It was the World Fantasy Convention 2011, in San Diego, and I had the chance to meet up with Patrick Rothfuss. Which was rather lovely. Even better, I had the chance to ask him for a few words for the Gollancz Blog.
‘We have a new Gollancz Blog’, I said.
‘That’s great!’ said Pat.
‘It would be great to have a few words from you for it,’ I said.
Pat looked . . . well he looked like this.
‘It doesn’t need to be anything too detailed or smart-sounding,’ I said. ‘It’s just for the blog. But it would be nice if it was something funny and smart. And maybe about books, too.’
Pat pondered for a moment.
‘What is it that seperates humans from animals?’ Oooh, I thought, this is going to be good.
‘There are lots of theories,’ Pat said, ‘that people use tools, which sets us apart; or that we use language and other creatures don’t.’ We had a pause to think about that. ‘I don’t agree with either theory,’ he finished. And neither do I. Other creatures use tools – like otters, for example, using rocks to smash things open. And everyone who has come across a domestic cat knows other creatures can use language of some sort to communicate. So we’re not alone there either.
‘So are we unique in the way we use language?’ I asked – feeling (which is a gift Pat Rothfuss has in conversation) smart and interesting, and as though I’m learning something at the same time.
‘Yes!’ said Pat, making me feel all the smarter. ‘Because we use language to tell each other stories. The human fascination with telling and listening to stories is what makes us unique.’ And that makes sense – even our simplest stories, like jokes and limericks – are stories. Whenever we tell an anecdote, that’s a story . . . a huge proportion of human communication comes in the form of telling stories. And of course, it then occurs to me, not only are Pat’s novels stories, they’re also take the form of one character relating their tale to another. It’s a retelling of a telling of a tale, and that’s something which really is uniquely human. But there was more!
‘More than that,’ (I did say there was more) said Pat, ‘we have the ability to recover from an experience through telling it. And the ability to learn from others experiences by hearing about them.’ Again, that makes sense. The stories we are most driven to tell and retell are our often of our most traumatic experiences and – whether that experience be a car crash or a heart-break – there is often some element of human experience that we can take away with us and learn from. When it comes to telling stories, whether in The Name of the Wind, an episode of HOUSE or a news story, there is a nugget of experience or wisdom that we can all apply to our own lives. Which, all in all, makes Pat’s theory smart, and a bit funny, and even a bit about books.
Is storytelling, and learning from stories, really what separates humans and animals? I don’t know, but I like the wise Mr Rothfuss’ idea very much . . . and I wonder if those stories from which we learn the most are also, perhaps, those which are most likely to go on to become classics. In which case, I believe Kvothe’s story may be with us for many, many generations to come.