The OF Blog: Interview with Patrick Rothfuss, Part I

Sunday, June 10, 2007

Interview with Patrick Rothfuss, Part I

I'm crossposting this over at wotmania:

Patrick Rothfuss is the author of The Name of the Wind, the first of a trilogy called The Kingkiller Chronicle detailing in (mostly) first-person narrative form the adventures and experiences of Kvothe - musician, magician, thief, assassin, and apparently an all-around legend-in-his-own-time badass. This novel, Rothfuss's first, is drawing quite a bit of acclaim from many parts of the blogosphere and spec fic websites. Pat was kind enough to agree to do a two-part interview with me (trust me, for full effect, two parts are needed for all of this). In the first part, we discuss briefly his background, reading fantasy while writing, how the story "reads," "worldbuilding," and tropes and sexism. But without further ado, since it's past 4 AM and I'm rambling, Part I:

Sometimes in order to understand a book, one has to know something about the author who wrote the book. What can you tell us about yourself, your background, and how it might relate to the creation of The Kingkiller Chronicle?

I don't think people need to know much about me to understand the book, or to enjoy it. The book stands by itself. Over the last several years, my life has been all about writing these books, but the books aren't about my life.

In the last couple of months people have come up to me, asking questions along the lines of, "Did you model the Masters at the University after your college professors?" I hate to tell them, "No" because it seems they really have their hearts set on it. I think they want the book to be based on something real because it feels real to them.

That said, I suppose it does help to know one piece of my background. I've been reading fantasy my whole life. That relates to the creation of the book. Because when I sat down to write it, I decided I wanted to do something a little different. The only ways you can avoid being cliché is by knowing your genre really well.

Fair enough, but you said something at the end that strikes me: knowing the genre. When you are writing, do you ever take a reading break and read within the genre, or are you much more likely to avoid reading genre fiction, as is the case of many other authors who have claimed a fear of having whatever they read then contaminate their works-in-progress?

While I understand the fear of contamination, as fears go I think it's a little silly. Do chefs not eat while they're creating new dishes? Of course not. Similarly I don't stop reading when I write. I'm a narratavore. If I don't get stories into me, I start to starve.

That said, I did read the complete works of sir Arthur Conan Doyle over the course of a week back in '96, and Kvothe turned into Sherlock Holmes for a chapter. It does happen. But it should be easy for a writer to spot and correct when it happens. That's no reason to stop reading....

Then again, I read really, really fast. I'll read a book under 400 pages in a day, provided it's interesting. So it's not like I'm immersing myself in someone else's text for weeks and weeks. The only reason I had that problem with Holmes was because I read ALL of Doyle at once. If I'd spaced him out with something else I probably would have been fine.

So, there really isn't anything lost-lasting to that adage that Borges adapted that said that when someone was quoting Shakespeare, he/she became Shakespeare? I thinking of 10,000 enraged monkeys right now typing away furiously to me, trying to refute me with a soliloquy.

You lost me.

I think it’s one of those metaphysical things best left to the imagination and out of an interview, le sigh. So moving on...

When I finished reading The Name of the Wind, I remarked that one of the strengths of the story to me was that it sounded more like someone telling a story rather than writing out a story. In writing the book, did you ever read parts of it aloud to get the pitch and tone 'just so,' or was there another technique that you used to craft the passages to be more "oral" in feel?

Reading aloud sounds like a good idea, but honestly, it doesn't work very well. Good dialogue in a book doesn't actually bear much resemblance to real-life dialogue. For example, if you've ever seen a word-for-word transcript of people talking, it doesn't read off the page very well. The trick is to make it *seem* like it's being spoken, not to make it speakable.

That said, there were some tricks (or you could call them techniques, I suppose) I used to make the story sound more spoken than written. Sentence fragments, for example. I used a lot of them because that's how people really think and talk. I used more casual language too, partly for the spoken effect, and partly because I didn't want the book to come off as dry and stiff.

One of the terms that I've heard bandied about, not just for The Name of the Wind but for a great many "secondary world" novels, is "worldbuilding." How would you define such a concept and how important of a role does it play in your stories?

Worldbuilding is key in good fantasy. Or at least it's the key to the sort of fantasy I enjoy reading. I want the world the book is set in to feel real. More than that, it should make sense. It should be internally consistent.

What do I mean by this? Well... if everyone in your world is riding a dragon, and dragons are carnivorous, then you better realize that that's going to have a huge effect on the industry and economy of your world. A horse can graze, a carnivorous animal can't. Similarly, if you've got a bronze age society, and you have a city with a million people in it. Well.... shit. You better have a really good explanation for me as to how they all find enough to eat every day.

It's like someone trying to build a house and never using a T-square. It'll keep the rain off, sure. But it's going to be ugly, and anyone who ever actually seen a nice house is going to know the difference.

Now for the second part. The key to good worldbuilding is leaving out most of what you create. You, as the author, had damn well better know the where all that dragon food comes from, but that doesn't mean that I, as a reader, want to read a five thousand word essay about you explaining it to me. I don't need to see the math, but I can tell by the details you provide whether or not you've thought these things through to their logical conclusions.

While I agree with what you said there, part of me, that smartass know-it-all grad student type, that part is puzzled by one thing related to this: Is worldbuilding fundamentally anything different from a super setting or local color, besides the author obviously having to have a world that isn't ours necessarily? Also, in your opinion, is it much easier or much harder to engage in a blank-slate sort of worldbuilding as opposed to having to work within the confines of established notions that in England, people speak English with different accents than those of Americans and that the food is reputed to be worse there?

Hold on, grad student?

*Pat goes to ask Uncle Internet a question or two*

Shit. I should have guessed. Academia has crudulated your God-given simplicity of expression, boy. Look at the size of that question. It's a hundred words long, and there are only two sentences. Sweet baby Jesus. You know what I could do with a hundred words?

What? Besides construct a world out of it? Then again, would epic academia be a fun, exciting, adventure-filled cathartic read, or would there something a bit too much on the human condition in it? Would there be an academic, if he or she were being interviewed about pedantic wordbuilding, who would dare quote the great Jack Nicholson and say, “you can’t handle the truth!" when it comes to epic clauses?

What? Epic clauses? Are we talking about Santa here? I dare you to either diagram that last sentence or re-write it using sentences with no more twenty words and one comma. I double dare you.

You’re on. As soon as I can figure out how to do that drawing/line symbol thingy here. My 5th grade teacher would be so proud of me! But I do know that “would there be an academic” is the beginning of a conditional if-(minus) then clause that contains multiple conditions in there, thus opening up the possibility for lots of epic clausal sequels. Or have I just been bullshitting too much here with too little rum to make it work?

Wow. Okay. You're taking the hard way out. I guess you're more attached to your commas than I thought.

In brief, worldbuilding is different than setting in my opinion. Setting is a room. A backdrop. It's scenery. But without good worldbuilding, you can't have realistic feeling scenery. You can't have cool, unique backdrops for your story.

Also, worldbuilding touches all aspects of your story. It touches plot and character as well. If you don't know the culture your character comes from, how can you know what he's really like? What god does he worship? How does he feel about other countries, races? How does that culture treat women? Do they have a strong ruling class? How does he feel about the government? Does he see a guinea pig as a pet, or as a food animal?

If you've build a good, solid world, you should know the answers to most of those questions. That means you know your characters on a much deeper level than you would if you just shrugged your way into a cookie cutter fantasy world.

Also, any realistically complicated world has problems. That means that you don't have to go scraping around for plot ideas. If your world is rich and complex, your story will complicate itself.

I never seem to take the easy way out But in all seriousness, this is a good answer. Moving on...

Looking at fiction writing of the past generation or so, what trends have you seen that may have influenced your writing? Besides the positive, what were some of the more negative trends or tropes that you wanted to avoid?

Unfortunately, a lot of fantasy is chock full of sexism and racism. A lot of authors don't even realize they're doing it, and a lot of readers don't know they're reading it. That's what makes it so scary in some cases. I've read some books where I find myself thinking, "When was this written? 1954?"

Over the last couple months I've received a lot of compliments about my female characters. Most of these are from women. When women say that they like your realistic, portrayal of women, that means something. That makes me proud.

I agree that there seems to be this underlying bent towards sexism and racism, mostly in ways to which the authors themselves appear to be blind, but it is curious to see a very real divide among male and female readers as to the likeability of characters such as Denna, for example. What do you think might be some of the characteristics of a Denna that might be unsettling to many (mostly male) readers?

Well, for one I think she's dangerously close to a real person. She's smart, speaks her mind, lives her own life, and doesn't take shit off anyone. That sort of woman terrifies a lot of men.

I half joking, but seriously, I haven't noticed a gender difference in who likes Denna and who doesn't. I know guys who love her, and women who find her off-putting. One guy wrote me to tell me that he had a bit of a crush on her. More than a bit, actually.

It used to bother me that not everyone felt the same way about Denna. Then I had an moment of clarity. I thought to myself. f I took a regular person and introduced her to a dozen different people, I get a dozen different reactions. The fact that people view Denna differently doesn't mean she's a bad character, it means she's a complex, real character.

Once I realized that, I stopped worrying.


Part II, to be posted a few days later, will get into favorite authors, fetishes and conventions, a certain tough hypothetical situation for the author, and monkey business. You will not want to miss this!


Anonymous said...

I feel like I should thank you for posting an interview with one of my favorite authors. So I am.

Matt said...

Really nice interview, my favourite author! Thanks.

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