When we announced Patrick Rothfuss’ The Name of the Wind–the first part of his Kingkiller Chronicle trilogy–as our July pick for WIRED Book Club, many of you e-screamed some version of: Nooooo DON’T DO IT. Not because you’re not fans; quite the contrary, you love Kvothe’s fantastical story so much you’ve reoriented your entire existence around waiting, like sick vultures circling an empty field, for the saga’s third and final book to drop. (Rothfuss still hasn’t announced a publication date.) That, of course, only made us more eager to find out what all the rabid fuss was about. What we discovered was a damn good (if fantasy-trope-filled) tale of a flawed, brilliant kid with a flair for the theatric, women problems, and irresistible charm. Come to think, he’s a lot like Rothfuss himself. The WIRED Book Club talked to the author about his highly beloved chronicles.
Were you trying to play with familiar fantasy tropes in the writing of The Name of the Wind?
When I started writing this book, I was trying to not write the novel that I wrote in high school, which was a trainwreck of bad decisions. That novel was a lot of fantasy cliches mashed up in a very unappealing structure. So I wanted this story to be something a little new and a little different. But at the same time, I wanted it to be familiar and warm and exciting in nostalgic ways. That was a hard needle to thread.
Is that why you include those meta moments in which characters remark on what should happen versus what actually does?
I wanted the story to feel really real, almost like a biography, or an autobiography. And real stories are messy. They’re sloppy and unsatisfying. But I also wanted it to feel gratifying in terms of being a novel, being a story, being a piece of entertainment. Again, those were two really antithetical goals that I set out for myself. And it made my life a hell for 15 years.
Whoa. How much of that time was spent really writing?
Think about it like this: Most of the time that a regular human being would spend watching television, I spent reading or writing. It would not be weird for me to spend 10 hours a day writing over the summer. But then there were breaks, the most memorable of which is when I met my current girlfriend. I was in the middle of an amazing writing jag, and then I met this girl. I didn’t write a thing for six months.
Is it safe to assume she’s the inspiration for Denna?
No, no, not at all. Generally speaking, I don’t base characters off real people. My brain doesn’t work that way. And I think that it leads to really bad storytelling.
Have you ever seen a picture and thought, “That’s Photoshopped,” even though you can’t tell why? Some part of your brain has evolved to tell you when something isn’t quite right, that something isn’t as it should be. The same is true with stories. You take Chad from your sociology class and that girl that you knew in the third grade, and you take those stories about your grandpa, and you all mix them up and you try to put them in a novel. At best it’s like a collage. Those things don’t fit together well.
It’s funny you say that, because some of us thought Denna did not feel fully formed as a character–at least in the first half of the book.
The truth is, Denna has always been the hardest character to bring into this book. Part of that is because I started writing it in ’94 when I was, like, a 20-year-old straight white boy. To say that I didn’t understand women is a vast understatement–and also implies that I understand what it’s like to exist as a woman now, which is also not the case. The other part is that, narratively, she’s the one thing that Kvothe can’t opine on in an objective way. It’s so hard. I’ve made mistakes all over, but if I have a genuine failure in this book, it’s my lack of ability to do with Denna as much as I wish I could have.
Aside from describing Denna, though, isn’t Kvothe good at literally everything else?
There are brilliant people out there who are good at things right off the cuff. I want to read books full of people being awesome. You can go too far. You can become unrealistic. But I think the fear of writing someone too perfect or too cool leads to a lot of godawful fucking books. If I wanted to watch people sucking and being dumb, I would just spend all my time on Twitter.
How much is Kvothe playing up his own story? Mythologizing his own self?
It is very fair to wonder, How much of this is real? How much of this is true? Unfortunately, any answer that I gave to that would be destructive to the story.
Can you say anything on the subject?
However people read the book makes me happy, as long as they enjoy themselves. But I will say that one of the reads I find a little irritating is where they think, “Oh, he’s the best at everything. Oh, he’s telling this story where he’s so cool all the time.” Are you reading the same story that I wrote? Because, like, he is constantly shitting the bed. He is full of terrible decisions all the time. If I were gonna go back and mythologize my life, I would leave out so many of the terrible choices that I made.
In terms of the wider mythology for your world, do we detect Christian influences?
What it has is the archetype of the self-sacrificing god. But honestly, by the time Jesus did that, it was old news. A bunch of people did it before Jesus–and, to be fair, some people did it better.
What can you tell us about the origins of sympathy?
Some of it I just straight up stole. A lot of Renaissance concepts of Hermetic magic, Umberto Eco’s Island of the Day Before, stuff like that. And alchemy, what Newton used to do back in the day. I kind of cherry-picked from that and built them into a cohesive system. I was also influenced pretty firmly by some modern, this-world science. I was on the road to becoming a mechanical engineer before I fell from grace and had a couple really great philosophy classes and just proceeded to dick around as an undergrad for nine years.
How scientific is sympathy?
It’s hard to get more scientific. I literally have the math for a lot of these things. I have run the numbers about how much heat it takes for this and that, and accounting for slippage, or whatever. I can look at my chalkboard here and see all of the delta calculations for how much energy it takes to boil gold. So I do the math.
Is that so important?
Once I explain that framework to you, if my characters are clever using the framework, then you can appreciate their cleverness at a different depth, and it’s very satisfying. You cannot get that same satisfaction in a world that does not have a cohesive, understandable, and explicit system. For example, in Harry Potter, there’s very little opportunity for the characters to be genuinely innovative with their magic, because there is no sensible underpinning system that they can manipulate in impressive ways. They might use a spell in a clever way, but nobody is making new spells. Not to pick a fight with the Harry Potter people. That’s not the game J.K. Rowling was playing in that story. For her, the magic was mostly a prop.
So why do you have naming in the book–which is basically awesome unexplainable Harry Potter-type magic–as well?
Well, for one, it’s super hard to actually do the math and have a cohesive system that actually bears up under the scrutiny of intelligent readers. Two, you miss one of the other things that magic has to offer in a story, and that is a sense of delight and wonder. Sympathy is many things, but it’s usually not wondrous. You never get true shock and amazement. So I wanted both. I wanted my cake and to eat it, too. On the other end of the spectrum is magic the art of which cannot be explained.
Is that why Elodin makes no sense?
A lot of Elodin’s teaching technique I pulled from the old Zen masters and Buddhists, because that’s what you’re trying to do when you learn about nirvana. You cannot explain to somebody what nirvana is or how to get there, so you have to almost trick them into suddenly, miraculously intuiting this universal truth. When you have this magic that is wondrous, you may not be able to appreciate it in the same clever way, but when it happens, you can get amazement. That is something Harry Potter has a lot more of. Where they do a thing and you’re like, “OK, it’s cool to walk through a fireplace.”
Let’s move on to one of our favorite characters, Auri. Is it true she wasn’t in an early draft of the book?
It’s totally true. And a lot of people have used that fact to theorize that she can’t be vital to the plot. I appreciate the effort, but the book needs to be considered as an entity unto itself. The fact is, the book was a hot mess in that first draft. Science has no scale to measure the hotness of that mess.
Well, when Kvothe went to the University, he was originally buddies with Lorren. He was like, “I wanna go into the Archives,” and Lorren’s like, “Lemme show you around.” Kvothe liked it just fine, but what’s the problem? A certain thing that most authors like to include in a book–tension. Conflict. Drama. Like, the things that make a story a story. There was no Devi in the early books. There was so much that wasn’t in those initial drafts, simply because I had no idea what I was doing in terms of structuring a story. I put words together fine. I could write dialog and scene. I could even make an interesting chapter. But a book is so much more than a series of interesting chapters. And that’s what it took me a fucking decade to figure out.
Would you say you put your finest words together for the prologue and epilogue?
Even if you’re being charitable, you have to acknowledge it is kind of arty bullshit. I’m not saying it’s bad, I’m not saying I don’t like it, but it’s a different type of writing. One of the things I’m careful of is to not let myself indulge in certain language, things that I would do just for the beauty of it. Because those things can work contrary to the story. Everything should be in service to the story. If I make the language so fancy that people keep going, “Oh wow, what a beautiful phrase,” I’ve pulled you out of the story. So I spent a lot of time on the prologue, even after I’d written that draft, typing it up and making it work and doing the variations that bookend each book. As much as half an hour per word.
We told ourselves we wouldn’t bug you about the third book, but perhaps it’s fair to ask if you feel pressure to put it out?
For book two, I felt pressure every single day, and it was unremitting. I’m from the Midwest, so I’m a people pleaser. We also have a lot of inbuilt guilt. So the fact that I wasn’t getting the book out in a year, like I promised–and I promised a lot in those early interviews–it was bad for me. Now I feel a lot better. I still regret not having it done, but I’m dealing with the Internet’s expectations in more healthy ways.
And the third book is definitively the end of this story?
Yup, book three is the end of this trilogy. But there will be more stories in this world, and some of those stories will have some of these characters you have come to know. But, yeah, I’m a firm believer in the fact that a real story needs a real ending, and book three has that real ending.
Is there any chance that Kvothe isn’t your favorite character?
Oh, that’s fair. I bet for a lot of people that Kvothe isn’t their favorite character.
But what about you?
Auri will always be very close to my heart. Elodin is also a treat. But it does change, and sometimes a character I really start out liking gets on my nerves–because it’s hard to keep writing them, and then they piss me off and I end up liking them less. In some ways, it’s harder to like Kvothe, both as a writer and, I suspect, as a reader. It’s way easier to be infatuated with somebody than to be in a long-term relationship with them. You get to love Auri because she shows up a little bit and is kind of sparkly, and then she goes away. But Kvothe never leaves.
Do these characters constantly occupy your thoughts and tell you things?
Ah, you’re touching on the myth of the author. There are certain things our culture believes about authors that just simply aren’t true, to the detriment of both authors and the readership. People will say, “Oh, I was writing this scene, and the characters just ran away with the story.” When somebody says that, I think of parents who bring their kids to a restaurant, and they’re little demons running around, they’re knocking over the fern, they’re screaming. And the parents just sit there: “Oh, I just, I can’t do a thing with them. They’re so out of control.” Before I was a parent, I would look at them and be like, “No, you can fucking control your children. You nail that down. You do your job as a parent.” And now that I am a parent, I think the exact same thing.