“I Have Been Incredibly Privileged to Write the Full Arc of Fitz’s Story”: Robin Hobb on 25 Years of Assassin’s Apprentice

A quarter-century ago, the fantasy author who would come to be known as Robin Hobb got the idea for Assassin’s Apprentice in a fashion familiar to many a writer today: “When you’re working on a book and you get to the hard part,” Hobb (a.k.a. Margaret Astrid Lindholm Ogden) recalled at New York Comic-Con, “this shiny other idea pops into your head that would be so much easier and so much fun to write.”

That idea—which she scrawled on a scrap of paper and shoved into her desk drawer, in this pre-computer age—was a question: What if magic was an addiction? And if that addiction was totally destructive? And so began Hobb’s The Realm of the Elderlings saga, starting with 1995’s Assassin’s Apprentice and concluding with Assassin’s Fate in 2017. At NYCC’s spotlight panel, Hobb and longtime editor Anne Groell reminisced on beloved fantasy sidekicks, how everything was tangled up with the Fool all along, and how Hobb never expected to see FitzChivalry Farseer through to his ending. Read on for highlights!

That question on a scrap sat in the drawer for a few years, during which time it encountered other story scraps—like Hobb’s ponderings on well-worn fantasy archetypes and plots, from the young man starting his journey to the grizzled old man who doesn’t want to take on a new apprentice. In writing Assassin’s Apprentice, she asked herself, “Can you take those clichés and hammer all that rust off and make it seem like something new and shiny again?”

One way she metaphorically hammered was to focus not on who she initially thought might be the protagonist—Burrich—but young royal bastard Fitz instead, because that’s the character who started talking to her. “I have a great weakness for sidekicks,” she said, “for the people that make things happen but aren’t necessarily the tentpole of the story, from Sam Gamgee on.”

The other half of it was listening to the Fool, Fitz’s friend and foil throughout decades and trilogies. In her original outline, he was onstage, so to speak, for all of one sentence in which he revealed something to Fitz, “and he left the story. He was supposed to stay gracefully offstage doing minor things but still intervening, but he refused to shut up, and he kept coming in and disrupting scenes and disrupting the story in minor ways. He’s a very unruly character.” When asked whether she had a sense, even that early, of the role that the Fool would play in the entire series, Hobb responded, “I know more about the Fool than my readers do, but not a lot more.”

“Nowadays [there is] talk of writing for diversity and inclusivity,” Hobb said, to Groell’s point about the Fool’s gender being something of a mystery. “I wish I could claim I had foresight and I was doing that, but I wasn’t. I was just writing a character who was in some ways similar to people I know, and he was just this wonderful character that stepped into the story and said, ‘I’m important.'”

These wonderful characters go through a lot, as Groell pointed out in a vital question that prompted lots of knowing laughter: Do you like hurting your readers? Acknowledging all that Fitz goes through in the series, Hobb said, “If you’re reading carefully, there is a point where the Fool reveals to Fitz that he believes Fitz can change the world, but in all the futures he’s foreseen there are very, very few in which Fitz survives. In many cases, it’s the Fool doing some small thing that intervenes so that Fitz gets through this. … The Fool is keeping him alive because he does want to change the world.”

Did Hobb always intend The Realm of the Elderlings to span 16 books? When did she realize that there was a wider connection between different trilogies? “From the very opening of Assassin’s Apprentice, I knew there was a long road ahead of Fitz,” she said. “I never expected to be along to write it. At the end of the [first] trilogy, I thought, I’ve left him in a fairly good place, and I will go on and write something I’ve always been intrigued about, which is what’s going on [on a] Liveship.”

Yet Fitz’s fate still nagged at her. So at one point in the process, she wrote one chapter, to prove to herself that she had left Fitz in a good place: “About 45 pages later, I realized, I had a problem.”

Referencing the fact that many writers know the befores and afters of their stories and characters, Hobb said, “I have been incredibly privileged to write the full arc of Fitz’s story, and to see the after.”

But during that middle, there were a lot of memorable moments. For instance, Hobb initially wrote the character of Starling as male—at least for the first fifteen pages, at which point she realized that Starling was female, and then things started finally moving. Or when “the Fool says, ‘We’re here to save the world, you and I,’ and I went, ‘…That’s a much bigger ambition than I had for this book.'”

Hobb also answered questions from longtime readers:

At what point did she come across the idea for the Catalyst? “I think that came with the Fool. It’s mentioned somewhat early, when Chade is surprised and says [to Fitz], ‘The Fool talks to you?’ Chade has an inkling of who the Fool thinks he is, and is like, ‘Oh God, that’s real.’ It was tangled up with the Fool in the beginning.”

On how she came up with the duality between the revered Skill and the despised Wit: “I think we can see that in almost any society, that something that is accepted and OK in one society makes you a member of a despised group in another society.” (And also the suggestion that readers check out her novella The Willful Princess and the Piebald Prince.)

On other magical binaries: “If you can do magic and make it happen every time, that’s science striking a match on a box. But that one time you strike stones together, that’s magic.”

Any fan reactions that surprised her? “The reactions to Kennit were interesting because Kennit has a very bright side to him, and he has a very dark side to him. Kennit’s behavior was very difficult for some readers, and it was not pleasant to write, but it is who he was, who he was shaped by fate to be. I’ve been rather surprised by the number of readers who say, ‘I don’t like Molly’ … But Fitz likes her, that’s what matters.”

How does she decide whether to write something as Megan Lindholm or as Robin Hobb? “I think Robin Hobb writes in a much more leisurely manner, with a lot more emotion and a lot more pausing about ‘This is what the characters think or feel’; and Megan Lindholm writes a lot more like ‘This is what happened.’ [You] decide whats the most important thing to convey in the story.”

What was it like revisiting Assassin’s Apprentice? Reading a passage at a bookstore event, Hob said, “was like reading a letter from a very old friend, to read Fitz’s voice again.”

How have the past 25 years spent with these characters and in these lands (and seas) changed Hobb? “You see people go through these changes,” she said. “We all grow up, we all get older. Sometimes we think we got wiser; sometimes we do, sometimes we don’t. What’s the phrase? It’s been a long, strange trip.”

And the biggest question: What’s next? After the ending of Assassin’s Fate, Hobb said, “I needed to take some time off, because I was bidding farewell to some people I had traveled with for more than 25 years. I will freely admit that I have been experimenting with all kinds of things and writing everything from poetry to children’s books—and everything is not finished. At this point, I have probably 30 possible projects, and I need to make a commitment to one of them.”

Del Rey has released a special 25th anniversary edition of Assassin’s Apprentice, with new illustrations by Magali Villeneuve; check out some of the art here!

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