The Great Salty One: An Interview with Brandon Sanderson

2013 has been one helluva year for Brandon Sanderson—he recently took home his first two Hugo Awards (for the novella The Emperor’s Soul and the podcast Writing Excuses) and he released his first young adult work The Rithmatist to critical acclaim—but it’s about to get exponentially better.

Reading Sanderson’s latest release, a blockbuster of a thriller entitled Steelheart (out September 24), will have fans of superhero fantasy feeling like they’ve stumbled into their own Herbal Essences commercial (“Yes, yes, yes!”). It’s a mind-blowing experience—easily one of the most satisfying novels I’ve read all year.

Set in a near future where the appearance of a bright red star in the sky (known as Calamity) has given some ordinary people extraordinary powers, this novel—which is the first installment of his Reckoners series—is nothing short of a masterwork.

The story is kick ass—it’s breakneck paced and action packed. Subtle foreshadowing and allegory abound. The chapters are relatively short and all end with cliffhangers. As the story progresses, Sanderson begins revealing jaw-dropping plot twists. Everything comes together in a climax that will have readers not only standing up and applauding but instantly agonizing because they now have to wait a year until the next novel (Firefight) is released.

Bottom line: Steelheart is an absolute must-read for anyone who is a fan of superhero fiction. And while it’s marketed as a young adult read (ages 12 and up), it’s not really so much a young adult novel as a novel that can be read and enjoyed by young adults.

The following exclusive interview with Sanderson is transcribed from audio that he recorded specifically for the Barnes & Noble Blog.

Brandon, first off, congratulations on the Hugo wins! Has it all sunken in yet? And how do you think these Hugo Awards will affect your writing going forward?

Thank you very much! I don’t know if winning the Hugo has sunk in yet. Writing something worthy of winning the Hugo has been a lifelong goal of mine. I don’t know if it will change me other than the fact that there will be a whole lot less pressure to future Hugo Awards ceremonies for me. Being able to do it once is kind of a proof of concept to me, if that makes any sense. I feel really satisfied.

It’s hard to believe it’s only been eight years since your debut novel, Elantris, was released. You’ve accomplished so much in less than a decade of work: the Mistborn saga, your Alcatraz series for young readers, finishing the Wheel of Time, beginning The Stormlight Archive, the Writing Excuses podcast, and now the Hugo Awards…. In a career of high points, what is your most proud moment so far?

You ask some tough questions, Paul! By the way, thank you for that very nice review and spotlight you did of Elantris many years ago. I’ve always remembered and appreciated that.

How can I pick a high point from my career so far? I mean, getting to work on the Wheel of Time, that’s like a once-in-many-lifetimes opportunity. Normally, I would have to pick that, though the fact that this year I also won a Hugo Award kind rivals it.

Ten years ago, I was writing books furiously, trying to get published, and dedicating my life to this art. If you’d asked me then what would be the high point, I would’ve said that it had to be that first moment when an editor called me and said, “I want to buy your book.” Everything since then has been awesome, amazing, and wonderful. But after over a decade of work, writing thirteen novels that had never seen the light of day, I don’t think anything can ever rival the knowledge of finally being told, “All right, kid, you’re going to get a shot at doing this thing for a living.” Nothing will ever be able to parallel that professionally.

Great answer. I have to be honest, Brandon. I’m not a big fan of superhero fiction—but Steelheart blew me away. I described it as a “mind-blowing” experience. Do you recall where the original seed of inspiration for this novel, and series, came from? 

That’s very cool to hear! Approaching this book was in some ways very difficult for me because I have read superhero prose, and it usually doesn’t work. I came to it with some trepidation, asking myself, “Is this really something you want to try?” A lot of the superhero tropes from comic books work very well in their medium and then don’t translate well to prose. So for my model I actually went to the recent superhero films. Great movies like The Dark Knight or The Avengers have been keeping some of the tropes that work really well narratively. Tropes that feel like they’re too much part of tradition—like putting Wolverine in yellow spandex—work wonderfully in the comics. I love them there! But they don’t translate really well to another medium.

I think part of the problem with superhero fiction is that it tries to be too meta. It tries very hard to poke fun at these tropes, trying to carry them over into fiction, and it ends up just being kind of a mess. But the genre has translated wonderfully well to film through adaptation. So when I approached Steelheart, I actually didn’t tell myself, “I’m writing a superhero book.” In fact, I’ve stayed very far away from that mentally and said, “I am writing an action-adventure suspense-thriller.” I use some of the seeds from stories that I’ve loved to read, but really, Steelheart is an action thriller. I used that guide more than I used the superhero guide. I felt that adaption would be stronger for what I was doing. Comic books have done amazing things, but I felt this was what was right for this book.

As for the original seed that made me want to write this story, I was on book tour, driving a rental car up the East Coast when someone aggressively cut me off in traffic. I got very annoyed at this person, which is not something I normally do. I’m usually pretty easygoing, but this time I thought to myself, “Well, random person, it’s a good thing I don’t have super powers—because if I did, I’d totally blow your car off the road.” Then I thought: “That’s horrifying that I would even think of doing that to a random stranger!” Any time that I get horrified like that makes me realize that there’s a story there somewhere. So I spent the rest of the drive thinking about what would really happen if I had super powers. Would I go out and be a hero, or would I just start doing whatever I wanted to? Would it be a good thing or a bad thing?

I couldn’t help but imagine Steelheart being made into an amazing movie as I was reading it. There were so many visually and thematically stunning sequences: the Steelheart/Deathpoint conflict, the Reckoners’ attempt to murder Conflux, the death of Nightwielder, the battle in Soldier Field, etc. This could be one of the coolest superhero movies ever made. Any thoughts on a Steelheart movie?

I think a Steelheart movie would be awesome. Ever since I wrote the prologue—which was the first thing I wrote for this—I’ve visualized it as a movie. I’ve tried very hard to get it made, but I have no power in Hollywood, so if your uncle’s Joss Whedon, have him call me.

I feel the best film adaptations are those that are more strongly adapted. I love when filmmakers are respectful of the source material, but when they try to stick too closely to it, I feel that the films aren’t as good. I would love to be involved in making a film, but not having practiced the screenwriting skillset as much as I have novel writing, my instincts are to find people I trust to make a good film and allow them to use their talents to adapt the novel.

If Brandon Sanderson were an Epic, what would his powers—and his name—be?

What power I would choose depends on how rational my brain is that day. It makes the most sense to have Wolverine’s regenerative powers. At the same time, it’s not like I’m jumping off cliffs or getting into fights. So I probably wouldn’t do much with this power. But in the back of my mind, there’s a part of me that says, “Boy, would I really love to be able to fly!” Which is why a lot of the magic systems in my books wind up dealing with people having powers that let them soar in the air. What would my name be? The Great Salty One. When I was in Korea, serving a mission for the LDS church, I loved to salt my food. I like really salty stuff. The Koreans don’t do the whole table salt thing, so I carried salt in my briefcase, and it cracked them up! I would go to eat something, and they’d be like, “All right, here’s our food” and I would be like, “And here’s my salt!” I would salt all my food, and they would laugh and call me Jjan Dori, which means something like “The Great Salty One.” So that’s my superhero name.

Will this series be a trilogy or is it open-ended at this point?

A trilogy, but I can’t tell you if it’s open-ended, Paul! I can’t reveal the ending of the third book, or anything about it, while the first book is just barely out! So, you’ll have to wait and see.

That response was pure evil, Great Salty One. Pure evil…

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