Brandon Sanderson: Ever More Epic

BRANDON SANDERSON was born December 19, 1975 and grew up in Lincoln NE. He attended Brigham Young University, where he studied biochemistry before switching to English literature. He paused his studies from 1995-97 to do missionary work for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in South Korea, but returned and graduated in 2000. He earned his MA in English with a creative writing concentration in 2004.

Sanderson’s debut novel was Elantris, his first work set in the world of Cosmere, which encompasses many of his other books and series. The Mistborn trilogy is The Final Empire (2006), The Well of Ascension (2007), and The Hero of Ages (2008) The Wax and Wayne series is The Al­loy of Law (2011), Shadows of Self (2015), and The Bands of Mourning (2016). Warbreaker (2009) is set in the same universe. With Rik Hoskin, Sanderson has produced three volumes of related graphic novel series White Sand (2016-19).

The most ambitious Cosmere series is the Stormlight Archive, which will consist of two five-book cycles. The first four books have appeared so far: The Way of Kings (2010), Words of Radiance (2014), Oathbringer (2017), and Rhythm of War (2020). The Stormlight Archive was a Hugo Award nominee in the Best Series category in 2018.

His YA work includes the Alcatraz series: Alcatraz Versus the Evil Librarians (2007), Alcatraz Versus the Scrivener’s Bones (2008), Alcatraz Versus the Knights of Crystal­lia (2009), Alcatraz Versus the Shattered Lens (2010), and The Dark Talent (2016). He also wrote the YA science fiction Skyward series with Skyward (2018) and Starsight (2019), the superhero Reckoners series with Steelheart (2013), Firefight (2015), and Calamity (2016), and YA fantasy The Rithmatist (2013).

Novella The Emperor’s Soul won a Hugo Award in 2013 and was a World Fantasy Award finalist. Novella Perfect State (2015) was a Hugo Award nominee. His Legion novella series is collected in Legion: The Many Lives of Stephen Leeds (2018). He co-wrote SF novella The Original (2020) with Mary Robinette Kowal, published as an audiobook original.

Sanderson was chosen by Robert Jordan’s estate to com­plete the late author’s unfinished Wheel of Time epic fantasy series, resulting in three posthumous collaborations: The Gathering Storm (2009), Towers of Midnight (2010), and A Memory of Light (2013). He’s also written tie-in fiction for the Infinity Blade game.

He edited two issues of The Leading Edge in 2001, and co-edited anthology Altered Perceptions (2014) with Dan Wells & Robison Wells. He co-founded podcast Writing Excuses in 2008, and it won a Hugo Award in 2013.

He lives in Utah with wife Emily Bushman Sanderson (mar­ried 2006) and their three sons.

Excerpts from the interview:

“I discovered reading when I was 14. I won’t go into it at length, but I wasn’t a big reader when I was younger, and I had a really excellent teacher in the eighth grade who got me hooked on books. The book that worked for me was Dragonsbane by Barbara Hambly. For whatever reason, that was the first real fantasy novel that grabbed me. I do have to add an asterisk to that. I’d had several near misses with books that I liked, but I didn’t re­alize there was more out there. For example, I read Dragon’s Blood by Jane Yolen when I was in sixth grade and absolutely loved it, but it didn’t pull me into reading more sto­ries. I read The Hobbit, and it did the same thing to me – I loved it, but then I tried The Lord of the Rings and bounced hard off it as a reluctant reader. I can remember these books I loved, but they would be the only book I read that year. With Dragonsbane I said, ‘There’s something here that I really like.’ At that point I went to the library card catalog, which we still had back then in the dinosaur ages, and I said, ‘Maybe there’s more like this.’ In the card catalog next to Dragonsbane was Dragonflight by Anne McCaffrey, and that was the first series I re­ally got hooked on. From there I was able to springboard – I found the next book on the shelf, Melanie Rawn’s Dragon Prince. It’s those three authors – Melanie Rawn, Anne McCaffrey, and Barbara Hambly – who really pulled me into fantasy books. Then I found Jane Yolen again and read all of her work, so I usually lump her in that group as well. I’ve reread all of them recently and they re­ally hold up. Jane Yolen’s Emerald Circus is a fantastic collection. I reread The Drag­onriders of Pern to write a foreword to the series and it’s still spectacular. The same for Melanie Rawn and for Barbara Hambly’s work. I started reading Robert Jordan about a year later, when his first book in the Wheel of Time series came out. I am obviously a very big Robert Jordan fan, and that series ended up having a large influence on my career. The other person I’d like to mention, even though I didn’t discover him until I was 17 or 18, is Guy Gavriel Kay. I read Tigana and then went through all his big epic fanta­sy standalones, and they really taught me a lot. First, he’s just amazing with prose, as are some of the other authors I’ve mentioned. Second, the idea that he could write these single-volume epic fantasies was revolu­tionary to me – the way he approached tell­ing a complete story in the space that a lot of my other favorite writers would use to tell only a third of a story. Those are merely dif­ferent approaches, but I’m glad I discovered Kay’s work, because it had a big influence on how I approach storytelling.

“There are other things I got into back then that don’t quite hold up. When you first become a reader, you read whatever you find. I just happened to hit a big swath of high-quality material at first, but after that, I read whatever was there. As a teenager, I never put a book down – I just finished the book. The biggest difference between my reading habits now and then is that now if something isn’t working for me, I let myself put it down. Back then, I would never have considered that. I would say, ‘I have to know what hap­pens, even if it’s not that great a book.’

“I’ve thought a lot about why fantasy is so appealing to me. It wasn’t that I had bad teachers before eighth grade – I had great teachers who tried to get me to read all kinds of different things, none of which grabbed me. The rule of thumb for getting a young person interested in reading is, generally, you should try to find something very relatable to them. This is not bad advice, but it was bad advice for me. I often joke that I was given book after book about a young boy with a pet dog living in America, and the conventional wisdom says that’s what a young boy reader should want. I was just not interested in that. I knew what it was like to be a young teenage boy living in America, and it held no interest for me. I did not want to read about kids in school – I knew what it was like to be a kid in school. Part of what grabbed me about fantasy was the stuff I didn’t know. For the record, Dragonsbane probably shouldn’t have worked, because the protagonist is a middle-aged woman having a midlife crisis. I didn’t know what that felt like. That was all brand new to me. I was really interested in it because the story was told so well. And of course, the worldbuilding was there. Science fiction and fantasy are wonderful genres. I joke that it’s like how my wife gets my kids to eat broccoli or spinach. She’ll make them a smoothie, and she’ll say, ‘See, we’re going to make the smoothie look green now!’ They say, ‘Oh my goodness, that’s so cool, it’s green and we’re going to eat it!’ For me, the worldbuild­ing was a bit like the smoothie part – the fun of exploring a new world. The ‘greens’ were stories about people different from myself, and reading them was a sort of empathy-building exercise. When you mixed those two things, it was engaging on multiple levels. If someone had told me, ‘This is an empathy-building ex­perience about people different from yourself,’ I’d have responded, ‘No, don’t give me that, ew, gross.’ But that’s part of what made those books deeply resonant – the one-two punch that a great speculative fiction story has, where someone like me, who just wanted to be chal­lenged in the imagination department, also got challenged in the characterization department, and was left with something beautiful and wonderful that you can’t explain.

“I was doing a signing years ago and a con­cerned mom came to me and said, ‘No offense, but all my daughter will read is this fantasy stuff. I don’t get it. Why fantasy?’ I tried to explain to her that you would have never gotten me to read Paradise Lost as a 14-year-old, but as an 18-year-old who loved books, I picked it up on my own and read it. If you teach someone to love reading, they might well find their way to the books that you think they should be read­ing. At the end of the day, the answer to ‘why fantasy’ for me is – why not? A fantasy story can do all the things other stories can. If you want great literary styling, pick up one of Jane Yolen’s stories and you’ll find it there – plus you’ll have this added dimension of worldbuilding that challenges your imagination. Fantasy lets you do everything you can in any other genre, plus you can have dragons. So why not write it? It seems baffling to me.

“Writers write for different reasons, and I don’t say that every writer has to do this, but one of my imperatives as a writer is to make sure I have a wide variety of viewpoints in my books. That’s partially because of how I grew up reading. If I ever read a character like me, I want that character to accurately represent who I am and why I believe what I believe. I am a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, a Mormon, and nothing bothers me more than picking up a book by an author who includes a Mormon character but just isn’t interested in authentically represent­ing them. I’ve told myself I’m never going to do that for anyone else. It’s vital to me that, if I am depicting the world, I want those depictions to be accurate. Part of what brought me into fiction was reading depictions of characters who were very different from myself, and learning about them. Beyond that, I want to explore more than one side of an issue. Again, different authors have different ways of doing things. There’s nothing wrong with C.S. Lewis specifically choosing a didactic method of storytelling to get across the point. That’s not what I want to do, though. I want to approach stories from as many different angles as I can. I think we arrive at truth as human beings by hearing different viewpoints and testing what we believe, and maybe learning a little about what others believe.”

Interview design by Stephen H. Segal. Photo by Isaac Stewart.

Read the full interview in the February 2021 issue of Locus.

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