An Interview with Pat Rothfuss
Pat is the author of the new epic fantasy trilogy, The Kingkiller Chronicle. Book one, The Name of the Wind, follows the adventures of a boy named Kvothe as he learns to be an arcanist, something like an alchemist mixed with a wizard, at the “University.” The story is largely told by Kvothe in retrospect. It’s autobiographic fantasy, if such a genre existed. The book has been highly praised, and for good reason. I read it early in the fall, and liked it more than any fantasy debut I can remember picking up in several years.
I hope you will find the interview interesting. I’ll warn you: Pat has a flair for … earthy … language, so you are on notice if that kind of thing offends you. My questions are in bold.
I’ve claimed elsewhere that most “high fantasy” – multi-volume books that intend to tell large stories about pre-modern worlds – contains remarkably little civil law. The agents of the criminal system, like the hangman and the sheriff, are present, but not the civil law courts. Do you agree with this basic description?
Yeah. That’s pretty fair.
Can you imagine creating and writing explicitly about a world where magic and a litigation-based, common-law system, co-existed?
Absolutely. In fact, I’ve written such a world. You don’t see much of it in this first book, but there is a working common-law system in my world. I don’t think that the rule of law and magic are mutually exclusive at all.
The problem I’m thinking of is that law really self-conceives as a scientific, proof-based, system. Even in rules-based magical system, reality inevitably gets warped.
Hmmmm….. Good point. But honestly, I think that when that happens in most books, it’s because the writer is being lazy. Think about England in the 1500’s. People believed in magic and the courts still churned along. John Dee claimed to talk to angels. Alchemists were everywhere. People really believed they could transmute metal, and hell, maybe some of them could. That doesn’t mean that there aren’t still laws against fraud or theft…
You’ve talked in interviews about the need to build a world in exhaustive and thoughtful detail, but leaving most of that information on the cutting room floor in the final draft. When you built Kvothe’s world, did you think (at all) about the background rules of tort, contract, obligation, and property that enabled the relatively sophisticated economy that you envisioned?
Yes and no. I thought of the legal system, but not in those terms. Mostly because I don’t know what a lot of those terms mean. It’s the same way that a person can be a good cook without necessarily knowing how to calculate how many joules go into melting butter using delta T.
The big reason you don’t see much of that in the book is that it isn’t relevant to the story being told, or the experience of the main character. He’s a street urchin for most of the book. If a sailor catches him with his hand in his pocket, he’s not going to press charges. What’s the percentage in that. He’s going to fetch the boy a sharp smack alongside his head, and get on with his day…
Now if Kvothe got brought up on legal charges somewhere, that would be different. Then the reader would see the horrible, corrupt wheels of justice creaking ponderously along. We get a glimpse of that in book two, as a matter of fact.
If you have imagined a common law system, what sources did you draw on to flesh out what it looks like in the “book behind the book.”
In the commonwealth, their legal system is based loosely on England in the 1500-1700’s. In short, it’s a huge, tangled, unfair clusterfuck of a system. There are courts that enforce church law, and courts that enforce the Iron Law of Atur. Each court operates under its own authority, and of course their spheres of influence overlap… It’s a real mess, but it’s the only system that they have….
I’m curious because the realistic fantasy movement seems, if taken really seriously, to require authors to do a really backbreaking amount of research on wildly diverse fields of knowledge, only a fragment of which will make appearances in the text in more-than-cameo roles.
There’s a lot of truth to that. I wasn’t really aware there was a movement though. I’m just really curious about a lot of things and I bring them all into the book to varying degrees. If you’re a geek like me, and you’re curious about everything, it’s not really much of a burden. In fact, it’s mostly a great excuse for me to dabble a little at everything I’m interested in.
You are an academic…
Woah. Hold on. Those are fighting words where I come from. I’ll accept the fact that I work in academia, and that I’m a teacher. But I’m not an academic. Ask anyone.
How is the University Kvothe attends governed? Do the professors have tenure? If not, how is their intellectual freedom protected?
No tenure. The nine masters, each the head of their own discipline, are also the head administrators of the University. Who would fire them?
As for intellectual freedom… How was the intellectual freedom of the Oxford Dons protected two hundred years ago? It wasn’t. Or rather, their protection came from the fact that if someone came into Oxford and said, “How dare you teach my child evolution!” they’d laugh their asses off at you. An education was what they said it was, and if you wanted it, you got it from them. They were in control.
Now of course that means that, effectively, they were a self-policing community. And that means that the internal politics were undoubtedly vicious and brutal. I’d have to do more research before I was willing to bet money on it, but I’m guessing that most of the challenges to intellectual freedom came from the academics themselves in those days, not from the outside world.
Do you hate grading exams as much as I do?
I tell you, grading exams is a picnic in the park compared to grading papers. Especially freshman composition papers.
It’s not that the writing is particularly bad, some of it ends up being surprisingly good in fact. The problem is that in order for the grade to mean anything, you have to give clear, detailed commentary on the paper, not just a grade. Formative feedback integrated with the assessment. It takes forever and it’s exhausting. Sometimes I’ll take an hour on a single paper.
What do you do to procrastinate?
Good lord. What don’t I do? I read. I’ll play videogames if I have them available. I’ll do dishes. I’ll paint the house.
Sometimes I’ll even do online interviews about my fantasy world….
Fantasy (as a category) has exploded in the last decade or two. But most books are pretty bad. I know you’ve been reading fantasy for a long time, and are a real fan.
First off, I’ll have to step to fantasy’s defense here. This is a case of “nobody beats up my little brother but me.” While I’ll be the first to agree that a lot of the fantasy novels out there are pretty bad, it’s not a problem that’s exclusive to fantasy. Have you picked up the average literary fiction novel lately? Sweet mercy, I’d rather bite out my own tongue.
Hell, even a lot of the classics are pretty bad. Nobody would publish Great Expectations today. And if they did, it wouldn’t sell because it’s an awful read. That book was pure shite.
My point is that the majority of books in most genres are less-than-delightful. It’s not just a problem with fantasy.
So how do you choose which series to invest your time in?
I ask around. Sometimes I read what’s popular, because honestly, if a bunch of people are reading it, there’s probably something worthwhile going on in there. That’s not the best strategy though. I mean, a lot of people out there watch reality TV…
Otherwise, I find authors I like and find out what they read for fun. Then I give that stuff a try. I trust authors more than reviewers for the most part. Not because reviewers don’t know what they’re doing, but because my tastes more frequently line up with those of other authors, especially those who value the same things I do in my writing: character, language, and story.
Some authors of fantasy books (Goodkind, Pullman, Rowling) appear embarrassed about their affiliation with the category (possibly because in most bookstores, fantasy is sandwiched between the romance and the young adult sections). James Rigney’s (aka Robert Jordan) death was significantly less covered than other best-selling authors.
Some fantasy authors are wankers who desperately need a swift kick in the ass. If I wrote a book with a cowboy in it, and a shootout, and a cattle drive, and a whore with a heart of gold. Then I’d have written a western. It doesn’t matter what I say; it’s still a western. Same is true if you write something with wands and wizards and dragons and magic. You’ve written a fantasy novel. Deal with it. Learn to cope.
Should fantasy strive towards respectability?
I’m not a big fan of respectability. Will being respectable feed me? Will it keep me warm at night? Will it fill my life with joy? No. In fact, I’ll bet a dollar and a doughnut that if I made respectability my goal. My life would suddenly become very flat, stale and unprofitable.
People forget that respect is not the end goal. It is not a quality possessed of an object in itself. Respect is the result of a value judgement other people make about you or something you produce. If my books are solid, full of good story and character, fun to read with good language, then people will enjoy them. Then, maybe, they might come to respect me as an author.
If fantasy writing as a whole strives for quality and achieves it, then the genre will gain respectability. But respectability isn’t a means. Respectability is a symptom of quality. We should strive for quality.
Back to the book, at one point we learn about a loan that contains self-help provisions that would be unenforceable in modern courts. How does the existence of this kind of clause in your contract relate to your imagined system of enforcing contracts? [Here, I wrote Pat a long and pedantic description of liquidated damages clauses which I will excise.]
Oh. I see. That’s interesting. I wasn’t aware of that. So how come my credit card gets to charge me extra money if I make a late payment, and that buy 10 CD’s for a penny place is currently trying to get me to give them 100 dollars and a pint of my blood? Is it because non-payment on my part is considered a part of the contract, rather than a breach of it?
To answer your question. The steps that Devi [the creditor] takes don’t reflect much on the legal systems in place in my world. What Devi is doing completely outside the law. In most cases what she is doing is against the law. (Operating as a moneylender without a license.) And in other cases what she is doing is VERY against the law. (Malfeasance, in the old sense of the word.)
One of the things that’s surprised me over the last couple months is how many people have missed the fact that Devi is a loan shark. A criminal. I think it’s because she doesn’t fit the stereotype very well. She’s young, pretty, female, articulate and well-educated — but she’s still a criminal. She doesn’t have Kvothe sign anything because a document would be useless to her; she’s operating outside the law. They don’t really have a contract in the legal sense, they have… an agreement. Implicit in that agreement is “If you try to screw me out of my money or skip town, I’m going to make your life extremely difficult.”
I keep thinking back to the Sopranos. I only watched a few episodes, but in one of them, a guy borrowed a bunch of money and lost it in a poker game. When he can’t pay the mobsters back, they systematically go about pillaging his life to get their money out of him. It’s the same sort of arrangement, really. The main difference is that Devi is much more genteel about how she threatens people.
Anyway, what I’m getting at is that the steps Devi takes to ensure repayment of her loans are extreme. Not because there are no official avenues of legal recourse available, but because those avenues aren’t available to HER.
Is that what you were getting at?
Sort of! I guess that leads to my next-to-last question. In your books, how does “right” and “wrong” map onto what is lawful?
Oh. Good question. Boy… Depending on the country… maybe… 50%? That’s a rough guess. They do have rule of law for the most part, but it’s a pretty flawed, corrupt system, and most people know it.
Complicating the issue is what system of law they’re falling under. There is church law, and common law. Several other social institutions, like the University, create and maintain their own system of rules and punishments. I think the University’s system is actually pretty tight, maybe 80 or 90% for them. But what they’re dealing with is somewhat limited in scope, most of the things they legislate devolve from the primary assumption that harming others is wrong. That’s pretty safe ground.
However, one of the rules is the charge of “Conduct Unbecoming an Arcanist.” What does that mean? Well obviously it means just about anything they want. That means that the masters at the university have free reign to trying to enforce their own arbitrary moral judgements on the students. That’s where justice always begins to crumble out of any legal system.
Finally, are lawyers today’s arcanists?
In the specific sense, absolutely. Rhetoric is one of the main branches of study of the University, and the people who study that are probably training themselves to work in some way with the law.
But in a broader sense the answer is still yes. By nature arcanists gain their power through understanding arcane knowledge. I chose that word because it has vaguely magical overtones, but at it’s heart, the word “arcane” means that which is secret or mysterious. My arcanists study several very particular, specialized branches of knowledge that give them control over certain elements of the world. Lawyers do the same thing, just in a very different way.
Great Stuff! Thanks so much to Pat for his thoughtful answers. If you haven’t read The Name of the Wind yet, go ahead and buy it. If you find this entire post obscure but have the sneaking suspicion that you are dating or related to a fantasy geek, the book is just the right size to make a good looking wrapped gift. And look for Book Two, The Wise Man’s Fear, in the Spring of 2009. Maybe when it comes out, we can have Pat come back for a second part of his interview. I can teach him all about the battle of the forms under the Uniform Commercial Code, or, better yet, the perfect tender rule. Or Raffles!