Although Brandon Sanderson is best known for his epic fantasy series for adults, such as Mistborn and the Stormlight Archive, and his conclusion of Robert Jordan’s the Wheel of Time series, he has also taken several forays into work for young readers, including the Alcatraz books and the Reckoners trilogy. His new novel, Skyward, however, takes Sanderson into relatively new territory: the far future. Here, a human colony is trapped on an ancient planet littered with forgotten technology, while aliens periodically raid them. Spensa dreams of becoming a pilot like her deceased father, but is haunted by his reputation as a coward. Now she must prove herself, while trying to win an increasingly unwinnable war. PW caught up with Sanderson about his new project.
What was your inspiration for Skyward?
Ever since I was young, I’ve loved the quintessential “boy and his dragon story.” My favorite is Jane Yolen’s Dragon’s Blood. It was one of the very first fantasy books I ever read, and it left a lasting impression on me. But there was also Anne McCaffrey’s The White Dragon, Christopher Paolini’s Eragon, and the How to Train Your Dragon film series. I love this archetype of story, and I’ve always wanted to do one, but I held off until I could find a new direction in which to approach it. Eventually, it drifted away from “a boy and his dragon” towards “a girl and her spaceship.”
About four years ago, I hit on this idea, but I only had the framework. I still needed setting, characters, things that would really make me excited about the entire story. As a writer, it’s always about digging down deep into what I love about certain stories—what are the essential elements, what are the concepts that thrill me, and can I build those back up into something new? The more I built this back up, the more excited I became.
For most things, like worldbuilding and plots, I do outlines. But characters develop by instinct, as their voices emerge. The character of Spensa came to me almost fully formed. I was intrigued and enthralled by the idea of this girl who had been raised on stories from our world, the myths and legends, even ones we know are fiction like Conan the Barbarian. She sees herself as the latest in a long line of warriors, except her actual job is hunting rats and selling them for meat on the street. She has this idea of who she should be, what her destiny is, but in real life she’s just barely getting by. Characters come out of conflict, and hers is the contrast between what her life is like and what she thinks it should be, the difference between perception and experience.
Spensa comes across as overconfident and bombastic at times, while her AI sidekick, M-Bot, is both comic and tragic. What else can you tell us about developing characters?
They really play off one another. With M-Bot, I needed both a friend and a foil for Spensa, since there’s a lot of conversation between them. I also needed an outside perspective. Spensa’s culture has problems. Humankind crashed on this planet decades ago, and has been subject to these alien invasions and air raids for so long, that their entire society is built around the machine of war to protect themselves. The technology and temperament revolve around getting pilots into the air at all costs, and it’s skewed everything as a result. I needed an outside voice to ask questions and raise concerns, even if it’s through humor.
Because Spensa is such an extreme character, one of the challenges was to depict that a person who’s spent most of her life alone, hunting rats, while imagining herself to be a great warrior, is going to have a warped perspective on what it means to be a fighter pilot, weirder than the rest of the society might.
In a way, she’s a stand-in for someone like me, who enjoys larger-than-life action movies but has never experienced real violence. She’s like the person in the seat with the popcorn, who’s confronted by the reality and discovers it’s not what she imagined.
One thing we tend to expect in YA is the presence of romance. There’s no real sign of it in Skyward, though. Was this your intention from the start, or did the characters just not work out that way?
It was more the characters. In my first draft, I tried to shoehorn a romance in. I like romance; you’ll find them in my adult books. But here, it didn’t fit the characters or the theme, and it felt inappropriate. This is a very traumatic time for Spensa, who’s focused in every way on becoming a pilot and finding out the secrets of her past, and romance just didn’t work. So I revised in the direction the characters demanded.
The obvious pairing was Spensa and Jerkface. That’s where I was trying to go, but it felt like a cheesy romance in the middle of an action-adventure story about finding out who you really are, and about going into battle, and all of that stress and pressure. Maybe someday I’ll release the deleted scenes and people can see how poorly it worked.
What kind of research did you do?
Mainly, it was about fighter pilots and what they go through, what g-force feels like, stuff like that. I’m indebted to a couple of real-life fighter pilots for helping me to get it right. Also, I had to research what it’s like to live in societies where the machine of war grinds people up out of necessity to keep the country alive, what it does to them. I took inspiration from real-world regimes to create an amalgamation, which still doesn’t go as far as it could have. I just included subtle markers to the reader to suggest the sort of stress they live under.
Something noteworthy about your work is the massive interconnectivity. Is Skyward connected to any of your universes or continuities?
It’s connected to a novella I wrote, which explored an interesting premise in faster-than-light travel. I prefer not to publicize which one, because the spoiler at the end of that story related to a twist near the end of Skyward. This isn’t connected to my big epic fantasy universe, the Cosmere, for several reasons. First, the way space travel is possible here doesn’t work with that setting. Also, this incorporates lore from Earth, and I try to keep Earth and the Cosmere very distinct and separated.
Are there any particular messages that you hope readers will take away from this book?
I don’t really go into books with a message. I like to explore the characters and their passions, and the theme, without any overt agenda. I just want readers to be able to see through the eyes of people who are different from them, to see that our biases do affect how we perceive the world—and that’s both a good and bad thing. I just want them to come out of the story saying, “That was great, let me think about this some more.”
There’s a climactic moment near the end involving Spensa and M-Bot, which felt rather cinematic. How did it feel to write that scene?
I love those ending moments. I outline my books backwards, starting with the moment I want to earn, and then the whole goal of writing the book is to earn those moments.
What's next for you with this series and in general?
My outline for Skyward calls for four books. The sequel will come out a year from this November. Starting in January, I plan to work on the fourth [book] in the Stormlight Archive, and that’ll take about 18 months. I split my time between that series and other projects to prevent myself from getting burned out. When I finish a big epic fantasy, I need something different to get excited about for a while. So I’ll jump back into this series after the next Stormlight.
Skyward by Brandon Sanderson. Delacorte, $19.99 Nov. 6 ISBN 978-0-399-55577-0