I met with Brandon Sanderson on a gloomy day in Seattle, just before he talked to and signed books for hundreds of his fans. Over coffee and hot chocolate, we chatted about the Cosmere, magical systems, Sanderson's D&D roots, and that darn Magneto....
Brandon Sanderson: My latest book is Arcanum Unbounded. Arcanum Unbounded is a collection of my short fiction from the shared universe that all my fantasy books take place in. About half of the stories are expansions on the books. I'll often take a character and do a side story with them that just didn't fit in the book, but I knew what happened with them and I write that out. About half of the stories are standalone stories on new worlds with new magics, exploring what it's like to live in the Cosmere. One of the stories won a Hugo. They've all been, individually, bestsellers on their own, and this is the opportunity to get them all together, with a new Stormlight Archive story that is a big chunk of the book. We've tried to make it super nice. For people who already have the stories, we've tried to make this hardcover be the book you have on your shelf and that you loan to your friends. The hardcover has illustrations too for each story; one is a map of the solar system—it's an old Da Vinci-style drawing of someone imagining what the solar system is like. Each story also has an in-world foreword by a character who is studying each of the planets, and an afterword by me—not in-world—about how I wrote it and why.
How do you keep track of everything in the Cosmere worlds?
For those who don’t know, all my worlds are interconnected. I did this for a couple of reasons. I love big epics but I know they can be intimidating. And when I was trying to break in, I didn't want to tell new readers or my publisher, "Here's my first book in a twenty-book series!" I wanted to have standalones or trilogies that people could try me out on. If they liked it, they could move on to something longer. So that's why I didn’t start with the Stormlight Archive. I started with Elantris, which is a standalone. But I love big epics. I grew up reading Robert Jordan and Anne McCaffrey…dozens of books-long series. That's where my heart is. So I started connecting the worlds behind the scenes, starting with my first [book]. There were characters who had been to the different planets, and readers didn't realize this because it's all behind the scenes. It's all Easter eggs. You don't have to feel intimidated by this. If you look, you might think, "Hey, this person has the same last name as that other person," and things like that. But it does get very complex. We keep track of it using an open-source software called WikidPad. I [found out about it] from friend of mine who does a web comic, and he said it was how he kept track of his world. It turned out that having a wiki is really handy. I had all these notes in this big binder. It was about a thousand pages long and it was really unwieldy. We digitized it, put it in the wiki, and we've been expanding it ever since. It keeps track of the connections and the world building and all that kind of stuff.
It must be really helpful for your copyeditor.
I'm kind of unusual as an author in that I hired an assistant a while ago and thought, "This is really handy." Now I have four. They each have a different realm of expertise, and one is copyediting. That's Peter. He does copyediting and he does a personal editorial pass, alongside my editor at Tor. And he's really good. But we have a second person who does continuity—she's the keeper of the wiki. What she does is, for every book [I write], she adds the new information to the wiki, and then reads the books in draft form to make sure that we keep the continuity. And between the two of them, they keep me pretty straight on these things. Once in a while something slips through, but I'm very pleased.
You're famous for your magic systems. When you're coming up with your stories, where in your creative process does the magic system happen?
It happens differently in every book—which is probably an answer you've gotten from a lot of authors when talking about these kinds of things. A book is usually not one idea. A book is usually a collision between multiple ideas. So for example I'll have an interesting idea for magic and I'll put that in my notes file or put in the back of my brain or think about it for a while. I'll have an interesting idea for a character, separately, and do the same thing. And I'll have an interesting idea for a plot. I'll occasionally look through my notes file and think, "Well, what would happen if this character was in this world—what would that do?" These are all proto-stories. Seeds that are in the notes file. And eventually some of these grow from a seed into a full story.
At that point I build the outline, and I ask myself, "Where are the holes?", and then I design things to fit the holes. I've done that for everything. I've had books with no magic system but really cool characters and plot ideas merging, and vice versa. I do what I do [with magic systems] very intentionally because as a reader, for many years of epic fantasy, I thought that [magic systems] were not things that people were doing as much as they could with. So I very deliberately did this when I was writing the Cosmere. The first Cosmere book I wrote was actually the sixth book I wrote—the first five didn't get published; they were my practice novels. So when I was writing the Cosmere, I said, "I'm going to do this thing and show off magic systems." It's a weird thing, though, because I often say to new writers, "A great magic system with bad characters is actually a bad book. A great character and a bad magic system is usually a good book." We read science fiction and fantasy because we love the world building. And the great authors do character, setting, and plot—people like Terry Pratchett and Nora Jemisin and Neil Gaiman just bring it all together. But you can't neglect character and plot, and especially character. There might be some genres in which you can, but not in fantasy. You need to have people who are compelling and interesting to read about. You look at the success of George R. R. Martin where… I wouldn't say his magic system is bad, it just isn't the focus of the book. It's barely there. The books are all about how interesting the characters are.
I love being the magic system guy, as long as people think, "Hey, he does all of these things well but the thing that he does that some of the others don't do is these magic systems." I'm happy I'm known for something. [Laughs]
What's happening in the TV or film world with your stories?
We just sold the entire Cosmere as a single entity to a company called DMG. It includes the producers from Iron Man 3, and things like that. They have people on staff who have read multiple books and love the series. They really got it, and their pitch was that they would do Stormlight and Mistborn and explore the connections between them. Previously Mistborn had been optioned by four successive groups who hadn't been able to get it made. Fox owns the rights to the Reckoners [series], which is my anti-superhero superhero story. Those are my two big options right now. I have no other updates, as we just signed the [DMG] deal recently and announced it in June. This stuff takes some time, though this option moved along faster than any other.
There's a hunger for fantasy stories right now—epic adult fantasy. We've had Lord of the Rings, and we've had Game of Thrones, but that's about it. The Dark Tower is coming, but there's no epic fantasy. There is a hunger for something fantastical.
In books, young adult [fantasy] carried the torch for a while, making some really great and creative fantasy. We're benefiting from that legacy right now, with readers coming up from reading Harry Potter and Garth Nix and things like that, and who are now writing interesting stuff.
It's great. Nerd culture is here!
Yes, nerd culture took over the world!
Whew! Finally. [Laughs]
Kids these days, they won't know what it's like to be that kid playing D&D in the 1980s, being wizards and fighting demi-gorgons.
And then it becomes a career. Who knew?
Right, who knew? My parents were very skeptical. I would get these calls where my dad would call me, and he'd say, "Your mother is very concerned." Which is such a dad thing to do. They were supportive of my writing all along; they were worried, though. You can imagine being a parent thinking, I'm glad I have a kid who is doing something he loves. My dad bought me books throughout my childhood. Some moms were freaking out about their kids playing D&D but my mom would listen to us play and say, "This is great; they're interacting with other people! They're not just playing videogames. Sometimes there's a girl over playing with them…. This is amazing!" So she would keep us well stocked with pizza and soft drinks. But once I hit my late twenties and hadn't sold anything, they were concerned. They were worried, as any good parents would be.
When you were started out writing, was there anything that you would beat yourself up for doing "wrong," and then, with experience, didn't worry about any more?
That's a great question—I've never had that question before. One of the things for me was trying so hard to be original that I stressed about it a lot. I worried if I was doing something that I had done before or that someone else had done before. When I realized that allomancy—a cool magic that everyone complimented me on—was really just what Magneto does, that moment was horrifying to me. I've since learned to let go. Making sure you're not derivative is important, but there's a big jump between being derivative and between using themes and using what has been part of your reading upbringing and using what is exciting to you…and then making something new out of it. Artists don't create in a vacuum. Artists are part of a community and a conversation. You can look at people like Brent Weeks and me. We both released a trilogy about street kid assassins. And then we both released stories with color-based magic. They were produced independently and at the same time, and we didn't even know each other back then. So I stress less about that than I used to. Students stress about it, and I tell them, "You have to make it your own, but don't stay up nights worrying if your magic is too much like what Magneto does."
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