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Default NPR Interview with Brandon Sanderson (DragonCon)

September 3, 2012 (audio)

Brandon Sanderson

This is Brandon Sanderson coming to you live from DragonCon.

The Wheel of Time is probably the most important epic fantasy series of my generation. A lot of people from the generation before grew up reading Tolkien. Well, my generation grew up reading the Wheel of Time by Robert Jordan, and it's very Tolkien-inspired, but it goes in its own direction, and basically, Robert Jordan—who started this series—once was asked, "What is the series about?" Well, it's not fourteen books and a prequel, so what is that about? But he had a really good answer. He said, "The story's about what it's like to be told that you have to save the world, and that you're probably going to die doing it, and you're just a normal person." And that's really where it starts; it starts with a young man who is told that he's this figure from prophecy, that he's going to have this whole world on his shoulders, and what does that do to a person? What is the life like once you've learned this? How do you figure out what you're supposed to do? You've just been told this..." And it's really a character study about him and several other people, and the life they go through.

Petra Mayer
If I was being facetious, I would compare that to Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

Brandon Sanderson
Yeah, I suppose. Yeah, Buffy's very like that, because Buffy's like, you know, here's an ordinary person smashed into something extraordinary, and that's kind of the soul of what we do in speculative fiction. I like to say that what we lot of people accuse fantasy of being backward-looking. I don't see that. Yes, we're dealing with kings and queens and magic and things like this, but what we're really trying to do, is we're trying to explore human nature in a controlled way. We're going to control—just like in a scientific experiment—we're going to control for a lot of things, and we're going to make this stable, and we're going to control the government, society, and these things, and then we're going to change a few really interesting things that could never be changed in our world. You know, if our world, you can't be told this is what's going to happen, you have to do this. We want to explore what that does to a person, and I find it a very forward-looking genre in that we're trying to explore what human nature is capable of doing, and what we would do under extreme circumstances.

Petra Mayer
One of the things that I like about the Wheel of Time series is the unbelievably detailed worldbuilding that...I mean, coming into that, it was already eleven books along when you picked it up? My God, what did that feel like? How did you step into those shoes?

Brandon Sanderson
Oh, boy. So, the story is, I was a fan of the series—I picked the first one up when I was fifteen, and that was in 1990—and I'd been reading them all along; they are part of what inspired me to become a writer. I eventually broke into publishing myself in 2005, and two years later, Robert Jordan passed away without having finished the end of this series that I'd been following all along. And, like a lot of fans, I was heartbroken. I mean, we'd [inaudible] almost twenty years of following these characters. And one day, I got a call on the phone. I had not applied for this; I didn't know I was being considered. It was his wife. I didn't know her, but she had read my book—she had read my book Mistborn—and she had heard that I was a fan of the series, and had looked into some of the things I'd written, and then she just said, "Would you like to finish it?"

Now, this is a major best-selling series; I'm a newbie author with a couple of books out. It was like getting hit by a freight train. And there's all this continuity and all these was a massive undertaking. I was scared out of my wits, to be perfectly honest, but honestly, I almost said no because of that, but there was that piece of me—the fan—that said, "Look, if you say no to this, and someone else comes along, and they do a bad job, it's going to be your fault, Brandon." So my own conscience was like, "I gotta do this. If Robert Jordan can't do it, they're going to have somebody do it. I've gotta do it." So I threw myself into it, and you know, the most interesting thing is, how have I done it? Well, I've had great resources, and part of those are fan resources. What the internet allows us to do with Wikis and things like this is, the fans have gotten together and created these detailed outlines and chronologies and all of these things, which have just been wonderful. You don't expect that, you know, but the fans do a better job than we do, as writers, sometimes, of keeping track of all of these things, so I've relied on their resources.

I do think I've been able to do some fun things with the series, as a fan, that I've been wanting to do, from reading it since I was a kid, but that's actually a weird things because, as a fan coming on, I had to be careful. You don't always want to do what the inner fan wants you to do; otherwise it just becomes like a sequence of cameos and inside jokes. So I had to be very careful, but there are some things that I've been wanting to have happen, and the notes left a lot of room for me to explore. I did get to have a lot of creative involvement in it; it wasn't just an outline, which has been awesome. You know, if it had been mostly done, they would have been able to hire like a ghostwriter to clean it up, and they didn't have that. They needed an actual writer, and so there are lots of plots I got to construct, and as a fan, that's awesome.

But he did write the last chapter. He wrote it before he passed away. He was very dedicated to his fans—there's great stories—he was on his deathbed dictating, and I have those dictations where his cousin Wilson is sitting there with a tape recorder just listening to him, and I got all these things passed on to me. It was really an interesting process. I was actually handed about two hundred pages, what would become 2500. Yeah, 2500. It's multiple volumes; it got split into three books. But, got handed two hundred pages, and in these are scenes he wrote, dictations that he did, fragments of scenes he worked on, little comments he made, Q&As with his assistants where it says, "This is what's going to happen, this is going to happen..." I just describe it like, "Imagine there's this beautiful Ming vase, and someone puts it in a paper bag and smashes it up, dumps out half the pieces, hands it to you, and says, 'Alright. Build the vase exactly as it was going to be, as it was before.' " That's kind of been my job on this.

Petra Mayer
Now, I know we can't talk about A Memory of Light, but is there something that's out now that you can talk about in terms of plot twists that you really wanted to make happen, and then you got to?

Brandon Sanderson
Yes, yes. So, the main character, Rand. He is the one who's been told this, and he leaves in the first book, goes off, chased out of his home city by all of these, you know....different factions want him, and want to do things with him, and he left behind his father. They had a very nice relationship, and one of the things I wanted to do was kind of bring it full circle and have him and his father meet back up again. I wanted to do that; it felt like it would be a very touching thing. There was nothing in the notes either way to say if it could or couldn't happen, and so I went into and I said, "I really want to have a meeting between Rand and his father again; it's very important for me." It's very important plotwise, because you kind of look at the hero's journey and things like this, the return home was a very important part of it, but beyond that, you know, these are about characters; great stories are about great characters, and we love both of these characters; they needed to meet up again. And that was something that I got to do.

Petra Mayer
I have to say, if this was George R.R. Martin, he would have killed off Tam al'Thor.

Brandon Sanderson
Yes, yes. Yes, he probably would have forced Rand to kill Tam, or you know, he would have....yeah, George really likes his body counts. He likes killing people in very unexpected ways...

Petra Mayer
I mean, these two series are sort of parallel, in my mind. It's almost like, sort of, I don't even...Star Trek and Star Wars.

Brandon Sanderson
Yes. No, no...they are very similar. Robert Jordan and George R.R. Martin were friends. In fact, Robert Jordan has a cover blurb on the first George R.R. Martin book, Game of Thrones. It says, you know, Robert Jordan recommending this book, and they were friends, and they kind of had parallel careers, and Robert Jordan is more on the kind of epic side, like Tolkien, with this sort of, you know, Grand Quest, and Martin is more what we call the heroic side, which is you know, gritty characters living in a really sometimes dark world, and fighting for survival, and there are two kind of archetypes in the fantasy genre that are both very important, and we've had them all along, and they're great writers in both traditions. They're kind of parallel in that way.

Petra Mayer
Do you have any advice for George R.R. Martin, because I know people are like, "Don't..." And it's horribly insensitive. People are like, "Please! We can't go through this again! Don't die in the middle!"

Brandon Sanderson
[laughs] Well, you know, I saw George last week. He seemed to be very healthy and nice. He was eating some Italian food at the time, so that may not be the....but I'm not one to speak; I like my Italian food too. No, George is awesome; I think he's going to be just fine. He's having the time of his life. He's got his show on, and things like that, so I think you guys are going to be fine. I think George is going to finish his series. He looks really excited, and he looks really good.

Petra Mayer
I know you can't give too much away, but what can we expect from A Memory of Light?

Brandon Sanderson
Um, A Memory of Light is awesome. When I first got this, I had to say yes sight-unseen to the notes. I knew there was an ending, and so I flew out to Charleston where his wife lives, and I flew out there just weeks after this whole thing had come down; I was doing this, I had signed the contracts. It's a long flight from where I live in Utah, and I walk in the door to Charleston, and Harriet, bless her heart, says "Would you like some food? I know it's been a long trip." And I said, "No, I'd like the ending please." And I sat down, and that night I read Robert Jordan's ending to the series, and I was immensely satisfied. It was the right ending. It's what I've been writing toward all along. Having that means that I can get everything pointed toward it, and I think that it's a beautiful, perfect ending to this two-decade-long journey, and so, I hope you all enjoy as well. I really think you're going to be pleased.
Qui nos rodunt confundantur, et cum iustis non scribantur.
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