Brandon Sanderson: "I was absolutely stunned" when asked to finish The Wheel of Time

Part of the cover to A Memory of Light, the 14th and final book in The Wheel of Time series.
Part of the cover to A Memory of Light, the 14th and final book in The Wheel of Time series.
Illustration by Michael Whelan
Brandon Sanderson was a rising star in the fantasy field when in 2007, he was chosen to complete The Wheel of Time, a massive, landmark series that had legions of dedicated fans waiting for the finale. The series' creator Jim Rigney (writing as Robert Jordan) had died with the series unfinished, leaving behind a couple hundred pages of notes for what he had thought would be the final volume.

In the end, it took Sanderson three volumes to wrap up the series. The eagerly anticipated final book, A Memory of Light, arrives on bookshelves this week. Sanderson and series editor, Harriet McDougal (who is also Rigney's widow), will be at the Har Mar Barnes and Noble this Tuesday for a talk and signing.

The author took some time from his busy schedule to answer a few questions about coming to the end of the task, and what fans can expect in A Memory of Light.

What were you thinking when you wrapped up the final chapter of the book?

I felt like a person who had just run a mental marathon. I was tired, I was satisfied, I was excited, and I was saddened. That was five years of my life writing, and twenty-something years of my life reading and working on it. It was really bittersweet. But you have to remember that that was tempered for me, because the ending that Robert Jordan had written -- I had read that years ago. So in a lot of ways the series was already finished to me, and had been finished since 2007 when I read the ending.

That last chapter was his chapter. There were only minor tweaks that I put in; there's one scene that I added from a certain character's viewpoint. But basically, that whole ending sequence, the last chapter, and the epilogue, are Robert Jordan's. So it was more a matter of finally putting it in with the rest of the book. Now, it's finally done. The capstone that was finished five, six years ago can finally be slipped into place and the book can be complete. So all of those emotions were mixed together.

When did you first start reading The Wheel of Time, and what were your initial impressions of the stories and the writing?

I still remember the first time I saw The Eye of the World on bookshelves, at age 15. I can almost feel that moment, standing and holding the book in my hands. I think the cover of Eye is the best [longtime series cover artist] Darryl Sweet has ever done -- one of the best in fantasy. I loved the cover. The feel of the troop marching along, Lan and Moiraine proud and face forward. The cover screamed epic. I bought the book and loved it.

I still think Eye is one of the greatest fantasy books ever written. It signifies an era, the culmination of the epic quest genre which had been brewing since Tolkien initiated it in the '60s. The Wheel of Time dominated my reading during the '90s, influencing heavily my first few attempts at my own fantasy novels. I think it did that to pretty much all of us; even many of the most literarily snobbish of fantasy readers were youths when I was, and read The Eye of the World when I did.

In turn, how did you react when you were chosen to complete the series?

Nobody was more surprised by it than me. I didn't even know I was being considered. Like most fans of the series, I was just shocked and saddened that Jim Rigney wasn't going to be there to finish it himself. I hadn't applied for this or anything like that. I considered Jim in many ways to be a mentor. I had read a lot of his books when I was trying to decide how to write myself, and he strongly influenced what I produced.

I'd never met him, so I didn't know him personally, and that's what dumbfounded me when I got the phone call. I was absolutely stunned. I felt honored and overwhelmed at the same time. While I didn't ask for this, the truth is that I'm extremely excited to have been involved. I love this series, and I wanted to see the last book written as much as any other fan. For a writer like me, the next best thing to having Jim write the novel was being able to work on it myself.

How extensive were the notes that you had to work with? Were all of the plot lines tied off, or did you have to find conclusions on your own for some of them?

Since Robert Jordan wrote the last scene, that actually made this whole project mountains easier. I had a target to shoot at. While I didn't have a ton of written material from Robert Jordan that I could actually put in -- there were about 200 pages worth of scenes and notes that needed to become somewhere around 2,500 pages -- a lot of those 200 pages were summaries of scenes he wanted. Robert Jordan wrote by instinct.

He was what we call a discovery writer, so what was handed to me was a big pile of half-finished scenes or paragraphs where he wrote, 'Well, I am either going to do this, this, or this. I was thinking of this, but it could be this.' Yes, cracking an ending is hard, and Wheel of Time had a lot of loose threads. My job was to take all those threads and weave them into an ending, which was a real challenge.

The Wheel of Time has been a massive success over the past two decades. What kind of long standing influence do you see on the fantasy field from the series?

Robert Jordan was part of the generation of writers who grew up reading Tolkien and reacting to his books. I'm part of the next generation -- the generation who grew up reading Robert Jordan and are reacting to his work. That generation is still growing -- people today are still picking up The Eye of the World for the first time and getting engrossed in it. Then there are also beginning writers who are picking up my own work or the work of other writers from my generation such as Patrick Rothfuss and Brent Weeks, and reacting to what they read in our books, as we were reacting to Robert Jordan.

Each generation stands on the shoulders of the giants of the generation that came before, so in that way Robert Jordan's books will continue to influence the genre for decades or even centuries to come. 

Are we going to be happy with the end of A Memory of Light?

The ending was written by Robert Jordan, and as a reader I found it extremely satisfying when I reached it. And so I feel very confident that the ending of the book is going to be what everyone has been hoping for and wanting -- without being exactly what they expect. I think the ending that Robert Jordan wrote is just wonderful.


Brandon Sanderson and Harriet McDougal
7 p.m. Tuesday, January 8
Barnes and Noble
2100 Snelling Ave., Roseville
Free. (Vouchers for signing will be passed out starting at 9 a.m. Those are not needed to attend the event.)
For information, call 651.639.9256 or visit online.
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