A few weeks ago I was contacted by Joel Williams, a writer for CNN's website, who had interviewed Brandon Sanderson last year ahead of the publication of the final Wheel of Time novel, A Memory of Light. Ultimately the website decided not to publish the interview so Joel kindly offered to let me publish it here. As it was written for a more general audience than the SFF hardcore, there's little new information here, but it's always interesting to here Sanderson's thoughts on finishing off The Wheel of Time.
When it comes to the Epic Fantasy genre, Robert Jordan is a legend. You know what Robert Frost is to poetry? Jane Austen is to literature? That’s what Robert Jordan is for fantasy. Jordan started his book series, The Wheel of Time, in 1990 and proceeded to publish 12 more books in the series before passing away in 2007 of a rare blood disease. He left the series unfinished and his millions of fans wondering if they’d ever know how the epic saga ended. Much like the characters in the books they loved so much, millions of Wheel of Time devotees needed a hero. Among dozens of other characters, the series follows Rand al’Thor, a backwoods youth who finds out that he is the next in a long line of reincarnated heroes destined to fight “The Dark One” to rid the world of evil. Not doing it for you? Don’t worry. There’s almost certainly another character in the series that will pique your interest. Jordan was notorious for spending lots of time developing side characters, often to the detriment of plot momentum. But it’s those side characters, and the love Jordan obviously felt for them, that turned casual readers into devoted fans.
Jump back to 2007. With the series in jeopardy, Jordan’s widow and editor Harriet recruited accomplished fantasy author Brandon Sanderson to finish the series using Jordan’s notes. With the Wheel of Time series having sold upwards of 40 million books, you can understand the pressure Sanderson felt to do the job right. As a lifelong fan of the series himself, Sanderson knew that this was an opportunity to end the saga as Jordan would have wanted. I spoke with Sanderson shortly before the final volume of Wheel of Time was set to hit the shelves. The following is an edited transcript of that conversation.
Despite the fact this his series takes up a lot of real estate on bookstore shelves, Robert Jordan is not a household name. Why is that?
Sanderson: Epic fantasy is a very challenging genre, I love it, but I’m aware it’s a little harder to pick up. When you go to a bookstore and there’s a series of 14 books, where one is bigger than three other books. That’s not for everyone. But for those of us who read Epic, that big thick book is part why we love it. Not because it’s thick, but because it’s an entire world.
What was it like to take on the project of finishing Jordan’s series? Did you have any idea what you were you getting into? Did any unexpected challenges come up?
Sanderson: I certainly did not know what I was getting into. I started reading these books when I was 15, back in 1990, and I’ve loved them ever since. So I was aware of the complexity of the series and I understood how excited people were, but I didn’t know how much or little Mr. Jordan finished before he passed away. So on the one hand I had an inkling, but on the other I had no idea what I was getting myself into. Famously, before he passed away, Jordan had been telling fans that this book would be so big that they would have to sell luggage carts to get them out of the bookstores. He was planning an enormous, epic finale to his series. That’s what I was anticipating. When I got the notes it was all there, in theory. The notes indicated a great epic book. But not a whole lot had been done yet. He had written some important scenes, but most things were just outlines or pre-outlines. A project that I expected to take year and half, ended up taking up five years of my career in order to do it right.
You mention that started reading the books at the age of 15. As a fan of the series, did you ever think you’d be the one called upon to finish the series?
Sanderson: It completely blew my mind. When Robert Jordan passed away I made the choice that I didn’t want to be the literary version of an ambulance chaser. So I said to my agent, we’re not going to pursue this. I would love to do it, but I don’t think it’s appropriate. When I got called about it, it completely blindsided me. I had consciously decided I wasn’t even going to let myself consider it. I never thought I’d be here where I am. I’ve gotten to participate in the dreams and vision of an author that inspired me to be a writer in the first place. That’s been incredible, but if you had asked me what are the chances of doing something like this, I wouldn’t have given myself any reasonable chance.
Are you concerned because you were a fan, you put something in that might’ve been cut by Jordan? Are you confident you ended it the way he wanted it?
Sanderson: There were a lot of holes in the notes. I had to put in scenes where I don’t know if Jordan would’ve put it in. We’re different writers. The idea was to capture the feel, the mood, the tone. [Jordan’s widow] Harriet was also his editor. She discovered Jordan when she was working as an editor and then she married him. I like to joke that it’s one way to make sure your editorial advice is taken. If I strayed, Harriet would let me know. She has the final say. And we’ve been upfront about it, I’m not ghostwriting this. I’m a coauthor. There wasn’t enough done to be finished off by a ghostwriter, it needed somebody to fill in holes. That’s why I was brought on and that’s what I’ve been doing.
When you were working on this project did it all feel like you were cheating on your world? Maybe feel like you were cheating on a spouse?
Sanderson: [Laughs] That’s an interesting way to put it. Not cheating on a spouse, but cheating on my hobbies. I was still able to release Way of Kings, which is my big capstone epic I’d been working on up until that point. I was still able to do a book in the Mistborn sequence. I had to put a lot aside, but it didn’t feel like I was cheating because I view these characters as closely to my own as possible. Beyond that Jordan, even though I never knew him, was a mentor to me. His writing is what I studied when I was trying to figure out how to be an author. I picked up Wheel of Time and tried to figure out, how is he doing this? I wouldn’t have said yes to anything else, but I said yes because it was Wheel of Time and I was so familiar and attached to these characters.
It’s all coming to end, for yourself as well as the millions who read the books. What does that mean to people reading the books?
Sanderson: I can get a sense for it because I felt it myself in 2007. When I first was offered the project, and we signed contracts and I flew to Charleston where Harriet lives and I read the last scene that Jordan had written. The last scene in the book and the epilogue are his writing. I read that and got the same sense fans are having now. Having been on a long journey, with many wonderful experiences along the way, and having time to think about what it meant and why you loved it so much. It’s bittersweet, when a journey is done. There’s a sense of loss and regret. I felt it back then and I suspect that’s what a lot of fans are going to be feeling.