IN DEPTH: A Conversation with R. A. SALVATORE, author of STAR WARS: THE NEW JEDI ORDER: VECTOR PRIME.


DR: To say that your recent Star Wars novel, Vector Prime, met with a controversial reception would be something of an understatement. I understand you have even received death threats from fans outraged at the death of Han Solo's sidekick, the Wookiee Chewbacca. Were you prepared for this degree of hostility?

RAS: I have been surprised by the level of anger in some of the people. I haven't received any of the death threats personally, but they've been made, so I've been told. I have received many angry e-mails, and I've noticed a few curious things about the progression of that anger--it's like watching people going through a grieving process. One person, for example, wrote to me immediately, outraged and in complete shock. The guy was on the edge of absolute despair, it seemed to me. Then he wrote back a couple of weeks later, saying, basically, "Okay, I'm over it. I really liked the book."

DR: What, if anything, would you like to say to these people?

RAS: What can I say? It's a fictional character, and the people working for the creator of that character made a decision that it was time for him to go. That's the prerogative of the creator of the work--it has to be the decision of the creator, whether an author, as I've done in some of my own worlds, or, in this case, George Lucas. It is the province and the responsibility of the writer to play god in his work. Even something as popular as Star Wars has to answer to George Lucas alone, and not to a million fans.

DR: Should a writer be guided by the integrity of his or her vision and not consider the expectations and sensitivities of the audience?

RAS: Absolutely. You have to be aware of your audience--is this appropriate for a 12-year-old, for example--but a writer has a style that is his own, and a vision that must be followed. You cannot cater to a dozen, let alone a hundred, let alone a hundred-thousand, readers, each of whom bring their own expectations and demands. Doesn't work.

DR: Can you tell us a little bit about the process of writing Vector Prime? How did you become involved? Whose decision was it to feature the death of a major character . . . and how was Chewie chosen? What part did George Lucas play?

RAS: I was asked to write Vector Prime in August of last year. I initially balked at the idea, because, though I loved the movies, I hadn't been reading the novels. The publisher assured me not to worry about that, as they were looking for a fresh voice, a new beginning for the series rather than a mere continuation of what had gone before. They weren't planning to ignore much of what had gone before, but they had a bevy of editors ready to make sure that whatever I did fit in with previous works.

After I agreed to do the book, I was given a general outline of the story arc for the 20+ books of The New Jedi Order, along with a general idea of what they wanted the new threat to the galaxy to look like, and was instructed to take the information and put together an outline for a book that would set up the series. There were a few necessities, such as which characters had to be included (mostly those from the movies), the basics of the alien threat, and, oh yeah, the death of Chewbacca. Who made that last call? It came out of a meeting at Skywalker Ranch, I'm told, between the folks at the book publisher, Del Rey, the folks at Lucasfilm, and a couple of the previous Star Wars‘ authors.

I have no idea how involved George Lucas was in that decision. I doubt that it was his explicit decision to kill a character, but I'm pretty certain he gave his approval for the act and the particular character. Certainly my instructions on the issue were clear, coming from both Del Rey and Lucasfilm.

DR: You're known for best-selling fantasies like the Dark Elf novels featuring Drizzt do Urden and the Demon Wars series currently being published by Del Rey. What were some of the challenges you faced in switching from fantasy to science fiction?

RAS: I didn't see many challenges, because I still do not think of Star Wars as science fiction. To me, it's the classic heroic epic adventure, and that rings more of fantasy than of science fiction. Hence the swords--lightsabers--and the magic--the Force. If it was hard science fiction, I would have stayed away, because while I have a cursory knowledge of science (I studied physics a bit in college), I'm certainly not up to date on specifics in that area.

But Star Wars isn't, and never has been, about hard science. It's about lightsabers and making the jump to light speed, and the magic of the Force. It's about characters and character and hard choices, and making the right choice, despite the seemingly more difficult road ahead.

DR: I imagine it must have been frustrating at times to write within the constraints of a universe and characters not your own. What--aside from the money!--made it worthwhile? Would you do it again?

RAS: First of all, writing Star Wars was NEVER about the money. It was about stepping into what many consider the great American Myth and making a contribution to that wonderful story. Also, it was an opportunity to get my style and work in front of many readers who didn't know about R.A. Salvatore, and, since I'm hoping to keep my career going for many more years, that's a door I wanted to open wide.

Was it worthwhile? From a career point of view, I'd have to say yes, and working with Lucasfilm was a wonderful experience. The people out at the Ranch are professional and care very deeply about the integrity of Star Wars. Also, writing Vector Prime allowed me to work with Shelly Shapiro of Del Rey, one of the most respected (with good reason!) editors in the field, and a truly wonderful person. I knew that I could grow as a writer with Shelly, and I believe that I did. I'd work with her again any time.

But on Star Wars? I don't know. My biggest complaint about the publishing business at this time is that, since everything seems to have gone over to the publication of series instead of stand-alones, too many readers begin to proprietize the works. Star Wars has this problem--on steroids. It's almost impossible to please everyone in that audience, because many have their own opinion not only about how things should go, but how they HAVE TO go. If I had included everyone's favorite Star Wars character in the novel, the book would have read like an encyclopedia.

My first editor, Mary Kirchoff, and I were talking about this problem recently. It has become all-too-common in my Dark Elf series, which is now 12 books along. Her very wise advice was, "What the fans really want is their Drizzt-virginity back, and you can't give it to them." I see the same thing with Star Wars. Wouldn't it be wonderful if authors or directors could re-create that special moment of first exposure to this wonderful story? George Lucas gave them that with the original movies. Tim Zahn gave many of them that with his excellent first novel series, picking up where the movies left off.

It's very hard to get a handle on the feelings out there at this time. How does an author take the criticism, or the praise, seriously when someone yells about how horribly some characters were handled, and the very next letter/review squeals about how wonderfully those same characters were handled? Star Wars, because of its popularity and the love so many people have for it, has created a tough audience--and I don't mean that critically, but rather, emotionally.

DR: Star Wars is practically a religion for some people, and writing fiction about people’s religion can be dangerous--as Salman Rushdie discovered!

RAS: Interesting comparison, and absolutely frightening. Not because of any implications to me, not any fatwah or all of that nonsense. But I find it frightening that an enjoyable work of fiction could become so elevated in the minds of some.

DR: Did you always know you were going to be a writer? What writers and books influenced you? Tolkien, obviously. And the Dark Elf series seems to pay homage to Michael Moorcock's Elric saga. . . .

RAS: I never even suspected that I would be a professional writer until my freshman year of college. I didn't read very much, which I now regret, and only wrote when I had to for a class assignment, until my sister gave my a copy of Tolkien's Hobbit and Lord of the Rings for Christmas. Those books changed my life. I'd name my other influences as James Joyce, Chaucer, and Shakespeare, with a little Mark Twain and Terry Brooks thrown in. And yes, I do love Moorcock's Elric saga, but I don't think that had anything to do with the creation and development of Dark Elf.

DR: Your first published novel was The Crystal Shard. Did you publish short fiction prior to that, or have you always written novels?

RAS: The first thing I ever wrote was Echoes of the Fourth Magic. That novel got me an audition to do the second Forgotten Realms novel at TSR. I won the audition and wrote The Crystal Shard. Before that, and other than Echoes, the only things I wrote were newspaper articles and school papers.

DR: Tell us about Drizzt do Urden. What made him such a popular character?

RAS: I wish I knew--I'd bottle it and make my living selling the formula to other authors. He is the classic romantic hero: misunderstood, stoic, a bit of a philosopher, intelligent and purely deadly with the blade, but I really don't know why he has climbed so far above so many other characters. There's something intangible there, something I've come to recognize that I can't copy. I wish I knew.

DR: Do you plan to write more books in the Dark Elf series?

RAS: Absolutely, though Drizzt might not be in all of them. (He wasn't in the most recent, The Spine of the World.) I see the series as a challenge: how long can I keep it vibrant? When I went back to TSR, I agreed to start writing Dark Elf books again, but I demanded more creative control. I have to be free to take the series and the characters where I want, and right now, that means fleshing out those characters around the dark elf, his friends and his enemies.

DR: What sets the DemonWars series apart from the Dark Elf books? I don't mean merely in terms of setting and characters, but also in your aims and intentions as a writer?

RAS: DemonWars has a much bigger scope than Dark Elf. While Dark Elf is really a series of personal tales and trials, DemonWars is that, plus a more epic story that shapes the very world. I could never do that in the Realms because it is shared world. But I own Corona, and can grow it or trash it as I see fit. In terms of writing style and emotional impact, I think DemonWars was much more mature than Dark Elf, but I'm working hard to bring Dark Elf up to that emotional level. I think of DemonWars as my new home, but Dark Elf as my family that I can go and visit over and over again.

DR: Do you plot out exactly what's going to happen in your books, or do your characters surprise you?

RAS: I outline every book before writing it, from beginning to end. Nothing too detailed, just a general idea of where I think these characters would go through the story. I'm never bound by that outline, though, and inevitably the book takes on a life of its own. I am surprised as I write nearly as much as the reader will be. That's what makes it fun.

Obviously, I had less creative control in Vector Prime, because there were certain things that had to be set up for future books in The New Jedi Order series. I never felt manipulated or constrained though, as Del Rey and Lucasfilm allowed me to work the story around the events.

DR: Like Vector Prime, the most recent book in the DemonWars saga, The Demon Apostle, featured the death of a major character. Coincidence?

RAS: Actually, yes. I knew the ending of Demon Apostle long before I began to write it; I had the general story complete in my head for all three books of the first DemonWar. With Star Wars, though, the death was not in my plans. I never thought when I signed on to do a Star Wars book that they'd have me kill off a major character, mostly because I never believed that the publisher and Lucasfilm would have the courage to do it. As you can see, I support their decision wholeheartedly.

DR: Many people read fantasy in order to escape from the grim realities of life — death being foremost among them. By bringing death so centrally into your fantasies, are you robbing readers of a harmless escape? Or do you feel it's important to bring a certain harsh realism into fantasy — maybe especially into fantasy?

RAS: "Escapist" fantasy never meant escaping from the harsh realities of the world, but rather, inferred escaping to a time and place where an individual didn't necessarily feel powerless against some bureaucratic or institutional monstrosity. Most fantasy novels, and certainly mine, empower the individual, show clear choices between right and wrong, and make characters pay for wrong choices. Good almost always wins (always in mine), but that victory should not come without a cost. Because there really is a cost--the choice cannot be an easy one.

The first popular escapist fantasy in this current round of literature was, obviously, Tolkien's The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. Death visits those stories--indeed it does. Remember Boromir? Theoden? Heck, even at the end, Bilbo "goes away" to the west with the elves. Fantasy novels, I hope, will not become bland vanilla and utterly predictable happy happy tales. They can be much more than that; they can deal with real issues and real emotions--and death is the ultimate human drama. I'm well aware of the fact that many young people read my books. I don't want to preach to them, but neither will I be dishonest with them.

DR: How does magic work in your books? What are some of the things that aspiring fantasy writers should consider in building their worlds and magical systems?

RAS: Magic works in different ways in different series. For example, when writing a Forgotten Realms novel, which is set in a world belonging to TSR--a world designed for both games and novels--my use of magic has to conform, somewhat, to the rules of the AD&D game. That's one of the reasons I don't normally use a powerful wizard as a protagonist in that world. It's tough to write in accordance with game rules.

In DemonWars, magic is based on certain gemstones, collected by the monks and treated to retain their magical properties. Thus, in that world, magic has become the basis for the religious structure, as well. The monks call the gemstones the gifts of God. This is really just a continuation of what I've always thought was one of the major appeals of fantasy. Magic is, in many ways, akin to spirituality and mysticism and faith. We live in a world that's struggling with those questions now, a world where science claims the answers, and many of those answers could easily be (mis)interpreted as conclusive proof against the concept of God and an afterlife. Fantasy often involves things that cannot be explained, and people, I think, need a little of that in their lives. I know I do.

DR: Yet fantasies are frequently branded, especially here in the United States, as "unchristian" and "irreligious"--if not downright demonic--because of their use of magic. J.K. Rowlings’ Harry Potter books are only the most recent example.

RAS: That's the purest form of silliness I've ever seen--and, working with the Dungeons & Dragons company for so many years, I've seen a lot of it. The reality of it, in my opinion, is that fantasy is among the purest of genres concerning good vs. evil and particularly concerning faith. What is magic, if not faith? I firmly believe that many people are drawn to fantasy, and to Star Wars, for that matter, because they don't want to live in a world where science can "explain" everything. There's beauty in mystery, and more importantly, there's hope.

DR: Del Rey is in the process of releasing a revised version of your early fantasy series, Echoes of the Fourth Magic. What was it like to return to a project that you began when you were a much less experienced writer?

RAS: Echoes of the Fourth Magic wasn't really revised, just cleaned up a little bit. The sequel, The Witch's Daughter, which was just re-released this fall, had very, very little revision. What Del Rey is doing, however, is releasing the third book in the series, Bastion of Darkness, which I wrote a few years ago, but never published.

Incidentally, Echoes of the Fourth Magic was the first novel I ever wrote, back in September, 1982 through March, 1983. I wrote it in the wee hours of the morning, long hand, by candlelight, to Fleetwood Mac's "Tusk" album. Some great memories there! I'm thrilled that the book is back on the shelves. Returning to the series now brings me back nearly two decades. It's amazing how the years get away from you. My Dad was alive back then, and rooting me on--one of my biggest disappointments was that he didn't live long enough to see me published. Oh well, the books are very important to me.

DR: Do you still write long hand while listening to music?

RAS: Thanks for the laugh. I write on WordPerfect 7.0, on a very fast keyboard.

DR: In what ways are you a better writer today than when you were starting out?

RAS: Am I better writer today? I like to think so, but in truth, everything is a trade-off. I think that I was writing more definitive characters and situations back in the beginning. I was in my twenties and knew everything, after all. Now, so much has become more ambiguous in the writing--heroes have more flaws and villains have more redeeming qualities. I believe that makes the books stronger and more mature. I only hope that none of the sheer rollicking action has been lost.

Having said that, I will insist that The Demon Apostle, a recent book, is the best novel I've ever written (Homeland is a close second)--except that my editor and publisher will insist that it's the book coming out in June, 2000, the fourth DemonWar novel, Mortalis. I'm not sure about Mortalis. I wrote the book in a fog, in tremendous pain. I let that pain out onto the page. When I handed it in, I told my editor, "This is incredibly good or incredibly self-indulgent, and I'm too close to it to tell which." Given that the book went through with hardly a change, I think she felt it was the former. I hope the readers agree. Heck, I hope I agree when I re-read it, because, honestly, I remember next to nothing about it.

DR: Yet you kept writing despite all that.

RAS: Writing Mortalis was therapeutic. Publishing it will be painful, because it's a bit too personal. A writer gives a little bit of himself/herself away with each work. With Mortalis, I gave a lot.

DR: Are there plans to bring Drizzt do Urden or any of your other characters to the big screen or to television? If nothing else, the success of shows like Hercules and Xena has demonstrated that fantasies can thrive on TV . . . even though (remember Kull the Conqueror?) they seem to be almost invariably box office poison.

RAS: Fantasy movies have been box office poison because few of them have been written by fantasy authors who take the genre seriously. A fantasy movie has to be done more like Braveheart or The Messenger if it is a heavy morality tale, and more like The Princess Bride, my personal favorite, if it's meant to be lighthearted.

There are no plans for any Drizzt movie or DemonWar movie or TV series at this time. I know that Wizards of the Coast has done an excellent treatment of the Icewind Dale novels for screen adaptation, but I don't know where in the process we might be. I'd love to see it, though.

DR: The author photograph at the back of your books is rather unusual. You are holding a sword in front of your face, the edge of the blade not only dividing your face in two but casting one side in shadow while the other remains in light. First of all, is there a story behind that sword? And second, why that particular pose?

RAS: That picture was chosen among many for the book Faces of Fantasy, and Del Rey liked it a lot and started using it. The pose comes straight from a Jeff Easley (I think) painting, one of the best works I've ever seen. I wanted it so badly for one of my book covers, but alas, TSR used it for another book. I think it was called The Mask. The sword just allows the artist, in this case, the photographer, to do some great work with shadow. My only complaint is that the picture doesn't look right when shrunk down for a book jacket. That, and I don't have that hair anymore.

DR: Yes, I have that "complaint" myself . . .