Patrick Rothfuss is the author of the epic fantasy trilogy, The Kingkiller Chronicle. The first two books, The Name of the Wind and The Wiseman’s Fear, are out now. His latest book, The Slow Regard of Silent Things, is a novella set in the same world.
This interview first appeared on Wired.com’s The Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy podcast, which is hosted by David Barr Kirtley. Visit geeksguideshow.com to listen to the entire interview and the rest of the show, in which the host and his guests discuss various geeky topics.
Your new book is called The Slow Regard of Silent Things. In the very first line of the author’s introduction, you say, “You might not want to buy this book.” Why do you say that?
Well, a lot of people that have read the first two books are eagerly awaiting the third book. They make no bones about that online. They’re impatient for it; insistent upon getting it. And this is not the third book. I really wanted to make that clear to people, because if you pick this up thinking it’s going to be the third, they’re bound to be disappointed, and I don’t like disappointing people. The other thing is if you’ve never read any of my books, this would be a really odd place to start. It’s like coming in halfway through a movie; if it’s a decent movie, you’re going to be baffled about what’s going on. I want to avoid that if at all possible.
It seems like you were also saying that, even for people who do know your work, this is sort of a weird story that doesn’t do some of the things you might expect.
Absolutely. That was the third thing I wanted to make really clear to people. Earlier this year, I came out with a little slice of Bast’s life, another one of my characters. And that’s a little bit more of a traditional story: it’s got a little more action; it’s one of the characters in there being charming, and he’s a bit of a rake and a bit of a con man, and it’s a lot of fun. But this one is different. And so if people walk into it thinking this will be kind of a classic fantasy story, with a little adventure and some drama and action, that’s not necessarily what they’re going to get, and when we don’t get what we expect, we tend to get disappointed and irritated.
In your author’s afterword, you say that people are going to read this and be pissed. Has that been the case with people you’ve shown it to? Have people had that sort of hostile reaction to it?
They haven’t, actually. And it could be that I’m just being fidgety, that I’m being kind of anxious; it’s something a lot of authors go through when you finish the book and it’s out of your hands and you have nothing to do but wait for it to hit the shelves and see what people think. I tend to have a very extensive beta reader process: I give my books and my stories to a lot of people, and I gather a lot of feedback so that I can refine and revise. With my books, I did it hundreds of times for each book. For this one, I didn’t have quite that amount of time, so it was only with about forty or fifty beta readers. And nobody got back to me and was pissed, but then again, I guess I fear the worst. If only five percent of my readers end up reading this and hating it, that’s still a lot of readers; I’ve got upwards of half a million here in the US alone.
Speaking of pissing people off, you also say in the introduction that your editor and marketing people are going to hate you for telling people not to buy this book. How did they react to that?
There was a little bit of raised eyebrow there and it’s really to their credit that they let me put that in right up in the front of the book. And then I just asked them if it would be okay if I shared it on Goodreads, too, as one of the top reviewers on Goodreads. And so I posted that author’s forward up as my review of my own book, and they were okay with that, too. I’m not saying it’s an awful book — I wouldn’t publish an awful book — but I do really want to let people know that this is a different kind of story than what I typically write: It’s from a different point of view than you might have gotten used to, and the actual mechanics of the story are different because Auri is a strange character, and her situation leads to a certain type of story. I hate to vague that up for you, but I really prefer not to share details of the story, because you only get one chance to read a book for the first time.
You say you revised this eighty times or something; what is your revision process? Are you adding stuff? Cutting stuff? Changing words around?
I can probably say, with a fair amount of confidence, that I revise more than anyone else in the genre, if not maybe more than anyone who is published today. That seems like a bold statement, but I’ve asked around, and a lot of authors do, like, four drafts: They write one and then rewrite it and show it to someone, then they revise it, then they show it to their editor and revise it, then they copy-edit it and it gets printed. I like to show it to thirty or forty people and make changes based on their feedback before I ever show it to the editor. Then when I get the feedback from the editor, I change those things and show it to another thirty or forty people. It’s a very labor intensive process; it takes a long time, especially when you write big books like I do, but it helps me be aware of what parts might be confusing or a little slow or distasteful or rough for a vast variety of people. You’re so close to a book as an author, it’s easy to forget what it’s like reading a book for the first time.
As for what I change, a lot of people think, “God, Rothfuss, why does it take you so long to revise this book?” and I kind of imagine them thinking of me running spell check on it again and again. Which is true; I do have to run spell check, and when you write a book that’s a quarter of a million words long, spell check takes eight hours. But that’s nothing compared to what I actually do: I go through, reread it, smooth out rough bits, tweak phrases, pull out things that aren’t pulling their weight — phrases or sentences or paragraphs; I move things around to adjust the pacing. I’ve pulled out whole chapters, inserted chapters; I insert characters, change description. Sometimes I just massage the language so that it’s beautiful; sometimes it gets too beautiful, and that can be distracting, so then I have to tone that down. It would take me an hour to tell you everything that I do in revision. I think I actually posted a blog once where, as a joke, someone wrote in a fan-mail thing, “I’m not really impatient, but I’m really curious: You’ve been revising this book for years. What does that involve?” That’s pretty much what their letter said, but they said it in about 400 words, and it was a very nice fan letter, but then I revised their fan letter like two or three times, and I say, “Here is how I do that.” And at the end it was a much shorter, tighter, snappier fan letter with better paragraphing and phrases. In another blog once, I think I wrote 800 words about how to punctuate a particular sentence, about what the different types of punctuation could potentially imply to the reader. Am I obsessive? Yes; it’s entirely possible that I am not a well person.
You mentioned making the prose beautiful and we did have a listener, Gerard Hines, who says, “Please ask him about his prose style; it’s like dark chocolate.” Do you have any idea what he means by that?
It’s flattering, no matter what he might particularly mean. Well, I hope that he likes dark chocolate; that’s the first thing I should say. I’ve read fantasy my whole life. Quite literally; my mom read me The Hobbit before I could read stuff to myself. So I love fantasy; that’s what I read for fun, it’s what I read professionally to keep abreast of what’s in the genre — it’s where my heart is. But that said, that doesn’t mean I can’t be critical of the genre, and the truth is we do things better than any other genre. Some things we excel in. We play the “What If” game better than anyone else; we can have fantastical things, we engage the imagination, we force people to speculate and consider impossibilities. And that’s wonderful.
But that said, as a rule, because we have the ability to have fantastic plots and armies clashing and magic and dragons, it’s easy to leave out other things and one of the hardest ones to do is language. I’m not talking about being florid or lyrical or whatever; I’m just talking about good attention to the brick and mortar of any story: how the words are fit together. It doesn’t have to be a dactylic verse; it doesn’t have to rhyme or be cadenced. Some words simply sound beautiful together, and some authors love playing with it and some authors don’t. In fantasy, a lot of authors — that’s just not the game they care to play. I think a lot of my readers — some of them know it; some of them read the language and they’re like, “This is beautiful.” But I think others of them, they read the book and they like it, but they don’t know why, so they say, “Oh, I really like this character,” but what they really like is the cleverness of how that character speaks, or maybe the phraseology of how I’ve described that character. I can only guess at what he meant by “dark chocolate,” but I’m hoping he meant that it was a bit of a luxury; something delicious to him; something that he doesn’t get every day.
Yeah; if I were to describe your prose style in The Slow Regard of Silent Things — and in “The Lightning Tree” — I would describe it as playful. The paragraphs are just filled with words that seem put in for fun.
Yeah. And anyone who’s read the previous two books, and who knows Auri, knows that she is a playful character. So of course a story from her perspective has to have that same element of play in it; has to have that same delightful language in it. That took a lot of work; writing a little bit of dialogue from Auri takes a while because she has this wonderful method of expressing herself. I had to maintain that much longer than I ever have in the novels and it taught me a few things. I learned a lot about the language and her character.
You actually say in the introduction that without Tunnel Bob there would be no Auri. I’m just curious what the story is behind that, and why is Tunnel Bob called Tunnel Bob?
Generally speaking, when people ask me — because I do writing workshops, I go to conventions, I talk to aspiring authors — ”Do you base characters on real world people?” I say, “No, I don’t. And you shouldn’t either, because it’s almost always a bad idea.” There’s a bunch of reasons that I won’t bother going into unless you’re really curious, but the true answer is a little more complex. I don’t just try to take a person out of our world and put them into my world; that wouldn’t work. It’s sort of like bad Photoshop: If you see something Photoshopped together — and even if it’s done pretty well — the eye catches on it. And you might not think, “The light sourcing is wrong there,” but you look at it and you’re like, “No. No, that’s fake.” That happens a lot when people try to cut and paste people from our world into their fourteenth-century historical romance novel.
But, sometimes, I will get an idea for a character from something in the real world, and Auri started from stories my father would tell me about a guy that he knew called “Tunnel Bob.” He lives in Madison, Wisconsin, and he’s just a little different from the rest of us; he is constantly getting arrested for being in the steam tunnels underneath the university — the access tunnels that every big city has. My dad used to run engineering for one of the hospitals down there, and you had to learn how to deal with Tunnel Bob, like everyone in the city, because he gets into your tunnels. My dad actually solved the problem by saying, “Tunnel Bob can volunteer here three hours a week, but the rest of the time he can’t be in.” And it worked like a charm; suddenly, they didn’t have to worry about him wandering around when he wasn’t allowed, because he would do anything to protect these three precious hours where he was officially sanctioned to be in their tunnels. At the end of his shift, my dad would buy him a Coke and then they’d talk for a little while, and my dad would tell me these stories about Tunnel Bob. He was this ponderous, thoughtful guy who loved these tunnels. “So what do you do down there in the tunnels, Bob?” my dad would ask. And he’d say, “Well . . . first hour, I walks around a bit . . . And the second hour I cleans up some . . . And the third hour, well . . . that’s just for me.” And I’d think, “That’s just so neat that this person is there.” Auri is not Tunnel Bob, but I started thinking about this love of the tunnels — what if I started with the love of the tunnels, this delight — and that was the seed that Auri as a character grew up around.
You mention that Tunnel Bob isn’t like the rest of us, and Auri is the same way too; could you talk about portraying that character and making her different?
Whenever you write a character, you want to make them themselves, you want to make them unique. You don’t want fifty characters in your book and they all pretty much act and think the same except they have different colored hair. Auri is really different. Anyone who’s read the books knows that. She’s kind of childlike and she’s kind of strange. By no measure would you say she’s normal. And by most measures you would probably say she has some real problems. You don’t abandon society and live underground and are afraid of noises and questions and people to the point where you cannot interact with human society anymore. That’s somebody who is running different software than the rest of us. And that was an incredible challenge, learning to write from that perspective. Originally when I sat down to write this story, I thought, “This will be fun; this will be kind of like a trickster tale. Auri’s so playful; Auri is so sweet.” And then I started writing the story and I started getting into her head more and more, and I realized . . . no. Auri is sweet, and childlike, and she’s lovely, but there’s a lot more going on there. That’s really what the story is about: who Auri is and what she’s like. That sounds really awful; that sounds like a boring story. I don’t know if I’d read that, but that’s the truth. The people that are curious about Auri, and about this piece of my world — that’s who this story is for. If, really, you just want more about Kvothe, you can wait for book three. I’m working on that, we’ll get it done, but this is something else you can read, if you’re interested, to tide you over.
Another aspect of this story is that I think that this is the first place that you name this world. Can you talk about coming up with that name and including it in this story?
I’ve kind of had it rolling around in my head for a while, but I wasn’t sure about it. If you think of your favorite fantasy worlds, they did usually have a name; people don’t talk about “Tolkien’s World,” they talk about Middle Earth. They don’t talk about Lewis books, they talk about Narnia; we talk about Pern; we talk about Arrakis from Dune. For a long time, I referred to the world as “The Four Corners of Civilization,” but I’ve always known that’s just the piece of the world that this particular story — Kvothe’s story — is taking place in, and that’s how people in the world refer to it. But there’s a lot of other stuff that doesn’t show up on that map, and the people who aren’t on that map probably wouldn’t say, “Oh yeah, over there is the Four Corners of Civilization; we’re all a bunch of bumpkins and hicks over here. Yep, just barbarians, move along.”
The thing is, naming a world is a tricky thing; I didn’t want to rush out there and make a wrong choice, so I’ve been holding on to the world’s name for a couple of years now, just smoothing it around in my head and making sure that I genuinely like the feel of it. Then I actually launched it earlier in relationship to a fundraiser that I run: I raise money for Heifer International with a charity called Worldbuilders, and I said, “If we hit 100,000 dollars for our mid-season fundraiser, I’ll announce the name of my world.” We hit 200,000 so I let everyone know that it’s Temerant. And this is the first book where it shows up; Auri refers to it as Temerant to herself.
You had another Temerant story that came out recently called “The Lightning Tree.” You were talking about trying to do stories that weren’t typical fantasy, and this is a story you wrote for the Rogues anthology, and it is definitely not a typical rogue story. Can you talk about the atypical roguishness of this story?
That’s nice to hear. For that one, I did not specifically sit down and say, “Okay, I’m going to write an atypical rogue story,” but I’m coming to realize that it might be simply impossible for me to write anything like I’m supposed to. I’ve known Bast as a character for upwards of twenty years now, but we always see him in conjunction with Kvothe; he’s Kvothe’s conversational foil, his assistant. You never see him off by himself, with very rare exceptions. So I figured, “Let’s follow him around; let’s see what he really does in his free time.” I was very proud of how that one turned out, especially because I wrote it amazingly quickly for me. The whole thing was pretty much done in two weeks. I wish I always wrote that fast and the stories came together that well.
And I saw on your blog that you didn’t plan it out in advance? It just sort of grew organically?
That is how my stuff typically goes. I’ve heard somebody say that some writers are architects and some are gardeners; I’m absolutely a gardener. I know the characters, I know the world, and then the story moves forward and flowers up. That’s not to say that I don’t have a plan, it’s mostly that I don’t chain myself to my plans and expectations. I like to leave myself open for beautiful accidents, for strange things to happen, and then I want to pursue those. That can be hard if you’ve shackled yourself to an outline.
What was your starting point for this story? The kernel that the rest of this grew from?
For “The Lightning Tree,” I remember thinking, “Well, I need to write a rogue story; let’s talk about Bast.” Because he’s obviously one of the most classically roguish characters; he’s a clever, active, interesting person, and it would be real easy for him to go nuts with all this time on his hands in this tiny little town. How would he amuse himself? That’s where I started, and I started knowing the character, and I started knowing the town, and then I think, “Who would this person interact with? Who would judge him the least? Who would he have the most fun with?” The answer is the kids. And, because he is who he is, the older daughters and the younger wives of the villagers are very interested in Bast as well: He’s charming and attractive and somewhat amoral, one could say; not immoral, but without traditional societal morals. That makes for a pretty interesting sort of rogue.
He has all these rules and rituals; was that inspired by anything in real life, or in other stories you’ve read or anything?
No. While I won’t say that I never steal anything out of other books, I try not to steal — or “be inspired by,” if you want to phrase it that way — with both hands. It’s not any surprise; anyone who’s read my books knows that Bast is a Fae creature; he’s not a normal human. He’s very close, and he looks like us. One of the things I knew was going to be fun was showing how he actually lived his life, and traditionally — mythically, legendarily — all Fae creatures tend to be bound by rules.
The truth is we all are; humans are. It’s just that the really deep superstitions are not things that we talk about. They’re things that are so given that we would never think of transgressing against them. For example, you would never walk over to your neighbor’s house and let yourself in by the front door without knocking. You might, but you would kind of be a sociopath, to just wander into a stranger’s house. We knock, and the thought of not knocking? It’s really weird. That’s one of the rules of our culture that’s really ground into us. Now the Faeries always seem to take this to another level: There’s debt and obligation. In some of the legends, they can’t lie; in some of the legends they lie all the time. I took this story as an opportunity to show some of the mythos in my world; to unveil part of who Bast is by showing him moving through his own rituals, some of which are his and some of which he has created with these children.
And Bast — He’s so clever; the soaking of the brother’s shoes in urine was just so devious.
Yeah. The kid comes to him and says, “I want vengeance,” and Bast is like, “Okay, well, how much vengeance?” And the boy holds up his hands about a foot apart and is like, “This much vengeance.” Because, like I said, Bast is this amoral creature, and if the kid had come to him and said, “How do I kill him and hide the body?” Bast would be like, “Well, here’s what you do.” He’s learned, over the years, some survival skills among these humans; that vengeance does not necessarily mean driving a nail through someone’s leg and leaving him hanging in a tree. He’s become this counselor to the town’s children in secret. More than anything else, I like writing clever characters and, yeah, the vengeance he deals out — even if it’s not catastrophic or epic — is clever. The lies that he coaches the children in, and the interactions he has with the children, are clever. That’s what makes this story worthwhile.
As a child, were you clever like that, in terms of getting out of trouble and meting out vengeance and stuff like that?
The truth is, I was a very good boy. I was not terribly rebellious. I liked to stay at home, and I liked to read books. At one point, I got a neighbor: I lived out in the country, and the only neighbor within any sort of walking distance was my grandpa who lived up the hill. He moved out and some other people moved in, and there was a kid who was exactly my age and he would come to my house and knock on the door and say, “Do you want to do something?” He came from a suburb where there were a ton of kids, and they were always playing and doing something together. And I would look at him like, “What the hell are you doing here?” And I’m thinking, “I am doing something; I’m reading a book, and you are interrupting me. Go away.” In some ways, I was an ideal child; you can’t get into much trouble just sitting at home and reading books and playing D&D with your friends. On the plus side, if you’re going to be clever, a good way to bone up on that is reading the right sort of books and playing D&D; it teaches you how to be a problem solver, gives you the joy of experience without the burden of acquiring that experience.
Speaking of D&D, listener Robert Coleman says, “Ask him about D&D in general and the Acquisitions Incorporated games in particular. I love his books.” You want to tell us about the Acquisitions Incorporated games?
The guys from Penny Arcade — almost two years ago at this point — played D&D onstage at their convention, which sounds really weird unless you’re an old D&D player. Do you play?
I played a lot when I was in high school.
I played a ton starting back in high school, and then in college. These days, I don’t role-play so much because I’ve lost my crew, but I have a real love for the game, so they invited me out to play and we do it on camera. First we tape some podcasts, us just goofing off around the table, and then we perform on stage at PAX Prime, their convention. And they pack an auditorium; easily 2,000 people, live, sitting in the stadium, watching us play D&D with the excellent GM Chris Perkins, who works at TSR and Wizards of the Coast working on Dungeons & Dragons. It’s one of the most enjoyable times I’ve had in the last couple years. I’ve met with very good success and wonderful people, but playing D&D with Mike and Jerry and Scott, and most recently Morgan Webb — it’s a ton of fun.
I don’t know if you know the Harmontown podcast, but they do a live show where they also play Dungeons & Dragons on stage. I just wonder how large the audience is for that; could this be like the next NFL or something? It just keeps growing and growing.
I told my publisher that, “I’m going to go play D&D with the Penny Arcade guys,” and she’s like, “You know, you should probably stay at home and work on your book.” And I said, “No, you don’t understand; I’m going to go play D&D onstage in front of like 2,000 people, and another 20,000 are going to watch it live streaming, and another couple hundred thousand are going to watch it online after the fact.” And she was flabbergasted by that, in the same way that those of us that aren’t into sports can’t understand why anyone would go to a football game. But it’s a little more understandable if you say — instead of role-playing or D&D — ”I’m going to watch a group of incredibly quick-witted, articulate, funny people engage in interactive improvisational storytelling for two hours.” Then suddenly you realize that it’s Whose Line Is It Anyway? with a strong narrative thread. And, as a bonus, we get dragons and swordfights, too.
Yeah; sometimes if people ask me why I like fantasy and science fiction, I’ll describe it as the imagination Olympics. So you’re sort of saying the same thing there, right? You’re watching people with the best imaginations push themselves to their limits live on stage.
Exactly. I remember when they invited me, I was like, “Sure, I’ll come and goof around with you,” and then I listened to all the previous podcasts and watched the previous games so that I knew what I was getting into. At first it was just a core group from Penny Arcade and PVP, and they’re funny and quick, and Chris was in it from the beginning running these games for them. As an author, I’m pretty quick-witted and I’m a good performer and pretty funny, but that’s as an author. These people are professionally funny, every day, as a living. And I had some anxiety about being able to hold my own with them. Then Wil Wheaton joined the party and he is a professional actor and professionally funny. He really raised the bar in terms of the overall interactions in the group, and I was legitimately sweaty going into that group. Then I just forgot all of my anxiety when I was doing it and just had fun, and I was all hopped up on caffeine and we were eating Doritos and I’m like, “Yeah, this is awesome. This is everything I love about the game.”
You mention that the Dungeon Master’s really good. What would you say categorizes a really elite Dungeon Master?
I touched on it very briefly before: You asked me if I planned my books ahead of time or how I got ready to write a story, and I said I did it very organically. Then I kind of backpedaled and said, “I’m not saying I don’t have a plan, I’m just very willing to deviate from the plan if it seems like there’s a better path.” That is the true sign of mastery of my favorite type of DM; you can tell that I’m older because I say DM — Dungeon Master — instead of GM — Game Master. Chris has this whole game laid out; he’s got a bunch of things prepared and he’s got figurines waiting in the wings and he’s got maps and riddles and puzzles and NPCs. We ran through this adventure, and it was brilliant, and I go, “How did you come up with this when you were planning?” And he’s like, “Actually, I didn’t have anything ready for that room so I made that all up on the spot.” A lesser GM would’ve panicked and gone, “Uh, there’s a dragon there and it scares you away. Two dragons. Ten. The force-field.” I don’t doubt for a second that if, instead of pursuing the main line of the plot, we had said, “Let’s go hunting bandits in the forest. Let’s get a cart and we’ll mount a ballista on it,” Chris probably would’ve ridden along with us on that trip and had fun.
The other thing is we are also experienced players and we know he has some stuff planned, and we know that the game will be better if we allow ourselves to be gently led through this story. That doesn’t mean we have to do everything he expects, but the best games are cooperative. We’re all trying to tell a really good story. The GM is the lynchpin, and Chris has that unique skillset.
I know you did a podcast for a while called Storyboard, and in one of your episodes you talked about stories in games. I played a lot of computer RPGs growing up. Ultima 7 was my favorite one, and I sort of fell out if it after that because I felt like the stories had disappeared from the games. And I gather maybe they’re starting to come back now, but what is your opinion on the current situation with stories in computer role-playing games?
Do you have another hour and a half? In some ways, I get to be a legitimate curmudgeon, because I was playing computer games at the very beginning; I have played the earliest games, like the Infocom Text Adventures, where all you had was text. They would describe a room and you would type in, “Get lamp. Turn on lamp. Go north. Look at file. Climb rope.” They called it interactive fiction, and it was; your actions influenced the game. One of these games, Zork III, I played with my friend Chad; we started in sixth grade and played it for two years before we solved it. There were riddles in the game we could not solve, things that we couldn’t beat. We would go home and work on it and try all of these different things and we’d come to school and talk about it. It was pre-internet; we had no answers and no way to get them. Playing that game changed my life; playing those games taught me to be a problem solver, taught me how to deal with frustration, how to stick to something.
So now here comes the curmudgeon part: I lament that my child will never have the opportunity to experience frustration on that level because, these days, if you start to get irritated at a game, what do you do? The internet. And that sucks. When I talk to the brilliant people in my generation — people doing things, telling stories — they played Infocom games. Neil Gaiman played Infocom games; Terry Pratchett played Infocom games; Felicia Day played Infocom games. And they all spent months trying to get the frickin’ babelfish in Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, and now it’s virtually impossible to write a game which successfully provides challenge and frustration, and that’s a shame. We are going to lose something. That makes scientists; that makes doers and hard-minded, clever, witty people, and I worry that those people aren’t being made these days.
I know you’re involved in the new Torment game. To what extent do you think that’s going to be able to recapture some of the admirable qualities of older games?
The lack of challenge is one issue; the other one that I lament the loss of is the lack of narrative in most big release games. I’m not saying there’s none: Portal — if you haven’t played Portal, it’s your own damn fault — is brilliant, not just because of the gameplay, but what made that game is the narrative line; same for the second Portal game. Half-Life: Good solid narrative. The Bioshock games. The original Deus Ex — I’m dating myself there, but that had good story; thoughtful stuff: Future dystopia and, at the end of it, who are you supporting? The secret masters who rule the world and are trying to make things better for people by controlling them? Or do we go for enlightened anarchy? That’s a big question, and it was very legitimately brought up and discussed through the course of this game that also had amazing gameplay. Torment is going to have a focus on the story, and I know this because I’ve been involved in the meetings and the people involved are really taking it seriously. They want a good game with good story. And they want the player to be able to make legitimate choices that legitimately influence the story, which is something you can only get in video games, so it’s a wasted opportunity if you don’t have it. I have very high hopes. Honestly, I am the least qualified there because everyone else has been all over, making games for years. The only thing I can really bring is the fact that I get stories; I get character. That’s my wheelhouse.
Could you say a little more about what your role is on the project? Or what you’ve contributed?
I’m creating one area and I’m creating a companion character. I went in and I was chatting with them and everybody talked about the character they were thinking of and wanted to make. And honestly I was intimidated, because these are pros: The head of story worked on the original Planescape, and people are there from Black Isle and Obsidian and all these amazing studios. So I sit down and I say, “Here’s my thought: If we want to give people true freedom of choice, and we know that some of them want to be a hero, we need to give them certain opportunities. This is a weird idea for a character, but hear me out . . .” And I just talked for fifteen minutes about my idea, which, even playing as many games as I have, I have never run into a character like this in any of these games. And I pitched it to them, thinking they’re going to think I’m an idiot. Finally I saw Chris Avellone — who is a superstar — nodding along a little bit. And they said, “Absolutely, we can do that.” I’m obviously being vague here because I don’t want to spoil the reveal of this character, but just yesterday I was working on concept art and shipping it off to the team; I’ve already worked out a personality and I’ll be doing a comic with my friend and illustrator Nate Taylor to introduce the character in part of the Numenera world in conjunction with the release of the video game.
So now I’m really curious about that character, but I guess we’ll wait and see.
I can say this: You’ve probably never had a character like this as a companion in one of these role-playing games before.
Getting back to your commentary on games, one of our listeners, Jaycel Adkins, wants to know if Storyboard is coming back. Could you say a little about why you did the Storyboard podcast and whether you have any future plans for it?
Felicia Day was just kicking off the Geek and Sundry network and she invited me in for her launch of it; they did a twenty-four-hour Google Hangout to announce the launch. I think she was putting it together and dropped me an email and said, “Hey, you want to help me fill an hour of this time for our launch?” And I was like, “Sure; I could bring together a few writers and we can talk about writing.” So I did, and I said to Felicia afterwards, “That was a blast. I don’t know what you’re looking for, for shows in Geek and Sundry, but I would put together a monthly show — me and authors talking about writing stuff.” I did it for about a year, but then they had a programming shift; they were doing less of the live Hangout shows. Which was fine, because I was busy working on various projects.
The main reason I did it is because I go to these conventions and I’ll sit on a panel and we’ll talk about how to write good characters; what makes epic fantasy epic; how to develop a magic system; how to portray women less awfully in fantasy, which is a huge deal; how can we be more sex positive in our books without being smutty; what makes urban fantasy so appealing; how can you write a better vampire. And I loved talking about these things and people love attending these panels, but not everybody lives next to a convention. And even the people who do might not know about it, or maybe they hate crowds, or maybe they don’t have fifty bucks to blow on a badge or $200 for a plane ticket and hotel room so they can come hang out. So I’m like, “Why don’t we start doing these panels online? It’s much more egalitarian.” I had a great time and I was finally starting to figure out what made it work well when I got to the end of that first season.
My intention is to start it back up again, but . . . I think we’ll pre-record it next time around. I’ve got so many projects, I’m hesitant to pick up another one. It might happen as early as next year; maybe I’ll make that a stretch goal in Worldbuilders.
So when you say you were starting to figure out what made it work well, what was it that you were figuring out?
Some people are really smart about these topics, some are funny, some are really witty in the moment, some are good teachers, but not everyone is all of those things. If you have five people who are all knowledgeable but very slow to speak, it’s not a good discussion. If you have five people who are very witty, but none of them are knowledgeable? Everyone quickly realizes that it’s just kind of pointless. Some people who are very good speaking in person or on a panel are not good on a webcam. The more of it that I did, the more I realized what makes for a really good mix of authors and what makes for a good discussion and topic. It’s more like alchemy than chemistry; it’s not like you can put five ingredients together the same way and you’re always going to get a good discussion. It’s more of an art than a science.
We do panels on this show, and I totally agree with all the stuff you’re saying. Actually, speaking of audio, I saw that you were personally performing the audiobook for The Slow Regard of Silent Things. Could you talk about that experience? How do you read all that stuff without blundering it all?
You do blunder, is the key. You blunder a lot, and then they clean it up in the edit. Or at least, I do. I’m certainly no stranger to public speaking: I’ve preached sermons and sung in choirs and been a teacher for years and played D&D on stage and done Q&A, been on TV. I like talking about these things and I’m quick on my feet, but reading this audiobook has given me a whole new appreciation for people who do this professionally. There’s an incredible amount of craft involved. I’m okay. I could even say that, at this point in my career, I am good. I’m not great. I never would have dipped into it for this book except that I know this character, this world and story, and there were things going on in the language — hidden things about the sound and the meter and how things are presented — that I knew I was aware of that no other audiobook narrator would’ve been. I hope to someday be Neil Gaiman good.
So you are planning to do more audiobook narration?
I did enjoy it, and I’d like to be better at it and I know the only way to do that is to practice. I will do more. I’m not going to do book three, because that already has a narrator and I don’t want to change horses mid-race. You get used to one voice and then somebody changes the audio narrator on you, and that’s just unforgivable.
Did you learn anything about doing it in the course of this one book that you wish you could go back and tell yourself?
I’d probably tell myself to read it, one more time, to myself, out loud the day before my performance, or a couple of days leading up to my actual recording. I had revised and revised it, and I had read through it once all the way and made edits and corrections to make sure that I would be able to read it smoothly. Then a couple of weeks had gone past so I felt confident in it, but then I sat down to read it again and I had gotten a little rusty. The problem is, just reading it out loud, even this relatively short book — even if I never stop and repeat anything, which you kind of need to do to get it right — is eight hours of just sitting and reading. It’s exhausting. It doesn’t seem like it would be, but you’ve got to emote, you have to really control your breathing and your voice; you feel like a wrung-out rag after five hours.
There’s one other listener question I wanted to get to. Nick El Plated asks, “Is it weird that I have a quote from your book getting tattooed on me?”
I would say weird but awesome. I’d also say that you’re not alone. Some people have sent me pictures of their tattoos, either of art or quotes. I actually have another ten or so that I’ve been meaning to post up in a blog for a while, but I haven’t managed to get around to it.
So he says the quote that he picked is, “All the truth in the world is held in stories.”
That’s a very popular one. Not for tattoos, but people have commented on that quote before. As far as tattoos, I know that there are at least two people that have “My heart is made of stronger stuff than glass” tattooed on them.
I was struck, on your blog, that you had the photograph of the women with The Wiseman’s Fear bikinis.
We ran a photo contest a couple of years ago, and the response to it was huge; thousands of pictures were sent in. Then my life got busy, and I got a kid, then my dad was sick and I’ve been struggling to sift these photos and announce the winners and organize them into blogs. It’s been a huge source of guilt for me. But I’m finally getting them all up now, and that was the arts and crafts blog where people actually silk-screened my book covers on the cloth and then made bikinis out of them; somebody sewed a mural; people made jigsaw puzzles out of the map. People got really creative.
Speaking of those feelings of guilt, I’ve seen you talk about how you have too many people showing up at your events now to sign their books, and you have a stack of 200 letters on your table that you haven’t even had time to read. It just seems completely overwhelming.
They say you can boil a toad if you warm up the water slowly enough; have you ever heard that?
Yeah; it turns out that’s not true. They actually did that experiment.
The toads are smarter than you give them credit for. But I know what you mean.
I’m glad to hear that you can’t, although I’m horrified to hear that they did it as an experiment. But the truth is it certainly works with people, because apparently we’re less smart than toads. I have pictures of me at my very first signing, where it’s me sitting at a card table grinning desperately for three hours while everyone avoids eye contact. A couple years go by, and twenty, thirty people show up and that’s awesome. And then a year goes by and a hundred people show up and I posed for pictures and will write quotes in books and I make funny jokes and we hang out and chat, because you can do that with eighty people; it’ll take a couple hours and then you go home. And then a year goes by and 250, 300 people show up and you still hang out, you chat, you take pictures, you put quotes in the books and you get back to your hotel at one o’clock at night but that was a good night; you made a lot of people happy. Then you have 600 people show up, and you only do short quotes and not so many pictures and you kind of hurry people along and it goes on and on like that. I went to Madrid, and 2,000 people showed up to my book signing. I remember sitting there, and that was twelve solid hours of me signing, and we couldn’t do pictures and everyone could only have one book, and I felt bad because these people have been standing in line for hours. I didn’t get out of there until five in the morning, and I started before five in the afternoon. You start thinking, “Maybe instead of writing ‘To: Marta,’ I could just write. ‘Marta.’” It seems like a silly thing, but if you write the word “to” 2,000 times, it takes thirty minutes.
Those are the sort of things that are happening in my life right now, where I’m thinking, “How can I still make people happy, still feel good about myself, and not burn my entire life away?” It’s actually a huge source of conflict for me. I just can’t do everything for everyone all the time, and because I’m from the Midwest and predisposed towards being a nurturer and helper, giving people what they ask for — and predisposed to guilt, too — I’ve struggled with that lately.
See, now I’m starting to feel guilty that I’m taking up so much of your time when you could be answering your fan-mail and stuff like that.
No. Here’s what I’m coming to realize, and it’s one of the reasons I’m bringing Storyboard back: If I go to a con, I can spend all weekend there, get a hotel, buy a plane ticket, and I meet fans and shake hands and sign books and I’m on a panel. I get to interact with maybe 2,000 fans — and that’s a lot; that would be a big con and big rooms and good paneling, a lot of autographing, kind of exhausting, but that’s worth it. I find it very energizing and I like hanging out with my readers. But if I do an episode of Storyboard, anyone who wants to can hang out with me for an hour and hear me talk and opine about storytelling or videogames or urban fantasy or whatever.
So what I’m searching for is more efficient ways to make people happy, and the deal-breaker for me is the fact that I have two kids now and I go to too many conventions and my boy misses me, and the youngest one is too young to miss me but I miss him and I’m missing a chunk of his childhood because I’m obsessing about making myself available to people. Something like this is actually wonderful, because we can do this, it might eat up a couple of hours of my day, but I love talking about these things. Then, when it comes out, everybody gets to listen to it, and you don’t have to spend twenty bucks to get into a con, you don’t have to subscribe to something — you don’t even have to sit in front of your computer anymore; you can listen to it on your headphones, off your phone. That’s efficient; 100,000 people could listen to this if they wanted.
I wish they did, yeah.
In a lot of ways, that’s smarter for me than going to another convention; it saves me time.
I do think we should probably start wrapping this up, though. I just have two more listener questions I wanted to hit. Dave Rhodes asks, “Are you a wizard?”
I would say yes, for certain definitions of the word.
Which definitions are those?
Well, that would be telling.
William Olejarz says, perhaps predictably, “When is book three coming out?”
Believe me, if we had a date I would share.
Are there any other short stories or other projects on the radar that you want to mention?
The big one is going to be when Torment eventually comes out, but I don’t know when that will be. Right now, I’m mostly going to be getting Slow Regard out there, then I’m going to be focusing in on the big project: book three.
Do you want to say anything about Worldbuilders? You mentioned that earlier.
Worldbuilders is a charity that I kind of started by accident. We rally the geek community and raise money for Heifer International. It has been doing good work in the world, educating and promoting sustainable agriculture, feeding hungry kids and making peoples’ lives better for over sixty years now. I’ve been running it for the last six years, and with the help of a team of like-minded geeks and a bunch of donors, we’ve raised over three million dollars. If you are interested, we do auctions and give away books: a lot of gorgeous, first edition books, signed books, out-of-print books; probably $80,000 worth of books every year, donated by publishers and authors. We auction off reading critiques — if you want a professional to read your manuscript and give you feedback — from authors and editors and agents. We’ll be doing our big yearly fundraiser starting on November 10th, and you can swing by our website to check out the festivities; it’s worldbuilders.org. Or if you swing by my blog, for the month of the fundraiser, you will see a lot of posts; a lot of pictures of books and cool things.
Sounds great. We’ve been speaking with Patrick Rothfuss, and his new book is called The Slow Regard of Silent Things. Pat, thanks so much for joining us.
Thanks for having me.
Spread the word!