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Fantasy is reality for BYU professor

Published: Sunday, Nov. 29 2009 12:17 a.m. MST

Some aspiring writers study Shakespeare. For others it's Jane Austen or Mark Twain.

For Utah author Brandon Sanderson, inspiration came in the form of the late Robert Jordan, the man behind the epic Wheel of Time fantasy series.

As a student at Brigham Young University, Sanderson, who is now a writing professor at BYU, spent time studying Jordan's books, using them as textbooks on how to approach writing a fantasy novel.

"It's one of my favorite book series of all time," Sanderson said in a phone interview while on book tour in Pasadena, Calif. "I began reading it when I was a 15-year-old boy, and I've been following it ever since, often rereading the series when a new book would come out."

Little did Sanderson know that passion would one day turn into something much, much greater.

As a child, Sanderson didn't like to read. It's hard to believe now, but he says up until the eighth grade, when a teacher forced him to read something more challenging than his normal fare, he didn't care for books. The book that changed everything:

"Dragonsbane," by Barbara Hambly.

"I read that book and absolutely loved it," Sanderson said. "I was amazed that someone was actually writing books for me. And I became a huge fantasy buff. I read everything I could get my hands on, and about a year later … I started writing my first book."

Sanderson continued to write and finished seven novels during his undergraduate years at BYU. Though none of those were published, he didn't give up, and in 2003, that persistence paid off. An editor at Tor bought one of his books, and in 2005 his first novel, "Elantris," was published. Since then, he's completed the Mistborn trilogy, the stand-alone novel "Warbreaker" and the Alcatraz trilogy, a series of books for middle-grade readers.

But none of the above accomplishments compares to the Wheel of Time, says Sanderson, who became a writer in part because of loving Jordan's books.

On Sept. 16, 2007, Jordan died after a battle with the rare blood disease amyloidosis. When he died, Jordan was in the process of writing the 12th and final book in his Wheel of Time series. He never finished.

Before dying, Jordan asked his wife, book editor Harriet McDougal, to in some way complete the series. She took his request to heart, working to see the series taken care of before she could rest or even grieve. She immediately began her search for a new author, and when she came across a eulogy to Jordan that Sanderson had posted on his blog, her interest was piqued.

Because of that post, McDougal investigated Sanderson's books, and by November of that same year, Sanderson got a call asking him to complete the Wheel of Time series.

That initial call came out of nowhere, Sanderson said. "I was shocked. My wife says I was more nervous getting that phone call than I was on our wedding day. … I'm usually an even-keel guy, but I was shaking, like my whole body was shaking."

After that, it didn't take long for a little bit of panic to set in. Jordan's series has sold more than 30 million copies worldwide and been translated into 28 languages. That's a lot to live up to. "I immediately said yes, but after I said yes, I immediately thought, 'What have I just done?'

"I realized that no one could write as good a book as Robert Jordan would have. I could not replace him, and I could not by definition write the book he would have written. But at the same time, I came to a realization that … as big of a fan of the series as I was, I knew that I could write this book better than anyone else, save Robert Jordan."

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