Friday, March 26, 2010

Pat Rothfuss Signing

On Tuesday I drove down to Maryland(3 hour trip) to see Patrick Rothfuss at a Barnes and Noble in Frederick, Maryland. He gave a reading, an author Q and A, and did a signing. The following are my impressions and notes on the experience. I've tried my best to stay as close as possible to what he said. If there are any errors or misquotes they are neither willful nor malicious. I didn't want to openly take notes because I would miss most of what he said and diminish my enjoyment. As you will no doubt glean from what follows:
1) I had a great time.
2) The experience was a unique opportunity to learn and gain insight from a master craftsman.
3) Rothfuss genuinely loves and appreciates his fans and enjoys talking about his work, the writing process, and the fantasy genre in general.
I had arrived early, and taken a seat in the common area. The reading was scheduled for 7. At 6 I had my choice of seats. By 615 the most of the seats had filled. By 630 it was already standing room only.
At about 7 Pat arrived. He wore a blue sun tshirt and jeans. He made his way to the front and set down his bookbag. He greeted the crowd then took out some folders containing his readings.
He looked tired. His face was ashy. You could tell he had spent a long time on the road and the readings and trip were wearing. But his tiredness never became impatience or crankiness. He was genial with crowd and had an ease in front of the room that I suspect comes from years as a teacher. And being one of the few lucky individuals on the planet who actually enjoys his job.
Once his caffiene arrived he became more animated. He cautioned the crowd to please turn off the cellphones for each other's sake. He said that if a phone goes off while he is speaking it will distract him, but more importantly it will also very much piss off the crowd, who will not take kindly to such interruptions. And it worked. Not one cellphone went off the entire time.
Shortly after this Oot and Sara arrived. Sara wore Oot in a baby carrier with Oot facing out. A collective "aaahhh," went up from the crowd. Which was well merited because Oot is adorable.
His dad took him out and it was obvious how fond he was of his little boy. He kissed him, held him, then held him up to the crowd facing them. Some babies might have been frightened. Not Oot. The most radiant, happy, ear to ear smile lit Oot's face. I've never seen a baby laugh like that. He was so animated the crowd loved him. He loved the crowd.
Pat then gave him back to Sara and said he would wait until about 715 to begin. He was chronically late in the past so he would allow the stragglers to come in before he started. We could have a brief informal question and answer period.
The questions started. I think the very first one was: Where the hell did Kvothe come from?

Pat smiled then said there were two sources and the first he still clearly remembers to this day. He was reading Cyrano de Bergerac and cried through the last twenty pages. He said this amazing, moving character had him weeping for hours. And he immediately thought why hasn't there been a character like this in a fantasy setting? He later that day wrote the first words "My name is Kvothe."
The second he said came from reading Cassanova's memoirs. He talked about how he read the memoirs fervently. He was in awe of the man and his experiences. And that found its way to Kvothe as well.
But he had a problem. Although Cassanova's life had been interesting, it had not had a plot or a story. And as a novelist that was where he needed to invent.
He then talked about how his strength as a writer was in characters (and I would add world building, dialogue and choice of syntax) but that the structure of a book, the plot, did not come easily for him, and this was one of the things he had to work hard at. Personally, I couldn't tell he from his books that plot is not a strong point. If he had to put extra effort into the plotting of a book, it certainly didn't show. The narrative does flow smoothly.
More questions were asked about writing in general. One person said how do you know when your work is ready to be sent out? Pat said generally there are two rules to follow. First, if you think your work needs more revision, it probably does. Second, if you don't think your work needs more revision, it probably does.
Someone then asked how do you know when its finished?
Pat said Your editor will tell you.
He talked about his first attempt at fantasy novel, with the cliché'd barbarians etc, and then said he sent it out and realized later that most of the story consisted of dialogue, flashbacks and the characters generally didn't do anything except go from tavern to tavern.
And then in a humorous anecdote he described how he sent it to Neil Gaiman's agent who sent it back and he was enraged. He said he raved about how the agent hand't understood his brilliance when he received the rejection letter. Then after he took a second look he thought it over and took the advice.
At this time it was about 715 so Pat decided to do a reading. I think the first reading was a piece he wrote for his humor column about keeping giunea pigs in his dorm room. The piece was hilarious and it led to Pat talking about the role of ambiguity in writing. If the piece were completely true, or completely false, it would lose some of its power.
Then he asked the crowd if it wanted another humor column or the first page of The Wise Man's Fear. Of course Wise Man's Fear won out. It starts in the Waystone Inn, and like a musical motif touches on the themes of The Name of the Wind and puts some variations on them. All I can say is beautiful prose.
He then talked about the work he did on The Wise Man's Fear. He said he had spoken to his agent about the book's length. It had "grown in the telling." She had reassured him not to worry that it would be fine, regardless of how long it ended up. He asked her what the ceiling was for word count. She said let her do some research. She came back with a number, which she quoted as being the word count of the longest novel ever published in one book: James Clavell's Shogun. I don’t remember the word count exactly but I think it was over 400,000. She said they would try to publish under that. But that gave him quite a bit of room to work with.
I think the entire audience collectively salivated. This book we've been waiting years for was that much closer. And more significantly, for myself at least, one piercing anxiey was alleviated. I was worried about losing whole sections of the book in the editing process. The fact that its going to be this huge, and the editors and publishers are ok with that, was reassuring. I had the feeling they are not going to take this book and make it sellable(by which I mean strip it down). They believe in Pat's writing and are going to publish the novel in the form that he sees fit, however long that may be.
Think about it: a book about Kvothe the size of Shogun. WOW!!
Ok fanboy, that's enough. Calm down.
He then talked about the fantasy genre and certain cliché's or tropes he had wanted to avoid. But he said its not that easy. He said if you look at The Name of the Wind you can still spot them and asked the crowd to name a few(and here the traces of Pat the teacher came out which were pretty cool. He seems very much like the professor you have who is not a career academic, but a part time lecturer, but is fun and you learn from just because he loves the material so much and doesn't care about academic reputation). The orphan, the bully, the evil characters…he said they are there but there is something added or taken away or described that puts a new spin on them. He said that was the challenge he had in writing them. You can't avoid some things, but you can tell them in a new way.
This led into a discussion of other aspects of fantasy. He said think of wizards. What makes a wizard really powerful? Its not his ability to do magic, although that is important. He said its because of what he knows. He knows more than you can see. He illustrated what he meant by three examples: Gandalf, Merlin, and Moses. He said each of them uses magic, if at all, sparingly. But they are important to the story and characters because of what they know.
He read one more piece, a poem he wrote for Sarah. Which of course the audience loved and was actually very good. Then a few more questions. Someone asked how he felt about Kvothe doing battle with a god-lion-king. He laughed and said he enjoyed the whole Suvudu battle royale. He had even written something he posted on how he imagined the battle would go.
Then it was time for the signing. I had instant respect for the man because his first thought was of his fans and their long commutes at such a late hour. He asked the audience to allow the people who just want the book signed to come up to the front, and those who wanted longer writings in the book to go to the back. He talked and conversed with his fans and took as much time talking as they wanted. I think the store must have stayed open an extra hour or so.
He also asked that fans sign a copy of his book and feel free to write whatever they felt in it to him.
When I handed him my copy I realized something very important. My copy is old, a first edition hardback with Kvothe on the front. It is weathered, a little bit frayed and slightly dogeared. I have written annotations and comments in it. I have read it three times and counting my students it has to have been read at least fifteen times in total.
And I thought: what a great gift to give an author. His own book, that has obviously been much loved and much read.
That's pretty much all I remember. My hope is that when The Wise Man's Fear comes out he will do a coast to coast signing. His fans will certainly be legion. He was very gentlemanly and polite. He took the time put real thought in his answers to questions rather than cite cliché's because he was tired and wanted to go.
In fact, wouldn't it be cool if authors published at the same time and did a fantasy version of lollapalooza? Had outdoor readings interspersed with music performances? Maybe four or five authors on tour? Im not talking arena sized but still can you imagine if Rothfuss, Neil Gaiman, Joe Abercrombie, George R R Martin, and Brandon Sanderson toured together?
If I made any mistakes in the above quotes or descriptions please don't hesitate to point them out and I will gladly correct them. My intention was to put something about how important the experience was for me and how enjoyable.
If you get the chance to see him, go. Lots of fun.
Now, if I could only get that review of The Last Light of the Sun finished.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Repeat after me: I will not spend money on books beyond my means on Amazon, I will not spend money on books beyond my means on Amazon, I will not spend money on books beyond my means on Amazon....

maybe if I say it a few thousand times I'll get the message.

But its money well spent. So I go without coffee for a week, what's the worst that can happen?

Actually, I should probably cut out something else. Books and coffee go together like..Quixote and Sancho, like Frodo and Sam, like...ok, now I'm babbling.

Sorry for wasting your time dear reader. Am working on a review of The Last Light of the Sun, which refuses to be a review and keeps insisting on being a critical essay. That and I'm rereading The Name of the Wind by Pat Rothfuss. The fourth time through and the book still has its staying power. And this is strange for me because I rarely reread a book I love more than twice. What's hitting me this time about NOTW is the style. I can't put my finger on it but the sentences, their construction, the flow and the poetry. Its not a browbeating poetry either, no longwinded discursions of purple prose. Its sublte, restrained, it hovers around the edges of the sentences. How the hell does he DO that?

I never attempted a proper review of the book because I was afraid I'd never do it justice, or manage to articulate what it is that affected me so profoundly. A lesson that I should probably have taken to heart in attempting to review The Last Light of the Sun.

There's a question for reviewers I'd like to ask if I had the forum: Do you have an easier time reviewing a book you are in awe of, or is it harder? I find that with the books I truly admire I worry about doing justice to the material, and that I may be missing something. A book of great depth tends to make me think of greater depths lurking if only I had the wit to see them.

Saturday, March 6, 2010

Knife of Dreams Review

Knife of Dreams, Robert Jordan, published 2005, paperback, 837 pages

2 LINE SUMMARY: You've got to be kidding. Who could summarize THIS in 2 lines? My usual flippancy has ben set to mute.

PLOT: The last battle draws closer, and the world is even more unprepared. Things have gotten worse rather than better. Egwayne struggles to reunite the tower. Rand tries to bring the quarrelling nations together. Mat still has his hands full with Tuon, but with more implications than even he knows. Perrin works to rescue Faile and control his increasing love of battle. A pregnant Elayne copes with securing her throne and the loss of her ability to channel.

ANALYSIS: The most important epiphany this book had for me was realizing how much I had underread all the previous books. Because Winter's Heart and Crossroads of Twilight seemed labored and bound up in so much incessant dialogue that felt like it was going nowhere I tended to not read very closely. Big Mistake. Here, in Knife of Dreams Jordan revealed the groundwork he had done on the characters in past books and how those characters are coming to their roles in the preparations for Tarmon Gaidon.
This book recaptured the Jordan ride. What I mean by that is when I first began to read the books I noticed a pattern in each novel. The beginnings usually opened with those long introductions with plots carefully laid and dangerous alliances formed. Then the opening chapters would situate the main and minor characters in their respective milieus. Action would occur and we would be swept along. Then in the middle of the book characters moved around, like a middle game in chess, and thought out the consequences of their moves. Then somewhere near the beginning of the second third of the book the holy shit incident or revelation would be made and I would finish about two or three hundred pages in a day; frantically reading to find out what happened next. I remember this experience most clearly from The Shadow Rising and Lord of Chaos. It seemed most noticeable a pattern in books 4, 5, and 6. Those three books seem to me the sluggers of the series. Four and Six especially made such a profound effect I recall not reading much for the next few days while I thought out the implications of the events.
Knife of Dreams had the feeling of those books. I won't give away plot secrets but I will say that the experience showed the old master at the top of his game. Things happen in Knife of Dreams that are so mind boggling in their implications that you shake your head in wonder at Jordan's narrative craft, his strategy, and most of all his planning.
Jordan as a writer is one of the most profound risk takers in the genre. He sets up this world at infinite pains and with an attention to detail that far exceeds a reader's expectations. He then destroys it all that with a perfectly reasonable explanation for the destruction that not only has a sound logic but also, in hindsight, seems inevitable. His world building is so complex, so structured, and yet so organically alive, you really feel you have no idea what could happen. As I said before, a system not culled from the pages of a dungeons and dragons manual.
In this book the characters not only grow up, they grow wise beyond their years. These are people in extreme circumstances forced to find a life wisdom that will sustain them and allow them to continue doing what they must, and what they also fear. There is the light, and the source, but there is no empty comfort to be taken in religion.
Egwene begins to develop the status of a tragic classical heroine, like an Antigone, or an Electra. Her sense of purpose in order to reunite the tower, to do whatever it takes, and her understanding of the way to heal all the damage that has been done, remind me of a female character in a Greek Tragedy. The only one who can see the right path to take, and the only one with the courage to take it, no one except a chorus to share her feelings and plans with. I wonder perhaps if this wasn't Jordan's intention. If so, translating a greek chorus to the world of Tel Aran Rihod is a stroke of genius. The chorus in a greek tragedy rarely influences the outcome of an action, it is there in a sense as a soundboard, as a way for the audience to grasp the significance what transpires on stage. So too does Egwene have that impact on select figures like Siuan who can convey her will, but there is no way for Egwene to make those in the rebel camp truly hear her. She uses Tel Aran Rihod so Siuan can grasp why she is doing what she is doing, much in the same way the Chorus asks and recieves answers from an Antigone, or an Electra.
Rand grows more powerful and dangerous. He too resembles mythic figures: Hercules and all his impossible labors, Aeneas and the crushing weight of preserving a civilization, but also I think a tragic figure in his personal life. These three women love him and he seems destined to hurt them all, make them all suffer.
The brilliant thing Jordan accomplishes as writer with Rand is making us concerned for him because of his growing madness, but not alienating the reader from their intimate connection with him. Many novels or stories show the development of madness in a character and then pull back, as in a camera shot and give the reader a little more room to feel comfortable. Jordan though chooses not to do this and he deserves praise as a writer for his choices here, and for the way he can maintain that. We follow Rand from the beginning, being inside his thoughts from the first journey he and his father take to market and meet a rider in the Eye of the World. In book one we know he is going to go insane, from the taint. Later we begin to feel his sanity slip from the magnitude of what he has to do. The more the books go on, the more Jordan shows us Rand's innermost thoughts and feelings. We are not alienated from the madness, we see its too human causes.
And the presence of Lews Therin in his mind. Jordan very sublty in this book begins to show how the affect of his inner arguing with Lews Therin spills over into the real world. Characters in Rand's retinue begin to question his sanity, begin to see signs of the developing madness.
The experience of reading the books has made me want to go back and reread the series. Now that I have seen the structure underlying the books, I realize how well constructed they are. Even when it seemed Jordan was just stretching out the series with endless dialogue and intrigues he really was working out the plot and the stories of the characters.
A fair reading of these books can't really be done until they’ve been reread. Reread and analyzed. When I began to make the connections of Rand with the Fisher King and Shiva and Arthur, Mat and Odin and Loki and Coyote and Odysseus, Perrin and Thor and Hephaestos, and saw that Jordan was not just invoking mythic figures here to deepen the affect of his books, but was in fact commenting on the myths themselves, and putting the myths in play with and against each other, I realized just how deeply I have UNDERREAD these books. The books well deserve their own websites such as the Thirteenth Depository, Wheel of Time mania, and The Wheel of Time Encyclopedia.
Throughout the series I've found Mat's sections the most enjoyable. In a world of such high tragedy and drama, with Kingdoms for a stage, Mat brings the story down to the level of the Everyman. He is a man of the people, but in a well planned and executed Joran twist he is finding that role harder to maintain. His sense of the comic and the situations he finds himself in do more than provide comic relief though. They are integral to the plot but so is his character. Mat is the trickster figure, as has been well spotted by others, but what is growing more and more curious is how the seeming buffoon and outsider to the major political players has become integral to the last battle. And it may not be in the supportive role. There may be a darker fate in store for Mat.
Jordan's grasp of the mythic is vast as are its working in his story. However his use of mythic figures is never simplistic. He never takes a stock character or archetype and just lets them in the world. Instead as with Rand himself he puts what seems like a twist a writer would throw in just to see what happened(Rand will save the world AND destroy it), and makes that work itself out in the later books to levels that could not be anticipated earlier in the series.
To conclude this lengthy ramble and fanboy gushing I think Knife of Dreams succeeds as a novel, as a piece in a series, and in renewing faith in a series. When the 11th book of a series makes you want to go back and reread the entire series the author has done something right.

SCORE: 9/10

SIMILAR BOOKS: I agree with Brandon Sanderson that the Wheel of Time is the defining fantasy epic of our generation, as much as The Lord of the Rings was of the previous. There is nothing that is so completely a world all its own and unique and a cast of thousands, but that is so tightly structured. I guess a series of a similar ambition would be A Song of Ice and Fire. But no disrespect to Martin and his accomplishments, A Song of Ice and Fire seems more of a set piece. Beautifully written, with memorable characters, it too defines a generation of fantasists in its brutally realistic portrayals of the darker sides of human behavior. But although the scope there is epic it doesn't really transcend to mythic, as The Wheel of Time does. The Malazaan Books of the Fallen by Steven Erikson(although I haven't read them yet) have a similar ambition of scope and theme. Once I finish The Gathering Storm and New Spring the Novel, I'll start them.