Thursday, December 23, 2010
Author Interview: Brandon Sanderson
Brandon: I started doing this early in my career before I got published, when I felt that writing sequels was not a good use of my time. Just look at the hypothetical; if I’m trying to get published and I write three books in the same, if an editor rejects book one, he or she is not going to want to see book two. But if an editor rejects book one but is optimistic about my writing, I can send them a book from another series and they can look at that.
During my unpublished days I wrote thirteen books, only one of which was a sequel. So I had twelve new worlds, or at least twelve new books—some of them were reexaminations of worlds. But I wanted to be writing big epics. This is what I always wanted to do; something like the Wheel of Time. So I began plotting a large, massive series where all these books were connected, so I could kind of “stealth” have a large series without the editors knowing I was sending them books from the same series. It was mostly just a thing for me, to help me do the writing I wanted to be doing. And then when publication came I continued to do that, and told the story behind the story.
Why not do separate worlds? Because it was more interesting for me this way. This is the story I want to tell. The big, overarching story that I’ve planned out. I’ve been talking recently about how my inspiration for this is the idea that in science people have for a long time been looking for a unified theory of physics, some theory that will explain all interactions of physics in a concise way. I wanted to tell about a universe where there was a unified theory of magic, where magic worked according to a unifying principle. Despite the magic systems looking very different and doing lots of different and interesting things, hopefully original for each book, there is an underlying rationale that is keeping them all together. I write what I find interesting, and that was interesting to me.
Scott: How hard was it to write the last 3 books in the Robert Jordan series? Inevitably, there would be those that criticized your work no matter how good it was just because it wasn’t written by Jordan.
Brandon: I've said myself that I could never replace him—Robert Jordan should have been the one to finish the series. My main goal in writing the books has been not to imitate him, but to stay true to the souls of the characters. I think of it as taking over as director for a few scenes of a movie while maintaining the same actors and script. I can be proud of my role as director, but ultimately the end result still belongs to Robert Jordan—and to his fans. Part of me is sad that now I can’t just be one of them; I didn’t get to rush out and buy and read a new Robert Jordan book this past November like they did.
When I was first offered the project, the fact that I could never write these books as well as Robert Jordan would have written them tempted me to decline. I knew that no matter what I did, it would not be the same as what could have been. I don't believe the books could be as good written by anyone else as they could have written by Robert Jordan. And so that was the main consideration for potentially saying no. But in the end, I decided if I did say no, and someone else got the book and screwed it up, that it would be partially my fault.
I honestly and sincerely believe that I am the person who can do these books the best now that Robert Jordan is gone. I would rather he be here to write them, but if he can't be here to write them, I want to do it myself because at least I know they're in the hands of someone who has been reading them for decades and who sincerely cares about the series.
Scott: How much time would you spend writing on a typical day, (if a typical day exists for a writer that is)?
Brandon: A basic writing day for me: I get up at noon or 1:00, depending on when I went to bed. I play with my son for about an hour, giving my wife a break. Then I go downstairs for four or five hours, check my email, write for a while, go up and have dinner, play with my son some more, then go back down and go back to work until I’m done for the night. The last couple of years have been pretty much a lot of me with my laptop on my couch or in my beanbag chair writing books.
Scott: Your battle systems are both complex and innovative. In writing these scenes, was a significant amount of research necessary, and did you encounter any difficulties when writing the sequences?
Brandon: It depends on what I was trying for in the various different books. For instance, in Mistborn, I wanted the battle sequences to be very personal. One-on-one, allomantic fights, or one-on-small group.
As a novelist, feel that I need to approach action sequences differently from how movies approach them. In a film you can watch Jackie Chan going through this marvelous fifteen-minute blow-by-blow fight, but I think that in fiction the same thing written out descriptively would get very boring. I can't compete with movies in that regard. So I try to make my action sequences character-driven and problem-solving-driven, as well as how the magic system works. I look at what resources the character has, what they are trying to achieve, who they are and how that influences their actions.
For The Way of Kings it was a little bit different in that I was trying to do large-scale warfare, and in that case I needed to look to historical accounts and research and read up on how actual battles played out. Something that gave me a bit of leeway was setting the battles in scenery like the Shattered Plains. One of the reasons I did that is because it's fantastical scenery that couldn't exist in our world, at least not in the same way, and it therefore allows me to exercise my fantasy worldbuilder muscles as well as my historical warfare muscles, such as they are. Putting all of that together let me create scenes that are hopefully unlike anything others have written or that my readers have read.
Scott: You have really broken the mould and steered away from the usual races of the fantasy genre, is there any major reason why you avoided the standard tropes, such as elves and orcs?
Brandon: A couple of reasons. Those are really two questions. Why did I avoid the standard tropes? For a long time I've felt that epic fantasy has relied too much on Tolkien, who did a wonderful job, but I feel that rather than doing what he did by creating races and mythologies and worlds of our own we've in some ways allowed ourselves to be strongly influenced by him and relied on some of the work he did. In other cases those tropes have just been overplayed and overdone by people who were very good writers and knew what they were doing. I certainly don’t want to point any fingers at people like Stephen Donaldson who wrote brilliant books making use of some of the familiar tropes from Tolkien, but one of the things to remember is that when he did that they weren’t familiar tropes. They were still fresh and new. The same can be said for Terry Brooks. I'm sure if I were writing back then that's what I would have done too, because we were still exploring the genre and trying to decide where it was going to go and what epic fantasy was and meant. But I feel that I belong to the generation after that. There was the generation who relied a lot on Tolkien and the generation who grew up reading those authors' books, and a lot of us in my generation of writers seem like we are reacting against the previous generations by saying, "Okay, that's been done, and you did a good job. Where else can we take this?" I have no interest in writing about elves or dwarves or any of these things that have been explored for the last four decades in intricate detail. I want to go my own directions.
But personally, why do I include the races that I include? I’m just looking for interesting things that complement the story that I’m telling. The races in The Way of Kings come directly into the story and the mystery of what’s happened before. If you pay close attention to what the races are, it tells you something about what’s going to happen in the future and what’s happened in the past. It’s very conscious. This is just me trying to explore.
I feel that epic fantasy as a genre has not yet hit its golden age yet. If you look at science fiction as a genre, science fiction very quickly got into extrapolating very interesting and different sorts of things. Fantasy, particularly in the late ’90s, feels like it hit a bit of a rut where the same old things were happening again and again. We saw the same stories being told, we saw the same races show up, we saw variations only in the names for those races. For me as a reader, it was a little bit frustrating because I read this and felt that fantasy should be the genre that should be able to do anything. It should be the most imaginative genre. It should not be the genre where you expect the same stories and the same creatures. If we want to approach the heights of great storytelling and take it a few more steps so that we don’t just copy what Tolkien did, we do what Tolkien did, which is look to the lore ourselves and build our own extrapolations. This is playing into what I like as a reader and my own personal philosophies and hobby horses, but it really just comes down to what I think makes the best story.
Scott: What are you reading at the moment and who are your favorite authors?
Brandon: At the moment sitting on my shelf next to be read is The Wee Free Men by Terry Pratchett. I also have a manuscript of Variant, a novel by a friend of mine, Robison Wells, which will will be coming out in a year or so from Harper Teen.
Favorite authors, in no particular order: Robert Jordan, Terry Pratchett, Victor Hugo, and Dan Wells. The list really depends on my mood at the time, who I’ve been reading a lot of recently. There are many authors from whom I’ll love one book and not be as blown away by their other novels. Here’s a sampling of single books I think are fantastic: A Fire Upon the Deep by Vernor Vinge, Dragonsbane by Barbara Hambly, Tigana by Guy Gavriel Kay, and Sabriel by Garth Nix.
Scott: What advice would you offer to unpublished writers in approaching publishers for the first time?
Brandon: A couple things. Start working on something new while you're submitting what you've finished. That would be my number one rule--always be working on something new. Don't depend too much on just one story. Secondly, do more research than just getting out the Writer's Market book, looking up what publishers publish, and submitting to them. Instead, actually take some time to learn about those publishers. If you can, find out the names of the editors who work there, read their blogs, find out who they are and what authors they've worked on. Try to really understand the vision of every publishing imprint, and figure out what it is that they like and try to match your books to their books. Make sure you're reading their books and finding the ones that are the best matches. But other than that, just keep on going.
Scott: Do you have a passion for short stories and have you had many published, and if so, what market did you send them to?
Brandon: I've had two science fiction short stories published, Defending Elysium in Asimov's Science Fiction and Firstborn on Tor.com. Both of my short stories are quite long, a bit shy of 15,000 words, and are technically novelettes. I can't compress my thoughts any farther. I guess I'm just a novelist at heart. That's the form I've practiced, and writing short stories is a very different art. I'm constantly in awe of what great short story writers (like my friend Eric James Stone) can do with just a few pages.
Scott: Thank you very much for your time. I look forward to your next book.