In 2007 I was a young journalism student writing for The Pointer, the University of Wisconsin – Stevens Point student newspaper. Alongside my articles ran a hilarious, satirical advice column by soon-to-be bestselling fantasy author Patrick Rothfuss. At the time he hadn’t yet released his first book, The Name of the Wind, and the second installment, The Wise Man’s Fear, was still years away from debuting #1 on the NY Times fantasy bestseller list.
I’d never met him, but I’d heard tales of his English 101 class and his epic beard. When I heard one of our own was set to publish a novel, I set up an interview and brought my tape recorder. We met at an old coffee house which has long since closed up shop. The story for the paper would only be a few hundred words, but he talked for half an hour.
If you haven’t read his books, you must. Betsy Wollheim, president of Daw, which published Rothfuss’ novel, described it as “the most brilliant fantasy novel I have read in over 30 years as an editor.” Recently I moved, and buried at the bottom of an old box I found the tape of our conversation.
Here’s the interview from 2007:
You previously published a collection of your Pointer articles, so this would be your second book right?
I did have the College Survival Guide. Really in all significant ways that doesn’t count as a book. It was more a fun side project. They printed like 700 copies of that, and the vast majority of those are sitting in boxes somewhere. You can’t really go and buy it in a bookstore anywhere. It’s kind of like a vanity press deal almost, except it was handled by that class. This is really the first book for all intents and purposes.
Your best known for your advice column in pointer, is any of that kind of humor found in the new book?
There are certainly humorous parts to it. I’d say there’s a lot of wit in it, but it’s not a satirical, farcical story like that. It’s a serious story, but like all real stories there is humor in it. I did get to use some of that.
How long have you been working on this book?
Fourteen years. Started in ’93.
How’d that get started?
I actually wrote a really crappy high school novel based on the D&D (Dungeons and Dragons) exploits of me and my friends. It’s every awful fantasy novel that every high school boy writes. It had like an elf and a cat-man samurai and. . . just awful. Just truly awful. I mean the writing was good, but it had no plot and was just terribly cliché. And then of course somebody pointed out that it was terribly cliché. I was really pissed off, and then I realized they were right, and then I was even more pissed off.
I just quit writing for awhile. Then later I started to get the itch again. I wanted to write again so I thought, “What can I do that is not cliché. What can I do that is new and interesting but still fantastic?” Because I’d gotten really tired of reading the same thing over and over again in these fantasy novels in terms of elves and dwarfs and wizards with the pointy hat. You pick up a new book and you’re like, “Haven’t I read this before?” I wanted to do something different.
Was that the first you had written? In high school?
I always knew that I wanted to be an author. That was always the dream. I didn’t want to be a rock star. I wanted to be a novelist because I liked to read so much. But I never lied to myself and thought I’d actually get published because I knew what the odds were. Of all the people that start trying to write like 1 in 500 ever get anything published, and then 1 in 500 out of those ever manage to make a living on their writing. So that’s why I came to (Stevens) Point here to be a chemical engineer. And that’s what I was going to do. I didn’t figure I’d come to school here and learn how to be a writer. I figured I’d just keep that on the side for fun.
Did you ever complete your chemical engineering degree?
No. Nope. I started as a chemical engineer, realized I didn’t really know what a chemical engineer did, so I thought maybe clinical psychology, and then did that for awhile, and I realized I had no idea what I wanted to do for a living. Like three years in I went undeclared, stayed there for awhile and just took pretty much every class that was interesting to me. All the while, of course, I’m working on the novel. Everything was interesting to me because if you’re building a world and a society and all these different cultures — I mean what isn’t interesting to you? It’s all kind of fuel for a book.
What drew you to the fantasy genre in particular?
It’s always what I read growing up. I loved it. My mom got me a read-along record of The Hobbit. It’s pretty much just the audio track of the old Hobbit movie, and there was a record. And the record would play, and you’d follow along in the book. I could practically recite that entire movie because I listened to it all the time. And she read to me. Then I read Narnia and the Dragonriders of Pern. I’ve always liked fantasy and science fiction. Very little ever interested me that wasn’t fantasy or sci-fi as a kid. I read about a novel a day growing up.
Is your book based on reality at all? Is there a specific location or time?
It’s a different place, but it’s a very real place. It’s not based like in our Medieval Europe or whatever. It’s not a different world that’s full of magic and fairies. It’s very real and very gritty, and a lot of people there don’t really believe in magic. Or they believe in magic but they’re wrong. Or they believe in demons but they’re wrong. Like if you walked down the bar, you might end up talking to someone about what they believe about different superstitions or whatever. So it’s a different world but it’s very realistic and gritty, what I think of as real fantasy.
Did you do that intentionally?
Absolutely. Yeah. Because it always pissed me off. You read some fantasy novel, and they make some lame attempt at like setting up a little government. And you read the rules of this government, and you’re like, “This shit wouldn’t work. This society would fall apart. People would be killing each other in the streets if they tried to live in this world.” And it makes the book feel fake. It’s like if I can’t believe this part how can I believe any of it. So I’ve been very careful. I’ve studied sociology and anthropology. Or you have a fantasy world and somebody suddenly invents a rifle You can’t do that if people don’t understand advanced metallurgy and fluid dynamics You’ll kill yourself if you try to make a rifle thinking that it’s something only about things blowing up . There’s a reason that somebody didn’t do it for most of human history.
So yeah, I’ve been very careful to make everything very realistic. Sometimes you read a fantasy novel, and you feel like if you walked down the alley and turned around you’d see that all the buildings are made out of just cardboard. It’s just like the front of the building, and there’s nothing really there, like an old movie set. But I wanted my world to feel very, very real. Like if you walk down that alley it’s going to be stone all the way around, and if you turn at the wrong corner then somebody is going to mug you.You know, I wanted it to feel that real.
Is that a lot of work to put into the back story?
Oh, yeah. But a lot of it is in the revision. I know a lot of writers, and the only people they show their books to are other writers. And so those writers pick on writerly things like detail and character, and writers can be a real fickle, bitchy bunch of people. I showed my book to chemists and musicians and plumbers and ditch-diggers and people with like bizarre hobbies. One of my friends came back to me and they said, “You know traditionally a lute actually had like 12 to 16 strings, and they were in courses of two. So if a string broke, really it wouldn’t be that big of a deal since you have another string that plays the exact same note.” I was like, “Shit, I had no idea.” That’s the good thing about taking so much time on it. By this point I’ve taken out the vast majority of things that would be just wrong otherwise.
One of my friends who was a history major came up to me and said, “Okay, if you’re living in pre-industrial society how can you have a city with a half million people. What do they do? And he came in and he really wanted to know the mechanics of how the economy worked. If there weren’t factories how were people employed, how does the money system work? And of course I’d worked a lot of that out on my own, but he really made me accountable for it and asked questions that made me develop it in a much more concrete way.
Have you gotten any better at explaining what you’re book is about?
No. I still suck at that. Did you read . . . where’d you read about that?
On the website. I read the blog.
(Laughing) I do. I’m really bad at describing what it’s about. That’s part of the reason that I hand out these reviews. When I read the Library (Journal) review where it says (reading from the paper), “His first novel launches a trilogy relating not only the history of human kind but also the tale of a world threatened by an evil whose existence it desperately denies . . . explores the development of a person’s character while examining the relationship between a legend and it’s reality.”
I read that and I go, “Yes! That’s exactly what I’m doing.” I read the first bit where it’s like “threatened by and evil” and I go (sighs) hmm, well, not so much threatened by an evil. Maybe that’s what they got out of it, and there’s a little bit of that there. I worry that people will go, “Oh great another fantasy novel with a world threatened by evil. I bet there’s an evil sorcerer and a bunch of goblin armies.” But there’s not. It’s a totally different story than that.
But no, I’m bad at describing what the story is like.
Tune in Friday for the second half of the interview where Rothfuss says fans “won’t have to wait terribly long for the second book” and assures it will be out a year later (it took three).
Still not sure of his complete awesomeness? Watch the video below. It cuts off the beginning of the question. His response is hilarious.