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Books

The dark elf of Leominster

With 17 million books sold, fantasy author R.A. Salvatore is the state's best-selling author you've never heard of

Yoon S. Byun/Globe Staff

R.A. Salvatore seen in his Leominster home, a four-bedroom colonial about a quarter-mile from his high school.

If you’ve heard of the fantasy author R.A. Salvatore, you might expect his lair to be a faux-medieval fortress, complete with moat, turrets, and an impenetrable iron gate guarded by a stone dragon.

Yet the House of Salvatore is no castle. One of fantasy’s most popular authors - and one of Massachusetts’s best-selling scribes - lives in workaday Leominster, where he keeps the real world close at hand.

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“I think I’m a pretty well-kept secret,’’ Salvatore, 52, says with a mischievous smile.

Perhaps you’ve never heard of him (he’s no mainstream phenomenon like J.K. Rowling or George R.R. Martin), but within the niche of fantasy and gaming, R.A. Salvatore is plenty famous. His books have sold some 17 million copies, at the rate of around a million per year. They’ve been translated into a dozen-plus languages, and 24 have become New York Times bestsellers. He’s inked a deal with Wizards of the Coast (the maker of the fantasy role-playing game Dungeons & Dragons) to pen six more Forgotten Realms “Neverwinter’’ books; book 2 came out in October.

Meanwhile, his influence on the fantasy marketplace is spreading beyond books. His “dark elf’’ character Drizzt Do’Urden has become iconic, featured in graphic novels and a board game. He’s been tapped by video game companies. There’s even chatter about a movie.

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And yet, this author of dozens of swords-and-sorcery and science-fiction novels resides in a modest, four-bedroom colonial about a quarter-mile from his high school. The neighborhood where he grew up and once worked, the homes of his mother and two of his three grown children, and the cemetery where his father and brother are buried, are all within a short drive. He’d rather hang with his friends and family, and watch the Sox or Pats and coach his softball team than live some posh, sequestered life.

“Things don’t really impress me. Memories impress me,’’ Salvatore says with a hint of townie in his voice. “It’s not the toys, it’s the people.’’

A student of history

Painstakingly, over the last 25 years, Salvatore, a lifelong Central Massachusetts resident, has built a fantasy empire. And “R.A.’’ - which stands for “Robert Anthony’’; friends call him “Bob’’ - may not be able to eschew the spotlight forever.

“I tried to think of the people that were the best in the world at what they did,’’ Curt Schilling wrote in an e-mail, explaining why his Providence-based video game company, 38 Studios, partnered with Salvatore. The former Red Sox ace needed a detailed fantasy setting for two projects: A World of Warcraft-like online game currently called Project Copernicus (still in development), and a single-player game, called Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning (set to launch Feb. 7).

Schilling equated Salvatore with fantasy world-building “in a Tolkien sort of way.’’ Salvatore gave Amalur “meaning, story, lore and history,’’ said Schilling, “which in turn helps create immersion and believability.’’

It’s that realism that has propelled much of Salvatore’s success. He sees himself as a student of history. Though he writes fantasy, the parallels to society are clear.

“Bob makes you care about his heroes, and villains, and antiheroes,’’ says Ed Greenwood, a best-selling fantasy author, game designer, and creator of D&D’s Forgotten Realms. “I say all three because Bob’s characters are well-rounded, drifting amid shades of gray throughout their lives rather than being clear-cut, unswerving white knights or blackhearts.’’

While Salvatore made his fortune dreaming up realms where anything can happen, his real life has few fantasy trappings. OK, he does have a Jacuzzi, pool, and two Mercedes, one sporting vanity plates spelling “DRKELF’’ (“dark elf’’). Still, his man-cave/office, tucked above his two-bay garage, isn’t too outrageous, with its flat-screen TV, gaming table, bookshelves, and dark walls displaying swords, axes, and fantasy art.

“He’s done really well for himself, there’s no question, but he hasn’t changed,’’ says Jim Kelly, a longtime Leominster friend. “It’s great to see a guy with so much passion for where’s he’s come from.’’

‘Bit of an escape’

Salvatore has the Blizzard of ’78 to thank for his immersion into fantasy lit. Salvatore’s sister had given him a slip-case set of Tolkien novels. (He’d never heard of “The Hobbit’’ and “The Lord of the Rings.’’) Then the storm hit. On break from Fitchburg State, housebound for days, Salvatore put on his Fleetwood Mac albums and devoured the books.

“After all those years of school beating the love of reading right out of me, I [thought], ‘This is awesome,’ ’’ Salvatore remembers. “[Tolkien] just completely brought me back to that escapism, joy of it, and the fun of it.’’ Back at school, he changed his major to communications, and took as many literature electives as he could.

When he ran out of books to read, he tried his own hand at fiction.

“I kept threatening to write one and my girlfriend at the time, now my wife, said, ‘Write one.’ And I did. And I loved it. I loved the actual writing.’’

His big break came in 1987, when at age 28, he sold his first novel in the “Forgotten Realms’’ series, “The Crystal Shard.’’ Salvatore has since churned out 53 titles, one or two a year, mostly fantasy, but also for the Star Wars franchise.

When he’s not writing, Salvatore’s hanging with his pals. He hosts Sunday gaming nights. Some Dungeons & Dragons sessions end up being testing grounds for Salvatore’s work.

“I had my D&D group sitting right there,’’ he says, gesturing to the massive metal gaming table. “We weren’t playing, we were writing, creating the history of this world.’’

Some decry his work as “popcorn fantasy.’’ But to his mind, genre fiction can have as much power as Toni Morrison or Jonathan Franzen. His novels may not change the world, but they can change “little pieces’’ of the world, he says.

“Whether it’s a kid in high school who doesn’t have any friends and finds friends in my characters,’’ Salvatore says, “or a guy in Afghanistan, who’s trying to forget what he did that day, and trying not to think about what he’s gotta do tomorrow . . . I give them a little bit of an escape.’’

Fantasy speaks to us, he says, because in those worlds you can make a difference. “This little hobbit saves the world. The wizard kills the dragon and saves the town,’’ he says. “So many people connect to that character, it doesn’t matter if it’s an elf or a hobbit or a dwarf. It doesn’t matter. They’re human in their heart and soul.’’

Ethan Gilsdorf is the author of “Fantasy Freaks and Gaming Geeks.’’ Contact him at www.ethangilsdorf.com or Follow him on Twitter @ethanfreak.
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