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Interview: R.A. Salvatore on Drizzt Do'Urden, Escapism, and 2018

The Portalist spoke to the prolific fantasy author about the new Drizzt trilogy, the power of fantasy, and why the dark elf remains so compelling. 

R.A. Salvatore Drizzt Do'Urden
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  • Photo Credit: RASalvatore.com

Over 30 years ago, R.A. Salvatore conceived of a character to include in his first novel, a story in the Forgotten Realms setting of Dungeons & Dragons. Salvatore imagined a protagonist whose heroism was rooted in morality, rather than just physical might; a warrior determined to reject the violence and brutality of his fellow dark elves, or drows. 

In the decades since Drizzt Do'Urden made his first appearance in The Crystal Shard, the dark elf has become an iconic staple in fantasy fiction, appearing in graphic novels, video games, and over 30 books. The most recent Drizzt novel, Timeless, was released in September and is the first in a trilogy. 

In between spinning stories set in the Forgotten Realms, Salvatore has also written for video games, designed his own tabletop role-playing game, authored Star Wars novels, and penned numerous fantasy series set in worlds of his own creation. 

The Portalist caught up with the accomplished author at New York Comic Con last week to discuss the latest dark elf trilogy and the value of escapism. Not surprisingly, due to the timing of our conversation—Salvatore met with us on October 6th, the same day Brett Kavanaugh was sworn in as Supreme Court justice—the discussion also turned to our current political climate, and the way escapism and politics sometimes interact. 

The recent release of Timeless was an interesting convergence of a lot of things. Obviously you have readers who have been fans for decades, and readers who are just coming on to this character’s story, and also I think there’s an interesting social relevance in that now the idea of sticking to your own convictions is maybe higher stakes for everyone than ever before. I was wondering if you could talk to all those different factors.

I just saw a review of Timeless that I liked a lot, because it was someone who had never read any of the other books. And I was trying to do three things, I was trying to make it so that someone who was kind of overwhelmed, ‘where do I start after all these years and all these books,’ could jump right in. That’s why I’m glad the cover looks very different as well. 

And then the second thing I had to do was make sure the people who had followed me all the way through could get a continuation of the story they were expecting. And the third thing I wanted to do was kind of give a break-point for people who had fallen behind over the last few years. So I had to balance all of that.

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But all of the dark elf books, from the very beginning, have been about doing what you think is right, no matter the cost. That’s the whole point of the dark elf. When I started writing him I was very tired of seeing the hero being the guy who was a dirtbag but had the biggest gun, or the biggest sword. And I really wanted a hero who actually followed an ethical course. And that was his whole guiding principle, was to try to do what was right, even when it cost him. All 30-whatever books of them are along those lines. 

And then the other thing where I really got to play that up, the fact that you have another character who he has idolized, his father, now dropped in the middle of the world, 200 years or 150 years removed from his death. And the world has moved on fairly dramatically in the Forgotten Realms and around Drizzt, so he comes back and it’s like Archie Bunker showing up in 2018. And you really want to like the guy and root for the guy, but there’s things he has to overcome to make that a genuine rooting, you know? 

You’ve talked about how when you first conceived of Drizzt, you felt an instant affinity to him. Is that something that you still feel, and why do you think you had that immediate connection?

I feel that to all the characters in my books, whether it’s the comedy ones like Pikel and Thibbledorf and Oliver, whether it’s the heroes. Even the villains, I feel not an affinity to them, but they become real people and interesting to me. You know, when I first started writing him [Drizzt], the fantasy genre was mostly younger people. And who in high school doesn’t feel like an outcast? So with that character, and it wasn’t by design, something inside me said from the very beginning that this guy would be the perfect person to carry around that feeling of not fitting in and being misunderstood.

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Can you talk about how your creative process differs if you’re writing in a world that’s entirely of your own creation, versus writing a story that’s set in the Star Wars galaxy, or that’s in the framework of Dungeons and Dragons?

The only difference between what I would do in the Forgotten Realms and what I would do in Demon Wars, or Crimson Shadow, or Spearwielder's Tales—in my own worlds—is in those other worlds I have to define the magic system and societal structures instead of trying to work within them. But the storytelling is the same, the characterization is the same. 

In Star Wars it's a little different, because I'm using characters that have been brought to life by actors. So I almost feel more like a mechanic, fixing somebody else’s car, in the Star Wars universe. Whereas if I’m writing in the Realms or my own books I feel like I'm the driver, it's my car. It's very rare that I have to put something in one of my books. What I have to do more, I have to react to the changes in the world, in the Realms. Whereas in my own world I can initiate those changes. Other than that, it’s the same process.

For The Crimson Shadow series, Betsy [Mitchell, editor of The Crimson Shadow and The Portalist's sci-fi and fantasy consultant] told me that you used tabletop role-playing as a way to explore those characters.

Just one. The only character I've ever played in a game is Oliver deBurrows, the highway-halfling. He’s a cross between Inigo Montoya from The Princess Bride and the little French guy on the wall in Monty Python and the Holy Grail. And I really wanted to know if I could make him that annoying, so I played him in the game and he was the coward in the back. First-level characters, we come up on these ruins, and the wizard blew his spell so he didn’t really see the ogre standing right next to the pillar, and Oliver thought everything was clear so he jumped up front and said 'I’ll lead!' and he ran up the steps and got squished by an ogre and killed. Everybody stood up and cheered. And that’s when I knew he had to be in the book, that I got it, because I stayed in character with him for the whole game and they all hated me. And that’s what I was going for.

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And you still have a regular Sunday night tabletop role-playing game with your family, right?

I play DemonWars: Reformation, it’s a game I kickstarted with my two sons about five years ago. We are now doing a pirate game that I just started, set in my Demon Wars world. And, yep, play every Sunday. 

Can you talk about the role imagination plays in the life of most adults, and the role that you think it’s played in your life? 

When I was very young, I used to read a lot. As I was going through school I lost that completely. School beat the reading out of me. We weren’t reading books, we were reading passages from Faulkner, in the big textbook that gave you an overview of everybody. It was terrible. I became a math major. I’m very good at math and science, that’s where I’m grounded. I started college undeclared, but all my concentration was math and science, physics. 

My sister gave me for Christmas in 1977, my freshman year of college, the Ballantine edition of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. And when I opened those books the first thing I read was an introduction by Peter Beagle, and what Peter Beagle talks about is escapism. And he talks about we are raised to honor all the wrong heroes, murderers bearing crosses, thieves carrying flags, and when escape isn’t a bad word. 

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And it reminded me of so much. It really sparked me. I turned the page and ‘in a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.’ And that was it. All of a sudden I was eight years old again, 10 years old again, reading my books, in my bed with a flashlight under the covers. And it just felt so freeing. So to this day my favorite letters are the ones that begin ‘I never read a book until I picked up one of yours,’ because that’s when I feel I’ve done something good in the world. 

I love thinking about the value of escapism like that, as a means of therapy or just changing the way you look at the world. And it’s interesting because I think that so much of our media that has been pure escapism in the past, like Star Wars, has now become kind of a cultural hotbed for debate, if you look at The Last Jedi. And obviously you have experience writing for Star Wars as well and seeing fan reactions to that, and I was wondering what you make of the kind of culture wars that are going on in the Star Wars fandom right now.

The culture war that’s going on in Star Wars and everything that surrounds us and politics and everything is the fact that the white male has been on top, so completely, that white guys aren’t even aware of being on top. It amazes me. 

I went back and watched Animal House, a few years ago. I watched it, and I shut the TV off in horror and said 'I used to laugh at that? That is not a victimless crime.' It wasn't just victimizing women. It was victimizing guys like me for us being so stupid that we couldn’t even know what we were doing. And it’s disappointing to me because I see us missing so many opportunities to fix it, to make it better. 

This whole travesty of this week is that if Judge Kavanaugh had walked into that hearing and said 'this was a toxic culture in 1978 to 1980s, and even now, even until very, very recently, this is a toxic culture that we all grew up in. I can tell you what Devil's Triangle means, I can tell you what FFFF means, I can tell you. It’s vulgar, it’s demeaning, I was part of that. We were all part of that. We need to be better.' 

And that’s what we’re missing. Nobody will get up and say that. Because everybody’s so 'we have to deny, deny, deny, that’s not me, that’s not me, that’s not me.' We’re never going to get better until you listen more than you talk. 

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When the whole #MeToo thing started somebody asked me about it, because Child of a Mad God is about a woman who grows up—my book that came out earlier in the year, my other Demon Wars book—is about a woman who grows up in a society (much like Drizzt did in Homeland, that was my template, if you will) with these horrific customs because that’s the way it is. And she says no, damn it, no. 

And someone says, did the #MeToo movement inspire that? And I said I wrote it before the #MeToo movement. And I really did, this book was done before that whole thing started, but I've always been sensitive to that for a lot of reasons. I grew up with lots of strong women in my life. I married a strong woman, my daughter’s a strong woman, I have five older sisters—or as I say it, six mothers—and they were all accomplished, they were all intelligent. 

And they never got to where they could have gone if they had grown up in a world that treated women as equals to men. So this was the world I grew up in and we were all part of it, and we were all guilty, but that’s the wrong word. It was the culture of the time. We're learning better. And I really wish we would just admit it, and learn better.

The saddest thing to me this whole week was that this guy could have made a huge difference in the world. He could have made it better, for everybody in this country, and instead, 'me, me, me, me, me.' And it’s so disappointing to see that in someone who’s being asked to be a leader, and a lawmaker or interpreter. Disappointing.

On a very different note, are there any books you’re reading right now that you’d want our readers to check out?

This is a tough question. I read so slowly it is almost impossible for me to read while I'm writing, and I've always been writing. I started a book earlier this year and I was enjoying it and I thought it was very relevant, of course what’s relevant today is probably eclipsed tomorrow in this world right now. But it's called Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk. 

And I think that’s another issue that we really need to face up to. You know, when I was nine years old I was watching the Olympics with my dad, the 1968 Olympics. And I still remember their names—it was Tommie Smith and John Carlos. And they were on the metal platform, they raised their fists in protest at the national anthem. And I thought my dad, who was a World War II veteran, wounded at Cherbourg, D-Day Plus 6, Italian American, proud American ... I thought he was going to lose it. And I looked over and he was crying a little bit. And I said, 'are you mad about this?' And he said ' I didn't go to France to fight for a piece of cloth, I went there to fight for what it means. This is what it means.'

 And so I feel really passionate about getting it right. So yeah, Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk

Is there anything that you’re working on right now that you can tell us about?

I just finished the second book in the Timeless series. I can’t give you a title because they'll probably change it! The second book in the Coven series, the sequel to Child of a Mad God, will be out in January, I'm starting the third book tomorrow when I get home. And I'm now taking my Crimson Shadow books and they’re coming out with Open Road sometime in the spring probably, they’re being reissued. I love that series. And it’s funny because they’re back with the person that edited them, way back when [Betsy Mitchell].

This article has been edited and condensed for clarity. 

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Featured photo of R.A. Salvatore via rasalvatore.com