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Brandon Sanderson

interviewed by Alex Telander, November 2008


Brandon Sanderson grew up in Lincoln, Nebraska. He teaches creative writing at Brigham Young University and lives in Provo, Utah, with his wife Emily and son Joel. He is the author of the acclaimed Elantris (a standalone fantasy) as well as the oustanding Mistborn trilogy. He has also been chosen to complete Robert Jordan's A Memory of Light, the concluding volume of the bestselling and hugely popular Wheel of Time series.

Q: Hi Brandon, thanks for agreeing to do this interview. What made you decide to become a writer and who were your influences?

A: I decided to become a writer when I was fourteen. Before then I hadn't been a big reader. A lot of kids, young boys, stop reading about the fourth grade age. It's apparently a trouble time. I didn't know that, but I stopped reading about that age. Fourth, fifth, sixth grade not a big reader. Seventh grade, not a big reader. Eighth grade, I had a really wonderful English teacher who got a fantasy novel into my hands. And before then I just thought books were boring. Someone had tried to give me Tolkien, but Tolkien was just too hard for me. She gave me Barbara Hambly's Dragonsbane, which I loved. Fell in love with fantasy books, discovered David Eddings, Terry Brooks over the summer. This is before Wheel of Time was even out. ust fell in love with reading and decided that this is what I wanted to do for a living. Didn't really look back since then. Started my first book when I was fifteen. It was dreadful. But just kept writing and writing and writing. A lot of my influences were the Wheel of Time books, once they came out. Absolutely loved them. I would often study them, read them, try and see what is Robert Jordan doing here. I remember specifically looking at passages and saying: "Okay, what's he doing? What's making this work?" A lot of my other influences, I'd say, were Melanie Rawn. And Barbara Hambly. And Annie McCaffrey would be some of my big influences. I liked the sort of hybrid fantasy/science fictions. Not the sort where a fantasy world meets a science fiction world, don't enjoy those as much. What I'm talking about is a fantasy book that treats its magic like a science. I loved, for instance, Melanie Rawn's magic system. Really worked for me. When I discovered David Farland, his magic system really worked for me. I loved the Runelords magic, those things really sort of jump out and sing to me. And I knew when I got published if I got published some day that's what I wanted to do.

Q: What was the beginning spark that gave you the idea for Elantris?

A: The beginning spark was reading actually about people in the olden days who would be quarantined together because of their disease.

Q: Like the plague, stuff like that?

A: Yeah. Locked in a building because of the plague, or even leper colonies. Locked, forced to live only among other people with their same disease, and that would probably be the seed that made me want to write a book. Now I put it in a fantasy world because I wanted to tell a story about a magical disease. It started more as an undeath sort of thing and then evolved into a magical hybrid between leprosy and undeath that people could catch, and the story of what it's like to have to live with this disease. Almost a little big of wanting to tell a story that was a put-together the mystery the pieces of what made the disease in the first place. Maybe a magical version of Andromeda Strain or something like that.

Q: Yeah, that's what I like about it, because straight into the beginning you're in the guy's head, as he's trying to figure out what is going on and not taking the answer of we've got it and we're doomed sort of thing.

A: Ummhmm.

Q: How did you come up with the idea for the Mistborn series and did you know it was going to be a series from the start?

A: I did know it was going to be a series. When I was writing Mistborn it came because I had sold Elantris and my editor came to me and said what do you want to do next? Do you want to do an Elantris sequel? And I said, well, I really liked Elantris being a standalone. But I had this unique opportunity where the next book didn't have to be in for about two years, so wrote Elantris in 2003, it was coming out in 2005, that meant my next book had to be turned in in 2005. Two years time. I thought if I write really hard, I can finish an entire trilogy, before the first one has to be turned in, which would let me write a whole series and have it all work together, be internally consistent, and all these things. And so I did know it was a series from the beginning. The ideas are very big, it came from all over the place. I mean, one of the ideas was the desire to tell a story about a world where the Dark Lord had won. I love the classic fantasy stories, but I think that it's been done really well, and doesn't need to be done any more. Robert Jordan nailed it. I think, you've got Tad Williams, you've got Raymond Feist, David Eddings, you've got Terry Brooks, all trying, doing this hero's archetype journey. It's been done, it's been covered. What else can I do? And so the story where this hero went on a quest and then failed, and the Dark Lord took over, that was a fascinating idea. Another idea was my love of genre. The heist genre, where you get a gang of specialists who each have a different power, and I had never seen a fantasy book do that the way I wanted to. There are some that do it and do it well, but ...

Q: Everyone has their own skills.

A: Everyone had their own magic system. Every person, different magical power, got together and did something ... one of my favorite movies is the movie Sneakers, something like that, but with magic. Those two ran together with an idea for a magic system I'd been working on and an idea for a character I'd been working on. Vin's character. Those were all developed independently, all started to run together. I explain it like ... like atoms that sometimes run in to each other ...

Q: They form molecules.

A: There's a chemical reaction, yeah, they form molecules. And cool, different things happen when ideas run into each other and that's where those came from.

Q: Will there be any other stories or possible future books in the Mistborn world?

A: I always know what happens in the futures of my worlds, my stories; I don't always write those books. I think there probably will be, but it would take place hundreds of years after this trilogy. Or hundreds of years before. It would be a great separation of time and space. Would be more books set in the world, and not a continuation of the characters or sequels. I won't do that for a while. One of the authors who I really respect is Orson Scott Card. I like that he's able to do such different things, and new things, and he's not locked into it. He keeps writing Ender's books, in between you have all different sorts of cool things.

Q: Something else, fantasy.

A: Yeah. I really respect that. I would rather do that than be someone who's writing only in one setting, and so while you probably will see more Mistborn books, it's probably when I'm excited about them and I want to do something else for a while.

Q: It is a great honor to be chosen to complete Robert Jordan's Wheel of Time series. How were you chosen?

A: Yes it is. I got up one morning and there was a voicemail on my phone from someone that said, "Hello Brandon, this is Harriet Rigney, Robert Jordan's widow, I'd like you to call me, I have something to discuss with you."

Q: Never met her before?

A: I'd never met her before. I'd seen Robert Jordan once at a convention, but was too embarrassed to go up and talk to him. I had not applied or asked my agent to apply, or anything like this. I was known at TOR as a big fan of the series. I'd also written on my website some thoughts about what Robert Jordan's books had meant in my life, but none of it was really an attempt ... I assumed someone had already been chosen.

Q: Right. Do you know if you were the only one on the list?

A: I know there were others on the list. I'm not at liberty to say who they were, but that first call was just a 'would you be willing?'. So I said yes, of course. What I actually said was "a-blah a-blah a-blah." I actually sent her an e-mail the next day saying, "Dear Harriet, I'm not an idiot, I promise," I was just so surprised. And she then read Mistborn. She later told me, "I got just fifty pages into it and I knew." But then she kept reading to make sure. Thought about it for about a month. And she called me back. As I understand she didn't ever look at any of the other people who were being considered, she just ...

Q: Went with you.

A: Went with me. She really really liked Mistborn, so ...

Q: That's pretty great.

A: Yep.

Q: And Memory of Light comes out next fall?

A: November is the goal. Understand that there are a whole lot of different factors going into this. It will depend on how much editing it takes, how quickly I'm able to get the characters right. I'm going to work on it; I'm working on it more than full time. I'm pulling big long hours, I'm trying to get this done as soon as possible, but it also has to be the best book.

Q: Back and forth with you and Harriet?

A: Yeah, back and forth with me and Harriet. I will have the rough draft done probably by December. Right now it's October. But how long it takes to get the rough draft polished and perfected, that's the uncertain quality here. And so the goal will be November.

Q: You also have a children's series - how different is that to write for children?

A: It is very different. My children's series was written on a whim. I wanted to try something that was very different from my style, because I wanted to take a break. I wanted to try something new. It came in between Mistborn two and three. After I'd written the first two books straight through, I realized I needed a break to cleanse my palette, otherwise I'd be burned out on Mistborn three when I started it, and I didn't want to be burned out. I wanted to be excited and energetic about it. I took a break and I wrote a short several-hundred page book about a kid who discovers that librarians rule the world. And it was for fun, I wasn't doing it for market reasons. People said why did you decide to publish a children's book? Because I wrote a book that I loved, and I said hey I could actually publish this, I'm an author now. I do this for a living, so I sent it to my agent. And he said he really just loved it, and so he took it to book auction and it sold actually for a ridiculous amount of money. But it was done just for the fun of it, and so when I'm writing for children I do not write down, I don't think that's appropriate, but I do change my style. I keep things more snappy. And, you know, children are more forgiving. Epic fantasy has to be very internally consistent, and very logical, and I love that about the genre. But children don't care if you genre-bend a little more, or if you're a little bit more tongue in cheek. I was able to write a book that just didn't take itself quite so seriously. The Alcatraz books are funny. I think they're hilarious, they're meant to be fun. It's my take on one of my very rule-based magic systems, done in a lighthearted way. About people who have really ridiculous magical powers. Like Alcatraz's grandfather has superpowers, the ability to arrive late to appointments. And his cousin's magically good at tripping. It's about taking these magical abilities and twisting them and using them in cool ways. Like his grandpa will arrive late to bullets, and his cousin will trip to make really great distractions. And those sorts of things. So it's very fun, but the difference is more lighthearted and more fast paced.

Q: Have any of your books been optioned for TV or the big screen?

A: The Alcatraz series has been optioned by DreamWorks. I've had offers on Mistborn, I've actually had offers on Mistborn and Elantris, which we've turned down. We're searching for the right project to do it. If I get the right ... meaning someone who I think could really make it. We had people who offered on it before that I didn't think could actually make the movie. I had the feeling they were just trying to snatch up rights, to keep hold of them, and then hopefully could make it big and resell them later. They didn't seem like they were serious about making a movie. And fortunately I'm in the position in life where I don't have to just take the money. If someone offers me money, I can actually afford to say no. And in this case I said no. With DreamWorks, it's a great company. I love the Shrek movies, Kung Fu Panda, it was a great director, who directed Over the Hedge. And the producer was one of the producers on the Lemony Snicket movie. And I just thought that these guys can actually make a movie, they can make a good one, so we said yes.

Q: Do you have any interest in writing for TV or movies?

A: Hobbyist interest. They're such different skills, I would probably tackle a screenplay before I did, what do you call it for television, a teleplay. Because I'm more used to the single form like a novel rather than a serial form. I could see myself doing some screenplays in the future, but I would have to do a lot of practice and a lot of research. I wouldn't expect them to be very good at the beginning.

Q: What is your writing schedule like, and do you ever give yourself a day off?

A: Do I ever give myself a day off? Usually, if I give myself a day off, it's because I've just been killing myself. Going and doing book signings and things like that. I write to relax. That's what I do for fun. If I go on vacation I usually want to go on vacation to get away from everyone so I can write. It's just what I love to do. My writing schedule is usually ... most writers write twenty-four hours a day, I write twenty-four hours a day. I go to the gym, I'm thinking about what's happening with my next book. If I'm going to bed, I'm planning for the next day. When I get up, I check my e-mail, start writing. Most days, usually, formally, I write from about noon until four, and then I'll hang out with my family and do other stuff until about ten, and I'll start writing from about ten until midnight. No from about ten until 4AM.

Q: Wow.

A: And then I'll get up about noon. So yeah, sleep from about four until noon.

Q: Do you have any advice for writers looking to get published?

A: Yeah, yeah, a couple things. First one is read a lot. Read a lot in the genre you want to be published in. If you want to write short stories, read short stories. If you want to write novels, read novels. Read in the genre, but also read widely. But nothing is more frustrating that someone who says I want to publish fantasy novels, and has never read any. Find out what other people are doing that's exciting. And try and add something to it. The other thing is just write. Know that you don't have to be perfect when you start. Nobody sits down and expects to be able to play the piano the first time, but a lot of writers it seems get frustrated when they try to write their first book, that it's not capturing the vision in their head. Don' be afraid to be bad at it long enough to get good at it. Just sit down and start writing. Turn off your internal editor. Understand that your first book just isn't going to be very good, and that's just fine. Practice writing it, because that's how you'll learn to write. Do it consistently. Set a time every day or every week you write. Consistently keep that time or goal. Work on your books. Don't let yourself write a first chapter, throw it away, and write another one, throw it away, and write another one. Force yourself to finish.

Q: What do you like to read in your spare time?

A: Whatever ends up in my hands. Sometimes nonfiction, sometimes fiction. I love fantasy. I've been reading a lot of children's lately. Favorite author, right now, who's still publishing, probably Terry Pratchett. But favorite historical writers have been Robert Jordan, I really like Les Miserables, it's one of my favorite books of all time. I actually really like Melville.

Q: I like Moby-Dick.

A: A lot of people don't, but I really like Melville.

Q: Do you have any hobbies?

A: Yeah, yeah. It's actually a little embarrassing. I play Magic the Gathering, which is kind of the nerdiest game ever invented.

Q: Well that's not too surprising, considering George R. R. Martin started as a Dungeon Master.

A: Yeah. I do role play a little bit, but Magic is probably my hobby. I actually decided a few years back that I needed a hobby. I had to have one, because otherwise I would write all the time. And I needed something to balance out my life, so I dug out my cards from my youth and started playing again, got my friends back into it. We do it mostly as a social thing, it's really fun though. So there's my hobby, somewhat obviously, self-hatingly.

Q: Well I know Christopher Paolini makes swords and metallurgy, and stuff like that.

A: Yeah, I was on tour here, and someone actually just gave me a couple of cards, so. Brings out my complete inner geek when someone shows up and says, "Here's some cards for you." And I'm like "oooooww, I can't believe it, cards!"

Q: How is that you and David Farland keep doing book tours together?

A: We live about four hours apart. nd he is my former teacher, and sort of an Obi-Wan Kenobi. In a Qui-Gon Jinn sort of way. Hopefully not in an Anakin Skywalker sort of way. But I was the Paduan, I took one of his classes early on and we just get along really well, and I think that the publisher knows they can send us on tour together and we can take care of ourselves.

Q: And have fun together?

A: Have fun together. Keep each other company and it's pretty economical, because we'll share a hotel room and we'll share a car ride. TOR has said, every year when we ask if we can tour, they can say yes because they know all of those things.

Q: And for the last question: What's your favorite TV show?

A: Er ... Daily Show. Jon Stewart. I used to watch it with Craig Kilborn, and think it was the coolest thing ever, and then Jon Stewart came along, and I thought who's this poser? And he made the show like about forty times better.

Alex: It's how I get my news, usually.

Brandon: Yeah. Well, yeah, I love the Daily Show.

Alex: Thanks again for doing the interview.
Find out more about Brandon Sanderson and his projects; read his blog at BrandonSanderson.com; and listen to a podcast of this interview at Bookbanter.
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