On the occasion of the recent publication of R.A. Salvatore's latest novel, Omnivoracious invited Jeremy L. C. Jones to share his thoughts about the book"”and to interview the author. Jones, an expert on Salvatore's fiction, is a freelance writer, editor, and teacher. Along with Jeff VanderMeer, he co-directs Shared Worlds, a SF/Fantasy creative writing and world-building camp for teenagers partially funded by an Amazon.com grant.
Even though Neverwinter by R. A. Salvatore falls late in his heroic fantasy Forgotten Realms series about the dark elf Drizzt Do'Urden, it is an ideal place to start reading"”or re-reading"”Salvatore's fiction. Neverwinter finds the veteran fantasist pushing himself (and his characters) harder than ever before"”asking bigger questions, meeting bigger challenges, and conquering bigger personal demons.
Though known for writing vivid combat scenes, Salvatore is very much a character writer. His Forgotten Realms novels are "buddy fantasy" in the mode of Fritz Leiber's Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser stories and heroic fantasy in the mode David Gemmell's Legend. Iconic characters like Drizzt Do'Urden, Bruenor Battlehammer, Wulfgar, Regis, and Cattie-brie are, as Salvatore says, "friends to walk down the road of adventure beside."
With Neverwinter, Salvatore shows us what happens when Drizzt has lost everyone he cares about and must walk alone. Faster, harder, and more frantic than previous books, Neverwinter is nostalgic and a little wistful. It is, perhaps, Salvatore's most mature Forgotten Realms novel yet.
Jeremy L.C. Jones for Amazon.com: What's the Neverwinter series about? There's a pretty important murder, some massive catastrophe, and plenty of action, but what's it really about?
R. A. Salvatore: This series is about Drizzt coming out of his comfort zone and being put in a situation with an alluring, deadly, and dangerous companion [Dahlia Sin'felle]. I look at it as if your best friend in high school is falling in love with someone you know is bad news. Will your friend help elevate that person or will that person drag your friend down into the gutter? That's the big question of this series.
Amazon.com:Neverwinter, the novel, opens with Dahlia watching Drizzt practicing his sword routines.
R. A. Salvatore: Watching an artist perform his or her art is probably the truest way to get a measure of the artist. Watching a fighter going through his practice moves, watching a baseball player taking batting practice, watching a pitcher throwing off the mound, you are watching that person perfect his or her muscle memory. And muscle memory is everything in sports and in combat. Also, watching an artist practice is beautiful.
Amazon.com: The Drizzt books seem to be increasingly personal.
R. A. Salvatore: I think that is my own maturity starting to show. Being a writer means walking naked down a beach. It means putting yourself out there and letting it fly. It means being honest with the story. There's no place to hide when you're a writer. And if you're hiding, you're failing. I don't think I was hiding in the earlier Drizzt books. I think Homeland is as good as I've ever done. It's just that after 23 years, the only way to explore these characters is to go deeper. I have to look deeper into his heart and soul and challenge him harder on those parts of his character that his is confident with. To shake him.
To do that, I had to separate Drizzt from people who would reinforce what we already know about him. Surround him with people who were not of like mind in order to put pressure on him emotionally. To try to break him.
Amazon.com: Does what Drizzt is going through mirror your creative or professional situation?
R. A. Salvatore: In a way. As long as you don't extrapolate from that what I am going through in my personal life. My life has never been more stable. I've taken control of my writing; it no longer controls me schedule-wise. I'm in an incredibly stable and happy marriage. I've got a grandson who is the best thing ever. I'm in the best place I've ever been, which makes it even harder to flip it around on Drizzt. But I do wonder what my life would be like if I was jarred out of my current, stable situation.
Amazon.com: In reading The Collected Stories, I was struck with how I can read any Drizzt story or book, in any order, and not be confused.
R. A. Salvatore: Here's the trick to that for me: I know who the characters are. The characters are fully formed in my mind, so I tell a standalone book about the characters. There is no meta-story that guides the Drizzt books. I know exactly who these characters are. I throw a new adventure, a new challenge"”emotional, physical, societal challenge"”at them.
By the way, a really weird thing happened to me as I put The Collected Stories together. As I re-read each short story it put me exactly back into the time and place I was at emotionally when I wrote it"”when I had my back surgery, when I was losing my brother. I think of The Collected Stories as "snapshots in time."
The Collected Stories also led to a huge epiphany for me. For the first time, it came to me that writing isn't what I do, it's who I am. And what I'm really doing here is throwing challenges at these characters in order to get the characters to answer the questions that I have about myself in my own life.
Amazon.com: The Drizzt books also have become increasingly epic. Have you gone so deeply into the characters that you've found the epic in the individual human heart?
R. A. Salvatore: The Companions of the Hall are people that most people would love to be walking down the road beside. I've created friends. And you care about your friends.
Amazon.com: After all these years, do you still believe that "the hero is the one with the biggest heart, not the biggest sword"?
R. A. Salvatore: Of course! Absolutely. I've never wavered on that. I find my heroes in the everyday person who is vulnerable but will stand up anyway. Everybody has within them a compass that tells them right from wrong. The person who tries to make things a little better for those around him or her"¦that person is the hero, whether running a cat shelter or running into a burning building to help someone get out. The hero tries to alleviate the suffering in the world. The hero does what's right even when it's not popular.
Amazon.com: Why explore the great human questions and heroism in a fantastical milieu? I mean, you're finding the extraordinary in the ordinary and you're setting it"”
R. A. Salvatore: "”in the extraordinary. There're two things I really like about fantasy. I believe greatly in science, but it is fun to think that there are things that science can't explain. That's the entire basis of faith, right? I am able to keep a spiritual life and a secular life side-by-side, believing in what science tells me without it diminishing my hopes for the universe.
In a fantasy world, you have magic. Magic can't be explained by science within the context of that world. I think most people find that comforting. I do. I love watching those shows about UFOs and Bigfoot and the Loch Ness monster and all these other weird creatures. Do I believe any of that? No. Do I want to believe it? Of course! Who doesn't? It's cool. Fun. Exciting. It's mystical on all kinds of levels. Fantasy gives you that, too.
The other thing fantasy gives you is the ability for one person to make a huge, profound, black-and-white, in-your-face difference in the world. Now, you can do that in realistic novels"”you can do that in real life"”but it's a lot muddier, a lot harder in a world of seven billion people.
[Regardless of milieu], the job of the writer is not to give you answers, but to get you to ask the questions of yourself. I don't have the answers for you. Only you have the answers for you.
Amazon.com: You are known for writing great fight scenes that actually mean something. What does violence in a novel do for the story?
R. A. Salvatore: In a crisis, we reveal ourselves more fully than in a comfortable setting sipping tea. I was a bouncer in a nightclub. Other bouncers would be the biggest, toughest, strongest people you ever saw and after one night we'd know they weren't going to work out because they didn't act appropriately in a crisis. Either they went over the top and hurt somebody or they froze. I'm sure that people in the military, cops, firemen, emergency techs are all nodding right now because they know exactly what I'm saying. When something really bad happens, you shut down your human doubts and do what needs to be done to fix the situation. Or you don't. In other words, crisis is the easiest way to reveal character.
Amazon.com: Any parting words?
R. A. Salvatore: A few years ago my wife said on her birthday that every year she was going to try something new that scared her. I think that's a great way to look at life. I'm in my fifties now and I'm not giving up. I'm not saying, "Okay, it's time to go lie down." I'm not dead yet, right?
Keep looking for new things. Keep looking at the sunrise and appreciating it. Looking at the sunset and appreciating it. You've got to. Or what's the freaking point, right? I like there being a point. Life is what you make of it. And I'm not ready to stop making of it.