An Interview with Brandon SandersonEdit
May 15, 2009
Thanks to Brandon for taking time out of one of the most important projects in Epic Fantasy’s publishing history to answer a few of my questions! I hope you enjoy the interview as much as I did!
Thanks for agreeing to this interview, Brandon, and welcome to the South African SFF scene! First off, will you please tell us a bit about yourself? Where you grew up, what started you reading, and why you started writing?
I grew up in Lincoln, Nebraska. I was a big reader as a child, then fell away for a while. In third and fourth grade, my favorite series was the Three Investigators books, a mystery series. As I grew older, the books that other people gave me to read were realistic fiction–books that bored me out of my skull, so my reading habits dribbled off. By junior high I wasn’t reading anything new, until I had a wonderful English teacher who told me I couldn’t keep doing book reports on novels that were four grades below my reading level. Instead, she gave me her copy of Dragonsbane by Barbara Hambly. I had no idea books like that existed–it engaged my imagination like no other book ever had. At that point I started reading every fantasy book I could get my hands on, including Eye of the World when it came out in paperback. I was hooked, and there was no going back. I even started writing some myself–on my website in the library section there’s a short story I wrote in high school for a writing contest at a local SF convention. It’s really not very good, but it took first place in the student division, and at the awards ceremony was one of the first times I can remember thinking, “Wow, maybe I can do this.”
My mother, however, thought I should study something more concrete and said I could keep writing on the side. I started college as a biochemistry major, but when I took two years off to serve a mission for my church I realized I didn’t miss chemistry at all and just wanted to write. On my off days I worked on what eventually became my first novel, and when I got back to school I changed my major to English and determined to become a professional author.
You have amassed a well-loved body of work, attaching your name to epic fantasy even before being approached to finish A Memory of Light; will you please tell us about your work, and why a reader who has never read your work should buy and read a copy of Elantris, the Mistborn series or Warbreaker?
I love epic fantasy, but I’m of the generation who grew up reading Robert Jordan and Tad Williams and are now trying to say, what else can we do with the genre? I want to write books that feel like the great epic fantasies of the past that you’ve read, but don’t use the same, familiar stories. In Mistborn, for example, the idea was to turn the standard fantasy story on its head–what if the prophesied hero failed and the Dark Lord took over and has ruled the known world for the last thousand years? My books are also known for their spectacular, interesting magic systems that are very rule based and almost a science unto themselves. But of course none of that matters without characters whose motivations you can understand and who you can care about as a reader. In Elantris I have three very different main viewpoint characters, and readers are fairly evenly divided on who’s their favorite–in writing as in anything else, it’s impossible to please everyone all the time, but I’m happy that my books have shown so many different people a character they can relate to and root for.
Between writing Mistborn 2 and Mistborn 3, I wanted to try something new, and my series of humorous middle-grade novels beginning with Alcatraz Versus the Evil Librarians was the result. I love epic fantasy, and don’t intend to ever stop writing it. However, sometimes we all need a diversion toward something more lighthearted. If you want to get a taste of what my writing is like, because Alcatraz is so different from my other books I recommend that unless you’re between the ages of ten and thirteen you start with the first Mistborn book–or Elantris or Warbreaker. Mistborn is a good entry point for people who like trilogies and series (and the writing is better in Mistborn than in Elantris; I can see how much I have improved over the years). The other two are good entry points for people who prefer standalones–and Warbreaker is available for free on my website (as well as coming out in hardcover in North America from Tor next month), so it may be the most convenient starting point of all.
You’ve been using the Internet as an excellent tool for marketing your work and getting readers a behind-the-scenes seat on being an author; what led to you taking that path?
There are some authors out there who are really good at sitting down and blogging about themselves or whatever’s on their mind and building a following of likeminded people, but I actually find that a bit of a struggle. Perhaps writing fiction kind of sucks away all of the “writing juices” from me, leaving me unmotivated to write anything promotional. Or perhaps it’s because I’m really a recluse at heart. I want people to read my fiction, but I don’t necessarily care if they know about the man behind the screen. He’s not important–only the story matters. So while I do manage to do some of the normal blogging things–talking about my life and the creative process–I also see my website and blog as an opportunity to give back to the fans. In the publishing world, a lot of time passes between one book’s release and the next’s, and I hope that giving my readers something to read regularly while they’re waiting is a good way to keep my books in their mind. If someone who reads a book by me puts my name into a search engine, I want something interesting to show up–I think of a lot of my website content in terms of the bonus content you get on a special edition DVD. The biggest example of this is the chapter-by-chapter annotations I post regularly–think of them as the director’s commentary track that you can listen to while you watch a movie, usually on the second or third watching of a movie you like. You can read a chapter or section of the book, then read my companion discussion of that particular section. The annotations alone add a lot of text to the reading experience–the annotations for Mistborn 3: The Hero of Ages that I’ll start posting soon total 40,000 words, which is long enough to be called a novel in its own right (though my novels themselves are quite a bit longer than that). Also like on a DVD, you can find deleted scenes and alternate endings on my website–earlier drafts that I had to discard but which the readers might find interesting. And I do like to let people know the status of the projects I’m currently working on, with handy progress bars in one corner of the page.
You also run the Writing Excuses podcast with Howard Tayler and Dan Wells; did the idea start with you, or was it the brainchild of a get-together? And why do you think it has become so popular?
A couple years ago, I realized that there’s a whole lot of writing talent hanging around my area. I also realized that my brother is getting a degree that focuses heavily on web marketing, and that he had just taken a podcasting class. These two ideas started battling to the death in the arena of my mind, until they merged into the weekly podcast known as Writing Excuses. Dan Wells and I have been friends since college, and before we were published we went to conventions together to hit up editors. (His first published book, horror novel I Am Not a Serial Killer, recently came out in the UK.) Howard I met more recently, but I’d long been a fan of his Schlock Mercenary webcomic (schlockmercenary.com). I felt that our combination of writing styles and backgrounds would make an interesting mix for the podcast, and Dan and Howard were enthusiastic. As for why the podcast has become popular, I think our slogan has a lot to do with it–“Fifteen minutes long, because you’re in a hurry, and we’re not that smart.” Our goal is to be quick, informative, and conversational–and, if possible, occasionally amusing. That has clearly struck a chord with our listeners.
Moving on to the Wheel of Time, I’m sure you can remember exactly where and when you were when you first laid eyes on The Eye of the World; what, in your opinion, makes the Wheel of Time series so popular?
I do remember exactly where and when I first laid eyes on The Eye of the World. It was right after the paperback came out, and I was at the local comic store where I bought all my fantasy books. While browsing the new paperback shelf, I saw this huge fantasy novel there. I can almost feel that moment, standing and holding the book in my hands, listening to someone play an antiquated upright of Cadash in the background. I think the cover of Eye is the best Darryl Sweet has ever done–one of the best in fantasy. I loved the cover. The feel of the troop marching along, Lan and Moiraine proud and face forward. . . . The cover screamed epic. I bought the book and loved it. I still think Eye is one of the greatest fantasy books ever written. It signifies an era, the culmination of the epic quest genre which had been brewing since Tolkien initiated it in the ’60s. The Wheel of Time dominated my reading during the ’90s, influencing heavily my first few attempts at my own fantasy novels. I think it did that to pretty much all of us; even many of the most literarily snobbish of fantasy readers were youths when I was, and read Eye of the World when I did. Robert Jordan showed us what it was to have vision and scope in a fantasy series–he did a wonderful job giving his readers a sense of immensity to his story, while at the same time focusing on the specific lives of his characters. He did an excellent job of creating a large set of empathetic characters and keeping them straight in the reader’s mind. He’s a model writer for walking the line between familiarity (the “farmboy saves the world from an evil overlord” story) and originality (his use of magic, his political worldbuilding). The descriptiveness of his writing is great. And the prologue to Eye of the World is hands-down one of the most interesting introductions to any series. All those factors have won readers over and cemented the Wheel of Time as one of the most popular fantasy series of all time. Nobody in the adult fantasy market today has left more of an impact on more people’s lives than Robert Jordan.
It must have been surreal when you found out you were going to finish a series you loved and work from the notes of an author you (and many others, myself included) admire so much; does it still feel as if you’re dreaming, sometimes? Is there still that little voice telling you you’re going to wake up soon?
I still feel a little stunned at times. It’s odd. It’s been a year and a half, but from time to time I still stop and think, “Wait, how in the world did this happen? Out of all of the people who could have been chosen, did this really happen to me?” I kind of feel like Sam, carrying Frodo the last few paces up the mountain. I’m finishing the Master’s work for him, since he is unable to. I’m just glad I could be here to help for the last stretch when I was needed.
How has finishing (and it’s not completely done yet, guys and girls) A Memory of Light changed your life? Are you still the same Brandon Sanderson you were before A Memory of Light?
It’s far from completely done! The first part of the three, The Gathering Storm, is turned in and in production, and I’m only about halfway through the second part’s rough draft. There’s a lot of writing left to go. But working on the Wheel of Time has forced me to grow immensely as a writer. Back when I sold Elantris to Tor, they were interested in following that with the book I was working on at the time, called The Way of Kings. But I felt my career and writing skills weren’t yet in the right place to pull off the ten-volume epic fantasy series that I wanted that book to lead into, so I wrote the Mistborn trilogy instead. Now, after working on the Wheel of Time for over a year, I finally feel ready to dive in and do a revision of Way of Kings. If I can effectively use all I’ve learned, I might be able to make the book become what I want it to be.
How has it been working so closely with Harriet? Granted, you are in different States, but you know what I mean.
Harriet is a world class editor–she really is great at what she does. I’ve had several opportunities to meet with her in person–she, and Mr. Jordan’s staff, are awesome. His two assistants, Maria and Alan, are continuity experts and went through my completed manuscript pages fact checking and giving feedback on general issues as well. I had worried that having three editors on this project would make it more difficult to work on, but so far it’s simply been a big help. There is so much going on in this book and this world that having the extra sets of eyes is very helpful.
I’ve really enjoyed the process. At the beginning, after I read all the notes and explained to the team my feelings on the various outlines for the different characters, Harriet pretty much let me call the shots when it came to the actual drafting of the novel. As an editor, she works best when I provide material to her, then she works her magic to turn it from good to excellent. When I turned manuscript pages in, and she came back to me with line edits–where she goes through and tweaks the language of the book–it quickly became obvious what a pro she is and how much she loves this series. It’s truly an honor to work with her.
Not only are you finishing A Memory of Light, you’re also writing your own work; how on earth to you balance and juggle everything? I s’pose it helps to be a full-time writer. andWhat is your day like while working on A Memory of Light? Do you work according to a schedule? Are there enough hours in the day?
Let me combine the answers for these two questions. You may not be surprised to hear that I have many more ideas for books than I have time to work on them. There are several first drafts or partial drafts of novels that I’ve written that need serious revision before they ever see the light of day, but I have to prioritize according to the urgency of the project and the deadlines I’m working under. Part two of A Memory of Light (the working title is Shifting Winds, but this will ultimately change) will be getting the largest share of my attention during the next year. I also have to finish the fourth Alcatraz book in the next few months–Scholastic will probably start breathing down my neck around July or August, but my goal is to write it when I have a rough draft done for Shifting Winds. I often work on two books at once–writing new material for one book and editing another. Writing and editing take different types of attention, and I can usually only write new material for four to six hours a day, but I can revise all day long–maybe this is the difference between mental heavy lifting and mental long-distance running. I recently hired an assistant to handle a lot of the non-writing tasks associated with being self-employed; this should free up another couple hours each day during which I can work on revising Way of Kings as I mentioned above. I generally put in an eight-hour workday, then call it quits if other things are happening. From 5:00 to 7:00 p.m. is family time, and then if nothing pressing is going on I head back to work after dinner and after my son is in bed. It works for me–most of the time, the fifty or sixty hours a week I spend writing are quite fun. As my wife says, writing is my job and my hobby. I’d generally rather be working on one of my books than sitting in front of the television.
With Red Eagle Entertainment doing the live-action movie and the various games of the Wheel of Time, why do you think many fans have had such a strong reaction against this? I know I’d like to shout, “If Harriet’s okay with it, leave it alone!”
Maybe they’ll get made. Maybe they won’t turn out so well, like some other recent fantasy book adaptations. Or maybe we’ll get lucky, and they’ll get a director who understands the books and can bring out the same feel of the novels while still adapting them in a way that suits the film medium. The thing is, you never know which of those you’re going to get until you try. Now that I’ve met with representatives of Red Eagle, I’m much more comfortable with them working on the project. They really impressed me with their sincere desire to do the series justice.
We know you can’t say anything specific or even in general about what takes place in A Memory of Light, but you have to be able to answer this one, at least – does Bela save the day?
I’m afraid Bela’s future exploits are still under wraps, but I have already revealed that it was Bela (with the assistance of Narg) who killed Asmodean.
Finally, Michael A. Stackpole once commented on whether or not the world of the Wheel of Time should be expanded by having other writers writing the stories of, let’s say, Artur Hawkwing’s rise to power or how the Seanchan tamed Seanchan, and so letting Robert Jordan’s world expand and grow – good idea or bad idea?
I think the concept of anyone else working on the Wheel of Time was very painful for Robert Jordan. But in the last months before his death, he became determined–even insistent–that the series be completed after he passed away–and that means the part of the story that he had outlined to appear in the final book, now split into three due to length. He also previously had ideas for two more prequels and the outrigger novels set after the series’ end, but those were not a priority in his last few months. At this point we’re not sure Robert Jordan would have wanted those books to be written in his absence, and no one involved in finishing the series now feels the same urgency about them. I know that a lot of fans want to see those books eventually, but I ask that you please respect Harriet’s ability to decide their fate. If Harriet feels that he would not have wanted them done or that there aren’t enough notes or materials to complete the books in a way that would have made him proud, then the books should not be written. As for other books in the Wheel of Time universe that Robert Jordan did not have any plans to write or to arrange to be written, that’s not something I contemplate. When an author creates a world so rich that readers want an unending supply of books set in that world, that’s just a testament to the author’s skill as a storyteller–it doesn’t mean that having people write an unending supply of books in that world is a good idea. Stories have beginnings, middles, and endings for a reason, and ignoring that is detrimental to the integrity of the story. Robert Jordan had a vision for the Wheel of Time, and it’s important to be faithful to that vision. We’d rather leave his legacy as it stands than have bad books attached to his name.
Thanks, Brandon, for finding the time to answer these questions! We wish you nothing but the best, all the time you need to write, and more spots on the New York Times Bestseller list!
Thank you! It’s been my pleasure.