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2012-04-30: I had the great pleasure of speaking with Harriet McDougal Rigney about her life. She's an amazing talent and person and it will take you less than an hour to agree.
2012-04-24: Some thoughts I had during JordanCon4 and the upcoming conclusion of "The Wheel of Time."
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From the October/November 1994 issue of Sense of Wonder, a B. Dalton publication
It's an exciting fall for fans of Robert Jordan's phenomenal series The Wheel of Time. Book Five: The Fires of Heaven, which was a New York Times best-seller, finally came out in paperback this September, and the long-awaited sixth book, Lord of Chaos, will be out in hardcover this October. Since this series has captured the imagination of so many readers, I asked Robert Jordan to talk to Sense of Wonder readers about the inspiration behind his remarkable Wheel of Time series.
The first inspiration was the thought of what it was really like to be tapped as the savior of mankind. In a lot of books that have somebody who is the "chosen one" if you will, it seems that the world quickly divides into allies who are strongly behind the "chosen one" and the evil guys. It seemed to me that if somebody is chosen to be the savior, there is going to be a good bit of resistance, both "let this cup pass from me," and a lot of people who aren't going to be that happy to have a savior show up, even if they are on his side nominally. That established, I began to think about the world.
What I'm trying to do here is rather complex. The usual thing is to either tell a sweeping story that is, in effect, the history of a nation or a people, or to tell a tighter story that is very much inside the heads of individuals themselves. I am trying to do the stories of individual people, a large number of them, at the same time as I tell the story of a world. I want to give readers an entire picture of this world—not just its current history and situation, but its past as well. That's hard to do at the same time we're so deeply involved with individual characters. The complexity of that combination is one of the reasons the darn thing has gone on as long as it has.
There are a number of themes that run through the series. There's the good old basic struggle between good and evil, with an emphasis on the difficulty in recognizing what is god and what is evil. There's also the difficulty in deciding how far you can go in fighting evil. I like to think of it as a scale. At one end you hold purely to your own ideals no matter what the cost, with the result that possibly evil wins. At the other end, you do anything and everything to win, with the result that maybe it doesn't make much difference whether you've won or evil has won. There has to be some sort of balance found in the middle, and it's very difficult to find.
Another recurring theme is lack of information, and the mutability of information. No one knows everything. Everyone has to operate on incomplete knowledge, and quite often they know they are operating on incomplete knowledge, but they still have to make decisions. The reader quite often knows that the reason why a character is doing something is totally erroneous, but it's still the best information that the character in the book has. I like to explore the changeability of knowledge, the way that, in the beginning, characters see things in one way, and as they grow and learn more, we and they find out that what they knew as the truth wasn't necessarily the whole truth. Sometimes it's hardly the truth at all. When Rand and the rest first met Moiraine, they saw her as an Aes Sedai, and they thought of her as being practically omnipotent. It's only as they go along that they begin to find out that the Aes Sedai have limits. In the beginning everyone says the White Tower makes thrones dance and kings and queens play at their command, but the characters begin to find out that, yes, the White Tower has certainly manipulated a lot of thrones, but it's hardly all-powerful. Characters learn more about the truth as time goes on, and sometimes found out that what they knew before was only the first layer of the onion. That's a major theme, really, in the whole series, that changeability—the way something starts out seeming to be one simple thing, and slowly it is revealed to have a number of very complex layers.
But for all the grand events and great hoop-la and whoop-de-do going on, the things that really interest me more than anything else are the characters themselves. How they change. How they don't change. How they relate to each other. The people fascinate me. And, of course, there are things happening that major characters sometimes don't even see, and the reader sometimes does. There's a lot going on beneath the surface that major characters don't realize, despite the fact that they do see a lot of what seems very furious activity.
Do you remember when you conceived The Wheel of Time series?
The first thought that came to me was what would it be like, what would it really be like, to be tapped on the shoulder and told you were born to be the savior of mankind. And I then very quickly thought, what would happen if the savior of mankind really showed up and he was really there to save the world from impending doom, what would the real response of the world be? And after ten or twelve years of knocking around in my head, because I always give my books a long lead time, that turned into The Wheel of Time.
The story of TWoT evolved during a very long period, in part beginning in the middle of the seventies with the idea of the Breaking of the World, before he found the "final scene in the final book" and began to actually write The Eye of the World. The main impetus from the beginning was the notion of "men breaking the world" (my emphasis), and that men able to channel must be killed, controlled or stopped at all costs for 3,000 years. This led naturally to a society where women had great power and respect.
As an example of this, he puts forth Davram Bashere's reaction to Faile being a Hunter of the Horn. His initial negative response does not come from that Faile is a girl, but that she only is 17 years old. Her gender is irrelevant to the issue.
Jordan's Writing Process
Jordan spoke a bit and answered a few questions about his writing process. He said that he originally thought the series would be three to four books. When he was negotiating a contract with Tom Doherty, he told Tom that he didn't know how long the series would be, but that he did know the ending. Jordan says that writers seldom get contracts under those circumstances, but Tom signed him one because he like Jordan's writing. The contract was for six books.
After Jordan wrote the first book, he increased his estimate to four to five books for the series. After the second, he thought it would be 5-6, then 7 or more, etc. Now he does not give any estimate of the length of the series and is upset that the jacket of Lord of Chaos suggested that the series would end with eight books. (Update: In an open letter sent courtesy of Tor Books, dated 19 May 1996, Jordan said that the series will comprise at least ten books.)
Jordan says that the idea for WoT came to him about ten years before he began writing. "What would it feel like to be tapped on the shoulder and told, 'Hey, you're the savior of the world?'" He began writing The Eye of the World four years before it was published (and I say that it shows).
Jordan has lots of notes for the series. He began by writing approximately ten pages (of notes) of history about each of the countries in his story, more for the places he was going to use first. Right now his notes fill more pages than his manuscripts, he says.
I started writing about eight years ago. The first thought occurred to me, oh, somewhere between 18 and 20 years ago. My books always bubble around in my head a long time before anything gets on paper. Actually, yeah, I guess it is about that.
The first idea that came to me, the first thought, was what is it really like to be the savior of mankind? What's it really like to be tapped on the shoulder and told you are the savior of mankind, and oh by the way, we expect you to go mad and die in order to fulfill prophecy and save everybody. That was the genesis.
I believe—believe!—there will be three more books. I am trying to finish up as soon as possible, but I cannot see how to do it in fewer than three books. That isn't a guarantee, mind! In the beginning, I thought that there would be three or perhaps four books total, but it might go to five, or even six, though I really didn't believe it would take that long. It wasn't a matter of the story growing or expanding, but rather that I miscalculated—brother, did I!—how long it would take to get from the beginning to the end. I've known the last scene of the last book literally from the beginning. That was the first scene that occurred to me. Had I written it out 10 years ago, and then did so again today, the wording might be different, but not what happens. It has just taken me longer to get there than I thought.
I do have another series perking around in the back of my head already. Books generally have a long gestation period with me, so this is not at all too early. There isn't a word on paper, yet, of course. It will be different cultures, different rules, a different cosmology. Nobody likes to redo what he's already done.
What if you were tapped on the shoulder and told you had to save the world?
What are the sources of myths? "Reverse-engineered" legends.
The game of "telephone". (He calls it "whisper").
Proud of the little things that slip up on you, like Callandor being "the Sword in the Stone."
Where did the idea of the Wheel of Time come from?
If you mean simply the concept of time as a wheel, that comes from the Hindu religion, though many cultures have or had a cyclical view of the nature of time. If you mean the books, then the idea came from many things. From wondering what it really would be like to be tapped on the shoulder and told, "You were born to save mankind. And, by the way, you’re supposed to die in the end, it seems." I wondered what a world might be like where the feminist movement was never necessary simply because no one is surprised to see a woman as a judge or ruler, a wagon driver or a dock hand. There’s still some surprise at a woman as a soldier—a matter of upper body strength, and weapons that need upper body strength—but by and large, the question of a woman not being able to do a job just doesn’t arise. I wondered what it wold be like if the "wise outsider" arrived in a village and said, "You must follow me on a great quest," and the people there reacted the way people really react when a stranger shows up and offers to sell them beachfront property at incredibly low prices. I wondered about the source of legends, about how events are distorted by distance—either spatial or temporal—about how any real events that might have led to legends would probably be completely unrecognizable to us. This is getting entirely too involved, so let’s just say that the books grew out of forty-odd years of reading everything I could get my hands on in any and every subject that caught my interest.
I had a lot of different ideas perking in the back of my head about the distortion of information. Whether you are distant from an event in time or in space, it doesn't matter. The further you are from the event, the less likely you are to know it actually happened.
At the same time, I was thinking about the source of legends, that some of them must be connected to actual events, actual people, but of course, would be distorted in that way by being passed orally for generations perhaps, before they were written down. Perhaps for hundreds of years.
I was thinking about what it would really be like to be tapped on the shoulder and told you were born to be the salvation of mankind, and oh, by the way, you'll probably have to die in the end...There's no rule book, kid, and you can't get out of the game. You've been drafted so get in there and win one for the Gipper.
And there were a lot of things perking around. The only odd point is, I guess, is that really at the same time, I thought of what had come to be the last scene of the last book and it seemed to me that it was very interesting, and I wanted to figure out how I could get to that last scene. After a number of years of poking this around in my head, I had a rough outline of The Wheel of Time.
Not one-to-one. Not for any given cultures. Well, the Aiel for instance, there are bits of Berber and Bedouin cultures. Zulu. Some things from the Japanese historical cultures. From the Apache Indians. Also from the Cheyenne. I put these things together and added in some things that I also wanted to be true about the culture beyond these real cultures.
Then I began to figure out if these things were true, what else had to be true and what things could not be true. That can be very simple. If you have a culture living in a land where water is scarce, well, obviously they value water. It's necessary for human survival. On the other hand, if they live in the middle of a waterless waste, dealing with crossing rivers or lakes is going to be difficult for them. They don't know how.
No, but let me give you an example of why. When I first thought I might have what would become the Wheel of Time ready, the character of Rand, who is about 19 years old, and his father Tam, were one character. A man who had run away from home as a boy of thirteen or fourteen, and in that sort of world that you can get if you've grown up on a farm. He began to work with horses among soldiers and then he became a soldier, and having spent twenty years of his life as a soldier, he's tired, and decides he wants to go home.
So a man in his middle thirties returns home to his village, and discovers that the place he returns to is not the place he left, and that he is not the young man who ran away, and on top of that the world and phrophecy were hard on his heels. It would have been a very different story than the one I wound up writing. I decided that I wanted to split them because I wanted the major characters to be Candides. I wanted them to look at fresh eyes...I wanted everything to be new.
Well, I don't know, it is a combination of things. I gave this recently, so it is probably already on the net. How did I come up with the division of the One Power, the male and female half? I had seen a novel, there are a lot now, but this was the first I had seen like this. Young woman wants to be whatever it was, a magician, whatever, but she can't because she is a woman, and women aren't allowed to do that so she is going to struggle through it.
I thought it was interesting, one of the earlier novels of the feminist struggle, and all that. I put it back, because it didn't seem something I cared to read, but I thought about it because the thought that occurred to me is okay, that's real easy, women aren't allowed to do this, it is historically based or grounded at least, what if it was men who couldn't, now how would that be, as my wife points out to me, we have the upper body strength, and she is convinced all of the inequities in the world vis a vis gender, are subject to the fact that we have all the upper body strength, and I am sorry about that baby, I ain't giving it up. So, how could there be a situation where men were not allowed to do this, and it does not somehow get itself reversed over time, add into this I wanted a near gender equal world as I could, and how could I have a situation where women could maintain gender equality?
Okay, now I split men and women, have different sources of power and the male source of power is tainted. Okay, you've gotta stop men and at the same time, out of this beginning came the division of the One Power, the White Tower existing as the political center of power for three thousand years, false dragon, the destruction of the world by men, false dragons arising periodically to remind humanity exactly why men can't be allowed to channel and why the White Tower must remain the center of political power. A lot of stuff came out of that one notion.
For Gillmadin, I actually had comparatively few notes when I sold the books to Tor. They built up considerably over the writing of The Eye of the World, and still more later. To give an example, for Eye, I had considerable notes about the Aes Sedai, about Andor, the Two Rivers, Shienar, the Ways and the history of the world, but my notes on, say Cairhien, were much sketchier. When I needed to write about Cairhien, though, I fleshed those notes out. I didn't begin writing the Wheel of Time until after I was finished with writing the Conan novels, but some of the ideas that would become tWoT were kicking around in my head before I began The Fallon Blood.
Before I start a book I always sit down and try to think how much of the story I can put into it. The outline is in my head until I sit down and start doing what I call a ramble, which is figuring how to put in the bits and pieces. In the beginning, I thought The Wheel of Time was six books and I'd be finished in six years. I actually write quite fast. The first Conan novel I did took 24 days. (I wrote seven Conan books—for my sins—but they paid the bills for a number of years.) For my Western, I was under severe time constraints in the contract so it was 98,000 words in 21 days—a killer of a schedule, especially since I was not working on a computer then, just using an IBM Correcting Selectric!
I started The Wheel of Time knowing how it began and how it all ended. I could have written the last scene of the last book 20 years ago—the wording would be different, but what happened would be the same. When I was asked to describe the series in six words, I said, 'Cultures clash, worlds change—cope. I know it's only five, but I hate to be wordy.' What I intended to do was a reverse-engineered mythology to change the characters in the first set of scenes into the characters in the last set of scenes, a bunch of innocent country folk changed into people who are not innocent at all. I wanted these boys to be Candides as much as possible, to be full of 'Golly, gee whiz!' at everything they saw once they got out of their home village. Later they could never go back as the same person to the same place they'd known.
But I'd sit down and figure I could get so much into a story, then begin writing and realize halfway in that I wasn't even halfway through the ramble. I'd have to see how I could rework things and put off some of the story until later. It took me four years to write The Eye of the World, and I still couldn't get as much of the story into it as I wanted; same with The Great Hunt. I finally reached a point where I won't have to do that. For Knife of Dreams I thought, "I've got to get all of that into one book: it's the penultimate volume!" And I did. Well, with one exception, but that's OK. That one exception would probably have added 300 pages to the book but I see how to put it in the last volume in fewer.
Hi, This is Laura Wilson of Audio Renaissance, and I'm speaking with Robert Jordan. How did you decide to start writing the Wheel of Time series?
I began writing the Wheel of Time because a great many notions had been bouncing around inside my head and they started to coalesce. I wondered what it was really like to be tapped on the shoulder and told you were born to be the savior of mankind. I didn't think it would be very much the way it is in so many books where someone pops up and says, "Hi, I was born to be the savior of mankind, and here's the prophecy," and everybody says, "Oh well, let's go then." I thought self interest would play a big part.
And, I was also wondering about the source of legends and myths. They can't all be anthropomorphizations of natural events. Some of them have to be distortions of things that actually happened, distortions by being passed down over generations. And that led into the distortion of information over distance, whether that's temporal distance or spatial distance. The further you are in time or space from the actual event, the less likely you are to know what really happened.
And then finally there was the thought about something that happens in Tolkien and a lot of other places. The wise old wizard shows up in a country village and says, "You must follow me to save the world." And the villagers say, "Right then, guv, off we go!" Well, I did a lot of growing up in the country, and I've always thought that what those country folk would say is, "Oh, is that so? Look here, have another beer. Have two, on me. I'll be right back. I will, really." And then slip out the back door.
There were a lot of things that came together, and even once I started, of course, a lot of things built in, and added in, and changed.
It's really hard to say. There's all sorts of things that come about before you start writing a series. You don't have "an idea" that becomes a short story, or a book. A short story is maybe hundreds of ideas that have come together, a novel is thousands of ideas that have come together. But The Wheel of Time—I was thinking at one point about what it'd really be like to be tapped on the shoulder and told "You were born to be the savior of mankind. And oh yes—you're probably going to die in the end and no, you can't resign—it's your job, you're stuck with it".
Then I had been thinking about the source of myths, the source of legends. About whether some of them might not have been personifications of natural events, the way we say some of them are supposed to be. What if some of them were things that people had done, and had simply been told and told until it became a myth and legend?
At the same time, I was thinking about the degradation of information over distance. The further you are from an event in either space or time, the less reliable your knowledge of the event. Information inevitably degrades over distance, whether it's spatial or temporal.
I was thinking about lots of other things too, and it began to coalesce. It was the beginnings of what would become the Wheel of Time. I let it mull over for four or five years, then I thought I was ready to sit down and write. But it took four years to write The Eye of the World because I discovered there were a lot of other things I had to think and sort out.
Rand and Tam al’Thor originally started out as one character.
He is a man in his 30s from Emond’s Field in the present.
(Earlier, when his story ‘starts’) There isn’t much for a kid from a small village out wherever to do that does not involve backbreaking work. At about 15, he runs away to become a soldier (yes, a field that does involve backbreaking labor). After 20 years or so as a soldier, Rand/Tam wants to go home, but when he does, he realizes he’s no longer the boy that left that little village. “And prophecy is on his heels”. Maybe something of the sort will be done in a future series.
Extending back to the first clear thought I had that I can say led into the Wheel of Time was maybe 10 years before I began writing. I'm not saying I knew 10 years before I began writing what it was going to be, or that I was actually on to something that would become the Wheel of Time.
I thought I had a story set in my head, a set of stories, fixed. And when I began writing the Wheel of Time—The Eye of the World in particular—I realized I didn't have as much of it as clear as I thought I did. There were things that I needed to work on. So The Eye of the World took me four years to write. I guess you could say, in a way, it was about 14 years of development to get the thing set.
Did you ever think it was going to turn into this epic series?
No. The story is the same story that I set out to tell. I knew before I began writing what the story was. There were details of how it worked that I didn't have fixed that I thought I knew and suddenly realized I didn't. But, I knew the beginning and the end and the things that I wanted to happen in the middle. I literally could have written the last scene of the last book before I began writing The Eye of the World. The problem has been over-optimism.
In what way?
Well, when I went to the publisher with this at Tor Books and I said, "Look, this isn't a trilogy that I'm talking about. It's going to be four or maybe five books." I said. "It could be six. I don't think so, but it could be." And I really believed that. But the over-optimism has been, "How much of the story can I get into one book?"
With every book I start out thinking I can get more of the story into this book than I actually turn out to be able to. I suddenly realize that I have to stop here or I'm going to have to write another thousand pages to really make it fit together. Or I realize that I'm going to have to take some things and do them later or I'm going to write a 2,000-page hardback, which they really would have to sell to people with a shoulder strap.
"The Wheel of Time" is in effect a recreation of the source of legends. I gathered together a lot of legends, fairy tales, and folk tales from around the world and stripped away the cultural references, so that just the bare story was left. The I reverse-engineered them.
You might recall a game: I've heard it called "Whispers," I've heard it called "Telephone"—a child's game. If you remember, the last child in the row stood up and said aloud, and what actually happened is what's on the piece of paper. So I've reverse-engineered to try and get back to something like what the piece of paper says. King Arthur is there, but most people don't recognize him right off. And there are a lot of other myths and legends too, although King Arthur is the most easily recognizable. As a matter of fact, I was shocked that some people didn't realize that Arthur was in the books until they read the third volume.
The story begins with The Eye of the World. That's the first book. And it begins in a very pastoral setting, with people who are very...well, innocent is the word. They are rural, they are themselves pastoral. And I tried to make the beginning almost Tolkienesque, as a homage, and as a way of saying, "This is the foundation that we're all jumping off from." But it begins to change, because I'm not trying to do a Tolkien pastiche in any way. And as we leave that pastoral setting, things begin to change. You begin to move away from the style of Tolkien. The characters begin to learn more about the world. They become more sophisticated, in the sense of having more knowledge, and thus they see the world in a more sophisticated way. They're not as innocent, as time goes on, as the books go on, as they were in the beginning. And so the tone of the books changes slightly with their worldview.
As to where the books are going—I know that exactly. I've known it from the beginning. I've known from the beginning what the last scene of the last book was going to be. I know how I intend to tie up the major threads. I know who's going to be alive, who's going to be dead, who's going to be married to whom, all these things. I know the details. I could have sat down six or seven years ago, and written the final scene of the books. And there wouldn't be a great deal of difference in what I'd write when I actually do reach that point.
I've edited every single one of his books except for his Cheyenne Raiders. An agent said to me once, "What if he gave you a real piece of [crap]?" And I said, "But he never would!" Tom Doherty called me; he had gotten the rights to do a Conan the Barbarian novel. And I said, "Well, Jim could do it." And he liked doing it so much, he ended up writing seven of them.
He was using a new name. As you know, Jim used pen names.
Over the next decade, Rigney wrote under many pen names: Jackson O'Reilly, Reagan O'Neal, and of course, Robert Jordan.
J.O.R.—That was his initials, and I guess the rest just grew because, the way his mind worked, he'd be working on current stuff, but on the back burner, things were cooking away.
Jim said that he had just dreamed to write a big fantasy.
He said his first thought was just, how would it be to be told that you are going to be the savior of the world, but you're going to go mad and kill everyone you love in the process?
We bought the book in the mid-80s.
It was four years of actual work, with words on paper, before he finished The Eye of the World.
God, I fell in love with it. I read it, you know, and I said, you know, boy, this is big. This is the first thing I thought could sell like Tolkien.
The New York Times called Robert Jordan the American heir to Tolkien.
Pretty strong statement for the times.
In a matter of three books, Robert Jordan had developed an international following.
Robert Jordan was a genius. He kept so much in his head. He had so much depth and wealth of worldbuilding for this series, it's mind-boggling. We've got somewhere around three million plus words of text. The notes are just as big.
There are very few things to which people had been willing to give this enormous commitment.
Describe for me sort of the beginning of the series. What was the spark? What made your husband think, "This is the story that I want to tell"?
Well, he said to himself, "What would it be like to be told that you have to save the world, but in the saving you will murder everyone you love? What would that feel like?" That was the spark that started him.