Pat is not only a terrific author, he’s a great guy who took the time to banter back and forth with Kate and I about his latest book, The Name of the Wind. This book was a strong candidate for my novel of the year last year, earning the popular vote here on my site.
The following interview is a slightly different format than what we’ve done before. For one thing, we’ve endeavored to make the questions more conversational and less like a fill-in-the-blanks form. I’ve also brought in Kate (an admitted Pat Rothfuss fangirl) to help me ask some of the questions that might appeal to a female audience. (Cooties were extra.)
The paperback edition of The Name of the Wind will be available on April 1, 2008. If you were reluctant to buy a hardcover, then please do yourself a favor and buy the paperback now. If you’re interested in learning more about Pat and his work, please visit his blog. He is a frequent poster who never fails to have something interesting to say.
Peter Hodges: What is particularly striking about The Name of the Wind is the emotional impact of the writing. The most common praise that I hear for the book among those that I recommend it to is that your writing leaves them “spellbound.” Is this something you attempt to do consciously, or is it a function of your characters and settings?
Patrick Rothfuss: That question implies that my characters and settings aren’t something that I attempt to do consciously….
PH: Actually, I have read many books in which the characters and/or the settings are interesting, but the story falls flat. There’s something intangible and magical in works of fiction such as yours. Can you put your finger on it?
Patrick Rothfuss: Hmmm…. When you put it that way, my guess is that what you’re enjoying is either the storytelling or the language. The truth is, I’m not necessarily a great novelist.
Heh. Now that I stop to think about it, that’s not the cleverest way to lead into an interview, is it?
Still, I think it’s the truth. I’m good at telling stories. Sometimes you can make a story novel shaped, and that’s what I’ve done with this first book. Story is different than plot. Story is older and wilder. It appeals to some of us in a much more intangible way. With good plot, you can point at it and say, “Wow. Look at that structure!” But with good storytelling there’s nothing specifically you can point at.
Kate Baker: You mentioned it might be the language too…. What did you mean by that?
Patrick Rothfuss: I’m just very careful with my words when I write. Obsessively careful. I’m the sort of person who worries about the difference between “slim” and “slender.”
I also work hard to avoid over-describing. Too much fantasy suffers from long-winded descriptions. I keep my description lean because I never want my reader to be bored. It’s better to say too little than to say too much.
PH: Do you see yourself more as a wandering bard who is both creator and performer, or do you see yourself as a gentlemen scholar, such as Tolkien? Both have wild elements to their story, but the approach is different.
Patrick Rothfuss: Hmmm…. I’m not sure if either of those fit me very well. I think I’m somewhere between ancient Greek philosopher and a renaissance alchemist. I like to speculate, discuss, and dabble. But I’m not really a scholar in any modern sense.
KB: How long has this story been bouncing around in your mind?
Patrick Rothfuss: Well, I’ve been working on this story since 1993. So about fifteen years now….
KB: How do you know when you’re finished? At what point do you stop, sigh, and say: “Rough draft done!”
Patrick Rothfuss: I knew the rough draft was done when I made it all the way to the end of the story. The harder part is knowing when the final draft is done. The deadlines help with that.
KB: Where do you get the obvious passion that infuses your writing, particularly when you write about love?
Patrick Rothfuss: Objection. You’re leading the witness.
KB: What relevant real-life experiences can you share that might give you a unique perspective on the emotional aspects of your characters? I know from speaking with other writers that they tend to draw on personal strife and triumph while weaving their stories
Patrick Rothfuss: Are you asking me if Denna is based off a real person?
KB: Was I being that obvious? So who is your Denna, Pat? Can you tell me about her?
PH: Pat might not want to satisfy your morbid romantic curiosity, Kate.
KB: Pretty please? With sugar on top?
Patrick Rothfuss: Well… This is a tricky question. It doesn’t seem like it at first, but it really is.
The trouble is this. What you’re really asking is whether or not Denna is real. It seems to me that that’s what lies at the heart of this question.
Let’s say I tell you I based Denna on some old flame: Penelope P. Parkenfarker. My high school crush. The one that got away. Now, suddenly, Denna isn’t just herself anymore. It diminishes her as a character in her own right. It makes Denna seems as if she’s just a copy of some other person. She’s a Xerox. A Polaroid.
So instead, let’s say I claim I made Denna from whole cloth. She is the pure child of my brain. Suddenly, you know Denna is purely make-believe, and as a result she becomes oddly insubstantial. Rootless. Less real.
That’s why it’s tricky. Either way I answer, something gets lost. It’s like looking into a narrative version of Shrodinger’s box.
PH: Given the proficiency of your characters with musical instruments, are you a musician yourself? If so, what do you play?
Patrick Rothfuss: I get asked this question a lot, usually by musicians. It’s flattering, actually. But the truth is I don’t play anything, or at least I don’t play anything well enough that what comes out can be considered music.
I do have a pretty good signing voice though.
KB: Speaking of singing, when you wrote the words to the songs that Kvothe encounters throughout the book and sometimes performs himself, do you know how they go in your head?
Patrick Rothfuss: For some of them, I can hear a tune in my head. The problem is, I can’t write music, so it’s hard for me to share them with anyone. For other songs, I just hear the rhythm.
I try my best to make the lyrics… well… lyrical. Words can carry a music of their own, it’s just harder making it happen without accompaniment. It takes a lot of time to get it right.
KB: Are there any plans to share them with the FILKing fandom or have you been approached by anyone who’s come up with their own versions as of yet? I would love to really learn the part of Aloine.
Patrick Rothfuss: Not yet. I did have a fan compose a musical theme for one of my characters though. That was pretty neat.
I’m only dimly aware of the Filk community, because I don’t play an instrument. Personally, I think it would be really cool if someone came up with a tune to some of the songs.
PH: Your trade paperback is hitting stores on April 1. Did you pick the date?
Patrick Rothfuss: Heh. No. I wouldn’t have picked that particular date myself. I have a bad reputation among my friends for April fool’s day jokes….
But you’ve got to admit, it’s certainly an easy date to remember.
KB: Oh, dear. Can you share a particularly memorable April Fools prank?
Patrick Rothfuss: Once my girlfriend and I got really sick of everyone saying, “When are you going to get married? When are you going to get married?” So we faked our own breakup. We started laying the groundwork for it over a month in advance. We staged fights in public, were chilly to each other. I started rumors that one of us had been cheating on the other. It was pretty elaborate, but I also have some really clever friends. I knew if I half-assed it they’d see right through it.
PH: When are you going to get married?
Patrick Rothfuss: Now? One month later. I push the date back by one month every time someone asks. My girlfriend is going to be pissed with you. If I were you, I’d just work at protecting your eyes. She’s a scratcher.
PH: What sort of expectations does an author and/or a publisher have about a hard cover novel that goes to a paperback form?
Patrick Rothfuss: I really have no idea what the publisher might expect. The hardcover is selling really well. It just went into its fifth printing and they released it with a new cover. So I think hopes are kind of high for the paperback version. But I’ve never been through this process before, so I don’t know what good sales are in terms of a paperback.
I do know this though, when I was growing up, I never bought a hardcover book. Hell, up until the last three or four years of my life I’d never bought a hardcover. I’ve never had the money for that.
So personally, I’m hoping that people who were hesitant to risk 25 bucks on a new author might be more willing to take a chance on the paperback. Similarly, I’m thinking that people who originally read the book at the library or borrowed it from a friend will pick it up in paperback to have their own copy.
Plus the paperback is a lot more portable. When I met Gaiman at a convention a couple months ago, he said that he had to stop reading mine after a couple chapters because he was flying out of England and the hardcover wouldn’t fit into his carry-on luggage.
Hmmm…. Maybe I should send him a copy of the paperback when it comes out.
KB: Speaking of the first HC editions, (of which we both are extremely lucky to possess) with the new fifth printing, are you happy with the art work? Do you think authors should have more say-so when it comes to cover art? (You do know this means I’ll have to buy the matching set!)
Patrick Rothfuss: In general, I know why publishers don’t give authors more control. The cover is a huge marketing tool, and most authors don’t know much about marketing. Also, not all authors are very graphic-smart. They’re word-smart. There’s a big difference.
However, I will say this. I bet authors buy more books than marketing people and editors do. I’d bet cold hard cash on that.
The interview continues next week; Pat discusses an idea for a project after The Kingkiller Chronicles and gives aspiring writers some advice.