Yes, you've been waiting for this one for a while, and here it is!
I owe a debt of gratitude to Brandon Sanderson for accepting to do this. I have a feeling that Brandon probably agreed to do the interview at a time when he didn't quite realize how demanding completing The Wheel of Time would turn out to be. And yet, though he has a crazy schedule, he still managed to find some time to answer our questions candidly. Let us hope we can do it again following the release of Towers of Midnight!
Kudos also for my three partners in crime for helping me put this Q&A together: [Larry (Dylanfanatic)], [Adam (Werthead)], and [Ken (KCF)]. Funny thing, we all became online buddies on the Other Fantasy message board on the now defunct wotmania.com way before we became major players in the SFF Blogosphere. Needless to say, this interview would never have turned out so well without their participation!
Many thanks also to all the fans who submitted questions. A few were picked up or were integrated into existing questions, so there is a part of you in this Q&A.
The Wheel weaves as the Wheel wills. . .
- Are you pleased with the way THE GATHERING STORM has been received thus far?
Yes, I'm very pleased. The fan reaction has been overwhelmingly positive. The sales on the book have been extremely good, and it seems like people are happy I did not screw it up.
- Understandably, it’s no surprise that reactions are not 100% positive. How closely have you been following the fan reactions that are less than positive? How do you anticipate these reactions will affect your writing of the final two volumes? Is there any specific reaction you would care to address directly?
No, it's not surprising that the fan response has not been 100% positive--in fact, if it were, that would be kind of suspicious. Sometime, look up HAMLET on Amazon and read the one-star reviews. If people can't agree on HAMLET, they're not going to agree on my books.
As for the less-than-positive reactions, they range from completely useless to very helpful. But it's dangerous to look at reviews of any sort while I'm writing. As writers we tend to focus on the negative and ignore the positive. It's just human nature. Beyond that, a writer has to walk a very tight line between keeping an audience in mind and following their own artistic vision for a work.
Now, these books are different in that--as I've mentioned before--I feel more beholden to the fan community than I otherwise might. These books belong to them more than they do to me. But I learned early on in my writing career that if I tried to do everything for everyone, the writing process would fail. So, it's more useful for me (on things like this book) to have people close to me watch the reviews/reactions and pass issues on to me when there seems to a consensus of opinions. Those are the types of things I find it important to keep in mind when writing.
In the end, however, there is one opinion on these books that matters the most. That is Harriet's opinion. I look to her for guidance on characters, tone, and plotting. I will continue to do so. I think her hand on the book, mixed with Robert Jordan's notes, were the main reason the novel turned out so well.
- How difficult was/is it to come to terms with the fact that, no matter how good the last three WoT volumes turn out to be, they can never be as good as if Robert Jordan had written them?
That was a difficult thing to get over. Actually, the time when it hit me the strongest was when I was first offered this project. I was tempted to say no for that very reason, because I knew that no matter what I did, it would not be the same as what could have been. I've said this a number of times, and I hope it doesn't come across as false modesty or anything, but I still really don't believe the books can be as good written by me as they could have written by Robert Jordan.
So that was my main consideration for potentially saying no. In the end, I decided if I did say no--and someone else got the book and screwed it up--it would be partially my fault. I honestly and sincerely believe that I am the person who can do these books the best now that Robert Jordan is gone. I would rather he be here to write them, but that isn't possible. Therefore, I want to do it myself. At least I know they're in the hands of someone who cares about the series.
- Many writers seem to be perfectionists at heart. Looking back on the published form of THE GATHERING STORM, what do you wish you could do to fine-tune that novel now that readers have started to comment on its presumed weaknesses?
I do wish I'd had was more time to polish the book. There was no more time; that book had to come out last year. The drafting process was so quick—I did 17 drafts of that book across the space of just a short number of months. Anytime you do a draft, artifacts show up. You say the wrong thing, or you're thinking about one scene while writing another, and shift the tone the wrong direction. Or you just delete a word here or insert the wrong word.
If I have one feeling about weaknesses the book has, it's that there are a few little rough edges that I would like to have smoothed out. We're catching a lot of those for the paperback release.
- How much did you struggle with the need to give the fans what they wanted (i.e. Mat, Perrin and other favorite characters) with the desire to keep to the relatively tight thematic narrative with Rand and Egwene?
I've had to balance those things, for sure. I spoke a little of this above; it's a lesson I've had to learn as a writer across my career, not just with the Wheel of Time books.
The best stories--stories the fans are going to like more in the end--are the ones where the author stays true to his or her vision. That's not always what the fans say they're going to want.
This is particularly poignant with me, because I am a fan on this series. I had to balance letting the fan inside me say, "Ooh, ooh, I want to see /this/, I want to see /this/," with what was going to make the best story. I had to preserve Robert Jordan's original vision for the books, while adding what I could add to the narrative. I couldn't, therefore, dally too much with fan satisfaction moments.
For instance, I intentionally kept cameos from minor characters to a minimum. The little voices inside my head screaming, "Ooh, wouldn't it be cool if?"--I had to be very careful about those. When the time came to divide the book, the balance of which characters got major viewpoints in this volume really came down to the narratives I felt would go well alongside one another.
Note that if there are missing characters in THE GATHERING STORM, you will likely find them in TOWERS OF MIDNIGHT. I didn't think who got cut and who didn't get cut was a really large-scale issue. It just came down to what made the best story.
- THE GATHERING STORM appears to be the most thematically-oriented book in the WoT series, with several readers rhapsodizing about the parallels between Rand, Egwene, and others and how they deal with issues of pain and responsibility. Is the upcoming TOWERS OF MIDNIGHT shaping up to have some interesting thematic parallels similar to THE GATHERING STORM and if so, would they be extensions of what we saw in THE GATHERING STORM or something completely different?
The reason I divided the book the way I did was because of the way that I felt the themes would play well with one another. TOWERS OF MIDNIGHT certainly has its own themes, and you will be able to notice them. There will be some carryover. But it's going to be a different book. We need to expand and look wider about the world to catch up with other characters we haven't seen for a while. And there are quite a number of them.
So, it's a yes and a no. The themes will be there, but there will be a lot more going on around them, so they'll be diluted in favor of scope. I've had to be careful not to make TOWERS OF MIDNIGHT simply a "jump back in time and catch up" book. I don't want to do that. It does move forward.
Rand and Egwene will be there. But the themes are going to be different because of the different mix. We are going to see a lot more of Perrin, and we are going to see a lot more of Mat. And what's going on in their plotlines will influence theme in a different way.
- The promo tour for THE GATHERING STORM seems to have been a little crazy. What were some of your favorite highlights from the tour?
Every time I got to a city where I thought, just to prepare myself, "Well, this signing probably won't be as big as the others," the crowd would be even larger. The dedication and loyalty that readers have to this series still shocks and stuns me.
Beyond that, the little gifts that people brought me were very touching. People gave bits of themselves. There was a reader who brought me a handmade blown-glass pen they had made. Another one brought me a Tar Valon mark coin that they had minted or forged and gave it to me. Pictures, paintings, gifts for the baby, cookies (in one case, shaped like the seals on the Dark One's prison,) and Magic Cards (which are an addiction of mine) are among the gifts I was given.
Things like that were very moving. But mostly, the humbling part was how well received I was. I really feel thankful to the fan community. They did not treat me as an outsider. They welcomed me in.
- Rodel Ituralde and especially Gareth Bryne being blademasters seemed a surprise. Do we know why this information didn't come up before? In addition, Bryne mentions only being an under-captain during the Aiel War when THE EYE OF THE WORLD states he was Captain-General back to Queen Modrellen's day. But then the big white book also says that Andor had a different Captain-General during the Aiel War. A case of Robert Jordan changing his mind?
Number one, let's talk about the blademaster issue. I'm not at liberty right now to say what's in the notes and what isn't, but I can tell you I'm drawing from the notes when I'm writing. I don't know why certain things weren't mentioned before in the series.
Maintaining the Wheel of Time continuity is an enormous task. There are so many questions like "What was Bryne's rank during the Aiel war?" where I ask Maria and Alan and just trust their instincts. There are other ones where they're not even sure.
Much of the time, when we run into issues like this, it's just me making a mistake. I do apologize for that. I promise you, I have read these books a number of times, but I don't have the type of mind that memorizes facts and repeats them back offhandedly. I have to do a lot of reading each time I write a chapter, and I often make mistakes. A lot of the time, these mistakes come because I HAVE been reading the series for so long. I've got these long-seated impressions of characters and events in my head that go back all the way to my teenage days. And they're not always right. (I didn't learn to pronounce some character names until I was well into my 20s.) Sometimes, I just assume I know something when I've been wrong about it all along. Those are the dangerous ones, since I don't think to look up items like that.
Anyway, with every printing of the books, Maria goes back in and fixes continuity. It happened when Robert Jordan was writing the books (though not nearly as often as it will when I'm writing them, I suspect). So what can I say about that? Well, Harriet is putting together a comprehensive encyclopedia that will become the definitive answer to these sorts of questions. Until then, I'm letting Team Jordan handle it.
- Is it still the plan to publish TOWERS OF MIDNIGHT in late 2010 and A MEMORY OF LIGHT in late 2011, or are those dates likely to change?
TOWERS OF MIDNIGHT is still very likely for late 2010. You'll have to ask me next year about A MEMORY OF LIGHT. Everything I've got is focused on TofM right now, and it's going to be very tight, but I think we can do it.
- Speaking of TOWERS OF MIDNIGHT, without giving anything away, what can fans expect from the novel?
As I said before, if there is a character who fans didn't see in THE GATHERING STORM, chances are they are in TOWERS OF MIDNIGHT. What else can we expect to see? Things are getting worse and worse. The Last Battle is approaching, and it's coming quickly.
- Between working on the final WoT installments and THE WAY OF KINGS, what changes have you noticed in your approach to writing after spending much of the past two years working with Team Jordan?
For one thing, I hired an assistant--because Maria and Alan were so wonderful to have and to work with, I realized I needed that myself. In fact, my assistant is recording these answers from me on his iPhone, and then will transcribe them, and that's what you're reading right now.
What else has changed? I have gotten much better at dealing with epic scope, continuity, and large numbers of viewpoint characters. And, you know, I've had to be much more focused. In the past, I would often jump back and forth and do little side projects here and there. These past few years, I haven't had nearly as much time for that sort of thing. That's been both good and bad, because it has taught me to be more focused, but I also miss the days when I could jump over and do a random steampunk story, then jump back to whatever I was working on.
I think I'm getting better at description and prose, which has always been the weakest part of my novels (I feel). And I've learned a lot about character voice and how to manipulate it.
- Regarding THE WAY OF KINGS, given the fact that the synopsis doesn't shed much light on what the tale is about, what can you tell us about the book and the rest of The Stormlight Archive sequence? You know, a little something to whet your fans' appetite!
I'm actually preparing a blog post on this. I've had a very tough time describing THE WAY OF KINGS. I've been working on this book for many, many years. Parts of it I can trace back 15, 17 years ago to my very early days as an aspiring writer in my teens. Beyond that, I'm planning a very large story that spans many books. So what this book is and means to me is a lot more extensive than with other books I've worked on.
Because of that it's really defied my ability to describe it. What can they expect? Well, it's about the length of LORD OF CHAOS. It will be much more epic and larger in scope than anything I have published so far on my own. There's a whole lot more worldbuilding to it--I have somewhere in the neighborhood of 200,000 words of worldbuilding notes, scattered across several documents, that I'm now coalescing into a wiki.
I don't know that this is new information, but the story of the Stormlight Archive revolves around ten orders of knights, each of whom had their own magics and abilities, who fell thousands of years ago for reasons no one understands. Some say they betrayed mankind, others say they were destroyed, others say they were charlatans all along.
The Stormlight Archive deals with the history of these knights, discovering what happened to them. It also deals, perhaps, with their redemption. Another big theme has to do with the onset of a magical industrial revolution, so to speak. Think of this as Renaissance-era technology where people are discovering how to harness magic and use it in practical ways. I've always wanted to do a story about the dawning of something like the Age of Legends in the Wheel of Time books.
- By the time we reach the final page of A MEMORY OF LIGHT, will readers finally know who killed Asmodean?
- Anything else you wish to share with your fans?
Well, for this entire interview, I've tiptoed around one issue: the fan reaction to Mat in THE GATHERING STORM.
You kindly didn't ask directly, though I did sense that you were trying to get at it. And your own comments about THE GATHERING STORM are among those I did read. I know what you've said about Mat.
It's curious. I've gotten around 1500 emails about TGS so far. (Of those, by the way, only one person didn't like the book. I'm not arrogant enough to assume that person is the only one--I'm guessing that most who didn't like the book didn't feel the need to email me and chew me out for it.)
Of those 1500, only a handful mention Mat. However, he IS the one brought up the most often. Oddly, it's almost exactly divided between people saying, "I love how you did Mat, he's my favorite part of the book," and people saying, "I loved everything about the book, except Mat didn't feel right."
That has been very interesting to me. One thing this does for me is that it actually relieves a big burden off my back, because it means that I did everybody else right. It also means that Mat is noticeably different to a small number of people. Was this done intentionally? No, it was not. I worked on Mat like I worked on all the rest of the characters, and I feel as close to Mat as I feel to the rest of the characters. I asked Harriet, and she said, "You did Mat perfectly. Don't change him."
So...where does that leave us? I'm not sure. I do realize that my sense of humor is slightly different from Robert Jordan's sense of humor. And perhaps if I had to do it again, I wouldn't lead with the monologue from Mat that I used, because that's where the difference is most obvious. A person's sense of humor is like their thumbprint. And I'm not sure that I could ever replicate Robert Jordan's thumbprint when it comes to that, and it never has been my goal to replicate him exactly.
I think that in the narrative, though--the places aside from the monologues--Mat is still Mat. Of course, Mat had some really big things happen to him in KOD, things that have shaken him and the way he sees the world. But at his core, he's still the same person.
However, if you were worried about him, it should help you to know that the large bulk of the Mat sequences Robert Jordan wrote are in TOWERS OF MIDNIGHT. There is a lot more Robert Jordan Mat to come. So maybe it's not really an issue at all.