World-famous fantasy author Brandon Sanderson graciously agreed to a short interview with us here at Open the Fridge after his New York City book signing on Wednesday. Mr. Sanderson is currently touring to promote the release of his newest novel, The Alloy of Law, which reached #7 on the New York Times Best Seller List this week. (Make sure you check out our review!) We had to keep the interview short, as his time on this tour was rather limited, but he managed to find time to speak briefly about how he researches his novels, his unique magic systems, and some of the underlying theory of the over-arching magic system of his connected universe, the Cosmere.
He also donated 8 copies of The Alloy of Law “broadsheet” to give away to our readers! If you want one (and you should), then come back here tomorrow at 10:30 AM EST - we'll post up the information on how to win one of these collectible in-world newspapers!
Open the Fridge: Let’s start with an Alloy of Law question, since that’s why we’re both here. You’ve obviously put a lot of thought into the evolution of the world of Scadrial, specifically in how you’ve integrated the world’s technological advances. Was there anything in particular that drew you to the old west setting, and did you do anything to research it, like going to a shooting range or a ranch?
Brandon Sanderson: Good question. I actually wrote the prologue LAST. I wrote it to be the prologue to another book about Wax and Wayne if I did one. I always knew what happened, but I didn’t want to start the book with the old west, because most of it didn’t happen in the old west, it happened in the city. What is now chapter one used to be the prologue. And after writing the whole book I realized that we didn’t see into Wax’s heart, we didn’t know what he was always referencing with Lessie… we actually needed to see it. And so I actually took that chapter and moved it to the front. I worry a bit that it will old-west-ify it a bit too much, because I did see this as a city book. All of the Mistborn books have taken place in cities.
OTF: And will that hold true for the second trilogy, as well?
BS: Yes. It might not hold for the final one in the same way. But as for the research I did... I actually got my gun nut friend. Gun nuts are very particular. He’s a big Wheel of Time fan, and a very big gun nut. I got him to read the book and give me all the “this is how a gun nut says you’re doing it wrong” notes. That’s how I usually do something that specific. I like to write the book, and then go find an expert. For instance, in The Way of Kings, Kaladin’s surgery and first aid things. I wrote the book, I did do some reading on it, but then I sent it to an author that my editor knows. He’s a medical doctor, and I had him read those things and tell me what I was doing wrong. I prefer to do it that way and then fix it, because I can do enough, but there’s a certain understanding curve. I can pick up 75% of what I need to sound authentic with a little bit of research, and that last 25% requires a Ph.D. (laughs) And so rather than getting a Ph.D., I just give it to someone who has a PhD, and they can crosscheck it for me.
OTF: You’re very talented at taking seemingly mundane or unusual things and creating magic systems around them, like color in Warbreaker, metals in Mistborn, and light in The Way of Kings. Can you explain how you decide what to use for a magical system in a book, and your process for building a coherent system once the initial concept has been decided?
BS: First of all, I’m looking for something that fits the book that I’m writing. So for instance, in Mistborn, I was looking for powers that would enhance what thieves could do. I was also looking for something that had one foot in alchemy, in that kind of “coming-of-age magic into science” way. Alchemy is a great example because it’s a blend of science and magic… well, really, a blend of science and superstition, because the magic part doesn’t work. So something resonates there.
I’m also looking for interesting ways to ground [the magic] in our world, and using something mundane is a great way to do that. Magic is naturally fantastical, and so if I can instead use something normal, and then make it fantastical, it immediately creates a sort of… ease of understanding. Burning metals sounds so weird, but it was chosen for that same reason, because we gain a lot of our energy through metabolism. We eat something, we turn the sugars into energy, boom. So that’s actually a very natural feeling. When I started writing out some sample things, it felt surprisingly natural, that people eat metal and gain powers, even though it sounds so weird. It’s because of this kind of natural biology. So I’m looking for that.
Once I have a magic system, I look for really great limitations. Limitations really make a magic system work better. Wheel of Time is a great example. Having a magic system where you can weave all these threads is awesome. Having a magic system where you do that, and then it drives you mad, is even better. It creates plot hooks, it creates drama, it creates challenge. [That limitation] is brilliant, I think it is one of the most brilliant ever made, especially because it also changes your characters. It has a deep influence on your character arcs, so you can tie it into character.
Beyond that (and this is kind of pulling back the curtain a little bit), there is no specific defined place where someone goes mad, so you can actually stretch it out and use it when you need it. It doesn’t constrain you too much. Like if your magic system’s limitation is, “When you use this magic, you have to use the head of one of your grandparents.” (laughs) You can use that magic four times! It’s limited, but also very constrained. Going mad is not as constrained. There’s a spectrum there - you can use it when you need it. So I’m looking for cool limitations that will work that way, in ways that I can use to force the characters to be creative. A good limitation will force you to be creative, and your characters to be creative. Pushing and pulling metals is basically telekinesis, right? But by making it center of mass, you can only pull directly towards yourself or push directly away from yourself... Number one: it’s vector science. It has one foot in sciences. Number two: it feels very natural to us because this is how we manipulate force ourselves. Number three: it limits things so much that it forces creativity upon the characters. There’s that sweet spot, where they can be creative and do cool things, where it doesn’t become too limited, but it also keeps you from having too much power in the hands of the characters, so they are still being challenged. I’m looking for all that, and on top of that I want to have good sensory ways to use magic.
I don’t want to have two wizards staring at each other, and then be like “and they stared at each other very deeply! And then they stared harder!” I don’t want it all to be internal, which is where the lines for the metals came from. You see something, you push it forward. The pulses that some of the allomancers use, they’ll hear. I wanted sensory applications.
OTF: Ok, last question. It was really difficult coming up with three questions that haven’t been asked already...
BS: OK... you’re not going to ask me the “what would you ask me” question?
OTF: Not quite...
BS: OK good, because I hate that one! (laughs)
OTF: My question is if there’s anything that you’ve never been asked that you would like to talk about?
BS: Oooooh, ok. Hm. That one is so hard! Every time people ask me something like this... What have I never been asked that people should be asking, is basically what the question is? Something that the fans have just missed... They pick up on so much, that it’s hard... I do wonder if, you know… all the magic systems [in my books] are connected and work on some basic fundamental principles, and a lot of people haven’t been asking questions about this. One thing I did get a question on today, and I’ll just talk about this one... they didn’t ask the right question, but I nudged them the right way, is understanding that tie between Aondor [the magic system from Elantris] and allomancy [Mistborn’s magic system].
People ask about getting the power from metals and things, but that’s not actually how it works. The power’s not coming from metal. I talked a little about this before, but you are drawing power from some source, and the metal is actually just a gateway. It’s actually the molecular structure of the metal… what’s going on there, the pattern, the resonance of that metal works in the same way as an Aon does in Elantris. It filters the power. So it is just a sign of “this is what power this energy is going to be shaped into and give you.” When you understand that, compounding [in Alloy of Law] makes much more sense.
Compounding is where you are able to kind of draw in more power than you should with feruchemy. What’s going on there is you’re actually charging a piece of metal, and then you are burning that metal as a feruchemical charge. What is happening is that the feruchemical charge overwrites the allomantic charge, and so you actually fuel feruchemy with allomancy, is what you are doing. Then if you just get out another piece of metal and store it in, since you’re not drawing the power from yourself, you’re cheating the system, you’re short-circuiting the system a little bit. So you can actually use the power that usually fuels allomancy, to fuel feruchemy, which you can then store in a metalmind, and basically build up these huge reservoirs of it. So what’s going on there is… imagine there’s like, an imprint, a wavelength, so to speak. A beat for an allomantic thing, that when you burn a metal, it says “ok, this is what power we give.” When it’s got that charge, it changes that beat and says, “now we get this power.” And you access a set of feruchemical power. That’s why compounding is so powerful.
OTF: Great, thank you so much!
BS: There you go!
Thank you, Mr. Sanderson, for these extremely in-depth answers! I suspect that the diligent Cosmere fans over at the 17th Shard will be going over that last one with a fine-toothed comb. The Alloy of Law is on sale now at bookstores around the country, and A Memory of Light, the long-awaited final book of the Wheel of Time series (which Mr. Sanderson is helping to finish after the unfortunate passing of author Robert Jordan), is nearly complete and expected to hit stores sometime next year. If you’re a Wheel of Time fan, don’t forget to follow Mr. Sanderson’s progress on his twitter account during the course of this tour. The Great Hunt is upon us once again! You can help to find and solve clues Mr. Sanderson has hidden across the world and unlock a special Wheel of Time “prize.”
Again, if you are interested in winning one of the eight in-world collectible newspapers (called “broadsheets”), check back tomorrow for all the details. On December 3rd, we’ll randomly choose eight winners from among those who participated!