Patrick Rothfuss Is About to Be Fantasy’s Next Superstar

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Shortly before his first book was published in 2007, fantasy author Patrick Rothfuss promised an interviewer that fans wouldn’t have to wait much longer to learn the fate of Kvothe, the roguish magician at the center of his story. He’d already written the next two books in the trilogy and would release them over the next two years. “You know the sophomore slump?” Rothfuss asked. “I don’t have to worry about that.”

A decade later, the first two installments in The Kingkiller Chronicle regularly appear atop the lists of the best fantasy books ever written. Lin-Manuel Miranda has signed up to serve as executive producer on forthcoming film and television adaptations of Rothfuss’s work, and numerous articles have predicted those adaptations will fill the void left by Game of Thrones once the final season wraps up in 2019. But Rothfuss was perhaps overly optimistic about his progress on the trilogy back in 2007; his early drafts were in rougher shape than he’d remembered. Today, the third and final volume remains unpublished, and everywhere Rothfuss goes, fans ask when it will be ready. “They don’t realize this is so wearying,” he said with a sigh when we spoke a few weeks ago. “It’s like asking, ‘When are you going to get married? When are you going to go to law school?’ It’s like, just fuck off. Just die. I don’t need any more of that in my life.”

It was the first day of New York Comic Con, and Rothfuss, who is 44, was there amid the Captain Americas and Princess Leias to promote the tenth-anniversary edition of The Name of the Wind, the first book in the series. Rothfuss was wearing a wrinkled black T-shirt, cargo shorts, and Ecco walking shoes. The only aspect of his look that resonated with the Comic Con scene was his unruly beard, which was absolutely wizardly, though he insisted it was the result of laziness, not branding. Despite his hundreds of thousands of fans, he had never agreed to let a reporter follow him around before, and he was brusque and nervous, tugging at his beard, which is now streaked with gray. If you had never read his work, you wouldn’t have guessed he is also voluble and witty, lyrical and intimate, the kind of storyteller who makes readers feel as though they’re snuggled beside a smoldering hearth — “a for-real bard,” as Miranda told me.

People often compare Rothfuss to George R.R. Martin, but he feels they have nothing to do with each other. Although both have embarked on fantasy series they have yet to finish, they have bent the tropes of the genre in very different directions. Martin is like a sociologist, documenting the feuds (and soup preferences) of the warring families of Westeros in scholarly, staggering detail. Rothfuss is more of a lyricist, crafting lovely sentences that capture the nuances of his protagonist’s interior life. Still, for all their differences, both works tend to draw in readers who are relatively new to the realm of dragons and magic. Miranda, who blurbed the tenth-anniversary edition with a quote so effusive, Rothfuss was too embarrassed to read it out loud at his Comic Con talk, describes the books as a “gateway drug to the fantasy genre.” “Fans of good writing just like The Name of the Wind,” Miranda explained. “I very rarely reread books, but I reread those books several times just to luxuriate in reading them.”

When we first meet Kvothe, he is a broken, tired man living in a world that has been ravaged by a mysterious evil, and we sense he played some role in the catastrophe. He is a wizard who no longer performs magic, a musician who no longer touches the lute that made listeners weep when he played it. When a sort of journalist of the Dark Ages tracks him down at an inn, Kvothe agrees to his share his story. That tale is relayed over the course of three nights — one night for each book. “The structure is almost like this Russian nesting doll,” Miranda said. “Within the story within the story here’s another character telling another story.” In part because of its unconventional structure, the plot is difficult to summarize, but fans have come up with thousands of theories to explain the intricate mysteries at its heart.

There are those out there in the wilds of the internet who resent that Rothfuss spends time blogging, attending gaming conventions, and developing board games when he could be finishing the trilogy. Some of these commenters sound as though they have been cycling through the Kübler-Ross stages of grief. “As the years rolled by I went from excited, to disappointed, to angry,” wrote one commenter on Rothfuss’s Facebook page. “Please finish the book??” pleaded another. Many of these complaints tend towards the absurd: “I hate to sound negative, but my brother passed away recently… he never got to finish the series.”

The fans gathered at a party Rothfuss was hosting at Comic Con did not share this sense of betrayal. It was a fundraiser for Rothfuss’s Worldbuilders nonprofit, an organization he founded in 2008 to raise money for Heifer International and other charities. The guests had each paid a hundred dollars to play board games with Rothfuss, who occasionally participates in professional role-playing games. “People here are aware not to ask him about the third book,” warned a man dressed all in black. A community-college professor who teaches The Name of The Wind in her English composition class called people who pester Rothfuss about the third book “disgusting.” If these fans seemed protective of Rothfuss, the author seemed just as protective of them. At one point, I walked over to a table where a six-dice game involving monsters and Tokyo was underway. I asked the players if it would be all right if I recorded them; they assented, so I pressed record and placed the phone down on the table. When Rothfuss later noticed the phone, he said I’d intruded on a deeply private act. Watching someone playing a board game is “like watching someone have sex,” he deadpanned as nervous titters circled the table.

With his velvety baritone and dry delivery, Rothfuss has a knack for conjuring the perfect image. The crowd at his Comic Con lecture “smelled like cinnamon and X-box” — his two favorite smells. The response to a hugely popular book was not fervent or rabid; it was “fire in a field.” While he doesn’t believe in writer’s block, he does think depression is the mental equivalent of a broken bone. The day after the board-game party, I met up with him in the press area of the Javits Center, away from all the fans, and it was there he began to open up about the challenges of completing the trilogy — or as he put it, “finishing a race with a broken ankle.”

When Rothfuss began writing his first book in 1994, at the age of 20, he was several years into what would turn out to be a nine-year stint as an undergraduate at University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point, where he dabbled in both chemical engineering and Chaucer. The project began as a delightful, amusing distraction from his undergraduate courses. After eight years, he submitted an excerpt to a short-story contest and won; the piece was published in an anthology, and Rothfuss did his part to promote it. He remembers setting up a card table at a Waldenbooks in a mall and watching the customers walk by. “If you were a leper, they couldn’t ignore you more intensely,” he said. Still, he was happy. Like Kvothe, he was a broke student — so poor he qualified for heating assistance. But he had lots of penniless friends —  and his penniless character — to keep him company. The long Wisconsin winters, he says, were good for writing. “If we are to talk in simple terms, I was probably happier before the book came out,” he said.

Winning the writing contest helped him meet other writers, one of whom introduced him to an agent, Matt Bialer. “I believe I told him, ‘That was the greatest 900-page prologue I ever read,’” Bialer recalled. “Nothing happened, but I kept on reading.” Bialer asked Rothfuss what was in the second and third books, and then suggested rearranging certain plot points, including fleshing out the parts about the the evil cabal — the Chandrian — that kills young Kvothe’s parents at the opening of the story. At first, Rothfuss was reluctant because he wanted to save material for the later books, but Bialer argued that the second and third book were “moot” if they couldn’t sell the first one. Rothfuss saw his point. “I am not good at structure and plotting,” he explained. “I do it in a very nonstandard way.” Together, they worked on the first book for four more years, heightening the tension and tightening the story line. A few years in, they got an offer from a publishing house, but the advance was small, and they decided to turn it down and continue revising. “I knew he was a hell of a talented writer and I wanted to play this the right way,” Bialer said.

When the first book finally came out in 2007, it was not an immediate success; at a signing in Chicago, just three people showed up. Gradually, and largely through word of mouth, it caught on with the kinds of devoted fantasy readers who have turned Neil Gaiman and Martin into household names. For the first time in his life, Rothfuss had money; he and his girlfriend bought a house in Stevens Point, Wisconsin, and started a family. But Rothfuss struggled to balance the demands of his growing fame with the work of revising the second book, The Wise Man’s Fear. Meanwhile, his broke friends had all finished college and moved away. “It was literally years before I realized I had no more local friends who I occasionally did things with, and I didn’t have the time to meet new people,” Rothfuss said. “If you have no friends, you get sick, you know? You get mentally really unhealthy and you die.”

By the time The Wise Man’s Fear was published in 2011, legions of readers were desperate to buy it. Two years later, when Rothfuss stopped in Madrid for a reading, 2,000 people mobbed the auditorium. After signing books all day, Rothfuss would return to a hotel room at night full of adrenaline and find he couldn’t sleep. The sudden plunge from the heights of adulation was “devastating,” like “constantly having whiplash.” But that wasn’t all that was troubling him. Since those early interviews in which he announced he’d written the trilogy through to its conclusion, he’d come to realize the unpublished parts of the manuscript needed far more work than he’d estimated. He felt empty and alone and began to realize he was suffering from a mood disorder. “I now know why people do drugs and kill themselves in hotel rooms,” he said.

Rothfuss is well aware that the forthcoming TV and movie adaptations will likely exacerbate all of these problems. He’s worried the hype will destroy the intimacy readers feel when they discover the book in a library or at the recommendation of a friend, and he’s worried it will be harder to walk down the street and order a hamburger. He’s worried about the growing anger from his fans. There are entire sites dedicated to castigating George R.R. Martin for his slow progress — Rothfuss understands this could easily be his fate as well. “As soon as you brush up against TV, you get an entirely different level of engagement from more people who feel a much less intimate connection with you,” he said. For years, he fended off Hollywood’s propositions. When I ask him why he changed his mind, he doesn’t hesitate. “The opportunity to work with Lin,” he said, “and the knowledge that he genuinely loved the books.”

People who are familiar both with Miranda’s Hamilton lyrics and Rothfuss’s lyricism may have noticed parallels between the orphaned magician who rises from poverty to greatness before coming to ruin and the “ten-dollar founding father without a father” who grows up to “be a hero and a scholar” before dying in a pointless duel. This isn’t incidental. One of Miranda’s songs — “The Story of Tonight” — was partly inspired by a passage from The Name of the Wind. (A line in Moana is also inspired by The Kingkiller Chronicle.) “Kvothe is brilliant, but he also fucks up a lot,” Miranda said. “It’s this brilliance and impatience, with this bedrock of insecurity underneath, that Hamilton and Kvothe share.” The composer was a fan of Rothfuss’s before the author had ever heard of him. Rothfuss recalled their first interaction with glee and incredulity. “He tapped me on Twitter way back in the day, and I go, ‘Oh, you’re a music guy! Good for you, music guy! I bet you do good music stuff!’” he said. “My friends were like, ‘Holy shit, holy shit, holy shit!’ But I live in the opposite of New York. I live in small-town Wisconsin.”

Rothfuss decided to fly to New York to watch Hamilton; after the curtains fell, he visited Miranda backstage. “I said, ‘I’ve never seen anything so line-for-line brilliant since … have you read Chaucer?’ and he goes, ‘No.’ And I go, ‘I’m so white! How did I bring Chaucer into this?’ But it’s true!”

After that first meeting, the two stayed in touch, and eventually, Rothfuss called Miranda and asked him for advice when Hollywood once again came knocking. “I acted as his shrink for a 40-minute conversation,” Miranda recalled. He asked for Rothfuss to keep him in the loop on any developments. “I could just wear a hat as the chairman of the Don’t Fuck It Up Committee,” he laughed. They decided to collaborate on the adaptations, and so far, Miranda has been a part of conversations trying to figure out, what, exactly, they will look like. (“I told Lin, ‘There’s no degree you can be involved in this project that will not please me,’” Rothfuss recalled.)  Details are scarce, but what is known is that the first movie will be based on The Name of the Wind, and the TV show — which is heading to Showtime — will tell an origin story of sorts, set a generation earlier; Kvothe’s parents will be among the characters. Miranda, of course, will also write the music Kvothe plays in the books, songs that are crucial to the plot of The Kingkiller Chronicle. It is an intimidating task, Miranda said: “These are described as the greatest songs ever written, and every reader has imagined their version of Kvothe playing the lute until his fingers break all the strings.”

Like the rest of us, Miranda has no idea how Kvothe’s story will end. “Pat guards this secret,” he told me. “That’s also the part of this that’s so exciting. It could really go either way: We could be reading the fantasy equivalent of King Lear, or we could be reading some triumphant story.”

As for the unavoidable question of when, if ever, the third book will come out, that too remains unanswerable. Rothfuss, of course, is far from the first scribe of an epic fantasy series to take longer than fans would like to finish. When I asked him if there was something about the genre itself that made the story difficult to conclude, Rothfuss shook his head. “It’s me. It’s my process. It’s my life.” “He is very hard on himself,” Bialer told me later. “He is always deconstructing and putting his books back together.”

What Rothfuss did make clear is he’d rather be working on almost anything else. Since the release of the second book in the Kingkiller Chronicles, he has published two novellas and a short story set in the same world as the trilogy. Writing them was like eating “cupcakes,” while working on the third book is like sitting down to “a plate of carrots.” In his foreword to one of those novellas, The Slow Regard of Silent Things, Rothfuss warns readers that they may not want to buy the book: “It doesn’t do a lot of the things a classic story is supposed to do.” The third book, on the other hand, must provide a satisfying conclusion to the alluring mysteries he’s so deftly arranged. “If it’s bad,” Rothfuss told me, “people will be unhappy, and the book will die and the series will die. We’ve all experienced bad sequels or the bad end of a trilogy. We’ve all all dealt with that disappointment.”

The best advice he ever received, Rothfuss says, was from the writer who ran the workshop he attended after he won that first short-story contest: “It’s late once, but it’s bad forever.”

At a book signing toward the end of Comic Con, Rothfuss, by now accustomed to the large crowds, was all efficiency. He instructed assistants to tell the fans in the growing line how to fold their posters so he could sign as many as possible. He used to write long inscriptions in each book; now there are so many fans he doesn’t have the time to write the “to” before each name. “You have to slice yourself finer and finer,” he said. “I don’t know where it ends.”

As he sat patiently, Sharpie poised, one fan after another told him the book had changed their lives. Several offered gifts. A girl dressed as Smaug, covered in glittering red and gold scales, presented him with a crystal pin she’d made. “It’s too hard for me to take a gift and not feel really guilty,” Rothfuss told her, ruffling through his leather backpack until he found a pin he’d designed in collaboration with a jeweler, which he offered in exchange.

Of course, there were others who wanted to talk about what Rothfuss called “the monolith” standing in his path.

“I’m looking forward to the third book,” said one.

Rothfuss replied flatly, “So am I.”

*A version of this article appears in the October 30, 2017, issue of New York Magazine.

Patrick Rothfuss Is About to Be Fantasy’s Next Superstar