With The Way of Kings (Canada, USA, Europe, AbeBooks) just a few weeks from being released, the folks at Tor Books inquired if I'd like to be the first one to get a crack at a Q&A with Brandon Sanderson to help promote the book. And since our WoT interview last spring turned out to be quite interesting, I decided to invite the gang for an encore!
Once again, my partners in crime were Adam (http://www.thewertzone.blogspot.com/), Ken (http://www.nethspace.blogspot.com/), and Larry (http://www.ofblog.blogspot.com/). And once more, I have a feeling we came up with something particularly good, if I may say so myself!
Special thanks go out to Brandon Sanderson for taking some time off his busy schedule to indulge us! And thanks to Justin for extending the invitation!
- With THE WAY OF KINGS about to be released, how well-received as the novel been thus far? Are you pleased with the advance praise and reviews?
So far so good. As with any book, there are some reviews that just make me happy and dance on the clouds, and there are others that are still good reviews but make me think, “Oh, they didn’t quite get it,” or that sort of thing. Asking an author or an artist about reviews is an interesting process, because we all want everyone to love everything that we’ve created, but not everyone is going to. It’s hard, even as a writer, to judge what people are saying. So far it looks really good. We’ll see.
I do think that this is the best book that I’ve written, but I also think that there are some of my readers who are not going to like it as much. With every book that I write, I do something different. The Mistborn books felt slightly different from ELANTRIS; WARBREAKER felt slightly different from the Mistborn books. This newest book feels slightly different again. There are some readers who are going to wish that I were doing shorter, more fast-paced stories rather than longer, more epic stories. I will write more books like that later on, but this book is the book that I wanted it to be. I’m pleased with it.
- The folks at Tor Books appear to be keeping you on a very tight leash ever since you accepted to complete Robert Jordan's magnus opus. Working on The Wheel of Time and The Stormlight Archive (a ten-volume saga) certainly means that you are juggling countless balls simultaneously. Add to that the fact that you are a teacher and a family man, with all that it entails. Are you concerned that keeping such a harsh schedule might at some point prove to be too much and hinder the creative process altogether?
Yes. Which is why I’ve decided to slow down. This last year was a very hard year, and it’s something I did to myself by deciding that I really wanted to do THE WAY OF KINGS right now. I felt this was the time that it needed to be released. But now I get to slow down, and I’m not going to be releasing two epic fantasies a year from now on. This is the end of that. I’m going to focus on finishing the Wheel of Time right now, and then I won’t have to juggle all of those balls anymore.
When you describe it like that it looks a lot more impressive than it really is; when I teach, I only teach one class one night a week, for one semester--four months out of the year. It’s not like I’m a professor. And I don’t have a commute, which means that I can still work fourteen-hour days some days (twelve hours has been more common), yet spend a significant amount of time with my family. But I don’t have to do that anymore. It was a really hard year. It really pushed me. I think both books turned out fantastically well, but if I had kept up that schedule, my writing would have begun to suffer. From now on I’ll be working at a much more modest pace.
- THE WAY OF KINGS is a book that you have been planning for a very long time. Is the finished book close to your original vision or has it altered significantly in that time, with the influence of your other work, particularly on The Wheel of Time?
I would say yes, it has altered significantly. Eventually I’ll be able to release the previous version of THE WAY OF KINGS so people can see how. It’s really kind of odd; I can now almost see it as a parallel world, with several important deviations that branch out and create spiraling different stories. In some ways it’s very similar. Dalinar’s character is essentially identical with who he has always been, yet Kaladin and his story have transformed extensively. Szeth is essentially the same person. Shallan didn’t exist in the previous draft; she’s new to this one. Some things are the same--the world, the history--and yet some things are different. The characters are more complex and have more depth now, and that certainly was influenced by the Wheel of Time. I think I’m better at foreshadowing, which something else the Wheel of Time influenced.
- Do you think that the process of working on The Wheel of Time and The Stormlight Archive almost simultaneously has been beneficial to your writing of the two series, with influences from one creeping into the other?
Yes and no. I never write new material on more than one book at a time. I will be revising one while I’m writing new material for another, which really helps me keep my brain divided, if that makes any sense. It’s good to be influenced by Robert Jordan’s genius; it’s bad to let themes and tropes from one book creep into the other. So I’ve tried to keep those things separate. Yet at the same time, who I am as a writer influences what themes and tropes I put into books. I do think people will be able to notice similarities in some of what I’m doing, in the same way that you can notice similarities between others of my books. Hopefully there is a larger gap because the Wheel of Time is Robert Jordan’s rather than mine. I would say that there is an influence, but not an unhealthy amount.
- Your solo adult novels have these recurring elements such as the character of Hoid and references to the Shards. In MISTBORN, ELANTRIS and WARBREAKER these elements are minor and more along the lines of easter eggs, but they seem to be more prominent in THE WAY OF KINGS. Can we expect these elements to be expanded on further in future Stormlight books? Will we find out Hoid's full story in this series or are you holding off on that for now?
I will mostly RAFO that. Yes, it will continue. No, you won’t get a lot of it. The Stormlight Archive will not be about the story behind the story, though someday I will write a book series about that. There are basically two large epics in the greater sequence of books I’m writing, and the Stormlight Archive is one of them. There is another one, and both of the large epics will have certain amounts of influence from Hoid. Other books will be written that will not have nearly as much influence. But I’ll go ahead and say that Hoid’s origin story is not in the Stormlight Archive. That’s not what this series is about.
- The settings of your novels often seem to be something quite different. It seems the majority of fantasy are basically earth with magic and maybe some cool animals to go along. THE WAY OF KINGS just feels different (and the MISTBORN books for that matter) – harsher, darker, almost like what we would like call a wasteland. How and why did you create the world THE WAY OF KINGS in this way? The landscape of the Shattered Plains is especially unusual and evocative. Was it inspired by the landscape of the American Midwest?
The Southwest, particularly. My visits to places like Arches National Park, relatively close to where I live right now, certainly influenced me. More than that--and I’ve said this in numerous interviews before--I’m a fantasy reader foremost. Before I was a writer I was a reader, and I’m still a reader. As a reader, I grew a little bit annoyed with the generic setting that seemed to recur a lot in fantasy. I won’t speak poorly of writers who used it very well--there are certain writers who used it extremely well--and yet a lot of other writers seemed to just take for granted that that’s what you did. Which is not the way that I feel it should be done. I think that the genre could go many places it hasn’t been before.
When I approached writing the Stormlight Archive--when I approached creating Roshar--I very consciously said, “I want to create something that feels new to me.” I’m not the only one who does this, and I’m certainly not the one who does it best, but I wanted a world that was not medieval Europe. At all. I wanted a world that was its own thing. I started with the highstorms and went from there. To a person of our world, Roshar probably does look barren like a wasteland. But to the people living there, it’s not a barren wasteland. This is a lush world full of life. It’s just that what we equate with lush and full of life is not how that world defines it. In Roshar, a rock wall can be a lush, vibrant, and fertile place. It may look like a wasteland to us, but we’re seeing through the eyes of someone who’s used to Earth’s flora and fauna. I’ve also said before in interviews that science fiction is very good at giving us new things. I don’t see why fantasy shouldn’t be as good at doing the same. Perhaps even better. So that’s what was driving me to do what I did.
- In ELANTRIS and MISTBORN it felt more like the world was there to support the story and characters, but outside the locales the characters were in little was revealed about them. THE WAY OF KINGS feels much more expansive, with a vast continent packed with different cultures, races, religions and so on. Was this simply a natural development of needing a world that could support ten long novels, or was there some other motive in making Roshar so much more detailed?
I’m going to reverse-engineer your question. When I wrote ELANTRIS and MISTBORN, I intentionally kept the world more sparse. The goal particularly of MISTBORN was, “I’m going to take an epic fantasy story and condense it into three novels.” The focus for me in those novels was plot. Of course I wanted to have great characters and great magic, but there was more of a plot focus, and I didn’t want the world to distract. It was a conscious decision in MISTBORN.
When I sat down and wrote THE WAY OF KINGS, the plan from the start to do ten books influenced how I approached the world. But really, the world of Roshar is such a big part of the story, and of the history and the mysteries of the series, that I wanted it to be full and immersive. Immersion was one of my main driving forces. With MISTBORN, one of my main driving forces was to keep it moving. I hope THE WAY OF KINGS still feels fast-paced, but it’s a thousand pages long, twice as long as MISTBORN. A lot of that extra space is dedicated to fleshing out the world and making it feel like a real place, because that’s very important for the series. When I write a book, I look at what the book needs and what is required by the story I’m trying to achieve. Another valid element is that when I wrote MISTBORN, I was a newer writer. Writing THE WAY OF KINGS, I’m more experienced. I think I’m better at making this sort of decision now, and I felt I could tackle in this book the sorts of things that I couldn’t achieve in MISTBORN.
- On several fantasy forums, there have been discussions of "black and white" characters and your name sometimes is mentioned as being one who creates "black and white," good/evil characters. What I'm curious about, however, is how do you think of your characters' traits when you develop them. Are there characters that you think, "well, this 'evil' character has this motivation' for acting like a jerk," or is there something else behind these character creations?
I would certainly say I do black and white more than someone like George R. R. Martin does. I would hope that I’m not doing directly black and white, but...this is a hard question for me to answer because I’m not sure that I look at it this way. I don’t look at characters as evil or good; I just look at them as who they are and what their motivations are. I personally don’t feel that I generally write all-evil characters, though if I look at it rationally from an armchair English major standpoint, I do tend to write very noble characters. Nobility is something that fascinates me, and something that I think we could use a little more of in our world. So I’m straying fairly often into the good, though I don’t see any of my characters as entirely evil. Hrathen was not evil; the Lord Ruler was not wholly evil. I don’t even look at Ruin as particularly evil; Ruin was a force of entropy, which is its own different thing. In this book, I would say there is a presence of evil that is on a higher level. Is Szeth evil? Well, I don’t know. Is the person pulling Szeth’s strings evil? Yes, by most definitions I think he would be called evil, but he certainly doesn’t see himself that way. I could point at him and say, “You are doing the wrong thing,” but he would not agree with me. I’m not trying to moralistically say here is black and here is white; I’m just telling stories about the characters I want to tell stories about.
- In your previous fantasy series, you had one main character or plotline, with only a few secondary characters and subplots. But here in THE WAY OF KINGS, you expand this to three main plotlines and dozens of secondary characters. Was this division of the book into three main protagonists rather than just a single "lead" something that you had intended from the first draft, or did this story division develop over time and many drafts?
With how long this book has been around, it’s hard to say what was in the first draft and what wasn’t. If we look at THE WAY OF KINGS PRIME--the book I wrote back in 2003, then tossed aside and rewrote to create this book--I did have quite a strong multi-character focus. It’s always been something I wanted to do. I actually scaled back a little bit for this draft. In the previous version I used six main characters; there was another character who has not yet appeared in the new version, and Jasnah was a main character with as many viewpoints as the others. It was too distracting, too much to juggle. So I pulled back a little bit. But to me, this series is not about one person. That’s just how I conceived it from the start, and that’s what I want to do with it. That will continue.
- Over your previous books you've developed a reputation as the 'magic system guy'. Was it therefore a deliberate move to hold back on the magic in THE WAY OF KINGS, at least compared to your earlier books?
Yes, it was. That’s a very astute question. I’ve written a blog post that I’m not satisfied with, but that I’ll probably be revising and posting very soon, that is going to talk about this. When I finished the Mistborn trilogy and WARBREAKER, I felt that there were a few things that were becoming Brandon clichés that I needed to deal with. I don’t mind being known as the magic system guy. But when I become known ONLY as the magic system guy, that worries me. It isn’t that I sat down with this series and said, well, I’m gonna show them, I’m not going to do a magic system. But when I planned this series, it was not appropriate for me to shoehorn in a lot of the magic system in book one. Though my agent suggested that I do just that. He said, look, this is what you’re known for, this is what people read you for; if you don’t have this it’s going to be glaringly obvious. My response was that I would hope that story and character are what carries a book, not any sort of gimmick--well, gimmick is the wrong word.
Something that I pondered and wrote about a lot--just to myself--is that MISTBORN was postmodern fantasy. If you look at the trilogy, in each of those books I intentionally took one aspect of the hero’s journey and played with it, turned it on its head, and tried very hard to look at it postmodernly, in which I as a writer was aware of the tropes of the genre while writing and expected readers to be aware of them, to be able to grasp the full fun of what I was doing. And that worried me--that was fun with MISTBORN, but I didn’t want to become known as the postmodern fantasy guy, because inherently you have to rely on the genre conventions in order to tell your story--even if you’re not exploiting them in the same way, you’re still exploiting them.
For that reason, I didn’t want to write THE WAY OF KINGS as a postmodern fantasy. Or in other words, I didn’t want to change it into one. And I also didn’t want to change it into a book that became only about the magic, or at least not to the extent that WARBREAKER was. I like WARBREAKER; I think it turned out wonderfully. But I wanted to use the magic in this book as an accent. Personally, I think it’s still as full of magic as the others, but the magic is happening much more behind the scenes, such as with the spren I’ve talked about in other interviews, which are all about the magic. We haven’t mentioned Shardplate and Shardblades, but those are a very powerful and important part of the magic system, and a more important part of the world. I did intentionally include Szeth’s scenes doing what he does with the Lashings to show that there was this magic in the world, but it just wasn’t right for this book for that to be the focus. I do wonder what people will say about that. I wonder if that will annoy people who read the book. But again, this is its own book, its own series, and in the end I decided that the book would be as the story demanded, not be what whatever a Brandon Sanderson book should be. As a writer, that’s the sort of trap that I don’t want to fall into.
- The issue of faith, religious or otherwise, is often a theme in your writings. How has faith influenced your life and development as a writer?
Another very astute question. I am a person of faith. It’s been interesting for me, in my life, to be a person of faith and also a person of reason. I have a science background; I like to ask questions; I like to think about questions. I think everyone has to find their own balance in this area. Some people decide they’re going to be reason only, and some people decide they’re going to be faith only. But I think there can be a balance, and I try to find my own balance in my life. I feel it’s one of the most engaging and interesting aspects of life. It leads to a lot of pondering, a lot of thinking, and a lot of personal development. It’s mostly just me finding out where I’m going to let faith reign and where I’m going to let reason reign, and whether I have to let one be suborned to the other.
Faith is very important to my life. It’s very important to my worldview and my philosophy. I believe that throughout the history of mankind, for the vast majority of people faith--or reacting against faith--has been important. I’m fascinated by the different ways people deal with it. I had in the Mistborn series a notable agnostic character, and I really wanted to have an atheist character in the Stormlight Archive. Whenever I approach something like that I try very hard to give that character the arguments that a person with their worldview would give that character if they were writing the book. I don’t want to write books that exist simply to prove certain characters wrong. I include such characters because they fascinate me. You end up, hopefully, with a range of people in my books who approach faith in different ways--because that’s interesting to me, and I hope it will be interesting to readers.
- What can readers expect from the second volume of The Stormlight Archive? Any tentative title or release date?
I originally had titled the second book HIGHPRINCE OF WAR. I’m not sure if I will keep that title, depending on who its central character ends up being. With the Stormlight Archive, I am playing with the form of the epic fantasy novel in a way that’s very exciting to me that I haven’t done since ELANTRIS. If you read ELANTRIS, the form of that book was very important in how it developed, with its chapter triad system. This books in this series also have a very specific form. Each book will focus on one character. That character will get flashbacks exploring their past, to show you how they arrived where they are. But the book will progress the narrative for everyone. For instance, this book was Kaladin’s book, and you got flashbacks for him. He will appear substantially in the next book, and you’ll have lots of viewpoints from him, but it will be someone else’s book and that character will get flashbacks. Each book will have one central character, with two or three major characters who have no flashbacks and not quite as much screen time--characters like Dalinar and Shallan in the first book, and to a lesser extent Adolin and Szeth.
The other thing that will continue is the interludes. I really enjoyed including those in the book; I’m not sure what people will think of them, but most of them are essentially going to be short stories set somewhere in the world, that enhance the main narrative and show different aspects of the world without forcing you to follow yet another plotline. They’re just quick one-offs. You’ll see those between parts in all of the other books.
Tentative release date? I have to finish A MEMORY OF LIGHT first. I don’t know how long that will take to write. In a perfect world, which is probably not going to happen, the ideal case is that I’m able to finish A MEMORY OF LIGHT by around August of 2011, whereupon it gets published in November 2011 and I start Stormlight Two January of the next year and it’s ready for publication in November 2012. That would be the ideal situation. I often do manage to hit the deadlines in ideal situations, but I’m not making any promises on this one. I’m thinking 2012 spring is more likely for A MEMORY OF LIGHT, but we’ll see.
- SFF authors such as Robert Jordan, George R. R. Martin, and Steven Erikson have all had problems keeping an adequate momentum over the course of long series. Looking forward and knowing that there are pitfalls associated with writing fantasy sagas of epic proportions, how do you plan to avoid this as you progress with The Stormlight Archive?
That is a wonderful question. The people you mention are brilliant writers whose skill and mastery of the genre I’m not sure I can ever get close to matching. I’ll just put that out there. I do think, having read their work and seeing what they’ve had to do--I mean, if you look at something like the Wheel of Time or A Song of Ice and Fire, these authors have had to do this without a lot of guidance. When Robert Jordan wrote The Wheel of Time, there were no fantasy epics of that length out. There were trilogies; we had David Eddings’ five-booker, but those were all much shorter than what The Wheel of Time became. There was just nothing like what Robert Jordan was doing. George R. R. Martin was kind of in the same boat. They’ve had to do this without examples to follow. What I have going for me is that I’ve been able to watch them do it--and as you said, watch them hit those pitfalls (and admirably do great jobs of crossing them)--and hopefully learn from their example. The main thing that I feel I need to do with this series is keep the viewpoints manageable. What Martin and Jordan both ran into is that the more viewpoints you add, the more trouble you get in, because when you get to the middle books you’ve got so many characters that either you have a book that doesn’t include half of them, whereupon you have the latest George R. R. Martin book, or you do what Robert Jordan did famously in book 10 of the Wheel of Time, which is to give a little bit from each viewpoint and progress none of them very far. Which was also very problematic. Both of those solutions were very wonderful things to try, and I’m glad they did them, but what this says to me is, “Keep your viewpoints manageable.” So that I won’t run into that problem as much.
Another big thing I’m doing is that I’m trying to make sure each book has its own beginning, middle, and end so that it is a complete story when you read it. When I would read the Wheel of Time as just a fan, and get only a small sliver of the story, it would be very frustrating. When I reread the Wheel of Time knowing and having read the ending, it was a very different experience. I didn’t feel a lot of the slowing and the frustration, because I knew the ending, and I knew how long the book series was. So if I can give a full story in each book, I think it will help with that.
The last thing I’m doing is this idea of the flashbacks for each character. I think that each character getting a book will fundamentally change the form of the epic fantasy, which will allow each book to have its own story without having to do something like Anne McCaffrey did, in which main characters in one book wouldn’t have viewpoints in later stories. I think that made for a wonderful series, but for me it detracted a bit from the series’ epic scope. I knew that if I read about a character, I wasn’t going to get that character again, ever, and there was something sad about that. I don’t want this series to be like that. Kaladin will be very important to the rest of the series--in fact, he’s probably going to get another book, so he has two.
Hopefully the books will remain epic without having that drag. We’ll see if standing upon the shoulders of giants as I am will help me to approach this in a different way.
- Okay, you knew they were coming! Did you really think you could get away with not answering at least one WoT question!?! And no, you can't RAFO us! THE GATHERING STORM impressed through its tight thematic focus on Rand and Egwene's tribulations and what they went through to resolve them. You've said that TOWERS OF MIDNIGHT has been a tougher book to write due to its more expansive nature and larger cast. For you (and avoiding spoilers!), what was the biggest difference in the writing process for the two books, and the biggest challenge?
The biggest difference is that in THE GATHERING STORM I took two tight narratives and built them both to an enormous crescendo. In TOWERS OF MIDNIGHT I had to make each chapter have more of an impact. In TOWERS OF MIDNIGHT is there are these amazing scenes, chapter after chapter--BAM BAM BAM , this incredible scene you’ve been waiting for, this other incredible scene you’ve been waiting for, this majestic scene you’ve been waiting for--but at the same time we’re showing the scope around the world. Now, the book has one of those tight narratives that builds to an enormous crescendo that I’m very pleased with. But a lot of the rest of the book is this sequence and that sequence and this sequence and that sequence, so it’s a very different book. Book twelve felt more like books one, two, and three to me. Book thirteen feels like books four, five, and six. This expands the vision and goes back to places we’ve been before.
It was a wonderful process. I actually think that TOWERS OF MIDNIGHT is a better Wheel of Time book than THE GATHERING STORM was. But it made for a much more difficult write, because tying all of these elements together was a big challenge. Tying two narratives together is challenging, but then suddenly when you have eight narratives and have to make sure that they thematically work together, and all of that, is that much more of a challenge.
We’ll see what readers think. In these books I am particularly beholden to the Wheel of Time fans. I feel these books are for them. So I won’t really know if I’ve been successful until they read it. But I feel very pleased with the book.
- As the overall story arc is nearing its conclusion and a panoply of plotlines are approaching their culmination in TOWERS OF MIDNIGHT, is there added pressure for you as A MEMORY OF LIGHT draws nearer and you need to close the show with a bang?
Yes. You phrased that very well. I don’t know if I can add anything more to that; you’ve got it. Now, the nice thing to keep in mind is that I don’t have to write the ending. The BANG 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 is just wonderful. So at least I don’t have to worry about that. But I do have to make this the best book that I can possibly write, and it’s going to be a challenge. It’s part of why I’ve decided that I have to slow down, as I said earlier, and just take my time on this one.
- Setting out to complete The Wheel of Time following Robert Jordan's death had to be a daunting endeavor for you. Which facet of this undertaking did you believe would be quite difficult and in the end turned out to be easier than you had envisioned? By the same token, which aspect of finishing the series turned out to be a lot harder than you ever believed it would be?
I thought it would be much harder to get the characters’ voices down. That was the part I worried about, and if you read my early interviews, I talk a lot about that. And surprisingly, it was not nearly as difficult as I thought. There are certainly a few characters I struggled with more than others. But in this book, TOWERS OF MIDNIGHT, I think our character voices are spot-on. That actually comes from Jason from Dragonmount’s interpretation of it--he said that he believes it’s really just on. And that makes me feel good.
What has been harder has been keeping track of everyone. I thought I was steeped in Wheel of Time lore before I started these books. No, I wasn’t. When people on tour asked me questions I realized how ignorant I am, despite having written and studied as much as I have. I know a lot--it’s like I’ve got a Master’s degree in the Wheel of Time, but there are people out there with postdoc experience who are completely showing me up at every step of the way. Keeping track of everything is a real challenge. I’ve described before the way I approach this. Essentially, when I get ready to write a scene from a character’s viewpoint, I dump everything into my head that I need, and I try to write all of those scenes in the book for that character while maintaining all of that knowledge. Then I dump it out and get everything ready for another character. That’s the only way I can do it, because there’s just so much to hold on to.
- Anything else you wish to share with your fans?
I’m hoping people enjoy the Stormlight Archive. Hop over to my website for (hopefully) a few posts about the book and why I wrote it the way I did. Thank you for supporting me.