Mark interviews Patrick Rothfuss, author of The Kingkiller Chronicle Day 1: The Name of the Wind. His sequel, The Kingkiller Chronicle Day 2: A Wise Man’s Fear will be published in the future.
Mr Rothfuss won our first ever “Best Book of the Year” award (2007).
Mark: I think what I enjoyed most about The Name of the Wind is the lack of clichés and predictability. I loved that a certain mood would be set up, and in any Hollywood movie you’d expect the hero to start kicking butt or sleeping with the girl at those points, but then it veers off and the story just continues. To me it seems much more realistic and true to life. How did you keep your book realistic, in terms of the actions of characters and turns of the plot?
Patrick Rothfuss: The first thing, the key thing, really, is that you have to know what is predictable. You have to know what those worn-out tropes are so that you can avoid them and keep your own stories feeling realistic and fresh.
One day when I was watching it, I realized that every fight scene was the same. First, the good guy holds his own. Second, things get turned around and the good guy starts to get his ass handed to him. Then, right when the good guy is about to lose, he digs down deep, thrashes the baddies, and wins.
I think I was maybe eight or nine years old at the time. I remember watching the show and counting off the steps in my head. One… two…. three. Every time it was the same.
You can’t avoid these things unless you’re aware of them. Over the years they’ve become easy for me to spot because I think about stories all the time.
So, did you have a sort of mental list of things you really wanted to do or avoid in THE KINGKILLER CHRONICLE?
Um….Would you share some of them?
No prophecies. No goblin armies. Nobody trying to destroy the world. No elves with bows, dwarves with beards, spellbooks, or fireballs. No irritatingly stupid protagonist. No wise-cracking sidekick. No loyal animal companion. Just to name a few.
No fireballs?!!? Drat.
About your characters: I’ve read a lot of books where every character in the book seems to be based on the author’s single alter-ego. Thankfully, The Name of the Wind has many rich characters who possess their own personalities. How did you keep them in character? Did you create a kind of ‘character sheet’ for them with their foibles and whatnot all recorded? Or did you draw more from your own life experiences and interactions with real people?
I didn’t take elaborate notes on them or anything like that. And I didn’t base them on other people, with a very few notable exceptions.
Truth is, a lot of them are based on aspects of my personality. I know I shouldn’t say that, because it makes me seem like a hack. But it’s true. It helps that my personality is wildly frangible, I suppose.
Since most of the story is told from Kvothe’s viewpoint it’s in first person. Do you prefer writing in the first person, or was this a necessity based on the fact that you wanted Kvothe to narrate? I guess this is a ‘the chicken or the egg’ kind of question.
I’ve always enjoyed first person. I don’t know why so many people are scared of it. It’s the most natural storytelling form, really.
I don’t know if I “prefer” first person in terms of my writing. But I can certainly say that I’m used to it by now. I better be after writing about a million words of it.
I’d like to talk about Kvothe’s musicianship.
Okay. Talk away.
A friend of mine is an accomplished musician with a degree in music and she has toured the world with various ensembles. I have played and taught music for years. You fooled us both into thinking that you must be an incredible musician from the way that you describe the flow of music in Kvothe, not to mention his performances.
My point is: how the heck did you do it? Did you speak to musicians? Attend concerts for the sake of research? Read books on music? Or was it based on your own creative experiences as a writer?
What really surprises me is how tripped up people get about this particular issue. Don’t get me wrong, I’m flattered when people think I have to be a musician to write about music that way. But that’s just silly.
I mean, nobody comes up to me and says, “Wow, you do such a good job of explaining what it’s like to be starving on the streets of a pre-industrial city. I’m sorry you had to live through that.”
Similarly, nobody assumes I can do magic, even though I describe that in some pretty good detail as well. Why would I have to be a musician to write about music?
I’ve never been a traveling performer, a young girl, an old man, or a member of the nobility. I’ve never burned my hand on a hot coal, but I can guess what it’s like. I’m a writer. Guessing at things and then describing them in a realistic and believable way is what I do. That said, I’m proud to have fooled you.
You can’t do magic? Wait till I tell all my wizard friends.
OK, those were fair points. And, not to harp on the issue, but I still think it’s more difficult to fool people when it comes to music. For instance, magic is not as universally understood as music. You can pretty much say what you like and I’ll believe you, because it’s outside of my experience.
Also, you may not know what’s it’s like to be a young girl, but people share so many universal drives and experiences that there would be quite a few commonalities between young girls and, say, bearded authors. Plus, you’ve probably met a few young girls and have learned about their lives through observation.
You think it’s easier to guess at the mindset of an adolescent girl than a musician? Have you even met an adolescent girl?
It seems like what you’re really looking for is the trick to what I do. Like if I’d just surprised you by guessing your card is the three of spades. You want to know how I did it.
I could say, “Oh sure. I hang out with musicians. That’s how I figured it out.” It would be simple, like saying, “I saw the card reflected in the mirror behind you.”
But what I do doesn’t consist of tricks. I have techniques, sure. And method. And sometimes a little rationed madness. But there’s no trick.
It’s…. well… I guess you’d have to call it my art. If it were science I could just tell you all the particulars and you could follow it step-by-step and recreate the effect yourself.
Let’s take it out of the realm of music again. A couple months ago I had someone e-mail me who was really impressed by my accurate portrayal of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, which he had suffered in the past. He assumed that I’d experienced it myself to be able to put it in the book. Because, well, how else would I know what it was like?
But I hadn’t. I felt bad telling him that. But the truth is, I lie for a living. If my lies weren’t believable, I wouldn’t be very good at my job.
The heart of fiction is extrapolation. The heart of fantasy is unfettered extrapolation. It’s a dangerous game. There’s a thousand ways to miss your mark, and miss badly. But, personally, I’d rather have a glorious failure than a tepid success.
What about editing? Is there any particular process you use to keep your prose tight?
I tend to revise a lot. A lot. Like, maybe a hundred times. I’ve never met anyone who revises as much as I do. Honestly, I’ve never even heard of anyone who revises as much as me.
Each time I go through my book, I tighten and tweak things. Sometimes it’s on a big level, like adding or moving chapters. But every time I go through I’m working on the sentence-level language too. Trimming out unnecessary words. Clarifying potentially murky phrases. That sort of thing.
If only more authors did this! Do you actually enjoy the revision process or do you just look forward to the end result?
Just like anything, revisions can be a pleasure or a pain, depending on my mood. Mostly though, I enjoy doing things well. For me, this sort of revision is essential for a polished product. If I didn’t do it, my work would feel half-assed to me.
I know you’ve mentioned Terry Pratchett, Peter S. Beagle, and Neil Gaiman, among some others, as authors whose works you’ve enjoyed, but can you name any writers who are new to the scene who you admire?
I really like Jim Butcher, though he’s not really new, I suppose. Brandon Sanderson’s a hell of a writer too. I really enjoyed his MISTBORN series. I got a sneak peek at the third book that will be getting released in a couple months, and it didn’t disappoint.
I really liked Joe Abercrombie’s books, too. He’s another writer who doesn’t take you quite where you expected to go. Do you have any favourite authors outside of the fantasy and sci-fi genres?
Oh, the usual. Chaucer. Shakespeare. Cervantes. If you’re looking for something more modern. I have a real fondness for David Sedaris and Garrison Keillor too.
Heh. I bet that’s the first time those five have all been in the same paragraph together.
I live in Canada — do you think you’ll make it up here some time for a book tour?
Generally speaking, I’m kinda new to the whole convention/touring thing, and as a result, I mostly go to whatever places invite me. For example, I’m going to be at V-Con up in Vancouver this October. They asked me to be their Guest of Honor and I jumped on it. That will be my first ever Canadian Experience. I’m kinda excited.
I am. I’d been meaning to do it for some time, and my friend’s wedding gave me an excuse to actually go through with it.
Now that I’m thinking about it, I guess I’m a reverend now. “The Reverend Rothfuss.” Hmmm…. has a bit of a ring….
Ideally, I’d like to be Dr. Rev. Rothfuss. That sounds really cool. Unfortunately, I only have an Master’s degree, and Master Rev. Rothfuss lacks something.
I guess I’ll just stick to Pat for now. That’s what I’m comfortable with.