Empathy is impossible to teach. Rather, it must be shown.
Patrick Rothfuss is author of the Kingkiller Chronicle, a fantasy trilogy that follows the life, legend, and transformation of a gifted young man named Kvothe as he tells the story of his life, and is changed in the telling.
Rothfuss’s novels, the first of which was released in 2007, are widely recognized as the best of their kind, selling more than 10 million copies worldwide and garnering a huge and devoted fan following.
Few authors can make music of words and symphonies of paragraph and plot like Rothfuss can. To read his words on the page is to engage in a beautiful dance with them.
But even fewer authors possess the quality of empathy that Rothfuss does. To hear his heart is to learn from it.
Patrick Rothfuss channels that empathy most notably into Worldbuilders, a charity, founded by himself, that uses “the collective power of readers, fellow authors, and book lovers, to make the world a better place.”
Worldbuilders raises funds for a small handful of other charities, most notably Heifer International, which works to end hunger and poverty around the world by providing “resources and training for struggling small-scale farmers in order to give them a chance to change their circumstances.” Heifer International’s focus, admirably, is on creating self-reliance within communities that can sustainably alleviate poverty.
Beliefnet has been extended the opportunity to speak with Rothfuss about his charity, about what happens with the funds donated to it, and about the importance of empathy, giving, and the alleviation of human suffering.
So let’s take a moment and peer into the heart and mind of Patrick Rothfuss. The man is so much more than the fantastical world he’s built within our imaginations.
“As names have power, words have power. Words can light fires in the minds of men. Words can wring tears from the hardest hearts.”
-The Name of the Wind
What personally led you to found Worldbuilders?
“Well, I was first published back in 2007, and I that’s when the hardcover of my book came out. A year later, when the paperback came out, I thought I would hold a little contest on my blog to see if people would take pictures of themselves with the new book, you know? Because by then I had been writing the blog for a year—it was kind of fun, it just a goofy thing, and I figured if worse comes to worst, I would fake up a couple of pictures and give away a few fake prizes and whatever, but I figured I had a decent chance of getting at least, you know, 8 or 10 pictures.
So I launched that off and I got hundreds of pictures from people from all over the world. They were dressing up and they were on rooftops and they were making dioramas and it was really kind of crazy—I did not know how many people read my blog.
We got hundreds of pictures and I posted them up in my blog, and then, of course, I thought, ‘What I can do next?’ It would be fun to goof off with my fans.
And then I thought, ‘Maybe I could do something other than stroke my ego’. And that’s when I decided to try to raise some money for charity.
Heifer International’s website let you make a little fundraising page, so I did that and I said ‘Hey everyone, Heifer is my favorite charity; if you donate, I’ll match those donations for a month.’ I was kind of hoping to maybe raise 5 thousand dollars, but we raised 5 thousand in just 2 days.
And so I talked to my girlfriend—I’m like, ‘Can we do more? How do you feel?’ I figured this was the initial rush of people being kind of excited. And I’m like, ‘Let’s bump it up to 7,500 dollars,’ and then it was 10,000 and then it was 15,000, and then other authors started offering books that I could give away as prizes.
Neil Gaiman Tweeted about it, you know. So we raised like 55,000 dollars that year, and I went broke.
I’ve been broker before, but never for a good reason like this.”
So you ended up using most of your own money that first year?
“I literally used all of my own money. I said I would match donations for a month, and by the end of that month, we had raised 55,000 dollars, and that was like every bit of money I had in the bank.
It actually was a problem. Like I said, I was a new author, and I didn’t realize that they didn’t take taxes out of your royalties. As an author, you have to pay self-employment tax as well. So I owed a lot of taxes—I had never made more than 14-15k a year in my life before I was an author, so I had never paid in any significant amount of tax.
So that was a little panicky—luckily, we sold the rights in Germany, and that kind of saved me from going to debtors’ prison.”
That was incredibly generous of you to give so much from your own personal funds.
“Well, I said that I would, and it’s for a great cause. Like I said—I’ve been broke before, but I’ve never been broke for a good reason. I didn’t realize I was doing this at first—I didn’t realize the community would respond this way. But thinking back on it, I’m actually really not surprised. Geeks tend to be very intelligent people, and Heifer is a really intelligent charity. It’s far-reaching, it’s sustainable, it’s efficient, it centers around education and self-reliance, and all of these things appeal to the geek mindset.
And on top of that they’ve shown that one of the few things that genuinely improve empathy is reading novels. People have wondered, ‘How can you build empathy?’ It turns out that one of the very few things that consistently leads to an increase in empathy is reading novels.
And so of course the people reading my blog, and who have read my books—they’ve been reading their whole lives, so of course they’re empathetic.
And when you’re empathetic, you want to help other people and make the world a better place.”
“Novels, as opposed to other types of storytelling media, give the gift of experience without the burden of experience.
The difficulty with something like television is that you see people doing things, but in a novel, you typically get to see the insides of peoples’ heads, and that’s what really tends to engender this empathy and this compassion and this understanding for other people’s points of view.”
What’s the thing you’re most proud of concerning Worldbuilders, and is there anything you’d like people to know about your charity that isn’t on the Worldbuilders web page?
“Beyond what’s on the site, we try really hard to be as transparent as we can about the process, and we try to make everything as visible as possible. But I would say that the big point this year is that somebody stepped up and actually offered us matching money.
I could not afford to do it later on—the second year of Worldbuilders, when I offered to match half of the money, everyone knew it was coming and it was much more successful, so it kind of wiped me out again. And eventually, I’m like ‘Well, I kind of need to make mortgage payments.’
I can’t always hope that I will get an unexpected royalty check to carry me through. So we stopped offering matching money.
But this year, for the first year, we get to offer it [matching] again, and that’s a big deal—that means if you come in and you donate, the good you’re doing in the world is doubled.
This year, for the first time, we also have the traditional mechanism where if you donate, you’re automatically entered in a prize drawing where you have a chance to win books or games—a lot of the games are really nice. We have big game designer sponsors, and a lot of the books are from publishers or authors, themselves, so a lot of them are limited edition.”
Could you talk, for a moment, about the charities the money from Worldbuilders actually goes to?
“The lion’s share of our fundraising does go to Heifer International.
Our current fundraiser is exclusively Heifer International, although in the past, we’ve also raised money for charities that support the Syrian Refugees, as well as a charity called First Book, which provides books to kids who are in bad economic situations here in the U.S. The average number of books in a household with kids is something like 14, which seems really weird to me, but they’ve done the math on it.
But there are some parts of the country where the math works out to there being 600 kids for every one book in the house. And it’s kind of horrifying for me to think of kids growing up without books. So First Book is a great charity—they work with publishers and if you want to watch some of their videos, it’s very heartwarming, because these kids, they go and they pick out these books, and then some of them cannot even understand that they are supposed to take them home. It’s just like ‘What do you mean, it’s for me—when do I have to bring it back?’ That’s their first book.
And it’s super important, if you think of the empathy issue as well. If these kids don’t get good at reading, if they don’t learn the love of books, they won’t read as much, and then if you grow up in this hard economic situation, if you grow up in an economy of scarcity which really encourages people to be tight and conservative and fearful because you need to conserve your resources, and you couple that with a lack of empathy, well, honestly, you get the 2016 election. Because that’s been brewing for a long time.
So, yeah, we work with First Book, but mainly it’s Heifer International, because they do the most good for the least amount of money, and all of the work they do is sustainable, and it’s incredibly intelligent and far-reaching.”
Do you think it’s important for people, like yourself, who have built influential platforms to devote some of their time and effort to addressing human suffering?
“Well, in a word—yes.
I think that it’s not just people who have a platform—everyone has a platform. Everybody has a voice. Everybody has the power to speak. And if you happen to be at a bus stop and you see somebody threatening somebody else because they’re wearing a headscarf, then you can either address that particular issue of human suffering right then and there, or you can not. At that moment in time, you are given a platform in which to act.
The other issue ends up being there are a lot of people that want to play the Carnegie game, is how I think of it. People say to me, straight up, ‘Shouldn’t you do what Carnegie did, like just make a bunch of money and then do good at the end of your life when you don’t need it anymore?’
Not that Carnegie didn’t do some good stuff, but Carnegie was, honestly, kind of a monster. He did terrible things to people to amass this fortune, and then yes, he started a bunch of libraries, but that’s not a road I want to follow. He was a source of human misery.
I’ve made a point of it that all the people that I’ve employed for Worldbuilders are paid a fair wage. They can have good lives. Most of the people that work at Worldbuilders own their own houses. I also make sure that they have health insurance, even though we’re not big enough for me to be required to give them health insurance.
That’s something that I don’t do as an author with a big social media footprint—that’s something I do as a small business owner.
It’s always easy to think that you don’t have any influence in the world, or that you’re very small, or that you’re powerless, and honestly there’s a ton of institutions in the world that are designed to make you feel helpless and powerless.
But the truth is that if you are living in the US, you are in the global 1 percent. You have access to more resources than 99 percent of the rest of humanity. And that’s like if you’re a broke college student, you know? And you’re like ‘Ugh, I only make like 7 thousand dollars a year at my part-time job.’ Well, congratulations—you actually have access to more resources than 99 percent of the world.
So I try to talk to my people about that, and not that I’m saying ‘Hey, I’m a big guy so I can do big things.’ We’re all powerful if only we stop and take a moment to realize where our power rests.”
That’s a wise outlook.
“Well, it’s work. I have hard times—this election has been very hard. The results of this election have been very hard because a lot of lies were told and a lot of people will suffer as a result.
Honestly, I’m worried about the fundraiser because we invested in a new website, we have matching money, and we’re trying out new things to move forward and be bigger and to raise more money for Heifer International. But the problem is most social progressives just took a real hard hit in the gut. And when that happens, the impulse is to sort of take a couple of steps back and curl up and pull in your borders.
That’s exactly how I felt after the election. Because I’m like ‘Oh, I can’t do this anymore. I can’t care and be disappointed. I can’t try and fail again. This hurts too much.’ And you’re filled with dismay and despair. But then you have to make the choice—you say ‘I can either keep doing what I’ve been doing, or I can stop.’ But it’s really the only choice you have.
And then you have to realize you can feel that people are good, but even good people can be wrong. Or, you can start to think, ‘Boy, maybe only some people are good and a lot of people are really evil. Maybe the world is a bad place. Maybe we’re fighting a losing rearguard action. Maybe this is really the end.’
You can think that way. You can line up facts to support that belief structure. But what do you gain? I don’t think you gain anything. So I deliberately make the choice to believe that people are good, and that we have hope, and that we can take action.
It’s not always easy, and I don’t always manage to feel that way every day, but it gets easier with practice.”
There’s so much in Kvothe’s story that speaks of narratives, and how they influence the world—do you intend for your creative work, like your charity work, to educate as well as delight—for it to make the world a better place?
“As I’ve talked about his more and more over the last couple of years, when I go to conventions, I’ve started doing panels—I’ve pitched panels, my favorite of which is called ‘The Ethical Responsibility of the Storyteller’.
Now here’s the thing—I’m hesitant to say, in answer to this question, that yes, I’m looking to educate, because didactic fiction is among the worst stuff in existence. It is gross. But there’s a big difference between teaching and preaching.
I like the fact that you used the word ‘educate,’ because it’s a beautiful word—it comes from educare, which means ‘to lead out,’ which is a great concept because it’s not leading to. If you’re leading someone to somewhere, you’re preaching.
But if you’re leading someone out, I like to think of leading them out of ignorance or out of false certainty, or out of some bad thought processes that they’ve absorbed through the culture.
Here’s the thing. If you accept the fact that your art has an influence on people, and everyone, when confronted, has to say yes, my art can influence people, because if nothing else, you hope to entertain, and that is influence, then you owe it to your audience to be careful and considerate in what that influence is.”
A Life Shown, Not Told
Celebrities—of which, Rothfuss is one, although he may be loath to call himself such—wield enormous influence over our culture. And their actions speak more loudly than their words.
In teaching the craft of creative writing, the idea of “show vs. tell” reminds burgeoning writers that the best way to begin reaching their readers is through relating experience—through showing, rather than simply summarizing.
Summaries are just words. Showing, however, engages the senses. Instead of “The forest was peaceful,” we have, “The leaves swirled slowly, stirred by a gentle wind which smelled of fern and earth.” It feels more true-to-life.
This is how authors make readers live their stories. This is how readers learn from the experience of fictional characters. And this is how Patrick Rothfuss uses his own life, giving an incredible amount of time, energy, and funds to his charity in order to help others, living an example that, hopefully, other authors, celebrities, politicians, and everyday people will soon follow.
If you want to follow that example, too, head on over to Worldbuilders and give. You’ll have the sincere thanks of one of the greatest fantasy authors of our time.