Interview with Brandon Sanderson
Literatopia: Hello Brandon, thanks for taking the time to answer a few questions for us. Would you tell us a bit about yourself first? Who are you and what’s it you write?
Brandon Sanderson: Here's my short bio: Brandon Sanderson has published six solo novels with Tor Books (with Heyne in Germany) — "Elantris", "the Mistborn trilogy", "Warbreaker", and "The Way of Kings" — as well as four books in the middle-grade Alcatraz Versus the Evil Librarians series from Scholastic.
He was chosen to complete Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series (published by Piper in Germany); 2009’s "The Gathering Storm" and 2010’s "Towers of Midnight" will be followed by the final book in the series, A Memory of Light, in 2012. Currently living in Utah with his wife and children, Brandon teaches creative writing at Brigham Young University.
Literatopia: In April ‘The Way of the Kings’ be published in German. What’s in store for the reader? What kind of topics do you deal with in the novel, what’s your focus?
Brandon Sanderson: One very common story in fantasy, ever since Tolkien, is how the magic is going away. In the Stormlight Archive I wanted to write a story about the magic coming back. According to the mythology of the world, mankind used to live in heaven until a group of evil spirits known as the Voidbringers assaulted and captured it, casting out God and men. Men took root on Roshar, a world of storms, but the Voidbringers chased them there, trying to push them off of Roshar and into Damnation. To help men cope, the Almighty gave them powerful suits of armor and mystical weapons known as Shardblades. Led by ten angelic Heralds and ten orders of knights known as Radiants, men resisted the Voidbringers ten thousand times, finally winning and finding peace. Or so the legends say. Today, the only remnants of those supposed battles are the Shardblades, the possession of which makes a man nearly invincible on the battlefield. The entire world, essentially, is at war with itself—and has been for centuries since the Radiants turned against mankind. Kings strive to win more Shardblades, each secretly wishing to be the one who will finally unite all of mankind under a single throne.
That's the backstory. The book follows a young spearman forced into the army of a Shardbearer, led to war against an enemy he doesn't understand and doesn't really want to fight. It will deal with the truth of what happened deep in mankind's past. Why did the Radiants turn against mankind, and what happened to the magic they used to wield.
Literatopia: Dalinar is Alethkar’s military leader fighting for unity between humans .What else can you tell us about this character? Can he be compared to any of your previous characters or is he a completely new creation?
Brandon Sanderson: In my mind, all of my characters are unique individuals with their own experiences, hopes, and ways of thinking. The character who became Dalinar actually began life back in the very first novel I started writing when I was a teenager. He's the aging warlord, the man who was a bloodthirsty berserker in his youth but is now beginning to question his society's concept that war is an end unto itself. I have always had a firm sense of him in my mind, and I've been saving him for the right book. The Way of Kings is where he fits.
Brandon Sanderson: With the Stormlight Archive, I've set out from the start to write a ten-book series. This is the grand epic that I've wanted to write since I was a teenager. It is certainly daunting to set out to do something so complicated. Some people have said that this is the next big series to follow the Wheel of Time. I don't think I can ever replace Robert Jordan's genius, and equalling the Wheel of Time is beyond what I hope to do. If the Stormlight Archive ultimately ended up even half as successful as the Wheel of Time became, I would be overjoyed. But I do feel pressure—mostly from my own expectations. This is my big series, and I have to do it right. It's off to a very good start, and the reader response has been overwhelmingly positive.
Literatopia: Your first novel ‘Elantris’ formed the foundation for your later success. Why do you think the novel was this successful? Did the way your career as a writer took off after that take you by surprise? Did someone predict your success early on?
Brandon Sanderson: It's so hard to determine why one thing becomes really popular when something that's equally good does not. And I know many authors whose books I've read who are writing fantastic things that don't end up enjoying the same level of success as I have. So it's really hard for me to determine the whys. In publishing, we would all be a lot happier if we could figure out the whys.
But why do people like my works? I would like to think that a lot of readers when Elantris came out were like myself, waiting for epic fantasy to pull in some new directions. When I was reading in the late '90s and early 2000s I was disappointed that a lot of the books that were coming out seemed to be more of the same old story. When I got into writing, I didn't intend to revolutionize the genre or anything like that, but I did have goals to try some new things. I hoped to create some fantasy that still felt like great fantasy, that had the same wonderful feel to it of the books that I had enjoyed reading when I was younger, but which also would try some new things. And I think Elantris does that. In the end, I think writing comes down to great characters and an engaging story, and hopefully these are things that I've somewhat figured out how to achieve. I don't know if anyone guessed that I would do as well as I have. I certainly owe a great deal of my success to the attention that working on the Wheel of Time brought to me. But other than that I can't really say who could have predicted it or how we could have known that it would go as well as it has.
Literatopia: You started writing ‘Elantris’ while still at college. How many months of work went into the creation of that first novel? Was it an easy thing to do or was it a massive effort?
Brandon Sanderson: Believe it or not, Elantris was the sixth novel I wrote. I took a creative writing class at university from David Farland where he said that when you start writing, your first million words will be crap and not to worry about that. The experience and practice you get from writing a novel is the important part; your first novel doesn't have to be any good.
So with that in mind, I sat down to write a novel were I wasn't worried about how good it was. And when that one was finished, I didn't revise it—I just opened a new document and started writing a new novel. I ended up writing thirteen novels this way over a three-year period. Elantris was the sixth, and when I finally got an offer from Moshe Feder at Tor to buy Elantris, I was working on the first version of The Way of Kings. You may wonder how I had so much time to write; I was working as a night auditor at a local hotel, and they let me write while I was on duty as long as I fulfilled my responsibilities. That way I paid my way through college and also got a lot of practice writing.
Literatopia: The focus of the Mistborn Trilogy and of ‘Warbreaker’ is on lived faith and various deities. What do these topics mean to you and why did you choose to deal with them?
Brandon Sanderson: I'm very interested in the concepts of religion and the ideas that surround it, and I often find myself writing books that deal with things I'm interested in myself. I allow the themes of books like these to grow naturally out of the world I've built and out of the stories that I want to tell. Specifically, I kind of let the characters decide what the themes of a book are going to be. I don't go into it saying, "I'm going to write about this," but the worlds that I create betray my own interests very strongly. What is it about faith and deity? This is something that is unique about us as human beings, something very interesting to me, and it felt like this area was an open space to explore in fantasy in ways that hadn't been done before. I always find myself gravitating toward things that I feel haven't been explored as much as they could have been. That interests me and fascinates me.
Literatopia: Your stories are often promoted as being unique and unprecedented. What do you think about propositions like that? Have you ever been afraid of being unable to meet the market’s expectations concerning your writing?
Brandon Sanderson: In my writing I try to combine the unfamiliar with the familiar. If something is too unique and unprecedented, then readers won't have anything to relate to and will just be lost.
But if something is too familiar, it will feel stale and cliche. I like to look for twists on familiar tropes that haven't been extensively covered before. This often comes when I read other books in the field and think of a different way something could go. That's not to say other authors aren't doing the same thing, but I like to tackle takes that I haven't seen before. Trying to do what the market expects of you is a bit of a trap in the publishing field. You want your books to be things that people want to write, but if you try to write to the market you usually end up with something too familiar and boring. Back when I was writing those thirteen books I was sending the good examples out to editors and agents and getting a lot of rejection letters. (Elantris was the first book I wrote that I felt was good enough to send out, and I also sent out a couple I wrote after it.) After being told time and time again that my books were too long (Elantris in manuscript form was 250,000 words), I decided to try to do what I thought the market wanted and write books that were a lot shorter. But I discovered that the books I turned out in that format just weren't any good; they contained some very interesting ideas but were lacking in many areas.
When Moshe bought Elantris and wanted to follow it up with another novel, I first offered him The Way of Kings but we realized that it was too ambitious a project at that point in time. So instead I took concepts from three of those failed novels and rewrote them into the first Mistborn book, writing it at the length my natural style seemed to work best at. And Mistborn was a huge success.
You shouldn't assume that when you've read one Brandon Sanderson novel, you know what the next one is going to be like. From one series to the next I like to try different things. I know that some readers who really liked Mistborn are not going to like The Way of Kings; Mistborn had a narrower scope and faster pace than a huge epic like The Way of Kings has, and if a reader prefers that sort of book that is perfectly okay with me. I am going to write some books that are fast-paced and others that are huge epics. I like to change things up.
Literatopia: The covers on the German first editions are kept a lot simpler than those of the American originals. Do you get to have a say in the cover design? Do you generally like the motifs or are there some you honestly dislike?
Brandon Sanderson: I generally like them. There are some that I'm less fond of; there are some that I like more. I haven't ever been terribly fond of the Alcatraz covers in the U.S. I actually think that the German covers of the Alcatraz books are much stronger. Those would probably be my least favorite of them all, but in general I really like what artists are doing and how they're working to interpret my worlds.
It's nice to see, as a writer, someone taking what you've written and envisioning it in a sometimes new and different way, making something cool and creative out of it. So I'm generally very pleased. It's very cool to see how different cultures and different publishers react to the same text and the different types of stories that they convey just through the pictures they put on the front.
Literatopia: Your Mistborn Trilogy is over 2800 pages total. Where did the idea for such a complex story come from? Did something specifically inspire you? How did you manage to hang in there for so long? Where there times when you thought ‘I’m exhausted, I just can’t go on’?
Brandon Sanderson: There was no one specific inspiration; it was a combination of different ideas bouncing around in my head for years and other ideas that I tried in earlier books that didn't work out. One idea does not make a book or a series, but ideas in interesting combinations makes a book. With Mistborn, one idea came while I was driving one day and entered a heavy fog bank: this started me thinking about a world shrouded in mist. Later I started thinking that a heist plot such as in movies like Ocean's Eleven would make a good fantasy story. I started thinking about different kinds of metal being used as magical batteries for different types of power. And I had a cinematic image of someone leaping through the air in a mistcloak. All these things combined to make a book.
I wrote all three Mistborn books before the first one was released, so I was able to go back and alter things in the first book to keep everything consistent with the last book. And it was indeed exhausting. I've found that from time to time in order to recharge my mental batteries, I need to take a break and write something else instead. So after writing The Well of Ascension and before starting to write The Hero of Ages, I took some time off from the series and wrote a fun experimental project instead. I didn't really know where it was going or what I would ever do with it, but it turned into the first Alcatraz versus the Evil Librarians book, which was completely different from the Mistborn books that had been occupying my life for months. I found that when I was finished writing that side project, my mind was refreshed and I was ready to tackle the Mistborn world again. So ever since then I've made it a habit to take breaks to write experimental short projects that don't necessarily have to go anywhere. Sometimes they work out, and sometimes they don't and I shelve them. But it keeps me fresh.
Literatopia: How would you describe the Mistborn Trilogy to readers who haven’t read anything about Vin and Elant yet? Do you think there is some specific detail that makes these novels what they are?
Brandon Sanderson: The basic concept is, "What happens after the hero fails?" If you've read fantasy books before, you know the story—a young peasant rises from obscurity with a faithful band of companions to challenge a great evil. In those stories, the hero always wins. But the world of Mistborn takes place a thousand years after the hero was defeated. The Lord Ruler is an immortal who has proven time and time again he cannot be killed and who rules the world with an iron fist. Instead of trying to kill him, a group of downtrodden thieves plan to battle his empire by stealing enough money to bribe his soldiers away from him. That's how the story begins.
About ‘The Wheel of Time’
Literatopia: Tell us some of your first thoughts when asked to finish ‘The Wheel of Time’. Did it feel great to be doing this right from start or was it a bit scary at first to be continuing such a renowned series?
Brandon Sanderson: My thoughts were all over the place. I do legitimately love the Wheel of Time and have been reading it since I was a young man. If you look at my early unpublished books, you’ll find they were deeply influenced by the Wheel of Time. Amusingly so; looking back on it now, I see things I didn’t even notice that I had done. So that love of the series was part of what was bouncing around in my head.
I didn’t become a writer because I wanted to write in other people’s worlds. I wanted to tell my own stories, and I was making a comfortable living at my writing before this. For a lot of projects I would have said no regardless of what they offered, so it had to be about more than the money. Beyond that, there was this sense of “Wow, if I screw this up, I’m in serious trouble. People will find me and burn my house down. Wheel of Time fans are hardcore.” I struggled with this, and it almost caused me to say no. One writer I know mentioned regarding this, or posted it somewhere, “This is a thankless job. Anything that Sanderson gets right will be attributed to Robert Jordan, and anything he gets wrong will condemn him.” I took all those things into consideration.
But in the end, I felt I could do a good job on this, and that it could be a sendoff I could give one of my favorite authors, someone who deeply influenced me as a writer. And I felt that if I passed on it, someone else would be found and would get to do it. The question that it came down to for me was, “Knowing that someone who is not Robert Jordan is going to do this, can you really pass and let anyone other than you do it?” And the answer was that I couldn’t let someone else do it. I had to do it. So I said yes.
Literatopia: Who’s your personal favorite in ‘The Wheel of Time’ and why?
Brandon Sanderson: Probably Perrin. Growing up I identified most with him, and in many ways he's the character most similar to me. But when I'm writing, when I’m in a character’s head, that character is the most important in the book. They’re all my favorite when I’m writing them—that’s just the way it has to be as a writer.
Literatopia: Is there a character whose development in the course of the series was surprising to you?
Brandon Sanderson: Most surprising, honestly—and this is a minor character—was probably Gawyn. I remember as a kid reading the books and expecting, "Oh, Gawyn, he's obviously going to be this super cool main character." I felt all sorts of things about him, and then they just never materialized. Which is not unexpected if you look at the literary roots that Robert Jordan was using for Gawyn's character, but it was surprising to me as a young kid because you read certain tropes in fiction and you expect them to be used always the same way. You know, the young, handsome, charming prince doesn't usually turn into what Gawyn turned into.
Literatopia: What makes the series about the ‘dragon reborn’ so special in your eyes? Are there some strengths and also weaknesses you want to highlight? What kind of readership would you recommend it to?
Brandon Sanderson: One thing that seems to set the Wheel of Time apart from many other fantasy series is how it appeals to people across so many demographics. It has adventure to appeal to teenagers, but when you grow up you appreciate the series for different reasons. The subtlety of the character interactions and the foreshadowing, the intricacy of the plot, the strong women who don't judge themselves by their relationships to men—this series has it in spades.
Literatopia: When and how did you start writing? Did you just sit down one day and decide to try it or was it a slow development? How come you write fantasy?
Brandon Sanderson: In elementary school, I wasn't much of a reader. In the third grade I fell in love with the Three Investigators books created by Robert Arthur, and I enjoyed them much more than the “meaningful” (boring) books people tried to get me to read for the next five years. So after that I hardly read anything until the eighth grade, when I had an English teacher who told me I couldn’t do a report on a Three Investigators book and instead pointed me toward Dragonsbane by Barbara Hambly.
That book changed my life. When I first read it, I was amazed--I had no idea books like that existed. It engaged my imagination like no other book ever had, and it even helped me understand my own mother better, because the main character's conflicts gave me a perspective on what my mother went through when she chose to focus on her family rather than her career. The book was creative, it was fun, yet it helped me understand life. At that point I started reading every fantasy book I could get my hands on, including Robert Jordan’s first Wheel of Time book, The Eye of the World, when it came out in paperback. I was hooked, and as I read more and more books, my grades went up in school--I went from a low-end average student to someone who got top grades.
It didn’t take reading many fantasy books before I decided writing them was what I wanted to do with my life. I started my first book when I was fifteen. It was horrible, but I just kept writing and writing until I actually got any good. I’ve been a writer full-time since 2004, but it would never have happened if not for Mrs. Reader handing me Dragonsbane.
Literatopia: Talent or craftsmanship – how do you think about writing? In your opinion, what is it authors needs to especially excel in to captivate their audience?
Brandon Sanderson: I talk about things like this a lot in the podcast I do with Mary Robinette Kowal, Dan Wells, and Howard Tayler. I think talent makes some contribution, but it's overshadowed by practice. If you go back and look at the first unpublished novels that I wrote, they're terrible and derivative. I didn't have any practice then, but I had just as much talent as I have now. Writing well is something I have learned, and it's something I'm still learning. I think having characters who readers can care about is what will make a novel stand or fall.
Literatopia: How do you go about writing a new novel? Do you use memos, character profiles and plot outlines or do you just sit down and let the story unfold as you go?
Brandon Sanderson: George R. R. Martin has talked about how writers are often "gardeners" or "architects." Gardeners guide a story's growth as they write, and architects plan everything out ahead of time. Now, most writers are really some combination of the two. I am an architect in many aspects of my writing, but with my characters I'm more of a gardener. I extensively design the world and outline the plot before I start writing, but when it comes to character motivations and histories, I often discover those while I am writing.
Literatopia: Where and when do you usually like to write? Do you need a certain atmosphere to get it going or could the house fall down and you wouldn’t notice once you sit down to write?
Brandon Sanderson: I don’t do the office thing. How shall I say this? I became a writer so that I didn’t have to deal with the whole office thing. I know some authors need an office and a writing space; that’s great. But I just need my laptop and some music and I’m good pretty much anywhere. I tend to be a roving writer, meaning I pick a place and I stay there for a few months, and then I get tired of it and I pick another place. So I write all over the house. My favorite locations tend to be in front of a fireplace with my feet up. I’ve actually stolen my wife’s easy chair and moved it over in front of the fireplace in my bedroom—it’s a gas fireplace, so I just turn it on. I’ve set up a light and a little stand next to me, and I’ve been working here for a few months. But I move around. It’s just basically laptop plus music. I don’t work at a desk; I cannot do the desk thing. I’ll work lying on my bed, on a couch, in an easy chair, in a beanbag chair, but not at a desk.
Literatopia: Is there a particular interview question you’ve been waiting for all these years and no one’s ever asked it? If so which one is it? What would be your answer?
Brandon Sanderson: Not that I can really think of. The ones I always anticipate are the ones that I can't really answer, so in some ways I'm glad that people don't ask me them, because I always hate RAFOing people—RAFO is something Robert Jordan always used to say, standing for Read and Find Out. I do usually anticipate questions about Adonalsium and the Cosmere, which goes into the connected nature of the books that I've been writing, but I won't say that I'm eager to have people ask those questions, because I can't really answer any of those.
Literatopia: What can we expect from you in the near (and far) future? Do you have any specific plans or are you still waiting to be inspired for further work?
Brandon Sanderson: I've always got things in the works, but to announce them this is probably not the forum or the time to announce them. People can watch my website. I'm very excited that the new Mistborn book, The Alloy of Law, is coming out in November. And of course I'm working on the last book of the Wheel of Time, which will be released sometime in 2012. Beyond that? I'm pretty busy with the things that I've put on my plate, so perhaps I will stay away from teasing people with things that are years and years off.
Questions from our readers
Reader’s question: People like to measure any fantasy literature against ‘The Lord of the Rings’. Do you see this as motivation or pressure within the genre? Do you think it’s still possible to write really good High Fantasy without it being called a bad rip-off or it being criticized for breaking with too many of the conventions?
Brandon Sanderson: Oh boy. This is something I have talked about quite a bit from time to time. I wrote a whole essay on it here: http://www.brandonsanderson.com/article/22/
Recently, the New York Times had a review of Martin's A Dance with Dragons which declared that it was far better than the Lord of the Rings and that Tolkien was dead. Tolkien is the measuring stick that everyone uses. In some ways he shouldn't be, because the fantasy genre has so much potential beyond just being like what Tolkien did. And in other ways, fantasy as we know it today would not exist without Tolkien. He is a giant, and we all stand on his shoulders. In that respect, comparing everyone to Tolkien is not really fair.
Reader’s question: ‘Warbreaker’ features a wonderful system of magic. How did you come up with it? And will you tell us your favorite color?
Brandon Sanderson: Maroon.
In The Well of Ascension I had to come up with a bunch of different religions for Sazed to study. One he mentions in chapter fifty revolves around color. It was such a fascinating idea that I decided to weave it into Warbreaker. The Awakening system uses color as both a cost and a benefit; using Breath drains color, and holding Breath increases perception of color. Awakening itself grew out of a common concept in tribal and shamanistic magic.
Reader’s question: Do the political relationships between Idris and Hallandren have a model in the real world? Do you think authors of fantasy are free to deal with current political issues in their work or is that something of a no-go for you?
Brandon Sanderson: In fantasy, we can often approach things like this in a way that is non-threatening. We can change things a little bit and focus in a little bit more on the issue that is interesting to us. I won't say that I never do this, though again character and story are most important, but what I write about grows out of what I'm interested in.
With Idris and Hallendren, I noticed in my own work that I'd been painting religion in a somewhat less than favorable light in recent books; this is partially because I as a religious person think that the misuse of religion is one of the most purely evil things that can happen in the world. So I thought I wanted to play off of some of those sensibilities, and I built what I did in Warbreaker in part to actively show a different side of things. And when I was writing that book, the politics of the United States' invasion of certain countries and other things going on were not something that anyone could really ignore. So I would say that there are themes that grew out of that.
I didn't write the book to make a political statement. Yet at the same time the potential political statements of "Think twice about what you're doing" and of the nature of war and what it can do is something that I'm sure grew out of my own thoughts on the issues.
Reader’s question: Which character in ‘The Wheel of Time’ was the easiest to comprehend, which one proved to be hardest to conceive? How did it feel like to be one of the first people to know how the ‘Wheel of Time’-series will end? Can/ will you tell us the closing sentence of ‘The Wheel of Time’?
Brandon Sanderson: Perrin was the easiest, for the same reasons as I called him my favorite above. Mat was the hardest for me to write, because his humor is so different from my own.
The ending has already been written by Robert Jordan, and as a reader I found it extremely satisfying when I reached it. And so I feel very confident that the ending of the next book is going to be what everyone has been hoping for and wanting—without being exactly what they expect. I think the ending that Robert Jordan wrote is just wonderful. But in another respect I'm a bit sad, because I won't get to experience the ending for the first time when a new Wheel of Time book comes out in the bookstores like everyone else will.
If you do a search online you can find a few words that Robert Jordan said about the closing sentence of the Wheel of Time before he passed away. It's out there in an interview. I won't say whether it's going to stay that way or not, because essentially what he says is "This is what it would be if I wrote it right now, but it often changes" and things like that. He wrote it, not me, so I don't feel right giving a spoiler on that. But if you look around, the interview is out there where he said some words on it.
Literatopia: Thank you so much for this interview, Brandon!
Dieses Interview wurde von Angelika Mandryk für Literatopia geführt und von Lucia Schwarz übersetzt. Alle Rechte vorbehalten.