just watch the fights in my head and write them down. It’s very cool.
RV: If we talk to the aspiring fantasy writers of the world for a moment, they’re obviously going to read all the touchstones of the fantasy genre — what non-fantasy literature do you think is critical for fantasy writers to be reading?
RAS: Particularly a lot of the Middle Ages writers, the pre-Enlightenment writers. When I was going to write the Cleric Quintet for example, I took a course on Chaucer, because I wanted to get that kind of “precipice of the Enlightenment” feel to it, you know. So I would say Chaucer, Shakespeare certainly, Dante. And then of the modern writers, Bernard Cornwell is writing some pretty amazing stuff, I would say Mary Stewart and her Arthurian books, a lot of Arthurian books give you a nice background on what life might have been like in those times. Because most fantasy is centered in the Middle Ages, or much of it is anyway. You really have to understand the mindset of the people of that time. Another book is called The Autumn of the Middle Ages, and it’s a historical examination, a societal examination of things like the public executions of the time, and I think knowing these things and having your sensibilities attuned to that , kind of the Ren Faire atmosphere in your mind, is critical if you’re going to relate these stories with any kind of believability.
RV: I’ve read a little bit about your advocacy for libraries. What do you think makes libraries so vital?
RAS: I’m on the board of trustees for my local library, and we’re certainly going through changes. Libraries themselves are going through changes. They’re not jus warehouses for books, you know, we have DVD rentals, I mean people borrowing DVDs at a huge number now. Internet access is so critical for people. But right now, people take for granted things they have and they think everybody else has them. They think everybody has internet access and a computer at home, and it’s just not the case. We get 1,000 people a day at my small town library, most of them are looking for work, and they need the internet access.
So the libraries are changing, they’re becoming a very vital kind of community center. The idea that there wouldn’t be libraries, I don’t care if you have the internet or not, is really…I don’t want to call it elitist, but having accessibility to information, where information is the great equalizer, having accessibility to that I think is quintessential, if we’re going to talk about the American dream. If people are shut off from the internet or shut off from resources that they’ll need, how do you expect them to compete in the 21st century world? So yeah, I’m big on libraries, and I think they’re going to be around for a long time, but I think they’re going to be around in different forms. I did a signing in a library a couple years ago, and they had 180 public access internet computers at that library. That’s pretty amazing. Those are the kind of things I think we’re going to see going forward.