In part 1 and part 2 of our interview with author R.A. Salvatore, he talked about the collaboration between authors, game designers, and the marketing team at Wizards of the Coast, designing the DemonWars: Reformation tabletop RPG, and his views on the collapse of 38 Studios. Today, Salvatore opens up about the events that led to the deaths of some of his most beloved characters.
Spoiler Alert: Readers of Salvatore’s Drizzt novels should not proceed unless they have read through 2013’s The Companions.
Over 19 years and more than 20 books, Drizzt and his friends, known as the Companions of Mithral Hall, were inseparable. They fought wars, journeyed side by side into the unknown, and took on personal quests to absolve one another of pain and guilt.
Then, in the Transitions trilogy that began with 2007’s The Orc King and concluded in 2009’s The Ghost King, Salvatore did the unthinkable: two of the companions were killed in one fell swoop, leaving readers stunned. “I wanted to tear your heart out,” he stated plainly. “When Drizzt woke up that morning and found [Cattie-brie] dead beside him… My goal was, I am going to make this hurt like it has never hurt before.”
The opening salvo of the Transitions trilogy was the starring role given to Obould Many-Arrows, an orc chieftain who aspired to unite the clans under his banner and co-exist peacefully with elves, dwarves, and humans — a very un-orc-like aspiration.
“One of the things that intrigues me about fantasy is that it is racist,” Salvatore explained. “You’re not talking about humans, so I guess you can get away with it. Orcs are supposed to be the embodiment of evil in fantasy. It started many years ago when I wrote the short story ‘Dark Mirror,’ where Drizzt runs into a goblin. He finds out the goblin is an escaped slave. The goblin seems like a great guy, and Drizzt wants to believe that, because he isn’t what people expect from a dark elf.”
Salvatore hoped that his readers, like Drizzt, would be suspicious of Obould. Did he truly want to progress his people as a race? Or was Obould being played, used as a pawn by an orc god that needed a figurehead under which all orcs could rally and wreak havoc on the Realms?
“It’s an interesting question because it comes from racial issues, the prejudices that people have, the cultural differences–but I’m always uncomfortable with it. In a way, fantasy does the same thing. Fantasy is a war without guilt. We have slanderous names for whoever we’re fighting [during a war]. You dehumanize your enemy because that makes it easier to kill them. Fantasy does that to the ultimate level with orcs, goblins, trolls, and things like that. But there’s been a movement in fantasy, because of computer games, to allow people to play as orcs [and other traditionally evil races]. Now people want to know: are orcs really bad?”
Providing answers to such topical questions is not Salvatore’s job. Getting readers, and now gamers, to think raise the questions in the first place — that’s what he loves. “I don’t have an answer for Obould’s situation. I may never [have an answer]. But it’s fun to explore.”
“The Darkest Night”
More than Obould’s time in the spotlight, fans remember Transitions for the deaths of Regis and Catti-brie, two of the companions that made up Drizzt’s merry band. Salvatore was not the one who suggested that the companions be torn asunder. “Wizards advanced the Forgotten Realms 100 years. A 140-year-old woman won’t fight very well. I didn’t want to kill them. The story wasn’t done. [Catti-brie] was going in an interesting direction, and I love the character of Regis. My hand was forced.”
Despite feeling backed into a corner, Salvatore admitted that he liked how things turned out. “By forcing my hand, [Wizards] forced me into an uncomfortable place, and in an uncomfortable place, you have to be really creative to become comfortable again. They forced me to do things I wouldn’t have done.”
Catti and Regis did not die like heroes. They fell to the Spellplague, the consequence of the death of Mystra, goddess of magic, which caused magic to run wild all across the world. One minute, Catti and Regis were up and about, talking and living. The next, their minds were gone, reducing them to vegetables.
Such ignominious death had plagued Salvatore’s reality, a bitter wellspring from which he drew to write the deaths of Regis and Catti-brie. “Sometimes shit just happens,” Salvatore said. “Excuse my French, but sometimes it does just happen. What heroic reason was there for my brother to get cancer and die? There’s no heroic reason. It just happened. It doesn’t make sense. It’s ridiculous. You hear about some kid riding his bike and he gets hit by a car. There’s no rhyme or reason to that. There’s no plan. It’s just awful.”
Readers felt his pain. When he killed Wulfgar much earlier in the Drizzt line of books, Salvatore received letters from both sides of the fence. When Catti and Regis died, “there was no outrage,” the author said. “It was just like, ‘Well, I guess it had to happen sometime.'”
From the outside looking in, Catti-brie and Regis were dead and buried. Salvatore saw things differently. From the moment he walked out of the meeting where he, Ed Greenwood, and other Realms authors and game designers received the news that the world would be advanced 100 years, the wheels in his head were turning.
“I get 20 letters a day — every day! — from people who say, ‘I was in a dark place, and these characters became my friends.’ This isn’t something like a television series that runs for two years. It’s been going for 27 years. There are people in their 40s who were young teenagers when they found Drizzt and are still with him.”
Salvatore recalled feeling nervous when he wrote the characters’ resurrections in The Companions, afraid that fans might call foul. “But I thought I had a good way of doing it. I thought it made sense, and I thought I could make a point.”
Well aware of how they died, each character resolves to live differently. Regis, now known as Spider, was a coward. As the littlest of the companions, he worried that he was an albatross to his more combat-competent friends. From the moment he leaves his new mother’s womb, Spider trains with a grim determination. He will not be the weakest link in the chain.
Bruenor, who died in the Neverwinter Saga series that followed Transitions, is pissed off. “He thinks, well, if this happened, is everything I did before heroic? That’s the question I knew a lot of readers would ask,” Salvatore said. Cattie-brie, too, questions the meaning of all that came before, and endeavors to explore options closed to her in her previous life. Wulfgar the barbarian takes a completely different tack. In his first life, he was good and honorable. Now, he just wants to have fun. “He’s a complete hedonist. If it’s fun, he’s going to do it, whether it’s fighting or making love. He figures he’s on borrowed time. He already paid his dues, so this is his reward.”
Salvatore got into the habit of inscribing The darkest night on copies of The Ghost King at signings, a hint of the darkness that would grow more cloying over each page. Then, with The Companions, the sun rose and shone all the brighter. “The thing that drew me to the Realms in the first place was that it was a really hopeful world. Then it became grim after the Spellplague. Very dark, nihilistic, and gritty — I hate that word — which seems to be the trend in fantasy. I hate that trend. I want fantasy to be enjoyable. I want to escape to a better place, not a worse place. So I wanted to restore that sense of optimism.”
Smiling, Salvatore continued: “You can’t believe the letters I get about this book: ‘Thank you. My world just got better.’ Not everything has to be gritty and depressing all the time.”
Setting Drizzt aside and focusing on tertiary characters is something Salvatore fans have come to expect and appreciate. The Spine of the World focused on Wulfgar’s struggle to recover from the torture he had suffered at the hands of the demon that had broken him mentally and spiritually. “When I turned in the manuscript to my editor, I said, ‘Half the people are going to love this book, and half are going to hate it. There’s nothing I can do about that.’ Boy did I call it right on the nose. I got letters saying, ‘What’s the matter with Wulfgar? He got all his hit points back!’ Other people said, ‘One day at a time, man. This is awesome.’ They were going through similar difficulties.”
Beggars and Choosers
Even though Wizards’ mandate gave him the chance to put a new spin on the companions, Salvatore would still prefer to call the shots when writing fiction. During our conversation, he revealed that he would like to try his hand at self-publishing books featuring new worlds and characters. “Like I said about the Kickstarter, it made me be responsible for so many things. I like the challenge. I liked being able to name my own [rule] book. If it’s a terrible name, hey, at least I named it. I love being able to hire my artist to design my cover. I love being able to hire the editor I want to hire. I’m not afraid of failing, so I’m not afraid of responsibility.”
Nor is Salvatore afraid of failing to attract readers to his other, non-Drizzt works. At the signing where I met up with him, Salvatore asked how many in the audience read the Drizzt books. Every other hand went up. When he asked how many of those readers had cracked open copies of Stone of Tymora, DemonWars, or other works unrelated or tangentially connected to Drizzt, only a smattering of hands appeared.
Still, if the worst-case scenario is every Drizzt novel hitting the New York Times bestseller list, Salvatore can live with that. “It’s the same thing Robert Jordan went through with Wheel of Time, Terry Brooks went through it with Shannara, George Martin’s going through with A Song of Ice and Fire, and J.K. Rowling went through it when she wrote a book that wasn’t Harry Potter: she didn’t hit anywhere near those numbers. You get pigeon-holed just like actors on TV shows. But you can’t complain about that because the fact that you got pigeon-holed means you did something that people accepted and loved.”
The way Salvatore sees it, he’s damn lucky that something he writes touches so many lives. “When I read a letter from somebody in Iraq who says, ‘Thank you. I read your book and it allowed me to forget what I did for today, and not think about what I’ll have to do tomorrow’ — that’s a blessing that I get to be part of that through writing about an elf. So there’s nothing to complain about … although I do wish more people would read DemonWars [laughs]. I’ll pull people over to DemonWars one at a time. I’m pretty good at it.”
Twenty-seven years and nearly as many iconic characters later, and Salvatore is still having a blast writing the world’s favorite dark elf. Even so, Salvatore admits that he has thought about how Drizzt’s saga will come to an end, and the note he wants to end on when the time comes.
“I think I’m beginning to understand how this will end. But, no, nothing specific [in terms of an ending]. Not yet. However, I do expect as of right now that if they said, ‘This is the last Drizzt book,’ and I had to end it, I do expect it wouldn’t end sadly. I wouldn’t end on a down note. I thought the last Drizzt book I would ever write for TSR [before Wizards of the Coast acquired TSR] was Passage to Dawn. TSR and I had an ugly break-up. I was done. How did I end that book? With Drizzt and Catti-brie riding off into the sunset. The series would end more like that.”