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Ending The Wheel of Time: The GeekDad Interview with Brandon SandersonEdit
By Jason B. Jones
November 2, 2009
Last week, Tor published The Gathering Storm, the newest book in Robert Jordan’s longrunning Wheel of Time series. To alert, but not devoted readers, this may have come as a bit of a surprise, as Robert Jordan died in 2007. But Jordan had left detailed notes, and even finished scenes (he’d talked for years about having the last scene written), and so the possibility existed of finishing the series, based on those notes. Robert Jordan’s wife and editor, Harriet McDougal, selected Brandon Sanderson, in part on the strength of a eulogy Sanderson had written for Jordan. McDougal and Sanderson have discussed this process in an interview.
What was to be the final book has turned into a final trilogy, to be released over the next couple of years, but I don’t think there will be any regrets: The Gathering Storm is a well-paced book that is recognizably true to the Wheel of Time spirit.
Sanderson took time out from the book’s promotional tour to speak with me by phone on Thursday:
GD: So, you’ve now taken over the biggest fantasy series since The Lord of the Rings. No pressure, right?
BS: Exactly, no pressure at all. You just described it perfectly: It’s a monumental task, and a monumental amount of pressure, from millions of fans, of which I am one-the daunting task of not being “the one who screws up The Wheel of Time.”
GD: Are you just lending flesh to a largely complete skeleton, or do you also have to close plot points that were still unresolved in Jordan’s notes?
BS: It’s actually not as simple as either of those options. The notes range in how detailed they are. In some places, he finished complete scenes, which is great. He finished several complete scenes, which will be scattered through the three books, including the ending itself.
In a number of places he gave dictations. Over his last few months, he spent a lot of time dictating to the family things that should happen. These are very interesting scenes in that they read kind of like a screenplay, because they transcribe the dictations. It’s a lot of the dialogue, but it’s him saying what should happen instead of actually writing it out. “And then, Egwene says this, and then he says this, and then this happens.” And so the description isn’t there, but the dialogue and the blocking all are. As I said, like a screenplay.
In other places, there are fragments of scenes, where he wrote a couple of paragraphs, and then another couple of paragraphs. And just like a shattered plate, there are pieces missing. In other places, there are sentences he’s written, “and then this happens”-where “this” is a sequence of four chapters’ worth of events. In other places, he left a paragraph or two, and in some places there’s just a big hole. There’re characters here and there, and then there are a lot of really detailed notes for the ending, saying where everyone ends up, who lives and who dies-it’s very detailed, and is where I think the bulk of the material is. But sometimes, we’ll know where someone is at the end of Knife of Dreams, and then at the ending he says that person is doing something else, but the intervening space is a big hole.
GD: So, actually, in The Gathering Storm you’ve had to do a fair amount of legwork to make sure that everything is prepared for the finale.
BS: Yes! That’s one of the reasons why we felt we needed to split the books. It was partially because the outline detailed so many things for us to do, and Robert Jordan had been saying for some time that it was going to be an enormous book. And part of the reason also was that I needed some legwork-time to set up all of these things that were going to happen. If you look at the end of Knife of Dreams, you’ve got characters scattered to the far reaches of the world, and we know-we’ve all known as fans for a while-that they’re going to have to gather back together for the Last Battle. It’s got to come, but they’re still scattered all over the place. He started to draw them back together at the end of Knife of Dreams, but we really needed a staging book to bring some of these things back together, and to accomplish some of the goals he had set forth. That’s really what The Gathering Storm is: It’s focusing on several of the main characters who need to be in a certain place, both spiritually and physically. As characters they need to be in a certain place mentally, in who they are, and physically they need to arrive in certain destinations, and so I focus a lot on that.
In many ways, it’s a more personal book, in that it’s more focused on several of the big main characters.
GD: It’s kind of a relief to have a lot of Rand and Egwene and some of the other originals . . .
BS: That’s what people have been saying. I’m glad to hear that. I was worried that they would feel the lack of some of the smaller characters, though there are plenty of those. It is a Wheel of Time book, so they’re not gone. But there are some people who don’t show up. By now, the spoilers are around: Elayne, we don’t have any viewpoints from Elayne. There’s nothing from Lan. We don’t hear anything from Padan Fain, or some of these pretty important lesser characters. (I wouldn’t say Elayne is a lesser character, but she’s had a couple of books that really do her thing, and so it was time for her to take a back seat, I think, to Rand and Egwene.)
GD: Anyone who knows the books at all knows that Rand al’Thor hears the voice of Lews Therin in his head-sometimes cackling like a madman, other times more helpfully. After wading through all of Robert Jordan’s notes, and listening to those dictated comments, do you have a new sympathy for Rand?
BS: Robert Jordan dropped a bomb at the end of Knife of Dreams, with what Semirhage was saying about or to Rand, talking about his level of stability. I remember as a reader, going through as a kid-I think Robert Jordan blindsided me with Lews Therin, because I’d been told that “Rand will go mad, Rand will go mad,” but I didn’t accept that voice as Rand going mad. I accepted that as another person, inside of Rand’s head, and not a delusion or anything like that. Across the course of the books, Robert Jordan brought together this thing that he’d promised: “No, look, this guy is just going crazy. Yes, he’s seeing part of his past life, but he’s going insane. It’s the immense pressure that’s doing this.” In looking through the notes, and seeing what Rand has to go through, it’s hard not to sympathize with the poor guy.
Robert Jordan once said in an interview, when someone tried to get him to boil down the series to its core-he first said, you can’t boil down this series. I wrote it as long as I did because that’s how long I needed to tell the story, and so boiling it down doesn’t work. But he finally did say this: At it’s essence, this series is about what it’s like to be told that you need to save the world, and that it’s probably going to cost your life. Even all of the other characters, you could say that that is a theme for them, too. Egwene has had to give up the life that she’d assumed that she was going to live, and to adopt this other life in the name of the greater good. And that’s happening to everybody. Kings and queens are being cast down, and people who thought that their lives were just going to be normal and stable, and that’s all they really wanted, are being forced to take upon themselves these mantles of responsibility. And Rand is at the very heart of that. Rand is the center, the example for all of them of what they’re having to go through, and it’s the worst for him.
GD: True-but I also meant for you as the writer finishing someone else’s series: As you’re writing, you surely have Robert Jordan’s voice rattling around in your head.
BS: (Laughs.) It does kind of feel like that at times, particularly after I’ve spent some time reading Robert Jordan’s writing and then jumping into the book. It is like I have this voice saying, “Well, do it this way,” or “This is how I would approach it.” Juggling Brandon and Robert Jordan and trying to make sure that this isn’t a Brandon book-but it’s also not going to be a Robert Jordan book-and making sure that it’s a Wheel of Time book. That’s been a delicate balance.
GD: And you’re also working on your own books right now as well. Has there been any trouble there, or have you been able to firewall that?
BS: I’ve been able to firewall it. What I’ve done is that I tend to separate things timewise. I took the summer off [from The Wheel of Time] to work on some of my own projects that I needed to get back to, and so I gave myself four months or so of time to do that. I got done what I needed to do, and could then just section that off and get back to The Wheel of Time. The way I stay sane as a writer is I work on different projects. I’ll dedicate myself to something very big for a long time, and then I’ll cut it off and do something else for a while. Maybe it’s like taking a drink of water between trying different bites of food. I did that this summer. I went and did other things for a while to refresh myself. That’s worked very well in the past in keeping me from getting burned out. That’s where my kid’s series came from: Alcatraz versus the Evil Librarians came from me taking a break between Mistborn 2 and 3, and not wanting to write the climax to the Mistborn books, feeling burned out on the series, and doing something else for a month.
GD: You’ve written on your blog that as you’ve re-read the books, you’ve noticed that your sympathies for different characters evolved.
BS: Yes, they have. When I was a kid, I found myself resisting the oppression of Moiraine and Nynaeve, and these older people who were trying to keep the younger guys locked in. I read the series now as an adult, and I feel like one of these people, saying, “Listen to Moiraine’s advice, Rand! Don’t do that-you’re being stupid!” I find myself empathizing with the older characters. It’s a testament to Robert Jordan’s skill as a writer, the ability to write so many people from so many different walks of life. As you change and become a different person, as you grow, as we all do, you’ll begin to see the perspective of other people in the book. It was quite shocking to me.
GD: And now that you’re much deeper into the writing, has that shift continued?
BS: Partially. One of the great tricks of being a good writer is to be able to see as a lot of different people. When I actually sit down to write, whoever I’m writing becomes the most important character in the book. Because in their mind, they’re the most important person in their story. When I’m writing even the minor characters, I need to be them, and I need to see the world as they do. It’s a constant shifting, depending on what I’m writing and what their feelings and beliefs are. I regard the book in a different way every time I change characters.
GD: One of the things I’ve always noticed about The Wheel of Time is how central family and parenting is to its narrative. As a writer, a parent, and someone who’s grown up with these books, what do you make of their familial aspect?
BS: I really like it. There’s a tendency in [genre] fiction to ignore the boundaries of family. Telling a story, often, especially young-adult stories, want to take everyone away from their families, and to pretend they don’t have families, so they can go on this adventure and not be constrained by family ties. It’s this idea of escapism. Part of the realism for me in The Wheel of Time is that that doesn’t happen to the characters. You follow different characters’ parents and siblings, and it stretches across so many different types of lives and different social statuses, different cultures and countries that it feels very real, and it also feels very personal. Rand has a father. Granted, he’s an adopted father, but Rand has a father and his relationship with his father is extremely important to him throughout the entire series. Even though we haven’t seen Tam for a while, he doesn’t just vanish as a character. Robert Jordan is very good about weaving people back in, and Tam goes and hangs out with Perrin and is working with him. There’s a sense that they are real people because of their family relationships.
Having a son now myself, it makes me want to tell stories where you deal with family, because that’s such a big part of all of our lives. It feels now awkward and strange to me that so many stories ignore this. It’s become a cliché: the parents are either killed off at the end or at the beginning, or you go away and we don’t bother about them or talk about them because they’re boring, and the adventure is cool. That’s not life.
GD: One of the things I noticed in the book is how often, both at the beginning and again near the end, scenes and chapters are punctuated with laughter, of all different types-including the inability to laugh. What’s interesting about laughter?
BS: It was a theme for the book. And, giving no spoilers, we have known for a while that Cadsuane and the Wise Ones have been saying that Rand needs to learn to laugh and cry again. That was their big concern. The idea of laughter as a theme was an interesting one to consider.
I mean, there’s never one main theme for a book, particularly one this long. And so when you sit down to look at it, you want to have a lot of different threads, kind of like the threads in the Pattern, weaving together to make the tapestry of a story. One of those was the idea of laughter and how different people found enjoyment and amusement. We have the twisted laughter of the Forsaken and we have the genuine laughter of some of the characters, and we have one character, Rand, who can no longer laugh-he is incapable of doing it, even of laughing in wryness. And so I could approach it from those three different directions. We’ve got the terrible laughter and the full, joyful laughter, and poor Rand’s silence in the middle. I thought that highlighting it in other people would only make his excruciating inability to feel all the more obvious, all the more of a smack in the face.
GD: The book opens with Rand’s principled refusal to torture Semirhage, one of the Forsaken. You can’t accuse a series that’s twenty years in the making of direct political allegory-but surely there’s a comment . . .
BS: That was in my mind, certainly. The Wheel of Time has always actually had quite an interesting relationship with political allegory. There was an article in the New York Times [I think this one-JBJ] a number of years ago talking about the Wheel of Time as a manifestation of interesting things that were happening in the world, which I think is fascinating. One of the reasons we like fantasy as writers is because fantasy is, at its very core, inherently representative. It is metaphorical. It is fantastical. It’s wonderful to be able to write something that is so fantastical and use the threads of true personality, of characterization, of people that you sympathize with, to anchor it in the real world at the same time. So that was running through my mind. I didn’t sit down and say, “I’m going to write a political allegory.” And yet these concepts were so big in our culture at the time that they did influence me. In these scenes-it’s even more interesting because I was working with direct comments from Robert Jordan in his notes mixed with things that had been said about Rand previously and trying to show both sides of the situation.
Robert Jordan had an interesting quote on this once. The interviewer asked him, “What are you trying to say with your stories? What are you trying to teach?” Robert Jordan took exception to that, and said: I am not trying specifically to teach anything. What he said, and the exact quote is something along these lines: “I love it when my books ask questions, but I don’t want to give the answers. The answers are yours. My job is to ask the questions.” And I see that. For many years I’ve thought that was a brilliant and poignant thing to say, and have used that as a guide in my own writing. I don’t want to give you answers. I want to raise issues and have characters struggle with them, because that’s what people do, and that’s what we [as writers] do. But I’m not sitting down to say, I am going to tell you what is right and what is wrong. I’m going to show you that there are characters who have a belief in what is right and what is wrong, and you can agree or disagree with them. But, like real people, they have views on these issues. I’m not trying to say anything specific; I’m only reacting, I think, in part to what we’re all saying, part of the cultural dialogue.
BS: Partially because I am a part of the fan community myself. And because I’m part of the newer generation of writers who’re very involved online. Robert Jordan did some of these things: he posted his blog on Dragonmount, and would post other things like that. But he was part of a different generation. The very first day I got onto the internet in 1994, I found my way to rec.arts.sf.written.robert-jordan. I found myself there-I was on Tolkien’s, and I was on the Wheel of Time one, and that was the very first day that I was on the internet. You’ll find that a lot of us in fandom were like that. The internet is our community for these books, and I felt it appropriate to involve them and mention them, because that’s what they’re there for.
GD: It’s basically the air at this point.
BS: Right: It’s like breathing. It’s not like I sat down and said, “oh, I should mention the blogs.” It’s just what I do, because it’s there-it’s hard to say why or why not, because it’s obvious that you should do it.
It is true that Robert Jordan was of a different age. I’ve tried to respect that, particularly because Harriet is of that era, too, and she’s very worried about spoilers on the internet and so forth-and I think rightly so. I might be a little too open, or a little too free with some of these things. I’ve tried to run more of a balance, and to give fewer spoilers. To talk about the process with people, but not tell people what’s going to happen, or what specifically is going on with the plot.
GD: On a related point, you released Warbreaker as a Creative-Commons licensed e-book, and I wondered what you made of that, and whether you would do it again?
BS: I will probably do it again. It was a fun experiment, and I think in the long run it helped me. There’s no way of knowing whether it hurt sales or helped sales. That’s not the sort of thing we can really track. The fan reaction was wonderful, and I think it’s a better book for having done it. And I think it was specifically very helpful for a lot of the Wheel of Time fans who came to my website right after they found out that Robert Jordan had passed away and not knowing anything about my books-being able to get one and see it for free just to see who I am.
GD: Thank you so much for your time!