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Patrick Rothfuss: The Mercury Interview

Regarding Stories, Fantasy Literature, and the Pathetic Frailty of Modern Bookbinding Technology

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A WEEK OR TWO AGO, I interviewed author Patrick Rothfuss about his new book, A Wise Man's Fear. Weighing in at 994 pages and 152 chapters, it's second novel in The Kingkiller Chronicle, the three-book series Rothfuss began in 2007 with his acclaimed debut, The Name of the Wind. Unlike most fantasy novels, though, that bookshelf-busting page count of is a good thing—because in addition to being one of the most anticipated fantasy releases of the year, The Wise Man's Fear is a consistently thrilling read.

The shorter print version of the Rothfuss interview can be found here; below is a (mostly) complete transcript of our interview. Have at, obsessive fantasy fans!

MERCURY: Now that the book's finished, I imagine you've finally got some free time you haven't had for awhile.

ROTHFUSS: It's so nice! The whole "self-employed" thing is a real two-edged sword. And when you combine that with certain obsessive personality traits....

Like, for the last five months before my deadline, I would maybe work on my book for about 12 hours a day. And that's with it already in a pretty solid draft form! Other people can't do it this way. I just can't imagine anyone else doing this to themselves and doing it for 20 years. There has to be some other way.

There's gotta be an easier way! I don't know what it is, though. I can't help you with that.

Well, I know part of it is because I needed to push it so hard, because [the publisher's] deadline was solid because I missed [the book's] earlier deadlines. And for that first year after the book was published, I just simply wasn't very productive for all manner of reasons. So I was paying for that year this year.

That was actually one of the first things I wanted to ask you about—the timeline of putting this one together, especially following the first one. And, I guess, if there was pressure that you felt in terms of putting it out. 'Cause not only is it the sequel to the first book that a lot of people really loved, but also, a lot of those people have been... I wouldn't say "gnashing their teeth," but certainly letting you know that they've been waiting.

 Oh, "gnashing their teeth" is a fair judgment.

 I won't be so polite, then. They were gnashing their teeth, and I'm guessing that'll happen for book three as well. How does that affect you?

It was such a new experience that it did throw me for a loop. There's also the unfortunate truth that this was my first book, and if you're a one-hit-wonder....

Well, here's the thing. Anyone can get lucky once, but if you can do it twice, then that kind of starts to establish a pattern that proves that you can really do this professionally. And so there was a ton of pressure from that, in terms of the rest of my career as a writer. The second book was going to be the determining factor of how much of a career I was going to have, and what sort of career it would be. I was talking to Tim Powers fairly early on in the process, and I was really beating myself up because it didn't look like I was going to meet my deadline. And he said, "Well, y'know... I don't think I've ever made a deadline." He goes, "It's important to remember that your book might be late once, but if it sucks, it sucks forever." And that was reassuring to me. Once you let it out there, you don't get a do-over. That's the book that people will read for the rest of your life... or not read. 

How has knowing that they're waiting affected your interactions with your readers? 

Well, sometimes it's a real squeaky wheel issue. I'll post a blog, and there'll be a hundred comments on it, and one person gets kind of snarky, and it just takes a shit on my day. I can't even remember what my last count was... something like 10,000 pieces of fan mail that I've been sent. But I can quote verbatim the angry ones! Those are the ones that stick in my head!

It's true, I remember the sweet ones as well. But for some reason, they don't have the same visceral impact. I don't know what part of the human brain does that to us, but it's really unfortunate. I can read 10 flattering, sweet pieces of fan mail... and then one that's kind of snarky, and it puts me in an absolutely foul mood.

I'm getting better. Part of it is that I just need to learn how to deal with this level of interaction with my fans. And by and large, honestly, 99 percent of my interaction with them is just so lovely, and they are so considerate and intelligent and sweet and, generally speaking, when they're bitchy or when they're demanding, or when they're egocentric, I don't think they really realize they're doing it. It just comes down to the fact that they don't stop to think that when I hear something like that 100 times in a month, it really starts to wear a person down.

I imagine you had to acclimate to all of that pretty quickly, too, considering The Name of the Wind was your first book. 

In a lot of ways, yeah. I mean, the book didn't storm out completely huge from the get-go. But now that I look back on it, I realize that the publisher was backing it to an almost ridiculous degree... You would think [that] would feel good, but really it's just terrifying. If my publisher's like, "We're gonna hit the number one slot on the New York Times," it's kind of like the only place you have to go from there is failure! You can either hit number one, and then you're satisfied and everything else is a disappointment... that's not a happy place to be.

It has been kind of sudden in some ways, but in other ways, it's ramped up very slowly. I started a blog right before the book came out, and nobody really read it. And it's slowly gathered steam over the last three years and I think I get maybe six, seven, eight thousand hits a day now. Which is a little weird, considering that I only maybe post twice a week. But there's this group of people who are really enthusiastic about the book and it's very flattering and slightly disconcerting if I think about it too hard.

In some ways I was very lucky, because I got to experience cult fame in a microcosm. I wrote a humor column for the local paper for about 10 years, and there I was a big fish in a little pond, and I wrote something that was funny. And the college students read it and they enjoyed it, and since I'd written so long, some of them had never been in college at a time when it was not being published. So sometimes the pizza guy would show up and he'd say, "Are you the Pat Rothfuss?" So it was very useful. I got inoculated to this whole fame thing. I think that's helped me keep an even keel through all of this.

I suspect that one of the big reasons the books are so popular—at least, this is the case for me—is thanks to the structure of the narrative, which not only tosses aside that three-act structure, but it's also largely told in first-person. Do you think that's one of the big reasons it's picked up so much steam, and were those decisions you made at the outset?

Oh, I knew it was first-person from the outset. It just seemed like the natural was to tell the story, and really, it is the most natural way to tell a story. When you sit down with your friends, you say, "Guess what happened to me today?" That's the sort of story that we're most used to telling, and the sort of story that we're really most used to hearing. The whole third-person contrivance is kind of a weird adaptation, if you think of it, but it's kind of traditional at this point. And, really, it's not so rare as everyone thinks. There's been just a ton of really great books—fantasy and otherwise—that are done in first person. And I think it's a lot more personal. It can make a story a lot more accessible to a reader, a lot more emotionally engaging. There are the pitfalls to it [too]—you don't have the freedom you do in a third-person narrative. But if you have an interesting character that you're following around, then first-person is the way to go. Anyone who's ever read a memoir or an autobiography knows that's true.

Speaking of pitfalls, what's the stuff that gives you the hardest time with first-person?

 Well, I can only show things through [narrator] Kvothe's experience. So a lot of things that could be very easily contrived in the third-person narrative [I can't do]. For example, say I need to bring a little piece of information into this story. You see this done in movies all the time, where you're following the heroes for a while, and then it cuts away and you see the bad guys discussing things. Then you're like, "Oh no, now we know that the Empire can blow things up with a Death Star!" You can't do that in first-person.

You don't have that comic-book style shorthand of "Meanwhile...."

Yeah, that's exactly it. But in other ways, I've read a lot of books where people just go mad with that power and they have 15 point-of-view characters! Which you can do if you're extraordinarily skillful and delicate, but that's rare to have somebody that can really pull off 15 distinct point-of-view characters without things just becoming insane or muddy or confusing. And true, you have the opportunity to build dramatic tension with that "meanwhile...", but more often, I find that people end up ruining the dramatic tension, because if you can hop aside and see something from someone else's point of view, it can cater to an author's desire to over explain. And when you over explain, you destroy the subtle tension that can exist in a story. An author's job is to keep secrets. And you need to keep some things concealed, and they're easy to do that from a first person narrative.

I hate to use a term as clichéd as "journey," but with Kvothe, it seems like since the story unfolds through his perspective, it ends up being a more meaningful experience since you don't have all of that other stuff muddying it up. And also, if you're me, you're paranoid about how honest he's being the whole time. That's where my dramatic tension is coming from—I'm wondering how much I should trust this guy.

Exactly! You're absolutely right. This sort of story... this is the story of his life, and so he's uniquely qualified to tell it. Other stories... you couldn't do, maybe, The Lord of the Rings [this way]. That's the story of a series of events.

Yeah—a series of events happening 4,000 miles apart from each other.

Yeah. That's the story of a pivotal time in the history of the world, whereas this story is mostly the story of a man and his life, and he learns a lot about the world, and then there are things going on—but the focus is different. So first-person suits that much better.

 Another thing that pops to me about these books is... well, I'll be honest with you. I mean this as a compliment. I don't read a huge amount of fantasy. I've read Tolkien and very much like him, I've read George R. R. Martin and enjoy him for the most part, but I've tried a lot of other fantasy and lot of it feels... clichéd to me. The fantasy, the hero on a quest, the same narrative I've seen before. These books don't feel like that—they feel like it's one man's life, and it's unfolding and unexpected in weirdly personal ways. Were you writing these books in any sort of reaction to standard fantasy?

Oh, absolutely, 100 percent yes—and I take that as a great compliment, because I grew up reading fantasy. I read a novel a day through most of my young adult life--two if they were short, or I was bored. And when you're 14, that's fine because you're not terribly discriminating. If a story has some action and something cool blows up, then you're pleased as punch.

At that age, everything is the best thing you've ever read.

Exactly! And then you read 2,000 fantasy novels and sci-fi as well. And then I went to college, [and] my reading time diminished, and I had to read other stuff. I was being forced to read it in class. And "forced" is kind of harsh. I was taking these classes because I was interested—but then I read Shakespeare, and I read Chaucer, and I read the poets of the Harlem Renaissance, and I read just a bunch of stuff. Then I thought that some of the fantasy, sort of lost a little of its luster—partly because I was seeing some things done very well in these classes, and partly because it was a lot of the books in the genre felt very same-y to me.

The other key piece is that I had my high-school fantasy novel [I'd written] that I was clinging to with a desperate love. And it was brought to my attention that it was really, really pretty cliché and awful, and that broke my heart when I realized it was true, and then I abandoned it and left it alone for a while. I realized it was unsalvageable, but when I next went around to trying [to write] a book—and it took me years to think along those directions—I thought, "Okay, I'm going to write a fantasy novel, but it's not going to have all of that same... I'm not going to make that same mistake again; I'm not going to make this a copy of a copy; I'm not going to try to do all of the things that I have read in those D&D novels; I'm not going to try and do all of those things that all of the authors that were copying Tolkien did." And I thought very specifically about the things that I did not want to do.

These books also feel much more personal than most fantasy I've read. It's frequently described as a bunch of things, but, at least partially, as autobiography. I remember reading you spent nine years as an undergrad, which I imagine affected some of the book's university-set elements a bit.

Actually, not at all. Everyone assumes that. It's a reasonable assumption, but when I say "autobiographical," I refer to Kvothe's autobiography, not mine. We've all read those books that are so personal they're just uncomfortable.

The ones where you want to tell the author, "Hey, can you give me a little space, please?"

 Exactly! It's like "Whoa! You're doing the author equivalent of sharing too much on the first date!" Sometimes those books reek of a desperate need to be loved or something. But, no, I really didn't base the university on my university at all. Or Kvothe's experiences on my experiences at all, or the teachers off the teachers. It's a reasonable assumption, and a lot of people make it, but it's just not true.

[Though] I can think of the pieces that are the same... The shape of the university's archives is kind of like the shape of our library.

As in, it's vaguely square?

It's vaguely square! It's square and it's a big building! It is a building and there are books in there!

One of the professors in the book, I think of him as looking like one of my favorite professors. But he's not really even described, physically, very much. I mean, you could say that I pulled a little bit from my experiences, scraping to make ends meet. Yeah, I've been a poor student for a good, long while, but I didn't pull any specific experiences from that. It's a reasonable assumption, but it doesn't bear out. Most of it is spun from whole cloth.

You mentioned the archives, which is one of my favorite places in the books, so I do have to ask you where the inspiration for the archives' insane cataloging system came from.

Well, it just made sense to me. First off, we live in the age of the internet. We live in the age where communication and information are so extraordinarily easy to access that it's hard to imagine a world where information is hard to access. But the truth is that for the vast majority of all human existence, information has been very precious—if not specifically very hidden, then simply difficult to find. People go, "Oh, we have the Dewey decimal system, oh we have the Library of Congress' organizational numbers." [But] that's all very new tech within a hundred years.

And if you get someone that really cares about this sort of thing, who really wants to organize things well, I mean, how would you organize it from the ground up? With no computers and with, literally, a million books with no standardization? And, of course, you might have some labor on hand, but it strikes me as anyone who cares enough to devote their life to such an undertaking is going to be a little obsessive in their own personal ways. And so of course they're going to think that they have the best way of doing it. And you still have a bit of war between the Dewey decimal people and the Library of Congress people! There are still libraries that are Dewey decimal, even though most other people have gone away from that.

So you've clearly thought that through. It seems to me like the other cultural and technological systems in your books—music, stories, magic, all that—seem similarly thought-out, too. They're all based on connecting with people, and they all seem to have a weight to them, a history to them, in a way that isn't always present in genre literature.

That's very flattering, and that's a very interesting way to lump all of those together. I hadn't thought of it, but I think you're right. Yah, they are all orbiting around a central concept, maybe.

These things seem to matter in those books. They seem to have a solidity to them. What are your goals in terms of putting together these systems, and your philosophy behind thinking, "Okay, this is how magic is going to work, this is how this culture is going to work, these are how....

That is something that I do a lot of. I always make a real point of thinking things through to a ridiculous degree... mostly because it pleases me in some ways.

You get a kick out of it?

Well yeah, it's kind of like a hobby! But also because I do believe it gives a weight to the story... Too often you read a fantasy novel or a sci-fi novel... sci-fi tends to be a little bit better, in terms of where they say, "Okay, you have the world where gravity is three times stronger than Earth gravity." And then they figure out the permutations this would have on biology and a culture of this alien race or whatever. Fantasy, sometimes, fails to draw all of the reasonable conclusions, for whatever reason. Maybe it's not what the readers are looking for, so much, or because the authors think they don't have to do that work. But if you're going to have a million dragons living in the U.S., then you have to understand that it affects the ecology of the world. But that's just very basic stuff. You have to believe that it's influenced the psychology, the culture of the world. Not only that, it has to have influenced the history of the world itself. If there were a million dragons here in the U.S., the colonization would have been different.

Where do you draw the line, though? How deep do you go asking these questions?

There is no "too deep," in my opinion. I mean, it takes time, yes. It takes work, yes. But don't you hate it when you're watching a movie and there's this huge gaping hole in the plot? And you're like, "But, why don't they just talk to the police?" or, "But if this is a virus, then..." If you can ask this simple question, why didn't the author ask this question? Because that destroys this illusion we're creating.

[Maybe] illusion is the wrong word. I'm trying to tell you a story, and bring you along on an experience, and it should be immersive. That's what it ruins. It ruins the immersion into the story. It ruins the realness of this world and the realness of this story. It comes down to verisimilitude. You can't say, "Well, it's just magic!" That's an absolute bullshit excuse, because you need to be accountable for all of the permutations in your world.

You know how some people say there's hard sci-fi and there's soft sci-fi? I think there's hard fantasy and soft fantasy. And I write hard fantasy, where everything has a deep, logical underpinning. If there's a religion, I want it to be deeply enmeshed and interactive with the culture it's sprung from. And if there's magic, then that magic had better have a reasonable influence on the world. And if you are living in this old age where paper's expensive, then you better have a reason for that.

And if you don't acknowledge the importance of stories and oral communication in a world like that, then you really don't understand how people work. We're social creatures. We feed off stories. We propagate stories. And nowadays, we do that through the television, through the internet, through the radio. But back then, what you had was people hanging out and telling stories. And if you were lucky, you could go to the theater. But most people couldn't, so when the theater came to you, when the traveling players came through, when a singer came through, that was a huge deal. This was a person who could bring news. It was real entertainment—it wasn't Jeb playing his fiddle and you're so tired of the eight songs that he knows. It's almost impossible for us to think and to really understand what this sort of civilization was like, but you can't ever overemphasize the importance of stories in a culture. The culture is a story. People are, at their very heart, story creatures. I firmly believe that.

When you're talking about this sort of immersion, I imagine that's where a huge amount of your work goes in—both before you start writing and as you're writing. I imagine it also accounts for how big these books are. It matters for you to get this stuff in there.

Well, that's a big mistake that a lot of authors make. They assume that if they create it, they should put it in the book. But that's a big mistake, because really, nobody wants to read a history book. There's a reason nobody goes out and buys a fifth-grade sociology textbook and just reads it for fun. Sure, it has interesting facts about the culture and history, but god, who would inflict that on themselves?

I mean, if all I wanted to do was put information about the world in the book, the book would actually be much shorter. What I really want to do is show how people are exposed to information and show how people, in the world, interact with stories and go hunting for this information. One of the things that I realized early on is that this whole series is a story about stories. And I don't admit that publicly very often, because it sounds awful. You're like, "Hey, here's my book. It's a story about stories!" And it sounds terribly self-indulgent. But what made the book so long was actually the fact that, instead of a big chunk of exposition or narrative, in my book there's a lot of dialogue. Or in my book, there's not a lot of easy answers.

The other problem is, I realized when I started to look at the mechanics of this second book there's like 18 plot threads and like 27 various, different character arcs that I have to somehow juggle and bring to fruition in some meaningful way. It's insane! I never meant to get tangled up in this. This is not the sort of thing that you should ever do as your first project as a novelist. I have fond imaginings of what I'll do after the series is done. It would be so nice to just write a little story.

I was going to ask if you were going to go onto haikus after this.

Maybe a 100,000 words: plot, subplot, boy meets girl. It would be so easy to write something like that now. 

Is the plan for the third book to be of similar size to what the first two have been?

Well, it can't really be longer. That just physically can't be...

The binding can only be so strong!

Exactly! But, yeah, it'll be... there are a lot of loose ends to tie up. Well, not loose ends. They're exactly where I want them. But, yeah, it'll be a hefty book [and] it will be one book. This I know for sure.

In terms of a release date, are you gonna leave that open? It'll be done when it's done?

It'll be done when it's done. Part of the problem with the second book is that I was so sure I could do it in a year, because I was an idiot and I had no idea what was involved with being a professional writer. So, I said it would be a year, and then it wasn't. And so everyone was disappointed.

Peter S. Beagle's first book, The Last Unicorn, is a cornerstone for modern fantasy. And if you haven't read it, don't be scared off by the fact that there's a unicorn in it. I have to tell you, it is a gorgeous book. It's lyrical. He's got such gorgeous language and it's short and it's sweet and it's beautiful. And he, also, is telling a story about stories. And I recommend that book to anyone. And it's not a kid's book. But he wrote that book when he was like 20, and it was great, and it's been in print for the last 40 years. But the problem is that he can write another book and it can be crap and it doesn't matter. The Last Unicorn is always going to be there—perfect and untouchable.

But my story it different, because it's not a series, it's a multi-volume story. It's one big story [in] many books. And that means if I screw up book three, it retroactively goes back and it ruins these other two books, no matter how good they seemed by themselves. And that's where a huge piece of the pressure is.

So no pressure or anything. Don't fuck up!

Exactly! Now that I've got book two really where I want it, where I'm proud of it, I know I need to take a similar amount of care with book three, because a lot of people are really, really attached to it. And I want to give them something that's worthwhile.

Do you see that as an exciting prospect, or is it daunting, or is it both?

It's both.

How do you go into something like that?

Well, it's easier, because I already have it drafted out. I had the whole thing, the whole arc of the story drafted back in 2000. So, I know where it's going, I've written pretty much all of it.

I don't feel so much pressure because at this point I've really... I'm 10 times the writer that I was back in 2006. I know so much more about the craft. I've learned so much more about how to piece a story together. So I read the draft that I have... the reasonably solid draft of book three [that I have], and parts of it, it's almost like they just glow. I look at it and I'm like, "This is good. I know this needs to be left alone." And I look at another piece and I'm like, "Oh my god, how could I have ever made these mistakes?" Those mistakes, it's just like they're written in red ink to me now. So, yeah, it's a little daunting. I've got a bunch of work ahead of me, but I know I can do it. I didn't know that with book two—but now that I've done it twice, I think I can do it a third time.

If I'm remembering right, there's a Publisher's Weekly interview from 2007 that's on your site, wherein you said how you were planning on telling more stories in this particular world. But we were also just talking about how nice it would be to do something short after this third book is done. Do you see yourself doing new works and creating new worlds once you're done with the third book, or do you plan on sticking around this world for a while?

I plan on doing both. I like the world; I've put a lot of time and energy into it. Other people like the world, and so, in some ways, it would be kind of cruel of me to abandon it. But at the same time, I don't want to become that guy who only writes those books. I want the freedom to stroll around and do some other stuff if I get excited about a project. So I plan on doing both.

[In] what exact order? It probably matters in terms of what sounds best to me if after the third book. If I'm absolutely wrung out, maybe I'll take a little vacation into urban fantasy. Maybe I'll do some short stories. I've got a few short stories I'm writing in the world right now. I think it might be fun to maybe pull together some other writers who like the world and maybe have an anthology of stories set in my world. That's exciting and terrifying, because that means that people will have written things in my world that I have not. Which is kind of cool, but it's also a loss of control that I'm not familiar with. So, yeah, I do plan on sticking around. There will be more stories in this world. But I'm certainly not going to limit myself to that.

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