WFC 2012: Interview with Author Patrick Rothfuss

I was fortunate enough to be able to catch up with best-selling fantasy author Patrick Rothfuss for a short interview at the World Fantasy Convention in Toronto, Canada. Mr. Rothfuss is a relative newcomer to the world of speculative fiction, having published his first book, The Name of the Wind, in 2007. It is the first of a planned trilogy following a young performer named Kvothe in his quest to discover the truth behind the murder of his parents. It is told in a format in which an older Kvothe (calling himself ‘Kote’) recounts the now-legendary events of his life to a Chronicler of history. The reader is left to wonder how many of the extraordinary events described are exaggerations, and wherein the truth lies.

The Name of the Wind swiftly began gaining Rothfuss critical and popular acclaim in the field, rising to #1 on the New York Times Best Seller List as well as receiving the Quill Award and a mention in the Publisher’s Weekly Best Books of the Year List. The sequel The Wise Man’s Fear was released in 2011 and also debuted at the top of the NYT Best Seller List. He is currently working on the final book of the trilogy, tentatively titled The Doors of Stone, and is a college lecturer at the University of Wisconsin–Stevens Point.

OPEN THE FRIDGE:  Hello Patrick, thank you for joining me for this interview!  Let’s start with an easy question… How would you describe The Kingkiller Chronicles to our readers who may be unfamiliar with it?

PATRICK ROTHFUSS:  Oh… I don’t.  I never try to describe my own books.  At best you sound like a hopeless narcissist, and at worst it’s just a big mess.  I in particular suck at summarizing or trying to pitch my own books, to the point where it’s comical.  I never do it if there’s any way I can dodge out of it because it’s not even comically bad, it’s just BAD.

OTF:  (laughs)  There’s something to be said for comedy…

PR:  No, no… it’s like, you know how there are some movies that are so bad they’re good?  This isn’t one of those times.  Feel free to quote me on that. I’ll trust you to describe the book if you want to do that. You can’t be any worse at it than I am.  

OTF:  Fair enough.  Moving on… It’s common to see music and/or poetry in fantasy novels, but music plays a particularly significant role in The Kingkiller Chronicles.  Did making your main character, Kvothe, a musician present any unexpected challenges to you?

PR:  Not necessarily.  Whenever you’re creating a rounded-out character some things are gonna be tricky.  Creating a character at all is a tricky situation… but making him a musician was a treat all the way across.  If anything it’s trickier making somebody a magician, or a wizard, because at least you can do research into music.  You can get some hands-on experience with music, you can listen to music.  So no, it wasn’t particularly tricky for me at all.

Kvothe. Art by Kim Kincaid.

OTF:  Do you feel that making Kvothe a musician gave him a unique perspective on the world around him, something a more “traditional” hero (like a knight or a thief, for instance) would lack?

PR:  Yeah, that was always the intention.  You’ve got soldiers, and you’ve got wizards, you’ve got this whole cast of cliché fantasy characters.  You’ve got assassins and all of this, but how often do you run into a traveling performer who’s the central figure of a story?  If you think about it, these are really fascinating people.  They’re people who lived by performing.  Not movie stars, because movie stars can’t exist in the wild.  Movie stars only need to be pretty.  You know?  And that’s not an adaptable survival characteristic in the real world.  To survive traveling from town to town, you need to be witty, and charismatic, and cunning, and careful.  And that is what makes a hero.

OTF:  The fae in The Four Corners are very traditional.  They bear a lot of resemblances to the Seelie and Unseelie Courts in their reactions to iron and so forth, as well as other Scottish and Old English myths…

PR:  Scottish and Old English myths… No, I’m gonna go against you there.  I see where you’re coming from, but it’s like some people said to me “Oh, you were obviously heavily influenced by LeGuin’s Wizard of Earthsea,” because there’s naming in Wizard of Earthsea.  Now, I read it and I enjoyed it, but you’re actually making a fallacy of simplified cause.  Ursula LeGuin and I are stealing from much older sources. 

I think of faeries in the older sense of the word. I think the first actual usage of the word was in Beowulf. It refers to someone, you know… (drops voice into mysterious tone) “an he were fae” by which they mean, “As if he were fae.”

OTF:  “Other.”

PR:  Other, yes.  Strange. Not us. And so sure, there’s an iron thing… I love a lot of the old faerie tales.  I’ve read so many faerie tales and folk tales and stories about faeries, which are different from faerie tales.  I’ve drawn from many, many sources.  I can see comparisons to some of the Scottish or British faeries but I certainly wasn’t making an analog to those.  I think you see where I’m going.

OTF:  Is there one type of faerie story or myth, or one particular story, that you find most interesting; that you enjoy the most?

PR:  No, I really enjoy all of them.  I don’t read many short stories in all honesty, like modern short stories, but I went through a period of a couple of years where I read every faerie tale / folk tale collection I could get my hands on.  Like… hundreds and hundreds of folk tales.  I really like that sort of thing.

OTF:  In addition to the first two books of The Kingkiller Chronicles, you’ve published another book, The Adventures of the Princess and Mr. Whiffle. Did you find writing a children’s book to be easier or harder than an epic fantasy?

PR:  Have you read it?

OTF:  I have not yet, no.

PR:  It’s not a children’s book.

OTF:  It’s not?

PR:  We actually made a sticker to put on the front, “this sh** is not for kids.”  It is a picture book, yes.  It is not a children’s book.  Although… I have had a lot of children read it and like it.  It’s actually much closer to being an old-school classic faerie tale.  It’s a wolf in sheep’s clothing, is what it is. 

OTF:  Did you find it easier to write?

PR:  It was different.  Anytime you write in a different medium, it’s different.  In some ways it’s fun because it’s new, in some ways it’s hard because you’re having to learn a few new skills.

I did like the collaborative aspect of it. It was nice having someone else to share the work with. It gets tiring having to do all the heavy lifting yourself. 

[Interviewer’s note:  This book just went back into print.  If you buy it directly from the publisher here, a percentage of the proceeds go to the Worldbuilders charity, which we will discuss later in the interview.]

OTF:  What was the most difficult part of the transition between unknown author and New York Times best-selling author?

PR:  The demands on my time, the pressure.  It’s easy to write when it’s your hobby and it’s for fun.  It’s hard to write when you have over a quarter million people howling and clawing at you to give them something that they want.

OTF:  Fantasy as a genre has been gaining mainstream acceptance in the last few years, mainly due to the widespread successes of films, TV shows, and graphic novelizations.  If you had an unlimited budget and had to choose only one, which of the three – film, TV, or comic – would you like to see The KingKiller Chronicles adapted to?

PR:  TV.  If I controlled the budget?  Yeah.  Do I get to pick my writers and directors too?

OTF:  Absolutely.  Unlimited budget.

PR:  Yeah, then I’d pick TV.

OTF:  Game of Thrones-type thing?

PRFirefly, actually.  Ensemble cast. Joss Whedon directing. I would happily let him captain the ship.  If he wants to change elements of my story, I would trust him to make the changes for good reason; changes that would adapt my story to the medium.  Because Whedon gets TV.  He gets screenwriting.  He gets the visual representation.  I’d love to give advice, but I would trust him implicitly with the handling of my story if he wanted to do it.

OTF:  Three more, one of which is very easy.  This one… is not.  It’s a question regarding Literary Canon.  I’m certain you know this, but for the benefit of our readers who may not have had to sit through high-level literature courses, a canonical work is defined as “art which is influential and important to shaping Western Culture.”  Genre fiction (particularly fantasy) has long been snubbed by literary critics as not being “true” literature worthy of canon.  Do you feel that fantasy novels deserve to be at least considered for inclusion in the literary canon?  If so, which ones, and why?

PR:  That’s a big question.  It rests on certain assumptions which are not quite as iron-clad as they used to be maybe ten, twenty years ago. 

A lot of very smart academics have really raised the question as to whether or not the concept of canon is valid at all. Generally speaking, most of the genuinely intelligent people don’t take the hard line anymore. Literature on one side of the fence, popular fiction on the other side. The smart academics know that the literature of today was the populist fiction of back in the day. 

Also, the more historically savvy academics are realizing that if they plant their flag in the sand and say “here there be literature” then claim everything else is kind of pointless and stupid, they’re going to eventually drown to death in the drooling stupidity of their obsolescence. 

Because truthfully, there are stories being told today which are every bit as mythic, cunning, clever, witty and worthwhile as Shakespeare.  The stories told by Joss Whedon are among the finest of any storyteller in any medium ever.  Neil Gaiman has very firmly proven that you can tell a story about ghosts or faeries or strange happenings and have it be valued across many different cultures all over the world.

If I did believe in canon, what should be adopted into canon?  Effectively, you’re just asking me what my favorite books are, so that’s an easy question.  I think The Last Unicorn by Peter S. Beagle is possibly the finest book ever written.  A Midsummer Night’s Dream by William Shakespeare is one of the finest pieces of fantasy ever written.  Hamlet’s a good piece of fantasy too, it’s got a ghost in it, so that belongs to us. It’s genre fiction.

OTF:  Out of curiosity, have you seen the graphic novelization of The Last Unicorn yet?

PR:  Absolutely, it’s gorgeously done.  Peter worked very closely with them on it. 

OTF:  I had the opportunity to meet him at a convention recently, he’s a wonderful man.

PR:  Definitely, he’s delightful.  He has such a wealth of stories, he’s been doing this a long time.

OTF:  Alright, that question was pretty heavy.  Here’s a lighter one.  Which is your favorite incarnation of the Doctor [from Doctor Who], and why?

PR:  You know, I have a bit of an attachment to Tom Baker [the fourth Doctor] because when I was growing up, that’s the Doctor I watched with my mom.  She knit me a Doctor Who scarf back in the day that I wore all the time.

I’ve fallen behind on the modern series, I’m at least two seasons behind.  While I liked David Tennant – he’s charming – when I went back and re-watched the first new season, with the actor whose name I can’t remember…

OTF:  Christopher Eccleston?

PR:  Yes.  He… was an actor.  Tennant was charming, I liked Tennant… but sorry Tennant, he’s not the actor that Eccleston was.  And you know what else I liked about him?  He wasn’t pretty.  You know?  He’s charismatic, and a great actor. “FanTAStic!

OTF:  (laughs)

PR:  He’s great.  And you know… I love the fact that Doctor Who is not necessarily Hollywood eye candy, because… screw that.  Which is not to say that we don’t all enjoy looking at pretty people, but you can’t always regenerate into an A+, can you?

OTF:  (Laughs)  Very true.  Alright, so, last question.  I’d like to end this interview by talking about one of the coolest things about you, other than your beard.

PR:  (laughs)

OTF:  Since the inception of your Worldbuilders charity, you’ve raised… what is it, over $600,000?

PR:  Over a million.

OTF:  Over a million dollars for Heifer International.  Care to tell us a little about the charity drive, and how it works?

PR:  Very simply said, people donate books: authors, publishers, collectors, book stores.  They donate books and we use those as donation incentives to encourage geeks of all creeds and nations to come in and donate to Heifer International. If you donate ten dollars you have a chance of winning one of these books. You donate twenty dollars, you get two chances. And so on.

These aren’t just garage-sale paperbacks, either. Some of the books are gorgeous, rare things. We’ve got books signed by authors. Out of print stuff. A slip-cased, numbered, limited edition ARC of Stardust signed by Neil Gaiman. A book that’s worth literally three or four thousand dollars. You could win that too. 

In addition, we run auctions. We have editors and agents and authors who will read and critique your book. Win the auction, and we’ll give you feedback on it to the best of our professional ability.

Some authors are offering guest appearances in upcoming books.  So you win their auctions and you can have a guest appearance in Ernie Cline’s next new book. A little cameo appearance, or a character named after you.  I’m gonna be throwing one of those into the auction as well.  So if you want to show up in book three in maybe a slightly disguised fashion, you’ve got a shot.

Or, if you’d rather just buy something and have your money go to a good cause, we do that too. Somebody knit us a bunch of Jayne Cobb (from Firefly) hats, so we sell those in our store. We have a bunch of cool things people have made, and donated.

As inspired by Jim Butcher. Click for full image.

We’re also doing a literary fantasy pin-up calendar with a bunch of ridiculously big name authors in it. We’ve got George R. R. Martin, Neil Gaiman (pin-up), Terry Pratchett, Ray Bradbury, Charlaine Harris, Patricia Briggs, we’ve even got Peter S. Beagle (pin-up), who we’ve already talked about. There are pin-ups for each month based on one of their characters or as an homage to their collected works, and the art turned out gorgeous. All the money for that goes to Heifer International as well, and we’ll be selling that until the end of the year as part of the fundraiser.

OTF:  Fantastic!  Thank you so much for your time.

PR:  Thank you so much.

Thanks again for chatting with us, Patrick! We look forward to reading the upcoming conclusion of your trilogy. And, to our readers, be sure to check out everything on Worldbuilders to see how you can help.

Written by: Lyndsey Luther

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