Wizards & Words: An Interview with Patrick Rothfuss
Author Patrick Rothfuss talks to PopMatters about the pivotal role of language in magic, the structure of storytelling, and the role of fantasy in contemporary fiction.
Patrick Rothfuss's first novel, The Name of the Wind -- the initial chapter in a planned trilogy called The Kingkiller Chronicle -- has received some very good buzz in its earliest reviews. Publishers Weekly says of this freshman effort, “This is the type of assured, rich first novel most writers can only dream of producing." The A.V. Club declares it very simply, “one of the best stories told in any medium in a decade."
This is certainly more than faint praise for any novel, but especially so given the oft ghettoized genre of fantasy fiction, even in the post-Harry Potter world of publishing.
Rothfuss and I recently sat down to discuss some of the ideas underlying The Name of the Wind, a bildungsroman of sorts for not only a wizard, but a man who has become a myth within his own world's history.
I was eager to talk to Rothfuss about his approach to his subject matter. Assuming that language is most often the basis of truth in myth, the story of The Name of the Wind's title character, Kvothe, is appropriately enough steeped in speaking, storytelling, and most broadly in the emblematic and symbolic power of words. As a result, I decided to talk to Rothfuss about his sense of the relationship between language and magic, as well as the relevance of fantastic stories in contemporary culture.
The name of the main character in this series, Kvothe, seems evocative of language and speaking. Can you speak briefly to the importance of language and storytelling to your novel?
Boy, you don't ask small questions, do you? Let's talk about language first...
I think there are three things that are pivotal to a novel: language, plot, and character. If you can do one of these really well (and you know which one it is), then you have a shot at writing a good story, getting published, and having some people enjoy your work. If you can do two of them really well, then odds are you're going to write some incredibly good books and stand a good chance of being a real success. If you can do all three, then you're going to be one of those mythic storytellers that people worship like unto gods. Here, I'm talking about rare talents like Gaiman, Whedon, and Pratchett. People famous enough that you don't have to use their whole names.
For me, language is something that I've always loved. When I read, that's what I look for. When I write, that's what I strive for. And over the years I've become pretty good at it. I think about it a lot and I've worked hard to develop my writing in that area. I'm good at that.
As for storytelling... well, the concept of storytelling is a central theme to all three books. In some ways, the story I'm telling is like a behind-the-scenes look into the myth of the hero. You learn the legendary story of the man, then you get to see the truth behind it.
Along somewhat similar lines, there is an interesting relationship between symbols, words, and magic throughout the novel. Do you see any relationship between sorcery and storytelling?
Magic and storytelling... not so much. Though I don't think it's entirely coincidence that people talk about being "spellbound" by a performance, or that a critic talks about being "enchanted" by a movie or a play. But, honestly, I think you can write that off as hyperbole. But is there a connection between language and magic? Yes. Ten times yes. So much yes that it almost doesn't bear talking about. It's as pointless that arguing that the sun is hot.
Here's a little example. They found an old Norse sword way back in the day. It had runic writing along the side. It said, "I the magician write the letter 'A.'" It was magic. Just the act of writing something down was a magical act. Other cultures are full of the same thing. The Kabbalah. The first line of the Bible. Language is inexorably tied to power and understanding. And power and understanding are the roots of magic.
[interrupts] I see where you're coming from there, but I have to ask exactly what you mean in terms of a "traditional narrative approach." If you're using the classic Victorian novel as your yardstick, then yeah, I suppose I'm doing things differently. The same should be said if you're comparing me to most of the standard fantasy novels written in the last fifty years.
But to call those things "traditional narrative approaches" is to have a really narrow view of "traditional." While the frame story is out of fashion these days, it's the oldest, most natural, most real type of story there is. Some of the most famous stories ever are frame tales. The Arabian Knights is the easiest example. Shakespeare's Taming of the Shrew has a frame too. (Or at least half a frame.) “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner". Or, if you want to bring it right up to modern fantasy, The Princess Bride. That's the classic frame tale right there.
What is the advantage of the frame tale? Is it that we experience both the tale and its audience (the banter of the pilgrims on the road to Canterbury for example), or something else that makes it more “moving" or maybe dynamic in such a context?
The framed tale is, in my opinion, one of the most natural ways to tell a story. If you think of it, the conceit of the frame-less story is actually the odd way of doing things. Without the frame, how do you know the context for a story?
Archimedes said, "Give me a lever long enough and a firm place to stand, and I will move the world." That is what storytelling is all about. If you don't have a place to stand, it doesn't matter how long your lever is. If you'll pardon the slightly Freudian implications of that, I'm sure you'll see what I really mean. The frame of the story is your context, it's where you stand. It helps you to tell a moving story.
Is applying more literary and avant-garde narrative to the fantasy novel an interest of yours? Or, does playing around with these conventions serve another purpose in telling this story?
To the first question: No.
To the second: Yes. Everything I do is in service to the story. The story is the important thing, after all.
I was wondering if you might discuss your sense of the relationship between the supernatural and science in your expression of magical systems? Does it militate against religion and ritual, or is there a relationship even between magic, religion, and science in Kvothe's world?
That depends. What does "militate" mean?
By “militate against," I think I'm trying to suggest something like “coming into conflict with." I use the term "militate" because I am wondering about the possibility of conflict in the antagonistic sense.
What is considered "supernatural" and what is considered "science" is usually an issue of perception. Science is just magic with better PR.
I suppose there is some conflict between religion and science in my world, but that's nothing new. Science, at its root, is a rational discipline. Religion, on the other hand, is fundamentally trans-rational. Both of them attempt to solve problems, but since their methodology is vastly different, they can't help but come into conflict.
Why do fantasy novels often begin in taverns?
There are three answers to that:
2. Because the vast majority of fantasy novelists are unoriginal hacks.
3. Because taverns are where people traditionally meet, and when people meet, stories start.
Take your pick.
How do you see the current state of the fantasy novel in contemporary media?
Hmmmm... another big question. I think fantasy is less fringe than it was 10 or 15 years ago. It's more acceptable to be seen reading a fantasy novel in public now. Harry Potter is to thank for a big piece of that, of course. But the down side is that a corresponding amount of people who have only read Harry Potter assume that fantasy is just a bunch of silly, overwritten stories for kids. So it's a bit of a trade off.
I do find it interesting that the Harry Potter books, despite being marketed towards kids, have an adult following, though, as well. What is the value of fantasy written for adults?
First, don't think for a second that Harry Potter wasn't marketed toward adults, too. Second, we have to acknowledge that the entire divide between "adult writing" and "children's writing" is for the most part, an artificial one.
That said, the main value of fantasy written for adults is that it is held to a higher level of quality than children's literature. That shouldn't be the case, but it is. If you point out the glaring plot holes and logical inconsistencies in the Harry Potter books, people say, "It's just a kid's book." It's a huge cop out. Good writing is good writing.
What does fantasy have to tell a contemporary adult audience?
Good lord. Another question that I can't even begin to scratch the surface of.... There are whole books written about that. Whole shelves of books. But here's a key piece to it. I think fantasy can help keep our minds limber and open to extraordinary opportunity.
I was at a convention a couple months ago called "Fantasy Matters" where the entire theme was the question you just asked. While I was there, I got to hear one of my favorite authors, Neil Gaiman, talk on the subject. He talked about how, for a long time, the Chinese government has officially frowned on the entire realm of speculative fiction. The culture being what it is, that means that people really didn't read much sci-fi or fantasy at all. It was pretty much taboo.
But then, apparently, leaders in China were trying to figure out why their country was lagging behind in terms of innovation and invention. Their companies excelled at implementing existing technologies, or making variations, but they lagged behind in making things that were entirely new. So they took a close look at the companies that tend to be on the cutting edge of creative thought. They took a look at people who worked at places like Google, and Apple. People who made it their business to think outside the box.
And you know what they all had in common? Yeah. You know...