Q&A with Brandon Sanderson (Interviewed by James Dashner)
Q. Brandon, you’re perhaps best known for your adult books—Mistborn, The Way of Kings, and particularly for finishing Robert Jordan’s The Wheel of Time series. However, recently you’ve undertaken several projects for younger readers. Why is that? How does it feel to be entering into the world of YA fiction? How does it differ from writing for an adult audience? How do you possibly think you can compete with your friend, James Dashner?
A. I've known this guy James Dashner for so long, and he was such an inspiration to me, and I thought, if this joker can do it, then I can too! The sci-fi/fantasy genre is what made a reader out of me, and it has a long history of crossing the line between YA and adult fiction. For example, you mentioned The Wheel of Time. In the early books, the main protagonists are all teenagers. Are these books YA? The publishers don't classify them that way. They’re shelved with the adult fantasy books. Books like that have influenced me in that some of the stories I tell fit into the mold that society says will package well as YA books. Other stories I tell—that are a thousand pages long—don’t seem to fit that mold. But I don’t sit down and say, “I’m writing for a teen audience now. I need to change my entire style.” Instead, I say, “This project and the way I’m writing it feels like it would work well for a teen audience.”
Q. In previous interviews, you’ve mentioned that you come up with characters, worlds, and magic systems independently and then fit them together to create a book. How is that different when writing a YA book like Steelheart? Are certain worlds or magic systems more suitable for YA readers? And how in the world did you get so smart?
A. Ha! I do a lot of talking about the process of writing. That makes it sound like I’m doing it more consciously than I am, but at this point I do most of it by instinct. I do take things like characters, settings, and magic systems—all these little fragments and pieces—and put them together into stories. Whether I’m writing YA or adult, this process doesn’t vary. Some of these elements feel better suited for a teen audience, so when everything starts coming together as it does when a book is forming for me, some stories naturally gravitate toward YA. To me Steelheart is distinctive because it was one of those stories where all the elements came together at the same time. Once I got the idea—people gaining super powers but only evil people getting them—the story basically started to write itself in my head. It happened during a four-hour drive along the East Coast, where by the end of it, I basically had this entire story. I knew where it was going, and I was really excited to write it. That's rare for me, but sometimes it does happen where everything clicks right at the beginning.
Q. Can you give us a sense of the world in which Steelheart takes place? Why do you think this world worked well for these particular characters?
A. Technically, Steelheart is set in a post-apocalyptic world where super villains gained powers and took over. I wanted it to feel alien and familiar at the same time and to be very visual. So I wrote it to be kind of like an action movie in book form. One of my catchphrases that I use when talking about writing is ”Err on the side of awesomeness.” So I wanted the setting and feel of the book to be visually distinctive and awesome.
When I designed Steelheart, the emperor of Chicago, I wanted him to have the power of transmutation—he turns things into steel. The idea that, in a burst of power, he turned the entire city—and even part of the lake—into steel was fascinating to me. This renders a lot of things useless. When your streetlights and all their wiring have been turned into steel, everything short circuits and doesn’t work anymore. You can’t get into buildings because their doors and windows have been melded together. The whole city has become a shell—like the husk of a dead beetle—and people have built on top of it. It’s always perpetual twilight there, so we’ve got this cool feel of everything being steel at night.