I recently had the privilege to interview bestselling author Brandon Sanderson for the 10th anniversary of the final volume in the first “Mistborn” trilogy.
Kurt Manwaring: Before we begin, could you tell us a little bit about yourself and the Mistborn series?
Brandon Sanderson: My name is Brandon Sanderson. I am an epic fantasy novelist who lives in American Fork, Utah. The “Mistborn” series started with me wondering what would happen if, in one of these fantasy stories like “Harry Potter” or “Lord of the Rings,” the Dark Lord won. What if Frodo had gotten to the end of the long journey through Mordor and the Dark Lord Sauron said, “Hey, that’s my ring. Thanks for bringing it back. I’ve been looking for it.” I was really intrigued by the idea of a world where the Dark Lord had won.
Mistborn takes place a thousand years after heroes went on that sort of epic journey, but failed. Now the story’s about a gang of thieves who decide they’re going to rob the Dark Lord to try to overthrow his empire by destabilizing his economy, after making off with a lot of money themselves.
Kurt Manwaring: Publishers gauge success by sales. Fans view a book as successful when they come away satisfied. How do you gauge whether a particular writing endeavor is successful?
Brandon Sanderson: Well, like you imply, thresholds of success can be arbitrary and have to be applied differently to different books and different goals. On a fundamental level, if you as an author have achieved your goals, then you’re successful. If your goal is finishing your first novel, like a lot of aspiring writers are doing, then that is successful. If your goal is writing a story that connects with your audience and the majority of them come away satisfied, even if not a ton of them read it, then that is successful as well.
How do I gauge success these days? My first and most important thing to do is fulfill my artistic vision for a story. Following that, it will be a mix of how the fans regard what I release, whether they get what I was doing. As an artist, you don’t always need people to like what you did if it achieved the emotions that you were trying to convey.
Of course, sales are a part of that as well. Certainly, a book that I wrote that I thought would have mass appeal and a lot of people would love, but which very few people read, would be considered unsuccessful on that metric. But that’s not necessarily something that affects the writing. It’s more that once you’re finished with a book, you look at the market and consider how best to pitch it to readers.
Kurt Manwaring: How do you think you have changed as an author over the past 10 years?
Brandon Sanderson: When I started—it’s now been 13 years since my first book came out—during those first few years, there was a lot of uncertainty such as many new writers experience. I didn’t know if I’d be able to do this long term or full time. I think that one big change over the last 10 years is a measure of confidence. I am confident now that the thing that I love to do is also something that other people will enjoy experiencing.
That changes me in a lot of ways. In one way, it makes me more willing to experiment. The newest book I have coming out, “Legion,” is an experiment for me, which I might have been a little more worried to do at the beginning of my career when a stumble might have had larger ramifications. But it also makes me more confident in my vision. Because of that, in some ways I worry less about how something will do and focus more on achieving my goals with that story.
As an actual writer I think I’ve grown quite a bit. Working on “The Wheel of Time” was a big part of that. But the more projects you complete as a writer—the more you actually do this job, the more books you finish—the more intimately familiar with the process and your own application of it you become.
Kurt Manwaring: What kind of feedback have you received from other authors about your laws of magic?
Brandon Sanderson: It’s been all across the board. A lot of times when people hear about the laws of magic, they think they’re a little more hardnosed than they are. Really, they’re meant to be descriptive. The term “law” is applied by me more for conventions of talking about the genre than anything else. They’re not rules anyone has to follow. They’re more like, “Here are tips I’ve learned that help me create good magic systems.”
When you read the actual essays about them, it actually says, “This is a rule I try to follow, but Rule #0 is always err on the side of what is awesome.”
So the rules are very mutable anyway. It’s been mostly positive, though some people say, “Why is this guy trying to make rules that I have to follow?”
Kurt Manwaring: My sister, Lindsy Thorson, introduced me to your work and spent years wondering what your dreams are like. Do your dreams ever inform your stories, stem from your stories, or relate in any way to your writing? Could you share an example?
Brandon Sanderson: I would say that for me, my dreams are not necessarily that informative of my writing. It’s more the other way around. As I’ve talked to other people I’ve found that I tend to experience dreams more as stories. For example, I don’t have nightmares. I might have dreams that are scary, but I’m always aware in the dream that, “Oh, this is a scary story and this is what happens in the scary story.” My dreams are more cinematic, more like movies, and it’s more like I’m an observer, even if I’m taking a role in the dream. I tend to be very aware that it is a dream, on some level.
I don’t usually translate those dreams to stories. It happened more when I was younger, when I would have some dream that really stuck with me, and that would start the seed of a story that turned over and over in my head. I do remember a dream once that I had when I was a teenager, about digging in the sand and finding someone underneath the sand. I eventually wrote a book where that scene happens, called “White Sand.” So I can’t say dreams never informs my writing. But they’re not necessarily the sort of thing that I am constantly plumbing for ideas.
Kurt Manwaring: What do you wish fans could know about the realities of your behind-the-scenes writing efforts?
Brandon Sanderson: I don’t know, because I tend to be pretty open with my fans. They can usually find out whatever it is they want to. The running theme that I keep mentioning to them that some people might not know is that the way I stay productive is by swapping projects frequently, which is why you see book one of something come out one year, and then book one of something else come out the next year, and then book two of a different project. This is how I keep from getting burned out. It does mean that while I tend to be on the more productive side of writers in my genre, I don’t make progress on a given series any faster than anyone else. But I much prefer that to the alternative, which seems to me to be getting bogged down in one idea or one series, and starting to lose my motivation on it. I don’t ever want to see that happen.
Kurt Manwaring: To what degree did you consciously press forward with the grand Cosmere plans, and to what extent did you just have a great idea and hope for the best?
Brandon Sanderson: I guess it’s a combination of both. When I started the Cosmere, the shared universe idea that has become very popular in movies wasn’t around. But of course, Marvel had been doing it for years in comic books, and Steven King had been doing it in his books, among many others. Asimov had done some of it. So it wasn’t like I had this one-of-a-kind, brilliant idea. It was just a concept that I liked and wanted to do. I liked the idea of epic storytelling told across many different series and books that would link together. That was very fun to me.
In the first books, I hid the overarching connections. I didn’t make the Cosmere the forefront. In fact, I probably won’t bring it to the forefront for a long time, just because I don’t want fans to have to keep track of it if they don’t want to. If they just want to read a good story and a good book and enjoy the series, then I want them to be able to do that. Now, if they want to know about the connections between the worlds and things like that, and start experiencing it in more depth, then it’s there for them.
But I don’t think it was terribly risky on my part, because it was a behind-the-scenes sort of thing, particularly in the early books. It was there more for my own amusement and my own interest than it was to lay some elaborate web that fans had to figure out. Though it did become that as they started to figure things out, and I think I was wise to stay quiet on it for a while so that they could start digging in and discovering things themselves. But I do like how it’s turning out, and I intend to continue.
Kurt Manwaring: As you look back on the first Mistborn series, what is a nostalgic experience that comes to mind?
Brandon Sanderson: It’s very nostalgic for me to remember sitting and working on those books without any real deadlines or pressure, because I didn’t have a single book out yet. Now, I had sold the “Mistborn” series, and so it was the first time I had any sort of deadline, but they were years off for when I had to turn the books in. There was a nice emotion there where I knew I was a professional, knew that I was getting published and “Elantris” would be coming out, but also not yet having all the chaos that can come with the success I have now—which certainly I’m not going to complain about. But it does mean that there is a lot more for me to do now that isn’t writing, which is a part of my job that wasn’t there when I began.
Kurt Manwaring: What are you most looking forward to about the writing process from the next Mistborn trilogy? Does anything about this next phase of the series make you apprehensive?
Brandon Sanderson: Well, I would say that the thing that makes me most apprehensive about progressing the Mistborn world forward in time is the idea that there are a lot of people who don’t want their fantasy worlds to change. That’s one aspect of the fantasy genre, and there’s nothing wrong with that. There are these worlds that have existed for thousands of years. Usually, when the fantasy world starts to change and progress in some way, that comes at the climax of the story, and it’s often how the series ends and wraps up, which can be done very well. “The Wheel of Time” did that.
I find that once you defy genre conventions too much—and certainly there are other fantasies that have tried this—there’s a percentage of the audience that just isn’t interested, and that’s okay. I guess my biggest worry is that I will keep plugging away on this thing that turns out to not be interesting to many people, and yet I’m very committed to finishing it. But I guess that goes back to the “What is your measure of success” concept. I’m very excited by the idea of exploring the future of the “Mistborn” world. I love mixing technology and magic together in interesting ways. I think the next series is going to take some really interesting steps in that direction.
Kurt Manwaring: One of your fans won the chance to ask you a question. Tyler Craft asks, “What do you think of James Comey reading Mistborn?”
What do you think of James Comey reading Mistborn?
— Tyler Craft (@qtcraft) April 16, 2018
Brandon Sanderson: I think it is very cool when people read and enjoy my books, and it’s always a bit surreal when the “real world” intersects with my little corner of fandom. Science fiction and fantasy has been a part of my life since I was a very young person, and there’s still a part of me that thinks, “Well, this is just a niche thing for us nerds.” And you’re never going to see it intersect with the “real world” in any meaningful way. Yet nowadays, sci-fi/fantasy is very mainstream.
But every time still that I see a celebrity or government official or someone like that reading my books, I think, “Oh yeah!” It’s a weird mixing between the two worlds. I’m certainly very flattered, because with people like Comey or the actor who played Superman, Henry Cavill, reading my books—when you’re that level of successful and well known, you don’t accidentally tweet a photo or mention a book. It’s just not something you accidentally do. You do it when you want to indicate, “Hey, this is something I liked and you guys might like it too.” So it’s very flattering when they mention my books. Yes, I’m very happy, but it also feels surreal sometimes.
Kurt Manwaring: Could you give fans a teaser for an upcoming project.
Brandon Sanderson: Oh boy, a teaser for an upcoming project. I’m just so up front with the fans about everything, so they know a lot. Like if you go read my State of the Sanderson blog posts, which I do every December around my birthday, I talk about all the things that I am planning to work on. It’s hard to tease any more than that.
I do I know there is one project that I’m not allowed to announce that should be coming out some time before the end of this year, probably late end of this year, that you can be excited for, because I can’t say anything about it. I haven’t even tweeted about it or anything.
I guess there’s your teaser: a project that you don’t know about exists. It was called Mystery Project on my website, so some people know that there is a mystery. But it should be coming by the end of this year.
* Selections from this interview were used in a Deseret News feature about the 10th anniversary of the completion of the first “Mistborn” series.