SALT LAKE CITY — The wait is nearly over for fans of best-selling fantasy author and Utah resident Brandon Sanderson's Stormlight series. "Oathbringer," the third book in the 10-book series, comes out Tuesday, Nov. 14, and in advance of its release, the Deseret News' Justin Carmony spoke with Sanderson about his LDS faith and how fiction can give writers and readers greater empathy.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Deseret News: First off, congratulations on having the most pre-ordered audiobook in Audible.com's history.
Brandon Sanderson: Thank you, that was very cool. … Some people might know there really is an audiobook renaissance going on. They've been gaining ground the last decade, but really recently they've been just exploding. A lot of people are finding that they love listening to audiobooks, and what they particularly love listening to audiobooks for are books that are otherwise bulky and hard to carry around. They are not only a really good value on Audible, or your audiobook website of choice, but also since they are so big and heavy they are just much more portable in audiobook form. So we tend to do really well in audio, but I still didn't expect to be the No. 1 most pre-ordered book of all-time on Audible.
DN: So it's been a little over three and a half years since "Words of Radiance" came out, how does it feel to have this book ready for release on Tuesday?
BS: It feels great. Stormlight books are an enormous undertaking. People know me for big, thick, awesome but fat fantasy books. If you look in between, I've released four or so normal-sized books. The majority of the books I write are about the size you would expect the average novel to be.
But these books are something different and something special. It's not just the idea of, you know, "I want to write big." Big doesn't mean better, necessarily, but what I can do in these books is I can really dig into a topic that you just can't in a shorter book. I tend to plot these books like an entire trilogy, and each book had the plotting of a trilogy inside that single book. I include a short story collection in there that is interspersed in between. It's a really different way to plot a book, just because there are so many moving pieces, so many different things going on, so many plot lines to cover, but also it's really engaging and exciting to write because nothing else is like it. … There are really interesting things I can do with the format of a novel, and the methods of storytelling, that I just can't do in anything else. It is really exciting but it is so exhausting.
DN: We talked a little bit about some of the challenges that you have publishing something as large as "Oathbringer." For you what was a highlight moment during this journey of writing and releasing the book?
BS: One of the things about it — and we're trying to do a spoiler free interview here — is the story of the Stormlight Archive, the story about the story. … I sat down in the early 2000s, before I had actually even sold a book, and I started work on this project that I wanted to be a really big epic of monumental proportions.
I worked on this book for a good two years and I just didn't have the skill to pull it off yet as a writer. The book just didn't work. There were lots of pieces in it that did, but the book itself didn't work. One of the problems is that I created all of these interesting characters, but I told all of their stories all at once, which meant that in the book I only got like 15 percent of each of their stories before it was just too long. … So the book as a whole was unsatisfying, a little piece of a lot of characters stories.
When I came back to it years later, after working on The Wheel of Time (series), after growing a lot as a writer, I decided the method I would use to tell the story would be to … focus on the backstory of one of the characters. That way I didn't have to dive into the backstory of each character at once, I could keep focused, and I could give each book in the series its own soul and heart, so to speak. That's a long, round about way of saying I have been waiting now years — 15 years — to be able to tell Danilar's story, which I finally get to do in this book.
DN: That leads into my next question: why did you pick Dalinar to tell his backstory in this particular book?
BS: It's interesting because originally I was going to do Dalinar in book five. That was the original outline. But I found that (was) the story I was telling in this book.
… What I wanted to have happen in these books is the character's backstory offers insight, parallel or some sort of interweaving with the main plot that the characters are going through in the present in order to change your perspective both on the past and on the present by what you read in the character's backstory. That's the goal. … I found that the more I worked on this book the more Dalinar's paralleled, or at sometimes contrasted nicely to the story that was going on right now. So I switched, it was going to be Szeth's and I switched to Dalinar and I am really pleased with how that went. The back and forth between the person Dalinar is becoming in this book, and the person he used to be, the journey he began when he was younger, and is only now meeting his fulfillment in his middle age, that story paralleled so nicely.
DN: I definitely agree after having read it. It leads me to my next question. I'm not going to lie, there are multiple heart-wrenching moments for many of the characters. As an author, what is it like taking these characters you've created and love, and putting them through these situations that elicit a very emotional response from the readers?
BS: There are a lot of different ways to respond to this. … On one hand, most of the times, since I'm an outliner, I've been able to see it coming for a long time.
So on one hand I don't have the same sort of anguish that a reader might since I've had that time to get used to the idea that this is what this character's arc is going to be, this is what is coming, and I'm prepared for it. Sometimes in the middle of writing you realize there is something (as an author) you need to do, and one response to it is an excitement, not because we're sadists, but because as a writer as you're creating a piece of art like this, and bringing it together, and something clicks where you say "Oh, that's what I need to do" — the kind of moment of excitement, relief.
I'm not sure I can explain the feeling of satisfaction when these things come together, and a little bit of awe that the process is actually working. Every writer I know has this sense in them that yes, they've been able to write books in the past but is this actually going to work this time? Is this the time where it's just not going to come together, and the book is going to fail?
There is always that worry.
And when a book is snapping together, even when it involves something really traumatic happening to a character, there is a part of you that is just so glad that it's working, and so excited by how it's working. Like I said, it sounds a little sadistic but often times the response is "ohhhh, that's right, that's absolutely right."
… Then there is the sense that books are catharsis. Books are a way for us as human beings (to) learn to deal with trauma and emotion in a safer emotional environment, even though they can be heart-wrenching. … When you can elicit strong emotions in readers for things like this, it's in a way, hopefully, what we're trying to do — making it so that the person is able to cope with that better in the future when it happens in their own life.
There is this sense of — and maybe I'm over-inflating my own usefulness in the world — but this is one of the things we try to do actively as writers is come up with these powerful scenes and emotions just to give you a chance to feel that before it blindsides you, perhaps, in real life when it happens in a more real and much more powerful way happening to yourself, or to people around you.
DN: Many times in the past when you've been interviewed, people have asked you how being LDS (a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) has influenced your writing. I would like to ask the inverse: how has the experiences of being a successful fantasy writer influenced your faith?
BS: That's a great question. One of the things I consider the mandate of a writer is to get inside the heads of people other than yourself and present them accurately, on the page, in a way that people who have that belief system or that philosophy on life would read it and say "yes, you got it right, that is how I believe."
… I get really, really annoyed when I read a book and the only person who has a faith like mine in the book exists to (show) how stupid they are. That is my biggest pet peeve. I love reading books where people have a different philosophy on life than me, I have no problem with that, but if you put in a character who is like me, and that is the only character who exists to be shown how stupid they are, or if you just get it wrong, horribly wrong; we've all read that where we pick up the book and it's like "oh no, there is an LDS person. Oh, yup, they're talking about their horse and buggy." Nope, they meant Amish. Things like that drive me crazy, and I never want to be doing that to someone else.
So one of the things that being a writer has done and has influenced and informed my faith is by making me — driving me — to go look at how different people see the world; look at different belief systems, study them, ask myself "why do we believe what we believe?”; ask myself what the nature of belief is (and) why do I believe. These sorts of things have been a really great experience, forcing yourself to dig down in your soul and ask yourself these hard questions.
When I write a character, I'm going to say, "OK, I'm going to write an atheist," one of which is in "Oathbringer," who speaks and makes the arguments that actual atheists make, not strawman arguments. I want people to read this, and when they read that character, and say "oh, Brandon must be an atheist." And then when they read another character they think "he must be a theist," or read another character and think "oh, Brandon must be a socialist, oh no Brandon must be a monarchist," depending on who they're reading.
… So looking at these different characters — maybe again, this is me over-inflating the importance of a writer — but I think it's part of the purpose of fiction. We read these books, we see people through different eyes. … You can argue 'til you're blue in the face with someone, but if they read a story with somebody who sees the world differently than themselves, I think that helps a lot more with just kind of saying, "oh, this is a real person. This is why they believe. I still don't agree with them, but I can see now."
That's one of the points of writing, one of the purposes of writing fiction. So that has certainly had a big effect on me, asking myself "what do I believe?"
DN: As an example, and a follow-up question I have is, I've noticed you try to include characters with very diverse backgrounds, and you even have in some of your books LGBTQ characters. How do you approach the sensitivity of these issues when writing these characters?
BS: … In the real world, all of these different voices are represented, and it's about trying to write a story where the real world is, where the real world breathes and if I were to take one group and erase them from the fiction, that would be untrue. That would be violating a fundamental thing I believe in, and that is that we shouldn't be trying to erase people. That's a major evil that can happen in the world.
And so when I put in characters who are LGBTQ, I do have to be really aware that I am likely a person to get that experience wrong. If you're going to find somebody who is going to get that wrong, I am at the top of the list. So … I go to my friends who are gay and ask, "OK, guys, how am I screwing up here?"
… It's kind of interesting, in some ways, writing those characters are easier than writing other characters I have no experience with. For instance, there is a scene in "Oathbringer" (with a character) who has not been around strong drink very much, goes out drinking, and has all kinds of preconceptions about what'll happen and then gets drunk, and my first write of that was terrible.
I gave it to some people and they were like "Oh man, Brandon, you have no idea what it's like to have this happen." You're right, I don't, I have no idea whatsoever.
Granted, I cannot ever accurately replicate the experience of being gay or transgendered. But feeling like an outsider, growing up as the only Mormon kid in a school, at least I can know what it's like to be an outsider, to feel like I can't talk about certain things about myself without being subjected to ridicule. There are certain things I can approach, so I can get it a little bit right and then go to people who have that life experience and they can give me some pointers.
There is a character in this book that is a drug addict. Now, we're making the book sound like something it's not. The book isn't about drug addiction; it's not about living as a gay person; it's not about any of these things. But it is about people who feel real, and I want to approach all of their experiences accurately. If I'm going to put them in the book, I want them to be right. I went to a person who was incarcerated — who also was a fan — for heroin addiction. I said, "will you let me interview you? Will you read these scenes and point me in the right direction?"
Part of what makes writing a Stormlight book so difficult is I do try to approach all of these different walks of life. People might ask "why are you putting this in a fantasy book? Why is this here?" My answer is all great fiction is a reflection of our lives and trying to say something about it or the people that we meet or the experience of being human.
That's what this is about. That's why we write.
And I do it through the form of really fun, action adventure fantasy novels. But at the end of the day, it's still this art trying to reflect the world around me and say interesting things about it. The reason it's there — I think the core concept as created by J.R.R. Tolkien, who was really the father of this medium — is to create a really immersive experience. … That's how we achieve what we do in the stories is by looking at realism first, looking at a sense of immersion is what we call it. I often say that the difference between science fiction and fantasy is that science fiction tries to take what we have now and extrapolate plausible futures from it, whereas fantasy takes something completely impossible and tries to make it feel plausible while you're reading the story. We both use this for the device of "we're going to try to say something about the world." … I don't sit down and say, "what's the moral of this story," but I sit down and say "OK, what am I interested in right now, how is this a reflection of who I am?" This is all there for immersion.
DN: It was a very immersive book, and it was excellent. You now have the three books out, and you are averaging about three and a half years between Stormlight Archive books. With balancing all of the other series you write, do you think this release pattern will probably be the same for the next books, or do you think it might change?
BS: Yup, I have no idea. I originally wanted Stormlight books to be every 18 months, that was — way — optimistic. And even though I'm a fast writer, because these books take so much out of me, there is only a certain frequency at which I can write these books, much to the consternation of my fans, I think they are caught in this weird Catch-22 because they acknowledge I am a very prolific writer. I am good at getting things out and meeting deadlines.
But my core series, the one that a lot of them are the most interested in, still isn't coming out any faster than some of the other epic fantasy writers who are infamously slow in their release. I think it just comes down to when writing one of these books, whether you're me or somebody else, it just takes a long time to get one of these epic fantasies together, and I might do other things in between. In fact, I will always do other things in between, it's just how my brain works.
Would I like them to be faster? Yes, I would like them to be faster. Am I optimistic that I can make sure they come out at a reasonable pace? Yes, I am. Can I absolutely promise that the next one won't be another three and a half years, I cannot promise that. I wish I could.
This week we asked Deseret News readers and Stormlight Archive fans what they would ask Brandon Sanderson. Here are his answers to those fan questions:
Felix Bauhardt: Will there be more spin-off books in the world of Roshar? (like "Edgedancer" for example, as it's not a main series entry)
BS: Yes, I've got an outline for one right now. I don't know if I'll write it sooner or later, but there is a really good chance it'll get written between the next two Stormlight books.
Shiro Sanada: Will we see Kelsier in the Stormlight Archive series?
BS: You are not likely to see Kelsier in the Stormlight Archive series. I'll just say that. Not likely.
Mark Ambrose, Devan Chatelain and others: Have we met Odium's Champion yet?
BS: Read and find out!
Multiple readers: Which order of the Knights Radiant would you belong to?
BS: Boy, this is a really interesting one that I'm surprised I haven't been asked more often. I have been asked it once or twice and it's really hard to say because where do I think I would belong? Or where would (I) want to belong?
Because I've always wanted to fly, so if I'm going to choose one thing — one power — I'm choosing "I can fly." Even though it's not the smartest power I could pick, it's what I would pick. If I could self select, then that might be where I would go. But, I don't know if I would honestly fit there accurately. I'm not sure if that's where I'm meant to be. I would probably be more likely to be a Bondsmith than anything else, with just knowing my personality. It's a good question.
Chandrika Narayan: Is Lift going to steal Dalinar's dinner?
BS: You can anticipate the fact that Lift is going to from every Monarch she can find, and Dalinar is on that list.
Rosie LaJenky: What is your favorite Rosharan creature?
BS: Favorite creature? Probably chulls; they just crack me up.
Nathaniel Sager: What is the best cryptic statement you can come up with that will drive all your fans mad waiting to see what it means?
BS: Ooooh, ooooh. Best cryptic statement, huh? Let me see … That's a hard one because I have to really be careful what I say, because if I give too much away, the fans are really good at picking out things. I'm going to throw them a curveball, and it's going to be a Wheel of Time one. There are things about The Wheel of Time ending … there are secrets that fans have not yet discovered and which nobody has asked me about yet. Major things. Major, kind of world-shaking, Wheel of Time things that are foreshadowed in the last books that no one has yet figured out or asked me about. So, that'll drive them a little crazy.
We'd like to thank Brandon for taking his time to share with us his talents and Wit.
If you go ...
What: Brandon Sanderson book signing and "Oathbringer" launch party
When: Monday, Nov. 13, 7 p.m.; 6:45 p.m.: doors open 8:45 p.m.: presentation and Q&A 10 p.m.: book distribution and personalization line
Where: second floor, Utah Valley Convention Center, 220 Center St., Provo
Note: Pre-ordering the book is recommended for a signed and numbered book.