The author of Elantris drops by to answer a few of my questions. . .:-) By the way, Brandon and I are already trying to cook up a contest for the release of Mistborn this summer. We're gunning for a signed copy, so we'll see how things turn out!
Let me begin by thanking you for being gracious enough to take some time off your undoubtedly busy schedule to answer a few questions.
- For the benefit of those of us new to your work, without giving too much away, give us a taste of the story that is Elantris.
All right. ELANTRIS is the story of a city, once considered the city of the gods, that has fallen.
In the kingdom of Arelon there was a force that would randomly choose members of the population and grant them divine powers. These people would move to Elantris and there become the rulers of the kingdom. However, ten years ago, this magical force inexplicably stopped blessing people, and instead started cursing them. The Elantrians lost their magical powers, and they also gained this terrible curse, which made them into something akin to lepers.
The kingdom just about collapsed. The normal people of the kingdom were terrified of the disease, and locked all of the cursed Elantrians inside of their massive city of Elantris. Elantris became a prison city for everyone who caught this disease. Yet, it’s not really communicable--it comes randomly upon people, given by the same magical force that once blessed the population.
In chapter one, Raoden--a prince of the new kingdom that has risen up--catches this disease and gets thrown into the lawless city filled with bitter ex-deities. His half of the story centers around Raoden trying to discover what happened ten years ago to make the city fall, while at the same time trying to help those who live inside Elantris to recapture some of the humanity they have abandoned.
Meanwhile, Raoden’s fiancée shows up on the docks to his city, expecting to get married. As a princess from another kingdom, she had entered into a political treaty/marriage with Raoden sight-unseen. Since the king of Arelon doesn’t want anyone to know that his son caught the terrible curse, he told the kingdom that Raoden had died--and that left Sarene without a man to marry. However, since it was a political marriage, the treaty states that the wedding is in force even if one of the parties dies before the actual ceremony takes place. So, Sarene’s story centers around her trying to figure out the mystery behind Raoden’s disappearance, while also trying to protect her new homeland from political turmoil from hostile forces.
- What do you feel is your strength as a writer/storyteller?
I have a couple things that I seem to be particularly good at. The first is really less of a skill and more of tendency. I’ve read so much in fantasy that I’ve grown tired of a lot of the standard plots and contrivances. I enjoyed reading the standard ‘epic’ quest fantasies when I was younger, but I’m really not looking to read--or write--books that simply mimic what has come before.
I’m not the only one doing this, thank goodness, but those who read my books will not find elves and dwarves. Neither will they often find young peasant boys who go on quests to defeat dark lords. I don’t really like travelogues or stories that focus around collecting magical relics. My general inclination is that if I’ve seen it done--especially in fantasy--I’ll want to avoid doing it myself. Yet, I do want to write fantasy that FEELS like fantasy, and has the resonance of magic, wonder, and grand scope that made me fall in love with the genre. It’s a fine line to walk!
Getting more specifically to the question, there are several things I think I do very well. I like to do a very intensively deep third person viewpoint, which really lets me get inside my character’s heads. So, I’ve been told that I can draw some very sympathetic characters. Hrathen--the antagonist from ELANTRIS--is an example of this. I also like to develop plots that build slowly, with lots of twisting pieces, that come to dramatic (hopefully surprising!) conclusions. People who know me have affectionately called this the ‘Brandon Avalanche’, referring to the section of my books where everything starts to fall apart and comes together at the same time.
(Of course, both of these ‘strengths’ can be weaknesses too, if you look at them the right way. For instance, some people find that my method of plotting too slow at the beginning and too rushed at the ending--there tends to be a lull in my books at about page 200. As for the characters, I’ve sometimes had complaints from readers that one character speaks so well to them that they become disinterested in the other viewpoints by comparison!)
- What author makes you shake your head in admiration?
Just one? There are so many that do such a good job. Recently, I’ve been wishing I had Victor Hugo’s depth of characterization and Orson Scott Card’s ability to plot. Yet, I admire people like L.E. Modessitt Jr. for their ability to work hard, and long, to establish themselves as a consistent force in the genre. I greatly admire George R. R. Martin’s ability to storytell without actually enjoying his stories, and I think that Neil Gaiman is the most amazing genre-hopper that has ever existed! And, of course, for pure fantasy writing, Robin Hobb and Tad Williams never cease to impress me.
- You're headed for "Survivor Island" for a year. You get one book, one movie and one CD. What do you choose?
Ha! Well, I’d have to go with the Robert Jordan omnibus edition (it has to be forthcoming, right?) because that thing will be big enough to make into a raft in case I get trapped on the island. Movie will be Emperor’s New Groove, because it has a magical ability to be watched a million times without getting old. CD would be Bat Out of Hell by Meat Loaf, because if you’re going to be trapped on an island for a year, you’re gonna want something you can really sing along with.
- Tor is now recognized as the very best fantasy publisher and has been for years. L. E. Modesitt, jr. once told me that Tom Doherty is probably the most underappreciated man in fantasy. Do you agree with that?
Most definitely. People don’t understand just how much of the soul of that company IS Tom Doherty. He started the company with a dream, and made it into what it is today--a huge force in the market that still has the feel of a ‘mom and pop’ style publisher.
Tom just a class act. He’s the CEO and founder of the company, but he read ELANTRIS to give me editorial advice--me, a nobody with a tiny contract that had been picked up by one of the editorial assistants. He knew how much it would mean to my editor, and to me, and so he read the book. Plus, I’m sure he wants to keep an eye on his company and maker certain the work getting published lives up to his vision for the company.
Do you think the presidents of Random House or Pocket read and give advice on the books by their best-sellers, let alone their new authors?
- I have to admit that the reason which compelled me to pick up Elantris the first time was the distinctive cover art. How important is cover art to you, in terms of a marketing tool?
Ha! I think you probably just hit upon the most stressful thing for authors in the publishing process. We have control over pretty much all of the content except the cover, and--as you can imagine--we worry about how things are going to turn out.
For my first book, Tor let me see some of the artists they were considering, and I was able to suggest the one I liked the best--and they ended up picking him. I was very pleased with the way the ELANTRIS cover turned out. Stephen Martiniere is a brilliant artist, and I was amazed by the cover the first time I saw it.
Anyway, back to the question at hand, I think that cover art is very important. Books are sold in two ways: Through word of mouth, and through browsing. The cover art has a great deal to do with that second one. Perhaps more, even, than the content.
- What was the spark that generated the idea which drove you to write Elantris in the first place?
Here’s the thing about my writing process--I don’t write a book off of one spark. That’s, perhaps, why I like to post story ideas on my blog. I give those away to people, letting them read the kinds of ideas I have so that they can, perhaps, get a boost in their own writing.
For me, a book comes from the interesting combination of a number of ideas. For instance, in ELANTRIS, I had a number of ideas combine in an interesting way. The first was the idea to write a story about someone thrown into a magical leper colony. The second was the idea for a person who was bound to a wedding contract when her ‘husband’ died before she even met him. Another was the idea of an ‘evil missionary’ working to convert for numbers, not for faith. Then there was the idea of the language, which was separate from the idea of drawing runes in the air. It all came together, and I had a novel!
- How does it feel to now have the possibility to share your books with people from around the globe, in different languages?
Awesome! Really, I didn’t expect to have foreign sales. After all, this was my first book, and I expected it to take some time before foreign publishers were interested. However, I guess the buzz was good, because we’ve sold in twelve languages so far. (This still stuns my agent. It’s rare for a new author to have so many foreign sales.)
In the interest of keeping my head from swelling too much, I suspect that a lot of that success comes from the fact that ELANTRIS is a stand-alone epic fantasy, something very rare nowadays. I think a single book like that encourages publishers to take more of a chance on me. Plus, Tor picking up a new author tends to turn a few heads. We sold our first foreign sale to Russia, and they’d never even seen the book--they’d simply heard that Tor had bought a stand-alone from a new author, and they wanted it.
- Without giving anything away, what can you tell us of Mistborn? Are you satisfied with the way the book turned out?
Well, I’m posting the sample chapters on my website www.brandonsanderson.com/book.php?id=2§ion=10
However, let me tell you a bit about the book. The idea process for this one was a little more distinct than the one for ELANTRIS. This book (the plot at least) came from two ideas.
The first part came from watching Ocean’s Eleven. I’ve always liked movies like this--heist movies like Sneakers and the Italian Job. I wondered why nobody had ever done a fantasy version of this--a kind of Mission Impossible plot where you have a very specialized group of characters, each with a different magical skill.
The second concept that sparked my interest is this recurring theme in fantasy of the young hero who saves the world from a dark power. We’ve all seen it a dozen times over. My thought was “Well, what if he failed? What if the Dark Lord killed the hero, and then took over the world?”
So, MISTBORN is a book about a world where the dark lord won. The prophecies failed mankind, and a thousand years have passed with the world being ruled by a dark god-emperor. A group of con-men decide that they’ve had enough, and come up with a plan to overthrow the emperor: They’re going to rob his treasury, then use the money to bribe his armies away from him.
The book turned out better than I could have hoped. It really does show off what I can do--it’s now been seven years since I wrote ELANTRIS! I think I’ve gotten better with characters, and my magic in MISTBORN is the best I’ve ever written. The ideas above were just the spark. As I wrote the book, I found myself focusing more on a couple of the characters, as opposed to writing a true ‘heist’ book, which would have been more of an ensemble that focused primarily on the plot. Instead, I have that heist as the backdrop to a couple of very interesting characters. The result is something I’m very proud of.
(The book comes out in July 2006. It’s already up for preorder on Amazon.)
- Given the choice, would you take a New York Times bestseller, or a World Fantasy Award? Why, exactly?
Whew! You ask hard ones, Pat. Let’s see. . . .
I’ll go for bestseller. I’ve always fallen a little bit on the popular, as opposed to the literary, side of arguments. I do have a Master’s in English, so I’m familiar with the literary/award side of things. However, I just would rather have more people reading my books. The bestseller thing would be less about the money, and more about the knowledge that my books are finding their audience.
- Honestly, do you believe that the fantasy genre will ever come to be recognized as veritable literature? Truth be told, in my opinion there has never been this many good books/series as we have right now, and yet there is still very little respect (not to say none) associated with the genre.
I think it will. You’re right about what’s happening in fantasy right now, but the thing is, this is still a young genre. We had the 80’s and 90’s, where a lot of fantasy really was a bit derivative (which I saw with the utmost fondness and respect for many of those authors.)
We’ve slowly seen sf being accepted, and I think we’ll see fantasy gain the same respect. The problem is, we’re just do darn popular. If you look at pop media--movies, video games, and the like--sf and fantasy make up the bulk of the top money-makers. That success means that the genres are being accepted by the public more and more, meaning that fantasy and sf readers are becoming more and more mainstream. That kind of success in the currently literary community is a little detrimental.
However, give us a hundred years or so, and I think people will look back on this era and see sf/f as one of the main dominant literary forms of our generation.
- Elantris is the living proof that the internet can provide a lot of exposure for a book. Do you feel that most publishers don't yet understand the full potential of this tool, in terms of exploiting the wealth of fantasy-related websites, message boards, and blogs?
Oh, I’m sure of it. That’s not surprising, though. You see, publishers have generally been a bit behind when it comes to marketing and the like. It’s just a factor of the business. The Tor publicity department is actually rather small.
The problem is that spending lots on promoting a book--especially a genre book--has proven to provide few returns. However, I think that a little could go a long way in the internet area. The big problem, I guess, is that the editors and publicists are already swamped!
- Since you already have a vast number of books already written, are you shopping those manuscripts around as we speak?
Well, here’s the thing on that. I always want to be publishing my most current, and therefore best, work. So, I kind of look at those old books as places from which to mine ideas (I stole the magic for MISTBORN, for instance, from one of those books.) However, I think that if I published them, people would notice the decrease in quality, and that would be bad for my career.
I’ve toyed with posting them on my website. That may still happen. However, for right now, I’m only shopping manuscripts I wrote in the last few years.
- What current fantasy authors do you read and enjoy?
Robin Hobb, L.E. Modesitt Jr., David Farland, George R. R. Martin, and Orson Scott Card are just a few. Recently, I’ve been reading in young adult, since I feel I don’t know enough about that genre. I recently read and enjoyed The Golden Compass and Howl’s Moving Castle.
- Are there any lesser known or new writers you'd like to tell us more about?
Sure. Check out Tobias Buckell if you want another good, original new fantasy author. Also, someone to watch for is Eric James Stone. He’s primarily a short story writer, but each story I’ve read by him has been excellent.
Many thanks again for doing this. I wish you continued success with your career, and may the paperback release of Elantris bring you even more readers!
Thanks for asking me! This was a great interview.
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