BROUGHT TO BOOK
The author with two novels coming out in the space of three months…
hello, Brandon Sanderson!
how do you write yourself back into a book when you’ve had to take time out to complete another project? This was a problem Brandon Sanderson hit when, after breaking off from Shadows Of Self to complete his work finishing Robert Jordan’s Wheel Of Time sequence, he returned to a novel set in his own Mistborn universe. Sanderson had lost momentum. His solution was to start writing the sequel, Bands Of Mourning, “to get myself back in to the characters”. Things went well, so well that he kept going until he’d finished the book. He then went back to complete Mourning’s predecessor, Shadows Of Self.
“This was feeling really good, [I thought] ‘I’m going to get ahead,’” Sanderson remembers. “Except [my publishers] got the books and, ‘Well, we’ll just publish these three months apart, this is great.’ I called my agent and complained, and he said, ‘You can’t hand them a plate full of money and say, by the way, you can’t use it until next year.’”
Sitting in a central London hotel, Sanderson laughs as he tells this story against himself. Then again, there were definite upsides to this situation. In particular, working in this unusual way changed Sanderson’s perspective on one of his main characters, Marasi.
In the steampunk-tinged novels, she’s one of the sidekicks to a noble-born lawman, Wax Ladrian, a man with a huge capacity for creating chaos. Marsai admires Wax to the point of hero worship, but there are contradictions here. “It’s this weird push and pull with her being in his shadow, but also being his minder at the same time,” says Sanderson.
This isn’t always easy, as the aftermath of one incident reveals. “[She thinks] ‘I’m so glad that he stopped the criminal, but there are buildings on fire, there are people who got shot.’ It’s like the aftermath of when the superhero comes to town,” says Sanderson.
best laid plans
For many writers, altering a character’s trajectory after writing such a scene wouldn’t necessarily be a big deal. Sanderson, though, describes himself, using George RR Martin’s terminology, as an “architect” – someone who does a lot of planning, rather than a “gardener”, a writer who starts work and sees what develops.
Just how much of an architect is evident in the way Sanderson’s books relate to each other. The Mistborn sequence, for instance, began with an epic fantasy trilogy. Ahead, Sanderson hints, lie an urban fantasy trilogy and science fiction novels, with “magic continuing through as the thread”. And if that sounds grand, most of his fiction is set in a universe called the Cosmere, a kind of hidden epic that will eventually run to 30-plus novels.
As to what first inspired this design work, Sanderson remembers reading Barbara Hambly’s Dragonsbane (1985) as a teenager. “I was trying to read other things and they were mostly about boys my age,” he says. “And I joke that I read three books where they have a pet dog, and you just know the dog’s going to die. I’m like, ‘Why am I reading these books about kids leading boring lives like mine whose pets die?’”
The appeal of Dragonsbane wasn’t just in its fantastical elements, but in it being about a powerful witch “choosing between her career and her family”. The book made Sanderson see his own mother, an accountant, in a new light. “It’s this weird thing where I looked through someone else’s eyes and the world opened up to me,” he says.
Pretty soon, Sanderson was not only reading fantasy, but writing it too. At university, though, he studied chemistry, in part because his mother pushed him towards being a doctor. “The arts are not something she really understood,” says Sanderson. “She said, ‘You know how doctors all go and pay golf all the time? They have so much free time to play golf, you could just write books.’”
But the “busy work” of chemistry, was something he found miserable. Relief came when Sanderson, a Mormon, went to Korea to do missionary work. “I spent two years over there so happy to be away from chemistry,” he says. The experience was valuable in other ways too. “Learning another culture and language,” he says, “I’ll tell you, if you want to be a fantasy writer, there’s probably nothing better than to go and see first hand how differently people can think, yet still be people.”
Returning to the US, he carried on studying, but also got a graveyard shift job in a hotel, where he had time to write. Thirteen books in, his sixth novel, Elantris (2005), sold. By this time, he says, “I was already a working professional.”
Not that being professional was the point. Sanderson says he can imagine another life where he wrote all his life and never found success, but dropped dead at the age of 95 leaving a cupboard full of unpublished manuscripts. “[I thought] ‘I’ll be more of a success as that person who wrote 50 unpublished novels, I’ll have enjoyed my life more than if I just give up now and never write another one,’” he says. “That was the risk I was willing to take.”
The Bands Of Mourning is published on 28 January.