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."
With that realization, Sanderson began writing. And in a way, Jordan was there with him. Though there was no neat outline, Jordan left behind a great deal of material, including a list of scenes, some of which were complete, dictations and random little notes about other scenes he was thinking about writing. Sanderson was given it all.
McDougal, who actually discovered Jordan and served as editor on all of the Wheel of Time books, helped to bridge the gap. She tweaked the language and smoothed things out. "Her touch on the book is the same as her touch on the other books," Sanderson said. "And I think that had an evening out factor, a smoothing factor. She's blur on Photoshop, so to speak, that is helping blur the distinction between Robert Jordan and I."
With some 2,000 named characters, and a story arc that was already 11 books long, Sanderson knew the final book would be huge. In fact, Jordan had been promising people that it would be so big they'd have to buy a wheelbarrow at the bookstore to get it out. In the end, it turned out to be too big, and the publishers decided to turn one book into three installments, all with Sanderson at the helm.
The first of those three, "The Gathering Storm," was released at the end of October. Since then, it's been flying off the shelves, knocking Dan Brown's "The Lost Symbol" off the New York Times best-seller list's No. 1 spot.
It's an impressive feat for which Sanderson gives all the credit to Jordan. "It's a testament to the dedication of the fans and to Robert Jordan's power as a writer that this book did what it did," Sanderson said. "This book didn't get No. 1 because of me. … I can't get a big head about this because it wasn't me. It was Robert Jordan."
Sanderson may give all the credit to Jordan, but he can't deny the fame that's come with this project in particular. He says for authors the fame is sort of fleeting. "We're celebrities, but we're lowercase c celebrities. You won't recognize us when we're out on the street, and beyond that, most authors, even the big authors, don't become a household name."
Sanderson is very grateful that he can live a normal life. "I'm a celebrity for this month," he said. "But then I'll go home and I'll be changing poopy diapers and everything will be back to normal."
And what exactly is normal for this best-selling author? Spending time with his young family, which recently moved to American Fork, writing full time and returning to BYU to teach — but certainly not for the money.
Sanderson teaches one class, once a year. It's a very practical, hands-on, how to actually write and get published class, and Sanderson took it when he was a student at BYU. "It was revolutionary for me," he said. "It changed the way I approached everything.
"I think it's an important thing for aspiring writers to actually meet a published writer, someone who makes their living at writing. If that class hadn't been there for me, I don't know if I would have gotten published. And so I wanted to be there for other writers."6 comments on this story
And Sanderson plans to continue being there for students and fans alike. His writing class starts in January, and the next book in the Wheel of Time series, "Towers of Midnight," is slated for release in late 2010.
If you go…
Brandon Sanderson is scheduled to make appearances at a number of bookstores along the Wasatch Front. Go online to www.brandonsanderson.com/events for a complete list of events.