When Ken Jennings and Brandon Sanderson were roommates

For a few months in the early aughts, the two nerds lived in the same duplex on their rise to stardom

This story was originally published on September 12, 2022 and has been updated.

In the year 2000, there was a seismic shift in the foundation of niche pop culture and Provo lore when Brandon Sanderson moved into the same BYU housing duplex occupied by Ken Jennings.

At the time neither men were a household name. It would be four more years until Jennings would make his Jeopardy debut, and five until Sanderson would get a manuscript published. 

Jennings, who graduated in 2000, would go on to win 74 episodes of Jeopardy in a row, set the record for highest winnings on a game show and eventually become one of the principal hosts of Jeopardy after Alex Trebek's passing.

In this video frame grab provided by Sony Pictures Television, “Jeopardy!” contestants Ken Jennings, left, and Nancy Zerg hug after Jennings ended his 74-game winning streak on the show, taped Sept. 7, 2004, at Sony Studios in Culver City, Calif. His winnings totaled over two and a-half million dollars. Her victory was telecast Tuesday, Nov. 30, 2004. (AP Photo/Sony Pictures Television) | AP

Sanderson, who graduated the same year, would triumphantly complete Robert Jordan’s “Wheel of Time” series, appear on the New York Times Best-Seller List 15 times (so far) and launch the most successful Kickstarter campaign in history.

Brandon Sanderson of Provo has had success with a couple of fantasy fiction books he wrote, “Elantris” and a trilogy called “Mistborn” and now has recently signed a new 6 figure book deal with Scholastic. Sanderson holds an advance copy of his newest book, “Alcatraz versus The Evil Librarians”. March 5, 2007 Photo by Stuart Johnson | Stuart Johnson, Deseret News

But twenty years ago, Jennings and Sanderson were just two nerdy — ok, very nerdy — BYU students who happened to live in the same duplex for six months and, it appears, form the kind of lasting bond only roommates share.

The documentation of Sanderson and Jennings’ cohabitation is rare and requires a skilled digital archeologist to uncover.

A skilled digital archeologist such as myself.

I’ve spent nearly a month piecing together passing statements from blogs, tweets and Reddit posts to better understand the relationship between these two niche celebrities during their rise(s) to fame. 

The first historical artifact comes from a blog post Jennings published in 2007 in which he writes:

“Hey, I just read last night that my old college roommate Brandon Sanderson has been chosen to finish the late Robert Jordan’s “Wheel of Time” series. I know next to nothing about epic fantasy, but I gather that this is a huge (i.e. career-making) opportunity, so way to go Brandon.”

Then, in 2011, Jennings hosted a Reddit AMA and a user with the handle mistborn (the title of Sanderson’s epic fantasy series) asked:

“I hear you had an awesome roommate when you lived in Utah who went on to write books and stuff. Why don’t you tell us about how awesome he was?”

To which Jennings responded:

“Hey Brandon! I hope I’m allowed to out this comment as coming from bajillion-seller-of-nerd-fantasy books Brandon Sanderson.”

Hundreds of users reacted to the revelation that Jennings and Sanderson were roommates with shock and awe.

I unearthed the next relic in Jennings’ book “Maphead.” In the chapter titled “Legend,” Jennings writes of Sanderson:

“Brandon and I were college roommates a decade ago, and in most of my memories of him, he’s following one of his roommates around the apartment, reading aloud passages from his latest bulky fantasy manuscript, presumably part three of some eight-volume saga where all the characters had lengthy names full of apostrophes. At the time I was amused by Brandon’s antics, but hey, at least it was a pleasant surprise not to be the nerdiest guy in the apartment for a change.”

Finally, the last mention of the Sanderson-Jennings roommate-dom is this tweet from 2020:

From this evidence, I can conclude that, by pure chance, Sanderson and Jennings briefly lived in the same duplex and developed that rarest of relationships: college roommates. The mystery these posts do not solve is where, exactly, these two lived together.

Luckily, in addition to being a skilled digital archeologist, I also happen to have spent four years of my life in BYU housing around the same time as Jennings and Sanderson. So I’m as qualified as anyone to make an educated guess.

I arrived on campus in 2004, only a few years after Jennings and Sanderson. I even had an accidental encounter with Sanderson when, on the first day of a new semester, I sat in his fantasy writing class for a full twenty minutes before realizing I was in the wrong English 318. Most of the class looked like this:

I should have stayed and learned how to construct a fantasy universe and sell a billion copies of my novel and retire at 30 but here we are.

Anyway. At the time, the housing journey of most BYU students followed a similar pattern:

Freshman year in the campus dorms. My dorm at the recently demolished Heritage Halls was, I believe, constructed entirely of cinderblocks. Possibly even the mattress. But my roommates and I hardly noticed. We were too high on the thrill of living away from home for the first time.

Then, for sophomore year, students often migrate into one of the more social housing complexes because they think they want to be social. In my day, these complexes were Liberty Square and King Henry, or Belmont if your parents were footing the bill. Spending most of your time hot tubbing, as it turns out, does not make for the best GPA.

So the next year many students — like my roommates and I in an attempt to save our transcripts and prevent unwanted illness spread through hot tub water — move into a house or duplex. And this is where a human’s will to survive really kicks in.

Brandon Sanderson appeared in a ‘Jeopardy!’ clue — and then Ken Jennings roasted him

Charles Darwin could have written about the brightly colored house south of campus my roommates and I lived in as evidence of what a species must endure to evolve.

The house might have been condemned at one point. I painted over mold in our basement bathroom. Our front door was actually an interior door with no insulation. When it snowed, which was often, slush seeped in through the entrance. Our bathroom sink had two taps. One with ice-cold water, one with scalding hot water seemingly gathered directly from the surface of the sun.

To get a water temperature that wouldn’t kill on impact, both taps needed to be turned on and the streams splashed together. Rent was $200 a month.

But our house was downright palatial compared to many of the houses in which our male counterparts lived. When we were dating, my husband slept every night in a sleeping bag to ward off the cold pouring in through his single-layer windows. A friend of mine had saran wrap covering the open space where a backdoor had once been.

It’s in one of these south-of-campus-should-be-demolished houses where I imagine Sanderson and Jennings lived together and perhaps, at times, annoyed their other roommates — Jennings with random bits of trivia and Sanderson with passages read aloud from his stack of manuscripts. (see: this 2018 reddit exchange between a user and Jennings)

I imagine they spent their nights watching “Mystery Science 3000” or “Blind Date” on a never-cleaned couch that was as old as time, as we all did. I imagine they prepared their meals in a microwave that smelled like a million meals before, as we all did. I imagine they sometimes treated themselves to a cup of Graham Canyon from the creamery on 900 East, as we all did. I imagine they argued about dirty dishes in the sink, as we all did.

The houses and duplexes are often the last stop for many students before graduation or marriage or both. And indeed, both Jennings and Sanderson graduated that same year, and Jennings married his wife that fall.

Toward the end of the student housing journey, the novelty of independent living has worn away, and the bleakness of a life constructed of cinderblocks is more difficult to look past. Students are making plans for life after BYU. Graduate school. Career. Marriage. Jeopardy. Maybe life as a best-selling fantasy author.

There’s a sense of nervousness and excitement about what the future holds, and not a lot of tears are shed for the simple student life soon to be left behind. Indeed, Jennings and Sanderson are, perhaps, the best-case scenario of what a life can be post-BYU. A life of fame, fortune, philanthropy and family.

But, if the digital record is any indication, both Jennings and Sanderson look back on that time, living in a cramped, old, five-room duplex with the same fondness I look back on my time in a dilapidated house, studying for finals while fighting slush and deadly water temperatures alongside my roommates.

My college roommates and I still talk nearly every day about our careers, our families and of our shared memories of drafty doors and moldy bathrooms. Of the afternoons we spent vacuuming water out of the basement and trying to locate mysterious smells from somewhere deep in 60-year-old vents.

It was one of the best times of my life.

I imagine, and I hope, the same is true for the trivia king and fantasy writer who happened to move into the same duplex in 2000.