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Interview with Brandon Sanderson

13 Nov 2015

In October, my all-time favourite author Brandon Sanderson visited the UK to promote the release of his latest book Shadows Of Self. During that time not only was I lucky enough to hear him talk at GolanczFest2015 and get several books signed, but I was also offered the opportunity to interview him in person at the beautiful Hachette offices in central London. For anyone who hasn't heard of Brandon Sanderson, he is a bestselling and award winning author of fantasy novels such as The Final Empire and The Way Of Kings and was chosen to complete Robert Jordan's The Wheel Of Time series after his untimely passing. Brandon also teaches some creative writing classes and runs the amazing podcast "Writing Excuses".

So one grey Monday morning I headed off down to the banks of the Thames for an experience I would never have dreamed possible. Armed with my trusty phone (previous experience has shown me to never rely on a Tascam for audio recordings) I managed not to fangirl too much whilst being introduced to Brandon before settling down to chat about his books. And by chat I mean that I mainly sat in awe completely enraptured by what he was saying whilst managing to occasionally squeak out some questions.

The below interview is entirely spoiler free as I wanted it to be something that everyone could enjoy regardless of which books they had read previously. So if you want to learn more about Brandon Sanderson's books, why he does what he does and much more then please read on.

***Note - the below text was transcribed from an in person conversation and has been minimally changed from its pure form***

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So, in your books, you always make up your own magic systems, your own creatures rather than sticking to more traditional fantasy element. You don’t just stick to dragons or traditional magicians and other things that already exist. So why do you choose to make everything up yourself rather than making it easier and going with what has already been created, and where do you get all the different ideas from?
I love a big fantasy – epic fantasy. I discovered it when I was a teenager and it changed my life, and I just absolutely love the genre.  I’ve read a tonne in the genre. And I have – I’m also an academic – I have a Master’s degree in English – and I’m very interested in the history of the genre and things like this. As a reader, I noticed I was getting a little bit bored. Particularly during the late nineties, with reading the same thing over and over. And it’s this problem that we come to fantasy as a genre because we want to discover something new; it’s about the sense of wonder and exploration, and the first books for a reader often are just very mind-blowing. They open our perspective up; they let us look at something very different from what we’ve seen before. But then if we read that too much more, we start to get – you know, we lose that sense. And certainly there are cool things about what’s familiar as well. We like returning to characters and things like that, but I think that the genre got potentially just stuck in a little bit of a rut. I think that what Grandpa Tolkien did was so revolutionary that we spent two decades as a collective genre kind of responding to Tolkien, and when my generation came along (you see I’m not the only one doing this, it’s kind of a movement of the whole generation I think) we’re responding to that. We’re saying, ok, we’ve explored this; we’ve explored what Orcs are and what dwarves are, and things like this. Instead of taking Tolkien’s world and doing something else in it, let’s step back and say “What did he actually do in creating all of this, and can we replicate that process, rather than just replicating the result?”. And this was a big motivation for me to start writing. I wanted to do something new. I feel like the fantasy genre should be the most incredible and amazing and different genre out there. It’s the genre where we can do anything. Even, to an extent, science fiction is bounded more than fantasy is, and so why not explore some different directions. Science fiction’s been doing this for years – for decades – taking us to very different locales, and I wanted to bring a little bit more of this to fantasy. Certainly there are other people who are doing this – China Mieville is a great example, and Brent Weeks and NK Jemisin. It’s a whole generation of us that are going in obviously different directions, we’re not doing the same thing but we’re all kind of responding and saying “What can we do that’s new?” And this is what excites me; this is what makes me really love the writing process, is going to these new places.
Where do I get my inspirations?  They’re all over the place – people I meet, articles I read. A lot of my inspiration comes from reading a story or watching a film and saying “Wow – they handled this one part of it really poorly. Can I write a story that takes that idea and goes the right direction?” Conversely, you know I watch something like – one of my favourite movies ever is Sneakers – it’s this old heist film with Robert Redford and it’s delightful – and I think “Can I write a story that’s a heist story in a fantasy world?”, taking something I love and mixing it with something else I love.  You see me doing that a lot as well. I kind of like just taking multiple things I love and sticking them in a brew  and shaking them up and seeing what pops out.
You mentioned before a couple of authors that do similar things, such as Brent Weeks, who's books I adore. Who are your favourite authors and what are your favourite stories that do similar things to what you do?
To what I do? You see that’s kinda hard, because a lot of my favourite stories are doing things that I’m not doing, that were just really revolutionary in helping me see fantasy in a new way. My favourite fantasy novel, favourite standalone novel, is probably “Tigana” by Guy Gavriel Kay, just because it’s one of those books I read where the narrative mixing with the magic mixing with the cultures is done in such a perfect way. But approaching what Guy does is not something many people can do, and I wouldn’t even say – I wouldn’t dare to say – I’m doing the same thing.  Certainly some of the things that he does, I’ve said “Wow! I would like to incorporate that in my writing.”  I would say right now the writers closest to me are Brent Weeks and Brian McClellan. They would be the most similar to what I’m doing – but I read very widely, and I mean I’ve read Naomi Novick’s “Uprooted” this summer and it’s fantastic, if you haven’t read that.
I mentioned earlier Nora Jemisin. I’m a big fan of her work – it’s very literary, very different from what I do. She approaches fantasy from a literary viewpoint – very Ursula Le Guin style, playing with perspective and viewpoint and narrative in really fascinating ways. So I have enormous respect for her and a lot of those people. The people who got me into fantasy were Barbara Hambly, Anne McCaffrey and Melanie Rawn. Those were the writers that really – that I read as a youth – that really pulled me in. And then Robert Jordan started writing “The Wheel of Time” about a year after I’d gotten into fantasy, and I just absolutely fell in love with that series. He started off very Tolkienesque, and then as the series continued he took these enormous leaps in other directions. It kind of led my whole generation kind away if that makes sense, off into different waters, so to speak.
In terms of a story starting off as one thing and then merging into something else, you kind of do that with Mistborn. It starts off as almost a heist rebellion series with fantastical elements, and then by the third book it’s something entirely different. Is that something that you do intentionally and want to do with all of your work?
What you’re noticing there is more me writing a story; I like it when my books have a defined ending. One of my pet peeves as a reader is when I get this awesome book, but it only feels like a slice of a story rather than an entire story, so you know my goal in Mistborn was for each book to feel like, packed into it, an entire trilogy’s worth of writing.
I love how each work as their own story, they all have a different feel, a different story, but then share a big overall arc and an epic adventure.
One of the tricks that I used for myself in writing that was, each one would have kind of a different sub-theme and a different magic they explored, and so you know, Mistborn 1’s a heist novel. It’s a fantasy: big heading; little heading: heist novel. Book 2 is fantasy: big heading, but now it’s political intrigue. It’s the suspense; it’s who is the spy among us, and can we make the politics all work?  And the third one is a war epic, again big heading: fantasy.
And this is just a way, I feel, to keep a series fresh. You’ll notice - actually, something who does this very well, are the Marvel films. The Thor films are all fantasies and the Captain America film, the first one, was a war film, and the second one was an espionage film, and they each kind of had their own feel. And they just did a heist in Ant Man. It’s like they understand you can’t just give the same exact feel with every story as it will feel bland, but if you can mix it up and say, ok, this one has a slightly different feel because of this reason, it gets us some more of that blending of the familiar and the strange together. It’s just – part of why we read is that we want something familiar, but we want something strange, and everyone’s kind of threshold of what they want of those two things is different. But for me, you know, I like a healthy balance.
So, one thing that’s quite a common theme in many of your books is quite a lot of them mention religion in some way, shape or form. So Mistborn has a really heavy element and quite a lot of the others as well – War Breaker very predominantly, Legion too – all of them really, to some extent. So why do you choose to tackle that? Something that can so often, for some people, almost be off-putting and can veer some people away. Why do you choose to do that and how do your own personal views reflect your writing?
So, I find that what I’m fascinated by gets into my fiction. That’s just very natural.  I’m not a writer who likes to seek a specific message in my writing – I like that to be a natural outgrowth of what the characters are interested in or conflicted by. But of course, what I am interested in and conflicted by spawns the characters in the first place. So, I am religious – for those who don’t know, I’m Mormon – and so I’m very fascinated by the ideas of religion, and often times, things like – you mention War Breaker – the idea of a God who didn’t believe in his own religion, was so interesting to me.
That’s just my favourite element of the book.
I had to, like, expand on that. What you find me doing is just trying to explore all different aspects of human experience, and throughout the history of humankind, religion has been one of our most important human experiences. And how we interface with the divine – the stories we tell ourselves, and what they mean to us, and things like this, it’s just– it’s part of human nature. And so you see me exploring this, you see me approaching it. And my goal as a writer is always to kind of try to attack things from as many directions as I can. I think the best discussions and stories and conflicts happen when you have multiple characters who are all very legitimately interesting in their own right on different sides of an idea, and so that’s what I try to do.
I think you succeed there, it’s one of my favourite part of your books is that sort of religious aspect, but they don’t push a message. It’s a lot of querying, all of the characters think, they have a lot of internal debate with themselves, which is always really interesting from a readers perspective.
So, one of my personal mandates is stories are about questions, not answers, and the best stories will make you think but won’t tell you how to think, and that’s just part of being human, exploring these questions.
So, in terms of your writing process, how long does it generally take you to come up with the idea, craft all of the world, start drafting, because I imagine it must take a while due to the depth of your stories. Lots of small hints in the first book which turn out all along to explain exactly where the story is going.
You know, there’s no rule of thumb on this. Some stories brew for decades. I can say that now because the first Stormlight book started brewing when I was 15, and I’m, you know I’m almost 40 now, so it has been brewing for decades. Other ones, you get that flash of an idea. Steelheart was like this. I had a flash of an idea and I knew there was a story there and I started working on it immediately. And there’s everything in between as well. I am a planner. I do like it when my plots all interconnect between the books. I can see things through the novels in interesting ways. That’s very important to me, just for my plotting.  But the thing is, books – the core of books is not the world or the plot – the core of the books is the character. Which is this weird sort of balance because, you know, as I said, we come to fantasy in the first place because we want something – it’s the world building that draws us in, and the plot and hooks are often, you know, the things that will be the most memorable– wow! you surprised me– punched me on the side of the face– I wasn’t expecting it. but the characters are what make us keep reading. And a book with a bad world but great characters is still going to be a great book, but a book with bland characters and a great world is going to be a boring book no matter how interesting some of the concepts are. And so it’s this thing where I can plan the world as much as I want, and the plot as much as I want, but once I start writing, the characters, who they develop to be, will often require rebuilding both of these things to match, and letting the character be in charge. Which is more along the lines of– I’m not one of these people that feels like, you know, it’s all mystical. It’s more like, letting my own subconscious drive these characters in certain directions, and allowing myself the flexibility to rebuild around them is– that’s gotta be the most important thing for telling a story, I feel.
So do you find that your original plan for a book might change as you’re writing the characters?
It will, it will. You know, it’s rare that it changes really drastically. Most of the time – and I’m getting practiced at this now – what happens is that little things change here and there. I rebuild certain plot arcs, certain character arcs, certain themes, based on what’s developing. If the character’s just completely out of alignment with the book, that’s when I step back and say “should I just put a different character in here and save this character for a different story?” And often times I’ll cast, you know, I’ll start the first chapter of a book 3 or 4 times, looking for the right voice of the character who’s going to be the main character of that story (It’s happened with Vin in Mistborn) until I find one that matches the story that I want to tell, and then I’ll go forward with it.
So how many characters did you go through to get the lead for Mistborn?
I had 3 Vins. It was the third one that worked.  I posted one of them on my website so that people could go read that deleted scene.
One final question. Do you have a book and a character which has been your favourite to write?
You know, it’s a great question. I don’t really have one.  It’s like all my characters are my children, and I love them all for certain reasons, and I’m tired of them for certain reasons, and so I don’t pick favourite books or favourite characters. It’s whoever I’m writing at the moment.
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Thank you so much to Brandon Sanderson for doing this interview and also to all the people at Gollancz for making it happen, particularly Lucy from The Book Belle.

If you have read some of Brandon's books before then I hope you found this interview as fascinating as I did and if you are new to his books then what are you waiting for! The Mistborn trilogy is my favourite, but if you would prefer a standalone novel then both Elantris and Warbreaker are incredible full-length reads.

I can second many of the books that Brandon talks about in the above interview. In particular Uprooted is really quite fantastic and also has the most beautiful cover - if you live in the UK that is. Brandon's website is an amazing resource as he posts a lot about writing, has lots of deleted scenes, creates annotations to his tales so you can see what he was thinking at every moment, and even has some free reads. Following on from the original Vin deleted scene mentioned above, one of my favourite posts charts the progression of how the first chapter of The Final Empire changed from the first draft and is a fascinating read for numerous reasons.

Meeting my number one favourite author was an amazing experience that perfectly rounded off my unplanned September to October reread of all of his books and I hope he comes back to the UK again in the future.

2 comments:

  1. I love Brandon Sanderson and I've never read any of his books. Lol. I'm not a huge fantasy reader, but I have a few of his books on my Kindle in case I ever am in the mood for them. I listen to his weekly podcast, Writing Excuses, and that's how I've gotten to know him the past few years. He gives great writing advice there. This was a great interview! You must have been so excited!

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