Photography: Jorge Quiñoa
(Versión en castellano aquí)
Before starting the interview, the writer Brandon Sanderson (Nebraska, 1975) has lunch with his collaborators of Team Sanderson Spain and chats about Gaudí, chocolate with churros and the fact that Spain is the country with most fans in continental Europe. His epic fantasy novels include battles, death and some apocalypse or other, but on the whole they are optimistic stories full of honorable characters, from Elantris to the Mistborn saga or the Stormlight Archive series, consisting of ten huge volumes with two already published. He’s also written middle-grade novels (Alcatraz), young adult (The Reckoners, The Rithmatist), comic-books (White Sands), novellas (Legion, The emperor’s soul) and stories complementing videogames (Infinity Blade). It looks like he’s always doing something. We have a long chat (“Will this be a long interview? I love long interviews!) near the Arch of Triumph in Barcelona. After taking some pictures he goes full speed to a six-hour signing marathon in Gigamesh library.
This is not your first time in Barcelona… In 2006 you came here to pick up the UPC Science Fiction award for Defending Elysium. I liked very much your speech… You opened it saying that you consider yourself more a storyteller and entertainer than a classical writer, so to speak. Do you think that in the literary world the value of entertainment is underrated?
I do. In fact, the value of emotion is underrated in the literary world, and this was what the speech was about: that not only ideas are important, but also emotion. The power of a great fantasy story is to combine good ideas with something exciting. My wife makes every morning a smoothie for our children, and in the smoothie she puts spinach to make it green, because they love green, but also because spinachs are good for their health. If you read a fantasy book that is exciting, enjoyable, and makes you feel a lot of emotions, plus you insert some interesting ideas that make you think, you can have a bigger effect on the world than if you pile all this ponderous ideas that are difficult to approach into a story.
Terry Goodkind said once that he didn’t write fantasy, but “histories that have important human themes”. J.K. Rowling also said that it didn’t really occur to her that Harry Potter books were fantasy books, and that she didn’t read fantasy. Why do important fantasy writers try to disown fantasy literature?
I don’t know, it really baffles me and bothers me… Perhaps too much. I’ve been overly critical of some of these authors in the past: Philip Pullman has said similar things. I don’t think they were trying to be insulting… I would refer your readers to Terry Pratchett’s wonderful rebuttal on J.K. Rowling about writing fantasy. I think that there is some sort of institutionalized feeling in our minds that fantasy can’t be real literature. Completely inaccurate, completely untrue, but we perpetuate in in the genre when authors say that they don’t read fantasy even if they write it. It’s like a doctor saying “I don’t read what other brain surgeons do. I made it up and now I do brain surgery“.
It doesn’t inspire confidence…
It’s hard to criticize other authors, because they come from different areas, but I would hold up as role models people like Neal Stephenson, Terry Pratchett and Ursula K. LeGuin, who are very proud of their fantasy heritage and have spoken openly about how they love the genre and what it can do. Reading what Ursula K. LeGuin has written about this makes you feel proud as a fantasy reader.
There is a situation that seems to appeal to you narratively speaking: throwing a good person into hell and describe his efforts to turn it into a better place. Kaladin in Bridge Four, Raoden in Elantris… What do you find interesting in these kind of scenarios?
When we are put in extreme circumstances we often reveal the most about ourselves. And contrary to what a lot of people think, there are many examples in history that in those extreme situations we exhibit our best qualities. Instead of running away and acting selfishly, most people hold together when something really terrible happens. We see the best of humanity at some of its worst moments, which is a very a big contrast. I wouldn’t want anyone to have to go through that, but in fiction we can write stories where we examine how human beings react to extreme situations. I am an optimist. This is not to say that pessimistic fiction is bad, in fact a lot of my favourite fiction is pessimistic. My favourite short story is Harrison Bergeron, by Kurt Vonnegut, and it’s wonderful, but hugely pessimistic. But we each pick a style, and I want to show in my writing that there is something inherently good inside of human beings, and we will strive to keep being good. We’ll be more unified in the face of trouble! You will see that popping time and time again in my fiction.
Do you think that positive messages in your books end up having a positive effect on your readers?
We certainly like to think this way, as writers. I don’t know… It might be a little arrogant of me to say that my fiction is making the world a better place or is making people better, but at the same time, fiction I read made my life better. The book that made me a fantasy writer, the first book that pulled me into fantasy was Dragonsbane by Barbara Hambly. This is a book about a middle-aged woman who has been told that she can be the greatest magic user ever. Her teachers say that she is wonderful, but she needs to concentrate on the magic learning. She also has a family, and she can’t dedicate herself entirely to her magic because of her family. At the same time, my mother graduated first in her class in Accounting, in a year where she was the only woman in the accounting classes, and she always had this bouncing between career and family. She did even took time off of her career to stay with his kids when I was very young, and as a teenager I thought “OK, that’s what mothers do”. But then I read this book when I was fourteen or fifteen years old, and I kept thinking that the protagonist should be spending time with her magic, and ignore her kids to learn the magic! And when I was done with this book I felt I could understand what it’s like to have a midlife crisis as an adult, and to have to choose between career and family. Reading a fantasy book about a dragon and then understand my mom better improved the world, improved my world. And that’s the greatest power that fiction has, helping us understand other people, see through their eyes.
You wrote a lot of manuscripts and even full novels before selling your first book. Could you speak a bit about those years? What did the publishers say, what kept your hopes up against rejection letters…
It was hard. You’re gonna love this: what the publishers kept telling me was: “Can you make this more like George R. R. Martin?”. At the same time, though, they were telling me that my books were too long. But George R. R. Martin books are huge! The hardest point in my career came as I finished book number twelve… I wrote thirteen before I sold one. Books number eleven and twelve were my attempts to be more like George R. R. Martin, with gritty anti-heroes, dark and grim fantasy… That’s not a natural fit for me. Some writers do a fantastic job of it, but for me: person thrown into hell but inside of them there is the light of hope, they are good people in a bad situation, that’s what I excel at. So my two grim and shorter books were very bad books, and I got discouraged, thinking that I was never going to be able to do this for a living. And the big thing that I decided then is that I absolutely loved what I did as a writer, and I realized that if I get to age ninety and die with a hundred and twenty unpublished books in my closet, I would think of myself as a success… More of as a success than if I give up. I just had to keep doing this. And at that point I sat down and I thought “I’m gonna write the biggest most awesome epic fantasy ever. People say that my books are too long, well then: they’re gonna be longer! Full of all kinds of weird things and characters!”. And I wrote The Way of Kings, book number thirteen, and with this book I was flipping the bird at the entire publishing industry. The next year I sold Elantris. It is really good that I went through that moment of deciding to do what I wanted to do because I loved it, rather than chasing what people told me to do.
After selling Elantris to Tor, some of your unpublished novels started to get publishers. Did you rewrite some of them, like with Mistborn PRIME? Are you still using some of that material?
Yes, I’m still dipping in there now and then. Most of them have been cannibalized for their ideas, but Dragonsteel, for instance, will someday get rewritten.
I was surprised that in Mistborn annotations you say that you can email that first version of Mistborn to whoever asks…
I prefer White Sands and Aether Night, which are better… So when people write I point to them. But yes, I’m perfectly happy to send my early books when requested, as long as they know that they are not great books.
You acted as editor for the semipro magazine The Leading Edge during your student years. What did you learn about writing there?
I learnt about avoiding cliches by reading a whole bunch of bad writing, but I also learnt about what makes a good story. A great story among all the awful ones shone like a nugget of gold in the dirt, so I would try to find what made that story great. Why we all loved it while the hundred stories before that didn’t grab us? It was very illustrating to me.
Did you receive good advice from professional writers during your formative years?
Katherine Kurtz and David Farland sat me down and gave me all kinds of great advice. I wouldn’t have gotten to where I am today without the advice of writers who took time during a convention to talk to me, or engaged a class in my university. This job is mostly done on your own by writing and practicing, but a little mentorship can go a long way to help you out.
And now you teach creative writing…
Most of the things I do I just have to put them online, as I can’t read and give advice on enough individual writing. I do workshops in my class, though. People who really want me to read their writing can fly to Utah, get accepted by the university and take my class. It’s a big hurdle, I’m sorry, but…
You enrolled Brigham Young University as a biochemistry major. Why did you choose that discipline?
I’ve always been fascinated by physics, chemistry and all branches of science: if you read my books you will find lots of those ideas there. The trouble is that I loved the ideas, but I hated the busywork. When I had to sit and view pages of calculations I was always wrong and I didn’t enjoy it. I enrolled because my mother made the point that getting a good job as a chemist would leave me lots of time for writing… She was pushing her baby boy to be realistic, but it turns out that being realistic was bad for me.
Some writers have tried to mix science fiction and fantasy, like Margaret Weiss and Tracy Hickman in the Darksword final books. How do you think that fantasy and science, being so different, can coexist in a story?
You mentioned Darksword, which is the Shadowrun approach: magic and science are two different paths and you have to choose one or the other. But in the Cosmere, my shared universe of books, magic is another branch of physics. And I fully admit that I sacrifice a little of the sense of wonder for being able to rationally approach the magic, for having magic that follows a scientific method. Magic full of little weird oddities, like science itself is, but scientifically-based at its core. This is just the way my brain has to approach it. If I could suddenly do something magical and reproducible, I would think that we don’t understand science well enough to explain why it happens.
That’s the idea behind the Sanderson Laws about hard and soft magic…
Yes, it is! Those got translated to Spanish by a magazine, I’m very pleased that they did that.
From 95 to 97 you served as a missionary for LDS Church in South Korea. What do you remember most about that experience?
Of course there are the powerful religious experiences that come with that, but if you want one thing I remember: it was the first time in my life being the minority. A privileged minority, but still the minority. And I think that’s so good for a person, particularly a white kid like me from the Midwest of America, to go to a place where you are the one who everybody looks sideways at. Learning to be part of a new culture and to see things in a different way was invaluable for me.
Terry Goodkind has been accused sometimes of letting his own political philosophy to pervade too much his books, particularly the last ones. Do you consider that a danger for fantasy writers, using their worlds as political metaphors, as a way to carry a message or an agenda?
People should be free to use their writing tools however they want to use them. I would lump Terry Goodkind with C.S. Lewis and Philip Pullman, all of whom had stories and messages they wanted to bring to their fiction. In my own writing I take more of Tolkien’s philosophy. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis were friends, in fact Tolkien converted C.S. Lewis to christianity, so they were both very staunch christians. But Tolkien felt to tell a story and let it stand on its own, with people drawing what they want of it. I fall more into that camp. I don’t want to say that people like Terry Goodkind should not write what they want. Of course they should! But when I write I want to tell a story about powerful characters who disagree, where there are good characters with good arguments on all sides, because I think we approach truth through discussion. When you tell me your ideas, I tell you mine and we actually listen, we both walk away thinking “maybe I’ve been wrong and I can evolve my thoughts”, or “maybe I’ve been right, but I need to expand my thinking to approach to what other people believe”. That’s how we get closer to the truth, not by doggedly repeating the same thing over and over again. I remember a story from my mission, when I was in Korea. There was a buddhist monk from a sect that required them to beg for their food. And so he was quietly drumming in the street and bowing to everyone who passed by. And there was a christian missionary from a faith I won’t mention holding a big sign saying “BUDDHISM IS HELL”. And that image always struck me. Because when I would ask buddhists if I could talk to them about my religion, a lot of them would friendly listen and say “oh, Jesus Christ was a great buddha”. That is someone reaching across to shake my hand so we can exchange teachings of people that meant a lot in our lives. And I always say, whatever I do I don’t want to be the person holding the sign, whether it’s religion or politics. How much further would we get if, instead of holding up the sign, we just sat down next to this priest and ask him about his life and beliefs. That image is burnt into my head. And actually Hrathen from Elantris came from that person holding that sign. That was my inspiration for where he came from. He’s actually my favourite antagonist, because I understand him so well: there is a part of me that could easily have become that person with the sign.
I have read you describing yourself as a believer, but also a man of science and logic. How do you reconcile those two approaches to life?
There is too much of a faulty belief in society these days that science and religion don’t have a part with each other. Classically, all of the great scientists were also theologians! In America, there is a small political group who seem to want to claim the religion as theirs; only they can say that they’re religious. That belief is also faulty. Religious people are on all sorts of sides of all arguments. Personally, I believe that God is a God of miracles and the natural world that we study is the way that things happen unless God interferes. Something like evolution is the way that world is, it’s a fact, and God creating people, a miracle, is a violation of natural law. Saying that evolution is not real is like trying to pretend that the Red Sea automatically parts, periodically, on its own. God has created science. God has created the world and has given us brains, so our job is to do the best that we can to understand the world and search for answers. My belief in faith comes from feelings in my heart. That is my reconciliation: that feelings in my heart are my connection to a Father in Heaven. I believe in them. I have to be willing to accept that maybe they are confirmation bias. My logic brain says that maybe that’s what it is, you feel that feeling because you think you should feel that feeling. But so far the only cartesian experience that I can say definitely as my own is my personal feeling and the way I see the world, and I have to accept that. When I read Scriptures I have a religious experience, I feel a feeling I don’t feel at other times, and that I’ve taken, tentatively, as my proof of a God. I’m willing to continue to explore the world and is possible I can be proven wrong and I’ll change my mind, but this is what has made me believe.
My favourite character in Mistborn is Sazed, who is interested in a lot of different religions. I see something similar in your writings, bits and pieces coming from different belief systems, like the Surgebinding tree being visually similar to the tree of life of the Qabalah. How do different religions impact your work?
I love looking at how do we interact with the divine, and I’m fascinated with what is spiritual versus what is part of our tradition. And what I’m fascinated by ends up in my books. I feel that my books are my search for answers, but I don’t like giving people answers, though. I like characters who ask lots of questions. I like people who approach religion from different ways. I wanted Sazed to be the voice for all forgotten religions, for those who could no longer have a voice for themselves. I hope that my explorations on religion mean something to the readers, but I suspect they will mean something different for every reader. I get a lot of emails from people saying that I must be an atheist, because I wrote Jasnah, the atheist in Stormlight, so well… I always take that as a big mark of pride for myself. I’m writing because I want to explore the way different people see the world. When someone has a belief system, I want to treat it well in my books. I hate it when I read a book with a character who believes like me and is treated like an idiot who has to be proven wrong. I don’t want to express someone’s beliefs in my book and then have that person be the idiot, if that makes sense. Not to say that there can’t be people on all sides of the issues that are wrong, but I want to express people’s beliefs accurately, the way that they would argue.
There are some LGBT characters in your books (Ranette in Wax and Wayne, for instance). Does the fact of being LDS influence in any way how do you present those characters?
My philosophy is to be extra careful that I counter any bias I might have that I might not be noticing. To make sure that LGBT characters are well represented I ask gay people that I know: “Is this working? Am I approaching this right?”. I have to trust in them. It’s important to me, because a lot of religious people seem to want to ignore that lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people exist, which I think is inherently evil. It is immoral to banish an entire group of people, and to pretend that they are not good people with good arguments, and lives and passions. To not represent that in my fiction would be something deeply immoral. I’m not sure if I’m the right person to tell the gay story appropriately, but I certainly should do everything I can to make sure that gay people are represented, because otherwise I would be lying to the world.
Robert Jordan’s widow asked you to finish The Wheel of Time books, after reading an eulogy you wrote to RJ and the first Mistborn book. What do you think that she saw in your writing?
I can answer this for her so it’s not too arrogant for me to say… She felt the characterizations were so vivid that I could do justice to the large number of characters in the Wheel of Time.
Now that A memory of light has been out for three years, have you been listening to the reactions of the Wheel of Time fandom? Are you satisfied with them?
There are of course things I would change: the big one is that I think I dropped the ball a little bit on a character called Padan Fain, didn’t quite stick the landing with him. There are little things like that I do wish I had done better, but on the whole I am satisfied and I stand behind what I released. One thing I hear from fans is if I am going to do more Wheel of Time… And the answer is no. Robert Jordan was very uncomfortable with people writing books in his world, and he was very hesitant to even let anyone finish his series. So, when I picked this up, Harriet asked my opinion on this and I said that we should not do more than finishing the series as he asked to be done, just because I don’t think I could write anymore without it becoming me instead of him. I don’t have control over Wheel of Time, and if Harriet asks somebody else to write more, I would be completely behind her… But I won’t write anymore.
All epic fantasy writers are at some point compared with Tolkien… For instance, early Robert Jordan feels very Tolkienesque. How do fantasy writers deal with Tolkien’s shadow?
Tolkien founded epic fantasy, and he did a very good job: we are still trying to figure out exactly some of his methods and ideas. So I don’t really consider Tolkien’s shadow, I think we stand high and proud upon the peaks of Tolkien, because of the foundations he gave us.
In The Wheel of Time some aspects of gender relationship are affected by the way that the magic is divided between men and women… How do you think that fantasy literature can help explore different dynamics in gender relationships?
We can do it better than anywhere else. Granted, there are great books in all genres, but in fantasy and science fiction this is our specialty: the ability to take a real world issue, bring it into a fantasy world, and in so doing distill it down and get out what makes us tick. Robert Jordan has a world with female privilege and that can be really weird and off-putting to read for someone raised in a society with the inverse, male privilege. The general reaction that can be seen online is that the women in Wheel of Time are hated, considered as belligerent and bullying… Whereas if all that women had been men, they would have been considered a diverse and interesting cast of men! Jordan managed to pull something very interesting of there.
Also in your Stormlight books there are gender role differences: men don’t know how to read, only women study science…
For good or bad, during history society reacts when there has been an imbalance of power between the genders. Sometimes the gender disenfranchised, usually women, grabs a hold of something that becomes their dominion, it’s a natural split. It doesn’t mean that society is equal, but that there is something that you don’t touch, a “circling the wagons” sort of thing. I grew also very fascinated with the idea of literacy, as I ran across the fact that there were great periods in time where important people didn’t read. They had scholars to do that for them, it was seen as beneath a king to read at various points in history. That idea is part of what gave birth to how the gender roles play out in Stormlight.
Same thing could be said about race dynamics. How do you approach racism in Stormlight?
One goal for me in the Stormlight was to do some different takes on racism. The racism based on eye color, for instance, is there in part because in part it fits the worldbuilding, but also because if you look into populations in which everyone has the same skin color, they would be still racist against the guys down the street because they had a different accent. Humans find ways to put people in boxes. The eye color in Stormlight became very interesting for me to explore how you can have a society where racism is rampant even if everyone has similar skin tones. And then there’s this deeply problematic racism with a whole race enslaved, which most readers ignore in the first book because Kaladin being enslaved is the focal point. One of the goals in Stormlight is that as Kaladin becomes more and more aware of the injustices in the world around him, the reader becomes aware too. Not to say that this is a book about fighting injustice, it is a book about a world that is not fair, and full of people perpetuating this without realizing it. One big reversal is when readers realize that most of the main characters probably don’t look like them. Most readers don’t make that connection for quite a while… I like the idea that as you read you assume that the offbeat Szeth is “the other” and Kaladin looks like you, when in reality Kaladin is an Asian-Middle Eastern mix, while Szeth is caucasian. Of course, if you read it in Taiwan, then the characters really look like you and Szeth is the oddball… [Laughs] I wanted the first cover not to show somebody’s face because of that reason. It’s hard to get the covers to align, though: in the UK, the cover has basically a white guy on it. It’s not that the cover artists don’t want to, it’s just that they don’t quite make the connection or it doesn’t get through. In the case of Michael Whelan, I was so happy to have him that I didn’t want to go to him and ask “By the way, can you make his skin darker?”. We will get better at this as we progress.
In Mistborn you subvert some of the established tropes in the fantasy genre, like what would happen if evil won. But in Stormlight Archive you seem to be taking a different route, more traditionally epic, so to speak…
Mistborn was about trope inversion: what does it mean to be the hero or to have a prophecy, all the classic fantasy tropes turned on their heads. And so, when I was working on the second draft of The way of kings, part of my brain was looking for tropes to invert. And that was very dangerous to me, because my whole career could become only about subverting what other people did, not adding to the discussion. With Stormlight one of the things I wanted to do is prove that epic fantasy can have worldbuilding like science fiction, with brand new ecologies and a very different planet, something like you would see in a Frank Herbert story. That is what I wanted to bring to epic fantasy, and if I focused too much in inverting tropes I felt that my whole career would become just one footnote. Certainly I will do more: The Reckoners are a trope inversion, but I can’t let my career to be only about that. I’m so glad I realized this, because The way of kings is much stronger a book being a block in the tradition of epic fantasy, taking hopefully a little step forward standing on the shoulders of giants, making the whole genre just a bit better. Not that I dislike Mistborn, I love how it undermines some of the genre expectations, but I don’t think that should sum my whole career. Maybe it would work for someone else, Terry Pratchett would be a good example. But even his books became fantastic when he was writing about great characters and the trope inversion was the subtext for a satire of human experience. I don’t know if you’ve read Pratchett…
Oh, yes! Pratchett is well beloved in this magazine.
In the first few Discworld books he’s trying to do jokes about fantasy, but in the later ones he makes a satire of all humankind with some fantasy jokes prickled in… And some of those Pratchetts are just beautiful, timeless, amazing works of art that stand as some of the best fantasy ever written, and it’s because he got beyond just making fun of the tropes and instead exploring what does it mean to be human.
Some of your books have been nominated or won the Romantic Times award for Best Epic Fantasy… Which romance tropes do you try to put (or subvert) on your stories?
That’s a very good question. When I first won an award from Romantic Times I thought it was an odd choice, but my agent said that they are a very good magazine accustomed to read outside their own specific niche. That’s actually quite laudable. Romance is part of most of our lives, almost everyone has romantic inclinations in times in their lives. Most of us want someone to be with, and part of what makes us happy and fulfilled is to find someone else that we flip with, so most of my books will contain that to an extent… It’s part of the human experience, like religion. One thing that I try to do in my books is to show family relationships and stable relationships. We don’t see enough of either one of these in stories! In Stormlight I decided that my love story would be between the middle-aged people, not the kids. Kaladin does not have a romance, Shallan does but there is a twist involved, Dalinar and Navani are the ones having a romance. People who are in their forties and fifties fall in love all the time, kids pretend that it’s all about them! But I can’t say more, because I’m playing with some tropes that would give spoilers.
You have written middle-grade books like the Alcatraz series, and young adult books like the Reckoners trilogy or The rithmatist. In which ways do you try to adapt your writing in each case?
Alcatraz is a very unique case. I was writing the Mistborn books, and I felt like I needed a break. I had been writing too much in that world, in part because it’s the first world where I wrote a sequel. So after the second Mistborn book I needed to do something else. So, letting myself complete freedom from the very strict outlines I need for my other books, I started a free-write and this is what came out. I’ve read a decent amount of middle-grade: the Artemis Fowl series, Eva Ibbotson, Lemony Snicket… So I wasn’t surprised when a middle-grade novel came out, but it isn’t like I was trying to write that. Alcatraz is a really weird series, because the humor involves a lot of sarcasm and wordplays, things that are above a lot of middle-grade readers. It has a very narrow audience: middle-grade readers that are too smart for their own good or the very recent young adult readers. Twelve and thirteen year olds is Alcatraz’s sweet spot, and maybe the nine or ten year olds who like and get sarcasm. As for The Reckoners: it is often published in my adult line, like in Spain or UK, although in the US is published as young adult. It’s just a publisher decision, as the books are so on the line. But I did write it as a young adult book: in this case the big difference was that I focused on only one character as viewpoint. It doesn’t have a lot of the young adult hallmarks, because it’s not set in a school for instance, that’s why it goes both ways.
I have the feeling that some fantasy books should be read during early years to make an impression, while others are enjoyable at any age. Which qualities make a fantasy book appeal to both young readers and adult ones?
The books that have the widest appeal between the age groups tend to be the ones that tell a story at multiple levels at the same time. It’s the Pixar principle: they make movies that are sensibly children’s films but work on all levels… Inside Out was able to speak to anyone who has dealt with depression, while also being a fun kids film. This is very difficult to do, but it’s the way you can make something like Ender’s Game, one of these books that can be meaningful for any age group. I just try to make sure I have a variety of characters in each book with different perspectives of life. Robert Jordan was very good on this. When I read his books as a teenager I empathized with the teenies, and rereading as an adult I empathized with the adults and thought that stupid teens were being stupid.
In the Mistborn annotations you say that a writer must have a certain degree of arrogance: “you have to be arrogant to be an author”. But at the same time, yourself and most of your characters are humble about their accomplishments. How do you reconcile arrogance and humility?
[Laughs] I don’t know, that one is so hard for me… The thing I worry most about myself is getting a big head, becoming a braggart. If I have a fatal flaw, that would be it. At the same time, I do think an artist must have some innate confidence that what they are doing is worth other people spending their time and money on. It’s so weird… It’s got a natural contrast to it, I agree. Trying to write characters like Sazed, who can manage to be humble, is maybe a way to try to inspire myself to abandon a bit of my own ego, but I’m sure bad at this at some times, so don’t hold me up as a role model in this area.
When speaking with Marta Rossich, your Spanish editor, she spoke highly of your team of close collaborators, “the Sanderson Team”… What do they do for you exactly?
Their whole job is to free me up to write books. Anything that I can conceivably give to them to speed up all the things that aren’t writing books, I do. For instance, when I write a blog post, I give it to Peter to edit it rather than going through it three times finding the typos myself. Then he gets it to Adam, who posts it in my website. It’s not that saves me a ton of time, but even half hour is thirty minutes more that I could be writing. Isaac handles art, so he draws a lot of the pictures for the interior art or commissions them, and works with the cover illustrators to make sure we have good covers, so I don’t have to do any of that. He went over the art for White Sands: when the pages came in, he was the one who gave the feedback to the artist, and then I had only to do a final glance-over at the end. These sort of things are very helpful for just keeping me writing.
You co-host a writing advice podcast called Writing Excuses, a work that won a Hugo award in 2013. How did that podcast came to be?
The podcast came to be because of my brother, who was taking some transmedia classes in college. He wanted to do a scripted podcast where I wrote a story and he had voice actors act it out, but I didn’t have enough time for that. Anyway, this got me very interested in podcasts, I started listening to them. Over time, I thought, there’s nobody really doing a writing podcast the way I want. A lot of podcast ramble a lot, which is fun, but I wanted something informative, like Grammar Girl but for writing podcast, specifically for novel writing. So I got together some friends that I thought would be good on-air personalities, and I started it up! So it’s kind of my little baby that has now changed into something much larger.
I’ve read that you are not specially interested in collectible card games, except for Magic: The Gathering. What do you see in that particular game?
Magic releases an extension that revolutionizes the game every three months, so keeeping up takes basically all my playing time. I joke: “you either play Magic or you play all other games”, because Magic is very demanding, not to play but to keep up on. And so, I usually only get to play a new Magic set maybe once or twice, because I get only once a month time to be able to play some games… So I want to use that time to play the new Magic set. It just doesn’t leave time to play one of the others.
Do you also like RPG games, like the Final Fantasy series?
I played them all, and Final Fantasy X is my favourite. VII is the one that everyone holds up because the worldbuilding is cool. But the story, sorry for all the VII fans out there, was a mess. There were fun characters, and when Aeris died I was ready to punch my TV, but Final Fantasy X story clicked for me, because it was very like the stories I like to write.
I’ve heard that in all your long distance plane flights you work on novellas… Which one have you been writing in this last trip?
On this one, Stormlight has been so demanding and I’m so behind on it that I actually worked on Oathbringer. No novella for me this time, I wasn’t allowed to do it.
You seem to do a lot of collateral things to your writing, like answering reddit, writing annotations to your books, keeping a progress bar about your next works in your website… Why do you try to be so active with the fandom?
I am a Wheel of Time fan. And it was so hard during those years not to know when a new book was coming and how Robert Jordan was doing on it… I understand that not every writer can be transparent: for instance if Patrick Rothfuss talks too much about his book, psychologically it harms his ability to work on it… But my psychology benefits from interaction and accountability, and if I have to report to the fans how I’m doing I’m more likely to get things done. I’m also part of a generation of people who grew up with the Internet, so I’m used to be able to find whatever I want when I want it, and I understand that feeling. So I want to be able to make sure that my fans, who are supporting me and paying for me to exist, have all the information that I can reasonably give them.
I’ve seen two videos of you writing in real-time: the write-a-thon for the Waygate Foundation in JordanCon 2014, and the writing of the Rysn interlude in Words of Radiance. How did you get the idea of showing so openly your writing process?
This came from people who play video games on Twitch or who sometimes do painting demos online, and I thought “can I do something like this with writing”? It turns out that writing is way more boring to do than playing videogames. [Laughs] In painting tutorials the artist can talk while drawing, but when you’re writing it’s very hard to stop and talk about what you’re doing. I might do more of that in the future, but it was super-hard.
What is your opinion on fan fiction based on your characters and worlds? Authors like Martin or Anne Rice are opposed adamantly to it because of copyright issues and to avoid plot collision. Other authors, in contrast, have no issues with derivative works…
I have no issues with it. I think that fans should be free to do what they want. When I read as a young boy, one thing I always did was to insert my own characters into the books as I read them in my head. I believe strongly that once you are reading a book, it belongs to you, at least your version of it in your head. You have the right to change in your head how you want it to be. And I also believe in the power of fiction and art to inspire more fiction and art. We’ll be posting something in my website after running past our attorneys, to give permission for people to create legally fan art and things like this. Even people who do a transformative work, so if they make music or a visual art piece based on my books they should be able to sell that, because it’s a new piece of art. As for writing, I don’t want them writing books to compete with me, but I’m honored that they would want to for their own fun or to release online for free.
Are you worried about book piracy? Readers torrenting your books without buying them, for instance…
It’s not a main concern for me. I worry about it more in countries that don’t already have a strong science fiction and fantasy readership, because I worry about it undermining the bookstores. But in general I think the worry about this is overblown. My experience has been that readers want to support things they like, and if they can support their favourite artists, they will. But if they are at a point in their lives where they can’t, then it’s better to let them read the stories they want, develop their life and their ideas, and let them support artists when they’re capable of it. So I am a big fan of giving away books for free.
Warbreaker is fully available on your website…
And I encourage Tor to give away The way of kings and Mistborn in the US. I don’t think people should in most cases pirate, but I’m not going to take actions to stop them. I let their own morality guide how they approach that, and I’ll just write my books and be thankful for the people who support me.
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What a great interview!
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