Interview: Patrick Rothfuss

Feb 23rd, 2011 | By | Category: CG Blog

by T.S. Brookhouse

I met Patrick Rothfuss at Daisho Con last November. He was very approachable; while some of the other guests were happy to do their panels and return to their rooms, Pat lingered. When my friend Chris asked him to join our group for dinner at Perkin’s, he accepted. Later, he and I sat in the Ramada’s lobby and shot the breeze for a couple hours.

Mr. Rothfuss leads a busy life, especially so over the last few months – as his blog will attest. He has been very busy with writing, a charity project (all proceeds going to Heifer International), preparing for a signing tour, and caring for his family. In the midst of all this, he found a little time to let me impose on his schedule just to hang out and chat over tea.

In one of our early conversations, Pat mused on writing high fantasy. Without quoting directly, the effect of what he said was this: high fantasy is two or three generations down from Tolkien’s The Lord of The Rings, which set a standard that has been imitated ever since. One of Rothfuss’s goals in writing The Kingkiller Chronicles was to deviate from that, and one of the key areas was how money is dealt with in the story. Tolkien never mentions money because, as a member of the upper class, discussing money was tacky. In The Name of The Wind, money is a huge factor in the story, and has critical effects on the plot.

With attention to detail like this, how could I not want to pick this man’s brain?

On my last visit, I mentioned my lovely CG editor had asked if he’d be willing to do a short interview.

Pat agreed.

Here are the results.

1) In any series, each book has a certain ‘feel’ to its story — either a shift in theme for each book, or a shift in focus for that arc of the story. How would you describe the difference in feel between The Name of The Wind and The Wise Man’s Fear?

The first book was the story of a young boy. The second book is the story of a young man. There’s a big difference between the two. In Name of the Wind, Kvothe was mostly trying to survive. In The Wise Man’s Fear, he’s more in control of his life, that means the story can focus more on exploration and discovery.

Another big difference is in the scope of the story. You see more of the world. You experience more of the culture. There’s more action. More sex. More violence.

2) In which ways have the events of your life shaped The Kingkiller Chronicles?

Care to narrow that down a bit? That’s sort of like saying, “So, you’re a man. How has that influenced your life?”

2a) Are there specific experiences in your life which are reflected in the story of The Kingkiller Chronicles?

Specific experiences? No. I’ve read books that do that sort of thing, and they’re usually awful. Stories where the author is obviously working out some of their personal issues rarely turn out well in my opinion.

Now the truth is, writing is a great way to deal with a lot of difficult emotional issues. It can be very therapeutic, but that’s best done in your journal, or on your blog if you’re an exhibitionist. Trying to put a bunch of *specific* stuff from your personal life into your story usually just isn’t appropriate unless you’re writing a memoir or a personal essay or something of the sort.

But do I use *general* experiences from my own life? Of course. That’s what being a writer is all about. It’s easier to write about heartbreak after you’ve had your heart broken. You have more material to draw from, you can extrapolate from your own experiences and make reasonable assumptions about how your characters would feel and act.

The key here is the extrapolation. If a girl named Jenny broke your heart and slept with your best friend, you shouldn’t try to map that experience directly into your story. You don’t want your main character to meet a girl named Genny who sleeps with his best friend. Odds are, you’re too emotionally tied up in that experience to do a good job integrating it into the story. Eight times of ten it will end up feeling maudlin and self-pitying. Or worse, the author will turn it into a revenge fantasy. Neither of those is good for the story.

Instead, you want to take what you know about the emotions involved, and use that to enrich your story. You want to incorporate the general experiences in your life, because those are appealing to a wide audience. Everyone knows about heartbreak. But the specific experiences you have are generally only appealing to you.

Again. I’m talking about fiction here. Not memoir.

3) When you sit down to write something new, do you have a method for dealing with a Blank Page?

I just had to come to grips with this two days ago when I sat down to write the introduction for the new Penny Arcade book. They wanted something between 1500-2000 words. That’s nothing to me. I can write that much before breakfast. I thought it would be easy…

But it wasn’t. I’m new to writing introductions, so I really didn’t know where to start. I put it off for a while. But that’s not a coping mechanism. That’s avoidance.

Eventually I went in and flailed around. I made a total mess of it. I wrote one beginning that didn’t work. Abandoned it. Then I wrote another beginning and it worked okay. It opened the door for me and I wrote a pretty good 1300 words.

The next day I went back in, deleted some stuff, fixed a few problems, and put a whole different beginning on the piece.

The secret is this. You don’t have to get it right the first time. Odds are you won’t get it right the first time. But that doesn’t matter. What you need to do is start writing so you can get your fuck-ups out of the way and get on to the good writing.

4) You have mentioned at con panels that writers block is a myth. Where does the myth stem from, and how does it surface in your own writing habits?

The myth stems from the belief that writing is some mystical process. That it’s magical. That it abides by its own set of rules different from all other forms of work, art, or play.

But that’s bullshit. Plumbers don’t get plumber’s block. Teachers don’t get teacher’s block. Soccer players don’t get soccer block. What makes writing different?

Nothing. The only difference is that writers feel they have a free pass to give up when writing is hard.

As for the second part of your question, asking how it surfaces in my writing habits is like saying. “So, you’ve said that Bigfoot doesn’t exist…. When’s the last time you saw him?”

When writing is hard, I grit my teeth and I do it anyway. Because it’s my job.

Or sometimes I don’t. Sometimes its hard and I quit and go home and play video games.

But let’s be clear. When that happens, it’s not because I’ve lost some mystical connection with my muse. It’s because I’m being a slacker. There’s nothing magical about that.

5) What are some examples of things you’ve put into (or left out of) The Kingkiller Chronicles to set it apart from the rest of the high fantasy genre?

Before I started writing, I made a list of all the things that I was really tired of seeing in fantasy novels. I wish I still had that list.

Let me see if I can remember what was on it…

Long bouts of tedious description/narration.

An evil wizard who is trying to enslave everyone or destroy the world.

Gods who are obviously just versions of Greek/Egyptian gods with their names changed.

The hero who is chosen by destiny to fulfill the prophecy because he is the one with the destiny foretold by prophecy.

The revenge-driven hero.

The reluctant hero.

Any character endlessly agonizing over some event in their past.

A villain who is supposed to be threatening, but who just flails ineffectually at the hero.

A villain who just taunts the hero endlessly but never does anything.

Elf with a bow. Dwarf with an axe.

Goblin Army.

“Good” and “Evil”

The list goes on and on….

6) You begin a signing tour in March to promote The Wise Man’s Fear.  What are you most looking forward to about this adventure?

I always enjoy meeting my readers. For me, that’s one of the best parts of being a writer. So much of the writing process is solitary, it’s almost isolationist. I spend months, years even, alone in a quiet room trying to get everything in the book just perfect. Some days I might not speak more than a couple sentences to another human being. That’s hard if you’re a social person.

When I do readings and signings it’s a different experience entirely. I get to talk with people, answer their questions, and generally just hang out and have a good time. At that point, I’ve done all the hard work, and I’m doing the equivalent of showing off my baby to people.

That said, I know some authors who aren’t comfortable in that setting. But I have a strong social element in my personality, and I enjoy public speaking. I was a teacher for a long time. I did improv comedy back in the day. That makes these public appearances a lot of fun for me. I think they’re fun for the fans, too.

7) Do you have any writing advice for aspiring authors?

The best advice is the simplest: Write.

The more you write, the more you’ll develop your craft. Nothing teaches more than experience.

Everyone gives that advice though. I’d like to add something to it: Think.

Just writing, just putting words down one after another…. It isn’t enough. You need to actually think about what you’re doing. You need to analyze your process. You need to look hard at the books you love and figure out why they work. How they work.

If you think your stuff is always brilliant, that’s a big problem. If you think your stuff always sucks, that’s no good either. You need achieve critical objectivity when evaluating your work. You need to be able to point at a part of your story and say, “This isn’t working right” then you need to try and figure out why….

Oh, and if I were you, I’d pick up one of those uninterruptible power supplies for your computer. Nothing sucks more than having an amazing six-hour writing jag, then having the power in your neighborhood flicker and your computer crashes.

You can get one for 80 bucks at Best Buy. Totally worth it.

Patrick’s Books can be found at Powell’s Books or at Amazon

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