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Interview with Brandon Sanderson at Utopiales, Nantes, France, November 2010Edit
L'interview en anglaisEdit
How have you liked your stay in France so far? Do you enjoy contact with your French fans? What are the differences with the Comic Con?
- Brandon: Yes! My wife and I were speaking about it just recently. The fans here at the convention seem more distinguished, actually – it’s very interesting, we were commenting on it. At Comic Con, which I enjoy, there’s almost more a feel that it’s a big zoo or a party, with lots of exravagant costumes, and lots of people going just to be seen. The fans here seem very serious about the science fiction and fantasy. They go to the panels and they listen; they ask very intelligent questions. So I’m very impressed.
Mistborn got the Elbakin.net award for the best 2010 foreign novel. What does this trilogy represent for you in your career?
- Brandon: It represents several things. It is my attempt to expand the fantasy genre a little bit. I grew up reading fantasy and loving it ; I love the great fantasy novels of my youth. Some of my favorite authors were Anne McCaffrey, Robert Jordan and Melanie Rawn, who I think is very underappreciated. I absolutely love their work – Tad Williams, David Eddings – and yet as a reader and a fan of fantasy, it seemed like during the late nineties and early 2000s, we hit kind of a slump in adult fantasy, particularly epic fantasy, which I write. And there were really exciting things happening in young adult fantasy – if you go look at some of the authors like Garth Nix or J.K. Rowling, who were doing really amazing work – but epic fantasy kind of slumped a little bit. I’m sure there were great things being published, it’s just that they didn’t get a lot of mainstream attention. It seemed like a lot of the authors who got mainstream attention were all trying to do the same story that had already been done, a lot. The young boy from an unknown village finds out he has an amazing noble heritage and has to defeat the dark lord...
I mean, there’s nothing wrong with that story; that’s a good story, but it’s not the only story. And for a lot of time, fantasy seemed to be having trouble growing out of its youth and growing up. As a reader I was very frustated with this. I really wanted fantasy to step up and go beyond that. So when I started writing my own works and working on them, I was really looking for places to explore, that could expand upon this lore and take different directions. Mistborn represents several concepts of me, just as a reader and as a writer, trying to explore these new directions to go. I’m certainly not the only one doing it.
The first book is about: what happens if evil has won? And in a lot of ways the second book is part of what started me in the trilogy. One of the big foundations or concepts was: what next? We always hear about the easy part. I always say that overthrowing something, tearing something down, actually seems easier to me than building it up. Then what next, after you’ve caused this great revolution, after you’ve blown up the Death Star and taken down the Empire? I think then you’re going to realize that, whoa, administring something that large is enormously difficult, far more difficult than tearing it down.
So it just represents my attempts and struggles as a writer and as a fan to wonder beyond fantasy’s older lessons and try to figure out what we’re going to be as an adult genre, as we grow up.
You are a very prolific writer. Your agenda seems to be full for the next 10 years! It might be a silly question, but how do you manage to find the time to write so much?
- Brandon: For me, it’s generally a question of: how do I make sure in my life I’m doing other things? Writing is what I am and what I do. I don’t generally go seek entertainment ; I don’t do these things because writing is so fulfulling for me it’s hard for other things to compete.
And so, I have a lot of ideas that I feel very compelled to get down on the page, and I relax by writing. I generally relax by writing things I’m not supposed to be writing. So when you see what I publish, generally what’s happening is you’ll see a major main novel that I’m working on, that I feel is important; it’s part of what I’m trying to do, kind of as my name: this is who I am, this is what I’m trying to say. And then you’ll see side projects that are random and insane, and sometimes very spontaneous and fun and different. And those are done as ways to relax from the main series. If you look at my French publications, you’ll see that I have the Alcatraz series for young adults, and that grew out of me reacting and responding to myself, wanting to have something to relax doing.
So that was my recreation.
Talking about silly questions... Who killed Asmodean? More seriously, did you read again the whole series of the Wheel of Time before beginning to write the last book?
- Brandon: I did. I had been chosen in part because I was a fan, and I had read most of the books multiple times. When I was offered the project, I knew that I needed to re-read from scratch. And so, from January 2008 to about April 1st, I re-read the entire series, taking notes. And the weird thing to me now is that it’s almost been three years since that. So I’m actually going to do that again, starting in January 2011; I’m going to read through straight again before I write the final chunk.
I’m starting to forget things, and that’s disturbing. You know, of all the people out there I can’t forget characters and what’s going on. So I need to do that again.
By the way, Towers of Midnight has just been released in the US. Was it easier to write this one than to write The Gathering Storm?
- Brandon: In some ways it was easier, and in some ways it was harder. It was easier because I was more familiar in the world, and I was more confident, because The Gathering Storm had received quite a bit of accolade.
At the same time, Towers of Midnight is in many ways a more difficult story to write, because for Gathering Storm, I picked several important characters and I focused on them and kept the narrative very tight and focused. For Towers of Midnight I couldn’t do that; I had to get back to everyone else, I had to widen my focus. And in this case I had to juggle far more characters, which made it a much more challenging book to write, technically.
I do a lot of notes and plans; I’m what we call an outliner. George R. R. Martin talks about writers and says that you tend to be either what he calls an architect or a gardener. And an architect is one who plans out everything ahead of time for their book, whereas a gardener is one who nurtures a novel and sees where it goes. Stephen King is known as very much a gardener. I’m an architect in most ways, and I like to have a nice outline; I like to know where I’m going. Though of course as a writer, you can never stick to your outline one hundred percent. You have to have the freedom to change as the story develops, and as the characters grow, if they become people who wouldn’t do what’s in the outline, you have to be able to throw the outline away and build a story that follows the characters.
How did you welcome the reviews? Were there different from the reviews you got for a novel which is your own a 100%?
- Brandon: Right. With my own novels, it was very different in that. First of all, with the Wheel of Time, I really do feel that I’m in debt to the fans; I’m writing these books for the fans. But the series belongs to them, and the series doesn’t belong to me. With my own books, I really don’t look toward what the fans are going to say; I follow my own artistic integrity and say: I’m going to write the book that, as an artist, I feel needs to be written.
But with the Wheel of Time I felt that I needed to consider the fans more, if that makes any sense. And in a lot of ways, the reviews on The Gathering Storm are more important to me, because if I wrote something the fans didn’t like, then I was failing. Whereas if I write something artistically that I know people may not like as much, that won’t be as popular, but that I feel artistically for myself important to release, I can be okay with bad reviews. So, I paid a lot more attention to them, and I wanted to see what the fans thought I was doing well and what they thought I was doing poorly. And I wanted to be able to respond to that.
In a general way, does your religion have an influence on your work?
- Brandon: I think that it does, and yet it’s not a direct influence; it’s more of an indirect influence. I’m practicing LDS, Mormon, for those who don’t know. It shapes who I am, and who I am helps shape my fiction. There’s been a long-running sort of argument, so to speak – a nice argument – in fantasy, about how much of it is allegorical and how much of it isn’t. If you look back to Grandpa Tolkien and C.S. Lewis, you can see from C.S. Lewis’ work he was very allegorical, whereas Tolkien was not. Tolkien was doing story and letting theme grow, and I actually prefer his way of writing. I feel that as wonderful as C.S. Lewis was, when you specifically embed messages, then the story becomes about a message, and not about the characters.
And so I don’t go into my work saying: I want to prove X, Y or Z, I actually go into my work with the opposite opinion. I really believe that one of the great things fiction can do is that it can explore ideas from lots of different viewpoints. And I think because I’m a religious person, religious ideas and conflicts are fascinating to me. But I like to explore these things from different sides, and people who believe in different ways, and I like to make all of their arguments equally sound and equally powerful, because that way when you read the book, you get to see an exploration of a topic, rather than someone taking an answer and shoving it at you, over and over again. It offends me when I read fiction and someone expresses my viewpoint, but they do it poorly. I’d rather they just not have my viewpoint at all than do it poorly.
So I think my religion affects me to be fascinated in these concepts, so religious concepts are in my books. I like to hope that I’m approaching them from lots of different and interesting aspects, but the nature of faith, the nature of hope, the nature of rational thought versus faithful thought: these different things are very fascinating to me, and so they tend to be fascinating to my characters.
It makes me think about your character Sazed in Mistborn, who’s fascinated by religions...
- Brandon: Oh yes, there’s definitely connection between him and my own kind of feelings about religion and explorations of religion and things like this. He was a character very much out of my heart; people ask who I’m most like and it might be him. I don’t know, it’s hard to say. I’m not much like Kelsier: he is too gregarious, he is not me, but there’s a little bit of me in all of them I suppose.
You seem to want to write your own Wheel of Time with The Way of Kings, first book of The Stormlight Archive – a series which should consist of ten books. Could you tell us more about it?
- Brandon: I can. You don’t grow up reading Robert Jordan and Melanie Rawn and all of these people who’ve done large epic series without wanting to do one yourself. I started planning a large epic of my own many years ago, and finding a publisher and convincing them to take a chance on me is very difficult: the longer your book is, the more ambitious, the more hesitant they are – and rightly so, because that can fail. You know, the high opportunity for success also generally means great opportunity for failure. And so this was a book I actually sent to Tor, and they said: This isn’t the right time for this, it’s not the right time in your career for this, which was okay. So it’s been brewing for a long time; it’s dealing with a lot of themes and concepts that I wanted to deal with for a long time.
And again it comes back to me trying to look at where fantasy can go, not where it’s been. A lot of fantasy seems to be very static: the technology doesn’t change, the world doesn’t change. It’s been thousands of years in these fantasy worlds, and there’s been no evolution of culture, or technology or anything like this: it’s always been that way, and it will always remain that way – which bothers me a lot. It’s not realistic, but it also does not give a lot of opportunity for conflict and change and the exploration of that sort of thing.
The Way of Kings is many things: it’s about the dawning of essentially an era of Renaissance, a magical Renaissance, exploration of what magic can do, and the conflicts of magic and technology. But that is actually kind of the background of the series, and in the first book it’s much more personal. It’s about a young man who was trained as a surgeon by his father, who gets recruited against his will, essentially, into a terrible war. And it’s about the conflict between having been taught to heal and then being trained to kill. And what does that do to a person? How do you protect, who can you protect, and who can you heal, when your entire life is about fighting for your life or killing other people? And that really drives him. It’s also a story about a young woman who is based a little bit on a mix between Darwin and Pliny the Elder, a natural historian who’s kind of at the advent of this Renaissance, this beginning of a magical technology revolution, and her life and experience. It’s both of those characters: it’s about the characters.
It’s so hard to explain a book this large, because if I start talking about the large-scale concepts, those don’t even appear in the first book; they’re just hinted at.
But one of the other things about The Way of Kings that I like to talk about is that I want to see, again, where the genre can go, and I’ve been pushing for a lot more art. Scott Westerfeld did a very interesting book that included a lot of art recently; it’s kind of a half-graphic novel. I wanted, with Way of Kings, to do something like that. If you read Tolkien: Tolkien had a map, and this map had a purpose. If you looked in the book it was a map that the characters actually carried; it was part of the world. And the map has actually, for a fantasy novel, become something of a cliché: you open it up, there’s a map, okay. But I don’t like that because it’s just there: where did this map come from, what does it represent? I want everything to be a piece of the story.
So I wanted to include a lot of art that was pieces of the story: sketchbooks from one of the characters’ notebooks, illuminated manuscript pages from a manuscript they’re reading – these sorts of things, so when you read you can see their culture in the art. I’ve been very excited about it.
You’ve been very active on Facebook or on your blog, and this for a long time. How important are these new technologies for you?
- Brandon: I feel they’re extremely important for me. We’re entering an interesting age for art, because there are impressive levels of communications between artist and patron. And I really do look at my readers as my patrons. If you go back to the 19th century, for an artist to create great art, they would usually have to have a wealthy nobleman who was funding them to be able to do it. And these days, it actually works the same way in my mind, except the wealthy lord who’s funding me is actually all the crowd, the fandom.
We, in science fiction and fantasy, are a very tight-knit community, and I find that fans of science fiction and fantasy tend to be very different from like movie star fans who go crazy or things like that. Science fiction and fantasy fans are part of the conversation: they come up to you, and they can converse; it’s like they’re colleagues. And out of this entire group, they say to me: Okay, you go create art for our entire community. We’ll support you in it, as part of our community. And I really feel a debt to my readers, for allowing me the opportunity to do what I do for a living. And so my best way to respond to that, I feel, is to be very open and to have a lot of communication. A lot of fans get frustrated because they don’t know when the books are coming out, and I like to have updates and let people know – daily updates. I belong to them in a lot of ways, so they deserve to see what I’m doing, with the opportunity they’ve given me.
In France, your juvenile series Alcatraz has been out for a few months now. Is it some sort of recreation for you, compared to your epic fantasy works?
- Brandon: Yes, it is. I actually wrote Alcatraz between Mistborn books two and three. I had just finished book two, and I wanted to push in and do book three, but I was feeling a little exhausted, almost a little burnt out, and I didn’t want to start the final book feeling burnt out. And so, not telling anybody what I was doing, I took some time off, and I wanted to do something very different to encourage myself to grow as an artist, to explore different types of writing. Like I said normally I’m an architect, and I wanted to do a more gardener-type book. For Alcatraz I started with a few premises that I found amusing and interesting and I built a book out of them, as I went. It turned out very well – a lot of my projects that I experiment with, I actually don’t publish because they don’t turn out very well. I only take the ones that really turn out well and publish them.
So for every Alcatraz, there’s two or three other novels that just kind of nose-dived. That doesn’t happen with my epic fantasies because I spend so long planning them and getting them ready that I know, before I start, how they’re going to turn out.
But anyway, Alcatraz was a light-hearted, fun – but hopefully still interesting and intriguing – story for me to write, about a young man who discovers that librarians secretly rule the world!
Do you have the feeling that you’re among, let’s say, the top 3 of the fantasy authors who are the most talked about these days? Do you feel some kind of pressure for being so often in the headlines?
- Brandon: Oh, I don’t know. I would say that I do feel pressure. An example of this is: before The Wheel of Time, I spent a decent amount of time on web forums, I would visit these forums and talk, and nobody really knew who I was; some of them would see I’m a writer but you know, there are lots of writers. So suddenly this happened, and everyone knew who I was, and every forum had a big long thread about me – I showed up on Slashdot, and all of these things. Suddenly, I’m very much in the focus and I found that I couldn’t spend as much time on these forums, because if I did, all I wanted to do was argue with people, or sometimes just discuss and have good discussions, but I found that suddenly since it’s about me it was so much more personal that it was very hard to let go of the webforums. So I just had to cut off ties to them, because otherwise I could spend all day just talking with the people who are posting on these threads.
And so that level of awareness, it is kind of surreal. I’ve actually been recognized on the street, in a city. I went to San Diego, randomly, and someone recognized me and said: Are you Brandon Sanderson? That’s bizarre! They weren’t there for my signings, they didn’t know I was in town; they just passed me on the street!
So it is a little bit bizarre – now of course, as writers, we don’t ever get really famous. Maybe once every couple of years someone will recognize me in the street, so it’s not like I’m really a celebrity or anything, but it’s still weird, and odd, to be able to post on a forum and people know who I am.
You recently created a discussion about postmodernist fantasy. Is this will to intellectualize fantasy a componant of your ambitions, of your approach to writing?
- Brandon: Yes and no. I do have a master’s degree in English with a creative writing emphasis, so I do wear the hat of an academic. When I’m sitting down to write, I’m actually not wearing my academic hat. Now, after I get done, my academic side does like analyze what I’ve written and look at it and think about it.
But when I’m writing I really let the artist take over, and I find that if I let the academic take over, it loses a bit of its life, because it becomes something that’s contrived rather than something that’s created. So I don’t let the academic have too much power, but I do like to talk about these things. I wrote that essay on postmodern fantasy, which is really more accurately an essay about self-aware fantasy. I talked about it a little bit earlier: the next stage in fantasy that kind of looks at itself and is self-introspective. And I see myself doing that, not because the intellectual side of me says: Oh, you need to do this, but because the artist has been tired of some things and wants to create a response to them.
Which are your last top choice readings? By the way, do you still have the time to read?
- Brandon: I do have the time to read occasionally. I think it’s important to read. I think it’s extremely important for me to read in the fantasy genre, and be aware of what other authors are doing, because there are lot of them who are way better than I am and I want to be able to learn from them.
My top choice to go to these days is Terry Pratchett; I love his work. And recently I’ve been very impressed – though of course it’s been a year or two since I read it, but Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss is absolutely brilliant. And sitting on my desk to be read next is a book called Shades of Milk and Honey, by Mary Robinette Kowal, that I’ve been wanting to read for a long time, and I have a copy I just picked up at Tor offices. My wife is reading it right now. So I’ll wait until she’s done and maybe read it on the plane.
Now that we talked about your last novels, let’s go back to the beginnings: how did you come up with a passion for writing and for fantasy?
- Brandon: My passion for fantasy comes from a teacher in eighth grade, when I was fourteen, who challenged me to read a book. I share this story a lot, but I think it’s an important part of who I am. I didn’t enjoy reading when I was younger. I didn’t discover reading until I was given a fantasy novel. I had tried reading many other novels and had been bored by them. And it was the discovery of fantasy literature as a genre – the imagination, the power of it – that really changed me as a person and turned me into a writer.
I mean it’s really bizarre: the book that I read was called Dragonsbane, by Barbara Hambly. And this is an interesting thing, because when you know anything about literacy, there are certain things they say that you’re supposed to give to boys. You’re supposed to give them a book about a boy, and more specifically, about a boy who’s two or three years older than them, not their age but not too old. And it’s supposed to be very fast-paced, and it’s supposed to be very adventuresome. That’s what boys are supposed to like. Dragonsbane is about a middle-aged woman, who’s the main protagonist. She is not going on fast adventures – actually she and her husband are pig farmers. And he is the last living dragonsbane, a man who has killed a dragon. A dragon has come to assault the kingdom, and someone goes off to find him. And it’s a story of how unglamourous it is to kill a dragon; it’s like butchering a cow, just a really big one. And she is a witch, and it’s the story of her balancing her family life and her magic. She’s been told that she could be the greatest witch who ever lived if she would just dedicate everything to it, but she doesn’t want to because she has a family too.
And so here’s this book about a middle-aged woman, who is trying to balance her career and her family life, and that’s what I liked!
And I still look back at it as an academic and think: Why did that work? And actually it’s an illustration of what I think is great about the fantasy genre. I feel that fantasy can do everything that any other genre can do, plus can have this added layer of world-building. And that forces you as a reader to put together a puzzle; what is the world, how do things work here? It’s this wonderfully intellectual exercise and imagination exercise that a fantasy novel can give you, that other novels generally can’t.
And this novel worked for me, because of my own mother. My mother graduated first in her class in an accounting program. She was actually the only woman in the program; not a lot of women did that then. She got a very prestigious job offer, to go work for an accounting firm, and she turned it down because she wanted to have me, a kid. She still works as an accountant today, but at that time of her life she wanted to be a mother. And she has always balanced her career and her family.
And I read this book, which was about a man killing a dragon, and when I got done, I felt like I understood my mother better. That is weird, that is so weird, but that’s what fantasy can do, because it can have this beautiful and wonderful intellectual creative side. It can be adventuresome, it can be fun and have a story about killing a dragon, but it can also deal with real people having real situations, that help you understand the world better. It can do all of these things and be fun at the same time, so why would anyone read anything else?
But that’s what happened to me: I became a writer because of that book, and because of the books I discovered that summer: Anne McCaffrey, I mentioned Melanie Rawn, David Eddings, Tad Williams, and then Robert Jordan released later that year his first Wheel of Time book. Because of these authors I just fell in love with, I just wanted to be able to create those emotions in people, that they could create.
And so I started writing immediately. I’d found what was me.
And as a conclusion: do you have a few words to say to your French readers?
- Brandon: Oh yes, I very much appreciate my French readers and my French publisher, who’s wonderful. I appreciate you guys, and thank you for reading my books and for welcoming me to France. I’ve actually really liked it here. I studied French in high school for four years, but I’m terrible at it. But yes, thank you very much! And thank you so much for the award.
URL for interview: http://www.elbakin.net/fantasy/news/Brandon-Sanderson-aux-Utopiales2