by Zack Smith
That was the challenge set before young writer Brandon Sanderson when he was called upon to complete The Wheel of Time, a series of doorstop-sized fantasy novels published from 1990 to 2005 by Robert Jordan, a pen name for James Oliver Rigney, Jr., that have sold 44 million copies worldwide. Jordan’s death in 2007 while working on the planned 12th and final volume of The Wheel of Time caused an uproar among those seeking to know the fate of hero Rand al’Thor and the other characters.
Enter Sanderson, the prolific young writer of the acclaimed Mistborn series. A longtime fan of The Wheel of Time, Sanderson was tasked with turning Jordan’s partially-finished manuscript, pre-written ending and extensive notes into something that would successfully conclude the series, which eventually was split into three novels. (Jordan had once said the last book could run 2,000 pages; the finale trilogy collectively ran more than 2,500). That last book, A Memory of Light, was published in January to rave reviews and a spot on the top of the New York Times bestseller list.
Sanderson will appear at Quail Ridge Books and Music with Jordan’s widow and editor Harriet McDougal on Feb. 20 to promote Light and answer questions about the series. We got him on the phone to ask what it was like to finally bring the series he loved to an end.
INDY WEEK: Does it feel like the weight of the world is off your shoulders a bit?
But with this project, I didn’t feel that was right. This story doesn’t belong to me; it belongs to the fans. I’m kind of a stepfather, in a lot of ways. So there was a lot more performance anxiety for this project than any book before that.
You obviously had some materials Robert Jordan left for you, and your own skills as a writer that you’re bringing to the table, but you’re also bringing those fan expectations to the table. What was the biggest challenge in keeping all this straight and just getting the work done?
Well, you know, as a writer, you train yourself to deal with distractions. Yes, this was a big project. Yes, this was a stressful project. But when I sit down to write, those sort of things flee my mind. During the actual writing period, nothing really matters except the words on the page.
Still, it was a challenge. Writing a given scene for this series would take me about twice as long as it would take me to write a scene from another story. That’s because when I would work on these books, I would need to go back and read what Robert Jordan had written for all the characters in this scene, that I had their voices in my head, that I was using them correctly, that I was fact-checking things that had happened in the past.
I did a lot more revision than when I’m usually writing, where I would usually focus on, “Let’s keep the story moving.” Instead, I would have to ask myself, “Does this character know this piece of information? Does that character know this piece of information? Have these two characters ever met?”
There were 14 books of continuity in this series when I was working on this last one, if you count the prequel. And there’s a lot of material to dig through—they’re big, thick books!—to keep track of everything I needed to know. Keeping track of the side characters was a real challenge, and filling out all of their plots.
At the end of the day, you know, the most important thing for the book was that we kept our promises—that the storytelling promises that Robert Jordan made were kept. And that’s the soul of being a good storyteller, making interesting promises to the reader, and fulfilling them in even more interesting ways.
And what was the biggest challenge of keeping your own voice in the mix, while staying consistent with Jordan’s voice from the books before?
Yeah, that was a big challenge. Fortunately, I had Harriet for that. Harriet was the editor on all of the Wheel of Time books, and was able to point out all those inconsistencies, along with a lot of line-editing to smooth over the issues between what I had written and what Robert Jordan had written, things like that. One of the reasons why this project was even feasible was because Harriet was involved.
Harriet’s going to be at the signing with you—I imagine that there’s going to be a real overall tribute to The Wheel of Time at this event.
Yeah. What we usually do is the Q-and-A with fans, which is probably the last time they’ll get a chance at a signing like this to ask whatever they want, so we want to give them that—what it was like working with Robert Jordan, how the series came to be. A lot of times, fans are very excited to see Harriet and give her standing ovations. She was the driving force behind this—she discovered Robert Jordan as a writer and was behind The Wheel of Time getting published in the first place.
There’s a lot of tributes to her and Robert at these events, and they get pretty emotional, because for fans, these books were part of our lives. I started reading these when I was 15. I’m 37 now! The Wheel of Time has been with me longer than anything else. It’s been with me since before I wanted to be a writer, longer than I’ve known any friends that I’ve had.
That’s got to be a hell of an emotional experience for you.
And it’s got to be doubly overwhelming for you, as a fan and a writer.
Yeah. Granted, I had more time to steel myself for it. I got to read the ending Robert Jordan wrote, the epilogue …wow, back in 2007. I was one of the few who got to read that, to see that ending, and know how it ended.
There was still a lot of work to do, but I knew, “This is the ending, and I’ve got to prepare myself for it, because I know what it is.”
For the fans, what they’re feeling now, I started feeling it in 2007.
Did you know Robert Jordan personally?
I did not know him. I saw him once at a convention, and he was my favorite author growing up. When he passed away, I wrote a eulogy for him on my website, and by then I’d sold a book and I mentioned just how important he’d been to me, and to my development as a writer. Harriet read that, and she found it touching, so she read my book, and then called me and asked me if I’d be willing to finish the series.
What was your initial reaction to being asked?
It was complete dumbfoundedness. I could barely speak. I remember being on the phone and not even being able to go “Yeah,” because it came so unexpectedly for me.
The closest experience I can imagine is that Mark Wahlberg movie Rock Star, where he gets to take over as lead for his favorite hair metal band.
Yeah. Yeah. I mean, it’s—it’s just one of those surreal things that—it just can’t happen, right? This doesn’t really happen to people! And yet, it did.
And yet, in saying yes, you realize, this wonderful thing I’m saying yes to, that I’m going to be part of, wouldn’t have happened if my favorite author hadn’t passed away. That tempers the excitement. I mean, I wish Robert Jordan had been here to write these books, not me.
I had a wonderful time being involved, but I would rather have not been involved, if that makes any sense. It’s a weird mix of emotions.
Would you ever consider trying to finish another series, or was it more of a one-time thing for you?
I really feel this was a one-time thing for me. The only reason I was able to do this was because I had read the series multiple times, and had followed it since childhood. But beyond that, when I was consciously writing my own books, I had learned my style from Robert Jordan. His style and my style share a number of things. The fact that there are certain similarities is what let me to work on these books. I don’t think I’d be appropriate for any other author out there. I’d just be the wrong choice.
It’s not something I ever expect to do again—I loved doing it, but now it’s time I give my own work its due.
Brandon Sanderson appears at Quail Ridge Books and Music with Harriet McDougal on Wednesday, Feb. 20 at 7:30 p.m. to read from and sign copies of A Memory of Light. This is a signing line ticket event. For more information, visit www.quailridgebooks.com or call 919-828-1588.