Through the Looking Glass
In ‘Game of Thrones’ Withdrawal? Brandon Sanderson Can Help.
The bestselling fantasy writer talks his new book, worldbuilding, the long shadow of George R.R. Martin, and what you should be reading if you're missing ‘Thrones.’
If he weren’t such a nice guy and I hadn’t devoured the book, I might accuse Brandon Sanderson of engaging in a fantasy writer’s pissing contest.
But Sanderson has managed yet again to succeed in making something that looks like a door-stopper instead feel like your favorite sleek personal accessory. In his newest installment, Sanderson, a masterful worldbuilder, is bringing the one he has created towards its destruction. The characters we’ve followed and loved in the first two books—Dalinar, Adolin, Shallan, Jasnah, Kaladin, and more—are faced with forces unseen in their world for a thousand years, and much of the book’s drama rests on the question of whether their newfound powers will be enough to overcome them.
For those not immersed in the day-to-day of the fantasy world, Sanderson, 41, is one of its best-selling and prominent figures who also operates as a sort of internal philosopher. In the mid-2000s, his Mistborn trilogy put him on the map. In 2007, however, Sanderson was given a shot at fantasy immortality. Robert Jordan had died, leaving his best-selling Wheel of Time series unfinished. Sanderson was tapped by Jordan’s widow, Harriet McDougal, to finish Jordan’s work. The result was a success, as each of the three installments he wrote to close it out topped the New York Times best-seller list.
Around the same time, Sanderson launched the Stormlight Archive, which also made its way onto the bestseller list. Within the fantasy community, Sanderson isn’t just known for his writing. The author is also notorious for his laws of magic, where he outlines the ways fantasy writers should, or should not, be using magic in their work.
In an interview with The Daily Beast just prior to the release of Oathbringer on November 14, Sanderson spoke about his creative process, writing in reaction to George R. R. Martin, what it was like to finish Robert Jordan’s work, and the books that got him hooked on fantasy in the first place.
The Daily Beast: The book clocks in at 1,200 pages, how long did it take to write?
Sanderson: So the actual writing and editing time was around 19 months. That doesn’t include time fiddling with the outline and all that, but 19 months is a good number for estimating.
I’m more a slow and steady writer than I am a binge writer. Obviously every writer is different, and different things work for different people. I’m more a ‘get up in the morning—I don’t have a set word count I try to hit,’ but I do record my word counts just to keep an eye on myself so to speak. If I hit a patch where I’m not hitting what I usually do on a book, maybe it’s a sign that something’s wrong with what I’m working on and I need to take another look at it. I’m not an exceptionally fast writer, I’m just a very steady and methodical writer. I usually get around 2,000 words a day. Some days not, some days more, depends on how I’m feeling that day and how the scenes are going.
Do you already know how the series will end?
I do. I am an outliner. That said, even the most rigid of us outliners, things get tossed out the window all the time. This third book, there are huge chunks of it that were going to be in the fifth book and huge chunks that as I was working on it I realized something big needed to be different. That happens every time I write a book. I tend to be an outliner primarily because I write a lot better if I’ve got a target that I’m aiming for, even if I end up changing that target during the course of the book. I’ve got to know where I’m going when I start. That’s particularly important for me with these long books.
I think one of the most interesting things about fantasy writing, and some do it better than others—and some, like J.K. Rowling, largely ignore it—which is creating a religious cosmos or a creator. When you were working on the one in the Stormlight Archive, did you have any influences that you were thinking about?
Yeah, tons. I mean I was a philosophy minor in college way back when and I just loved reading about all these theories on cosmology and the nature of rationality and all of this. And so that's all kind of a stew back there. People who are into that sort of thing will notice the more subtle hints here and there. The big one is the most obvious and kind of comes from the granddaddy himself. Plato's Theory of the Forms is kind of a big starting point for how I built the cosmology and kind of this way of life. Less the religion and more just kind of how everything works.
When I am working on fantasy books, I like to have one foot in science and one foot in superstition. That is fun to me. That is interesting to me. I love the fact that people like Isaac Newton tried to get alchemy to work—right? This whole idea that the people applying the scientific method to things that in our world would just break down if you apply the scientific method to them. Basically in my book I have new branches of science and we have people in the Stormlight Archive who are saying, “Wait a minute—how much of this is repeatable? What can we do with this? If you know you can draw power from a source in this way? Can we measure it? Can we see what this will actually do?”
In some ways that's dangerous in a fantasy book just because we rely so heavily on the sense of wonder as something magical and mystical that draws people to immerse themselves in the books. On the other hand I think science has its own sense of wonder. And being able to explore a new branch of science is just really, really fascinating to me. I often say that the big difference between science fiction and fantasy is science fiction takes what we have now and tries to extrapolate the plausible from it. And fantasy starts the other direction. It starts with something completely impossible and then tries to make it seem plausible within the context of its own framework. And this is what I do with a lot of the cosmology, a lot of the philosophy and the magic. To those living in the world I created it's it's not only plausible, it’s the way things are. That's a lot of fun to me it's it's what draws me to the genre more than anything else.
I was curious if there is any connections between the characters in this and the Mistborn series or other books in terms of the way you thought about creating these are the origins of these worlds?
Yeah, there's certainly some interconnections But there's also big differences. I want to be able to play with different genres and different types of stories and that's going to have a big effect on how I use the magic or how I deal with things like religion.
Mistborn is a good example. I mean Mistborn is basically a kind of action adventure story in which the person that we worship as God is really Sauron. The bad guy has been ruling for a thousand years. We're going to topple him. And the theological implications of “we're going to topple God” is something that they actually deal with in the book. But it's very straightforward in some ways. I mean the implications are deep but it's a straightforward thing. We're going to go kill God. How do we do this?
Whereas in the Stormlight Archive, we’re dealing with a sense of immersion. We're going to deal with a lot more characters and and we're going to have a lot of characters who are on different sides of philosophical debates and not agreeing with each other. And so we're going to dig into what it means to believe. And I just do different things that way.
The other big thing that changes is how I will approach the magic of a book. It’s going to come down to the learning curve and how difficult do I want it to be. For instance, again, Mistborn and Stormlight are great contrasts. I built Mistborn as basically an Earth analog where something went wrong. You can assume that it's like Earth except this one event where basically Sauron or Voldemort or whatever—the Dark Lord took over the world and set it in a weird path. But there's basic earth, animals, and ecology and things like that. If you don't have to focus on trying to figure out the ecology you can focus on the event. You know we've got ash falling from the sky. Things are dying off. Certain animals and plants are surviving and others are gone. That’s Mistborn.
With Stormlight, I'm trying to bring more of a science fiction world-building perspective and build a new ecology, build different types of biomes, and different types of ecological effects and different animals living in different ecologies and different cultures having adapted themselves to the different types of ecology. I’m trying to do kind of more of a wholesale rebuild of a new world. And that's like I say, a question of learning curve. When you pick up Mistborn, I want you to be able to pick it up pretty quickly and focus on the other things like the big questions it’s dealing with. With Stormlight, I want you to pick it up and say, “Whoa, OK this isn't what I've seen before. I'm going to take some time and dig into and learn what this world is like.” That's going to have a profound effect on the characters.
You kind of have to live under a rock right now not to see a lot of the big discussions going on about race and sex and gender. And right now of course the discussion is hyper-focused on the perils of women in society in terms of men in power and abuse and harassment and so on.
Fantasy writing has come under fire in that past for a variety of reasons related to things like too much rape, the lack of diversity, racist tropes, etc. Do you think fantasy writers have an obligation to consider the impact of their writing?
Oh absolutely! I mean if you're writing books, even innocently if there is such a term, perpetuating stereotypes and modes of writing that are taking and reinforcing or ingraining in your readers those misconceptions about the world—and in some places aggressively wrong or evil perceptions of the world—then you do have a responsibility toward that. Absolutely. Now at the same time we all have our biases. And I think the answer is to just stop being so offended when we get called on our biases and be like, “Oh, that that person is trying to make me into a better writer. If I learned this I'm going to be a better writer.”
We are writing about wish fulfillment right? And let’s say we’re accidentally reinforcing the idea in that wish fulfillment there are no queer people. What is that saying? Like do we really wish that these people were just gone? That's terrible. Right? It's just absolutely terrible. And so I think stories are one of the ways we effect change. Stories are one of the ways we manifest our world and try to make it into the world we would want it to be.
And so I would say to fantasy writers, myself included, make sure that world that you're saying you want the world to be, or the the dark reflection you're turning back, make sure you’re actually reflecting or showing the things that you want and make sure you're kind of aware of it. So yeah I think fantasy’s been in a really cool place just recently. But we have had some growing pains and continue to have them as we are we are facing some of the stuff.
What do you think is the most difficult thing about fantasy writing?
Most difficult thing about fantasy writing? Oh wow. You know, you would think I'd been asked that before. I have not been asked that. You know there are a lot of ways to approach this question. What's the most difficult for me? Most difficult part of writing for me is revision. But I don't know that’s specific to the fantasy I write. I would say that the most difficult part of fantasy writing for me would be making sure that your world-building, your magic, and your setting remain deep and engaging without becoming convoluted. And this is a really difficult line to keep from crossing. It’s this piling-on-world-building that you don't actually need and growing more and more and more and more convoluted to the point that you lose character because everything is done in service of these weird MacGuffins or things that are becoming so powerful with so many little things you have to deal with that the story just stops being about interesting people.
Most straight fiction is an attempt to understand the world and the people in it by looking at the problems that people struggle with. And in fantasy we do that in some often exaggerated or just very different ways. We say, OK, there are stories you can't tell in this world that can explain human experience. We're going to put some people in these really extreme situations and we're going to see how it plays out. What do you do if you have a moral philosophy and then just, someone comes back to life? Because someone has the power just go around bringing people back to life. You’re going to be like, wait a minute wait a minute. This changes my view on the afterlife. This changes the way that we interact with the dead. Or, even just the fact we can interact with them. What? How does this play out? Those questions are really cool. And are the sort of questions that fantasy stories can deal with.
How, and when, if you can pinpoint a time, did you get hooked on fantasy?
I was handed a copy of Dragonsbane by Barbara Hambly when I was 14 years old. My English teacher gave it to me in eighth grade. I had not been a big reader up until that point and she set out to change that. And that book changed everything for me! I absolutely fell in love with the book, with the concepts, the idea. It's a little bit of a lesser-known novel these days but it is an absolute classic and one of the all time great fantasy novels. Granted I'm super biased because it’s the one that got me. But after that I went and I found Anne McCaffrey's books in the library and fell in love with them, followed by Robin McKinley who was in my school library and then Melanie Rawn and after that just fell in love with this whole genre because of the efforts of that one teacher and the way these books did things to my emotions that nothing else did.
Within a year I said, “Wow I've got to learn how to do this somehow. I don't know how you do it but I got to learn how.” And it took me another 15 years or so to figure it out. But that's what I spent the next 15 years doing.
Obviously fantasy as a genre has been around forever. I remember interviewing Neil Gaiman and he got kind of annoyed because it was suggested that fantasy was huge now because of Game of Thrones, and he pointed out that there’s magic in the Bible. On the other hand, it is more mainstream and less, and I said this as an avid fantasy reader, weird. Why do you think that is? And is it good for the genre?
These are two really good questions. You're going to find every fantasy writers going to sit around and have their hobby-horses on why. I think there's a really valid argument I've heard which is that special effects finally caught up to fantasy writing. And really what you've got is a triple crown of fantasy books. Harry Potter, The Lord Of The Rings, and Game of Thrones all getting mainstream adaptations at the same time and all being from the three pillars of fantasy.
There are three pillars of genres in the history of fantasy. One is the low-magic-our-world-turned-gritty. And George does this really well and he actually kind of hybridizes that with the epic fantasy which is part of what makes the books so great. But that's one pillar—that’s the Conans and the Burroughs and all of that line of fantasy. The second pillar is portal fantasy—through the looking glass. The Chronicles of Narnia and all of those things. Third pillar is the epic. Tolkien, etc. We’d had all three of these types of stories for a long time and if you go back to the 80s, you see people today trying to make movies of these and them not ever hitting really mainstream appeal until the late 90s. Something happened and the special effects one is a good argument.
So it could be totally something else but you've got all three of these getting adaptations forming these kind of three pillars. You've got the gritty version of our world. You've got the epic high adventure where you take everything very seriously. And you’ve got the portal fantasy—kid from our world gets sucked into a very colorful, very vibrant different world. And you've got adaptations of these that were all really well done. And it just kind of hit the culture and things that had been just kind of insider culture where you had to be really into fantasy to be reading these things suddenly it was really accessible through really good special effects and really good filmmakers. And lo and behold, boom.
And is it good for fantasy? Absolutely. I think that the genre can only benefit by more people reading it. More people being part of the conversation. I am not a believer in there being certain groups that are true fans and certain groups that are not. If you watch one movie or read one book and you love it, welcome! Thank you. Come on in and let's talk about it. And that excites me. It excites me that this is something that when people ask “What do you do,” and I say I write fantasy and they're like, “Oh, like…” and then they put one of those three in the blank. I'm excited that I can say yes. I can't think of anything better for the genre than getting more people to read it and to be interested in it.
Where do you see the genre going in the next 20 years?
Wow. So I'll preface this with little story when I went to World Fantasy Convention in 2000 or 2001. I was first trying to break in, I had not sold any books. I frequently went to the panels that talked about the future of the genre and I don't remember which year this was but I distinctly remember sitting down and hearing a panel of expert editors and authors whom I knew and respected saying, don't write vampire stories. I remember they made a bad pun. Vampire stories are dead. Don't do vampire stories. And Twilight was like a year or two afterwards.
Everyone thought that Anne Rice had kind of “killed” the genre and that it was a pariah and no one was going to sell any vampire books. Then someone came along and sold the best-selling vampire series of all time. I think the more entrenched I become as one of the people that authors are reacting against, the less I'm going to be good at predicting where the genre will be because by its nature the genre is going to go places that I wouldn't be writing.
Just like in some ways my books are a reaction to George [R.R. Martin], because George was the dominant epic fantasy writer when I broke in and still is. When I broke in, I thought, “Alright this is good but what I really like is the more optimistic high-magic different-world fantasy.” And nobody seemed to be doing that. They were all kind of going the George direction. So I'm going to point myself this other direction and hope that this is still something that people want to read because I know the genre is big enough for for multiple takes on things. And it seems like it worked.
The trends? I mean everyone thought that Steampunk would break out and that's been like 25 years. I'm exaggerating but forever, everyone's like, “Steampunk is the next best thing.” Maybe if Hungry City Chronicles comes out as a film and it is really good, we will finally see Steampunk break into the mainstream like we saw epic and portal fantasy and things like that. People keep trying and it just doesn't end up working. Maybe we'll see Flintlock fantasy kind of come to its own. Over the last five or six years in fantasy one of the things has been Flintlock. This kind of more American Revolution-era technology plus fantasy worlds colliding and there are some really great stories being written this way.
Maybe we'll see, you know, N.K. Jemisin really kind of becoming the trendsetter. But again I'm picking people who've been around seven or eight years. What Nora is doing is more literary, and may kick off a renaissance in the classic sort of Ursula Le Guin style. Really thought provoking, really luscious language. Stories that do really diverse casts and look at traditions other than the standard European tradition that a lot of us in fantasy use as our default. Maybe it's going to go that direction more. My guess would be that the things that are going to happen are reactions against us and by their nature if we can't predict them.
You finished up the Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time books. What was that like?
The first one came out in 1990 and so I was 15. It was the year after I had become a fantasy fan. And it's actually the first series I can remember starting to read where it wasn't done yet. It’s the first series I can distinctly remember picking this up as it begins. I saw Eye of the World released on the bookshelf the week it came out and started reading it and I've been reading it ever since. So I was picked in part because of that. I don't know if you know the story, but I just got a phone call one day. I didn't apply for this job or anything. Harriet, his wife called me and asked me because she liked some of what she'd seen from me, and, wow, it was so weird. So weird that I look back and say, “Wow did that really happen?” Because there are so many emotions to try to explain.
The closest thing I can think of is if you were to have someone show up on your door and say, “Congratulations! We have this huge inheritance for you that you didn't know was out there but by the way your favorite relative has died and you didn't know it.”
You’ve got this mix of emotions like, yeah, I get to do this cool thing. Oh no, this writer that I loved is gone. There's this sort of walking into the master's workshop and being able to fiddle with all of the master's tools and the project's half complete. And be the one who did that. There's just a certain reverence, plus excitement as a journeyman writer that I got to do that. There was a lot of really, really satisfying stuff having been a fan all these years reading the Wheel of Time and talking with my friends about it and all the things we hoped and wished would happen. Being the one to say, alright, I can decide which of these things prove that they are.
It wasn't really even your standard what we call ‘work for hire.’ It wasn't like writing a Star Wars novel because Harriet, she came to me and said, “I hired you because I wanted a writer, not a ghost writer. You've got creative control. You just have to convince me.”
It’s like someone hands you all the pieces of a vase that they've smashed up in a bag and goes, “Alright, there it is. Oh by the way we lost half of them.” Because, you know, the outline—only a fragment of it was complete. And so it was the hardest thing I've ever done. You asked about what's hard as a writer. For me with this project it was keeping track of the side characters. And trying to make sure character voices matched the voices from previous installments without my attempts to mimic Robert Jordan turning into parody. When you try to mimic someone's style. That's a real danger. Also making good on promises that he had made 15 years ago and trying to bring them together. It was the most difficult thing I've ever done professionally. But I'm so glad that I had the chance to do it.
For readers who have never gotten in fantasy, what should they start with?
The thing is, if I were going to do this, I would sit down with them and say, “What types of stories do you like?’ The biggest misconception of fantasy is assuming that sub-genre is genre. And I think this is the misconception with every genre. It's hard for us to keep in our heads that the genre can be very eclectic. In fantasy, what makes it awesome is we are the genre that can do anything. That includes taking stories or plots or ideas or whatever from other genres and just stealing them wholesale. They can't really do that from us all the time without just turning into fantasy themselves. We're like the borg or like zombies. You will turn into us if you get too close to us.
So you can find in fantasy a mystery story that’s as great as any detective novel and if you like that sort of thing you're stepping stone into fantasy is trying one like what you love but with some fantasy and see if the added dimension of worldbuilding is interesting to you. Because that's what we do. We add this dimension of, well, what if some of the things you take for granted you couldn't take for granted?
But if what you love are historical fiction novels then we can find some great epic fantasies, and you’re going to be like, “Wow, this reads like a historical novel but in a world that doesn't exist!”
If you like really literary stuff, I’d point you right at N. K. Jemisin and say, “Look she's been winning all the awards lately for a reason. You're probably going to love this stuff.” There’s no one entry point and there's going to be there's a lot of individual speaking back and forth with people about what they would would like and what they would want to try. So yeah I'm not sure if I can even answer this question if that makes any sense.
Fantasy writer working today that you think is under-rated?
Oh boy. All of them. No, I'm exaggerating There's so much great and mind-blowing stuff. I constantly read it and say, “Wow I wish I had thought of that.” That's the best feeling as a writer. When you read one of these things and say, “Wow I wish I had thought of that.”
I've mentioned a bunch of writers already. Those are good ones. I think Mary Robinett Kowal, although I’m biased. She’s a good friend of mine and I do a podcast with her but I brought her on my podcast and made her co-host because I think her writing is so good. I think that she is definitely not getting the attention that she deserves She wrote a really excellent book, it’s a World War I spy thriller about women who are mediums who have trained the ghosts of soldiers who are killed to report back and talk about who killed them and start hunting spies using this. That's just such a cool concept.
The fantasy work that you would most love to see turned into a movie or TV show?
Ooh boy. I think visually one of the most interesting fantasy stories of all time is Garth Nix's Sabriel. So I would love to see an adaptation of that because the visuals in that are so cool. Really solid magic system, some really solid ‘old world meets new’ kind of dynamic. And so I would say that or I would go back to some of the classics that I think that they got maybe passed over—like we've never gotten to Dragonriders of Pern adaptation and it would just be a really cool adaptation to see. Some of these books during the foundational days of fantasy that nobody has tried yet. Of course we're getting Name of the Wind—Name of the Wind would be pretty high on that list. But we're pretty close to getting one of those.
For those who want to give Sanderson a test run, he recommends heading over to his website where a free copy of Warbreaker on his website.