View Full Version : ABC: Why Brandon Sanderson Took on the Wheel of Time

11-21-2012, 04:59 PM
Thanks to Marie for helping me transcribe this.

Australia Broadcasting Company – 17 April 2012

http://www.abc.net.au/radionational/programs/booksandartsdaily/brandon-sanderson/3954680 (http://www.abc.net.au/radionational/programs/booksandartsdaily/brandon-sanderson/3954680)

Michael Cathcart: This is Books and Arts Daily on RN with Michael Cathcart. And we're going to look now at fantasy. You'd have to say that writing your own novel isn't an easy feat, but imagine trying to finish someone else's story. Brandon Sanderson is a prolific American fantasy writer; in fact he's the author of ten novels and we're still counting. Five years ago, he agreed to add to his workload and finish Robert Jordan's epic fantasy series, The Wheel of Time. Robert Jordan was in the middle of writing the twelfth and supposedly final book in the series when he died. That was in 2007. Well, Brandon is a lifelong fan of Robert's work, and he agreed to finish the book. In fact, he's turned it into a trilogy. He's already finished two of that trilogy—two books in that trilogy—and they topped the New York Times best-seller list, so he must have done a good job. He's now working on the third and final installment, and he joins us now from our Sydney studio. Brandon, welcome to Books and Arts Daily.

Brandon: Thank you very much, Michael.

Michael: Now, you're a successful writer in your own right. Why did you want to finish someone else's work?

Brandon: Well, I started reading Robert Jordan when I was fifteen, right at the beginning, when his books started coming out in the Wheel of Time. And, life-long fan. I mean, they inspired me, they're part of what made me want to be a writer, and I've always loved them. And so when this chance came at me, it wasn't something I could pass up. It wasn't something I was expecting. It wasn't something I had applied for. But when the phone call came, I just couldn't say no. Just imagine some little kid that I was when I was reading these books, and the imagination of them, and what they inspired me to become. And then, later on, kind of being able to help out in the last books, it's just . . . it's amazing.

Michael: I totally get this. You know, I feel that about working on this radio station. This radio station I've worked for all my life, suddenly I have the fun of being on it. I can never quite get over it. Every day the red light goes on, I think, "Oh, this is great!"

Brandon: Yeah, yeah, that happens to me. I think, "What am I doing? I'm working on the Wheel of Time?" You know, these characters I grew up with, that in many ways were my high school buddies? Now I'm telling their story. It's mind-blowing.

Michael: So when that phone call came, Brandon, how did that happen? Who called you?

Brandon: It was Robert Jordan's widow. And there's an interesting story there, because she actually was his editor. She discovered him, and then she married him. I guess that's a way to make sure that your editorial advice gets taken. (laughs) And before he passed away, he had asked her to find someone. She said to me that finding someone himself felt like facing his mortality too much. So, as soon as the funeral, actually, she started hunting, and a bunch of names were bandied about, and just through kind of a freak series of coincidences. . . I had written a eulogy for him on my website—many authors had who really enjoyed his work. It was very short; it was only a couple of paragraphs, but just from the heart, what he'd meant to me. I was a published author at that point, and I mentioned how he'd inspired me. Someone printed that off, and put it on Harriet's—that's his wife's name—on her desk. And she glanced at that, and she read it. She called up my published and said, "Hey, send me this kid's books." And she read them, unbeknownst to me, and called me one day, and just said, "I was wondering if you would be interested?" She'd liked my books; she felt something in them—perhaps she felt the way I'd been inspired by Robert Jordan—but whatever it was, she called and asked me to do it.

Michael: Can you see a similarity between his style and your own?

Brandon: Certainly, certainly. I mean, as an artist when you start working on your early works, you usually are very heavily influenced. And certainly my early works, my unpublished works—I wrote thirteen novels before I sold one, so it took me a little while to figure this all out—but my early works were very heavily influenced. I go back and look at my first novel I started as a teenager, and I'm basically kind of word-for-word copying him. And of course, later on you explore. And you take from what you've learned, and you try other styles, and you find your own style. Much of my style is deeply, heavily influenced by Robert Jordan, and in many ways I was reacting against some of the things I'd learned from Robert Jordan, trying new things. And what I eventually settled in as my style has pieces of that, pieces of other authors that I read during those foundational years, things that I felt were lacking in the genre that I wanted to explore and try out—all of this stuff mixed together in an amalgamation. But I would say Robert Jordan was probably the single greatest influence on my writing.

Michael: Yeah. I mean when we talk about style—style usually implies the idea of the tone and rhythm of the prose. I think what you're talking about the kind of elements that you bring into play as you create a fantasy. Because the actual styles of fantasy writers are not that different. I mean, there is a kind of clarity, a kind of unfussiness about prose—just getting the story down, saying it clearly without a lot of fancy footwork, if you know what I mean.

Brandon: Yeah, there is that. Yeah, in a lot of what we're doing we try to write what's called Orwellian prose. George Orwell talked about this, where we try to make the prose a windowpane that you can look through and see the story on the other side, because really what we are is we're storytellers. You know, I don't think that's necessarily different from fantasy from other forms of popular fiction, but certainly fantasy does have its style. Though within it, it can be quite be quite varied. For instance, Robert Jordan was much more eloquent and beautiful at description than I personally am. And I tend to be much more direct and focused in my descriptions—a little minimalist—give a few little concrete details and then let the mind fill in the rest. And so, there are differences, but yes, compared to something like a more literary fiction, we certainly are far more Orwellian.

Michael: So when you came to write his work, essentially, did you try to enter into his style in those respects, or did you maintain your own convictions, I guess?

Brandon: It's an excellent question, and it's one that I wrestled with for a long time. I worried. . . Eventually, I did actually try a few things, that I was just trying to imitate him, and I worried I would just come off as parody, honestly. And that was a big worry for me. At the end of the day I decided that what I needed to do was to get the voices right for the characters. Robert Jordan writes a very intense third person limited, where each line is colored by the vision of the character he's writing for at the moment.

And I felt that if I could get the souls of the characters right, even if I were coming in and doing it stylistically a little bit differently, the books would still feel right, if that makes any sense. And that became my goal and my quest: get the characters' souls to feel right. I often use the metaphor, I say it's like you're watching a television series, and the director changes—the actors are still the same, but the director changes—and that's what I was going for.

Michael: It's a hard core, though, isn't it? I mean, Wheel of Time fans are very, very hard-core...

Brandon: They are.

Michael: ...and (laughs) I wondered whether any of them had misgivings about you stepping in this way.

Brandon: Oh, I got a great deal of email. My inbox flooded as soon as I was announced. And there was really no justification I could give. All I could say is, "Well, wait until the book comes out. Let's see what I can do. If it stands up on its own, then that's the best proof I can give, and nothing I can say earlier will do a better job of that. If it falls down, then no justification I give now will mean anything anyway." And so I just focused on the writing and trying to get the book out and, you know, trying to....a real challenge was making sure that it fulfilled his vision for the series, and not mine, because I was a fan, and sometimes you can let that inner fan take over, and that can be a bad thing for a story. You want the story to have power and emotion; you don't want it to be a big list of inside jokes.

Michael: Brandon, was there a moment when you were working at your desk, and you thought, "Yep, I'm gonna be able to pull this off"?

Brandon: When I wrote some of the climactic moments for the various books, because as you mentioned, it did get split into three. I didn't expand his outline; I just wrote it as-is, and the decision to split was the publisher's, but it was a good decision. There was a moment in writing that first one that I did where one of the characters has just a moment of complete clarity and transformation where I said "Wow, I think this is gonna work. I really think that people are gonna accept this. I think I hit it."

Michael: Yeah, that must have been a great moment, that break-through moment. Did you know you'd had it then, or was it looking back that you realized, that's the moment when you had the vibe?

Brandon: Well, I felt I had it then, but I'm an artist, and you work with a lot of artists; you know that when the moment is done, when we're done writing, we take our hands off the keyboard, our immediate thoughts are of panic and, everyone's going to hate this, and my career is over, and we fight those emotions back and forth in our heads. When we're actually in the moment creating the art, everything comes together and we know, deep down, we know it's working. Later on, it all kind of falls apart, and so then we just wait for the book to come out, for the story to be seen, and wait and see what people say about it, and just hope that we were right.

Michael: That's fantastic, Brandon. You sound like one of your own heroes, you know, wrestling with the mighty forces. [laughter]

Brandon: Yes, well it sometimes feels a little bit like that way, you know, the underdog who comes in with this monumental task to do, I felt like I'm carrying that ring toward Mordor several times.

Michael: This is Books and Arts Daily on RN, and my guest is the prolific American fantasy writer Brandon Sanderson, and we're talking to him because he took on the formidable task of completing another man's work. He's completed the Wheel of Time series, which of course is the work of Robert Jordan who died before he could finish.

So what did he leave for you? What guidance did you have?

Brandon: I had a lot of guidance. Robert Jordan and I actually wrote, at our core, in very different methods. I am an outliner; I work from an outline, I feel like I need to have a goal in mind when I'm writing, and he was more what we call a gardener or a writer—that's George R.R. Martin's term. He nurtured stories and he grew them, so he would hop around and write on different sections as he was feeling them, and I always generally start at the beginning and go to the end, and so what was given to me was a big pile of notes that had some completely finished scenes, polished and ready to go, some that were stopped in the middle, and some that were just lines that said, "I'm thinking of doing this." A big pile of interview questions that his assistants had asked him on his deathbed, two or three dictations he'd done in the last weeks of his life that I could listen to, and just everything that you could imagine was in there. All of his notes for himself during the course of twenty years working on this series, some three million words of notes, and two assistants, and one editor who helped me dig through all of these notes to find the answers to questions that I needed to know.

Michael: Now, I realize as we're talking that there'll be listeners who aren't actually familiar with the Wheel of Time series. I know this is a ridiculous question, really, but could you briefly tell us what it's about?

Brandon: Well, you know, fortunately I have listened to radio interviews that Robert Jordan did, and someone asked him that. And so I can just give his answer. His answer for the Wheel of Time: the Wheel of Time is about what it's like to be told when you're just an ordinary person that you have to save the world, and it's about the journey that an ordinary person makes, becoming the person who has to ultimately probably sacrifice himself, his life, in order to save the word. And I think that's an eloquent way to put it.

In a more general term, I can talk about fantasy for those who haven't read it, what it is and what it means to me. Because I came to fantasy kind of late; I discovered it as a teen. I wasn't reading it when I was very young, and it is the genre of imagination. And I worry that sometimes, in our modern-day lives we get so hung up on what is that we forget that, as human beings, part of our job is to, you know...part of our souls is to imagine what cannot be, and fantasy books in my vision are kind of like push-ups for your imagination. We tell stories about what maybe could be, what we wish could be, what could not be but we imagine could be, and that's what the Wheel of Time is really about. It's about that imagination, about creating a place that feels real while you read it, completely real with its own history and its own culture, its own everything, and for those brief moments, making that place is impossible become something real.

Michael: And it's got strong elements of mythology that feel as though they're drawn on European models, Asian models...

Brandon: Yes.

Michael: There's a lot about....well, the Wheel of Time is to do with the cyclical nature of time that I guess we associate with Asian, mystical religions, I suppose. There's a creation story in there that sounds a little bit like the Christian story.

Brandon: Yep. He was very much a mythologist; Robert Jordan studied myths and legends, and the Wheel of Time is fascinating in that what he tried to go about is, the characters in these books he implied are founding myths that will eventually become stories and legends during our time, as the Wheel turns back to our time, and yet, things they reference in their lives were myths started by our time. It's cyclical, and so they'll talk about ancient legends that you pick out are them talking about the Cold War, America and Russia, except they become giants that threw spears of light at each other, and things like this, and yet we have people who are fulfilling things like the Odin mythology and the Loki mythology, kind of on the sly. You don't even figure it out unless you know mythology, and you're like, "Wait a minute. These people then found myths that, during our day, are our stories and legends, and yet we are their stories and legends." It can be kind of mind-breaking to try and parse it all together and figure it out.

Michael: Now, as the stories and legends have a kind of reality for us, we sort of believe them and don't believe them; we have a kind of 'nother way of believing, which is different from the way in which we believe in tables and chairs. I wonder how this sits with the fact that you're a Mormon [audible sigh from Brandon] because presumably that's a religion that you hold to be true, and here you are creating essentially another belief system that sits alongside your own belief system.

Brandon: Yeah, that's actually been very interesting for me, because my love of fantasy causes me to seek out and create these, like, what we call secondary worlds, and it certainly leads me to a lot of interesting questions about my own faith and my own belief, and what parts of things that I believe are mythology, and what parts of things I believe are hard-core truths, and what is the line between those? Sometimes, do we tell ourselves stories that are meaningful on multiple levels? All of that sort of thing is fascinating to me, and you find me working that out in my fiction where I approach, you know, the nature of truth, and what does it mean...you know, capital T Truth and lower-case t truth. Very fascinating to me. I'm fascinated by religion; I'm fascinated by belief, and what causes us to believe and what causes myself to believe.

Michael: Alright, and we should mention the scale of your own work because it's prolific. There are four novellas, three standalone novels, four books in the Alcatraz series, four books in your Mistborn series, you've started a new series called The Stormlight Archive....can I just stay on this business of being a Mormon, because it's been pointed out that there are many science fiction and fantasy writers who are Mormons. Do you think that's right, that the Mormon writers are attracted to this as a genre?

Brandon: You know, I've actually talked about this a lot with people, and everyone has their pet theory. It may just be that by being part of a kind of distinctive sub-group, we're noticeable, and so people make the connection. We may not have much of a higher percentage than anyone else. That might be true; I don't know if it is. It certainly does seem there's a lot of us. Orson Scott Card, Stephenie Meyer, myself, Shannon Hale....all of these people. We write fantastic stories. I can trace my involvement in it back to the fact that there is an author named Tracy Hickman who wrote Dragonlance and he was Mormon, and I read those books and loved them; I think that's the first time I experienced an LDS fantasy or science fiction author. I went to Brigham Young University, and there was a class there that was started by someone who just loved science fiction and fantasy and was teaching it, and a lot of us who are now writing it took that class, and maybe it's just the class. I don't know; I really don't know what it is. Maybe it's the focus on literacy in LDS culture, and—there is a very high focus on literacy; a lot of readers, a lot of writers—and so you find a lot of Mormon writers in all genres. My own pet theory is, for me, fantasy and science fiction was a safe counterculture. Growing up as a kid who basically wanted to be a good kid but also wanted to rebel a little bit—do something his parents didn't understand—I started playing Dungeons and Dragons. I started reading fantasy novels, and I found myself in them when I read them—something distinctive, something imaginative, something new, but also something a little bit bizarre, and I like being a little bit bizarre.

Michael: (laughs) Yes, well that's a good thing to be in the world; I think "A Little Bit Bizarre" would be a great thing to put on your coat of arms, really. You know, rather than "Seek the Truth" or, you know, "Be Noble".

Brandon: Here lies Brandon Sanderson: A Little Bit Bizarre.

Michael: Yeah. Now, you also teach fantasy writing, I gather.

Brandon: I do. I took over the class at Brigham Young University—it's just the one class; I only teach it once a year—but it felt important to me when the other author who was teaching it retired that it still continued going, because it had been part of what helped a lot of new writers in this genre get their start. And so I've been teaching it for eight or nine years now; I took it over right after the other author retired.

Michael: So that's one class a year, is it?

Brandon: Yep, one class a year. I'm as little a professor as one can be and still perhaps have the title. One class a year, one night a week, and even then I miss it several times a semester because I'm off touring doing things like this. I actually missed my finals on Saturday; I had to have my TA go collect finals for me because I was in Australia.

Michael: I think you're a borderline professor. [laughter] Brandon, it's been lovely to talk to you. Thank you for being so candid! It's been a real joy to talk to you.

Brandon: My pleasure, Michael. It was a wonderful interview.

Michael: Brandon Sanderson. And his novella is called Legion. That's out this year, later this year, and the third and final installment in the Wheel of Time series, which is called A Memory of Light, co-authored of course with the late Robert Jordan, will be released in January of 2013, published in Australia by... [recording cuts off here]

Great Lord of the Dark
11-21-2012, 09:59 PM
Terez, I'd just like to say, Thanks for doing all these.

11-21-2012, 10:34 PM
It is my pleasure. I will put them all in the database soon. I love how, in this batch of four I just did (one of which I haven't posted yet because I'm waiting on an extra tidbit), there are some things that Brandon says in all four of them. Also, I just got transcription equipment which makes it a lot easier. I just finished converting all the untranscribed videos to audio so I can do them that way.