December 1999, by Helen Keier
Our own Helen Keier recently had the pleasure of meeting R. A. Salvatore at a book signing in New York. After the meeting, she was fortunate to be able to chat on the phone for quite a while with Salvatore. This is the third in a multiple part interview with the author of Vector Prime. The interview below is transcribed directly from the tape of the conversation. This is probably one of the most in depth and honest interviews we've posted on the site, and we very much appreciate Helen and Salvatore for taking the time on it.
Salvatore has visited the TF.N forums and even addresses particular concerns, praises, questions, and criticisms. Also, when you're done here, be sure to visit RASalvatore.com. On with the interview!
Be warned that spoilers from the Vector Prime novel are discussed openly in this interview. If you haven't read the book, go read it, then come back here!
RAS: I don't particularly like it. At all...I would have never agreed to do it if it wasn't Star Wars.
RAS: ...I think in a literary sense you put a character in a book and it's your character... Nobody can get it exactly the same way, and I've known this all along. I write my DARK ELF, and nobody else is going to write my Dark Elf the way I write my Dark Elf....As an author, that's always been very personal to me. But again, this is Star Wars, and it's Lucas's creation... Han Solo is George Lucas's creation but he's also Harrison Ford's creation, which came though very clearly on the screen when watching the movie. Actors are not robots, thankfully, and I hope we can always say this, that they're not going to be computer animated unless we have different people animating each one. Actors bring their own personalities to the characters. So with these characters, I know that smirk on Han Solo's face. I've seen it. That makes it a little easier to swallow and digest...With the three kids - that I'd never seen in a movie obviously - they're kids, and I know kids. I know how much kids change daily, weekly, monthly....Just knowing the basics allowed me to take them in different directions, which was ok, because there are levels of growth people go through and I'm very familiar with those. I have teenagers of my own.
The character I was therefore most uncomfortable with and did not want in the book because I thought I had too many protagonists, was Mara Jade. Well, that quickly became not an option. [I was told] she will be in this book. Period . The EU readers will go crazy if she is not in this book, so I put her in the book. But what did I do? I gave her a life-altering condition. I knew that Mara Jade was independent, and fiercely proud...I know what someone who has those basic character assets is like when they are in the condition Mara Jade was in. I've seen it firsthand twice, very recently. So I did something to make sure the character could be true to the basics that Tim Zahn gave her, without having to worry that I was going to screw up the specifics, because the specifics would be changed necessarily by her condition. But generally, no, I do not like sharing characters. It's not something I try to make a habit of.
TFN: Do you feel it limits your control or freedom as an individual writer to have to pick up a story that's created...[by] others or leave it at point where someone else can take it in a different direction?
RAS: No, I don't feel that at all because I feel the writer will bring a certain amount of creativity to every project he or she works on and that creative energy will be channeled in many different ways. Some will be in the creation of plot...[or] original characters. Others will be in... certain things that happen throughout the story and it's not that, as much as I honestly I believe that characters are the most personal part of writing...I don't think that any author can get it quite the same. Nobody can write Mara Jade like Tim Zahn. Period. Nobody can write Mara Jade like Mike Stackpole. Nobody can write Mara Jade like Bob Salvatore. And I'm in no way making any qualitative judgments here. You simply can't write characters the same as the person before you wrote them, or the person after you will write them. It's too personal, and the way you can get around that is devices. You can have someone throwing off smart remarks all the time. [Such as]... "I got a bad feeling about this." Oh, that's Han. ...[However] that doesn't get to the essence of Han. That's a cliche attached to Han. It's a very big difference.
TFN: Do you think that working in a shared universe the whole product is segmented, or that it's all of the different elements put together?
RAS: It's all of the different elements put together, and if you can't read a shared universe that includes shared characters with an open mind about how each author is going to handle those characters - unless the author does something egregious, something completely out of character, you have to have an open mind about everything else - if you can't do that, then you're reading the wrong books. You should be reading standalone novels, or singular author series.
I'll give you a perfect example of this. How do you respond to the criticism if you're me? ...Someone says you've got the Luke and Mara Jade thing completely wrong, and then the next person says "I love the way you handled Luke and Mara Jade together." How do you reconcile that if you're the author? How do you get a feel for what's really being said here? You got one person saying "I didn't like the Luke and Mara Jade thing. There wasn't enough touching. There wasn't enough kissing. There wasn't enough honeymoon stuff. They're newlyweds." ...Then you got someone else saying "I love the way you handled that, Mara pulling back from Luke because of her condition. Shows how strong and independent she really is." ...These diametrically opposed critiques come rolling in, one after the other, [and] with Star Wars, [it's] more than I've ever seen. It's like everybody wants to tell me what they liked or didn't like about the book, which is enough to make you crazy (laughs). [What]... if someone writes a one star review? Someone writes me a letter, and this has happened... [I received] a five page letter telling me why this book was an utter piece of crap...Then I go to THEFORCE.NET and read your four-star out of four-star review, and I read Scott's four-star out of four-star review, [so] who do I believe?
TFN: To some degree, we're all correct...because it's such a subjective experience, reading something...
RAS: Exactly. But [this is true even] if you're going to read in shared world, especially Star Wars, which is so big, and at the same time, [while] it's a galaxy in size...the core group of characters are always there. If you're going to read something like that and not be open-minded about how different authors are going to treat characters and the situations, then you're reading the wrong material...The only way that it could not be like that would be if Del Rey had called up Tim Zahn or Mike Stackpole or Kevin Anderson or Barbara Hambly or Aaron Allston or A.C. Crispin or Bob Salvatore or Terry Brooks and said we want you to write all twenty-five books for our NEW JEDI ORDER. And you know what? They would have never, ever gotten a taker, because any author that has been doing this for that long knows that by about book 5, they would be ready to either retire or kill themselves.
TFN: Then it's very surprising Mike has written as much of it as he has...It seems to me as a writer and as someone who is involved in a creative enterprise, you would want change...you would want to be doing something different.
RAS: Of course.
TFN: I know that's often said by actors, that they want to do something different.
RAS: They have to do something different. I went back and started writing DARK ELF books again. I had written ten, and then due to some problems between me and TSR, I broke away from them and wasn't going to write any more DARK ELF books, and creatively, that was fine for me, because I had taken this character through ten novels. How many ways can you describe whirling scimitars? ...When Wizards of the Coast bought TSR, they wanted me back, and what I needed more than money, more than anything else, was their ok to take chances. [I wanted to] go in different directions with some of the other characters around the Dark Elf, instead of just featuring him,...putting him through the same kind of rubber stamp adventure...It wasn't until I got that kind of creative agreement with them that I agreed to come back and do Dark Elf. The new DARK ELF books do not look like the old DARK ELF books in a lot of ways. Some of it is still there, but there are other things that are very different. Also, the books I'm writing for Del Rey, my DEMON WARS series, are very different from any thing I've ever done before. The writing style is the same. It has to be. That's how I write. But the way I approach things, in terms of maturity level has changed.
TFN: You're known primarily as a fantasy writer...
RAS: That's what I am.
TFN: ...in terms of genre. How did that influence your writing within Star Wars?
RAS: It didn't influence it at all...Again, back to the Forums - "They should never get a fantasy writer to write Star Wars." OK, Mike [Stackpole] throw your books away. I've heard...[Star Wars] described as space opera, I've heard it described as science fiction. I've heard it described as fantasy. It's epic adventure, which is the domain of fantasy more than any of the above. And I know we're getting into a time where we're explaining the Force scientifically, with the midichlorians, and I'm not really crazy about having the Force scientifically explained.
TFN: (Helen groans.)
RAS: There you go...I hope they're listening, because to me the Force is magic, and to me, magic is spirituality...I think the allure of fantasy books, more than anything else, is the fact that we have something science can't explain. We do not have scientific formulas attached to a wizard casting a lightning bolt, or plane shifting to another plane of existence. We do not have scientific formulas in Star Wars for example, on making the jump to light speed...There is no scientific explanation that will carry any weight with me to explain...why Ben Kenobi knew when Alderaan was blown apart.
TFN: Why do you think magic, the Force, these spiritual elements, are so important?
RAS: ...We live in a world where science can explain everything, or thinks it can. I was thinking of writing a horror novel once, and that horror novel would be science explaining beyond any doubt, and proving beyond any doubt, that death was the end, that there could be no afterlife. I can't think of anything more horrible than that as a human being. To me that is the ultimate insult, being a rational, thinking creature that knows it's fate, physically...It makes life a big joke.
TFN: So what do you think is out there, after death?
RAS: ...I'm not going to get into what I think personally. [However]...I would never be able to survive with a smile on my face, if I believed [and] if I was told by scientists...if they showed me that when my brother died a month ago that was it, there was no existence that was him anymore. I couldn't live like that. I wouldn't want to live like that. I don't think human beings want to live like that. To me an atheist is someone crying out for people to prove him wrong. Like that guy, The Amazing Randi, who goes around offering a million dollars to anyone who can do something science can't explain, the whole parapsychology thing. "If you can do something that can't be explained by science, I'll give you a million dollars," he says. And he will. He's got the check to back it up...He's on TV all the time saying that no one's been able to do it yet. This guy is screaming. This guy wants nothing more than to give that million dollars away, because when he gives that million dollars away, then he knows there might be something after death...That's what magic does in fantasy, and that's what the Force does in Star Wars. Science Fiction does not do that. That is not the domain of science fiction, usually...I think [Arthur C.] Clarke [in] 2001, at the ending of that, kind of blended the whole mystical side of science...I think right now we're trying to get to the point where science and religion, instead of butting heads all the time, can come together in a more beautiful co-existence. But where I grew up, the age of Apollo, science was giving very definite answers, and many of those answers (at the time) seemed to be demeaning and minimalizing - me...I do not believe that human beings can really be alive and happy and hopeful and looking forward without of some element of spirituality and faith. That's the Force of Star Wars. That's the magic in fantasy.
TFN: Wow. I'm brought back to thinking of Carl Sagan's CONTACT - I'm not talking about the movie, but the book version - I don't know if you're familiar with it or if you've read it...
RAS: I'm familiar with the movie. I haven't read the book. I've read COSMOS.
TFN: Even though CONTACT is a work of fiction, the main character, the Eleanor Arroway...uses science to prove faith...
RAS: Yup. An enormously appealing idea, don't you agree?
TFN: Oh, I'm trained as a statistician...
RAS: There you go.
TFN: ...and in the novel version, she finds proof that these [statistical and] mathematical laws hold, [such] that there is no coincidence....That's her sign of faith, and her whole search for extraterrestrial life is her search for faith.
RAS: I think it is for a lot of people. Do you remember the astronauts...
RAS: ...getting asked the question "Did you see God," in the early days of the space program? Do you remember Ronald Reagan's comments after Challenger?
RAS: "They touched the face of God." [It's] an incredibly human thing.
TFN: CONTACT actually is one of my very favorite books, and it's definitely something that will always be on my bookshelf.
TFN: How did you get your start as a writer?
RAS: ...I was a math and [computer] science major when I started college. Christmas of 1977 my sister gave me a copy of THE HOBBIT and THE LORD OF THE RINGS...In February of 78 we had this huge blizzard up here in New England that shut everything down for a week and I went away on this magical journey with a Hobbit named Bilbo to the land of Middle Earth...[I] fell in love all of a sudden with reading...I went back and switched my major to communications media instead of math [and] computer science. That allowed me to take many more literature courses, and for the first time in my life, I began to appreciate literature and I learned how to truly read a novel. I didn't really know how to read. I knew how to read the words and the sentences, but I didn't know how to reach deeper and pull meaning out of things until I was in college. I had some excellent professors in college that taught me how to appreciate Joyce, Shakespeare, Chaucer, Dante, Mark Twain. But I always loved fantasy. I got a degree as a technical writer. I got out of school and I thought I was going to do very well. I had done really well in school, graduated summa cum laude...[I] thought I as going to go out there and get this huge paying job, and my career would be set. It didn't work out like that. I wound up worked in a plastics factory by day at a fairly mindless job and working as a bouncer at night in local nightclubs. My girlfriend at the time, now my wife...saw my frustration, and said "Why don't you write that book you were talking about writing?" because my love of fantasy had resulted in me running out of things to read. There weren't that many fantasy books back in the late 70's, early 80's.
...So I did. I took a short story I had written in High School, about the only thing I had written in High School that I considered any good, and I turned it into a novel. Then I spent 5 years perfecting that novel and going through the rejection process. When I submitted it to TSR in 1987 they really liked it but said they could only take FORGOTTEN REALMS books...[They] asked me to audition for the second FORGOTTEN REALMS novel...I honestly believe it was more luck than anything else at that point because what had happened was most of the TSR writers were in-house people...Doug Niles had written the first FORGOTTEN REALMS novel, but all the other in-house people were scrambling to do DRAGONLANCE novels because DRAGONLANCE at the time was just huge, and no one knew how big FORGOTTEN REALMS would be. I just happened to land in the slush pile at the right time, when they needed a writer. Had I submitted my books to them two months before, they weren't really looking for the second FORGOTTEN REALMS book. Had I sent it to them two or three months later, when all the orders started coming in for...Doug Niles's book, I would have been competing against their established authors, so it was a huge amount of luck, timing, and I guess it was just fated to be.
TFN: What would you recommend, because you come from a fantasy background...to someone who's just picked up VECTOR PRIME and wants to see what else Bob Salvatore's got on the bookshelf? Where would you suggest they start?
RAS: I've got five different series out there, and they're all very different...They're all classic fantasy, but they're all somewhat different in tone from the others. I've got a lighthearted series in the SPEARWIELDER'S TALES, a kind of a fairy tale-ish [series]. I wrote it so I would have something to read to my kids...But really if I had to tell someone, I would say HOMELAND which begins (with) the DARK ELF works and the FORGOTTEN REALMS books chronologically...[HOMELAND is] one of my favorite books, or THE DEMON AWAKENS. I think my DEMON WARS series that I'm doing with Del Rey is [wonderful, but] right now I think I'm known for my DARK ELF more than anything else. He's my favorite character. He's the one you go play Everquest or Ultima or any of those online games you will undoubtedly encounter Drizzt Do'Urden. Play Balder's Gate - he's built into the game. He's the character I'm best known for. He's the one that's put me on the New York Times [Best seller List] several times. The series I hope I will be known for when all is said and done is DEMON WARS. [It is] my biggest, most ambitious [series] in scope and one I have complete control over. So I would say either HOMELAND or THE DEMON AWAKENS.