Search the most comprehensive database of interviews and book signings from Robert Jordan, Brandon Sanderson and the rest of Team Jordan.
2012-04-30: I had the great pleasure of speaking with Harriet McDougal Rigney about her life. She's an amazing talent and person and it will take you less than an hour to agree.
2012-04-24: Some thoughts I had during JordanCon4 and the upcoming conclusion of "The Wheel of Time."
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Nov 13th, 2010
"I grew up in Nebraska. I read quite a lot when I was little, but by high school I was not a reading sort of kid. Some kids read, I watched TV. People would shove books at me in school and I just wasn't interested. Then, when I was 14, I had this one teacher, called—I swear I'm not making this up—Mrs. Reader. And she said, 'look, you are going to read a novel, and you are going to write me a book report. I have a box of books in the back room. Go on back there and pick one. Take your time.'"
One of the books had a rather fabulous picture of a dragon on the cover. Never let anyone tell you cover illustrations don't matter. It changed Sanderson's life.
"I devoured that book, which was by Barbara Hambly. I couldn't believe there was this entire type of novel that no one had told me about. I went to the library and checked out every fantasy novel I could find, read them voraciously over the summer, fell in love with the genre, decided within a year that I wanted to be a writer, and started working on my first book. Which was atrocious, but fortunately I didn't know that."
While majoring in English at college, Sanderson took a job as a hotel receptionist, working the graveyard shift.
The managers didn't mind if he wrote on the job. "In fact, they were happy if I did, because that meant I wasn't falling asleep like the previous person they'd hired. So I wrote—oh gosh, it must have been nine or 10 novels over the course of five years."
Sanderson was living one of the standard writer-learns-the-ropes stories—turning out book after book after book, finding his voice, finding the stories that mattered to him, and finding the self-belief to swallow the rejection letters. There were a lot of rejection letters. He made his way through the forest of fantasy and science fiction sub-genres, one at a time. "I did a post-apocalyptic book, I did an epic fantasy, I did a comic fantasy, I did some cerebral science fiction, I did a short action adventure fantasy..."
No one wanted any of them. In frustration he tried to figure out what kind of books publishers were looking for, so he could write one.
"We call this chasing the market and it's a bad idea. I knew it was a bad idea and I did it anyway. The next two books I wrote were the two worst I'd done. I mean, I'd learned something from all those unsold novels and technically they were okay, but they didn't have any soul, they were just dreadful books. I didn't even send them out."
Instead he sat down and deliberately wrote something profligately, ridiculously unpublishable. "I had to say okay, I'm a writer, I love it, this is what I do. Getting published is not the aim. Writing is the aim. So okay. I'm going to ignore what everybody's been telling me in these rejection letters. I'm going to write the biggest, coolest, baddest, most awesome fantasy epic I can. All these ideas that I've told myself are too big, that I'm going to have to put off using, I'm not going to put off any more. And I sat down and I wrote The Way of Kings. I sank everything into it. I created this awesome beast of a novel, and to be perfectly honest, my skill wasn't up to doing it justice at that point, but I gave it everything I had."
The Way of Kings is a broad-canvas cinematic story, but it's also an intimate exploration of some of Sanderson's central themes: what leadership is, whether idealists can put their ideals into practice without betraying them, and whether people of good conscience can overcome their religious and political differences. Very much a book of the American moment, in other words.
Like all his others, it didn't sell. But one of his earlier books suddenly did.
This was the point where the people he could now describe as his publishers asked what else he was working on, and he told them, and they blanched. So he offered them a more conventional project, taking some of the ideas he'd developed for his two loathed market-chasing books, and reworking them into what became his Mistborn fantasy trilogy. This got extremely good reviews and led to a phone call from Harriet McDougal, the editor and widow of the fantasy writer Robert Jordan.
Jordan had been the big fantasy sensation of the 90s. His mega-series The Wheel Of Time began as a five-book cycle, then was expanded to a projected 12 books on the back of massive sales and critical acclaim. Each individual book was vast. The gaps between books slowly got longer and longer as Jordan struggled with gargantuan plot machinery, a cast of thousands and failing health.
He died in 2007, still working on the final volume, and McDougal, having been impressed by the Mistborn books, phoned Sanderson and asked whether he would be interested in finishing off the series from Jordan's notes.
It's worth mentioning here—"though my publisher would rather I stopped talking about this, they think it's off-putting"—that he had always intended it to be volume one of a 10-book series, The Stormlight Archive, each book of which will be about the size of the first.
"The thing about fantasy novels is that they start off with a very steep learning curve. They're like historical novels, except that the world is entirely invented. You have to learn new names, you have to learn new laws of physics, new geography, new history, all of these things."
"This is what fantasy readers love, but when you're making the effort to master all this information it's nice to maximise the payoff. That's what a big series has that a shorter series doesn't, it can be far more richly immersive. You get to spend serious time in this new world."