JordanCon Interview with Brandon Sanderson by Richard Fife Edit
7 June 2010
And at last, my friends, we come to the end of my JordanCon interviews. And as is fitting with our beloved series, our ending interview shall be with the man who was tapped, to his own surprise, to bring the Wheel of Time to an ending. Not the ending, mind, we know those don’t exist. And, a reminder requested of me by anonymous sources, this was an audio interview, which is why it reads like . . . well, like it was spoken, and not written and polished. Without further ado, my interview with author Brandon Sanderson.
RF: What would you say has been the most difficult part of working on the Wheel of Time?
BWS: I would say keeping track of all the multitude of characters and subplots. I thought the hardest part might be writing the characters, and indeed that was kind of difficult. It was definitely the most important part: making sure they felt like themselves. But there’s so many different Aes Sedai, so many different Wise Ones, so many different named characters, and so many different sub-characters with smaller plots, and they all have different ways of speaking and ways of thinking, and tracking it all is a real challenge.
RF: That leads me to my next question. Robert Jordan’s notes are, I’m guessing, all over the place—I heard three million words worth of notes. He also did extensive writing for the last book that we get the impression was also all over the place. Has it been difficult writing that way, and is it very different from your own normal writing style?
BWS: In some ways, and in some ways it has also been very nice. I am a writer who works from an outline. What I generally do when I build an outline is I find focal, important scenes, and I build them in my head and I don’t write them yet, but I build towards them. Well, in this case, a lot of those important focal scenes, Robert Jordan has outlined or written himself. So, I’ve actually been able to build an outline out of his notes that works very much the way that I work on outlines anyway.
The notes themselves are very interesting to work with. They are so very varied, so to speak. There is just so much there. In some cases we have scenes that he wrote. In some cases we have scenes that he talks about and his assistants wrote down what he said about them. In some cases, we have interviews that he did with his assistants through the years when he was sick, where he was just talking about the last book and they were asking questions. He dictated some scenes on his death bed. In other cases, we have things that his assistants remember him saying that they just wrote down after he passed away, everything they could remember. Other cases we have outlines that he was working from for the book. And this is just all in a big jumble that was handed to me, not in really any order, and they just said “put this in order, do what you need to do.” They gave me the tools to write the book and left me to write it, working through all of these things.
RF: And I know you are working on it very closely with Harriet, Alan, and Maria. What is it like getting the curb-side editing?
BWS: Normally, I have a lot of alpha readers on my books. These are people that, once I finish a novel, I let them look at it and give me a reader response. In the case of the Wheel of Time books, most of those were not available to me. We have to keep it quite tightly under wraps and not show it to a lot of people. So, it is nice having multiple editors, both in the form of people who directly edit the book such as Harriet, Alan, and Maria, and also people like Tom Doherty, who has given me some good advice. My normal editor, Moshe Feder, did a read through on this book, and my agent did as well. All of them are giving advice.
I am immediately juggling Alan, Maria, and Harriet’s comments. I’d send a chapter in and then be working on the next one, and that chapter would come back three times with three different sets of revisions on it. That got really challenging to juggle. There was one time when I was flying on a plane to an event for Tor, and I had three separate paper sets of a chapter printed out along with electronic commentary by them on the chapters. So, I was juggling four files and three sets of paper on the same pages, trying to get this all inputted and changed. It got . . . well, it was a juggling act.
RF: Speaking of juggling. You write quite a bit, both on the Wheel and your own projects, you manage to post blogs and keep us up to date on Twitter and Facebook, and do conventions and signings. When do you sleep?
BWS: Ha! I love to do what I do. So, I do work long hours. I work longer hours now than I used to. When the Wheel of Time was offered to us, Emily and I sat down and talked about it. We kind of came to the decision that this would be like my residency. A doctor goes through a period where you spend a few years working really hard to establish yourself. Same thing for an attorney. For me, that is what this is going to be. It is going to be several years of hard work at a fourteen hour day.
In order to juggle that, I have made two decisions. Number one: I get a full night’s sleep every night. I sleep as late as I need to get eight hours. Number two: I take two hours off for my family every day. And then I write fourteen hours.
Now, it looks like a lot more books are getting published than I am writing, if that makes sense. I have written them all, but I used to work very far ahead. So, for instance, Warbreaker and Alcatraz Three were written years before they came out. In fact, they had already been written when I got the Wheel of Time contract. So, you are slowly seeing the books I wrote before this happened start to come out, but at the same time with the Wheel of Time books, when I turn them in, they get rushed into production so they can come out as soon as possible. So suddenly you see two books a year, maybe three books a year, but those are two books I wrote before and one book I wrote now. So, it looks like I’m more prolific than I really am.
RF: You have been noted specifically for your creative magic systems, such as Allomancy and Biochroma. When in your creative process do you usually find yourself fleshing these out?
BWS: It depends on the book. Sometimes I have the magic system first; sometimes I have the characters first. I always start fleshing them out in my outline, when I sit down to pre-write the book. I do a lot of outlining. I like to outline. It helps me, as a writer, to create the works that I do. I will always be looking for a couple of things for the magic system. One is interesting limitations. And interesting limitations are better than an interesting power. Also, I will be looking for an interesting way to make it work visually or audibly, just for a sensory use to the magic.
Some magic only happens in the characters’ heads as they are facing off. You know, these two wizards just kind of staring at each other and one wins. That sort of thing is boring. I don’t want it to be all abstract. I want it to have some relationship to the world. So I am always looking for that. And I am looking for ways to tie it to the setting and the plot so that it isn’t just there in a vacuum. The magic needs to influence the plot and the setting. Frank Herbert did a great job with Dune and the spice. Yeah, it isn’t magic—it’s technology—but it’s the same sort of thing. The spice is related to the economy which influences the government which influences the warfare of all the noble houses, and it is all interconnected, and that is what I am aiming for.
RF: You have a knack for writing strong female protagonists, and I think that a lot of people agree, from Vin in Mistborn to the princesses in Warbreaker. I daresay even Egwene in The Gathering Storm to the extent that you got to write her. Care to comment on that? Did you have to take any special considerations when writing them?
BWS: It was very hard for me at first. I did it poorly. It really bothered me because I have two sisters that I studied a lot, and I would ask them “read this and tell me what you think.” I’d look for their opinions; that was part of it. Then there’s my mother. She graduated valedictorian of her college class in accounting in a time when she was the only woman in the entire program. So, I have had good role models; that is one thing.
But for another, I saw it as something I was weak at early on, before I got published, and it bothered me so much that it became something that I focused on and worked on really hard because I wanted it to become a strength. And the real change happened when I stopped treating characters like roles in a book and I started treating them like people. Each character sees themselves as the hero in the story in their own way, and so I started looking at that thought. The early women I’d put in a book, I’d put them in there only to be a romantic interest, and that was a bad way to do it. Instead, I make them their own character. Every character starts with their own desires and goals, and nobody just starts when the book starts. They are already in existence.
RF: Do you have any particular themes you like to write on?
BWS: Robert Jordan once said “My books raise questions, but I don’t want my books to answer them. I want them to make you think, and wonder, and question, and come to your own conclusion.” I have always thought that was one of the wisest things that I have ever heard anyone say. I have actually had characters quote it in books before, although I cannot remember if it was in one that has been published or not. But, I have always liked that, and I have used that as my guiding light. I want to deal with things, and I want to have characters struggle with things, and all of this important stuff.
I don’t want to give you answers, so I deal with this by having characters that approach things from different directions. And most of these themes grow out of the characters’ desires. I don’t go into a book saying “I’m going to write a book about this.” I go into a book saying “Here are characters who care about this and this.” So, themes develop as you write the book because the characters influence them and design them. And that is what becomes the heart of the book, what the characters care about.
RF: And our last question: without saying R.A.F.O., who killed Asmodean?
BWS: Well, without saying R.A.F.O. (except that I just did), I can say truly with no equivocation that Robert Jordan killed Asmodean, and you cannot deny that that is true.
RF: Spoken like a true Aes Sedai.
URL for interview: http://www.tor.com/blogs/2010/06/jordancon-interview-with-brandon-sanderson