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.
Can you also talk about your protagonist, Kvothe, in terms of what you were trying to do with the larger tradition of fantasy literature? Do you think Kvothe is a character we’re supposed to identify with, as readers?
I’m not good at describing the book. The book is sort of like a backstage story of the myth of the hero, because you’ve seen the heroic story, when the heroes are swashbuckling and killing the dragons. But you don’t see St. George afterwards, in a pub, because his family was killed. You see the action, not the person. Oedipus Rex, for example, you don’t see him living his regular life. You only see the dramatic moments. And that’s the difference between The Illiad and The Odyssey–the Illiad is like classic fantasy, with magic and gods and fighting. The Odyssey, in my opinion, is a much more interesting story, because it’s a guy trying to deal with his mistakes, and you get to see him a little bit behind the scenes. Imagine getting to see what he was like after the camera was turned off. He’s in bed with Penelope, or whatever. Or you see playing with his kids, or dealing with the day to day existence of running his little kingdom. That’s a different sort of story.
So why do you think it’s this way? Why do stories about heroes focus so little on their regular lives?
A lot of classic stories are like the tips of icebergs. You see this one interesting bit, but there’s a lot more interesting bits underneath that. That’s one of the reasons Lord of the Rings was really successful: you get clashing armies and huge high drama, and then Tolkien takes you inside Minas Tirith and you have these small scenes of regular people. Those are the most emotionally affecting parts. You get this big heroism, but then you get Sam and Frodo, and they’re occasionally big badass heroes, but most of the time they’re regular people doing something really hard, and they’re scared. That’s what makes the story so emotionally engaging. So Tolkien got it right, but when people followed in his footsteps they had the elves and the dwarves and the Apocalyptic storylines, but they misses out on the smaller, more intimate scenes.
You’ve talked a lot about fantasy authors you’ve loved reading (Tolkien being among them). But can you mention any fictional heroes that you’ve identified with? Are there any characters that you thought resembled you, and that you could really feel were like you?
I can emphasize with characters, but that’s one of the primary characteristics of, well, being a human–being able to emphasize. As authors, most–most–authors , our art is portraying the human condition. Trying to show you what it’s like to be somebody else, trying to make you feel for somebody else. That means you have to have a high degree of empathy. The myth of writer as, like, Asperger style misanthrope, or, like, the Jack Nickolson, as good as it gets–it just doesn’t work, because writers, in order to write good characters, need to understand people. You need to understand your audience. You need to have so much empathy you could almost encourage empathy in others. And people with a lot of empathy tend to be very gracious and kind examples of humanity. They’re not jittery hermit-ish freaks.
Which is not to say that can’t happen, but it’s just not the way of it. So I feel empathy for a lot of people and characters. In terms of identifying with them, I don’t do a lot of that. That’s a fine distinction. One is, I can imagine what it’s like to be you and feel emotional resonance for your situation, but identifying with is sort of like “you are like me.” There are a lot of characters I wish I were like, I’d love to be like Cyrano [de Bergerac] in some ways–proud and powerful and poetic. Or, say, Spiderman, or Emma Frost. They’re cool. But that’s not identifying.
Maybe, I don’t know if you know Wesley Crusher, for example. [I interjected at this point to say that Star Trekwas way before my days]. A lot of people had a problem with Crusher as a character–he was a young, really smart kid, and people said “ick, Wesley keeps saving the day.” But I identified with him, so I always really liked Wesley Crusher.
*nods* You talked yesterday in one of your panels about the difficulties you were having with finding a fitting beginning for The Name of the Wind. Kvothe, also, has a lot of trouble figuring out how to begin his story. Does his struggle to find a beginning to his tale in any way reflect your difficulties with deciding where to start?
Think about writing your own biography. Where do you start? A story is a complicated issue. It’s one thing to make up a story. If you’re trying to tell a series of events that actually happened, what do you include and do you not? What should be encompassed? What is part of the story? If you’re going to talk about your education–tell me the story of how you became educated. Where are you? Do you start in grade school, or what you learned on your own? Maybe you don’t consider your education starting until college, or dropping out. So, what is a story is not a simple question. Humans are kind of story-propagating creatures. If you think of how we spend our days, think of all the time you spend on entertainment. How much of your entertainment centers around stories? Most pieces of music tell stories. Even hanging out with your friends, you talk, you tell stories to each other. They’re all stories. We live in stories. And so the question “what is a story?” it’s sort of like saying “what is it like to be a person?” How do we think? It’s a big question, but not a lot of people don’t focus on it because they assume they know but they’re wrong.
So, can we hope for any more stories about Kvothe besides the one he’s telling us in The Kingkiller Chronicle? Is there a chance he might have more adventures after he’s done telling the story?
It’s a good question. No comment. To comment on that is to pollute every reader’s first experience of the story. Like, if I say “he dies at the end,” that colors your entire reading. Or if he doesn’t die at the end, that also colors your entire reading. If I say anything about where the story is going, it’ll ruin it, because that’s not part of the story. If I wanted you to know those things, I’d tell you in the story. So I’m really careful about what I tell people, by which I mean I never tell anyone anything about what is coming in the stories.
I don’t know if you know the Robert Frost poem “Good Fences Make Good Neighbors.” He has this line, “I wish you knew more without my having to tell you.” I have written this for you to read it, and if I wanted to say “p.s. the moral of the story is,” I would’ve written that into the book. But it’s a thing that stands on its own. And yes, we want to know about the author. But those things are part of the story. If you find out Shakespeare was a woman…so what? Hamlet is Hamlet.
I know a lot of authors, such as Tolkien, have pages and pages of world-building and create entire languages for their stories. Did you do anything like that? Is it all in your head, or do you make it up as you go? Did you actually make up the languages?
Tolkien was a linguist, so he made up whole languages. He understood how things like that worked so he was able to make a whole language. I don’t really. But I do have consistency and rudimentary grammar.
So would I be correct in deducing that “Kote” (the nickname Kvothe uses in the storie) means “disaster”? That’s what I got from a phrase in the book.
(with a smile) Possibly. I really meant the books to be read twice, because there’s a lot hidden in them. You can’t understand everything the first time around.
Well, that’s reassuring. It’ll give us something to do while we’re waiting for the next book, which doesn’t seem to be coming out anytime soon. (PR nods). By the way, is there any title you have in mind for the next book right now?
Not really. There’s no provisional title as of now.
So can you give us any hints as to whether we might expect more books? You’ve created a really elaborate world, would you like to write about it at some time in the past or in the future?
I don’t even need to know the past or future. There are parts Kvothe’s never seen, for example, Modeg. Kvothe never goes there. I wrote this world big enough to hold many stories.
And hopefully we’ll get many more stories from Mr. Rothfuss. If this interview didn’t make it evident, he’s an extremely clever, well-read (and also kind) person whose books will no doubt be a delight for readers for a long, long time.