Interview with Brandon Sanderson
With four books likely out in 2013, best-selling fantasy author Brandon Sanderson’s boundless energy is more than evident—he even writes at a treadmill desk. Best known for the Mistborn series, which was widely acclaimed for its intricate world and detailed magic system, Sanderson has also penned the stand-alones Elantris and Warbreaker, the middle-grade series Alcatraz, and his newest series, The Stormlight Archive. Last but certainly not least, in 2007, Sanderson shouldered the task of finishing the landmark high fantasy series Wheel of Time following the death of its creator, Robert Jordan, who left instructions for a successor so that his fans could eventually read the long-awaited ending to his epic. This month the series’ final book, A Memory of Light, is being published. The Utah-based Sanderson chatted with Goodreads about writing the biggest battle Wheel of Time has ever seen, leaving unanswered questions for fans, and why he’ll be sure to leave detailed notes behind when he dies.
Goodreads: The publication of the final Wheel of Time book is a big event for fantasy readers, many of whom have been anticipating the end of the series since the first book in 1990. As a longtime fan yourself, how do you feel?
Brandon Sanderson: It’s really a weird experience. I discovered fantasy when I was 14, and the Wheel of Time books were the first series that started when I started. I have been following it all through, and it’s also one of the few series that continued with me: I enjoyed it both as a youth and as an adult. Wheel of Time has always been there through my whole career, so I understand completely how [fans are] feeling about it.
But it is also a weird experience for me as a fan. I read Robert Jordan‘s ending in December 2007, so part of me has had the Wheel of Time done for five years now, and the rest of the world is finally getting to catch up with me. I think that people are going to feel a lot of what I felt when I read that last scene; I was very satisfied. I loved the scene, but there was also this deep sort of sense of, “Wow, it’s actually over.” The series has been going for 23 years, and we have joked in Wheel of Time fandom for 22 about when the ending would come. It’s a reverent feeling, it’s an excited feeling, and it’s also a sad feeling.
GR: Endings can often be the hardest part of a book to get right.
BS: Since Robert Jordan wrote the last scene, that actually made this whole project mountains easier. I had a target to shoot at. While I didn’t have a ton of written material from Robert Jordan that I could actually put in—there are about 200 pages worth of scenes and notes that needed to become somewhere around 2,500 pages [Books 12-14 by Sanderson total 2,556 pages]—a lot of those 200 pages were summaries of scenes he wanted. Robert Jordan wrote by instinct. He was what we called a discovery writer, so what was handed to me was a big pile of half-finished scenes or paragraphs where he wrote, “Well, I am either going to do this, this, or this. I was thinking of this, but it could be this.” Yes, cracking an ending is hard, and the Wheel of Time had a lot of loose threads. My job was to take all those threads and weave them into an ending, which was a real challenge.
When I was handed this project by Harriet [Harriet McDougal, Robert Jordan’s wife and editor], she handed it to me as a collaborator, not as a ghost writer. It’s not like building a shelf from Ikea, which is good, because otherwise my creativity wouldn’t have been engaged. She handed me full creative control for the first draft, and then we went into the editing phase where we really worked on it to make sure that it fit her vision and Robert Jordan’s vision for the series. But going into it, nothing was off-limits. So I wrote them like I write any novel. Nothing is taken for granted, nothing is sacrosanct.
GR: How much liberty did you have in deciding which characters would play the biggest roles in the last battle?
BS: In a lot of ways the “why” or the “how” was not said, and in other places in the outline there were just empty holes where a character is in one place and 800 pages later, then another place.
[In the final book] we’ve got a lot of questions that still need to be answered. Robert Jordan did leave me instructions on which ones, in some cases, not to answer. There are things he wants to leave unresolved, and there are other things he said do answer this, and there are some things that he said either way. He left a lot of instructions about who lives and who dies, but there are also plenty of cases where I got to make the judgment call. It’s a big, cool, awesome, scary thing, and all of the gloves are off. Anything can happen in this book, because I don’t need to worry about setting up any future books.
BS: A little bit of spoilers here: One of the big things we got going on is Rand and Egwene on opposite sides of the big decision regarding what needs to happen with the last battle. It’s a power struggle that has been brewing for a long time behind the scenes. Some may not have noticed it until I brought it to the forefront in the last book. We’ve just had a main character who has been gone for a long, long time show up again in the end of Towers of Midnight, and there are ramifications for that. Can we work together? How do we work together?—that’s going to be one of the themes.
And, of course, this is the last battle, which means there’s a lot of war in this book. And that’s actually very different for a Wheel of Time book. There have been big battles before, but not ones that span half of the book or more.
GR: You’ve written extensively about magic systems in fantasy novels, including “Sanderson’s First and Second Laws” for fictional magic. Were you tempted to change any part of the Wheel of Time magic system?
BS: Being a fan for so long, there was a danger that I would come in and say, “Well, this is my chance to fix all the things that have bugged me about the Wheel of Time.” But I realized I couldn’t approach the story like that.
Robert Jordan handles magic systems in a different way from how I handle a lot of mine. He works harder to preserve the sense of wonder than I do. I explain more nuts and bolts. He reserves the right to say, “We don’t know how this works.” I had to tell myself my job is not to change that. That’s how his magic works, and it works really well like that. Even though on the Sanderson’s First Law scale, it is much more to the middle than mine are. Mine are on the right side (right meaning direction-wise, not correctness-wise), where his is more toward the middle and Tolkien is more toward the left side. And I didn’t want to push it.
The balance that I struck is, I was going to do my best to avoid a lot of new weaves [different kinds of magic], and I was going to take the existing weaves and push them further along the scale than I would let myself [in my own books]. The two instances are what happens in the world of dreams and gateways. I told myself, I am going to play with these two parts of the magic systems and let myself do some of the fun things I will do with magic. I am not going to spend a lot of time inventing new parts of the magic.
GR: Goodreads member Erfna says, “As a fantasy writer, does writing about different worlds affect the way that you see the real world around you?”
BS: That is an interesting question, and it’s not one I’ve pondered very much myself. I would say fantasy has changed the way I see the world, but at the same time I am a pretty logical guy. People talk about my book a lot as kind of a science fiction and fantasy crossover, because I like to look at magic in logical ways. Storytelling for me is about characters. I try to write these characters in such a way that someone who is reading the book will say, “Yes, he understands me.” That’s my mandate and challenge as a writer. The fantasy world has not changed me nearly so much as the need and the passion for trying to get characters liked by readers who are different from me—and that is the big change in my life.
BS: I wrote Elantris years before I got published. Back then when I was trying to break in, I always developed stories with sequel potential. So I developed a full sequence, a trilogy based around Elantris, but I also wanted early books that I wrote to all stand on their own. When [new readers] took a chance on me, I wanted them to get a story in the first book that was complete, that if they were to try my books out and decide this just isn’t for me, that they would have their full story, and no harm, no foul. So when my editor said, “Do you want to do a sequel?” I said, Yes, I have a sequel, but I don’t want to do it. At least not right now because I like the idea of having a stand-alone for people to be able to try me out with.
That was then. Nowadays, most people who try me out pick up the Mistborn trilogy, because it stands as a completed work. So I now could do Elantris. The problem is, Elantris is a really good stand-alone. I don’t want everyone who reads and writes the fantasy genre to feel that everything has to be a series. I am conflicted about it.
GR: Goodreads member Joyshumaker says, “Many of Mr. Sanderson’s original books are very theologically based. I enjoy the complexities of the religions he creates but wonder what drives him to write literature that is so deeply theological, even if those theologies exist solely in these fictional worlds.”
BS: I am a religious person, and so I am fascinated by religion and all of its aspects. I am fascinated by why people believe, why people don’t believe. I am fascinated by the motivations behind this, and I am fascinated by what happens when religion goes bad. I am fascinated by what happens when religion goes well. So what I am interested in ends up in my books.
Beyond that, it pops up time and time again because [my books] are all connected: I hid some recurring characters in Elantris and the Mistborn trilogy, and [readers] started to pick it up by the time Warbreaker came out. There is an underlying theme behind them all and an underlying deeper story that is going on behind the scenes with some big theological components. It’s within the thematic nature of the complete series—one that will eventually be told, assuming I live long enough. And if not, I’ll leave good notes, so someone else can finish it! Turnabout is fair play.
GR: On that note, Goodreads member Regina says, “My biggest question for Mr. Sanderson is if finishing the Wheel of Time series has had any sort of impact on him or his other writings, and if so, in what ways?”
BS: Yes, it has, certainly because I learned a lot. Wheel of Time I’ve described as “power lifting.” I had to get into shape as a writer very quickly and swim in the deep end, and it has improved my writing drastically. A good example of this is The Way of Kings. I was writing it in 2002, and the draft wasn’t good enough. I didn’t know why, but I was dissatisfied with it, and I told my editor we weren’t going to publish it yet. I didn’t know what I had to learn, but knew I had to learn things. The ideas were all there, but the technical skill wasn’t there yet to pull off the book that I wanted to do. It wasn’t until after finishing The Gathering Storm that I knew what was technically lacking, and I was able to go back and write that book. I feel it turned out quite well on the second attempt.
GR: Briefly describe a typical day spent writing. Do you have any unusual writing habits?
BS: I work until about 4 a.m., and then I don’t wake up until noon. The job I do lets me have the weirdest sleep schedule ever, because sometimes I sleep for like three hours, and then I get up and work and go back to bed. An average day for me is two four-to-six-hour writing blocks during this time. In each, I try to write at least 1,500 words, and I am somewhat goal based. I have a tread desk that I walk on while I type a lot of the time. It’s not like I am getting any real exercise because it’s moving like one mile per hour, but it is good for just moving and not just sitting there. I write in my bedroom. I have an easy chair that I also sit in.
I get done at about 5:30, and I go out and play with my kids and hang out with my family and do all the stuff that dads and husbands do, then I put my kids to bed, hang out with my wife for a bit, then usually go back to work at about 9 or 10 and get my second block.
GR: What authors, books, or ideas have influenced you?
BS: How many pages do we have? The obvious one is Robert Jordan. I like to list three authors who got me into fantasy. I was not a reader when I was younger, and it was the right book at the right time, which was Barbara Hambly‘s Dragonsbane. I love what she has does with fiction. So she is kind of responsible for me in a lot of ways. Once I discovered that, I ran to the library and tried to dig out something that was like Dragonsbane. I didn’t even know this genre existed, and next in the school library’s card catalog was Anne McCaffrey‘s Dragonflight. Her Pern books I would also list as a very big influence. And then Melanie Rawn and the Sunrunner books. Her use of magic is part of what made me interested in magic systems. Classically, I really like Les Misérables and also consider myself a Shakespeare buff and love to see Shakespeare live.
GR: What are you reading now?
BS: I am reading a book by Brian McClellan, who was a student in my class during one of my first times teaching it. I teach a class at BYU [Brigham Young University] called How to Write Science Fiction and Fantasy. I just started reading his debut novel, Promise of Blood, and so far so good. I always have sitting on a shelf near me a Terry Pratchett novel, who I think is (well, it’s probably a tie between him and Guy Gavriel Kay) the greatest fantasy writer writing right now.