A Month of Writers, Day Eight: Patrick Rothfuss

As a reader I made my acquaintance with Patrick Rothfuss after he left a signed copy of his book The Name of the Wind for me at Uncle Hugo’s book store in Minneapolis, where I had a stop on my book tour. I have to admit that while first looking at the book I felt it had three strikes against it: First, it was another one of those damn thick fantasy books (derisive emphasis on “thick,” not “fantasy”); second, it was labeled as the first of a trilogy, which meant I was going to have plotus interruptus; third, in the first few pages it had characters eating a hearty stew, which in fantasy is one of your red flags that here there be cliches, arrr. I almost put the book down after the stew, but then I thought, heck, the guy did sign the book to me. I’ll read just a couple pages more.

So I did and I discovered that the hearty stew was the last cliche that Rothfuss would dish up; everything else in the book, while bowing in the direction of fantasy conventions, was excellent and fresh and just a hell of a lot of fun to read. And so it was The Name of the Wind became hands down my favorite fantasy novel of 2007, nor am I alone in this estimation, since his reviews have been glowing (“The fantasy world has a new star” gushed Publishers Weekly, which also gave his book a star), and the book has also been selling pretty much hand over first. It’s well worth getting past the stew for, and I wouldn’t be entirely surprised to see it slipping onto the Hugo ballot next year.

Patrick seems to be taking his success well, and with a bit of bemusement, as the following bittersweet entry in the Month of Writers cavalcade will show.

PATRICK ROTHFUSS: An evening in the life….

I don’t drink, as a rule. Alcohol just doesn’t do much for me. I also don’t drive much. I’ve lived the majority of my life in a smallish town where you can get anywhere important by walking less than a mile. For about twelve of my fifteen years living here, I’ve never even owned a car.

This, combined with a tendency toward losing things, mean that I rarely carry a photo ID on my person.

These are the things you need to understand if you’re going to appreciate this story.

I was in the grocery store buying food because I had company coming over. A few of the students I have come to know well in the last couple years are graduating soon. One of the best of these is leaving this Sunday. She and one other particularly bright and shining student have been good friends to me this last year. We go to each other’s houses for dinner, watch movies, and talk honest talk into the late hours of night. We are comfortable and loving and non-judgmental with each other. They are graduating and moving on with their lives, and I am staying here and moving on with mine.

This, I think, will be what makes me leave my job as a teacher eventually. Not the low pay, or the high workload, or lack of professional respect because I don’t have enough letters behind my name. Those things are familiar and bearable, like the smell of the papermill when the wind blows from the south. But good friends are rare to me, and I have no knack for letting go of people I care about. I can’t imagine what will happen to me if this happens every couple years for the next decade.

But there will be plenty of time for me to be melancholy when they are gone. So now I’m simply glad of their company when I can get it, and I’m trying to catch as much quality time with them as I can before they leave.

Hence the grocery store. This is a purely recreational shopping run. My house is already stocked with everything I need to survive: ramen and pasta and microwave burritos. I have simple tastes, but I want to be a good host. So I buy cherries and apples and cheese and bread. I buy pistachios and chocolate and soy ice cream for the friend who has a lactose intolerance.

Then I think to buy some wine. My friends enjoy wine and I enjoy being a good host. I also occasionally like to try a glass of wine, like a child playing dress-up. It’s fun for me because when I drink wine I get to pretend that I’m an adult.

So I go to the liquor section and browse around. My knowledge of wine could very easily be written entire onto the palm of my hand, so my choices are based on educated guessery and how cool the bottle looks. I pick out a swirly bottle and something with Asti on the label, because I’m pretty sure that means sweet. I like sweet.

When I get into the checkout line, I realize I don’t have my ID on me. This usually ends up being an issue whenever I get it into my head to buy liquor. Sure, I look like I’m of age, but looks don’t count for much. Once, when I was 26, I had an undercover policeman pull me out of a liquor store and ask to see my license. When I showed it to him, he raised a surprised eyebrow and shrugged, vaguely apologetic. “You weren’t acting like you were old enough to be in there,” he said. I took it as a complement.

So there I am in the grocery line with booze and no ID. I’ve been in this situation before. As I’ve mentioned, I rarely carry one. I never think of it until I get into the checkout line carrying a bottle.

I have a number of strategies for dealing with this. Normally I just play it cool, hoping that if I act like I buy booze all the time, they’ll just let me through and not ask any questions.

This is my first line of defense, and it works about half the time.

When people ask to see my ID, it’s usually all over. At that point my strategy varies depending on what mood I’m in. If the booze was an impulse buy, I usually just put it back. If I’m feeling particularly cussed, I’ll argue. This doesn’t work, but I do usually achieve a vague moral victory wherein I get the teller to say something along the lines of, “I’m only following orders.”

Once, when somebody asked to see my ID I just raised an eyebrow and gave the teller a look. It was a look that said, “Come on. Just look at me. Witness my full and manly beard. I’m not some punk kid buying a bottle of strawberry Boone’s Farm. I’m an adult.” She gave me a sheepish, apologetic grin, and scanned my bottle of Baileys.

I smiled and said, “Thanks.” But inside I was jumping up and down thinking, “Ha! I fooled you! I really am a punk kid! And I have a bottle of strawberry Boone’s Farm at home in my fridge!”

So, again, I’m in the grocery line, running through my options and trying to pick my best strategy. I get to the front of the line, and I’m getting ready to try the raised eyebrow thing again, when the teller looks at me and says, “So when is book two coming out?” She scans my bottles without asking for any sort of ID.

I try to play it cool and say something suave about my revisions. But the truth is, I’m thrown by this. I’m not used to it. In the last month I’ve had people come up to me in at the DMV, at Best Buy, at the video rental place, and at the local ice cream shop (twice).

I know it’s just a local phenomenon. Stevens Point is pretty small, and there have been a handful of “Local Boy Does Good” articles in the papers with unflattering but rather accurate pictures of me. Once you know what I look like, I’m easy to recognize. Generally speaking I look like a Russian dictator, or a Harry Potter character. Or a homeless guy. Or a Muppet.

That’s all. I just wanted to share my surreal moment with you all. As with all my stories, I’ve wandered, but we do have an ending. This is the good place to stop if you want a happy one. There, at the store, things end with me feeling famous and cool, though somewhat flustered and uncomfortable. Possibly the first time in my life I’ve ever had anything resembling a fame-related perk.

If you keep following the story later into the night, the ending is bittersweet. A nice evening. Talk. Food. Wine. But it’s the last evening, and the three of us know it.

Keep going and it the story ends dark. All stories do if you follow them long enough. One friend leaves sooner, the other later. We promise to stay in touch, but we don’t, because that is the way of things. We’ll try e-mail, but it won’t be the same. Distance doesn’t allow for intimacy. You can’t chat over e-mail. Not really. You can’t drink wine. Or hug. Or pretend to be grown-ups. Or pretend to be kids. They won’t call when they’re bored, and we won’t get together to watch movies and give each other backrubs. They won’t come over and ask for advice and bitch about the transient, incompetent men in their lives. I won’t be able to lay on the couch with my head in someone’s lap and cry because I miss my mom.

Early on it will be hard, and the absent ache of them will be constant, impossible to ignore as a missing tooth. It will get easier, because that is the way of things. Moving on is what people do. We’re designed for it. We’ll forget the feel of it, the closeness of dimly lit conversations, the smell of each other. In time we’ll only remember each other in a vague, colorless way. Then even that will fade, and we won’t realize that anything is missing from our lives at all.

Goodnight all,

pat

(The original post, with comments, is here)

17 thoughts on “A Month of Writers, Day Eight: Patrick Rothfuss

  1. I agree. This was DEFINITELY the best fantasy book I read in 2007. I was floored. I can’t wait until the second book comes out.

    The internet and all of the blogging that is being done has taken a lot of the mystique out of writers for me. If I met one in RL, I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t jump up and down or wet myself or do anything else too embarrassing. However, I guarantee that I would go all flushed-girly if I met Pat Rothfuss in real life. Or I’d touch his beard without asking. Or something.

  2. What a lovely post. That’s definitely one of the hallmarks of modernity—whether you stay or leave you’re always missing people.

    If his book is as well-written as this post I think I’m in for a treat.

    (Though “hearty stew” woulda put me off too.)

  3. Stevens Point, Wisconsin, is a cool little college town situated about halfway between where I live and the lakes and pine trees of what the locals here call ‘Up North’. We stop there every year going and coming, and I revel in the charming small town Americana feel.

    I’m apparently not the only one to appreciate Stevens Point. It was listed as one of the top ten best places to live in America in 2007:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stevens_Point,_Wisconsin

    As an aside, this ’30 days of writers’ thing is quickly filling up my Amazon wishlist with things that I will ultimately purchase for myself. It helps that I love to read. I just wish I didn’t end up buying three new books for every one that I actually finish due to time constraints and a short attention span. As a result, the authors that do engage and retain my attention automatically get shunted up into some rare atmosphere. Lately, I’ve been buying a lot of books based on recommendations from Cory Doctorow. Between Cory and John, I’ve discovered a whole new roster of cool writers, and have given my other passions a serious run for their metaphorical money.

  4. I read the “Name of the Wind” last month and truly enjoyed it. I know it’s a cliche, but I had difficulty putting it down.

  5. I surrender! I surrender! I’ve tried resisting, but I give up! I’ll buy the book!

    Happy now?!

    You book tempter! no, wait – that would be someone who temps book, not someone who tempts people into buying more books. What could such a person be called?

  6. A page. Paginator. Whatever.

    Name of the Wind is fantastic. I’ve been recommending it at the bookstore I work at, and so have my comrades-in-books. I wish I’d have been able to meet Pat when he was in Minneapolis for some fancy Fantasy Writers’ conference the University put on, but duty called instead.

  7. I really, really wanted to dislike this book. I was all set to snark about it because it contains a whole list of things that scream “extruded fantasy product!!” on first glance.

    But I couldn’t dislike it. In fact, I loved it.

    Damn you, Patrick Rothfuss!

  8. Well, as usual, I seem to be the dissenting voice here. I can’t think of a book that has caused fandom to go into gush mode so enthusiastically in recent memory. It’s certainly good, and written in an impressively readable and unpretentious way. But there are some notable plot flaws as well, par for the course for most first novels in the “very long fantasy novel” genre. It’s good enough to have me looking forward to book two. But I’m not ready to hail Rothfuss as the Second Coming just yet.

  9. You know, I’ve had that book on my shelf for a few months. I’m definitely going to start reading it now. I miss my mom and my friends, too, and I may bond with the story just because I know that the writer is dealing with that stuff, too. Kindred spirit, maybe. Plus, a positive review from Scalzi doesn’t hurt. If John likes it, it probably doesn’t suck.

  10. Since you gave us a recommendation, I’m inflicting on upon you.

    A Shadow in Summer, Daniel Abraham

    Thickish, but not real thick. First in a tetralogy. Starts with a young boy in an exotic hidden away school for boys where the curriculum is designed to degrade and demean the stuidents, and where the boy learns three valuable lessons about strength, mercy, and well meaning idiots.

  11. T.M. @ 11

    I agree with you about the “…good, and written in an impressively readable and unpretentious way…,” and I also agree about the “…good enough to have me looking forward to book two…”

    For me, that’s enough. It was enjoyable read, but I agree that it’s not completely Earth-shattering. I think part of what keeps it from being a fantastic (as opposed to merely great) book is that despite its length, its scope is very personal and local to the main character. Maybe the later books will have a more expansive scope.

  12. Drew: Yes, but Rothfuss is often inconsistent with the development of his main character. Still, his prose is refreshingly straightforward, unadorned by pompous stylistic flourishes, which is something you can’t say for most fantasy. So where you’d call it a “merely great” book, I’d call it merely good. It will be interesting to see how volume two turns out.

  13. Who has a problem with “hearty stew”? Not I. People eat even in fantasy worlds, and what else would they be eating that we mere mortals could easily identify with. Picky Picky. This book appeals to me because it is so personal, comfortable and not totally far out like some fantasy books I have attempted to digest. I feel as if I were a child again listening to the tall tales my grandpa use to tell us kids. I read it through rather quickly the first time, and now I am savoring it slowly, and picking up on the details that I flew past the first time. I am giving this to all my family to read. Looking forward to the second book and maybe a movie?????????

  14. I used to read so much fantasy but of late I’ve been reading only bits and pieces. Some months ago, I’ve written a review of Rothfuss’ novel, the first fantasy book I’ve read in many many weeks. A week or two ago, a few acquaintances have pointed out mistakes and oversights in my review and when this led me to rereading it I was surprised at how hostile it was to the genre in general http://shigekuni.wordpress.com/2009/08/08/waystones-patrick-rothfuss-the-name-of-the-wind/

    I’m very happy to’ve found this blog. Bought Durham’s debut novel yesterday and am in the process of ordering “Boneshaker”.

    Thank you.

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