Every once in a while, an author comes along who writes a fantasy story without elves, dwarves, and Middle Earth. An author who doesn’t pick Tolkien apart into little pieces and then reassemble those pieces into his own story, but instead makes his own building blocks. An author who knows how to tell a story. These days, that author is Patrick Rothfuss, whose debut novel (or third of a novel, as you will) The Name of the Wind I reviewed recently. I had a chance to sit down and chat with Mr. Rothfuss at the latest World Science Fiction Convention, where he gave me some intriguing insights into stories, storytelling, and the fantasy genre.
You said before that the story of The Kingkiller Chronicle was always the story of Kvothe. But where did the story of Kvothe–and this idea of telling a hero’s story from his own point of view–come from?
That’s the only really important question–where it came from.
Well, that’s good to hear. Usually authors are pretty adamant about not being asked where they get their ideas.
Authors hate that question because they have no idea. There’s an author, maybe Robert Silverberg, who said he gets his ideas in the same place as everyone, that there’s a warehouse in some town. A lot of people use that as a joke answer now. And a lot of times a funny answer feels much more satisfying than the truth. And in this case the truth is kind of boring. I know a bunch of stuff, and I made up a fake world and some events have to happen, some things just came to me, etc….it’s sort of like asking “how do you fix a car?”
Nevertheless, I’m going to prod and poke and ask about your writing process. You’ve talked a lot about how literature nowadays copies a lot from Tolkien, and that we need to move past that to doing something new. So what was your process for doing something new and moving away from what you’ve already seen so many times?PR:
It used to be that if you were writing drama, you were writing a tragedy, and I believe it was Aristotle who said that a tragedy is the story of “a man falling from a great height.” And if you think about it, that’s really the story of Oedipus Rex, which is one of the greatest tragedies. To be a great height, you have to be a king, so a lot of tragedies were about kings, or the nobility. But, eventually, people wised up to that and realized that every piece of drama doesn’t have to be about a king. Eventually people realized that stories could center around regular people and still be dramatic and tragic.
And fantasy has been doing the same thing for a while, where, starting with Tolkien–his story is very much the story of the Apocalypse. The world will end forever and be enslaved to evil–it’s a large-scale drama. He was following a lot of the Norse Eddas with a lot of epic events. And so everybody followed in Tolkien’s footsteps, so there’s always the end of the world and prophecies and armies clashing. It’s opera, in the style of Wagner’s Ring of the Niebelung. But you don’t have to have that to have an interesting story. You can have an interesting story about a person living an interesting life. And if it’s done well, that is just as engaging as the end of the world. A million people dying–we can’t process. One person, we can process.
I wanted to tell a different sort of fantasy story that hopefully still made people feel the way I felt when I read a lot of these fantasy stories when I was young. It’s not that I don’t like this classic Tolkien. I did. I grew up reading it, and clashing armies are interesting, and dragons are cool, if you do it right, but a lot of time people were doing it because that’s what everyone was doing, because that’s “fantasy.” It’s like, if you’ve ever played a video game called Skyrim–it’s a game in which you get to fight dragons. And killing the first dragon is cool. But by the time you get to killing the fortieth dragon, it’s really boring. That’s a huge storytelling problem. Just a dragon is not enough.