Monday, August 31, 2009

Some questions for Brandon Sanderson

A year ago, I got the opportunity to meet rising star author Brandon Sanderson. He and his wife, Emily, were delightful people and were all the more pleasant to put up with me asking five hundred questions about writing and books. He also agreed to answer some questions for this here blog and, thanks to his wife, those questions got answered and I'll share them with you now. I figure that if an opportunity arises like this, you have to snatch it up before it passes you by. Brandon Sanderson is becoming such a hot item these days that this kind of chance may never happen again!

First off, Caren had some questions for him about Warbreaker, his newest novel and our latest co-review.

How are the Idrian royalty descended from the First Returned if the Returned can't bear offspring?

I don’t want to give away spoilers on this idea right now, as I am planning to explore it in the second Warbreaker book. As Robert Jordan often said, Read And Find Out.

The Idrians and Hallandrens had different beliefs about the purposes of the Returned and how they came to be. What is the true explanation?
This is another topic that I don’t want to say too much about, partly because it would give spoilers to things I plan to write in the future. The other reason is that it is difficult to say, as with any real religion, that one is completely true while another is completely false. All religions are based on some truths, and I’ve tried to show this by including some truths about the Returned in both the Idrians’ and the Hallandrens’ religions.

Your portrayal of religion in Warbreaker and the Mistborn Triology is not always very flattering, though there are underlying themes of faith and redemption. How do these portrayals reflect your feelings of organized religion and religious faith?
I am a practicing member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, and my particular religious faith is something that has shaped who I am as a person. I also find the concept of organized religion in general to be interesting so my books tend to contain references to and portrayals of religions. Perhaps the reason that some of these portrayals of organized religion in my books are not always very flattering is that I believe that religion, used for the wrong purposes, is one of the most evil things in the world. Someone who is familiar with guns is more likely to know enough to be afraid of the misuse of guns, and caution others about this. Someone who believes strongly in organized religion can be even more aware of the problems that come with the misuse of religion.

The ending is really a beginning for at least two of the characters -- Vasher and Vivenna. Do you plan on writing more about them in the future?

I would like to write more in the Warbreaker world in the future. I’ve planned to write at the least, a sequel, though I’m not sure yet if that will be the story of Vasher and Vivenna’s continued travels, or something else. Most likely I would not write about Siri and Susebron, as I feel like their plot arcs were finished and most loose ends tied up.

The problem is, I have so many projects under contract right now, that I may not get to more Warbreaker for quite some time!

We both had questions about the fantasy genre, writing in general and whatever else popped into our heads.

How do you determine an appropriate balance between the fantastic and the familiar in your writing?

There should be a balance between the fantastic and the familiar, and while determining this balance, for me, has become instinctual, I usually end up using the three storytelling pieces, character, setting and plot. For example, if my setting has a lot of fantastical elements, I might want to use more conventional characters, or loosely follow a well known plot archetype.

What do you see is the biggest challenge for today's fantasy writer?

I think one of the biggest challenges for today’s fantasy writer is to come up with something new, that still satisfies the fantasy reader’s desires.

Fantasy seems to engender either strong devotion (bordering on obsession), or skepticism (bordering on contempt) -- more than any other genre that I can think of. Why do you think this is? And what would you like to help fantasy skeptics understand?
Fantasy has a steep learning curve, meaning that when you open a fantasy book, there can be multiple things about the setting and characters that are different from the world we live in, and have to be explained or described. I think fantasy readers like this extra layer of complexity, while those who do not like to read fantasy may be put off by the effort it can take to get into a story. This is both a great strength of the genre, and something that keeps it from being more widely accessible. I would explain this concept to fantasy skeptics so they would understand better what “those weirdos who read fantasy” see in it, and so they might have a better idea what to expect if they choose to try a fantasy novel.

How much science research goes into your writing? In general, how much time would you say you spend researching before you write?

I’ve always had an interest in the sciences, so I have a fairly good grasp on basic principles. However, one of the reasons I became a writer rather than a scientist is that I like being able to bend, if not completely break, the rules. Still, I usually do some research to make sure that my magic systems, when they are heavily scientific, are consistent. How much research I do really depends on the book and my level of knowledge on the scientific topic. For Mistborn I looked at the periodic table of elements to choose metals for the allomancers to use, and spent quite a bit of time chatting with friends about the physics aspects of pushing and pulling.

What advice would you give aspiring writers?
Advice I often give to aspiring writers is to keep writing. I think this is really the best thing you can do, whether your problem is that you have writer’s block, or that you think the beginning of your novel is not good enough, or that you can’t figure out what to write next. Creating a habit of writing regularly is the most important thing you can do if you want to be a writer.

What's the craziest thing a fan has asked or said to you, especially now that you are finishing the much anticipated conclusion to the Wheel of Time series?

People have asked me to write some pretty ridiculous things into The Gathering Storm. They’ve wanted events such as certain characters to die, or other characters to form romantic attachments. Let’s see, other crazy things…people have asked me to sign body parts, usually arms, sometimes a stomach, which I always refuse to do.

Many thanks to Brandon Sanderson and his wife, Emily for taking the time to answer our questions. For you readers out there, if you haven't figured out yet that Caren and I are fans of his work, go back and read some of the many posts we've done about his books. His books always make for a good read.


  1. What a great post! Add my thanks to Mr. Sanderson for taking time, and good on you for seeing the oppurtunity. It's very interesting to see into the mind of someone who writes for a living.

  2. Those were all questions I would have liked to ask him. He did a book signing/Q and A at our local library, but it was 2 days before Tyler was born and I wasn't feeling too hot, so I missed it. I'm glad you asked the questions for me. I especially appreciate your question on his portrayal of organized religion, because I was wondering the same thing. And Jenny, thanks for introducing me to his work. We are doing Elantris for this month's book group, because I liked it so much and thought that it had a lot to discuss. A lot of people have the idea that there's nothing too much to discuss about fantasy. I think they'll be surprised.

  3. Good questions...I have been waiting for this post all summer!