Patrick Rothfuss: Making it up as he goes

By David Larsen

American writer Patrick Rothfuss tells David Larsen why he avoids clichés in both life and literature.

Patrick Rothfuss says life's lack of structure is what lets it constantly surprise. Photo / Supplied
Patrick Rothfuss says life's lack of structure is what lets it constantly surprise. Photo / Supplied

What is the worst thing that can happen to a new writer? If you answered, "The sun goes nova and then it turns out there's a hell," you get points for the most creative misconstruction of the question, but all the more obvious answers are wrong as well. When Patrick Rothfuss' publisher told him, "Pat, this is the worst thing that can happen to a new writer, I'm amazed that you're still writing anything at all," she was talking about making the New York Times' bestseller list.

If you're finding it hard to locate your empathy, stop trying. Rothfuss finds his brush with the Awful Realities of Success as ridiculous as you do. He spent years writing his first novel and finding someone prepared to publish it. The notion that he now has to worry about living up to its "pinch-me-I'm-dreaming" popularity still makes him chortle with disbelief - not least because his novel's hero faces a somewhat similar dilemma, having created a myth about himself which has got out of hand.

Scroll back 20 years. Rothfuss is a typical fantasy-mad high school kid in Wisconsin.

"I was the kid who was too geeky for the other kids." He writes a typical fantasy-mad high school kid's first novel. "It was awful. Every fantasy cliché. I don't think I missed a single one." He goes to college and spends nine years as an undergraduate. "I almost got a psychology degree, I almost got a philosophy degree. I kept changing it so they couldn't make me graduate. I studied anthropology and eastern religion, epistomology, and astronomy ... I took every interesting course I could find for nine years."

Fans of The Name of the Wind, the novel Rothfuss started working on towards the end of this period, will recognise one of the book's minor characters in this self-description: Manet, the eternal student who befriends the scholar-hero, Kvothe, during his time at university. Kvothe himself was inspired in part by two things Rothfuss read during these years: the 19th century French play Cyrano de Bergerac and the memoirs of Giacomo Casanova.

"Cyrano was staggering. It destroyed me emotionally. Cyrano is proud, brilliant, gorgeous and arrogant - and he's an ass. The story just breaks your heart."

Why, he wondered, had he never met a character this compelling in all his years of reading fantasy? And then there was Casanova, whose 12-volume memoir - "he wrote it when he'd been exiled from France, basically for the crime of being Casanova" - is about a great deal more than breaking into nunneries to seduce the nuns. "Though there's a certain amount of that. But the man was an adventurer, he was a con artist. He was brilliant."

A life crammed with incident and adventure does not, Rothfuss noticed, have to follow a three-act structure. In fact, the lack of structure is part of what lets it constantly surprise. So the template for a new kind of fantasy novel was set: the emotional richness of Cyrano, and the picaresque unpredictability of Casanova. All he needed to add was ... 13 years of hard work.

"I wanted the story to feel very real, so it needed to be quite messy and rambling. But one reason we love fiction is because stories have a comforting shape. They provide a resolution that's lacking in our regular lives. Balancing those two things - honestly, it was a nightmare. It would have been different, maybe, if I'd already written half a dozen novels, if I had my craft already inside and out. But I've just been making it all up as I went along."

One of the rules he imposed on himself at the start was no fantasy clichés. To anyone who's ever sighed their way through yet another well enough written but sadly derivative fantasy epic, this will sound like a fine idea, but it was trickier to put into practice than he expected.

"For instance, I decided there would be no villain. It's always bothered me, the way fantasy villains behave. Why would you want to destroy the world? That's where you keep all your stuff. So I threw out villains, and after about two years working on the story, I realised actually, sometimes you kind of need an antagonist."

But he wrote his way to the end of the story, which was beginning to take shape as a multi-volume work, and revised it, and edited it. Then it took another six years to sell the book. "I'd submit it and it would get rejected and I'd think about why it had got rejected, and fix things - and then I'd send it out again. And again, and again."

This is a pretty common story, so far. Young writer does the hard yards, eventually gets published, hooray. Except that when Rothfuss eventually got published it was by Elizabeth Wollheim, one of the most highly regarded genre publishers in America. She marched into a sales meeting and announced that this was the best first novel she had read in 30 years.

"And, you know, you can only say that once. She backed me beyond all reasonable expectation."

Rothfuss had no idea at the time how unusual the treatment he received was. "I didn't have a basis for comparison. A typical first novel - as I know now - you get maybe $5000 for, and they print maybe 8000 copies, and you sell 5000 copies, and the publisher is a little disappointed, but they buy a second book from you anyway.

"Or you might have the typical success, where they print 8000 copies and then they have to do a second printing and the publisher is really happy. But they'd say to me, 'Wow, the pre-orders are incredible, we're printing 30,000 books'. And I'm like, 'is that a lot?' I didn't realise how far out on a limb they were going. I didn't know enough to be properly nervous."

By the time he sat down to write the sequel, The Wise Man's Fear, that happy innocence was a thing of the past, which is a large part of the reason the sequel is coming out now, nearly two years late.

"The anxiety was there all the time. If your first novel comes out and it's great, that's fine so long as it's a stand-alone novel. But if I write a weak second book it effectively goes back and destroys the first book. Plus, I'm a good old-fashioned obsessive. I put this thing through 300 distinct revisions. One thing I've learned now is that I should not say when a book is coming out until I'm sure I know."

The Wise Man's Fear (Gollancz $39.99) is out now.

- NZ Herald

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