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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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Physics/Math background and how it affected his writing:
—only marginally useful
—Schrödinger's Cat and other Quantum Physics stuff helps with conceptualization of fantasy structure.
—His editor (also his wife) said that the physics and math was more important than he gave it credit for. ;)
No, the cat is not either way; it is both. It is 100% alive, and 100% that the cat is dead, and both things are true. And must be acceptable as true. If you cannot accept this as true, then you are not ready for quantum...for the most basic quantum physics, much less getting into anything beyond.
But the thing is that if you can wrap your mind around Schrödinger's cat, you can also wrap your mind around fantasy. As a matter of fact, the thing that I find very interesting is that...I don't really follow theoretical physics to any degree now, and haven't for more than twenty years. But when I find myself talking to a theoretical physicist, I sometimes get stuck on panels with theoretical physicists. I'm always afraid that I'm going to be left way behind because I haven't kept up in the area, but I find that I can keep up quite nicely. As long as...while they're discussing theoretical physics, I discuss theology. And ah, I find myself able to keep up quite nicely, talking about the same thing.
No, I don't believe in magic, which is one of the reasons I structured the One Power very much as if it is a science. In fact, the technology of the preceding age was based on the use of the One Power.
As for how much of my spirituality is in my books, I leave it to anybody else to say whether I have any spirituality. I think I'm pretty grounded.
Schroedinger's cat is really a test in a way. If you can wrap your mind around Schroedinger's cat and accept that, than you are ready to take on quantum physics. I also think, if you can wrap your mind around Schroedinger's cat and accept that, than you are ready to write fantasy.
I don't keep up with the current literature in physics. Occasionally, at conventions, I have been put on panels with physicists—because I have a degree in physics. The only way I can hold my own with the physicists is if I forget talking about physics and start talking theology. If I talk theology, they seem to understand what I'm saying and we get along quite well.
Largely it was to make things realistic, as realistic as I can. Background in physics and engineering; I also tried to structure channeling as if it were a science or technology. No eye of newt, hair of dog. There are real limits, there are rules, there are technological structures to channeling which I think are fairly obvious to anyone who looks at it. That was the major influence.
Plus making sure that I see that everything is real. Well if I bring about a blacksmith, well I don't know anything about blacksmithing, but I was able to get some nineteenth century books on blacksmithing, and once I had written the scenes I sent them to a woman I met that was a blacksmith and farrier, and she said you need to do this and you need to do that, but otherwise it is okay.
I have talked before about turning the logic of physics into being a fantasy writer. The first part of it is a simple paradigm that you're given as an undergraduate: Schroedinger's Cat. An engineer says, "Well, we can't know if the cat is alive or dead. You open the box to find out." A physicist says (if he has the right frame of mind for quantum physics), "The cat is both alive and dead, and will be fixed in one state or the other when you open the box." If you can really wrap your mind around that, you're ready to write fantasy!
I browse mythology, but I think if you've studied it too closely there is a tendency to be too grounded in it—an unwillingness to start twisting things and bending things too far. In physics, you expect it to twist and bend and you say, "How does this work? What can I come up with? Hmmm. I wonder how far this thing will bend?" At one time I really did want to get a doctorate in quantum optics but that was a long time ago, so I have not kept up with the literature at all (though I do like the whole notion of the particles, powers, and forces). Occasionally I've been stuck on a panel with physicists—I don't know why they do this to me, since I'm 30 years out of date! Most of the time I'm wondering what the hell they're talking about, but I've discovered a way that I can hold my own: I don't think about discussing physics; I discuss theology, and they think I'm discussing physics! That again says to me, physics is a great grounding for writing fantasy.
Then there's the moral element. In fantasy you're allowed to have at least some dividing line between good and evil, right and wrong. I really believe people want that. In so much of literature there's total moral ambiguity: good is not merely the flip side of evil, it's on the same side of the coin. Quite often you can't tell the difference between the two. If you want to talk about good and evil in mainstream literature, you do it with a nudge and a wink to show that you're really joking, but in fantasy you can say, 'This is right, this is wrong; this is good, this is evil.' OK, sometimes it's hard to tell the difference, but it's worth the effort to try.
Sometimes you're going to make the wrong call, but that doesn't mean you suddenly have to go on living and try to make the right call the next time, being aware that you have a belly button and that means you're going to make mistakes, sometimes big ones.
Nobody has ever gotten up one morning and said, 'I am a villain' or 'I will be a villain.' What they say is 'I want power.' Serial killers want power, and so do rapists and a lot of other villains, but let’s stick with one sort as an example. You want power and you convince yourself that your being in power will be the best for everyone. That is the way most politicians work. But then there are the guys who say, 'I want power, and if I can convince them that it's the best for everyone, all to the good. I don't give a good goddamn whether it is or not, as long as it's good for me.' He doesn't think he's a villain; he's just trying to do the best he can for himself. But he's on the road to villainy. Unfortunately, so are some of the guys who said, 'This is going to be for the best for all the people involved.' If you do what you believe is the best thing in the world and the result is you deliver millions of people into slavery, as Lenin did in Russia, are you a villain? Yes, you are.
A fellow in Russia, a politician who's a fan of my books, was asking me a lot of questions because he gives them to his friends. He said, "I tell them these are not a manual of politics; they are a manual of the poetry of politics." I'd never thought of them that way. But there's this scale: at one end is total purity in your beliefs, at the other what your enemies believe and are willing to do. Sometimes you can maintain total purity and still defeat your enemies—or win out over them, if you wish to use a less aggressive term. (It still means kick their butts into next week.) But sometimes you can't. If holding onto purity means that the other guys are going to win, then what is your purity worth? So you move just enough to counter them, but now you've danced onto that slippery slope of necessary evil.
And it is necessary, that's the unfortunate thing. The world is not a textbook study—it's uncomfortably real. And that's where you have to start dancing very hard to make sure you don't swing so far over that your victory is no different from their victory. Often the media just give excuses: "He had a terrible childhood, so the fact that he killed 47 women with an ax is not totally to be held against him." Simplistic, true, but not far off the money really except in scale. I don't believe that many people are purely good, and most of those are ineffectual. We all contain shades of gray. But how dark is that gray? I used to pride myself on being a cynic until somebody said to me, "Oh, a cynic is just a failed romantic." These days being a cynic is too lazy an option.
Robert Jordan started writing about twenty years ago at the age of thirty, before that he worked as an engineer. He has degrees in mathematics and physics.
He says, "I am a writer, I write fantasy .. I have written other things (and) I may write other things again." Going from the world of physics and maths to fantasy is not that big a step, he adds, "You have to have an almost theological faith for quantum physics."
Are you familiar with Schrödinger’s cat?
I was not, but I checked when I found out that you mentioned it in another interview.
(Smiles) You did your homework. It’s quantum physics. It’s a theory that says that if a cat were put into a steel closed chamber filled with radiation you can’t know if the feline is dead or alive until you open the door. Until you do, because of the superposition of possible outcomes that exist simultaneously, the cat would be dead and alive at the same time.
Schrödinger's Cat is really a test in a way. If you can wrap your mind around Schrödinger's Cat and accept that, then you are ready to take on quantum physics. I also think, if you can wrap your mind around Schrödinger's Cat and accept that, than you are ready to write fantasy.
After military service I entered the Citadel—The Military College of South Carolina. Despite its name, it is, in fact, a university. At the Citadel I received a degree in physics and worked as a nuclear engineer for the Navy. Doesn’t it seem to you that that a fantasy author having an education in physics is somewhat out of the ordinary?
I would not say that. I know several Russian science fiction authors with an education in the natural sciences that have been successfully working in the fantasy genre ... By the way, we now come to how the writer emerged from the engineer.
Well, maybe there is more prosaic level—the abundance of free time. After an unfortunate accident I found myself in a hospital bed with a lot of time, and I read everything I wanted. And one day I thought that could well try to write myself. Having started writing in 1977, I’m determined to do so right up my dying day.
And why fantasy? Why not works about, say, the Vietnam War, which would seem more logical?
In my opinion, fantasy allows you to create new cultures, experiment with them, and apply a freedom to them that is impossible in the real world. Fantasy enables a brighter, clearer portrayal of the struggle between good and evil, allows you to speak more freely about what is right and what is not, and no one can say that your opinion doesn’t fit with what is generally accepted. And I think one of the cornerstones of fantasy is the belief that any obstacle can be overcome, and that if things did not work out today, they will tomorrow. Also in today's world fantasy concerns itself with myth, directing us to the deep layers of the human soul, and teaches people to believe in miracles ... The popularity of this literary genre is to a large extent determined by humankind’s aspirations for Justice...
As for books about war ... I have a desire to write about the Vietnam War, about my comrades, and I hope that God will give me this opportunity. And for myself, I decided that this book will be released under my real name—James Oliver Rigney, Jr. ...
You have made a distinction between "hard" (defined) and "soft" (undefined) approaches to the use of magic in fantasy novels and suggest you ere more on the harder side. Why is that?
One reason is that it's just what I enjoyed reading. Many of the magic systems earlier in fantasy's history were very soft. There were wonderful stories there, but I felt that that ground had been tread very well. It wasn't until the '90s that I read people who were doing harder magic systems, and I really liked them; they clicked with me.
I have a bit of science background. I started in college as a biochemistry major before jumping ship to English, where I found things a lot more fun. What interests me about fantasy is not necessarily doing whatever you want but changing a few laws of physics and exploring the ramifications upon the people and upon the world itself. That fascinated me; it interests me.
It's one that that fantasy can do that no other genre can. We ask the "What if?" and I like to explore that. I've made kind of a name for myself doing that. I'm certainly not the only one, but a hallmark of my style is that I build a system of magic that doesn't ignore the laws of physics. I'm not a physicist, so there are going to be some flaws, but it's fantasy. At the end of the day, it is fantasy; it's not physics with a different name on it. We're doing something fantastical, but I do try and consider the scientific ramifications and write a story that explores those.
Hah. So in Cosmere, does physics work the same way in the physical realm as it does in our world? Specifically, particle physics; and are atoms made up of protons and neutrons and electrons, and is light photons, etc?
So what's at the core of an atom of Atium? Ate-teum? Also how do you pronounce it? At-teum?
Yes. And the matter is just normal matter, but it's wrapped in the spiritual. The Spiritual DNA [or something] is what makes it magical.
(Note: he might've said slightly more about this but I didn't write it down and I don't remember. Sorry for not bringing a tape recorder :(/> )
Also, it would eliminate the redshift if the speed of light…
If the speed of light were similar . That’s one thing we considered, but it felt too non-intuitive, plus it’s just not how I imagined things working. So, no it is not, but that’s a good question. It is something we considered.
I just want to setup a lab in a speed bubble and do fun things.