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Interview: Brandon Sanderson

Brandon Sanderson has published seven solo novels with Tor—Elantris, the Mistborn books, Warbreaker, and The Way of Kings—as well as four books in the middle-grade Alcatraz Versus the Evil Librarians series from Scholastic. Two novellas came out in 2012: Legion and The Emperor’s Soul. He was chosen to complete Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series; 2009’s The Gathering Storm and 2010’s Towers of Midnight were followed by the final book, A Memory of Light, in January 2013. Tor Teen will release the YA fantasy The Rithmatist in May 2013, and Delacorte will release the YA post-apocalyptic Steelheart in September 2013. Currently living in Utah with his wife and children, Brandon teaches creative writing at Brigham Young University.

This interview first appeared on Wired.com’s The Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy podcast, which is hosted by John Joseph Adams and David Barr Kirtley. Visit geeksguideshow.com to listen to the entire interview and the rest of the show, in which the hosts discuss various geeky topics.

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As we’re recording this, the release of A Memory of Light is just days away. So what will you be doing on the day that the book comes out?

Well, I’ll probably be sleeping at first, because the night before I’ll be doing a midnight release party, and those tend to go pretty late. And then I’ll be flying—I believe Minneapolis is the first stop. And I’ll be doing a signing there that evening.

Tell us about the midnight release party.

Well, for quite a while now, my fans have wanted me to do midnight releases, and so what we do is we pick a bookstore. It’s been BYU bookstore for a while, since it’s the only local independent in Provo. And we’ll go there and I will pre-sign all the books to make it easy on people, and then we have a party. At midnight we start selling the book. People can grab their book and take off with it, or they can come and wait in the extremely long line to get it personalized by me. We do number the books at the release party, which is also kind of fun.

And Robert Jordan’s widow will be there, right?

Yes. Harriet’s coming for the first time. She’s going to come on down and we’re going to have her sign all the books too. We’ll do a Q&A reading thing beforehand, and then Harriet is going to go back to the hotel and go to bed while I sit around and sign books until 5 AM.

Are people camped out on the sidewalks already?

Yes, they are indeed. Someone really wanted book number one, so he came I think a good two weeks early and started camping. It’s not particularly pleasant outside in Utah in December and January, so these are real troopers.

Have you been over there to bring them hot chocolate or anything?

I haven’t yet. I usually stop by once or twice during the lines, but I haven’t stopped by as of yet. I live a lot further from BYU than I used to.

I think a lot of fantasy and science fiction fans have grown suspicious about whether and how long-running series are going to end. And I think a lot of people are probably wondering, is this really the end of The Wheel of Time?

The honest truth is, I don’t get to say. It’s Harriet’s story now, not mine. Harriet and I have talked about it, though, and both of us feel that this should be the ending. The last thing Robert Jordan wrote was the last chapter of this book. I don’t think Robert Jordan would have wanted us to go further, and I think that if we went on, it would be too much of me having to take over. For these last books—that were really just one book in his notes—I’ve been able to follow his outline fairly closely. And yes, there were holes and things like that, things I had to do, but I had an ending in sight, which was the ending he’d written, and that has guided me all along. That kept it in the realm of being his story that I’m writing, rather than my story that I’m taking over.

Do you think people are going to be satisfied that this pretty much ties up most of the loose ends and there’s not a huge cliffhanger at the end or anything like that?

Yeah, I felt when I first read it that it was a satisfying ending. I felt it was the right ending. It’s been my guidepost for all the work I’ve done on this. There are going to be some holes. Robert Jordan told fans before he passed away that he didn’t want everything wrapped up neatly with a bow. And so there are no major cliffhangers, but there are some indications of things that happen after the series, things that continue on. He had planned to write a sequel trilogy, and people are aware of that. So naturally there are going to be holes regarding some of the characters he was planning to put in that trilogy.

What if somebody wants to know how the story ends, but they don’t want to read all fourteen books? Could they jump straight into this one?

I would really not suggest that. If people wanted to jump in, the place that I would suggest jumping in would be book eleven, which is the last one Robert Jordan wrote, and which is the one that really starts to take the focus toward an endgame. If there are Wheel of Time fans out there that read the first few books and then said, “I’ll finish it when the series is done” and things like that, book eleven might be a good place to come back to it. That one’s called Knife of Dreams.

I heard that one chapter is around 50,000 words long and contains seventy to eighty viewpoint characters. Is that true?

It’s actually a bit longer than that, but has fewer viewpoint characters. I think it’s about 70- or 80,000 words. There are around seventy viewpoint shifts, but there are a lot of repeated viewpoints. So yes, there’s this massive chapter. It’s one of the things I planned from the beginning, and like a lot of things that I tried that are a little out of the mainstream for the series, I pitched it to Harriet and said here’s why I think it would work and why I think it will be a great chapter. And she went ahead and let me get away with it—as she frequently did in working on these. So yes, there’s a big, awesome, meaty, long chapter at the end of the book. It’s not the last chapter, but it’s one of the last chapters.

I heard you say that this book contains a lot of big battles, and since you’re not a big military history buff like Robert Jordan was, you needed some help with those sections. Who did you consult with and what sort of details did they give you?

Harriet is friends with Bernard Cornwell, and went to him for a bunch of advice on this, so we used him as a military expert. Also, Robert Jordan had two assistants. One of them is a military historian. He knows the military; he’s been in the military. Those scenes were very heavily looked over and edited by him.

I imagine you must have had to endure a lot of people being like, “Hey, man, you don’t know Rand al’ Thor, man.” Have you just had to develop a thick skin for that?

Yes and no. I mean, I was part of Wheel of Time fandom before I was given this project, so I know Wheel of Time fandom, if that makes sense. So when the Wheel of Time fans pick on certain characters—it’s usually Lan or Mat—they’ll say, “Hey, you don’t know Lan.” Well, I do know Lan, and my interpretation of Lan differs from yours. We could spend hours on forums discussing our different interpretations of characters. Nothing’s changed from the time that I was just a fan to writing now. We would have had that same big, massive discussion on that forum back then as we talked about our different interpretations. And that’s one of the factors people have to deal with in me picking up the series as a fan. I am going to bring my interpretation as a longtime fan of these characters. In some cases they’re spot on with what most people think. There haven’t been many complaints about my Perrin, for instance. And in some cases, there are complaints and they’re right. My early Mat was off. I acknowledged this. I looked at what people were saying, but in other cases, such as Lan, they’re wrong. [Laughs] What can I say? I’m a fan too, and we will have these arguments about whether this character would do this or that character would do that, and you’ll find that in any community.

On the other hand, I do get complaints, and in some cases the complaints are legit. I’m not Robert Jordan, and I can’t do some of the things that he did, simply because I don’t have his life experience and in many ways I’m not as good a writer as he was. He was a fantastic writer at the end of his career, after having grown and progressed for decades, and I’m a new writer. I’ve only been doing this for ten or fifteen years or so now, so I’m not as skilled. In some cases I just have to apologize and say I can’t do it the way that he would do it. I have to try to do it the best way I know how to do it. Anyone who has gripes like that, they’re legit gripes and that’s a good reason to not like the books, and I’m fine with that. And if that really bothers you, then hopefully we can get the original notes released. That will be Harriet’s decision. After the fact, I would like to release them, so that those for whom my interpretation was not good, or my failings ruined the experience for them, they can at least look at what Robert Jordan had and imagine their own story.

I’ve heard you have 50,000 unread emails in your inbox. Don’t you worry about all the exciting business opportunities in Nigeria that you’re missing out on?

Yeah, that’s not even my spam box. I’m bad with email. I’m so bad with email. Fortunately, I do have people combing those inboxes, watching for important emails that come my way, and I try to read a lot of the fan mail. It’s hard to answer it all, but I try to read it, at least. I love what social media has done. It creates this great connection between author and reader, which is wonderful, but it also means a lot more opportunities to do things other than writing. And it seems like the last thing I need in my life are more reasons to not be writing. People who know me know that sometimes you have to send a dozen emails to actually get ahold of me. That’s just part of dealing with a guy who spends most of his time trying to focus on the storytelling.

I saw that you recently filmed yourself writing the opening prologue of your new Stormlight novel. You want to tell us about that?

Sure. I mean, I’ve talked about all of this stuff that goes on with social media and whatnot, and I like the interaction that you can get. Some artists that I like, they’re doing this thing where they’ll film themselves painting a piece, and you get this awesome thing where you start with the blank page and then you see in fast motion them painting the whole thing. Dan Dos Santos did this for the cover of Warbreaker, one of my novels. You can find this sped-up video of him painting the whole thing and it’s awesome. I can’t really do that with writing. It’s not nearly as engaging to watch someone typing as it is to watch someone creating this amazing piece of art out of nothing, but I wanted to try it and see what it was like. And so I picked a scene—it’s not actually the prologue. It’s one of the scenes that won’t be a spoiler. I do these things called “interludes” in the Stormlight Archive where I basically write short stories in the world and put them between major sections of the book. I screen-captured myself typing that out, starting with my little outline that I did for it, then typing the whole thing out. Theoretically, I will film myself doing the revisions. The idea is just to put those things up as something fun that people might enjoy—probably sped up a bunch, since it took me six hours to write the scene. It might be helpful to new writers, I don’t know. It might be just a curiosity, but it’s something I wanted to try.

Did it make you self-conscious at all knowing that people were going to be watching your process in action?

Yeah, it totally makes you self-conscious. Mostly it’s the spelling. I’ll be typing along and I’ll see that I spelled some word wrong, and I’ll be like, “Ah man, I should know how to spell that.” So I’ll just use the Microsoft Word spellcheck thing. It does actually keep you focused, though, because every time your instinct is to go check your email or go check your browser, you’re like, “Oh, wait a minute, I’m filming. I probably should not do that.” So that was nice.

In an earlier episode, we were talking about how it seems like there’s a disproportionately high number of Mormons who get into writing science fiction. Do you have any ideas why that might be?

Oh boy, I don’t know. We all have our pet theories, right? I think it’s probably—if you really looked at it—something pretty innocent. Such as, I bet you’ll find a disproportionally high number of Mormons in all writing fields, just because there’s a high focus on literacy in the community, so a lot of people end up writing. There’s probably some confirmation bias going on, if that’s the right term. You don’t remember if somebody is a Jewish writer as much as you remember they’re a Mormon writer. And so you start seeing us pop up all over the place. But it is something we discuss. Is it real? I don’t know.

The other thing is that BYU does have a science fiction/fantasy writing class that was started because of Orson Scott Card. He didn’t actually end up teaching it the first time, but it was started because of him, and then he couldn’t end up teaching, so someone else took it over. And it’s been going now for over twenty years. And it could also just be that if you see one successful person doing it, it makes it that much easier for you to do it. I got published in part because a writer came and taught that class while I was at BYU. This writer is Dave Wolverton. He also writes as David Farland. He taught the class and he was a real person who wrote, right? And he was making a living at it. When everyone before had told me you can’t really make a living as a writer, I saw somebody really doing it and I said, I could do this too. Those are lots of theories. Those are the theories from being on the inside and looking at it. I’m sure people who are on the outside can come up with lots more tongue-in-cheek reasons. I’ve read them myself and get a chuckle out of them.

And you’re actually teaching that writing class now, right?

I am teaching the writing class now. I took it over from Dave. After he retired, there was one more teacher for a couple years and then I took it over. I’ve been doing it for ten years now.

Do you put that same focus on writing as a career?

Yeah, I do. Because at a university, when you take creative writing classes, you’re going to get lots of craft discussion. And I try to do craft discussion, but you’re going to get very little real-world professional advice. So I try to give the real-world professional advice, because I’m the one who can give it. I did actually have a grad student post all my lectures online last year. It was part of a project for another class. If you go to writeaboutdragons.com, he posted all of those as YouTube videos. So you can see what my lectures are like.

I understand that BYU actually has its own science fiction magazine? Have you had any involvement with that?

Yeah, I was editor of that for a couple of years. It’s a semiprozine. It was started by the same group who took that first class twenty years ago or more now. We call them “the class that wouldn’t die.” They continued on meeting, started their own writing group, started up The Leading Edge, which is the magazine. And it’s just handed down from student to student from them, and they just kept doing it. It’s a fun magazine. It taught me a lot about publishing and about writing, actually. Nothing teaches you about writing faster, I feel, than reading other people’s horrible work and realizing it’s much like your own, and you need to be doing stuff better than that.

It seems like most of the writers that I know are either naturally short story writers or naturally novelists, and you definitely fall into the latter category. I was actually wondering, have you written more published short stories or unpublished novels?

Definitely more unpublished novels, yeah. Because short stories, if you use the technical definition of short story, I think I’ve actually only ever written one. Everything I write goes into at least novelette length. I wrote one for Charlaine Harris. She wanted a story from me for an anthology that sounded like a lot of fun, Games People Play, and so I wrote an actual short story for her. That’s just how it came out. Everything else I’ve done is novelette or novella. I really like novellas. I love reading novellas, I love writing novellas, because they really are just short novels, right? You do all of the sorts of things you do for a novel, but you do them in a short form. Whereas a short story is a completely different art. It’s the difference between learning to drive down the green and to putt. You’re using similar tools, but there’s so much difference there that becoming a good short story writer takes a lot of work in different ways. I’m very naturally a novelist, but I can apply a lot of my same skills to the novella form, and have been very pleased with how some of my novellas have turned out because of that.

Do you want to tell us a bit about some of the novellas that you’ve written?

Sure, I’ve had two novellas come out this year. One’s called Legion. I did that one with Subterranean Press. It was me trying my hand at some more thriller-esque modern day things. It’s about a camera that can take pictures of the past, and it gets stolen. And a very interesting individual gets hired to track it down. His name is Stephen Leeds. I came up with this idea for someone who was a genius and who could read up on a subject and become an expert at it in a very short amount of time. But in order to store all this information in his brain, what he does is he creates this hallucination—another person—who is actually a repository for that information, who then follows him around and gives him advice in those situations. So if he wants to learn a new language, he can study it, and then this person will appear next to him who becomes his interpreter in that language. He runs into people and has to have his hallucinatory interpreter—his figment, as he calls them—translate for him so that he can understand, and things like that. It was just a wacky fun idea. So that’s Legion.

The other one that I have I’m really proud of. If you’ve never tried any of my work, the thing I would suggest would probably be this. It’s called The Emperor’s Soul. It’s the story of a woman who uses forgery magic, and who is hired to create a forgery of the emperor’s soul magically, because he’s been wounded in the head and is brain dead. There’s just a shell left there, and the people who are keeping him in power want to have a forged soul placed into him so that no one will know that he’s been wounded, so they can keep on ruling the empire.

I understand you’ve also had work in some of the fine anthologies edited by John Joseph Adams?

I have. In fact, John has two of my shorter works. One is one of these interludes from the first Way of Kings. And it stood fairly well on its own—we just named it after the character Rsyn, and it’s in John’s anthology Epic. And in fact, the scene that I video recorded is actually a new interlude with Rsyn for the second volume. So that’s pretty cool. I also have a story that I co-wrote with a friend of mine in Armored, the anthology. Again, I don’t have the military expertise, but I wanted to write this military science fiction story, and so I went to a friend in the military—who is also a writer—and we did the story together.

In addition to writing, you’re also the co-host of the Writing Excuses podcast. And I understand that Mary Robinette Kowal actually flies from Chicago to Utah just to tape the show?

Yeah, the podcast is successful enough—we have an Audible sponsorship—that we can actually afford airfare and things like that, which is pretty cool. And so we fly Mary out. Skype is a wonderful tool, but when it’s a show that you really need the energy of the hosts together—and that’s kind of what we focus on—we need to be there in person, we find. So we do it in person.

What are some recent topics or guests that you’ve covered?

Right now we’ve got four ways the industry is changing and how to write a secret history—secret history is kind of a subset of alternate history. We’ve got one where we had listeners send us in questions and we answer the questions. We do things like: What are your embarrassing early projects? How do you tell if your idea is too big for the story you’re working on? How do you avoid discouragement? How do you handle multiple magic systems in one book? And then we have a few before that where we brainstorm stories together, and then talk about how we would outline them, and things like that. There are all sorts of things on there. We have a lot of editors and other writers on as guests. We’ve broken down all kinds of writing topics from outlining, to how to do characters, and all these different things. So if you’re interested in writing, go look it up. There’s a ton of archives. I think we’re starting our eighth season or something like that.

I saw you’re also starting up a writer’s retreat called Out of Excuses?

Yeah, Mary suggested this, to do a writer’s retreat. People have been asking about doing this. I like to try to do one thing like this every year. In the past, I’ve been doing one with Kevin J. Anderson, which is called Superstars Writing Seminars. This year I wanted to try doing something a little more hands-on with some students. Mary’s parents have a vacation home next to their actual home, I think, or they own two houses—I don’t even know how it works, you’d have to ask Mary. Anyway, they rent it out for vacationing and things like that, and we’re going to be renting it and holding a seminar in it. We will meet with listeners and all write together, and hopefully record some episodes of Writing Excuses and help people out.

Can people still apply to that?

No, we sold out in like nine minutes. [Laughs] Maybe in a future year, but yeah, I think it was actually like nine minutes. There’s only twenty spaces for it, so it went really fast.

You’ve also been involved recently with the Waygate charitable foundation. You want to tell us about that?

Waygate is a foundation run by Wheel of Time fans. A number of Wheel of Time fan organizations have long been involved and have a good history with charitable work. Recently, they decided that if they’re going to be doing this, and having the amount of money flowing through and toward charities that they were doing, that they should make it official, tax-wise. They actually started a company and made it a nonprofit, did all the things they needed to do. I’ve been working with them. They put me on the board. This year we’ve been focusing on Worldbuilders, Pat Rothfuss’ charity, which is a fantastic charity for Heifer International, which buys llamas and things in developing countries and teaches people how to take care of them so they can sustain themselves off of livestock they’re given and things like that. It’s a fantastic charity, so we’ve been working with that to try to do some good where we can.

And just to wrap things up, are there any other new or upcoming projects you’d like to mention?

I’m hard at work on the second Stormlight book. That’s actually been my focus for the last five or six months, ever since I finished the last Wheel of Time book. It will continue to be my focus following the tour that I’m doing. I do also have a couple of projects that I started working on years ago, before the Wheel of Time came my way, which I had to put on hold until now. Both are YA books that I’ve written. One’s called The Rithmatist. It’s coming out from Tor in the summer. And then in late summer I’ve got one called Steelheart, which is a really awesome superhero apocalypse sort of book, that’s coming out from Random House.

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The Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy

The Geek's Guide to the Galaxy

The Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy is a science fiction/fantasy talk show podcast. It is produced by John Joseph Adams and hosted by: David Barr Kirtley, who is the author of thirty short stories, which have appeared in magazines such as Realms of Fantasy, Weird Tales, and Lightspeed, in books such as Armored, The Living Dead, Other Worlds Than These, and Fantasy: The Best of the Year, and on podcasts such as Escape Pod and Pseudopod. He lives in New York.