Brandon Sanderson is the Campbell-nominated author (twice-nominated now) of the fantasy novels Elantris and Mistborn: The Final Empire. His novel Well of Ascension, second in the Mistborn trilogy, will be published in a few months. Other projects (including the playfully titled Alcatraz Versus the Evil Librarians) are on the horizon. Brandon also recently released another full novel in draft form, Warbreaker, which is available for free at his website. He blogs at BrandonSanderson.com and posts frequently on the message board at The Official Time-Waster’s Guide. Brandon graciously agreed to be interviewed, as part of our ongoing Mormon Writers Symposium.
[Interview questions by Kaimi Wenger]
1. You’ve established a reputation as a writer of genre fiction (fantasy). Many LDS writers (Orson Scott Card; Glen Larson) have used the genre of speculative fiction, broadly speaking. Is there something uniquely LDS about speculative fiction (or perhaps something uniquely speculative about the LDS mindset)?
This is, actually, a common question–one I get from LDS people as well as from New York, where they see an unusual number of fantasy authors coming from Utah. Utah readers also tend to buy more fantasy and sf books than a lot of other states. My guess is that there are many things coming together to cause these trends.
First off, I think LDS culture emphasizes learning and reading in general. We grow up reading from the scriptures, and our prophet speaks often about the importance of education. Because of this, I think that there are just a lot of very literate people in our culture–and that translates to more writers and more readers.
Beyond that, fantasy has a tradition of having strong values (two of the most foundational authors in the genre are C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien, who both dealt a lot with good against evil and used Christian themes in their writing.) Because of this, fantasy attracts religious people, I think. Even something as generally un-religious as Harry Potter deals with the tradition of the good and the pure struggling against the corrupt and the evil.
Finally, I think that the LDS religion–despite what some detractors may say–is far more open and accepting of new thoughts and ideas than other religious cultures. To an LDS reader, the concept of other populated worlds isnâ€™t threatening.
2. Certain speculative fiction authors (e.g., Philip K. Dick, Harlan Ellison, Ursula LeGuin) are routinely described as having transcended the trappings of the genre. What might make a book transcend its genre? What does that label mean?
Thatâ€™s a very astute question. Before we dig completely into what that means, I find myself wondering if itâ€™s even something I would like to be known for doing. Do I want to transcend my genre? I love fantasy. I love the things that made it what it is–the dragons, the quests, the stories of Hobbits and rings and all of that. Those stories are what made me into what I am.
Do I want to transcend those excellent authors? Could I even hope to? I donâ€™t think so. And yet, if I simply do the same things that they have done, Iâ€™m likely to do a poor job of it. Others have already covered a lot of those themes quite well.
And so, that presents a challenge for a new author. I want to add something new to the discussion, but I still want my novels to FEEL like fantasy. For me, Iâ€™ve done this by trying to expand the genre in new directions when it comes to the types of magic I put in my book, as well as develop some different kinds of plots.
I do want to do something new. However, Iâ€™m no LeGuin. I donâ€™t have the literary chops, honestly, to be about transcendence. I just want to tell the best darn story I can and have people love reading it.
3. You’ve confessed on your blog that you can write scores of pages in a day when you’re on a roll. Is this plotting plus writing? How do you work, in a nuts-and-bolts fashion? Do you sit and plot for weeks on end and then suddenly hammer out a bunch of text?
Writing is a funny thing. In the last month, Iâ€™ve probably written only fifty or sixty pages. The month before that, I wrote five hundred. For me, I do spend a lot of time planning, thinking, and working things out.
However, itâ€™s not always a rushing river of words for me. Most of the time, itâ€™s ten pages a day, day after day. There are periods of two or three pages a day. There are periods of forty or fifty pages a day. It all depends on the project. Right now, Iâ€™m working on the first of what will be a lengthy series, and so itâ€™s slow going for me because of the weight of thought that has to go into foreshadowing and worldbuilding.
4. You’ve been critical of, um, certain-other-authors for their negative interactions with fans. What is the proper relationship or interactions between an author and readers?
Ha! Youâ€™ve done your homework, I see.
My own philosophy is to look at the author as beholden to the people who pay him/her–and that is the public! In the old days, an artist would be supported by a wealthy benefactor. Nowadays, it hasnâ€™t actually changed all that much. That wealthy benefactor is now a group made up of the public who buy books.
I LOVE writing. Itâ€™s the most amazing job I think I could imagine. The fact that the people who pay for my books support me in this addiction of mine is very humbling. I can do this, day by day, because of the generosity and encouragement of my readers. I feel, then, that I owe them something. Great books, first off. But, beyond that, I think I owe them respect. That means not calling them names or getting angry at them, even if they didnâ€™t like a particular book of mine. They paid for it, they pay for my family to eat, they have a right to tell me what they think of the job Iâ€™m doing.
5. Along the same lines, what sorts of experiences have you had, positive or negative, with online communities? In particular, what are the benefits of maintaining an online presence (at your blog, or at the Official Time-Waster’s Guide forums)? Are there drawbacks?
There are a lot of positives. Most of the time, it comes in the way of encouragement and suggestions. Knowing that people support you as a writer is very motivating. Beyond that, I think it helps the readers and aspiring writers to be able to interact with someone who is making a living at writing. It offers a more inclusive experience for them, and they can see the process more.
The negatives. . .well, mostly these come from me sticking my foot in my mouth. To be honest, having a blog is a little bit like walking around with a gun pointed at your own head. In books, I can get across the emotions, thoughts, and themes that I want because I can take the time and space I need. On the internet, most communication is much more brief, and without intonation and context, a lot of things can come out sounding a lot different from the way you intended them to!
I wrote one essay called â€œHow Tolkien Ruined Fantasyâ€ which was supposed to be a silly title, as the essay itself was about how great Tolkienâ€™s writing was, and how difficult it is to live up to his legacy. People read the title of the essay, however, and suddenly I was known on message boards as the guy who hated Tolkien!
In another essay, I talked about the mechanics and costs of hardbacks, and why publishers publish them. (You ask about this essay below, I see.) It came across, even though I tried very hard to avoid this, as me begging people to buy my hardbacks instead of my paperbacks. Suddenly, I was known as the guy who hated people who bought paperbacks! (Not my intention at all. I even give a free book away on my website. I donâ€™t hate people who read my books; Iâ€™m honored, even if they get them for free!)
You just have to watch yourself and realize that, despite your best intentions, some things just arenâ€™t going to work like you hope they will.
5a. You just released Warbreaker on the Internet. Some other speculative fiction authors (such as Cory Doctorow and John Scalzi) have had some success with net-released material. What are you hoping to accomplish with Warbreaker online? (And how does the intellectual property work with that, anyway?)
Well, before I gave this a try, I spoke with Cory and with my editor at Tor. I didnâ€™t want to do anything that would jeopardize the book being published. However, the people at Tor felt that it would be good exposure, and a good way to interact with the fans. So, we went ahead with the project.
I had (have) several goals with this project. First off, I wanted to give something as a free preview of my work on my website. I figure that the people who support an authorâ€™s writing addiction are usually the hardcore fans who read everything the put out. The more people I can convince to TRY my work, the more long-term readers Iâ€™ll pick up. So, if I give one book away for free, maybe those who read it will end up buying and reading my other books.
Secondly, I really did want to offer something as a â€˜thank youâ€™ to those whoâ€™ve already read my works. If Iâ€™d just wanted a freebie on my site, I would have simply posted the finished Warbreaker about the same time that I released it in hardback. (This is what Cory does.) However, I get so much email from people asking about my writing process that I figured the best way to help out in this manner was to simply SHOW how I do it. So, I began posting early drafts of Warbreaker, followed by later ones, and so forth. My goal is to post each draft, then finally post the notes program I worked from, allowing people to see the process of how I develop a book.
As for rights, Iâ€™m really not worried. Tor is fine publishing the book anyway (they agree that right now, itâ€™s better to give a novel away for free and hook more readers.) Iâ€™ve indicated that people arenâ€™t allowed to sell Warbreaker copies, or to make money off of the setting. Thatâ€™s all that really matters, as far as Iâ€™m concerned.
5b. You’re currently annotating Mistborn on your blog, providing “deleted scenes” and commentary on each chapter of the book. What are the advantages of this approach? How much time does it take? Why did you decide to start annotating?
Well, I do these things kind of for the same reasons I mentioned above. First and foremost, I want people to feel like they get their moneyâ€™s worth from my novels. When they buy one–particularly in hardback–theyâ€™re investing quite a chunk of change to be entertained. I want to give them as much as I can, kind of like the bonus material on a DVD.
It takes between a half-hour and an hour a day, four days a week, to keep my blog updated and to provide this bonus material. A fairly big investment, but worth it, I think. I go a year between publishing novels. If I can keep people coming back to my website to read new and good material, theyâ€™ll be that much more likely to know when my next book comes out, then buy it!
The annotations came from my desire to do something like a DVD directorâ€™s commentary. Iâ€™d never seen anything like that done on a book website before, so I went for it. I hope people enjoy them!
6. How has your experience been, trying to Make A Living as a writer? Are you officially a Full-Time Author at this point? Is that in the future? What are the realities of trying to write for a living?
Itâ€™s been interesting! Officially, Iâ€™m a full time writer as of last year. For several years now, actually, Iâ€™ve been writing â€˜full time,â€™ though I also teach at BYU occasionally. Last year was the first year, however, that my writing managed to provide what one might call a livable income. Obviously, I consider it the future!
The realities are that itâ€™s hard. Paying self-employment tax, mixed with having no insurance or retirement benefits, plus paying 15% off the top to an agent really changes things. Beyond that, you have to deal with the fact that you DONâ€™T have a steady paycheck, and donâ€™t know how much money youâ€™ll make in a given year. One year, you can make 50k–the next, 15k.
However, Iâ€™ll bet that anyone doing any job can come up with a list of grievances like that. The truth is that I love what Iâ€™m doing, and feel very, very fortunate to be able to make money at it. Hopefully, that will continue!
7. Who are your favorite LDS authors? Why? What new things have you seen in LDS fiction in the last (30?) years that you’ve liked?
Hum. . . . Iâ€™d list Robison Wells and Dean Hughes as two that I like who are publishing in the LDS market. If you talk LDS authors, but not necessarily LDS fiction, then Iâ€™d add Shannon Hale, David Farland, Orson Scott Card, and Brandon Mull to that list as well. Iâ€™ll answer the second half of the question along with the next one. [Ed. note: Shannon Hale was interviewed a few weeks back for this series.]
8. Where do the unexplored countries lie, as far as LDS writing? What could we be doing better, as a people?
Whew! Thatâ€™s a can of worms waiting to be opened. My biggest complaint with LDS fiction is when a moral is forced into a story simply because itâ€™s being published by an LDS publisher. They canâ€™t simply publish good works about LDS people struggling and living life, it seems–they have to learn a Sunday school lesson as well. Thatâ€™s changing, I think, and is one of the trends that Iâ€™ve liked about the market.
However, a larger problem isnâ€™t with the writing at all, but with the way the publishing industry works in Utah. I think itâ€™s a huge conflict of interest to have the retailer ALSO be the publisher of most of the fiction, and beyond that to have the Church directing both. I donâ€™t think that method serves the authors or the public very well. The monopoly doesnâ€™t thrill me either. (Though, to give a thumbs up the same direction, I think the Shadow Mountain imprint of Deseret Book has been handled wonderfully.)
But, thatâ€™s all business. You asked more about the writing. So, in that case, Iâ€™d come back to forced morals trumping good writing. However, I hesitate to point fingers. The truth is, I donâ€™t write in this genre–so what business do I have trying to tell LDS fiction writers what to do? Plus, you can point at ANY genre and find works that donâ€™t seem to focus on good storytelling. (At least in a given personâ€™s perspective.)
So, Iâ€™ll leave it at that, and say that Iâ€™m curious to see where both LDS fiction and cinema go in the next few decades.
9. How does your religion affect how you are perceived as a writer? Do people in the industry think of you as “an LDS writer”? Do Mormons adopt you as one of our own and support you as a co-religionist? Is it a non-issue? Is it ever a negative issue?
This is a tough one to answer because the honest truth is, I donâ€™t know. Without seeing into the minds of others, I canâ€™t really decide how Iâ€™m perceived. From what Iâ€™ve seen on blogs, and from what people have said
to me, I THINK itâ€™s seen as a non-issue to most outside of LDS culture. Inside the culture, I think I pick up a few sales because people are curious what a fellow LDS guy is doing.
Iâ€™m not ashamed of it at all. My books DO tend to deal with religious topics, and my BYU connection is made in the bio on the flap of every book. However, my books arenâ€™t LDS except that my own background shapes my views on ethics and the nature of the universe.
10. You’ve got some pretty dark characters — evil priests of a fanatical hierarchical religion; nobles who engage in human sacrifice to draw on dark powers; callous nobles in another book who rape and kill without a second thought; a repressive regime enforced by torture. Even your heroes aren’t all sunshine and butterflies. Do you ever get negative reactions on this from members? How do you navigate that?
Heh. Now THAT one I can answer. The biggest complaint Iâ€™ve had from readers is not about the aforementioned sacrifice scene (donâ€™t worry, itâ€™s not that graphic), itâ€™s not the noble society in Mistborn, nor is
the dark edge Kelsier has. Itâ€™s the fact that my characters occasionally curse. This has really bothered some readers, which Iâ€™ll admit, kind of dumbfounds me. I use only the most tame of curses (the Biblical swear words, you might call them.) The other things youâ€™ve mentioned above are far more worrisome to me. It bothers me that people email me with outcries when a character says â€˜damn,â€™ yet donâ€™t bat an eye at the fact that that same character just murdered someone in cold blood.
Iâ€™ve never had any comments on any of the things you mention, though that doesnâ€™t mean that people havenâ€™t noticed them. Iâ€™m honestly not sure what peopleâ€™s perspective is. And, I donâ€™t want to give the impression here that my books are incredibly dark. They are, however, sometimes a little violent. Iâ€™ve thought a lot about this issue. What do I want to do, how much do I want to show? Can I have a brutal oppressive empire without acknowledging the kinds of things that empire would do?
My books are about hope, in my opinion. Hope, struggle, and victory. Iâ€™ve tried very hard to keep graphic descriptions out of my books where I can, but I canâ€™t always do so without undermining the story. And, the story comes first, for me.
A wise friend (an LDS writer) once explained that in his opinion, glorifying violence or sexuality comes when consequences are removed. The scriptures themselves donâ€™t shy away from graphic content or descriptions (scalps on swords, anyone?) The important issue, however, is that the scriptures show the destructive effect that these things can have, even on the good people who are forced to engage in them.
So, I consider that my charge. I donâ€™t sugar-coat my stories. However, I show cause and effect. A person cannot kill, in my opinion, even for good reasons without it leave them scarred.
11. What are the limits of LDS fiction? Is there anything LDS fiction never do? Is this a good thing?
Limits of LDS fiction, or limits of LDS fiction, as published by the church? The church does and should have limits on what it will publish. (Which is why I think itâ€™s a conflict of interest for them to own the retail stores as well.) A book published by a Deseret Book imprint should maintain a certain standard of content. I donâ€™t think the church should have published Mistborn (though Elantris would have been just fine.) That doesnâ€™t mean I donâ€™t think LDS people should read it; it just means that I donâ€™t think itâ€™s right for that publisher.
I think other, smaller publishers can and are exploring other aspects of what itâ€™s like to live life as an LDS person. They will continue to do so. They may never hit the mainstream, but maybe–with time–weâ€™ll see
mainstream LDS fiction expand beyond preaching. As I said above, Iâ€™m curious to see what happens.
12. You’re up for the Campbell, again. (Congratulations, by the way.) What can you tell our readers about the Campbell award? What does the field look like? (Um, are you allowed to discuss this?) What are the mechanics of the award — how it’s given, who decides it? Does it pay a million dollars, like the Nobel?
The Campbell pays only in prestige. You donâ€™t even get a cool little statue, like you do with the Hugo (the big award that is presented in the same ceremony as the Campbell.) You just get a plaque and, in recent years, a tiara. (Donâ€™t ask.)
The Campbell is the â€˜rookie of the yearâ€™ award for science fiction and fantasy. A person is eligible their first two years after they publish, and I was lucky enough to get nominated both years of my eligibility. Itâ€™s voted on by fans who attend the World Science Fiction convention that year. (This year itâ€™s in Japan.)
The field looks. . .well, rough. To be honest, I donâ€™t have a shot at this one. Naomi Novik, a nice lady who got a HUGE publishing deal and released three books in the same year, hit the scene last year. Sheâ€™s nominated for the Hugo for best novel, Peter Jackson bought the movie rights to her books, and sheâ€™s had amazing exposure. Thereâ€™s really no question whoâ€™s going to win. (Even if she werenâ€™t there, there are three of us that I would say are neck-and-neck for the award.)
It sounds like a clichÃ©, but itâ€™s an honor to be nominated. Honestly. Plus, Naomiâ€™s books are good. (She got Steven King, Ann McCaffery, and Terry Brooks all to give her cover blurbs. Talk about a marketing
behemoth!) I have no problem loosing gracefully to her.
13. Recently, there seems to have been a resurgence in the fantasy genre. The Lord of the Rings movies were quite successful; more recently, Eragon was in theaters. Are we going to see Elantris, the movie, any time soon? Who would you cast as Raoden? How about Sarene? Hrathen? (And is it too early to start looking around for actors for Vin, Kelsier, Vasher, Vivena . . . ?)
Ha! As for casting choices, I would direct curious parties to the threads on my forums about this topic. I canâ€™t really say who Iâ€™d pick, since it takes so long to make a movie. And, to be honest, I have trouble imagining ANY actor in my character roles. They are who they are in my head! An actor wouldnâ€™t be them to me.
Not that I wouldnâ€™t sell movie rights. Actually, weâ€™ve had a few nibbles from various producers. As youâ€™ve said, fantasy is hot. However, itâ€™s also very expensive to make a fantasy movie, so producers are wary about the projects they pick up. My kidâ€™s series, Alcatraz Versus the Evil Librarians, which starts this October with Scholastic, is probably the most likely to be made in the near future.
And, to end with a short one:
14. Two words: Hardcover books. Why? (Okay, technically that’s three words.)
Hummm. Iâ€™m going to assume you did your homework VERY well, and are referring to an essay I wrote on this topic on my website. I believe I mentioned it above.
A little more background for the rest of you. In a short period of time, I got a lot of emails asking me why hardback books were so expensive. So, I decided to try and tackle this concept in an essay on my website. I tried very hard to explain that I donâ€™t mind if people buy my books in paperback, or check them out from the library. Thatâ€™s great! However you read them is fine with me. I feel honored that youâ€™re even doing so.
However, my HOPE is that in reading them, you end up hooked, and therefore buy the hardback of my next book. (Once again, Iâ€™m not offended if you donâ€™t! I had a LOT of trouble getting this concept across in the essay, judging by forum responses. Itâ€™s very easy to misinterpret me on this fact, particularly since I wrote the essay very early in the morning, and Iâ€™m not sure how coherent it was.)
However, since you asked–as others have–hardbacks are very important to my genre. We donâ€™t sell in supermarkets very often, and even less often do we get into places like Samâ€™s or Costco. That means we depend on the main bookstores, and the science fiction section sells a LOT less than other sections. (The romance section is 60% or so of the fiction market. Sf is around 6 or 7%.)
So, we depend on smaller sales of more expensive books to provide our income. Thatâ€™s our business model. (At least, or the big thick fantasy books like mine. There are people who do sf/f paperbacks with larger print runs and are very successful.) For me, though, hardbacks are essentially the only way I make money.
So, why we publish hardbacks is simple. Now, as to why you should buy hardbacks–or not–thatâ€™s completely up to you. Some people simply prefer paperbacks because they are lighter and easier to read. Thatâ€™s fine! Donâ€™t feel guilty at all.
And, Iâ€™ll leave it at that.