From Modern Mythcraft to Magical Surrealism

Feature Interview: Brandon Sanderson

Brandon Sanderson has had an eventful last few years. In addition to his continuing (and growing) success as a fantasy author in his own right, he was famously selected to complete the seminal epic fantasy series The Wheel of Time, after Robert Jordan’s death in September of 2007. Brandon is the author of ten novels and counting (not including the Wheel of Time novels). In this interview, I asked him to talk about his projects both current and future, including the Wheel of Time, and got him to give me some of his thoughts on writing fantasy and science fiction in general.

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Tell me a little bit about the new Mistborn book, Alloy of Law [coming out in November 2011]. It seems like the story arc of the original Mistborn trilogy (The Final Empire, The Well of Ascension, and The Hero of Ages) was well resolved by the end of the third book. So in what direction does this new one go, if you can say without spoilers?

Well, one of the things that bothers me about a lot of fantasy is that the worlds are strangely static, like we invent all sorts of contrived circumstances to keep them from progressing naturally, because we want stories of a certain type. What we do in fantasy, this kind of idealized time period, in literary terms we call it uchronia. Which in some ways is fun, but it’s not very realistic.

I envisioned a series in which there was real progress. There are books that have done it; the Wheel of Time did it, for example, with the introduction of steam power [into a medieval/Renaissance setting], but I wanted to do a story where I wrote a trilogy which explored a fantasy world, and then do other books years later where that fantasy world has now progressed, and its technology has progressed, so that it’s now almost more of an urban fantasy world. You know, write urban fantasies in a setting where the mythology and history are things you saw take place in the first part of the series.

So you see not just the life of the characters, but the life of their entire world?

This really interested me, because I’d just never seen it done quite the way I wanted to do it. And that’s often where my books come from—I find a place where the genre maybe hasn’t been explored fully, and I get really excited. And so I pitched my editor a series where the first trilogy is an epic fantasy series, and then years later an urban fantasy series, and then years after that a science fiction series, all set in the same world. And the magic exists all through, and it is treated differently in each of these time periods. And that’s what Alloy of Law is: looking at the Mistborn world, hundreds of years later, where society has been rebuilt following the events of the third book.

The analogous time period in our world [for Alloy of Law’s setting] would be about 1910, but that’s not really very accurate, because in the Mistborn world there are certain things they’re much better at—metallurgy, for one, obviously—but they’re very poor with communication, because everyone’s very concentrated in one area, so long-distance communication is just not one of the things that’s very important to them. So it’s not a one-to-one correlation. But electricity is starting to be installed in homes, and steam power is used quite extensively.

It sounds to me like it almost might be described as steampunk.

It has one toe dabbling in steampunk, but I don’t call it that because while there is magic and technology, it’s not quite the same. The steampunk genre has a certain Victorian feel to it; there’s an air that makes something steampunk, and this isn’t quite that.

So anyway, it’s the story of a man who lives in the frontier lands, and comes back to the big city because he’s inherited lands and a title. And he has certain things in his past that make him feel it’s time to leave his old life and come to a new one. And the goal here was not epic scope; with The Way of Kings on one side I didn’t want that. This is more a mystery/adventure, and I think it’s really fun.

So the plan is for this to be another trilogy?

I do have another epic trilogy planned for this world in a more modern era, but this is not that. This is actually a sort of side story I decided to start telling. I don’t want to be doing multiple big epics at once, and between The Stormlight Archive and The Wheel of Time, I’ve already got two I’m working on, and that’s enough. With this one I decided to do something a little more action/adventure and a little more self-contained. So Alloy of Law is not the start of a trilogy, though I may do a little more with the characters, but in general the story I wanted to tell is told. So it’s a standalone much the same way Elantris is.

And what is The Rithmatist? Can you tell me a little about it?

The Rithmatist is a YA novel I wrote in 2007, right before the Wheel of Time deal hit me like a freight train. And because I was so busy with that, I didn’t have time to get back to The Rithmatist and play with it, and I’m only now getting to the point where I’ll be able to do some revisions and things, because I’ve been breakneck these last few years and we’re only now slowing down a little. Tor’s going to publish it, but the release is probably a few years off because of the workload involved with the Wheel of Time.

But it’s a really fun book. I wrote it when I was supposed to be working on other things back in 2007, and it’s actually gearpunk—which is not steampunk, but more Da Vinci-era technology, extrapolated hundreds of years into the future. It’s very whimsical; it’s about a boy who goes to magic school, which you’ve seen before, except that he doesn’t have any magical powers, and it’s not something you can learn in this world. He only gets in because his mother is a cleaning lady who works at the school, so he gets free tuition.

So he goes to get a world-class education, but he doesn’t go to the magic classes, just all the other classes. It’s like a private school that also happens to train wizards. I don’t want to get too much into it, but the magic is chalkboard-based; you draw these very elaborate designs that do certain things, and you kind of duel with it. It’s kind of like playing magical chalkboard Starcraft, in a gearpunk world, told through the eyes of the unmagical son of the cleaning lady. It’s very fun.

Tell me about your series The Stormlight Archive, of which the first book, The Way of Kings, was published last August. What’s the motivation behind writing this story?

The Stormlight Archive—you don’t grow up reading the books I read, such as the Wheel of Time, without wanting to tell a big epic, and this is kind of what I always wanted to do, to have my own big epic. It’s what I love to read and so it’s what I want to write. So I’ve always planned for The Stormlight Archive to be very big, and hopefully meaty and weighty. I started writing about the characters as long as two decades ago, and I finished the first draft of The Way of Kings in 2002, so almost ten years ago now. So it’s a series I’ve been working on for a long time.

I think you’ll find that most authors have series like this; for Robert Jordan it was The Wheel of Time. And people have asked me if I want this to be my Wheel of Time, but that’s a very difficult comparison for someone to make. What I want is for this to be a great story, hopefully told really well; it’s a story I’ve been wanting to tell for years and years. And time will tell how that turns out.

What are your plans for the series as a whole?

It will be multi-volume; I pitched it to Tom Doherty [of Tor Books] as ten books, and I envision it as being a project I work on for a very long time, and try to do these audacious things I’ve wanted to do forever.

It’s very art-intensive, and very different from the other books I’ve done; it incorporates some of the other things I’ve liked to do from other books, but at the same time it’s its own thing. So I view as something awesome that I want to be working on for a long time.

When is the next book in the series coming out?

I’m planning the second book to be done following my finishing the Wheel of Time, so it will come, but it will probably be a little while.

So let’s talk about the other major epic you’re involved in, which of course is the Wheel of Time. How do you feel in general about the way the series is going? Are you pleased with the reception of The Gathering Storm and Towers of Midnight (the twelfth and thirteenth books in the series, respectively)? Are you confident that it’s going the way you want it to go?

Of course I’m very pleased at the reception of The Gathering Storm and Towers of Midnight, because when I first started working on this, I had visions of Wheel of Time fans burning down my house.

(Laughs.) Well, Wheel of Time fans are very hardcore! I actually received a number of very politely phrased threats, with a little smiley at the end. You know, you’re just not sure how to take the “I’m very glad someone’s finishing this. By the way, if you screw it up I’ll burn your house down. Smile smile, wink wink, we’re all behind you!” So the fans can be really daunting, and working on this was really daunting for me, since I’ve been reading these books since I was a kid. But I’m very pleased to not have had my house burned down.

I’m still very aware of the mistakes I make, and I’m also very aware that this is not my series; this is not me, it doesn’t belong to me. And every time I make one of these mistakes, it reinforces the idea that these are Robert Jordan’s books, and I’m a last-minute pinch hitter. I’m not someone who sauntered in to take it over and make it his own.

So am I pleased? Yes I am, but at the same time there’s still that sense that I’m doing something that I wish didn’t need to be done, which leaves it as a very weird situation still. I’m very happy that, in general, people have liked the books, and I am sad to have failed those who felt that they don’t work, because there are those who my efforts are not going to be enough for. But overall, the reception has been very positive.

But I wouldn’t say I’m confident; I don’t think this is the sort of thing I can be confident about. Though I suppose I can be; I’m confident that I was the right choice, that if someone was going to have to do this, that I was the right one to pick. And I’m confident in the storytelling choices I made, yet at the same time I know that I don’t 100% belong here.

So it’s a very hard question for me to answer for those reasons, but I hope that what I’m doing and what I’m striving to do with this last book will get the story to the closest way that Robert Jordan would have done if he were here. And I just hope we can all get the ending we want to read.

In one of the essays on your website, you discuss what you called Sanderson’s First Law of Magics, which is “an author’s ability to solve conflict with magic is directly proportional to how well the reader understands said magic.” And from there you used that to define “soft” magic systems as opposed to “hard” systems, and the ways in which each kind uses its magic to resolve story conflict.

Right, though one thing I should mention is that I’ve since added the word “satisfactorily” to the law: The ability of the author to solve conflict satisfactorily with magic is directly proportional, etc. I think that’s an important distinction to make.

So given that, can you discuss the magic system of the Wheel of Time in terms of your law? Robert Jordan’s “channeling” seems like a pretty hard magic system to me.

Robert Jordan’s magic system is both hard and soft. It’s similar to, for instance, the Harry Potter magic system, which I personally think is quite well done. Of course, I do think Jordan’s system is overall more consistent and a much better magic system. This is partially because of the strength of its limitations; for instance, that male channelers go mad, and the chance of burning yourself out with channeling, make it for a much more interesting magic system narratively. The “going mad” thing is basically the best limitation that I’ve ever heard of in a book series.

People like Tolkien, for instance, didn’t explain a lot of the magic, and so what the magic could and couldn’t do leaves you with a lot of that sense of wonder, so there’s something to be gained on that side from not explaining. Jordan, I would say, is about on the seventy-five percent mark toward a more hard, rigid magic system, and it actually tends to work really well, but you’ll notice that he liked to introduce new elements to the magic quite haphazardly—you know, suddenly someone is able to do this. It happens actually pretty frequently in the series as new things are being rediscovered.

Balefire, for example, is manifested quite spontaneously by the characters to solve little problems, and then it becomes a tool to solve bigger problems later on. Just like in a lot of storytelling, in the first third of the story, you will often have a dynamic rescue by a character the reader or audience didn’t know existed, and this is not a terribly satisfying resolution, but that’s okay because in the first third of a story, you’re not looking for satisfying resolutions, you’re looking for satisfying introductions. That’s kind of what the nature of storytelling is. So when the new character rides on screen and saves the heroes in the beginning of a story, and it’s the old friend of the hero who they didn’t know was in town, it becomes a very nice introduction for that character; we like that character, we’re interested in him, and it can work very well.

In the same way, a character manifesting a power in the beginning of the story that kind of comes out of nowhere to solve a minor problem, is a satisfying introduction, but not a satisfying resolution. And then later on when a major character gets brought back to life by balefire, because it’s used in a way that the audience could anticipate, suddenly we have a very satisfying resolution of a conflict, using a magic that we’re familiar with.

It’s the difference between Han Solo saving Luke by getting him off Tattooine by just kind of haphazardly being there in the right place at the right time, and then Solo coming back at the end of the movie to save him. In the first case, he just kind of drops into [Luke and Obi Wan’s] laps, but that’s okay because we’re introducing him. And then he comes back at the end to save them after great foreshadowing of all the changing he’s done as a character, and we love it.

It’s a Chekhov’s gun kind of thing.

Yeah. One of the big complaints about fantasy as a genre is that “oh, that’s the genre where just anything can happen, and so there’s no tension.” People complain that it doesn’t matter what the characters do because they can always be saved by some magical whatnot. And that’s actually a very poor way of looking at it, because if you think about it, regardless of what kind of fiction you’re writing, you can always save your characters with a handwave.

Even if you’re writing in “the real world,” a character can win the lottery, and suddenly all their poverty problems are taken care of, or someone can suddenly dramatically change their mind and fall in love with the heroine when they weren’t expecting to. Whatever it is, you can always just handwave to fix a problem. It’s not a thing that can be relegated only to fantasy. The challenge in fiction is to make all of these things feel satisfying, even though in some ways they are a wave of the hand. And that’s how I look at magic systems.

So it seems like it’s less of a magic law and more of a plot law.

Exactly. And all of the laws I’ve come up with, which really aren’t laws—they’re quite arrogantly named, I realize—have more to do with just good storytelling than they have to do with magic, but I framed them in terms of magic because people always ask me how I invent these magic systems. Well, I do that by trying to make them good storytelling devices.

Sanderson’s Second Law is that limitations are more interesting than powers. And this extends more deeply than in just magic, but if you look at magic, what magic can’t do is going to be more interesting to your readers, and more useful to you as a writer, than what the magic can do. This is why channeling [in the Wheel of Time] tends to be such a great magic system, because the limitations are very well-executed; it’s the part of the magic that shines the most.

But this is ultimately all a plot issue, because what a character can’t achieve, whatever is holding them back, is generally more interesting than what they can achieve. This is just kind of a general storytelling principle across the board.

Are you still teaching creative writing at Brigham Young University?

Yes, I am. I teach an upper division class on how to write fantasy and science fiction one night a week, one class a year. It’s an evening class, and I do it partially for fun and partially to give something back to the community. I took this class when I was at BYU, and it was very helpful to me in getting published and coming to understand the industry. And so when it looked like the class might end up getting canceled, I said I would teach it.

I think there’s a lot of useful stuff you can learn in a class taught by someone who does the work professionally. You can’t learn strictly from academics. Academics teach a lot of great things, I learned a lot of things in my creative writing classes, but someone who’s in the real world as a writer can tell you things that an academic can’t, so I think it’s very useful for new writers to get both perspectives.

What are your thoughts on conventions like JordanCon (The Wheel of Time convention)? Do you enjoy them?

Well, I really like hanging out with fans. I don’t particularly like the traveling part. I’m not one of those who absolutely loves going places, though I do like having gone places. Generally what happens with any sort of travel is, I’m excited when I say yes, and then as it approaches I start to dread it more and more, and I think of all the stuff I need to get done and the hassle it’s going to be, and then I get there and have a blast and really enjoy myself. I like meeting all the fans. And then I get home and I’m exhausted and I think to myself “why did I decide to do that, I have so much to do now, it’s all piled up!” And then another one comes along and I get excited and say yes again.

So I do enjoy them, and I especially enjoy the Wheel of Time ones, because I get to see a lot of the same people over and over, and it’s much less emotionally exhausting to be meeting old friends than it is to be meeting new people. So I’ve come to really enjoy JordanCon a lot.

Obviously you intend to continue with The Stormlight Archive once you’ve finished The Wheel of Time series. Are there any other new things on the horizon that you’re thinking about or looking forward to?

I’ve always got dozens of things that I want to do. The ones that end up getting done really kind of depend on the spur of the moment, what I’m feeling, what’s exciting to me right when I actually have the time to work on it. I think I’ve got my plate pretty full right now, so any other projects would be pretty far off. So this probably isn’t the time to talk about them. I mean, I’ve got a couple of fun little things in the works, that I write here and there on the break points, but I don’t really want to talk about things until I know when or if they may actually get published. (Laughs) I’m busy enough with the official projects.

13 Responses »

  1. I feel the same way as Brandon, I like the idea of traveling places, and having been places, but all the traveling and flying and driving gets old real fast.

  2. Awesomesauce. Thank you, Leigh and Brandon, for doing this interview. It covers a great range of common (current for Autumn, 2011) questions, and keeps the magic going for me, a fan.

    Thank you both.

  3. What a great article. An enjoyable insight into a writer I’ve come to respect more and more.

  4. Thank you for clearing those up. NOW GET BACK TO WRITING YOU SLAVE!!!! :D dont worry I won’t burn your house down, BECAUSE YOU DON’T HAVE ONE! ;D

  5. Thank you for the interview Leigh & Brandon. The flow was wonderful and easy going while still creating an interesting dialogue.

    This is the first time I’ve read an interview of yours, Leigh, and I look forward to more.

  6. I cannot wait to read Alloy of Law. Seriously. I’ve read the trilogy twice, and i am dying to learn more about the land formerly known as the Final Empire. You rock, Brandon!

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