Rob Bedord and I teamed up yet again for another interview, this time with the man who may have written what will be considered the best fantasy debut of the year, Patrick Rothfuss, author of The Name of the Wind. For more info about this title: Canada, USA, Europe.
I know the novel has showed up in various stores and that some online sellers have already shipped it, so you should be able to get your hands on it and see for yourself what the buzz is all about.
Meanwhile, here is your chance to get to know Rothfuss a little better.
- Without giving anything away, what can you tell us about your debut, THE NAME OF THE WIND?
That's a dangerous question. It's like going up to a new mother and saying, "So, how's the baby doing?" You know her eyes are going to glaze over and she's going to start bubbling over with excited mom news. "The baby did this. The baby said that...."
That's the sort of question you're asking me here. Are you sure you want to go down that road? If you're not careful, I might start pulling photos out of my wallet....
- Perhaps you could just give a spoiler-free synopsis of the novel? Something potential readers could read and be intrigued...
To tell you the truth, I can't summarize my book to save my life. I really, really suck at it. That particular deficiency is probably why I had so much trouble getting an agent back in the day.
If people want to read intriguing synopses, they can go check out what the reviewers and other authors have said about it. They do a better job than I can. I'm just not wired for it.
- What can readers expect from the two sequels and the trilogy that will follow this one?
Well.... I've already written them. So you won't have to wait forever for them to come out. They'll be released on a regular schedule. One per year.
You can also expect the second book to be written with the same degree of care and detail as this first one. You know the sophomore slump? When a writer's second novel is weaker because they're suddenly forced to write under deadline? I don't have to worry about that because my next two novels are already good to go.
- Any tentative titles at this juncture?
I'm thinking of "The Wise Man's Fear" for book two, and "The Doors of Stone" for book three. That's pure speculation, mind you. Things change, and if something better gets suggested, we'll go with that.
- THE NAME OF THE WIND being your debut, can you tell us a little bit more about the road that you followed to see this manuscript published? I know that it was Kevin J. Anderson who originally put you in touch with Matt Bialer, who became your literary agent.
That's the end of the story, really.
Before that I worked on the story for about seven years. Just me. Then I spent about two years getting rejected by every agent in the known universe. Apparently I can write a quarter-million word fantasy novel, but a decent one-page query letter is beyond me.
Then I won the Writers of the Future contest and met Kevin Anderson. Kevin to Matt. Matt to Betsy Wollheim at DAW, my fabulous editor. Happily ever after.
- Pat, as many fans are aspiring writers, could you perhaps elaborate a bit more on this? This will undoubtedly interest a lot of people.
If you really think folks will find it interesting, sure I'll tell it. But it's a long story, for those of you who don't care, I highly advise that you skip down to the next question:
Okay. I won the Writers of the Future contest, and if that happens, one of the things they do is fly you out to California and treat you to a week's worth of writers' workshops run by various Big-Name authors. In my year we were lucky enough to have Tim Powers running ours. Not only is he a great author, but he's a great teacher on top of it. Those two don't often go together. Anyway, one day Kevin Anderson comes out and does an afternoon's workshop. He talks about some of his experiences as a writer, some of his philosophy, some of his tricks. Good stuff.
Later on that evening, I wander down to the lobby of the hotel and see him standing there, holding a graphic novel. He smiles and waves and I wander over.
"What's that?" I ask, nodding at the book he's holding.
"Research," he says. "I've got some comic projects coming up, so I figured I should do some reading to see what's on the market right now."
"Well you can't go wrong with Alan Moore," I said.
He agreed, then we talked about Watchmen for a bit. Then we talked about some other comics. Then we talked about what we liked and didn't like. After about five or ten minutes we were still standing in the hotel lobby having friendly geek talk. Kevin says, "I was actually going to go find a place to hang out before dinner. You want to go get a beer?"
Now here's the thing. I don't drink. I don't have a thing against it. I just don't dig it. Caffeine is my real drug of choice. Alcohol has very little effect on me, and what little effect it does have, I really don't enjoy. Plus, I don't like the taste.
So I said, "Yeah. I'd love to go get a beer."
So we went off to the bar and hung out and talked for a couple hours about books. About what we liked and didn't, and what projects Kevin was working on. The man is all over in the publishing world, and always has about three dozen irons in the fire at any one point.
What I didn't do was fall to the floor and clutch at his legs, begging, "Please! I've written a fantasy trilogy and it's really good! I can't get anyone to look at it. I need to get my foot in the door! HELP MEEEE!!!"
That's what I felt like, of course. I'd worked on the trilogy for a decade, and in the past two years I'd been rejected by at least 40-50 agents. I was frustrated as hell. But you don't want to be that clingy, desperate, mewling fanboy. That's not cool.
Aside from making you look like a spaz, it's really counterproductive too. It's like when you haven't had a date in a long time and you get really lonely. All you want is someone to love, but every woman you approach can see the desperation rolling off you like heat-shimmer off summer blacktop. It makes them so uncomfortable they don't want to even be near you, let alone play at snugglebunnies.
I knew that professional authors must have to deal with desperate newbies all the time, and I didn't want to be that guy. So I just hung out and enjoyed his company. He had a bunch of great stories about the publishing world, and I could learn a lot just by listening to him talk about the scene and how he practices his craft.
After half an hour or so there was an opportunity for me to casually mention that I'd already finished a trilogy, so I did. He asked a couple of questions about it, and asked what sort of luck I was having shopping it around. So I told him the truth: I sucked at summarizing/pitching my own book. He gave me some pointers, and we joked about it.
Then the conversation moved on. Of course, I was hoping he'd say something like, "You seem like a nice guy, why don't you give Bantam a call and tell them I sent you."
But he didn't. Later that weekend I hung out with him at a couple of the group dinners and during the award ceremony. We're both good talkers, so it was fun. Good conversation. I got my award, got to see the anthology with my first published story in it, then packed up and flew back home to Wisconsin.
When I got back, there was an e-mail from him saying,
I read your story on the plane home. You're an incredible writer. I know you've written a trilogy. You should really show it to my agent. Is the first book ready to show around? (Hint: your answer to this question is "yes, of course it's ready." And if it's not ready, you work your ass off over the weekend and you get it ready.)
You see? He knew what I was hoping for, but he didn't have any idea what sort of a writer I was. And he also knew what it was like to be a spooked new writer who finally gets the chance to show his novel off. That's why he wrote that parenthetical to me. So I e-mailed him back and said, verbatim, "Yes, of course it's ready." Then I worked my ass off over the weekend and mailed it off to his agent on Monday.
And Matt eventually accepted me as a client. Then, eventually, we sold it.
But that, as they say, is another story.
- What do you feel is your strength as a writer/storyteller?
- Brevity? In a 600+ page novel?
Heh. Yeah. It sounds ridiculous, but it's true. There's a reason everyone comments on the book being such a quick read. It's long, but it's tight. There isn't a lot of wasted space. I don't engage in long, tedious bouts of description or big chunks of explanation. It's efficient.
I think the tendency to over-explain and over describe is one of the most common failings in fantasy. It's an unfortunate piece of Tolkien's legacy. Don't get me wrong, Tolkien was a great worldbuilder, but he got a little caught up describing his world at times, at the expense of the overall story. I love the Lord of the Rings, but those first two hundred pages are kinda slow.
My early drafts of the novel had the same problem, of course. When you're just starting out and you're really proud of the world you've made, you want to share ALL of it with people. However, over the years I've streamlined the book. I probably have a 100,000 words I've trimmed out of this book alone. Sometimes it's whole chapters and scenes. Sometimes it's just snipping a few unnecessary words out of a sentence. But the goal is always the same, make the book clearer, cleaner, faster.
- Kvothe is an incredibly genuine character. Was THE NAME OF THE WIND always Kvothe's story?
Absolutely. I knew from the very beginning that the story was going to center around him.
When you read a fantasy novel part of the fun is getting to explore a new world. Everyone knows that. But I believe the same is true about characters. You can explore interesting people in the same way that you explore a town or a culture.
A lot of great stories are like this. Don Quixote is about the adventure, but it's also about the man. Same thing with Cyrano de Bergerac, or Hamlet. If you're looking for something more modern, any one of Robin Hobb's books. Her worlds are richly detailed, sensible and real, but so are her characters. Either one of those is rare, but to get them both in the same writer is near-miraculous. That's why Hobb's books are so great.
Character is half the reason we read. We're excited because of the plot, but we care because of the characters.
- According to your website, Kvothe told his story to you over seven years. Were there any major changes from what the story you set out to tell to the story you actually told?
Who boy. Yeah. The original plot arc I had envisioned was nothing like what actually developed. Which is for the best, really. A lot of those original ideas... well... to be completely frank with you, they sucked.
I think one of the biggest mistakes you can make as a writer is to follow your initial plan too stringently. A story needs room to grow and evolve. So many of my original ideas were either cliche or boring. So I cut them out, kept the good stuff, and moved on.
- What writer, living or dead, would you feel most honored to have read your book?
Wow. Wow that's hard.
I've already been really lucky with the writers been able to have read it, especially considering the fact that I'm a total nobody. Still, if I had to pick someone new to read it ....
Peter S. Beagle, Neil Gaiman, or Joss Whedon. Do I have to pick between them?
It's like asking a kid which parent he likes better. It's not really a fair question. I love them all, just in different ways.
- Again, according to your website the second and third books are complete. Which of the three was most difficult, or did you approach the trilogy more as one story?
I wrote the whole thing as a single story. The hard part has been reshaping it slightly so that each novel is... well... novel shaped.
Each book needs a good beginning and a good ending. People get pissed off when you don't close things off properly at the end. There's a big difference in the first Pirates of the Caribbean movie and the second one. The end of the first movie was complete, everything was pretty much resolved. Sure there were a few threads left dangling: Jack was at large and there was a devil monkey on the loose, but that's okay. People like knowing that the characters they love might come back for a sequel later. But the ending of the second Pirates movie was mostly irritating. Cliffhangers are an acquired taste, and not many people find them satisfying these days.
That's what I'm trying to do. Stay true to my overall story, while still making sure the reader walks away satisfied after each book. It's tricky.
- Both music and acting are integral aspects of Kvothe's character, and his story. Are you a big film buff and did/do you have a passion for music?
Whoo boy. Modern music and movies have so little to do with music and acting.
- What do you mean? How does modern music have little do with music, outside of boy bands where no members actually play an instrument?
85% of modern music doesn't have a damn thing to do with music. It has to do with looking good. Name me one woman on the top ten right now who isn't absolutely smoking hot. You think that's a coincidence?
Now don't get me wrong. There are a few folks up there who are brilliant. Pink writes awesome stuff, but if she wasn't hot, you bet your ass she wouldn't be on MTV. For every Tracy Chapman out there you've got fifty spice girls.
And forget instruments. Did you know they have machines that take your voice and modulate it sounds like you're in key? It's called a pitchshifter. So now you don't even have to be able to carry a tune. If you have perky tits and can dance, congratulations, you're a music superstar.
Now don't get me wrong, I know that performance and music are inexorably tied together. And hell, I'll watch Brittany's Toxic music video all day. But there's a difference between that and listening to Leo Kottke play guitar. One is entertainment. The other is Music.
- Fair enough. What do you like, artistically? What are some of the albums and films/plays you find yourself being drawn to?
Hmmmm.... My favorite play I've already mentioned: Cyrano De Bergerac. The close second place is Midsummer Night's Dream.
Movies: Fight Club. The Crow. Princess Bride. Labyrinth. American Beauty.
Musically I'm all over the place. I love Paul Simon, Barenaked Ladies, Parliament Funkadelic. And lately, Imogen Heap.
Let's move on before this starts looking like a myspace profile....
- Not only do you have the full support of DAW Books, but the entire Penguin Books family is behind you. As a new author, you must be thrilled to have them backing the novel in such a manner. And yet, with a first printing of about 45,000 copies, you are aware that THE NAME OF THE WIND is expected to do very well indeed. Given the fact that sales are something on which you have no control, is a part of you anxious about the expectations that the book must meet?
Well now I am.... [laughs]
Honestly though. I'm not worried. Why fret about something that I have no control over? What a waste of energy that would be.
Also, I've spent years refining this story into the best book it can be. I've had hundreds of people read it and help me improve it. I trust the book. There's no more for me to do at this point. People will either love it, or not. My worrying won't tip the scales.
- Given the choice, would you take a New York Times bestseller, or a World Fantasy Award? Why, exactly?
Can I pick the Pulitzer instead?
- No. But seriously, would you rather have commercial success or recognition from your peers?
My peers? I think you have a strange perception of who my peers are. I've been a reader and a fantasy geek my whole life. My peers are fellow fantasy readers.
If those folks read my book, and enjoy it enough to talk to their friends about it, I'll have all the commercial success and recognition I want.
- I know that you turned down an offer from another publisher for more money and elected to go with DAW Books instead. What prompted you make that decision?
There were a lot of reasons.
First, Betsy was really excited about the book. Really really excited. She called my agent and begged to talk to me. When we were on the phone she said, "I loved your book from the first page. This is the best heroic fantasy I've read in 30 years." Her enthusiasm was palpable.
Second, I knew if I signed on with DAW, my editor was going to be the owner and president of the company. I wouldn't have to worry her getting a job at different publisher halfway through my second book. I also didn't have to worry about my editor's boss not getting behind the project. At DAW, my editor *is* the boss.
Lastly, DAW has a reputation of really sticking by its authors. Everyone I talked to said that. They don't abandon you. They keep you in print. One author I trusted said to me, "If this trilogy is all you've got, take the money and run. But if you want to start a career, go with DAW. They'll help you make that happen."
- Honestly, do you believe that the fantasy genre will ever come to be recognized as veritable literature? Truth be told, in my opinion there has never been this many good books/series as we have right now, and yet there is still very little respect (not to say none) associated with the genre.
The lion's share of old-school literature IS fantasy, they just pretend it isn't. The Odyssey is full of gods and spells. Oedipus Rex has a sphinx and a prophecy. There are witches in Macbeth, faeries in Midsummer Night's Dream, and a ghost in Hamlet. Dante's Inferno? Beowulf? All looks like fantasy to me....
I think a lot of people read and respect fantasy storytelling. A lot of the more forward-thinking colleges offer classes studying it, though they usually call it speculative fiction or magical realism to make themselves feel better. We all know the truth though: it's fantasy.
As far as having my book recognized as literature? [Pat shrugs] Why would I want that? I mean, have you read Great Expectations? Gech. Why would I want to invited into their little club? Give me Tim Powers and Phillip K Dick. Give me Le Guin, Gaiman, and Pratchett. Give me McKillip and Whedon. These are the storytellers. These are our modern mythmakers. Our oracles. Our dreamers. I want to be on that team.