Brandon Sanderson: "We haven't hit what epic fantasy is capable of yet"

Brandon Sanderson's new book Words of Radiance debuted at #1 on the New York Times Besteller List. What does he think is the secret of his popularity, and the reason for epic fantasy's resurgence? We asked him, and he explained why epic fantasy is ready to take it to the next level.

Top image: Way of Kings cover by Michael Whelan.

We caught up with Sanderson at the University of Arizona, where he was appearing at the annual Tucson Festival of Books. He took a few minutes out of his busy schedule to talk about why he comes to events like this, the fantasy genre, writing practices, and his future projects.

So when you come to events like this and you sit on the panels, do you do it more so the fans can understand you more as a writer or do you do it to help out young aspiring writers and try to give them some tips and tricks?

You know, it's a little bit of both. When I was young — I was 17 — I went to my first convention and Katherine Kurtz was there and she sat down with me. And I was just a young, teenage, aspiring writer, and she talked to me for a good half hour on the business, how to write, and other advice. I've remembered that ever since, and I thought if I ever get in this position where I can do the same thing, I want to be available.

Becoming a writer, so much of it is solitary. You have to spend all this time sitting, writing on your own, and practicing that when you can actually connect with someone who has gone there before, it can mean more than basically anything else in your writing career—save just practicing. So I like to be available.

I'm at this place in my career where my fans support me. They read the books and that makes it possible for me to do what I do, and I want to be available for them. I use the metaphor that — I guess it's more of a simile — you're like the people in the 19th century. If you wanted to be an artist you had to find a wealthy patron to take care of you. And my wealthy patron is the fandom, right? I exist with them supporting me actively. I mean these sci-fi and fantasy fans are well connected. They can all go pirate the books — they all know how to. But instead they buy them and support me. So I want to be available.

Words of Radiance has been really well received. Do you think that's at all indicative of the epic fantasy genre opening up?

Opening up? I'm not sure. Yes there is — how should I say this? I love the epic fantasy genre. I grew up reading it and I absolutely love it. I want to be part of the conversation. I think there are places the genre can go. We haven't hit what epic fantasy is really capable of doing yet, and I feel that one of my passions is to be a part of this, to bring it along. So I want to push the world building a little bit further than it's been done before.

Brandon Sanderson: "We haven't hit what epic fantasy is capable of yet"

Image by Michael Whelan.

I think we did have a period, for whatever reason, where not a lot of epic fantasies were taking off. If you look, basically, from after Robin Hobb up to the emergence of Patrick Rothfuss, you really only had Steven Erikson. Now there's Jim Butcher's books, which were great, but he was really Urban Fantasy. So, I don't know if it was just the market saying "oh, we're saturated," or the writers were just not going where the fans wanted, but there were a lot of great books that just didn't take off.

I don't know what it is, but it seems like we're back in a place where epic fantasy is something taking off. And it's probably a mixture of us as writers evolving and having this history of reading while adding our own spin on it mixed with the genre kind of saying "hey we want some more this. We haven't had it in a while."

You had that essay on Tor.com where you talked about the Way of Kings, and I'm guessing Words of Radiance too, being your most honest work. Do you think it's important for other writers not to worry so much about the business side, and write what they want to write?

I can only speak from my own experience, which may be abnormal, but I really feel that the times where I worried too much about the market were the times I wrote my worst fiction. And the times where I wrote: "this is what I want to read — this is what I'm passionate about," I wrote my best fiction. And so that's what I would advise.

Brandon Sanderson: "We haven't hit what epic fantasy is capable of yet"

Image by Sam Weber.

That being said, I was very steeped in this genre. You can say what I wanted to read was very naturally an outgrowth of what a lot of what the fandom wanted to read because I was one of them. That's why it worked for me. And I'm sure there are a number of people who are writing to their passion, and it just doesn't end up catching on. I wrote 13 books before I got published, and at the end of the day I decided I would rather keep writing and never publish than give up writing or go do something else. And if I reached the end of my life and had 70 unpublished novels, I'd still consider myself a successful writer. That decision has driven me ever since and it's worked out for me.

I also saw the interview where you sat down with Tom Doherty and talked about your "master plan" to tie all your books together. And I know you're always big on endings, so how are you approaching writing something so big and tying it all together?

Lots of work in my internal wiki mixed with continuity editors. I've hired people whose job it is to just keep me honest. Because when I sit down to write the first draft of a book, I'm trying to lay down the emotional resonance, get the characters right, get the plot right, get these really important things right. Following that I'll worry about continuity sometimes — like, the little continuity. Of course you want character continuity from the very beginning, but some of these things we do like that. So having a continuity editor is very helpful in that realm and that's one of the things I've done. Peter Ahlstrom is doing a lot, and Karen, his wife, has jumped in since she was a professional editor as well. So they've jumped in and are keeping me honest.

How is Firefight coming along?

Yeah, I just turned in the third draft to my editor and it turned out great. There are two things I'll need to fix in the next draft that I know of right now. And you always have things like that, but I wanted to get my editors perspective on it. Then we'll see what she says and I'll try to figure out what to do next. But it's looking really good.

On Twitter I see that you go to airports when you travel and do those book signings, but how did that start? I don't see a lot of other authors doing that.

I was traveling somewhere years ago and I got in this habit. I guess you go way back to when I was first published and Elantris came out, not a lot of bookstores were even carrying it, right? And if they did they'd have like one copy. And I felt that one of the things I could do — because you can't do a lot as a new writer — but one of the things I could do was get a box of paperbacks of Elantris that the publishers gave to me and drive to bookstores. And whenever I'd pass one I could go in and say, "Hey, who is your fantasy or science fiction reader on staff," and they'd say, "Oh, it's this guy." And I'd say, "Can I sign a book for them?" I'd try to meet him or her and say, "If I give you this book will you read it?" They'd usually say yes. Now these were the days before the self-publishing explosion, and I think right now, they'd be more wary. But back then they weren't nearly as wary. That kind of thing didn't happen; people didn't do this thing often. So I went in and I handed them all books, and I'd try to leave a book in every bookstore I passed.

So I got in this habit of signing the shelf-stock and meeting the managers, and I started seeing airport bookstores. I was like, "Well, I'm flying somewhere. I'll just stop in and do the same thing." And it became this thing where I didn't ever want to pass a bookstore without leaving my signed books. Then one time I just left a tweet, "Hey, they're here," and Twitter exploded. People were like, "Oh my goodness!" And they all worked to go get that book and it was gone really fast. So I was like, "Oh, people care about this." Now I go ahead and do Tweets — it's become this thing. But I hide these cool things in the books and people try to anticipate where I'm going, try to get flights that pass through there so they can come in and get those things. It's really fun.

In a panel on mythology from earlier today, you talked about establishing folklore that isn't necessarily crucial to the plot—maybe ancillary—but that people read into it too much for clues. Do you find that to be, maybe not annoying, but distracting?

I don't think so, if it's the right book. I feel like if it's a big, thick, epic fantasy then it's partially about the immersive experience. Those sorts of things are important to consistently indicate to you as a reader that this world is big — this is a real world, we'll be living in this world for a while. But when you're doing something else, a more tightly paced urban fantasy for instance, fewer of those things should be put in because you're trying to pack much more in while trying to keep your narrative focused.

But at the same time, I kind of feel like not every character attribute should be part of the main plot. I mean, who we are certainly influences us, but sometimes a character just likes collecting stamps. It's just who we are. And if you're treating your setting like a character, there are going to be things about your setting that are like the stamp collecting, that are just part of it. And if you do it right, these things will feel like pieces of the world and readers won't be distracted.

You often talked about the influence that Robert Jordan had on you as a writer, so how do you feel about now being the same influence that RJ was to new young writers?

This is just amazing to me. I became a writer in the first place because reading the fantasy books that I love had such a profound effect on me emotionally that I said, "I have to learn how to do this. I have to." Now being able to talk to people and realize its working and inspiring another generation — and you know, people react against or toward me in the same way I'd react against or toward the things that came before — that's cool. You're part of something — part of something big. Part of this genre I love. It makes me really excited.