Sitting in his home office in Utah, Brandon Sanderson is backed by a stunning piece of original artwork commissioned for a leather-bound edition of his Mistborn trilogy. Designed and painted by Steve Argyle, the artwork is painted onto metal—an homage to the metal-based magic system in the series. Sanderson calls Argyle “a good friend who lives just down the street.” They frequently get together to play the collectible card game Magic: The Gathering, which Argyle worked on and Sanderson adores.
Sanderson’s deep love of all things fantasy was spawned at the age of 14, when a teacher handed him a copy of Barbara Hambly’s Dragonsbane. After devouring everything he could find within the genre, he started writing stories of his own. “The very first book idea I came up with when I was 16 was the story of the brother of an assassinated king,” he says. That concept would serve as the foundation for the Stormlight Archive series, whose fourth book, Rhythm of War (Tor), publishes in November.
The series will, when complete, span 10 entries, split into two five-book arcs. “Each book is like a trilogy in the way it’s structured, and focuses deeply on one character, with a full flashback sequence of that character’s past running parallel to the main narrative. It stamps each book with an identity,” he explains. “There are five characters who are deeply affected by this king’s assassination: his brother, who has to decide whether to take the throne; a young man who’s conscripted to go and exact revenge; the assassins themselves. Rhythm of War focuses on the two sisters, Eshonai and Venli, who ordered the hit. We’re delving into the motivations behind executing a person they’d signed a treaty with that very night.”
Before becoming the Brandon Sanderson most of the fantasy world knows today, the prolific author wrote 13 manuscripts without selling a single book. He took a job as a night clerk at a hotel because he could write while on shift. Despite a mounting stack of rejection letters (mostly telling him to be grittier, he says, “like George R.R. Martin”), he persevered. He was rewarded in 2003, when Moshe Feder, an editor at Tor, acquired his novel Elantris 18 months after it was first submitted.
Over the next few years, Tor published the highly lauded Mistborn trilogy and The Way of Kings, which would launch Sanderson’s ship in earnest. He has since hit the New York Times bestseller list 15 times, and DMG Entertainment has optioned the rights to the entire Cosmere universe featured in his fantasy novels. His books have been published in 35 languages and counting.
Yet, for Sanderson, the joy is still in the work—an innate gratitude formed in equal parts from his Mormon faith and his slow start in the publishing world. Writing the climactic sequence of Rhythm of War was the culmination of decades of planning and hoping. “It’s one of the big touchstone moments from when I built the outline all those years ago. When I was first trying to break in, I wrote so many first novels,” he says. “You can’t sell book three of a series if a publisher rejected book one, which meant I was creating all these outlines for huge series I never got to write. Young Brandon wished he could write some of the cool things he’d imagined for later books. This one I actually got to execute, and it was so satisfying. I finally got to a book four.”
Sanderson’s name is now ubiquitous in the epic fantasy arena. His fandom has the kind of loyalty and fervor most writers can only dream of—a recent crowdfunding campaign for a leather-bound anniversary edition of The Way of Kings raised nearly $8 million (the target was $250,000). Sanderson welcomes readers into his writing world with open arms—there are even progress bars for his current drafts on his website—and taps into his audience’s deep passion for his work as part of his editing process.
“I do extensive beta reads with fans. Usually 50 or 60 people read the book together, and post their reactions on the same document. I don’t write my final draft until I see whether what I tried to do worked,” Sanderson explains. “Often if something doesn’t land, all you need is a few subtle tweaks. It’s not about writing by committee, because then the book becomes bland. Releasing a book is like performance art. It’s a play, and I want to control how the audience is feeling the best I can.”
In a time of unprecedented access between creator and consumer, Sanderson’s seemingly been spared the toxicity some of his peers face online. “Part of it is how I present myself—I have my Professor Sanderson hat on at all times, and I don’t post much about my life—and part of it is how society treats a white man in his 40s. My female colleagues have very different experiences. When we discuss privilege, that’s what we’re talking about. I’m afforded instant respect and instant boundaries.”
The writing of this series spans decades. In that time, Sanderson’s personal life changed dramatically. He married fellow BYU English major Emily Bushman in 2005, and they had three children. Becoming a parent had a deep impact on his work. “One of the things you realize after becoming a parent is how bad some of these stories are at talking about family. It’s like it’s a burden the author doesn’t want to deal with. That became much more important to me in the new draft, where I really started interrogating family dynamics.”
The country’s political climate also influenced the series—from Bush’s post-9/11 administration, to Obama’s historic 2008 election victory, to Trump’s tumultuous leadership. “You can’t write in a vacuum,” Sanderson says. “Epic fantasy is not about the past, and science fiction is not about the future. They’re both about the now, and the author is exploring what it is to be a person. Rhythm of War explores political upheaval, but I’m not trying to preach. A large cast lets me see through a lot of different eyes, and approach a problem from the eyes of people who disagree quite passionately. When I’m in a character’s head, my goal is to present their worldview as well as someone who actually had those beliefs.”
That said, in today’s polarized world, there are some perspectives Sanderson wouldn’t feel comfortable inhabiting. “My books always have light in the distance,” he says. “This isn’t to say George [R.R. Martin] is a pessimist—we need books that explore the extreme darkness of human nature—but I’m not interested in the truly evil. You could write a really great book looking at white nationalism, exploring how those people think, but I’m not interested in that. I try very hard not to make the world a worse place.”
Laura Steven is a journalist and award-winning author from Northern England. Her journalism has been featured in The I, Buzzfeed, and the Guardian.