Lin-Manuel Miranda on Adapting The Kingkiller Chronicles, How It Inspired Moana, and the Lady Lackless Song He Wrote

Fan art of Lin-Manuel Miranda and Patrick Rothfuss. Illustration: Nate Taylor/Courtesy of Patrick Routhfuss

When Lin-Manuel Miranda first reached out to fantasy scribe Patrick Rothfuss to tell him he liked his work, the author had never heard of the composer. (“My friends were like, ‘Holy shit, holy shit, holy shit!’” Rothfuss told me in a recent interview. “But I live in the opposite of New York. I live in small-town Wisconsin.”) These days, on stages at Comic Cons, Rothfuss likes to describe Miranda as “my new best friend.” The two are working together to adapt his beloved fantasy trilogy, The Kingkiller Chronicles, into a series of movies, and their affection for one another is well-documented. When Rothfuss announced the news on Twitter last year, he confessed that he didn’t quite know how to tell the world: “I might be too excited to play this elegant, Lin. I’m too much of a geek for you.”

In addition to the movies, Miranda is also executive-producing a Showtime series based on The Kingkiller Chronicles that will tell an origin story of sorts, set in the generation before the first book. Kvothe, the roguish magician at the center of series, is a renowned musician, from a family of traveling troupers. Miranda will write the music for both the show and the films, which are already being hailed as the next Game of Thrones. Recently, I caught up with Miranda to discuss his collaboration with Rothfuss, the fantasy author’s “intoxicating” presence, and why the project both terrifies and thrills him.

How would you describe Pat?
I would describe him as a for-real bard. That’s for all you Dungeons and Dragons fans out there. He’s just a dyed-in-the-wool storyteller. You feel that in his books, you feel that in his joy of telling stories. The structure of [the first book in the series] The Name of the Wind is almost like this Russian nesting doll — within the story, within the story, here’s another character telling another story. He loves telling stories. That’s true both in person when you hang out with him and it’s also true in his writing. And that’s intoxicating.

It’s interesting you mention the structure, because he told me about how he has problems with structure and plot. What do you make of that?
I don’t know. I think fans of good writing just like The Name of the Wind. I had not read a lot of fantasy books at that point, but I read the first sentence and I just, I was very drawn in. I very rarely reread books, but I reread those books several times just to luxuriate in reading them and spending time in that world and with those characters.

What’s it like collaborating with him?
It’s a lot of fun. We were mutual fans; he came to see Hamilton and we struck up a friendship. And he texted me to pick my brain because he was understandably very skittish about the rights to his books. He said, “I want to tell you who I’m talking to and what’s going on,” and I acted as his shrink for a 40-minute conversation. I was like, “Well, listen, I have exactly a fraction more experience in Hollywood than you do, which is really not very much at all, but I do know what it’s like to sign over rights and not know what’s going on and I would hate for that to happen, so keep me in the loop. Because I could just wear a hat as the chairman of the Don’t Fuck It Up Committee.” Because I’m a fan of those books, and I want to see an adaptation that has the same love and care as his books do. So that’s sort of how I fell in the snowball as it rolled down the hill.

We’re working with Lionsgate, and we’ve had a wonderful experience with them so far. Everyone’s really responsive to making sure he feels like we’re going in the right direction. And I look to him for that. That’s really my only job. At some point, I’ll hopefully get to write the music for the thing, which is exciting for me. And when it was announced it was sort of like, no pressure! But 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. Or when he’s playing so beautifully at the Eolian that everyone in the room is weeping. It’s a daunting task to actually put notes to that, but one of the things that drew me to those books is how beautifully Pat writes about music and the way it speaks to us and the way it feeds us in the absence of actual nourishment. That was what grabbed me most powerfully about his stories, and so I’m terrified to help make that happen — but that’s what you’re supposed to run towards. Run towards the things that terrify you. So I’m excited to try to make that music a reality whenever these things make their way to a screen, big or small.

Music is so fundamental to the plot of the books. One of the most important things that happens in in the story — the murder of Kvothe’s parents – happens as a result of a song.
Yeah, our kid is a theater kid! [Kvothe grew up] among traveling troupers. I obviously related to that. Kvothe’s parents are killed because they tell the wrong story. And even throughout the two books we’ve been lucky enough to read, we don’t know if this thing is a tragedy or triumphant. We don’t know how the story is going to end, and 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, and we don’t know. We’re two books into the three books set, and we still have no idea.

Is there something nerve-racking about beginning work on this epic adaptation without an ending? [Editor’s note: The third book in the series has yet to be released.]
Yeah! [Laughs.] It’s all nerve-racking. I mean, I don’t understand people who try to write the same thing over and over again. That doesn’t interest me. It’s ironic for me to say, given that I performed the same words every night for a year, but there’s something about writing — you want to go in new directions, you want to go places you haven’t been before. So it’s exciting to jump in, letting Pat lead the way, not knowing if we’re going to come out on the other side all right.

Do you know how it ends?
Hell no! Pat guards this secret. I’ve talked to Pat for hours about these books and the stories in them, and I don’t know how it’s going to end. He’s very good at talking about it in a way that leaves it open.

I know you’ve said “The Story of Tonight” from Hamilton was partly influenced by a passage in The Name of the Wind, but are there other ways you’ve drawn inspiration from the books?
I’m glad you noticed that passage. That’s exactly what I was chasing. The melody I used for “The Story of Tonight” is a melody I wrote when I was 16, 17 years old. I wanted it — even if it was just for me — to feel like youthful idealism. And that was a melody I wrote for a group of friends that used to sing together – it was a doo-wop group – and I’d write songs for us to sing. So I stole that melody from myself, who was way more idealistic than the present-day me, because I wanted it to have that feel. The other thing I think fans of Hamilton and Pat’s book see in common is that Kvothe is brilliant, but he also fucks up a lot. We’re not deifying either of these guys. Pat shows us all of Kvothe’s faults. He accomplishes great things and he also messes up great things, and it comes from the same place. He shares that with my version of Hamilton, who believes he can write his way out of anything, and he really can’t. It’s this sort of brilliance and impatience with this bedrock of insecurity underneath that Hamilton and Kvothe both share.

How about Moana? Pat told me the story of going to the screening with you.
Oh yeah – spoilers for Moana, by the way. When Moana goes towards Te Fiti and she says, “I know your name!” – in Pat’s books, when you know the true name of a thing, you have mastery over it. So there is that little bit of Pat Rothfuss’s Name of the Wind in one line of Moana, in the confrontation of Moana and this enormous nature spirit. Because the second she connects these dots she goes — “I know who you are,” and in knowing who she is, she’s able to actually connect with the nature spirit and save the world.

Have you started playing around with the music for any of the songs yet?
Last weekend, just fucking around, I did write some music for the Lady Lackless tune, the one that young Kvothe gets caught singing. But I really just wrote the song because I was rereading the book, a melody came to mind, and I recorded a dirty little voice memo and sent it to Pat. That may not be what we use at all, but I wanted to write something super singsongy and it just popped into my head. It’s really singsongy, something that will get stuck in your head easily. Because that’s also a power as described in Pat’s book — he writes “Jackass Jackass” and no one can stop singing it. Pat was delighted by the little sketch I made, but who knows if it will make the final version. That was one I did just messing around on a Sunday afternoon.

Some people are saying the movies and show are going to be the next Game of Thrones, but really the books are so different. I’m wondering, when you think about these adaptations, if there’s anything in movies or TV that you would draw inspiration from?
I’ll tell you what it does share with Game of Thrones. It shares an excellence in the caliber of writing and in the source material. One, George R.R. Martin’s books are so incredibly written that you are able to keep up with legions of characters. And two, that writing is so good that people who wouldn’t ordinarily be drawn to the fantasy genre are just drawn in because they’re compelled by the story. I think that’s true of both Game of Thrones and Name of the Wind. A lot of my friends who like Name of the Wind, that’s not like the 50th book they’ve read in the fantasy genre. It’s like a gateway drug to the fantasy genre. So I think they share that. But of course, they couldn’t be more different. Game of Thrones follows many characters over many years. Whereas Name of the Wind is Kvothe, and it’s the stories inside the stories of this guy, and then the satellite of stories around that, but he’s the central character. So structurally, they’re very different. But they’re stories so well-told that you don’t have to have read your Tolkien or Robert Jordan, you don’t have to be into the genre to enjoy them. You can just enjoy them on their own terms, as a great story in a great world.

When we spoke, Pat talked about the pressure of fame, and the total shift from where he was before the books came out to becoming famous. Obviously that’s going to become a lot more intense when these movies and TV shows come out. I’m curious if you’ve spoken about that all?
A little bit. It’s interesting because I wrote Hamilton, and then it was done. There’s no Hamilton Part 2, no third book to see how Hamilton turns out. So he’s got a very different and very particular-to-writers fame that he gets from his readers.

I remember when George R.R. Martin came to see Hamilton and — I take pictures with the fancy folks who come to the show — I tweeted the picture of him. And the vitriol he got! “Oh my god, finish the books, what are you doing seeing the play.” It was truly vicious. More vicious than for politicians who come to see the show were the George Martin “finish the book” wolverines. And Pat has his version of that. He’s pretty good at tuning that out and staying focused on what he’s doing. But that’s a thing I’ve never had to deal with.

Everything is a distraction from the work. The thing I always say, and I’ve said this to Pat, and I say it to myself, is, when you’re lucky enough to have success with a thing you’ve made, your road forward is this balance of the things inside you that you’ve always wanted to make, that are still there — they didn’t go away because your book sold well or your play did well, you still have those stories that you’ve been thinking about, and honoring those and getting them out of your system and into the world — and then the opportunities that come up. The opportunities you’d kick yourself if you didn’t say yes to. Pat and I and everyone who’s had a little success is balancing those two things all the time.

I think Pat’s found ways to do a lot of good with his Worldbuilders initiative, and he’s been able to leverage his success and his fame to do a lot of good for a lot of people, which is fantastic. And he does stuff for fun — he tells stories at Comic Con and he plays with Paul and Storm and fantasy-genre freestyles onstage, and then there is the thing inside him, which is the rest of the story, which he continues to find time to devote to and finish. And you’ve got no shortage of people heckling him to finish. He’s going through his version of his balance, I’ve got my version of that balance. That’s the new challenge, once you have a bit of success at a thing. It’s continuing to do what you’ve always done, but also be real about the world in which you find yourself in and the opportunities that surround you.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

Lin-Manuel Miranda: How Kingkiller Chronicles Inspired Moana