by Hannelore Sudermann | © Washington State University
Fantasy writer Patrick Rothfuss (’02 MA) enters the sleek atrium of the Chicago Hyatt with aplomb—passing through a lobby packed with weird characters. A human-sized rabbit taps away on a laptop, a steampunk Victorian-era archaeologist hunts for her friends, a green-haired space alien stands in line for a latte.
These are Rothfuss’s people. Or as he calls them, “Geeks of all creeds and nations.”
Rothfuss also looks weird. He hails from another time or place—maybe 1970s America, since Simon and Garfunkel peer out from his black t-shirt, or maybe the Middle Ages where his unruly beard would suit him in any village. Or maybe sometime or somewhere else entirely, since two locks of his hair are curling down his forehead like little horns.
He turns to give a broad smile to a cherubic little boy in a stroller behind him. The contraption is being pushed by a woman wearing a t-shirt that says “Pat’s minion.” He bends and kisses the child, who in this crowd he calls Oot—names are significant to Rothfuss. His key characters have several. Even his own son must have more than one.
“Names are important as they tell you a great deal about a person. I’ve had more names than anyone has a right to,” says Kvothe in The Wise Man’s Fear.
Rothfuss waves goodbye to his assistant and then leads me to the escalator. We’re on a quest for a spot to visit undisturbed by the writer’s fans. But the prospect of finding one seems uncertain as we work our way downstairs and through the halls filled with attendees of the September 2012 science fiction convention Chicon. People wave him down to shake his hand and ask when part three of The Kingkiller Chronicle series will be printed. One young man drops his armload of papers and pulls a small purple book (another of Rothfuss’s published works) from his backpack. “I have the princess with me,” he says handing the hardback fairy tale to Rothfuss to sign. The author beams and thanks the guy for buying the book.
Rothfuss, a New York Times best-selling author, willingly breaks his focus for his fans. He took a leave from writing at home in Wisconsin to come to Chicago at his own expense and be available, answer questions, and sign autographs. He also gets to see some of his own literary heroes. Authors like Neil Gaiman and George R. R. Martin are somewhere in the hotel along with dozens of other well-known writers, editors, and publishers from the science fiction and fantasy world. This, Rothfuss says, is the main industry event.
We finally tuck in to a quiet corner to talk about his life as a fantasy writer, his fairly newfound fame, his world in Wisconsin, and his dark days as a graduate student at Washington State University.
A story to tell
While the expected science fiction and fantasy names often surface around Rothfuss—Joss Whedon, J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis—some unexpected literary influences come up just as quickly. Rothfuss, who lacked cable TV as a child, was a voracious reader. He had a steady diet of books like The Chronicles of Narnia and The Dragonriders of Pern.
There’s a kindness to this guy as he explains for perhaps the thousandth time that he may have always been in the process of writing a book. But what sealed his focus on telling the story of Kvothe, a warrior, performer, and magician, may have been, of all things, the 1897 play Cyrano de Bergerac. Rothfuss loved the poetry of the play, the marvelous character of Cyrano, and the deep tragedy of a man who died in the arms of the woman who for years he had loved from afar.
Rothfuss paints the scene of his awakening: “It was like this beautiful sunny Saturday. I had the house to myself. I’d been there in college for three years. I’m reading this play and its beautiful language.
“For the last quarter of the book, it’s just heart wrenching. I’m reading it and I’m wiping the tears out of my eyes. I finished the play and I’m like ‘Geaahh. I’ve got to move on with my life.’ I go upstairs and I walk around and I’m just crying. I go back downstairs and I’m still crying.
“After I got control of myself, I wondered how come I’ve never read a fantasy book that is this good.”
Around that time, he had picked up the autobiography of Casanova, an eighteenth century Italian nobleman who gambled, seduced women, and had many scandals and adventures. “It was amazing, the story of this man’s life. He was so full of himself. He would take these incredible risks and make these huge mistakes,” says Rothfuss. Again, he wondered why he had never found anything like it in fantasy. In some ways, Rothfuss’s books are like Casanova’s story, full of adventures and exploits, told in the first person by an imperfect hero.
Finally, when it comes to influences, Rothfuss brings up Gwendolyn Brooks, the African-American poet who won the Pulitzer Prize in 1950. Not only was he caught up with the music of her poems, but her live reading astonished him. “It was one of the first in-person readings I ever attended,” he says. “Everyone was gripped.” In between her poems, she would tell these great little stories about her life and how her poems came to be. “That’s what I remember from that,” he says.
As Rothfuss writes, he works in side stories and details of many of the things that fascinate him. His first book, The Name of the Wind,tells of a young hero’s awakening. Born a precocious child of traveling performers in a bucolic Thomas Hardy-like countryside, tragedy strikes him. He loses his family, faces supernatural beings, and finishes his youth as a street urchin in a Dickensian city. In the end he finds his way off the street and into a school of magic. The Wise Man’s Fear, book two,features the hero attending the university, a skilled but unruly student competing with his classmates and struggling with his finances. The third book, which Rothfuss is now editing and revising and about which he reveals little, is called The Doors of Stone.
Pat’s own dragons
Universities are a theme in Rothfuss’s life and his books. It seems he has always been on or near a campus since he started college at the University of Wisconsin–Stevens Point. He took courses in medieval history, theater, anthropology, and English. “Given my casual stroll through college, I was able to accumulate a lot of experience that maybe a lot of focused students wouldn’t have had the opportunity to do,” he says.
Most of the time, he was working doggedly on his trilogy, filling thousands of pages with the stories of Kvothe and details of the Four Corners world, which Rothfuss describes as another place, right now.
But if you hang around long enough, the school starts to notice. English Department Chair Michael Williams (’75, ’85) called him into his office and told him he needed to graduate. Rothfuss thought about what he would like to do—and a life in academia seemed a good fit. After nine years as an undergraduate and seven years as a writing tutor, he was already off to a good start. So he set his sights on graduate school, and because some of the Stevens Point faculty, including Williams, had attended WSU, he aimed for Pullman.
“I had been a tutor in the writing lab for so long, I was training the tutors,” he says. That surely factored in to his application, since as a graduate student he would be teaching and helping WSU freshmen with their writing. “I do not look like any sort of sensible applicant on paper,” says Rothfuss. He was once on academic probation. He failed Math 106 several times because he didn’t like the professor. “My record was spotty. It had character.”
When he got to Pullman, he found most of his classmates were quite different. They were intense and focused; many had finished college in three years after testing out of the freshman courses. At graduate student orientation, the new students were asked who had taken English 101 as undergraduates. Only Rothfuss and one other raised their hands. That was Patrick Johnson (’98, ’99, ’02).
Rothfuss latched on to Johnson, who had a similar tendency to linger around campus. “I was sort of addicted to Pullman school life,” says Johnson, a Vancouver native who had by that time been in Pullman six years. “He saved my life,” says Rothfuss. “Without him, I never would have finished graduate school.” Johnson won’t take that credit, but admits the two Pats helped each other. “I knew the WSU system. I knew the faculty,” says Johnson. “I helped him find an instant group of friends.”
Rothfuss wasn’t hard to befriend. “Pat is one of the most charismatic persons that I have met,” says Johnson. He remembers a time on campus when the two were walking past a demonstration on the Glenn Terrell Mall. It was a rally about racism, says Johnson. The ASWSU president asked if anyone wanted to speak. Though he had only been on campus about three weeks, Rothfuss raised his hand and took the microphone. “He said, ‘I like what I’m hearing,’” and went on to praise the group for being progressive and open minded. It wasn’t much for content, says Johnson, “But he couldn’t resist the opportunity to speak to a group of people.”
The friends were good, but the rigorous schedule and the tenor of the graduate work didn’t fit Rothfuss. “I’m not in any sense suited to be a modern day academic scholar,” he says. “I probably would have been fashionable like 300 years ago or 2,000 years ago. Those are my sweet spots. The scholarship that is done these days, I really don’t have a taste for. The sort of things I wanted to research and I wanted to write about didn’t seem really sensible to a lot of the profs that I talked to.”
Johnson understood his friend’s struggle. “We had two years to teach classes and take classes… and there was more scrutiny, more judgment,” says Johnson. “It took away all his freedom. I felt exactly the same way. It ruined school a little bit for us both.”
But it helped Rothfuss further define himself and connect with the people around him. He also found some teachers he loved. Michael Hanly’s courses in Chaucer and Medieval studies were among his favorites. “He was teaching in areas I was most historically interested in. And he was a great lecturer.” He also had to fight to get into Bill Condon’s class on the assessment of writing. “He opened my eyes to how to really do a good job in a composition classroom,” he says. “And I found out that I love to teach. I really love to teach.” Rothfuss claims Condon’s was the most beneficial class he took in graduate school.
Rothfuss’s classmates were interested in being scholars and in writing poetry or, what he pronounces with a highbrow accent, literary fiction. His own efforts in fantasy were sometimes viewed with disdain. “There was definitely a stigma,” says Johnson. “People were vying for who was going to be the best academic. Fantasy was not taken as seriously.”
Still, few of them were lugging around a massive trilogy. “He was the novel guy,” says Johnson. “He was always asking people to read it and give him feedback.” He would print it out and make copies at the Pullman Kinko’s, bind it with a black plastic binding, and then pass it around. “Nate [Taylor, Johnson’s roommate] read it. Nate’s dad read it. Tom [another friend] read it. One of his English 101 students even,” he says. “You knew that he cared about it desperately.”
The book was different, engaging, and “he writes jokes. That’s a really rare treat in fantasy,” says Johnson.
“Books are a poor substitute for female companionship, but they are easier to find,” Rothfuss writes in The Wise Man’s Fear.
Rothfuss lived in the world of the book. When he wasn’t writing, sometimes he and his friends would play in the world—a role playing game similar to Dungeons and Dragons. “This was serious geek business,” says Johnson. “Pat’s world was so sophisticated and so nuanced.”
Rothfuss guided the players through adventures in the realm he had invented. “It allowed him to think about his world as a real place,” says Johnson. He created money, had sorted out the crop rotations, devised languages, cultures, and folklore. They spent time there and could try out different ideas. “We got to play in his sandbox, so to speak.”
While attending graduate school, working on his book, and hanging out with his friends, Rothfuss was also struggling to find an agent or a publisher. In his words, his writing was “rejected by roughly every agent in the universe.”
The name of the windfall
But then in 2002, a short story that Rothfuss had excerpted from his trilogy won the L. Ron Hubbard Writers of the Future contest. He was invited to Hollywood to accept his award at a ceremony. “He was so excited,” says Johnson. “He bought a tuxedo for the event.” Thanks to the award, “The Road to Levinshir” caught the attention of several book agents and ultimately led Rothfuss to DAW Books, a science fiction and fantasy publisher headquartered at Penguin Group.
After graduate school, Rothfuss returned to Stevens Point, settling into a life with his partner Sarah, teaching at the university part-time and writing. Once he sold his first book, his life changed, though his tastes didn’t. “Now I get to eat Chinese food whenever I want,” he says. “I can afford it.” He paid off his credit cards, bought a house with Sarah, and started thinking about other uses for his money.
The Name of the Wind got off to a good start, winning the 2007 Quill Award for Science Fiction/Fantasy/Horror and making the Publishers Weekly list of best books of the year. And it was getting great response from the sci-fi/fantasy world. Author Anne McCaffrey blurbed: “This is a magnificent book, a really fine story, highly readable and engrossing. I compliment young Pat. His first novel is a great one.” And a Times of London reviewer wrote, “I was reminded of Ursula LeGuin, George R. R. Martin, and J. R. R. Tolkien, but never felt that Rothfuss was imitating anyone. Like the writers he clearly admires, he’s an old-fashioned storyteller working with traditional elements, but his voice is his own.”
Hundreds of readers were turning out for each stop on his book tour, many of them also following Rothfuss on his blog. Rothfuss realized he now had some influence. “I got all this enthusiasm. I thought maybe I could make it mean something,” he says.
In 2008, while in the thick of editing his second book, Rothfuss started a project he named Worldbuilders to raise money for Heifer International, an organization that uses donations to supply families in needy countries with livestock like chickens, rabbits, and sheep. “It’s all about hope, it’s all about self-reliance,” he says of the nonprofit organization. He blogged that if his fans donated to Worldbuilders, he would match every dollar. “I pictured raising $5,000,” he says. “But we hit $5,000 in the first three days.”
He offered signed books and maps for the Four Corners world as incentives to fans supporting the project. By the end of that first fundraiser, the group raised more than $50,000. Great for Heifer. Not for Rothfuss. “It completely wiped me out,” he says. “And I had forgotten as an author, they don’t take taxes out of your money.” For a moment, Pat’s bank account looked dire. Broke college student dire. But then out of the blue, “I got a royalty check from Germany and that like saved me,” he says. He decided to keep Worldbuilders going.
Now in its fourth year, Worldbuilders is supported by a number of science fiction and fantasy writers, artists, and publishers. They donate books, t-shirts, calendars, and other things and the fans contribute cash. To date, the effort has raised more than $1 million for Heifer.
With the books, the conventions, the fundraisers, the family, and the fans, Rothfuss says his life is now pretty full. “Yeah, it’s pretty cool to be famous,” he admits. “But it gets to a point where it’s weird.” He misses things about his pre-published self. “I was way happier poor in college.” He turns wistful. There were fewer people dependent upon him for their happiness. And he nearly lost something that was crucial to his creating the books—that old Spartan environment he had as a student when the only important thing was his story. “I like isolation. I like quiet,” he says. A few years ago he bought a house in which to write, an old two-story former student rental away from the comforts of home and of friends and family. “I put a desk in there and instantly my writing productivity went up by a factor of 10,” he says.
That lasted for a while. Now, thanks to Worldbuilders and some of his other endeavors, the writing house is a lively zone. His employees helping with the fundraisers and managing the business of letters, bills, and special projects fill the house with life and noise. He fights the distractions by making his second floor office sacrosanct. “Nobody goes in that room,” says Rothfuss. “If the house is on fire, I will smell it. Thank you.”
The Wise Man’s Fear trumped the first book’s success. In March of 2011 it was #1 in hardcover fiction on The New York Times bestseller list. When he posted about it in his blog, in true low-key Rothfuss fashion, he told his followers that he would celebrate with some macaroni and cheese and, since Sarah and Oot were already asleep, an evening playing the video game Dragon Age II.
As he starts revising The Doors of Stone, he must first reread the previous two books so they are fresh in his mind. “There are some scenes and I forget that I wrote them,” he says. The fault is in the sheer length of Kvothe’s story. “I wrote my three books thinking it was kind of one big really absurdly long book,” he says.
Now he revises, reinvents, and, as a distraction, concocts short stories. The third book is coming, he promises, maybe in two years. Maybe three. Maybe a hundred.
And then, there will surely be more stories set in this world, he promises. “The smartest thing I’ve ever done is keep writing.”
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